Lucy Baxter’s frank comments about her son’s sex life have generated wider debate about sex and relationships for people with a learning disability.
In March, a media storm erupted around comments made by Lucy Baxter in BBC3’s Real Britain programme and subsequent interviews.
Lucy is mother to 21-year-old Otto, who has Down’s syndrome and wants to lose his virginity. Lucy said that she would support Otto to visit a prostitute, be delighted if he got a girl pregnant and be happy for him to have a relationship with someone without a learning disability. Her comments attracted much attention from the media and online message boards.
Charlotte Morse is mother to 20-year-old Ben Pelham, who has Down’s syndrome.
Some people don’t think a mother should be as involved as Lucy is in her child’s sex life, but if Otto didn’t have a learning disability Lucy wouldn’t have to be involved. Our sons are much more open, they tell us everything. It’s our responsibility to work things out when our sons can’t help themselves, as and when they are ready. There’s no reason for us not to help them along.
The idea that people with a learning disability shouldn’t be in a sexual relationship is rubbish! Everyone has needs and desires. At 20, Ben still needs support when he goes out, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to ‘go behind the bike sheds’. But it’s what adulthood is all about.
I once knew of a man who had a severe learning disability and was practically non-verbal. His family paid for him to visit a prostitute once a month. I thought it was a good idea – he had desires like everyone else, but he was unable to be in a serious relationship. I considered doing similarly for Ben, but decided against it as he falls in love with anyone who shows him affection.
Ben has been with his girlfriend for two years and they are still quite besotted with each other. They talk about having children and I feel they have the right to do that – who is to say people with a learning disability are worse parents than some already out there?
Sara Gorman is a self-advocate and was involved in setting up From Mates to Dates – a friendship and relationship group in the West Midlands.
It is difficult for people with a learning disability to meet each other – often due to a lack of transport. I do think it’s good for people with a learning disability to be in an environment with people without a learning disability, so that they are not overprotected. But someone with a learning disability can be ignored in the pub, or people can get the wrong end of the stick about them. It’s the balance of knowing someone needs support, but doesn’t necessarily want someone holding their hand the whole time.
As a woman with a learning disability, I think we can be overprotected when it comes to sex and relationships – in one way quite rightly, but on the other hand, it takes that person’s life away from them. I think it’s good that Lucy Baxter is not being too overprotective, but I do think she needs to be careful she does not give Otto a bad name, and that it doesn’t lead to bullying.
When it comes to dating people with or without a learning disability, I wouldn’t say “I want someone with or without”. But the other way round, the majority of people without a learning disability wouldn’t go out with a person with one. It would seem like hard work to them, or they would worry about what would happen if they had children. I think people need educating. Not all the world is black and white.
David Thompson has spent over a decade working with men with a learning disability on sexual issues.
I thought that the programme on Otto Baxter would help people understand some of the challenges faced by men with a learning disability who want relationships. I did, however, wonder how many other 21-year-olds would be willing to discuss such intimate details of their life so publicly particularly alongside their mother.
The comments the story generated were as interesting as the programme itself. These ranged from the matter of fact: ‘Young man wants to have sex – what’s the story?’ to responses suggesting that any discussion of sex involving people with Down’s syndrome was ‘disgusting’. I was reminded of the complex context in which men with a learning disability have to conduct their sexual lives.
I have worked with many men with a learning disability who have wanted relationships and sex and who have been unhappy about how difficult it has been. It is difficult to talk honestly about their prospect of relationships with people without a learning disability – the reality being that the men with a learning disability would rarely be seen as desirable partners. My research found that if men with a learning disability did have sex with people without a learning disability, they were typically being exploited.
I personally have a problem with men paying women for sex, but I also think it is unfair to expect men with a learning disability to be better than other men when we know prostitution is very common. They might learn something from having sex with prostitutes, but very little that would be helpful if they wanted to develop a mutual intimate relationship.
This article appeared in the March/April 2009 edition of Viewpoint
Do people with a learning disability have an equal right to sex and relationships, or does society have a responsibility to protect vulnerable people?