Monday 24 June 2019

Carol Hunt: Time every citizen had right to a sex life

Mandy's story shows those with intellectual disabilities need new law on relationships, writes Carol Hunt

When Mandy Finlay was a child her mother was asked if she would be putting her on the contraceptive pill when she got older. Frieda Finlay reacted like most mothers of a seven-year-old girl; she was horrified. What parent wants to think about all the messiness and embarrassment of sex education, teenage desires, heartbreak and the worry of safe sex when their child is still only a baby?

That was 32 years ago. Today, as Mandy prepares to celebrate her 40th birthday, she enjoys being godmother to her niece but insists that she's not having children: "Too much like hard work!"

And like so many other women, her complaint about her current boyfriend is that he seems to want more space while she's ready for commitment.

One would assume that as one half of a couple in a loving relationship, and as we're not living in Iran, Mandy is entitled to enjoy an intimate sexual life with her partner.

Well, prepare to be shocked.

Not only is it socially unacceptable for Mandy to have sex with her boyfriend, it is also a crime. And if she gets married, she is not legally protected against rape.

And yes. Mandy is an Irish citizen living in Ireland.

Oh, I forgot to mention; when Mandy was born, her parents were told that she had Down Syndrome.

Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, 1993, criminalises sexual relations between two adults with intellectual disability (that come within the definition of impairment) who are not married. This includes mild disability and autism. And in Ireland, the 'Scheme of Mental Capacity Bill 2008' sets out the various provisions relating to assessing the capacity of vulnerable people to make specific decisions, excluding the capacity to consent to have sexual relations. Presumably to protect the person against abuse (although it's limited to sexual intercourse), but rather damning on a civil rights basis.

On last Wednesday's Tom Dunne Show (Newstalk), Frieda Finlay explained that when she heard that she was terrified for her beautiful daughter. Initially, she said, she had no intention of having anything to do with the world of disability, saying that parents of children born with intellectual disabilities "need a kind of bereavement"; they didn't have the child they expected to have and that there was a lot of "guilt" and "sadness" -- "usually about yourself" she added. "I don't think Mandy has ever been sad about herself!"

There are, of course, different ranges of ability within the Down Syndrome spectrum and, like the parents of most children, Frieda wanted to bring out the best in her child.

She was faced with one paediatrician who told her that Mandy "wouldn't amount to much but wouldn't cause us much trouble" and by a child psychologist who chided her with (when Mandy was six), "some mothers have notions about their children".

But, as she told Dunne, it was when Mandy hit puberty that she got the biggest shock. Because, like the rest of society in general, Frieda had never considered the fact that her daughter would develop desires and emotional and sexual needs, like all her peers.

"I didn't want to go there, she was always going to have the mind of a child -- I was proved wrong in that! -- and wouldn't have the need for a sexual relationship," said Frieda.

The first clue that Mandy was going to act on her teenage desires came, when one day out walking together, mother and daughter were approached by two men and Mandy immediately turned around and started following them. Frieda was shocked: "Nobody told her to do that . . . ordinary teenagers would give them the eye but with a bit of discrimination."

As Mandy was only 14 or 15 at the time Frieda decided: "Oh, this can't happen. . . We won't tell her any more about it (sex) because the more she knows the more she's going to be doing it -- which is absolute and total rubbish."

Frieda had thought that Mandy, because of her disability, was never going to want anything in the way of sexuality. She admitted: "This was very wrong of me," as her daughter needed "as much education as any other normal teenager. . . she needed to understand the mechanical facts of life. . . but also to know the emotional side of her sexuality".

And Mandy was "like the rest of her friends having boyfriends in the centres, and everybody knew they had boyfriends and the staff treated it as a joke".

Frieda didn't think it was a joke. "Mandy was entitled to have romance in her life -- all my daughters were.

"(But) when you talked about sex it was in the context of abuse. . . pregnancies, and parents said 'we'll have none of that now!'. . . but talking about romance was easier than talking about sexuality."

Frieda learned to do what most parents of teenagers now know is the right approach; she invited Mandy's boyfriend over for coffee, then she got to know his parents.

And sometimes boyfriends can provide incentives that parents can't.

"When she (Mandy) was picked for the Special Olympics, I appointed him as her coach and I couldn't see them for dust!"

That relationship lasted four years and Frieda said that though Mandy was heartbroken when it finished she's over it and dragging the current beau to house viewings, although she does say she's too young to get married.

Legally, this well-rounded, funny, ambitious woman isn't allowed to have a sexual relationship with her partner or decide to take contraception legally. If she inherits money, or wins the Lotto, she will be made a Ward of Court (Lunacy Act 1871) with few civil rights left to her.

The list goes on.

The much-needed new legal capacity legislation has not yet been enacted (though Minister Shatter has indicated it is coming), which government considers a pre-requisite to the eventual (we live in hope) ratification of the UN Convention on the rights of people with disabilities.

So, while every other lamppost in the country boasts a poster advocating just how much we all love and care for our children and need to listen to their voices, acknowledge their rights -- the facts show that it's just more lip service; they don't mean all children. Clearly some are more loved, more equal, than others. And when they grow up they have even fewer rights.

Shouldn't this qualify as a civil rights issue of our generation?

Sunday Independent

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