Sexuality and People with Intellectual Disabilities:
A Historical Perspective
Winifred Kempton, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., ~,3 and Emily Kahn, M.Ed. 2
Until the 1960s, the sexuality of people with mental retardation was handled by
denial and suppression. The eugenics movement of 1880-1940 led to forced
mass sterilization and the segregation of these members of our society. The
civil rights movement and the “sexual revolution” were among the catalysts for
change as was the move toward normalization and deinstitutionalization of
people with mental retardation. In the last 25 years, parents and professionals
have begun to work together to find ways to help mentally handicapped individuals
to understand their sexuality and to engage in appropriate self-affirming
sexual behaviors. We have established goals, guidelines, and curricula for sexuality
education. We have trained parents and staff and developed policies for
handling sensitive issues, such as sterilization and problematic sexual expression.
The AIDS epidemic has provided new impetus for improving education
and training in this emerging field.
KEY WORDS: history; sexuality; developmental disability.
Until about 25 years ago the sexuality of persons with intellectual disabilities
was feared and grossly misunderstood. Their sexual needs were ignored;
their sexual behavior was punished; they were randomly sterilized; they were
closeted in their homes or isolated in large institutions, segregated by sex to
~Private practice (as a consultant, lecturer, and trainer in sexuality and mental retardation).
2Consultant, Counselor, and Trainer in sexuality and mental retardation, Hall-Mercer Mental
Health/Mental Retardation Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Doctoral Student, Health Education,
Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
3Correspondence should be directed to Winifred Kempton, 330 Darby Road, C404, Haverford,
0146-1044/91/06004)093506.50/0 © 199I Human Sciences Press, Inc
prevent them from reproducing. In fact, they were actually oppressed largely
because of their sexuality (1).
However, in the late 1960s, thanks in part to the influences of the “sexual
revolution” and to a diversity of civil rights movements, the veils of ignorance
and oppression were lifted from the sexuality of people with disabilities. The
senior author is proud to have been involved in the exciting changes made
during these past 25 years, when more deep and far-reaching progress was
made than in all of the time before. We hope to put into perspective these
accomplishments by reviewing the ways society dealt with the sexuality of
people with disabilities during the past 200 years.
THE EARLY YEARS:I~6-1~0
Until the 18th century, most children with disabilities who could not be
cared for at home were locked away for life in almshouses or asylums for the
blind or insane (2). But during the “revolutionary period” in Europe and America,
ideals and practices in education followed the general trend to democracy,
including the responsibility of society to care for the needy. The ideas of
Locke, Rousseau, and other philosophers inspired the first “special education”
programs for the blind, deaf, and mentally handicapped (3).
In 1799 Jean Itard published an account of his intensive five-year attempt
to educate and socialize the “wild boy of Averyron,” who had been found
living among the animals in the forests of France. Edouard Seguin, the French
physician and educator, built upon Itard’s use of sensory training and what
would now be called “behavior modification” to begin a radical new educational
model for the treatment of young “idiots.” Seguin’s ideas gained recognition
and followers throughout Europe and America, where he helped establish
special schools to house and train “idiot” children (4).
Rapid progress followed during an all-too-short period of relative enlightenment.
In 1876, a group of physicians, calling themselves the Association of
Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons,
founded the first such professional association. (It later became the American
Association on Mental Deficiency.) This society advocated the establishment
of small schools that encouraged the development of practical skills and
fostered normal life, with the goal to train such persons for eventual return to
their homes and communities (5).
Yet, even during this time of progress, negative attitudes toward the sexuality
of the mentally handicapped and total disregard for their sexual needs did
not change. In a speech at the second session of this Association of Medical
Officers . . . . one presenter advised that the birth of offspring with mental
infirmity could be prevented by “the practice of virtue,” while another referred
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