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Disability and Sex

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One of the stranger episodes of Hot Girls: Turned On recounts the bizarre relationship between a cam girl named ‘Alice Frost’ and an Australian man named ‘Tom.’ That Tom has problems is apparent almost immediately. A self-confessed nerd, Tom admits that he has turned to camming because his social awkwardness has made it difficult for him to form intimate relationships in real life. Compounding Tom’s problems are his slovenly appearance, unhealthy body size, and low self-esteem.

One does not need to be a psychologist to figure out that Tom is probably suffering from an undiagnosed condition that makes it difficult for him to socialise with others. And one certainly doesn’t need to be a psychologist to guess that Tom may be suffering from an undiagnosed case of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD)

Both ASD and NVLD are neurodevelopmental disorders. Those who suffer from these disorders tend to be tremendously gifted in one area whilst remaining developmentally delayed in others. This dichotomy causes something of a dilemma, especially when such individuals develop a sense of sexual awareness. The traditional answer to this problem has been to ignore it entirely. A sufferer of ASD or NVLD is presumed to be either asexual or incapable of forming healthy sexual identities. Such attitudes regard sufferers as less human than everybody else.

Furthermore, such attitudes create more problems than it solves. Human sexuality is a broad topic with individual, sociocultural, and ecological dimensions. It is hard enough for a normal person to contend with all of these factors, let alone someone who suffers from a disability. Sufferers of ASD or NVLD must also contend with the limitations their disabilities place upon them. Like all adolescents, a teenage sufferer must undergo the changes of puberty, develop their own sexual identity, and form intimate relationships. They are certainly not helped by a society that regards their sexuality as something that needs to be purged.

There are three views on the sexualities of sufferers of ASD and NVLD. The first is that sufferers have no desire for sexual relations whatsoever. The second is that they are childlike and therefore dependent. And the third is that they have difficulty in controlling their urges. Aside from being wrong, these attitudes have very real consequences. One is that sufferers are often ignorant of much of human sexuality because they have received inadequate sex education. Their difficulties in socialising with others, compounded by awkward social situations, means that sufferers often fail to develop the skills that would help them form intimate relationships.  More darkly, such attitudes also mean that suffers are also more vulnerable to becoming victims of manipulation, exploitation, and sexual abuse. A 2012 study by Shandra and Chowdhurry found that girls suffering from mild disabilities were more likely to lose their virginity to a stranger than to a regular partner. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that much of their vulnerabilities arise from a lack of education on human sexuality.

The biggest hurdle sufferers of ASD and NVLD must overcome when trying to form intimate relationships is a lack of social grace. This deficiency hinders sufferers on three fronts. First, many of the features of ASD and NVLD can make it difficult for sufferers to initiate dates, remembers plans, and maintain relationships. Sufferers can be inflexible, self-centred, and emotionally dysregulated – hardly a recipe for a good relationship. Second, many sufferers have received negative social judgement from others because of their social awkwardness. Sufferers often fail to grasp to subtle intricacies that govern social interactions. This can lead to odd behaviour. A sufferer may attempt to overcompensate for their social grace by staring too long, speaking on unrelated or inappropriate topics, or by avoiding social situations altogether. Third, many sufferers lack the experience necessary to discover their own sexuality. Sufferers often find themselves socially isolated. Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that they will be granted the opportunity to explore and develop their sexuality like other people.

Attitudes on the sexualities of sufferers of neurodevelopmental disorders need to change. Our current attitude makes sufferers of disorders like ASD and NVLD more vulnerable to victimisation, hinders their sexual development, and prevents them from forming meaningful, intimate relationships. Sex education needs to be broadened to include all aspects of human sexuality, sufferers need to be taught how to recognise potentially dangerous situations, and better educational and therapeutic services need to be provided.