Otto is a 21 year old Millwall fan. He likes James Bond and Bob Marley. He loves ham pizza and holidaying in Devon. Otto is an aspiring actor, appearing in local stage versions of Macbeth and The Canterbury Tales and is soon travelling to Las Vegas on a bit of a promotional gig. Like many men of Otto’s age his dream woman is Fearne Cotton, and one day, when he is older and feels ready for the responsibility, Otto hopes to become a father.
Sound like a bit of a catch, ladies? Well apparently not, because Otto, like many young men, is struggling to find a girlfriend, and this month his mother has gone public in the search for a suitable girl for her boy.
‘Mother wants sex for son’ screamed the headlines. ‘Everyone else his age is having sex and enjoying being young adults, so why shouldn’t Otto?’ she asks. She has even been quoted as offering to fund a visit to a prostitute for Otto to lose his virginity. Which is enough to embarrass any young man, but what Lucy Baxter is trying to do is not embarrass her son but highlight society’s attitudes to learning disability. For Otto also has Down’s Syndrome and his mother believes social attitudes towards people with learning disabilities are preventing her son from having a sexual relationship.
Lucy wants her son to live a ‘normal’ life and experience all the things that ‘everyone else’ does, but the story also raises many wider questions:
What is a ‘normal’ sex life if there is such a thing?
Is every 21 year old Millwall fan enjoying a healthy sex life?
Should men automatically assume a relationship with a girlfriend will lead to sex?
Does sex have to be part of a healthy and fulfilling ‘normal’ life?
For a society so obsessed with sex, with sexual images surrounding us on television, advertising boards and magazine covers, we are strangely prudish about some aspects of sexuality. People are happy to see topless models on page 3 but recoil in horror when a woman tries to breastfeed a baby in public; men lust after semi-clad women in the pages of Nuts, FHM and Maxim, yet berate their teenage daughters for going out wearing short skirts.
In fact we are surrounded by sex – usually women, usually heterosexual and invariably without a disabled individual in sight. Yet when it is brought to our attention as something which exists outside the glossy images we see of perfect women in magazines, we shy away from the reality of sex in everyday contexts. Not everyone experiences sex. Even less experience a loving relationship. Not every relationship automatically leads to sex. Sex is a messy, complicated affair as well as a seemingly vital part of being alive. But some people are either directly or inadvertently excluded from finding this out in the first place. And this is Lucy and Otto Baxter’s point.
Lucy believes her son has every right to have ‘the same opportunities as everybody else’. This he does. But the way the story has been received in the media says a lot more about society than just our attitude to disability and sexuality. In one interview the presenter suggested to Lucy that Otto’s girlfriend would have to be a ‘very special’ girl, because Otto was a ‘very special’ son. Isn’t every son special? Doesn’t every mother want a special girl for her special son? Lucy has brought Otto up to be ‘normal’, so isn’t labelling him as ‘special’ going against this? But the judgements were not reserved for Otto. Lucy has also been judged. She is repeatedly described as ‘single’ and ‘never married’ – what relevance does this have for the story? In one report she was described as ‘a respected member’ of the Down’s Syndrome Association. Was the use of the term ‘respected’ suggesting her behaviour in other matters might not be quite so ‘respectable’? Reports have suggested Lucy is morally-lax because of her unmarried status and open attitude to sex, and both mother and son have been criticised for encouraging a sexist attitude towards women.
With a bit of luck Otto’s plight will promote a long overdue debate about sexuality and disability. But what the case also shows is that disabilities don’t stand in glorious isolation and neither does sex. They are complicated by cultural norms, social opportunity, family relationships, moral expectations, gender inequalities and much more besides. Just like any 21 year old Millwall fan, Otto will have to deal not only with the sex, but with the complicated world it takes place within. This will question his identity not only as a young man with Down’s Syndrome in search of a girlfriend, but as a young man with particular expectations about social relationships, and a young man with many different interests beyond his disability which remained largely unreported in the newspaper coverage. This is a story about much more than Otto losing his virginity.