People with disabilities also have sexual needs – but they often need help. Or sex workers. A conversation with the sex educator Andrea Gehrig about sex education, Fundamental rights – and the short formula “Say stop! Go away! Get help!».
What sexual needs does a cognitively impaired person have?
Andrea Gehrig*: Like everyone else, people with cognitive disabilities have very different sexual needs. I don’t differentiate between people with and without disabilities. Even babies and children have sexual needs. Sexual needs are part of the human being from day one. They want to be satisfied like hunger and thirst. As with all people, the sexual needs of people with disabilities are unique – and not different.
How can a cognitively impaired person articulate their sexual needs?
Gehrig: This is a difficult topic for many people. People with disabilities have to articulate their sexual needs because they are dependent on assistance. Be it finding a partner, going to a store to buy lube, finding a sex worker, or putting on a condom during intercourse.
Frank Fahrenholz and Lea Schreiber practice new steps for improvisational dance.
“The accompanying person must not evaluate the sexual preferences of the disabled person.”
So does an impaired person necessarily have to share very intimate needs with their caregiver?
Gehrig: These situations require a lot of trust and sensitivity. Above all, it requires acceptance on the part of the accompanying person. This may not evaluate the sexual preferences of the disabled person. And it needs sexual education.
How do you recognize good sexual education?
Gehrig: It’s good when sexual education isn’t normative and subjective. Sexual intercourse is only one topic among many. There is a need for addressee-oriented materials for knowledge transfer that meet the special needs of people with disabilities. And it needs experiences. As companions, we have to accept the diversity and differentness of sexual expression. It is often more okay than you claim for yourself as a companion.
“I ask for. But there are also misunderstandings.”
How can a companion know that they have correctly understood the sexual needs of an impaired person?
Gehrig: I’ll ask. With supported communication, for example, i.e. with the help of pictures, I can try to find out whether I am right. But there are misunderstandings here too.
How does a paraplegic person have sex?
Gehrig: You would have to ask a paraplegic person that. But I could imagine that this person refuses to answer you. Or do you want to be asked about your sexual practices?
No I do not want that. But the question is still valid because you have to deal with it in your professional environment.
“Questions about sexuality are highly personal.”
Gehrig: That’s right. But the question arises anew for every person and must be clarified with them personally.
I find it difficult to have such conversations.
Gehrig: They are challenging. Because the question arises as to how I can professionally accompany an addicted person in questions about their sexuality, which actually do not concern me, since they are very personal.
Body awareness instead of good people At Tanzbar in Bremen, people with and without disabilities dance. Marco Tiede and Marion Kohlheim at a dance improvisation.
“The aim is for the person being accompanied to be able to live as self-determined a sexuality as possible.”
What is a professional attitude?
Gehrig: The accompanying person knows their job, which is defined in the accompanying concepts. She knows her role and the legal basis. And above all, she knows her own limits. The aim is for the person who is being accompanied to be able to live as self-determined a sexuality as possible. In exchange, the best way should be found. However, there is not just one plan, but always a new, individual plan.
“A ban on pornography restricts people’s fundamental rights.”
Can an institution ban pornography?
Gehrig: Such a ban restricts the basic sexual rights of the people in this institution. Many institutions curtail fundamental rights with their concepts, often unknowingly. It is necessary for the institutions to align their concepts with fundamental rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The concepts must do justice to self-determination, participation and inclusion.
What do you think of sex workers sleeping with people with disabilities for money?
Gehrig: It’s good that this offer exists. Every institution should have a pool of assistants who can be called in for different needs. It is advisable to choose these carefully and to discuss together what is in demand and what is offered.
Who should pay for these services?
Gehrig: Those affected have to pay for it with their own money. However, there is a discussion about whether these services should not be part of the basic services for people who depend on assistance.
“There is a right to have a child.”
How do institutions deal with people with disabilities’ desire to have children?
Gehrig: “My body belongs to me” also applies to people with disabilities. Women have the right to become pregnant. Once the child is born, the authorities will intervene if the child’s welfare is at risk. So there is a right to have a child. But the right to keep the child does not exist. This topic generally triggers many different emotions and remains controversial.
“I will tell the woman that she may not be able to keep the child.”
How do you advise a woman with cognitive impairment who wants to have children?
Gehrig: These are often painful processes. I enlighten the woman about her rights, explain to her what could happen to her. I will tell her how those around her may react to this request and that she may not be able to keep the child.
Joint practice of dance figures for people with and without disabilities
What about contraception?
Gehrig: Contraception must be discussed with those affected. Fortunately, the times when people with disabilities were forcibly sterilized are over.
How do you address the issue of sexual assault?
Gehrig: I differentiate between the topics of sexuality and sexual assault. We should definitely not mix up these topics. However, good sexual education is part of the prevention of sexual assault. All people should know the following short formula: «Say stop! Go away! Get help!»
“People with disabilities experience many attacks.”
Is there sexual assault among people with disabilities in the institutions?
Gehrig: People with disabilities experience a lot of abuse, not just sexual ones. From specialists, from the family environment, among each other. The more dependent a person is, the more likely it is that they will be attacked.
* Andrea Gehrig (42) is a sex educator, supervisor and conflict clarifier. She advises organizations and institutions on how to deal with the issue of sexuality and how to prevent abuse. She is the managing director of the Stöckenweid Foundation and has an event on the subject at the Paulus Academy in Zurich «Sexuality and disability: dealing with love, friendship and sexuality» directed.
© Catholic Media Center, 07/04/2022
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