Let’s talk about sex: How people with intellectual disability in Australia engage with online social media and intimate relationships

Judith Darragh, Louise Reynolds, Caroline Ellison, Michelle Bellon


People with intellectual disability often experience repression and control of their sexuality as they have historically been perceived as being childlike and asexual by members of society.  Such acts can be seen to contravene their Human Rights under The Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities (CRPD), which endorses the rights of people with intellectual disability to fully express their sexuality.
The purpose of this study was to explore if people with intellectual disability access internet based social media, and if so, if they use it to form relationships that express their sexuality.
Using an interpretative phenomenological approach, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 30 adults with an intellectual disability (22 males, 8 females), aged between 20 to 66 years. Participants were purposely sampled though disability #organisations.
Three themes emerged from the data: creating new friendships, maintaining existing friendships, exploring and expressing sexuality.  People with intellectual disability used a variety of personal electronic devices to access internet based social media to be socially and sexually active. Facebook was accessed to make contact with existing platonic friends, peers and interest groups to meet socially. Sexually explicit material was viewed using the internet, either as an individual activity or by couples in monogamous relationships. 
This study adds to the paucity of research examining the use of internet based social media by people with intellectual disability for sexual expression. This research revealed the people with intellectual disability exercised cyber safe practices without any explicit formal education and conducted themselves in a respectful manner.  Few participants acted in a manner that appeared to put them at risk of exploitation.

Bibliographic citation

Darragh, J., Reynolds, L., Ellison, C., & Bellon, M. (2017). Let’s talk about sex: How people with intellectual disability in Australia engage with online social media and intimate relationships. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 11(1), article 9. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2017-1-9


intellectual disability; internet based social media; relationships; sexuality; Gatekeeper

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