October 8, 2009

Love And Sex Among Youth With Intellectual Disabilities

Lotta Löfgren-Mårtenson on understanding a new generation's possibilities and hindrances for sexuality and love

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One of the great pleasures of working at The Kinsey Institute is meeting researchers from around the world who are trying to make sense of what it means to connect, human to human.

Lotta Löfgren-Mårtenson visited from Malmo University in Sweden, and blew us away with her work on young people with intellectual disabilities, trying to find love in a world of protective adults and real and perceived dangers.  Lots to think about when it comes to our drive for intimacy and connections – and for love and sex – regardless of our other labels.

Here is Lotta on her topic:

I was very happy to have the opportunity to be a Visiting Scholar at the Kinsey Institute this spring.  I gave a talk about my research on sexuality and young people with intellectual disabilities (ID).

The purpose of the study was to identify, describe and understand a new generation’s possibilities and hindrances for sexuality and love in view of the societal changes. Furthermore, I wanted to examine in which way the environment may affect young people’s sexual expressions and behaviors.

The study is based on participant observations on dances specifically geared towards people with ID. In addition, qualitative research interviews are conducted with the young men and women, parents and staff members.

The results show that the young people’s leisure time often is censured and characterized by strict boundaries. Private “free-zones” where sexuality otherwise are supposed to be expressed are uncommon.  Also, the opportunity to develop self-determination and independence often is restricted in relationships where dependency is a central issue.

Staff members and parents describe feelings of ambivalence when it comes to dealing with sexuality and the young men and women with ID. They also put the risks for negative aspects of their sexuality, e.g. unwanted pregnancies and sexual abuses, forward the positive aspects.

Variation among the group

A wide variety of sexual expressions and experiences has been documented among young adults that can be explained by the different degrees of ID, the surrounding people’s attitude towards the youth’s sexual activity and other individual factors. Sexual intercourse seems to be more uncommon than kisses, cuddling, flirting, body-contact and hugs.

Today’s young people with ID form a very heterogeneous group, where factors as degree and type of disability, communication and social skills level, gender, social class, childhood environment and other individual characteristics are important. In addition, the surrounding people’s beliefs and approaches to love and sexuality is of paramount importance.

To a large extent, the young people of today also are involved in creating a new discourse of care though their social opposition strategies aimed at the discipline and homogeneous treatment by those around them.

The results give reason for optimism through the continuing exchange between research and the field. This hopefully will encourage and stimulate staff members and parents to increase their knowledge concerning sexuality and young men and women with ID.

Here is a Swedish group, Arvingarna , that was very popular among the young people with ID during the two years that I attended the dances.