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Sexuality Support and Social Meaning - Exploring the difference between 'good' sex and 'bad'

Carol Hamilton, N.I.I.D Trinity College


Many intellectually disabled people who use agency services require significant levels of support to live safe and satisfying sexual lives. While people who work in the service sector are now more positive about endorsing the idea of freedom of choice and dignity of risk in relation to the people they work with in this area, practices within service structures have yet to change to the extent that intimate relationships are fully and wholeheartedly supported.

Researchers have recommended that service personnel be encouraged to begin the reflective processes necessary to change their attitudes and practices, so to assist those they support to develop further expertise and experience in this area. However this has been no easy task, as deep-seated stereotypic beliefs about intellectually disabled people and sexuality continue to influence possibilities for the development of intimate and sexual relationships for members of this group. These beliefs include that intellectually disabled people do not have sexual drives therefore they are non-sexual, that being intellectually disabled renders people in this group unable to (biologically) function in the sexual area and that intellectually disabled people lack the necessary appropriate judgement to be responsible for their sexual behaviour. As it has also been suggested that practices in agency services continue to mirror the social context in which services themselves are positioned, how agency personnel might successfully be able to begin to develop the reflective skills necessary to change attitudes and values is a question that continues to puzzle learning disability researchers and advocates alike.

This paper examines how key social meanings related to 'sexuality' and 'intellectual disability' substantiate certain 'ideal' sets of social practices in the sexuality area. It suggests that these adjudications are shaped by specific underlying assumptions that regulate perceptions of the difference between 'good' and bad' sexuality related behaviours. This process of differentiation provides the means by which certain truths about how intimate behaviour is expressed create and maintain idealised understandings about how assistance in this area is to be regulated in service organisations. This paper shows how the very narrow and rigid category distinctions these social truths locate can inhibit the actions of agency workers in relation to the intellectually disabled people they support. It suggests that our ideas about how the sensitive issue of sexuality support is currently thought through needs to become more complex, so researchers and practitioners can develop broader understandings about what might need to change in order to provide more effective assistance to intellectually disabled people in this area of their life.

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