Nathan McGrath first became interested in sex the same way many other teenagers and young adults do: through porn.
His attraction to women soon found him looking for a partner of his own, and he took to dating sites and social media.
But his family noticed a worrying trend: conversations that Nathan thought were private were appearing publicly on his Facebook account, and there was some inappropriate interaction with women online.
With a mild intellectual disability, it has been difficult for him to fully understand the right way to express his attraction and sexual interests.
His experience is part of a significant knowledge gap in many communities about how to educate disabled people about what is already a complex human issue: sex.
In the past, Nathan hadn’t had much luck with sex education. His father, Dennis, once took him to a class where the teaching was a little abstract.
“The guy came out with a big blackboard and he wrote a big ‘V’ and said that’s the female part and he wrote a big ‘P’ and he put an arrow pointing to each other and that was it,” Dennis tells Insight’s Jenny Brockie.
“It didn’t enlighten anyone at all. With Nathan's disability, it's intellectual so you can't go to an open forum and explain it in this big open manner,” says Dennis.
Luckily, Nathan’s younger brother Jarrod was uniquely qualified to help: he is a pastoral care teacher at The Woden School in Canberra, a school for children with disabilities, and part of his teaching involves taking students through the ins and outs of sexuality.
“To start best is early,” says Jarrod, explaining how every year group at the school is taught sexual safety as a core component in term one’s curriculum.
“It’s assessing that understanding of consent, putting it into different contexts and repeating it over the years in a variety of contexts,” he says.
Alongside consent, he also teaches about private and public body parts, which he says is particularly important for intellectually disabled people who require personal care.
“They need a level of understanding around public and private parts of the body and the consent involved when people do provide that personal care … because unfortunately they are vulnerable to abuse in some of those situations.”
Jarrod says helping Nathan feel comfortable expressing his desires to his family, whether relationship or sexual, is also important. In turn, Jarrod has been more open with his experiences - including the importance of contraception - to help Nathan understand normal sexual behaviour.
“The guy came out with a big blackboard and he wrote a big ‘V’ and said that’s the female part and he wrote a big ‘P’, and he put an arrow pointing to each other and that was it.”
Liz Dore is a relationships counsellor who works with people with disabilities. She saw a void in sex education and started workshops and classes for her clients.
“It’s important they understand and use these simple resources about what’s good sex, what’s bad sex, what’s legal,” she says.
“Some parents are very proactive, and that’s wonderful, but then others are referred when something goes wrong.”
Mary McMahon falls on the ‘proactive’ side of things. Her son, Charitha de Silva, is one of Dore’s patients and also identifies as gay.
“We've always been an open family and he's always felt that he could talk about sex,” says Mary, though notes his sessions with Dore and courses with FRANS Inc. have been immeasurably helpful.
She has also done her own bit, helping Charitha understand the realities of porn and managing his expectations about “the size of various bits and pieces.”
Mary, too, though, sees a gap in general education around sex for people with disabilities.
“I think it's because there's so much else that [teachers] think they need to address … I think a lot of people like to think that people with disabilities don't have any sex urges so it's not important,” she says on Insight.
Dr Kerry Arrow is a clinical psychologist with children, particularity those with disabilities, says she sees a similar mindset in her work.
“Although in Australia it is a legal requirement for every student to receive sex and relationship education, the fact is that students with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, do not receive this information and I think … there’s a perception that either people with disabilities are asexual or that they're overtly sexual,” she says.
“In fact the research shows that the more education you give people, the more likely they are to have healthier, productive and safe relationships.”
"I think a lot of people like to think that people with disabilities don't have any sex urges so it's not important.”
She says for some parents it can be quite difficult and confronting to accept the sexuality of their disabled child.
“There’s that myth of the eternal child ... they don't want to see their child with a disability as a sexual being because that opens up so many really scary issues for them.”
Education can be hard, says Arrow, but keeping it consistent, quite individualised and as concrete as possible is essential.
Insight looks at how people with serious disability negotiate sex | Catch up online now: