If you support someone who has a learning disability and you have questions about sexuality, relationships, these answers to frequently answered questions can help.
I have a learning disability. How can I get support with sexuality and relationships?
If you would like support with sexuality and relationships, it is important to talk to someone you can trust. This might feel awkward, and that’s okay. Sometimes it is hard to know what your feelings are, but there are people and places that can help.
If you would rather speak with someone on our helpline, call 0808 808 1111, or email email@example.com
Where can I find more accessible information about relationships and sex?
Relationships and sex education is really important when supporting people with a learning disability. People who receive effective relationships and sex education usually have better sexual knowledge, better sexual health, and reduced vulnerability to sexual abuse.
Our list of recommended resources includes easy read and accessible information for people with a learning disability. In this guide we have signposted to helpful resources on body awareness, friendships, relationships, safe sex and contraception, pregnancy, parenting, understanding abuse and how to get help.
How can I support someone to have meaningful friendships?
Friendships can help people feel happier, included and valued. They can also enhance wellbeing.
Sadly, people with a learning disability tend to have smaller social networks and fewer opportunities to meet new and existing friends.
Learning about friendship and qualities of a good friend is an important part of relationships and sex education. Sometimes this means practical support to assist someone with attending events or places where they could meet new people.
Developing and maintaining personal relationships may be an eligible need under the Care Act. A person with a learning disability could request a needs assessment from the local authority to find out what support they could have to meet this outcome. For more information about assessments, contact the Learning Disability Helpline.
How can I support someone to have a loving relationship and safe sex?
Learning about friendships, sexuality and relationships is the foundation upon which a person’s knowledge and skills for dating and relationships can be developed. This helps to build a person’s understanding of the different types of relationships, stages of a relationship, consent and intimacy.
Find out what support the person would like from you. Do they want support to find information or more practical support to access events or places to meet new people? Do more opportunities need to be created to increase the potential for meeting new people?
Try to pro-actively raise the issue of relationships and sex in conversation if you’re a friend or family, or during person-centred reviews if you’re a support worker.
You could try to identify opportunities for the person you support to socialise with other people; this will increase the potential for relationships to form.
Make sure that you provide 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.
Developing and maintaining personal relationships may be an eligible need under the Care Act and so the person could request a needs assessment from the local authority to find out what support they could have to meet this outcome. For more information about assessments, contact the Learning Disability Helpline.
How can I best support somebody with a learning disability who is lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) or unsure of their sexuality and/or gender identity?
Some people with a learning disability are lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) just like anybody else, or they might be questioning their sexual orientation or gender. You can best support people by talking to them about being LGBT and offering reassurance that it this is okay to be LGBT.
It is best practice for support staff to be proactive in ensuring that the support and information they provide around sex and relationships is LGBT inclusive. You can make sure that LGBT role models, support groups, and events are visible to the person. Sharing books and videos with LGBT characters will also create a more inclusive environment.
Find support services in your local area here
If you would like more information to better understand LGBT identities and experiences, see Stonewall’s advice and guidance here.
I know someone who is interested in a relationship and would like to use a dating agency. What is available?
There are dating agencies for people with a learning disability, though many are only based in certain regions.
A dating agency can be helpful in offering support to someone to meet other people and match them with potential dates. Some agencies also offer support for people to make new friends. If you have concerns, speak with the agencies first and find out exactly what they can offer. Well-known dating agencies should provide chaperones for dates. Check out this list of our recommendations:
Love4Life is based in some areas of England.
Luv 2 meet u runs across a number of locations across the north of England.
What is the law around people with a learning disability having a sexual relationship?
Just like everybody else, people with a learning disability are sexual beings and have sexual rights. They have a right to explore and express their sexual identity and to develop relationships just like anybody else.
Safe and consensual personal and sexual relationships can offer happiness, fulfilment, companionship and a greater sense of choice and control for people with a learning disability.
In the UK, the age of consent for any form of sexual activity is 16, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. This means all adults and young people have the right to sexual experiences and consensual sex as long as they are 16 or over and have capacity to consent.
For more information on capacity to consent please see the next FAQ.
I am worried that the person I support does not have the capacity to consent to a sexual relationship. How do I know?
If you are worried that the person you support does not have capacity to consent to a sexual relationship, seek advice from your Community Learning Disability Team.
The framework for assessing whether someone has the capacity to consent is the Mental Capacity Act (MCA). Principle 1 of the MCA says you should always assume capacity first. You should only doubt capacity if you have reasonable belief that capacity may be impaired. You can read more about the Mental Capacity Act here.
A person's capacity to consent can change, so an assessment should provide recommendations for whether further sex and relationships education would help the person have capacity to consent in the future. The balance between promoting a person’s rights and aspirations versus risk of abuse/exploitation should ensure every step towards promoting a person’s rights is taken, and that safeguarding interventions are the least restrictive option.
BILD have produced a free tool for assessing a person’s capacity in relation to sex, which you can download here.
The person I support wants their partner to stay over. What do I do?
If a person you support tells you that they want their partner to 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 is to help them to stay within the law, not for you to impose your views, even where this challenges your own beliefs.
What is the law around people with a learning disability getting married and having children?
A person with a learning disability 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 support to do this.
There is a lot of prejudice against parents with a learning disability. Because of this, it is more common that their children are taken away from them than other parents. However, there are a number of laws that protect the family unit. For example, the 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.
Someone I support is pregnant. What do I do?
The soon-to-be parent(s) should request a needs assessment from the local authority to ensure that they have the support they need. Carrying out caring responsibilities for a child contributes to qualifying for adult social care, and getting the right support in place for the parents may be key in ensuring that the child is well looked after and the family stays together.
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.
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 wards
a health visitor to promote good health and offer practical health advice
an antenatal 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.
I am a parent with a child with a learning disability, how do I talk about sex and relationships?
It is normal to feel nervous about this subject, but also very important to talk to your child about this. It helps to first find out what they want to talk about and what they already know - follow their cues to help with this. Think about how to tailor this conversation to your child and use resources and images to enable their 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. Making this an ongoing conversation that fits in with your lives can make it feel less daunting for both of you.
If you need more support in having these conversations, speak to someone else in their circle of support who may be able to assist you, like a teacher or support worker.
Mencap have produced some guidance with Brook for families to help prepare for and conversations about sexuality and relationships with their children. You can download it here.
How can I provide sex and relationships education to a person with a learning disability?
Effective sex and relationships education should aim to give people the skills and knowledge to better understand their own sexuality, sexual health and how to have healthy and fulfilling relationships. More widely, it also has a crucial role in helping people to socialize, make friendships and be active members of their community.
Sex and relationships education does not need to be limited to what is taught in schools. It can happen at any stage of someone’s life, in a variety of settings and be delivered by a wide range of trained professionals.
Sex and relationships education for people with a learning disability should provide support and guidance on a range of topics, including:
the difference between public and private
the qualities of healthy and unhealthy relationships
the emotional and physical aspects of sexual relationships
This education needs to be provided in an accessible way that breaks down the key subjects, makes them relatable to real life situations and allows the person to continue to revisit them to ensure their understanding remains up to date.
I am worried that the person I support is being sexually abused. How do I know?
Mencap are aware that people with a learning disability can be more vulnerable to abuse for a number of reasons including
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 areas to consider if you are concerned that abuse may be happening within a relationship or sexual partnership:
- Is there use of violence or intimidation?
- Do the people involved have different views of what is ‘normal’?
- Do the people involved have different levels of cognitive ability?
- Is there a significant age difference between the people involved?
- Who takes the initiative in the relationship?
- What is the impact of one person’s disapproval on the other?
The local authority has a responsibility to take steps to prevent the abuse of adults in need of care and support. If you have concerns, get in touch with the local safeguarding team. You can find their contact details on your local council website – find your local authority website here: www.gov.uk/find-local-council
Any safeguarding process should be person-centred and focus on the outcomes that are important for the person with a learning disability. One way that this can be achieved is by having the support of an independent advocate.
The advice here only applies to adults. If you are concerned that a child is being sexually abused, please contact the local council Children’s Services immediately. You can find your local authority website here: www.gov.uk/find-local-council
You may also wish to 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 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 (pressured) to consent because the other person is in a position of trust, power or authority.
If you have concerns or need further information, contact your local safeguarding team. You can find their contact details on your local council website by searching here: www.gov.uk/find-local-council
There are lots of easy read information resources about sexuality and relationships on the internet. You can download our handy list here.
How to get the support you need
Get in touch with the Learning Disability Helpline, which is our advice and support service, for guidance and information about what support we can offer you.
Or why not take a look at our online community? This is a place for parents and family carers of people with a learning disability to share experiences, advice and support.