The Respect Symposium was held in Killarney in November. Sponsored by the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies in partnership with the Irish Sex Education Network, the theme was Relationships Ethics Sexuality Person Centred Education Consent and Training (RESPECT). The Federation are producing a booklet on the proceedings, which included over sixty speakers.
One aspect of this ground-breaking symposium, a session on Sex Education Practice was particularly profound. Cynthia Silva, Western Care, gave an emotive presentation on the right to intimacy, including footage from a video made by service users who paralleled being intimate with winning the lottery. Helen Guinan, National Council for Curriculum Assessment, reviewed the NCCA draft guidelines, including a CD-ROM, and promoted them as a useful resource. David Stewart, Principal of the Shepherd School in Nottingham, described sex education as starting very early in the lifespan. Leslie Kerr-Edwards used participation and group work in her description of ‘Image in Action – A Sex and Relationship Education Programme’.
Then there was a startling departure when delegates heard from Lars Floor Andersen and Vibeke Demert from Lebh, Denmark. The approach the Danes take to sexual expression is one based on the premise that the body is to be enjoyed. Just as we in Ireland have training programmes in activities of daily living, the Danes have instruction and programmes designed to educate people in the sexual expression of their choice. Lars and Vibeke came to the symposium with teaching aids which included an instructional video for teaching people with intellectual disabilities how to masturbate and a video of heterosexual lovemaking.
In delivering such programmes they are very mindful of the fine line between promoting one’s sexual expression and leaving people vulnerable to exploitation. They employ sex therapists, as we would employ behaviour therapists, play therapists or speech and language therapists. In the same way that we use occupational therapy to help us position people for activities of daily living, they use assistive devices in helping people to reach full sexual expression.
Because of their culture and ethos, they do not struggle with conflicts about seeing sexual expression as a format for procreation. Birth control, as they see it, is useful in allowing people to enjoy an active sex life without the concern about unwanted pregnancy.
Lars also pointed out that in Denmark prostitution is not illegal provided that people engaging in the oldest profession have bi-annual health checks and that they pay income tax on their earnings. The Danes boast of having the lowest rates of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted disease and use of psychotropic medication in the treatment of challenging behaviour for people with intellectual disabilities.
The information from our colleagues in Denmark was presented in a professional, matter-of-fact style. It was well received by the attendees, who by and large found the presentation very interesting and liberating. While Irish society may not, at this juncture, be ready to emulate some of the information imparted at this forum, the discussion certainly raised issues about
- our obligation to help people in all aspects of their daily living, including sexual expression;
- our need to improve our listening skills when it comes to what people with intellectual disabilities are telling us about how they want to live their lives;
- the work we need to do to disentangle our moral codes, belief systems and attitudes when we are endeavouring to promote self-determination in sexual expression.