My 22-year-old daughter, who has a cognitive disability, is about to go on a trip abroad with her church group. She is looking forward to it, and my husband and I think it is a good opportunity for her, but she has never stayed away from home before, and I am worried that someone may try to take advantage of her sexually. How can I protect her?
Your concerns are understandable. People with cognitive or developmental disabilities are vulnerable, especially if their ability to make discriminating choices about sexuality is impaired, so your daughter will always need your support. Nevertheless, as an adult, she does experience desire and deserves to be respected as the young woman she is, with emerging sexuality.
Make sure that your daughter receives good quality education about sex in a clear, non-judgmental style so she feels safe to ask questions. She needs to be taught how to make appropriate sexual choices, and to be helped to understand the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex. She also needs to be taught sexual self-care, including contraception, gynaecological care (especially cervical smear tests), and aspects of self-pleasuring (such as privacy). Help her to be aware of different types of sexual liaisons - brief, long-term, and committed monogamous partnerships - and to be aware of sexual orientation differences. It's not easy to see one's daughter as a sexual being - especially if she has cognitive challenges - but you must do, in order to protect her.
· Pamela Stephenson Connolly is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist who specialises in treating sexual disorders.
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