Scottish Learning Disability Week 2021 blog

Why Don’t We Talk About Sexuality and Learning Disabilities?

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We’re exploring a different topic around our ‘Relationships’ theme each day throughout Scottish Learning Disability Week 2021. Today’s topic is ‘Challenges’ –  The Ann Craft Trust (ACT) is a national charity which exists to minimise the risk of abuse of disabled children and adults at risk. In this blog, CEO of the Trust, Deborah Kitson, explores safeguarding in the context of sexuality and learning disabilities…

Sexuality and people with learning disabilities is a controversial and sensitive area of research. People with learning disabilities have sexual needs but in many instances these desires are not supported or recognised and, in the past, they have largely been ignored. This is primarily because of society’s long held attitudes and beliefs that people with learning disabilities are vulnerable and to be treated as “eternal children” who must be protected from harm. 

As a consequence of this people with learning disabilities have often not received the sex education required to enjoy positive sexual experiences or to keep safe from sexual harm. Denying or ignoring the issues has, in fact, resulted in their being more vulnerable. Many examples of the impact of this have been evidenced. 

Everyone Has Different Needs, and Everyone Must Make Their Own Informed Choices 

The people we support are entitled to make informed choices about how they wish to live their lives. Each person is an individual, as are their choices and lifestyles. Therefore, the relationship between them, the law, and the support that they need to live the life they wish to live will be individual and unique. 

It is not easy for people with learning disabilities to seek out advice and information about sexual education and health. It is embarrassing in the same way that finding out about sex is for other young people, and there is less access to information, organisations and support. Young people with learning disabilities are unsure who to turn to for advice. Sometimes people are misinformed by other people, or sources such as films and TV, but do not realise this because it is the only information they have been given. People with learning disabilities may have worries about their sexuality, especially if they have only had limited information, based on heterosexual relationships. Some young people with learning disabilities have limited opportunities to develop and maintain relationships. This might be because they do not go out and about as much as othersthey lack places to meet, or they have limited time without ‘supervision’. Some young people with learning disabilities have been on the receiving end of negative comments or have been discouraged when they have developed relationships with other young people. 

So many people with learning disabilities are not afforded the opportunities to learn about sex. They are often protected, assumed not to need or understand sex education, and they may not have the opportunity to share experiences with their peers or to see them independently outside school or college. 

But they share the same rights as the rest of us: 

  • To have opportunities to love and be loved and to engage in consenting relationships, whether sexual or not.  
  • To education and information about their own bodies.  
  • To education and information about personal relationships and sexuality (including responsibility to others), presented in a manner appropriate to their individual needs.  
  • Not to be sexually exploited.  
  • To information and help with contraception and the maintenance of sexual health, including the right to be included in all national sexual screening programmes within mainstream services.  
  • To marry, enter into a civil partnership or cohabit and to receive support in maintaining such partnerships.  
  • To information and advice about the responsibilities of parenthood, and support when deciding whether to become a parent or not.  
  • To support during pregnancy and the subsequent upbringing of children. 

Limitations in sexual knowledge may also lead to people with learning disabilities not understanding risks, not complaining when they have been abused, and consequently becoming easy targets for perpetrators. 

Legal and Policy Initiatives 

A number of policy and government initiatives identify the need for people with learning disabilities to understand their sexuality, and also to have the opportunity to form relationships. However, that agenda has, in the past, been introduced in parallel to that of safeguarding people. From the late 1990s both agendas existed in parallel in both law and policy initiatives. 

A set of balancing scale

Independence vs Protection


Current social care policies are seeking to promote and encapsulate both independence and safeguarding of adults at risk addressing well-being and safeguardingIndependence and protection can coexist, and it is the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 that has provided us with a necessary framework to assist professionals in deciding whether an individual has the capacity to make decisions that may involve risk. We need to balance the need to protect people who are labelled as vulnerable with the rights of all human beings to have relationships and family lives.  

Young people with learning disabilities, like others, need to be able to seek out advice and information about sexual relationships and health. However, they may be unsure who to turn to for advice. They may struggle to access the information, organisations and support they needThey should be supported in making decisions, taking risks, and in recognising their rights and responsibilities as adults. We must ensure that young people with learning disabilities are equipped with the knowledge and information necessary to make informed decisions about their lives. 


To ignore issues of consent may lead to abuse and neglect. But to assume that a person cannot consent may result in negating their rights to fulfilling relationships. 

We need to balance the requirements to protect a potentially vulnerable individual from abuse with their right to be sexually active. In order to consent to sexual activity,’ The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 provides a general definition of consent as “free agreement and supplements this with a non-exhaustive list of factual circumstances in which free agreement, and therefore consent, is not present. 


Organisations need to consider the range of issues relating to the sexuality of the people they support. They must offer appropriate support for all those involved, including the people they support, parentscarers and staff. Sexuality and personal relationships also needs to be considered in the context of safeguarding, vulnerability and consent. 

People with learning disabilities themselves should be supported in making decisions and choices, taking risks and recognising their rights and responsibilities as adults. Others have to ensure that people with learning disabilities are equipped with the knowledge and information necessary to make informed decisions about their lives. 


Photo of Deborah Kitson

Deborah Kitson
CEO, Ann Craft Trust