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Sexual 'vulnerability' of people with learning difficulties: a self-fulfilling prophecy

Andrea Hollomotz, School of Sociology & Social Policy, University of Leeds


People with learning difficulties are known to be considerably more likely to experience sexual violence than non-disabled people. They are often referred to as 'vulnerable'. The assumption of 'vulnerability' continues to contribute to the reasoning for their protection in segregated or family settings. However research suggests that most incidents of sexual violence take place within these supposedly protective environments, in the context of an ongoing, often intimate relationship. I will argue that the emphasis on individual 'vulnerability' focuses attention on the disabled person as the cause of violence. Such a focus is too simplistic. I will suggest a more holistic analysis of the composition of risk that takes account of social factors that contribute to its formation: Risk is not merely influenced by personal attributes and an individual's particular level of self-defence skills, but also by environmental and socio-cultural factors. Two case studies of women with learning difficulties will be outlined to illustrate the main tenets of this argument. The two women lead distinctly different lives which raises a number of important questions for further discussion.

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