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News & Blog » Learning Disabilities and Sexual Relationships

Learning Disabilities and Sexual Relationships

Published on 19th Mar 2018
Encompass Blog and Updates

In August 2017 a husband and wife won a legal battle against their local authority that had banned them from having sex because the husband had Down’s syndrome.

The social worker involved informed his wife that she had to sleep in a different room or risk committing a serious criminal offense.

The husband also had to attend a sex education course to ensure that he understood what his wife was asking of him and thus was able to give his consent.

It took the Local Authority over a year to provide that course.

It was felt that the man lacked capacity and his wife’s sexual interest in him could be seen sexual abuse. Instead the Court of Protection ruled instead that this was a flagrant breach of the couple’s human rights and awarded them £10,000 in damages.

A wry example to make a serious point.

Let’s talk about sex

Like it or not sex is part of our everyday lives and societal changes have made it more prominent than ever before.

Individuals are freer to live their lives in a manner that suits them and with it are free to explore sexuality and sexual experiences in a way that that would have past generations clutching at their pearls.

We have the luxury of enjoying our sexual sides in more or less anyway of our choosing – be that in a long term relationship or as a friend with benefits – unless, it seems you have learning disabilities.

Just 3% of individuals with learning disabilities are in a relationship compared to 70% of the general population.

That’s an alarming disparity.

The Cause

There are a number of factors that are believed to be partially responsible for why individuals with learning disabilities do not enter into relationships.

Social isolation is more common for people with learning disabilities and therefore it is harder for them to meet people and form relationships. Plus the restrictions that may come with their challenges might make dedicated nights out rare to non-existent – particularly if people require additional support. Although many support providers are trying to overcome these challenges using more flexible, person-centred working, meaning date nights shouldn’t be impossible to achieve.

There is also often a degree of anxiety from family or other responsible parties trying to safeguard the individual’s welfare or prevent them from making a mistake. The problem there is it denies the individual their sexual rights and worsens their sense of isolation.

Although this over protectiveness is well intended imagine how frustrating it must be for the individual who has their relationships derailed because well-meaning members of their support circle are struggling with the idea of them having a sexual identity.

The Big One

The biggest factor, however, behind individuals with learning disabilities not starting relationships is societal perception.

To most it is unpalatable at best, unacceptable at worst, for individuals with learning disabilities to be in a relationship, sexual or otherwise, entirely because they see the disability and not the individual.

Individuals with learning disabilities have exactly the same rights as anyone else and, providing they have capacity, their sexual rights are safeguarded by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It also states that they should also be given the same access to sexual and reproductive health care as everybody else. So, essentially, individuals with learning disabilities should be treated just like everyone else.

What can be done?

There it’s an easy answer but hard to implement: trust the individual to make their own choices. It’s worth remembering that we all have the right to make an unwise decision from time-to-time if we have capacity.

Remember, if we are supporting that individual in a truly person-centred way then all we should be doing is making sure they are getting out of life exactly what they want to.


If they choose to sleep around – providing they have capacity to make that choice – they should be free to do so. You don’t have to like it, providing you don’t like it for reasons beyond their learning disability. 

The most important thing to realise is that the learning disability does not define the individual but creates a number of challenges that have to be overcome in order for that person to lead a normal life – including embarking on relationships with others.

Encompass Dorset works with individuals with learning disabilities in both a supported setting and in their own homes to help them achieve their goals.