Sexuality and Disability

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 129–141 | Cite as

Sexuality and Disability in the Lives of Women with Intellectual Disabilities

  • Donna J. BernertEmail author
Original Paper


This ethnography explored how sexuality was experienced among 14 adult women with intellectual disabilities. Data were gathered through interviews and observations specifically to learn how the women talked about their sexuality, and how sexuality functioned in their lives. Results discussed in this article indicate that most of the women functioned within disability centered environments without having a disability identity; most women expressed an adult identity that resulted in their expectations of sexual autonomy; and most women experienced sexuality limitations because of protective policies and programs. Discussion includes implications for sexuality supports for women with intellectual disabilities.


Women Intellectual disability Sexuality Self-determinism Ethnography 



This research was funded in part by the Social Science Research Council with funding provided by the Ford Foundation. The author would like to thank Dr. Roberta Ogletree and Dr. Michaela Winchatz for their contributions.


  1. 1.
    American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Sexuality Policy Statement. Available: (2008)
  2. 2.
    The Arc of the United States. Sexuality Policy Statement. Available: (2008)
  3. 3.
    Blacher, J.: Transition to adulthood: Mental retardation, families, and culture. Am. J. Ment. Retard. 106(2), 173–188 (2001)PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jordan, B., Dunlap, G.: Construction of adulthood and disability. Ment. Retard. 39(4), 286–296 (2001)PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Field, M., Sanchez, V.: Equal Treatment for People with Mental Retardation: Having and Raising Children. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1999)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    McCarthy, M.: Sexuality and Women with Learning Disabilities. Jessica Kingsley, London (1999)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Definition of Intellectual Disability. Available: (2010)
  8. 8.
    Mandell, D., Eleey, C., Cederbaum, J., et al.: Sexually transmitted infection among adolescents receiving special education services. J. Sch. Health 78(7), 382–388 (2008)PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Cheng, M.M., Udry, J.R.: Sexual experiences of adolescents with low cognitive abilities in the US. J. Dev. Phys. Disabil. 17(2), 155–172 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Eastgate, G.: Sexual health for people with intellectual disability. Salud Publica Mex. 50(2), S255–S259 (2008)PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    May, D., Kundert, D.: Are special educators prepared to meet the sex education needs of their students? J. Spec. Educ. 29(4), 433–441 (1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Sexuality and Intellectual Disability. Available: (2010)
  13. 13.
    Servais, L., Jacques, D., Leach, R., et al.: Contraception of women with intellectual disability: prevalence and determinants. J. Intell. Disabil. Res. 46(2), 108–119 (2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Griffiths, D., Owen, F., Lindenbaum, L., et al.: Sexual policies in agencies supporting persons who have developmental disabilities: practical and implementation issues. In: Griffiths, D., Richards, D., Fedoroff, P., et al. (eds.) Ethical Dilemmas: Sexuality and Developmental Disability, pp. 77–131. NADD, New York (2002)Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Siebelink, E.M., de Jong, M.D.T., Taal, E., Roelvink, L.: Sexuality and people with intellectual disabilities: assessment of knowledge, attitudes, experiences, and needs. Ment. Retard. 44(4), 283–294 (2006)PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Emerson, R., Fretz, R., Shaw, L.: Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1995)Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Corbin, J., Strauss, A.: Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, 3rd edn. Sage, Thousand Oaks (2008)Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Creswell, J.: Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Traditions. Sage, Thousand Oaks (2007)Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Löfgren-Mårtenson, L.: “May I?” About sexuality and love in the new generation with intellectual disabilities. Sex. Disabil. 22(3), 197–207 (2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Arias, B., Ovejero, A., Morentin, R.: Love and emotional well-being in people with intellectual disabilities. Span. J. Psychol. 12(1), 204–216 (2009)PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Healy, E., McGuire, B.E., Evans, D.S., et al.: Sexuality and personal relationships for people with an intellectual disability. Part 1: service user perspectives. J. Intell. Disabil. Res. 53(II), 905–912 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Cuskelly, M., Gilmore, L.: Attitudes to Sexuality Questionnaire (individuals with an intellectual disability): scale development and community norms. J. Intellect. Dev. Dis. 32(3), 214–221 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Block, P.: Sexuality, fertility, and danger: twentieth-Century images of women with cognitive disabilities. Sex. Disabil. 18(4), 239–254 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Isler, A., Tas, F., Beytut, D., et al.: Sexuality in adolescents with intellectual disabilities. Sex. Disabil. 27, 27–34 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Bazzo, G., Nota, L., Soresi, S., et al.: Attitudes of social service providers towards the sexuality of individuals with intellectual disability. J. Appl. Res. Intellect. 20, 110–115 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Hollomotz, A.: ‘May we please have sex tonight?’ People with learning difficulties pursuing privacy in residential group settings. Br. J. Learn. Disabil. 37, 91–97 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Rogers, L., Swadener, B.: Introduction. In: Rogers, L., Swadener, B. (eds.) Semiotics & Disability: Interrogating Categories of Difference, pp. 1–18. State University of New York Press, New York (2001)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Health Education and Promotion, School of Health SciencesKent State UniversityKentUSA

Personalised recommendations