People with various disabilities have become increasingly visible in recent decades, with the focus shifting away from ‘pity’ to a sense of equality and the need for society to make adjustments for them to take their rightful place in the workforce and in community groups.
The Christian magazine Premier Christian reports the positive experiences of Christians living with disability. I have been thinking lately about how the Christian churches fit into the picture, more specifically, the approach on sexual matters.
One of the key scriptures in this regard is Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that the man should be left alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” It’s a verse that not only influences the role and teaching of churches on marriage, but reflects a secular reality, that most humans yearn for companionship and sharing.
Attitudes to sexuality
Yet, when it comes to people with disabilities, the attitude typically tends to be either seen as asexual or else their families wish they were. Penny Pepper, writing in the Guardian explores the idea of being perceived as asexual: “I knew early on that because I was disabled, sex was taboo.”
There is a desire to ‘protect’ disabled family members from the ups and downs of relationships, but this wish to wrap them in cotton wool goes against disabled people’s own wishes to have a normal sexual development.
It seems to me that the churches are often uncomfortable in discussing these matters and decide to ‘stay safe’ by appeasing families in this regard. However, the losers are people with disabilities, who feel their needs and desires are ignored by clergy.
For Catholic priests, in particular, given their own celibacy, there can be a difficulty in understanding the desire for relationships. Given how close they are to their own families, there can be a tendency to ‘worship’ the family unit so much that they don’t want to rock the boat by challenging families over their attitude to disabled members.
While more enlightened perspectives, fortunately, are gradually developing, rigid interpretations of traditional Christian teachings on sexuality often ignore the particular needs of the disabled.
The clergy themselves may also feel uncomfortable. I recall, with amusement, being at a seminar in Ireland as long ago as 1988 on the subject of sexuality of the disabled, where a local Sister of Mercy was laughing as she explained to someone how to spell ‘masturbation’.
Traditional teachings and the sense of isolation felt by many was explored by the Irish playwright John B Keane in his work The Chastitute; while that didn’t explicitly deal with disability issues, the sense of being ill at ease with relationships is all the greater for the disabled.
Traditional ideas of guilt on such matters only go to deepen the loneliness and sense of failure on the part of the disabled. However, the goal of educators and church leaders must surely be to help disabled young people, like anyone else, to feel at ease with their sexuality and able to feel confident to have a relationship with a ‘significant other’.
The added challenge of sexual abuse
A complicating factor is that young people with disabilities are particularly prone to being sexually abused. Writing on their research in The Lancet, a team of authors found that “The results of this systematic review confirm that children with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than are their peers who are not disabled.”
Sonali Shah, writing for Frontiers in Education, said disabled children may have “lower levels of sexual knowledge and inadequate sex education”, and “are more vulnerable to ‘bad sex’ relationships, which are considered to be exploitative and disempowering in different ways.”
The experience of such abuse, in turn, leads to further complications in sexual development. For families with young girls with disabilities, the fear that they will be raped is ever present, but for male survivors of abuse there are different issues, which are often ignored by the churches: male abuse survivors very often have anxieties concerning their sexual orientation.
The legacy of such abuse is often the reason why some men fail to find a companion, despite their desire to do so, but it’s a legacy often unnoticed by their families and local clergy.
People with some disabilities are also over-represented among sex offenders: the Guardian reports that “roughly 40% of people referred to a clinic of young people classed as sexual offenders had learning disabilities.”
For example, in the parish of Knowsley in 2019, there were 11,621 people. Figures show that at least one in three people experience sexual abuse as a child – roughly 3,873 from this parish group may have experienced sexual abuse*, and the amount is likely to be higher among people with disabilities. Yet, the loneliness they feel often goes unnoticed by clergy.
The way forward
Church leaders need to find ways to challenge that protectiveness and encourage families to allow disabled family members to develop confidence in relationships. They may also need to step away from traditional beliefs and their own personal bias not to challenge families.
In spite of all this, society has changed. I recently worked with a man (since retired) who has Down Syndrome who is married – his wife also has the condition. I have also worked with people with less obvious disabilities, who have partners.
It seems to me this would have been less likely among their counterparts of an older generation, as families would ‘protect’ them by ensuring such relationships could not get underway in the first place.
But the world, thankfully, is changing for the better.
*Editor’s note: This data estimate is based off of 2019 statistics from ONS for Knowsley and was combined with data from 2022, where it has been found that one in three experienced sexual abuse as a child. This estimate was formed to give an approximate of how many within a parish could have experienced sexual abuse and is not to be taken as an exact amount.
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