Numerous Australian and international studies report consistently high rates of sexual assault against people with intellectual disability (many studies are cited in French, 2007). French (2007) suggests that between 50 and 99 percent of people with intellectual and psychosocial impairments are subject to sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes. It is important to recognise that there is a particular absence of data on the abuse of people who are non-verbal, and this contributes to the difficulty of knowing the true rates of sexual assault.
Sexual violence is gendered, with women remaining the overwhelming victims of sexual assault (Murray & Powell, 2008). However, while much of the research focuses on women with intellectual and psychological disabilities, it is important to recognise that men and boys with intellectual disability are also highly vulnerable to experiencing sexual assault. Men with intellectual disability experience a greater risk of victimisation than men in the general population (Murray & Powell, 2008).
Murray and Powell (2008) suggest that, in addition to gender, the increased risk of sexual victimisation in people with intellectual disability may also be closely linked with vulnerability. Understanding vulnerability for people with intellectual disability is important, because it helps to illustrate where risks lie and how they can be reduced (for example, through teaching ‘protective behaviour’). However, a singular emphasis on vulnerability places the responsibility for stopping sexual assault in the hands of the individual themselves, and neglects the wider society’s social responsibility to value the lives and experiences of people with intellectual disability and to ‘detoxify’ environments that make people with disability vulnerable to sexual assault (French, 2007). For example, when a person is sexually assaulted at their home, by another resident who also has an intellectual disability, blame for the assault is most likely to be attributed to the inappropriate sexualised behaviours of the residents, rather than the inappropriate co-tenancy of particular individuals (which they, themselves, have no power to change). The co-tenancy is the result of a lack of a societal recognition that people with disabilities have a right to choose whom they live with, and not be forced into unsuitable co-tenancy arrangements due to poor policy and poor resourcing.
As French (2007) notes, when compared with the general population, sexual assault against people with intellectual disability is more likely to be repeated or continuing, and is more likely to be severe or violent. In addition, people with intellectual disability are less likely to be believed if they attempt to report that an assault occurred against them.
Sexual assault is very likely to be perpetrated by a known person, in a known and familiar location such as home or the workplace (as is the case for the general population). Common perpetrators include another person with intellectual disability who shares the same living/ working/social environments, direct service providers (such as support staff, therapists and teachers), and sex offenders who seek work in residential care services because they provide increased opportunities for sexual predation (French, 2007). Sobsey (1994) argues that people’s vulnerability is further increased because our society teaches a person with disabilities to be compliant and accept anything that is done to them, without complaint, particularly from authority figures.
Due to a lack of meaningful and supportive relationships, it is not uncommon for people with intellectual disability to experience sexual assault through engaging in risky sexual behaviour in response to their strong need for companionship and relationship with others. For example, a person may accept that, in order to have their neighbour spend time with them, they need to consent to any sexual advance the neighbour makes. This may be the only way (or may be perceived by the person to be the only way) to allow them to keep the relationship with the neighbour. As is true for the general population, some people with intellectual disability who are socially isolated and in financial distress may use sex as a means to meet their everyday needs (for example, to get cigarettes, food or transport). This can place them at a much higher risk of continued sexual exploitation or sexually violent assault.
The legal complexities surrounding various responses to sexual assault can make it difficult for victims of crime who have intellectual disability to achieve justice. When both the perpetrator and the victim of a sexual assault have an intellectual disability, there can be confusion between the need to divert the offender from the criminal justice system and the need to achieve justice for the victim (French, 2007). In Queensland, the criminal code (Queensland Criminal Code Act 1899, as in force 1 July 2011, S 216) that is designed to prevent the sexual exploitation of people with intellectual disability in effect makes unlawful any sexual activity carried out with a person with intellectual disability. Within a structured service environment (such as supported accommodation), this often reduces or completely denies an individual’s right to experience and express their sexuality, due to staff fears of being a party to illegal acts. In response to this untenable situation, individual service users might seek sexual expression in unsafe environments (increasing their vulnerability to sexual assault or exploitation) or perpetrate sexual assault themselves against another person within their living environment.
Caregivers and service providers, including counselling professionals, have a responsibility to provide a multi-dimensional response to sexual assault and exploitation. It is important to respond to the individual’s trauma and provide strategies to decrease that person’s vulnerability in the future (by questioning their living arrangements, work environments and relationships). It is also important to look beyond an individual’s vulnerability to examine how our society contributes to perpetuating and intensifying people’s vulnerability. Critical reflection by service providers and caregivers, about their own beliefs about the needs, rights and capacities of people with intellectual disability, should be central to this process.