April 2011


Women with intellectual disabilities

A study of sexuality, sexual abuse and protection skills

Volume 40, No.4, April 2011 Pages 226-230

Gillian Eastgate

Mieke van Driel

Nicholas G Lennox

Elly Scheermeyer


Sexual abuse and abusive relationships are known to be especially common in people with intellectual disability. This study explored how women with intellectual disability understand sex, relationships and sexual abuse, the effects of sexual abuse on their lives, and how successfully they protect themselves from abuse.


Semistructured narrative interviews with nine women with mild intellectual disability in Queensland, Australia. Interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, coded and analysed qualitatively.


Major themes that emerged were: sexual knowledge and sources of knowledge; negotiating sexual relationships; declining unwanted sexual contact; self protection strategies; sexual abuse experiences; and sequelae of sexual abuse.


Most participants reported unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. They described sequelae such as difficulties with sex and relationships, and anxiety and depression. They described themselves as having inadequate self protection skills and difficulty reporting abuse and obtaining appropriate support. Their understanding of sex was limited and they lacked the literacy and other skills to seek information independently. It is important for general practitioners to be aware of the possibility of sexual abuse against women with intellectual disability, and to offer appropriate interventions.

Anxiety, depression and relationship difficulties are common presentations in general practice and other healthcare settings. Many women with such difficulties report previous sexual abuse or previous or current abusive relationships.1 Sexual abuse is known to be very common in the community,2,3 and people with intellectual disability have been found to be at particularly high risk.4–8 People with intellectual disability experience difficulty in forming intimate relationships and are highly vulnerable to abuse in their relationships.9 Abuse may be difficult to detect in people with intellectual disability as they may lack the verbal skills to report the abuse, or may be assumed not to be sexually active.

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Correspondence afp@racgp.org.au

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