Sunday, June 29, 2008

Consent under watchful eyes

Over at the Curvature there is a very interesting post on the case of a son separating his father (95) from a woman (82) who had become his lover in the old people's home that they shared. Things blew up after he apparently walked in on them whilst she was, um, having "dinner beneath the bridge". Because both the father and his new friend both had dementia the son split up the couple, making his father's choices for him.

Cara says that "I feel that everyone has a right to sex, albeit one that stops at another person’s right to not have sex. I don’t feel that’s something that ends with old age or with disability." Well, I'm not going to get pedantic about the "right" to have sex but I totally agree that no one should have the "right" to stop others having consensual sex.

But the issue becomes clouded when we bring in other factors. There are groups such as OAPs, disabled people or kids[1] that we are meant to see as completely desexualised. However, just because respectable society pretends someone is not sexually active does not actually make it so. The issue becomes even more "horrifying" when the participants are not all from the particular desexualised group (issues with an 85 year old woman with a 22 year old man anyone?).

One of the comments under the original post talks about how a son and his wife decided not to take a mother's vibrator with her to the OAP home even though she was asking for it and getting quite distressed. Old women, mums no less, just can't be allowed to be sexual beings. I think you get this quite a lot when real flesh and blood people come into contact with those who are both there to "care" for you and effectively make decisions for you, no matter what the touchy feely PR might say.

I think it can become particularly difficult when the ability to give consent is impaired. It's clearly right to have a concept of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour on the part of staff, "service users" and their families. But as one comment put it, this leads to a situation where people become "touch starved" and that can't be good for you. In other words perhaps protecting someone can become abusive when official policies become the way you have to live your life.

I used to work with people with learning disabilities and mental health problems and the issue of consent was something that came up quite regularly. After all my job only existed because some people find it difficult to make decisions for themselves without either doing themselves serious harm or behaving in a way that is dangerous or very unpleasant to others. I was there to help people live as nice a life as possible whilst protecting society from some of the worst aspects of their challenging behaviour.

Often that meant doing things that the "client" does not want the worker to do, or stopping the client from doing things they wanted to do - in their interests and in the interests of those they might harm or distress. There were clear cases where this role was overstepped and became an exercise in power over someone more vulnerable than the worker(s). There were also cases where ethical decisions that had to be taken were intolerably difficult.

For instance, a young couple with learning disabilities where the man was basically a bit of a git. No, more than that, he was a horrible person - and, such is the way with these things sometimes, the woman wanted to keep going out with him despite the fact that he was fleecing her of her money and she was very, very unhappy due to his various cruelties.

Absolutely no one *wanted* her to go out with him and although people often spoke to her about it (perhaps too often in my opinion, putting her under a pressure she found difficult to cope with) because she continued to want to continue their relationship it had to be "supported".

Unfortunately I think that was the right decision. Whilst I'd love to have the power to break up relationships that I thought were *wrong* I just don't have the right to make that kind of life chaning decision for someone, even when their ability to make their own decisions were hampered.

The thing is, an institution that forbids you to be sexual can't abolish your sexuality by edict, but what it will do, without any doubt, is effect how you see your own sexuality. That it's wrong, or something that only be done in secret, or something that you learn not to talk about with those who have power over you. It can also make it a source of rebellion, leading to extremes of anti-social behaviour. The sexuality does not disappear, but the message is that this is something that is disapproved of and verbotten.

It's my belief that in secure units and other places where people are held for "their own good" the staff are at far more risk of institutionalisation than service users. There is a whole unconscious process of manufacturing the consent of their charges, often for the best of motives but ultimately breaching the boundaries of a professional relationship. We stray into denying the ability of fellow human beings to try to have a half-fulfilling sex life because our institutions don't fit to you - you have to fit to them.

[1] I thought about taking kids out of this equation - but then thought nope, it's true so let's leave it in. My caveat is that there are issues involved that I'm not dealing with here, I am not arguing that kids have an adult sexuality nor do I think it's appropriate for adults to have sex with children. So there.

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