Traditional gender stereotypes found in staff attitudes towards sexuality in people with learning disabilities


Whilst there has been significant progress in recent years in acknowledging the rights of people with learning disabilities to live their lives in the way they choose, responding to the right to be sexually active continues to throw up challenges for services and families.

Part of the difficulty is that people with learning disabilities may have few opportunities to develop loving relationships and have their sexual needs met, finding it difficult to get information about relationships and sex.

Advocacy organisations like Change have produced easy read information on the subject, recently producing a sexual health and relationships photo image bank, as knowledge can help people avoid situations where they may be exploited or abused.

Other organisations like the Ann Craft Trust  have focused on this latter issue, offering training and advice for families and staff.

The authors of this study were interested in exploring the attitudes of staff regarding the sexuality of people with learning disbaiities. Previous studies have shown these attitudes have often beennegative. The researchers were interested in particular in whether attitudes to sexaulity were affected by the gender of people with learning disabilities involved.

What they did was carry out a series of semi-structured interviews with 10 staff members and used thematic analysis to identify the themes that emerged.

What they found was that there were three main  themes:

  • Women were perceived by the staff as sexually innocen
  • Men were perceived as more sexually motivated
  • Motivations for sexual relationships were perceived to differ between men and women with learning disabilities

They conclude from their findings that the attitudes towards the sexuality of people with learning disabilities in the staff in their sample were unfavourable and correlated closely with traditional, restricted gender stereotypes.

They suggest that their findings highlight the importance of considering gender when supporting the sexuality of people with learning disabilities.

Staff attitudes towards sexuality in relation to gender of people with intellectual disability: A qualitative study, Young R et al., in Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 37, 4,  343-347

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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