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29th May 2015

Love is strange

Love is strangeIn the news this month is the fact that people with learning disabilities are increasingly at risk of being groomed for sexual exploitation. How can we decide that someone we know is at risk?

The BBC published a story about the rise in sexual grooming of vulnerable adults, providing an example of a young woman whose relationship became abusive. The story described how she was romanced into the situation where she became the victim of a controlling partner, who physically and emotionally hurt her.

For many years, we have celebrated the right of people with learning disabilities to have adult relationships, offering support to help them negotiate the courtship games and emotional minefields that exist. It is a huge shift from the time 30 or more years ago when such relationships were actively discouraged as unnatural, unsafe and unwelcome.

I am sure we all have stories of happy couples we know or have supported directly; I know a few who have defied all of the critics and naysayers over the years. However, I also recall a number of people who were definitely not part of a loving and equal relationship, and for whom the ideal of a boyfriend or girlfriend was shattered through the abusive behaviour they experienced.

Love’s young dream

When you suspect that a romance is blossoming for someone who may be vulnerable, you need to walk a fine line between caution and encouragement. They may be elated that someone is taking notice of them, which in turn may make them want to be noticed even more. This is good, as we all have a need to be valued and cherished. Feeling that somebody is interested in you as a person can make you feel like you are walking on air. It's no different for people with learning disabilities. They may dress differently or want to wear make up, perfume or smarter clothes. Help them to present themselves in a positive light, but take care to support them to be independent in choices. Help them guard against dressing or behaving in the way their new partner tells them to.

It is absolutely key that a person with a new love interest is allowed to spend time alone with them away from the prying eyes of carers or parents. There are ways that this can be facilitated whilst being risk averse to the possibility of unsafe behaviour. For example, if you think there is a risk that intimacy may occur which your client is not ready for, or willing to participate in, then create a situation where, although alone, the pair know that they might be interrupted at any time. Or perhaps support them by being around, but in the background. A few rows back in the cinema, a couple of tables away in the pub.

The next stages

When broaching the topic of intimacy, try to enable your service user to speak up about what they want. Help them to understand they have the right to choose what they do with their body and help them rehearse saying no. If the relationship is sound, then being careful and respecting each other's choices will not hurt it.

If you feel that the relationship is moving towards a stage where the couple need to be aware of the risks of unprotected sex, there are numerous useful resources online that can help you to discuss this and give them support. The Family Planning Association has this excellent web resource.

The Royal College of Nursing has this resource about vulnerable people and sexuality.

There are many more to look at, and you should be able to find a wealth of help online. It's a tricky situation when someone you care about may be falling into a complex and challenging personal situation. Your support and understanding can help make it positive and rewarding for everyone.

Ginny Tyler – QCS Learning Disability Expert Contributor

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