Frequently asked Questions when supporting someone with a Learning Disability engaging or wanting to engage in a relationship.

Many people in the UK engage in sexual relationships, for most people it is one of the most important things in their life. People with a Learning Disability often do not have the same social opportunities to meet someone and often have to explain their right to a relationship. Having a loving positive can lead to a number of benefits such as, security, confidence, feeling valued and opening of more social opportunities.  Please find below a list of common questions people may have when supporting someone with a Learning Disability within the area of Sex an Relationships. 

What is the law for people with a Learning disability and Sex?

The legal age to engage in sex, in the UK, is for all parties to be 16 or over. People should be free to express their sexual identity regardless of sexual orientation, disability or any other factor as long as they have capacity to consent. People with a Learning Disability have the right and freedom to explore relationships, just like anyone else.

What if I think someone lacks capacity?

The Mental Capacity Act (principle 1) states that you must assume capacity unless there is any reasonable factors that give you cause to feel capacity is impaired.

BILD offer a bespoke Capacity assessment tool for assessing capacity for sexual relationships with supporting guidance. 

Court of protection states 4 factors in assessing capacity for sex that need to be considered: 

  1. If they understand that they have a choice and can refuse another’s advances.
  2. If they understand the basic mechanics of the sexual act.
  3. They understand the risks and consequences of engaging in sexual activities. These include the risks to physical health, such as pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
  4. That they understand that risks to health can be reduced through use of appropriate contraception.

If someone lacks capacity, sexual acts is something that you can not make a decision in their best interest for. If they lack capacity then safeguarding procedures need to be in place. 

Sexual abuse and Learning Disability-What is the law?

The Sexual Offences Act has changed the law on rape and sexual assault making it easier to understand. 

Section 30 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 This legislation affords protection to people who may be vulnerable to sexual abuse or exploitation due to a learning disability, mental health difficulty or other cognitive difficulty. This is referred to in the act as 'a mental disorder impeding choice'.

The act states that it is an offence to engage in direct or indirect sexual activity where the person:

  1. Does not consent
  2. Lacks capacity to consent
  3. Feels coerced to consent because the other person is in a position of trust, power or authority.

Apparent consent can at times be disregarded where a person may have been coerced. This safeguards people who may be able to give consent but are vulnerable to exploitation.

How can I tell if abuse is occurring?

It is really important to ensure that you are supporting someone correctly with relationship and sex education/conversations. Having an open door policy and atmosphere will enable someone to feel comfortable to talk about sensitive issues. It is important to also not assume that Learning Disability = exploitation/abuse. Everyone has a right to be in a physical relationship if they are over 16 years old.  Unfortunately abuse does happen and people with Learning Disabilities are at a higher risk due to things such as communication problems, social groups, lack of effective education and less life experiences. It is also likely that the person will have a number of other adults supporting them and there are studies which show that sexual abuse is often by someone known to the individual. 

There are six key areas to consider in reaching a decision about whether sexual abuse may be occurring within a relationship or sexual partnership:

  1. Use of violence or intimidation.
  2. Different views of what is ‘normal’.
  3. Different levels of cognitive ability.
  4. Significant age differences.
  5. Who takes the initiative.
  6. Impact of disapproval.