Sexual Abuse: the myths and the reality

Shay Caffrey, Bob McCormack, Ann Power and Denise Kavanagh This article is based on a paper given by Shay Caffrey and Bob McCormack at a recent Pavilion Conference in Dublin.


There have been many myths over the centuries relating to the sexuality of people with intellectual disabilities. The image has varied from the asexual ‘holy innocent’, to the uncontrolled hyper-sexual predator. It seems that each generation has invented and re-invented these various myths.

In researching the area of sexual abuse and people with intellectual disabilities, we found evidence that challenges many of these modern myths. Here we examine eight of the most common myths.

Myth 1: ‘Sexual abuse doesn’t happen to people with intellectual disabilities’
Many members of the public think that the person’s disability somehow insulates them from sexual abuse. Who would abuse a person with a disability, they ask. Another often unspoken view is that many individuals with disabilities are not seen as physically attractive and so wouldn’t be abused. They are so closely supervised it is difficult for abusers to gain access to them, goes another line of thinking. Unfortunately, the reality is very different.

People with intellectual disabilities are at least 3 times more likely to be sexually abused than those who don’t have disabilities. (Sullivan and Knutson 2000)

Some reasons:

  • They have multiple carers.
  • They may need intimate care.
  • They are less able to resist or avoid the abuser.
  • They often have communication difficulties and so can’t report what has happened.

Myth 2: ‘It doesn’t happen in our Service’
Many families and staff are willing to believe that sexual abuse occurs. However, they may also believe it happens elsewhere—in another part of the country, city or other services, perhaps, but not in their own backyard or under their own noses.

From looking at the research, we guestimate that more than 100 episodes of sexual abuse of adults with intellectual disabilities occur each year in the Republic of Ireland.
Adults: 100+ episodes per year in Ireland; 1400 per year in the UK

But …

  • under-reporting – poor investigating
  • lack of prosecutions – few convictions

Myth 3: ‘Sexual abuse tends to occur in public toilets or in dark lanes’
So many people have been raised on the myth that sexual abuse occurred mainly in these places. As children growing up we were warned not to go to particular toilets. So what did many of us do? We would go to those places to find out why we should not go there in the first place! Dark lanes or parks were other locations often mentioned.

There is no doubt that dangers do exist in some of these places. However, a very small proportion of sexual abuse occurs in these locations. The facts that we uncovered show that most abuse occurs in ordinary settings as set out below:

In the Family Home 37% In the Day Service setting 23% At Leisure Facilities or during Leisure Activities 14% In the Residential Facility 10%

Myth 4: ‘Stranger – Danger’
For so long the belief that ‘strangers’ were the primary source of danger was all-pervasive. This ‘stranger’ was also supposed to look strange! The weirdo in a dirty trench coat was one image; the dirty old man who hung around lanes was another of many images. We were told not to get into cars with strangers, take sweets from strangers or talk to strangers.

As the evidence came in we began to realise how mistaken this concept was. The overwhelmingly number of perpetrators were people well known to the victim.

Again, we must realise that strangers do sexually abuse people! However, the people most likely to abuse are those known to the victim.
Abused by a peer: 56%
Abused by a relative: 24%
Abused by staff: 9%
Abused by a familiar person: 8%
Abused by a volunteer: 2%
Abused by a stranger: 1%
Don’t know: 3%

Myth 5: ‘Lock up your daughters’
Once sexual abuse of people with disabilities was ‘discovered’ in the 1980s, the main focus in subsequent years was on protecting young girls. Girls and young women were seen as the most likely target of sexual abuse. The fact that females could become pregnant also heightened this protectiveness. General awareness did not see boys and young men as equally vulnerable. But as investigation after investigation has revealed, males with intellectual disabilities are every bit as vulnerable to sexual abuse as females. The present research found:

  • Almost half of the adult victims were male!
  • Commonly the abuser exploits a power imbalance
  • Abusers are more able, or older, or male, or in a caring (controlling) role
  • Victims are less-able communicators, or have physical or sensory disabilities.

All people with intellectual disabilities, both male and female, are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Myth 6: ‘Only the young and good looking are vulnerable’
Some years ago a man was caught by the Gardaí while attempting to sexually abuse a women with an intellectual disability. While being interviewed he said, ‘I only go for the young and good looking ones.’

Often people have this myth in their minds without realising it. Hence, people may be less vigilant with the older or less attractive person.

Staff may think that the ‘beautiful are more vulnerable.’ However, people of various ages, from children to people in their mature years have been sexually abused. People with varying levels of physical attractiveness have also been sexually abused. Our research found that:

  • Children and adults of varied ages and severity of disability are abused.
  • Various age levels, attractiveness levels and different levels of intellectual disability are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Myth 7: ‘People with intellectual disabilities are ever only the victims, never the perpetrators of abuse’
This is a variation on the ‘Holy Innocents’ myth. While many readers will be aware of the vulnerability of people with intellectual disability to sexual abuse, they may be shocked to learn that some people with intellectual disability are capable of being perpetrators of sexual abuse. Victimhood may be easy to understand, but seeing some people with intellectual disability as potential perpetrators is challenging to them.

The facts gleaned by this research show that people with intellectual disabilities are perpetrators of abuse, and some are repeat abusers:
Total confirmed episodes of sexual abuse: 118
Episodes where people with ID were victims: 81
Episodes where people with ID were perpetrators: 37
1-in-3 people with ID who abuse, re-abuse

However, it should be noted the nature of the abuse perpetrated by people with intellectual disability was significantly less invasive than the sexual abuse perpetrated by family members and staff.

Myth 8: ‘Staff are the ones to detect abuse’
Many organisations spend significant resources training staff to detect and report abuse. This is essential and of great importance. But it is equally essential and equally important to educate people with intellectual disability and their families to deal with the whole area of prevention and detection of sexual abuse. We should not rely solely on staff to detect abuse.

The results below make interesting reading. The first information most often comes from the victim or their family. We need to be listening and alert!

Early disclosure of abuse was by:
The victim: 42%
A relative: 25%

Our beliefs and attitudes often determine what we do and how we do it. Many families, staff and organisation have been influenced by these myths, leaving people with disabilities more vulnerable to abuse.

Basing our protection strategies on the facts will provide better protection for those we care about.

We must replace myths with knowing the reality. This means accepting that the sexual abuse of people with disabilities is more common than we thought; that it may be happening to people we love and care about; that it is more likely to be inflicted by people the person knows; that young and old, boys as well as girls, the less attractive as well as the attractive, are all vulnerable to abuse.

By bringing the risk of abuse out into the open, by educating people with disabilities and their families as well as staff, by understanding that people with disabilities themselves may also be abusers—by knowing the facts—we can best protect people from abuse.

Myths can mystify and confuse us. Real evidence can help inform and direct us.


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