Special Needs Kids and Sex

One would think that the world of sex therapy is pretty mundane since there’s nothing new under the sun. Same old hang-ups, same old bang-ups. One would be wrong. The world is constantly changing.

Should you introduce your special needs child to sex at some point in their life, if ever? This question came to me recently from an unexpected source: The parent of a 14 year-old girl with cerebral palsy.

There’s been a few rumblings recently about whether the elderly have a “right” to have sex after befalling some arbitrary age or condition. There is actually no legal opinion on this topic unless there exists a judge’s order granting guardianship powers over the elder. But what of a younger person who cannot adequately conduct their own affairs?

In general, the courts agree that getting old or having special needs cannot deprive you of any rights. A guardian may be able to restrict a person’s movements or circumstances in ways that preclude sex, or sex could even be strictly forbidden based on the person’s medical condition or ability to consent. But one’s therwise inalienable human right to pursue and enjoy sex cannot be encroached nor their ability to reproduce if they so desire (forced-sterilization madness of years past not withstanding).

The mother agreed that her daughter should grow up with every opportunity and advantage and experience afforded to any other kid. She loves her daughter and wants all good things for her else she wouldn’t even be considering this question. But sex. It’s difficult enough to think about our little girls someday having sex but this girl is, well, handicapped and will never be able to take care of herself. How will she manage sex?

I thought about my older cousin who suffered mild brain damage during birth due to oxygen deprivation. She’s smart, funny, has loads of common sense, loves children and old folks, and has held several jobs. Then there’s things she can’t quite master: Money, friends, driving, relationships, value judgments. She is “high-functioning,” a term coined to describe people like her, though she always needs someone to guide her through life. Not that she doesn’t think about sex – she does, a lot, but it is more motivated by nature than the complex intimacy structures we create for ourselves. Her caretaker has been her mother, who ruled out sex for her daughter long ago. And I think it was the right decision, in that case.

This girl is different, however, having full mental capacity but not much capacity for physical movement and socialization. Pregnancy and childbirth are completely out of the question, though there’s nothing wrong with her that would preclude some level of sexual activity with effective birth control. Birth control was an issue that mom hadn’t even thought of, or that maybe she wouldn’t need birth control because she might prefer girls.

In the end, I had only to look to my experiences in surrogate partner therapy to realize the answer. There is a movie that addresses a very similar question, “The Sessions” starring Helen Hunt. An intelligent, personable 20-something confined to an iron lung desired intimacy and sex but had little chance of finding it on his own. Hunt’s character was an early sex surrogate who was referred by a therapist the young man had contacted. Everyone should see this movie to gain insight into part of what surrogates actually do.

This young lady also has the right to someday take lovers and enjoy another’s touch. Her capacity to experience orgasm is not diminished in any way. Her condition doesn’t stop her from having the innate need for love and carnal fulfillment. There’s no reason she shouldn’t have it when she reaches the age of consent.

Regrettably, her biggest difficulty will be in finding suitable lovers. Someone who can see past her disability, someone experienced or empathic enough to properly engage but not hurt her, someone insightful and emotionally mature enough to understand what a relationship with her will entail. She may choose to employ a sex professional like me, or she might place an ad on one of the special-needs dating Websites that have cropped up. She may just want someone to help her masturbate.

In this instance, it’s her call, Mom. You cannot allow her a greater gift.

Don’t construe this as advice for your particular circumstance. In all cases, consult a qualified sex therapist if you have questions or concerns.


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