Many people with a learning disability want to have loving relationships, and sex – just like everyone else.
In the UK, the age of consent for any form of sexual activity is 16, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Just like everyone else, people with a learning disability have the right to a physical relationship, as long as they have the capacity to consent to one.
Personal and sexual relationships can bring happiness, fulfilment, companionship and a greater sense of choice and control to the lives of people with a learning disability, and as such, should be supported.
Below are answers to some of your most frequently asked questions about sex and relationships and learning disability.
What is the law around people with a learning disability having a sexual relationship? relationships and sex?
In the UK, the age of consent for any form of sexual activity is 16, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. As such, adults and young people have the right to consensual sex as long as they are 16 or over. Just like everyone else, people with a learning disability, have the right to develop loving relationships. They must be free to express their sexual identity, regardless of their sexual orientation, just like anyone else. Relationships are an important part of life, and as such they must be supported.
All of the above applies to people who have the capacity to consent.
I am worried that the person I support does not have the capacity to consent to a sexual relationship. How do I know?
The tool by which to assess whether someone has the capacity to consent, is through referring to the Mental Capacity Act. Principle 1 of MCA says assume capacity first. You should only doubt capacity if you have reasonable belief that capacity may be impaired.
There are certain decisions that can never be made for a person because they lack capacity. In this instance this would present a safeguarding issue in relation to the individual concerned. It is also covered by other laws — this includes consenting to sex.
Although the Act does not allow anyone to make decisions about these matters for a person that lacks capacity, it does not prevent action being taken to protect a vulnerable person from abuse or exploitation.
How can I best support somebody with a learning disability who is lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT)?
Some people with a learning disability are lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT), or they might be questioning their sexual orientation or gender. You can best support them by talking to them about being LGBT, and reassuring them that it this is okay to be LGBT.
It is best practice for staff to be proactive in ensuring that the support and information they provide around sex and relationships is inclusive of LGBT people. In the provision of services there is a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to provide equality of opportunity to individuals with protected characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
There are resources available to help you support LGBT people with a learning disability:
- CHANGE has produced an easy-read booklet on being lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.
- The Social Care Institute for Excellence has produced a video on working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people with a learning disability.
- Advice and information can be found in the online summary of the Secret Loves, Hidden Lives research project, which looked at the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual people with a learning disability.
The person I support wants their partner to stay over. What do I do?
If a person you support tells you that they want his/ her boyfriend/ girlfriend stay over, there are a number of things that you should consider:
- Ask yourself – do both people have capacity to consent to having someone stay over and to having sex?
- If yes, help them think about the implications of their decisions and who else they might want to talk to.
- Help them check their tenancy agreement or any house rules to work out whether there may be any issues.
- Discuss with the person you support whether it may be a good idea for them to talk to their family; they might not want to do this.
- Are there any implications on overnight support? Try to work this through with the person you support.
Remember – if the person has consent, your role to help them to stay within the law, not for you to impose your views, even where this challenges your own believes. If you are unsure about what to do, raise it with your employer.
Other things to consider are for example, what will you do, if the relationship between the person you support and his/ her boyfriend/ girlfriend breaks down. What support can you provide?
If you are worried that the person you support is being sexually abused or have any questions about whether they have the mental capacity to consent, please see the relevant FAQs below.
What are the rules about around people with a learning disability getting married and having children?
A person with a learning disability, just like anyone else, has the legal right to get married without parental permission when they are aged 18 or over given that both they and their partner have the capacity to consent.
They are also legally entitled to become parents if they wish and have a family life, but they may require considerable help to do this.
There is a lot of prejudice against parents with a learning disability and as a result they more frequently than other parents have their children taken away from them. However, there are a number of laws that protect the family unit. For example, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts the right of children to not be separated from their parents unless it is for their own good. Other legislation also supports the right to appropriate support for families; for example the Children Act 1989 or Human Rights Act 1998.
I am worried that the person I support is being sexually abused. How do I know?
Many service providers and carers worry about people with a learning disability becoming sexually active because of the issue of sexual abuse. Having a learning disability does not preclude a person from sexual expression. It is important to remember that people with a learning disability, like everyone else, have a right to have physical, loving relationships.
However, exploitation and abuse does happen. There can sometimes be a very fine line between consent and abuse in personal relationships. Some people with a learning disability are vulnerable to sexual abuse because of factors such as:
- communication problems
- small social groups
- limited support services
- bullying by members of the public
- lack of life experience
- lack of education around relationships and sex.
Sexual abuse can occur in familiar surroundings and usually by someone well known to the person. The abuser is often in a trusted position or in a position of power. It is not always obvious that sexual abuse is occurring.
There are six key areas to consider in reaching a decision about whether sexual abuse may be occurring within a relationship or sexual partnership:
- Use of violence or intimidation.
- Different views of what is ‘normal’.
- Different levels of cognitive ability.
- Significant age differences.
- Who takes the initiative.
- Impact of disapproval.
The advice here only applies to adults. If you are concerned that a child is being sexually abused, please contact one of the following organisations:
What is the law around sexual abuse?
The Sexual Offences Act has changed the law on rape and sexual assault. The Act has now clarified the situation regarding sexual activity with someone who does not have the capacity to consent to sexual relations (Section 30).
Section 30 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 This legislation affords protection to people who may be vulnerable to sexual abuse or exploitation due to a learning disability, mental health difficulty or other cognitive difficulty. This is referred to in the act as 'a mental disorder impeding choice'.
The act states that it is an offence to engage in direct or indirect sexual activity where the person:
- does not consent
- lacks capacity to consent
- feels coerced to consent because the other person is in a position of trust, power or authority.
Apparent consent may be disregarded where a person may be subject to coercion. This gives greater protection to people who may be able to give consent but are vulnerable to exploitation.
To assess whether someone has the capacity to consent, see the answer to the ‘I am worried that the person I support does not have the capacity to consent to a sexual relationship’ question above.
How can I support someone to have a loving relationship and safe sex?
You should try to pro-actively raise the issue of relationships and sex during reviews. Work with your manager and your organisation to ensure you feel supported to support someone with this.
You should try to identify opportunities for the person you support to socialise with other people; this will increase the potential for relationships to forms.
Make sure that you provide space on a one to one basis for the person you support to raise concerns and questions around sex and to identify what their expectations of a relationship are. You may also want to provide them with some information about safe sex and other related issues.
There are dating agencies for people with a learning disability, however, many are only based in certain regions.
Someone I support is pregnant. What do I do?
It is important to help the person get access to good antenatal care and support, ask for extra time for appointments and get information in an easy read format. The person may need support from a range of professionals such as:
- a community midwife - to provide care during pregnancy, labour and birth and after
- a health visitor - to promote good health and offer practical health advice
- an ante-natal group - to help prepare for birth
- a community learning disability nurse - to help with any emotional and physical health needs and develop independence skills
- an acute liaison nurse - to ensure that the person gets good support in hospital.
If social services are involved due to concerns about the welfare of the child then the person will need support from:
- an advocate - to support them through the whole process and any child care proceedings
- a solicitor - to ensure that the person has the right legal support.
I am a parent with a child with a learning disability, how do I talk about sex and relationships?
It is really important that parents have conversations with their child about safe sex, contraception and biology. You should think about how to tailor this conversation to your child and use resources and images to enable understanding. Ideally this should not be a one off conversation but a topic that you and your child feel able to discuss on a regular basis.
Where can I find more accessible information about relationships and sex?
Sex and relationships education is really important when supporting people with a learning disability. People who receive effective sex and relationships education usually have better sexual knowledge, better sexual health, and reduced vulnerability to sexual abuse.
Sex and relationships education for people with a learning disability should provide support and guidance on a range of topics, including:
- consent and communication
- the physical and emotional aspects of sex and relationships
- safe sex and contraception.
It should also acknowledge and support the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people with a learning disability.
- CHANGE has produced a series of easy-read booklets on sex and relationships, designed to teach people with a learning disability about a range of topics including consent, safe sex, and LGBT relationships.
- The Family Planning Association, have produced a range of resources specifically for people with a learning disability.
- Contact a Family have created a range of resources for disabled young people, although this is not specific just to learning disability.
- Books Beyond Words have created a range of resources around supporting people to talk about sex and abuse. They specialise in communicating through images rather than words for people with learning and communication difficulties.
- Bodysense was established in 2004 to develop and make available innovative teaching resources that respond to the sex education needs of everybody including for people with a learning disability. These include condom cards, life-size models of people, body parts and interactive guides.
- BILD - Dating to sex- Information and resources about friendships and relationships to support people to have a great life.
How to get the support you need
Phone or email our Learning Disability Helpline team for guidance and information about what support we can offer you.
Or why not take a look at FamilyHub? This is our online community for parents and family carers of people with a learning disability, and is a place for sharing experiences, advice and support.