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Sex, dating and boyfriends: When your daughter with an intellectual disability grows up.

Four years ago, Brittany McCarthy got on a bus.

It was late in the day, and as she travelled through her familiar city, she fell asleep.

At 8pm, she rang her mum, Victoria, “absolutely beside herself”. She had ended up at the bus depot, had no idea where she was, and didn’t know what she was meant to do.

Ending up alone in an unfamiliar place is a distressing scenario for any young person. But for Brittany, who has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic developmental disorder that causes an intellectual disability or learning problems, as well as unique personality characteristics and physical features, missing her bus stop was more significant.

Now 23, Brittany is more vulnerable than other women her age.

So as she grows up, the question becomes: what if the scary bus depot is a date that’s gone in a direction she didn’t anticipate? What if it’s a social situation with the opposite sex that she can’t read? What if it’s a question she can’t answer?

Brittany’s mum knew when her daughter became a teenager that navigating these uncertainties would be inevitable. So when Brittany was 13, she took her to see Liz Dore – a counsellor who specialises in helping people with intellectual disabilities develop friendship and relationship skills and navigate their sexuality.

SBS’s fourth season of their documentary series Untold Australia begins with Liz Dore hosting a group session with eight adults about dating skills and sex.

Watch a snippet from Love Me As I Am, the first episode of Untold Australia season four, below. Post continues after video. 

Video by SBS

There’s Johnny, who has Down syndrome and wants a girlfriend like Delta Goodrem. There’s Adelaide, who has Aspergers and an acute sensitivity to noise which makes social events difficult. There’s also Alex and Ryan, a couple who both have Down syndrome and whose families describe their relationship as a fairytale.

Then there’s Brittany.

Speaking to Mamamia, Brittany’s mum Victoria says she wants her daughter to eventually have a loving, sexual relationship. “She’s earned it,” she says. “Everyone has that right.”

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It’s a philosophy Liz Dore passionately stands by, rejecting criticisms about teaching sex and safe sex to people with intellectual disabilities. “My argument is that it’s their right to have sex and that knowledge and awareness around relationships and sexuality is power,” she says.

Dating

Johnny sits in Liz Dore’s group session as a 23-year-old who’s never been on a date.

He wants to love someone. He wants to have sex. But as these topics are brought up, he giggles and covers his face.

Speaking to Adelaide who is sitting beside him, he asks her what her favourite movie is, as well as her favourite food. After she responds, there’s silence.

“It’s your turn now,” he says.

One of Liz Dore’s strategies for teaching the people in her group to date, is what she calls ‘dateable dances’. Everyone dresses up and with their parents, they go to a dance. Johnny wears his gold shirt, and black pants. He loves to dance.

Love me as I am sbs
Johnny at the dateable dance. Image via SBS.

During his on-screen dateable dance, he spends the entire evening with one woman. At the end of the evening, he's asked whether he got her number. Unfortunately, he forgot.

But there's another woman, 33-year-old Jessica, sitting nearby. Johnny's dad suggests he ask her out. He does, and a few days later, they meet for a milkshake. Jessica's dad is there. Johnny forgets his wallet and Jessica has to pay.

Speaking about her daughter, Brittany's mum says the problem is that "the behaviours required for safe dating and the pursuit of love are things we take for granted".

"Things like, do you hold hands? Do you exchange phone numbers? Do you kiss on the first date, what about sex? It's got to be taught."

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Brittany has had three or four boyfriends, and "it was just diabolical to start with".

"She'd meet someone, she'd really like them, they'd really like her, but they'd just blow up," Victoria says. "Communication was difficult, he'd text her a thousand times a day, she'd start texting back and was nervous that he was bombarding her. He'd text her at work and she wasn't sure whether to respond."

It's a world she's still learning to navigate, which comes with all kinds of risks she can never be completely protected from.

Sex

When Liz Dore lays out a series of photographs in front of her group, she asks which of them reflect what each person wants from a relationship.

Johnny is quick to indicate that the photo of two adults holding each other in bed is the one he wants. He'd like a girlfriend to have sex with.

Dore is entirely supportive of his response. "People with disabilities can be vulnerable," she says, "but they have the same rights as anyone else".

While Brittany is in a relationship with 22-year-old Harry, she doesn't think she's ready to have sex.

After attending the dateable dance, an interviewer asks the couple what's next for them.

"In five months time we'll be sleeping together. In five months time," Harry says.

"Ah, not yet," Brittany responds.

love me as I am
Brittany and her boyfriend, Harry. Image via SBS.

"I said five months time," Harry repeats.

"Yeah, but not yet," Brittany says.

There's a pause, and Brittany tells the interviewer, "I'm feeling a little bit nervous".

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It's Brittany's openness and honesty that makes all the difference when it comes to the area of sex and consent. Her mum says they've always had an "open dialogue," and "the door is always open for her to come to me and say, 'Mum, I'm scared by this'."

There's still room for ambiguity, however.

Speaking to Mamamia a few months after filming, Victoria tells of what happened when Brittany got a new boyfriend, who her mother had never met. Brittany called her before one of their dates.

"He told me he really likes massages and wants to give me a massage," Brittany explained. "Is that OK Mum if he gives me a massage?"

Victoria had to explain that there's massages and massages, and it's important to know what you're comfortable with and communicate it.

Luckily, it ended up being a G-rated massage.

Having kids

During filming for their episode of Untold Australia, couple Ryan and Alex became engaged.

"Ryan opposed to me," Alex excitedly tells the camera.

She shows off her ring, which features a large purple stone.

Ryan and Alex are outwardly affectionate with each other, holding hands, cuddling and kissing in public. And towards the end of the episode, they share a secret.

They want to have a baby.

"Don't tell my mum," Alex says.

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Alex and Ryan. Image via SBS.

Alex's mum, Maria, is adamant that there is no way the couple will be having a child. "It'll be up to Glen and I to raise it and we're ageing and we can't possibly raise it," she says. "They can have a dog."

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It's a question that raises heated debate in the wider community. Is it infantalising and unfair to deny someone the right to have children? Or is it an issue of practicality, which deserves to be the decision of the individuals who may very well end up being the child's carer?

Brittany, on the other hand, isn't interested in having kids at this point. "Brittany quite openly says: 'Mum, I don't want children,' says Victoria. "[She says] I don't want children because it's hard enough me trying to organise myself and I've still got so much to learn and I still make lots of mistakes."

But she acknowledges that "what she says now and what she says in five years time could be vastly different".

Each person with an intellectual or learning disability will face their own challenges as they navigate dating, sex and the myriad of uncertainties that come with it.

Victoria says when you have a child with a disability who is growing up, "you need a network".

"You need to wrap a network of safety around them. It's not to confine them, or wrap them in cotton wool, but you need a team approach.

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Brittany with her mum, Victoria, and two younger sisters. Image via SBS.

"You need open communication with your daughter or your son so that they feel comfortable talking about anything. You've got to weave those sensitive conversations in from an early age so they know it's not taboo and it's not dirty or smutty, it's just life."

"Then," she says, "you find the Liz Dore's of this world."

Love Me As I Am, the first episode of Untold Australia season four, premieres Wednesday, 7 August at 8.30pm on SBS. 

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