People with learning difficulties fear their right to a sex life
may be curtailed under proposed laws aimed to protect vulnerable
groups from abuse.
The government’s Sexual Offences Bill, now going through
parliament, is aimed mainly at combating child sex abuse. But at a
meeting last week, the government’s National Forum of People with
Learning Difficulties argued that the effect on its member group
had not been thought through.
Joan Scott, the forum’s co-chairperson, said its members were angry
that people with learning difficulties might have to 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 had heard that sex among
vulnerable people may be illegal it was likely that they would take
a tough line.
“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.”
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
difficulties than the rest of the population.
A spokesperson for the charity said the problem lay in the broad
definition of the term “learning difficulty”.
She said:”No one is arguing that people with a mild learning
difficulty should be stopped from having sex but those with severe
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 truly informed consent to sexual relations.
The bill is due to be discussed in committee.