Sexuality not something to be ashamed about by: Nyen Biong
People with intellectual disabilities often face the stigma of being asexual ‘innocents’
WARNING: This story graphically discusses sexual assault.
Experts say shortcomings with Queensland’s legal system are making people with intellectual disabilities more vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault.
*Gift Oyet knows this all to well with her experience in a local state school and parents who offered virtually no sexual education.
At the age of 12, Gift and her female classmates were unexpectedly and quietly pulled to a science classroom stirring a wave of commotion and whispers among the students.
The girls came to the conclusion they would be receiving the dreadful ‘talk’ that many preteens feared. However unlike her peers, Gift didn’t feel an ounce of embarrassment; instead excitement overwhelmed her as her opportunity to ask questions about sex and relationships had finally presented itself. After spending countless hours reading conflicting and oversimplified sex resources online, she would finally receive the intelligent, legitimate and transparent sexual information that she had yearned for.
“Periods, puberty and deodorant. That was all we discussed that afternoon,” Gift said.
Living with a mild intellectual disability, Gift finds it hard to process audio and visual information, meaning the sensitive puberty talk was more challenging for her to grasp than the average teen. Her religious father and her mother, a woman with traditional puritan African values, gave no assistance in her journey to gain sexual education. Her parents limited her opportunities to discuss sexually-related content with doctors, as they regularly accompanied her trips to the GP. After reaching a dead end from teachers, parents and doctors, Gift turned to her most accessible information source, the internet.
“I started talking to my school friends about all the stuff I didn’t know,” Gift said. “They knew as much as I did so it wasn’t much help for me. I asked questions in teenage discussion groups, girls advice forums, and teen disability pages and talked to girls who were able to answer my questions about sexuality, sexual health and laws regarding sex. It always seemed unfair to me that this wasn’t information provided to me through the school system.”
A study by Australian Cross Disability Alliance found 90% of Australian women with intellectual disability have been subjected to sexual abuse, with more than two-thirds (68%) having been sexually abused before they turn 18 years of age. The study also found 70% of women with disability were victims of violent sexual encounters at some time in their lives. The rates of sexual victimisation of women with disability range from four to 10 times higher than for other women. More than a quarter of rape cases reported by females in Australia are perpetrated against women with disabilities.
Manager of Speaking Up For You, an individual advocacy group for people with disability in Brisbane, Dianne Toohey says there are significant problems with state laws and regulations intended to protect people with intellectual disabilities from sexual abuse.
“Section 216 of the Queensland Criminal Code prohibits sex with a person with an impairment of the mind,” Ms Toohey says. “An impairment of the mind could include persons with an intellectual disability… the current wording of the criminal code assumes that anyone with “an impairment of the mind” has no capacity to consent to sex.”
The capacity for people with an intellectual disability to give consent is difficult to assess, creating complicated societal and legal rules. People with intellectual disabilities often face the stigma of being asexual ‘innocents’ causing challenges in fluid sexual expression.
“The intent of the law is to protect people with a disability from sexual exploitation but the actual effect is often a denial of their human rights,” Ms Toohey says. “The language used in the Criminal Code creates legal risk which can result in support workers making restrictive decisions about people with a disability accessing sex education or supporting relationships and sexual activity.”
During her venture into gaining sexual knowledge, Gift Oyet found despite her desire to create intimate relationships, she had restricted opportunities and complications in navigating her sexual experience.
“After I had my first ever sexual experience when I was 17, I knew something was wrong,” Gift says.
“It was incredibly painful even two days after having sex. I remember I couldn’t sleep because I was in so much pain and I thought I was going to die.
“I convinced my parents to let me stay at home from school and made an appointment with the closest GP to my house. With no money for a bus I walked an hour and a half with really bad stomach pain.”
Gift would later find that she contracted pelvic inflammatory disease after being infected with gonorrhoea. The disease developed after her then boyfriend ‘stealthed’ her, a practice of removing ones condom during or prior to sex without consent.
Senior Clinician and General Practitioner at Queensland Centre for Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Dr Gillian Eastgate says while people with intellectual disabilities have legal rights to complain about sexual assault, it can be a challenging process.
“It’s often much more difficult for someone with an intellectual disability to know where to go or to know who to talk to and a lot of people are not very well supported so they don’t have a person that they can trust especially if they don’t have contact with parents,” Dr Eastgate says. “Often they are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted and at a higher risk of not being able to report the assault.”
Gift acknowledges the lack of sexual discussion from her parents and educators was a major factor as to why she never reported the assault.
“It felt like since I was a child no-one was prepared to have that conversation with me so turning to them to discuss the incident would be awkward and shameful,” Gift says.
“I’m not very good with memory as well so I just felt like no one would believe me. I’ve never told my parents till this day. It was a traumatic experience for me to go through alone.”
WWILD is a sexual violence prevention service in Queensland that works with people with intellectual or learning disabilities who have been victims of sexual violence, other crime or exploitation – they can be contacted on 07 3262 9877.
*Gift Oyet’s name has been changed
You can find support by calling 1800 RESPECT or Q LIFE 1800 184 527.