Fear of ‘sex consent’ test for people with learning disabilities

People with learning difficulties fear their right to a sex life
may be curtailed under proposed new laws aimed at protecting
vulnerable groups from abuse, writes Janet

The government’s Sexual Offences Bill, now going through
Parliament, tightens up the law and is mainly aimed at combating
child sex abuse. But it also covers other groups and at a meeting
last week the government’s National Forum of People with Learning
Difficulties argued that the effect on their client group had not
been thought through.

Joan Scott, the forum’s co-chair, said its members were angry
that people with learning difficulties could face a test on whether
they were able to properly consent to sex.

“We see that as taking away our privacy and treating us
differently from everyone else,” she said.

Under section 33 of the bill, sexual activity with a person with
a learning difficulty could be punishable by life imprisonment.

Scott added that once service providers heard that sex among
vulnerable people may be illegal they were likely to take a tough

“Before you know where you are they’d be banning sex for people
with learning difficulties. But we don’t want to have to ask
permission to have sex.”

But the charity Mencap is supporting calls for a statutory test
of capacity to consent to sex. Its report, Behind Closed Doors,
published in 2001, argued that the incidence of sexual abuse may be
four times higher for people with learning disabilities than the
rest of the population.

A spokesperson for the charity said the problem lay in the broad
definition of the term learning difficulty. “No one is arguing
people with a mild learning difficulty should be stopped from
having sex but those with sever problems need more protection than
they get at present.”

During the second reading of the Sexual Offences bill in the
House of Lords, Lord Skelmersdale said people with learning
difficulties could “never” give consent to sexual relations.

The bill is due to be discussed in committee.

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