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How can women with learning difficulties be empowered around relationships?

Week after week, in a church hall in the East End of London, Tae Catford leads a group of women with learning difficulties. They’re there to feel more confident about themselves and to understand how to navigate relationships, both social and sexual.

This is a ground-breaking course: almost certainly the first of its kind in the UK, as far as Catford has been able to establish in her painstaking research. The course grew, organically, out of observations that disability activists Dr Ju Gosling and Julie Newman made while running arts-based activities for the social enterprise Together! 2012.

They had seen that while women with learning difficulties were being expected to navigate their lives with increased amounts of personal freedom, they were not being given any of the tools to protect themselves from potential harm.

“The course very much comes out of looking at social relationships and saying, ‘You may be able to make a sexual relationship if you can make social relationships, but you can be vulnerable in certain situations,’” says Gosling. “We wanted women to understand when it was OK for someone to touch them, for instance.”

Independent futures

Catford has seen many women suffer because previous generations of support workers, social care professionals and charities have not always met their needs. “There was an older generation [of women with learning difficulties], where it was assumed that they were not sexual, and they did not have protection,” she says. “Surprise, surprise, things happened, and they went through abortions or had children taken away, and now they are in their 50s and they don’t understand what happened to them as teenagers.”

The people who are younger may have more freedom, she says, but how do you negotiate the difficulties around those freedoms?

Catford, a softly spoken woman, puts the women at ease as we sit in a circle, introducing ourselves. The course uses both easy-to-read text and pictures, and art activities are deployed towards the end of the session to allow the information to
sink in.

As Catford explains the black-and-white photo of “women’s private parts”, there are light-hearted groans at the graphic details. One woman describes it as “disgusting”, but Catford says it’s important to see it.

“It’s difficult to see without a mirror,” she says, adding: “Has anyone heard of the clitoris?” before explaining its function and going on to talk about masturbation and stressing that it’s OK to gently touch your own private parts. This leads on to a discussion about a lap-dancing club in Belgium that one participant saw through a window, before everyone has a break for refreshments.

Other course modules cover relationships and power, being safe on public transport, male body parts, safe sex, periods, smoking and alcohol, going on dates, and pregnancy and abortion.

Learning lessons

The course is necessary for many reasons – the most positive being that many women with learning difficulties are no longer living in segregated institutions and are able to live fuller lives with greater freedom.

However, statistics suggest that women with learning difficulties are very likely to be sexually abused. Australian research suggests that 90 per cent of women with an intellectual disability will have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime – 68 per cent before the age of 18. A quarter of all victims of such abuse in the state of Victoria were assessed as having a disability. Canadian Research estimates that between 40 per cent and 70 per cent of all women with learning disabilities will have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. The British charity Women’s Aid reports that disabled women per se are twice as likely as non-disabled women to be assaulted or sexually abused.

Recent cases coming to light in the UK (e.g. in Rochdale and Peterborough) suggest that girls and women with learning difficulties are still being systematically targeted for sexual abuse by some gangs of men, partly because they are seen as unreliable witnesses in court and therefore the chances of the abusers escaping justice are relatively high. The sexual abuse of disabled women remains a hidden scandal worldwide, and women are rarely given the tools they need – such as sex education – to protect themselves.

Despite these grim statistics, there has been some resistance to the course, says Catford. Although support workers, parents and charities all pay lip service to the need for sex education for women with learning disabilities, many shy away when it comes to actually doing it.

“People will say ‘Yes, that’s great’, but then, ‘You can’t teach that. Can you skim the surface of that topic?’” says Catford. “I need to deal with some difficult conversations. There is a real conflict there in people’s minds…I think that’s a Peter Pan thing – in some people’s mind, some people with learning difficulties are stuck at the age of, say, ten. But they are not; they are women.”

The course is carefully tailored to the participants’ individual needs. For example, there was a pair of siblings who, looking for relationships, wanted to meet two siblings of the opposite sex. Another woman thought that she had to have sex with anyone who asked her, and Catford wants her to know this isn’t the case.

“For, say, half the participants, it’s just about starting the conversation about what it means to be a woman, sowing the seeds of the idea of what it means to be in a relationship,” she says. “For others, who are in a relationship, it’s about working out what is good [and] how to clarify things.”

“It’s personal for me,” says Catford. “I wish I had been on a course like this when I was 18.”

Although the My Body, My Relationships course has now ended, Together! 2012 can be commissioned to deliver the course in other parts of London and the South East, and to train trainers to deliver the course in other regions.

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