At the start of the interviews, several participants said they appreciated the invitation to the study and highlighted the importance of participating. Some said they had never talked about sexuality with anyone. Four main themes were identified: 1) “The importance of relationships”, 2) “A lack of sexual knowledge”, 3) “Sexual abuse”, a) not reported to the police, b) reported to the police, and 4) “Trauma and fear”.
The importance of relationships
A central theme in the material concerns being in a relationship and what the participants do to establish or maintain romantic relationships.
Several participants said that they want a relationship and highlight its importance. Many said that being connected to someone/a significant other is more important than having sexual relations. One participant (no. 3) said: “Sex is not important.” Another participant (no. 6) said she has no expectations of sex, and “It is not good to ([have sex] too often either, stick together as much as possible as a team”. One participant (no. 1) said that sex is essential: “For me, it is essential, um, because then you express love for each other.” One participant (no. 7) said: “I want a relationship and a real family, and my dream is to have someone very stable and who respects me as I am.” She continued: “Who can take responsibility and accept my family and me (…) a serious and stable relationship.” Another participant (no. 2), who has previously been abused, said: “I miss having a boyfriend a bit, going out or talking together and things like that, doing nice things outside. Someone I can trust. From what I have experienced, I have been thinking about it, but I’m still a little bit afraid.”
One participant (no. 5) said that she wants a boyfriend: “But I find it difficult.” She said: “Right now, I’m paying for a monthly membership on Tinder, but I’m not getting any likes. I won’t get any matches anyways. Or I will get a match, but they don’t contact me; I try to contact them but then I [the match] will be deleted.” She says: “Sometimes I feel that my disability is very much in the way.” A little later in the interview, she said: “Yes, in general, it [relationships] is more difficult for us with disabilities.”
Another participant (no. 4) was actively searching for a partner online. He said that he has met several people online, and, on one occasion, the unknown boyfriend of a woman he planned to meet, not the woman herself. He said: "I often end up meeting people that have some experience and that exploit men in a way." He noted that many people want to have a one-night stand, not a relationship. Therefore, he was trying a new tactic involving chatting with people online for a long time to get to know them well. At the time of the interview he was in contact with three different people online.
A lack of sexual knowledge
Many of the participants stated that they were either in a relationship or had been in the past, and all said that they had had at least one sexual experience. At the same time, several did not understand specific concepts of basic sexual knowledge, such as what sexual orientation is. Moreover, in terms of appropriate ages for potential partners, and some believe, for instance, that a couple of 28 and 19 years or one of 40 and 21 years has a good age range. One participant had heard that “age is just a number” about her relationship with a partner who is 23 years her senior.
Insecurity about sexual boundaries
When consent to sex was discussed, several participants could not accurately explain it. Regarding sexual acts, one participant (no. 5) explained that sexual consent means signing a paper. Another participant (no. 3) compared sexual consent to working as a volunteer and sexual consent means that you have given your approval. These statements are not necessarily wrong, but do not touch the essence of sexual consent. After being presented with vignettes about situations of unclear sexual consent, several participants changed their minds about what they thought was acceptable. A participant (no. 3) was presented with a vignette asking if it is okay for a person to change their mind about sex when they are kissing someone, they answered: “Yes, I guess, maybe,” and “It probably is.” Later in the interview, he became more certain and answered clearer of what one is and is not allowed to do. Another participant (no. 1) revised her earlier answer that something was “fine”, saying that she no longer thought so.
One participant (no. 4) said that he got a strange gut feeling before having sex with a woman, so he withdrew from the situation. He elaborated: “Sexual consent is important for the woman, but not for my part. I do it for the woman’s sake, of course, I say ‘yes’.” From this quote, it can be understood that he does not feel that sexual consent applies to him, but is only relevant for the woman.
Sexual abuse not reported to the police
Several participants talked about experiences of sexual abuse which had not been reported to the criminal justice system.
One participant (no. 5) shared their thoughts about people with more severe intellectual disabilities who may be exposed to sexual abuse and who are unable to act or defend themselves: “I think a lot when it comes to this kind of situations and those who cannot speak for themselves, people that are a little more disabled than I am.”
Participants also had experiences of unreported sexual abuse. During the interview, a participant (no. 1) said that she had never been abused, but after talking for a while, she remembered being abused when she was 13 years old. She had been waiting for a family member outside her school when a random man came and grabbed her breast which terrified her. Fortunately, the family member was close by and saw what happened; they started to run towards her and the man ran away.
Several participants said they have felt pressured to send nude photos to boyfriends/girlfriends or others who ask. However, they regretted it afterwards, and were afraid that their pictures will be shared further. Participant (no. 6) mentioned that the police can help take down a picture that has been posted online. One participant (no. 1) said: “I have been afraid when a man has threatened to post pictures of me online (…), And it’s my fault, I should never have sent pictures to people I don’t know.” She also said her husband has threatened to post pictures of her online: “Yes, it was when he got mad at me, but I knew it would never happen.”
Another participant (no. 5) talked about what they perceive as pressure from a friend: “I feel the pressure, he is constantly asking, and, for some reason, I don’t dare to say no, and I do it. I say sorry (after sending the picture), but I delete you [the match]. I cannot take it anymore.” She continued: “You are being pressured. ‘Why don’t you want to send it? Why?’”.
Sexual abuse reported to the police
Most of the participants stated that they have been abused by someone they were in a relationship with, by people in positions of power, or by complete strangers. As many as four out of seven of the participants reported contact with the police for this reason.
One participant (no. 2) said that a person in a higher position at work had sexually abused her: “He began to flirt with me at work and give me attention. I rarely get attention from men.” He also came to her house, and she said: “I think it was disgusting, old men you see on television. He called me a whore, so not particularly nice. He was a little harsh.” She continued: “It took a while before I told the police, I got scared, but I got help from my family and pointed out that the man was incarcerated.
Another participant (no. 5) spoke about experiencing abuse as a customer. She described: “I was about to be raped, but I managed to stop it in time.” A man had started to touch her, but she managed to stop it before he got further down on her body, and she got away. She said that she asked him to write down his phone number on her receipt and got away by pretending she would contact him later: “Smart for me, but stupid for him. I am a good talker, and I said: I’ll call you when I need more ‘help’ or something. The day after, I got a hold of (…) and (…) [named staff], and I got straight to the police station and reported him, giving him [a police officer] the receipt with the phone number.”
One participant (no. 4) experienced being reported for a sexual assault, but the police investigation revealed that their accuser had lied. Another participant (no. 7) told of experiencing assault. She said she pushed the assailant away and explained that she had defended herself in the same way during a previous sexual assault. She described many assaults, randomly on the street and outside her home. She talked about threats from one perpetrator: “Do this. If you don’t, you will not get the call phone.” She also talked about an instance where a male staff member tickled her friend. She wanted to defend her friend, but the man walked towards her and touched her breast and she froze. The participant said that, during another assault, she managed to contact the police:
And I managed to report him, too. They (the police) took DNA traces from me and the criminal. He was punished and put in prison for almost five or six months. He also had to compensate me with nearly 150 000 NOK.
She described meetings and facilitated interviews with a lawyer and the police. She had received instructions about DNA from the police, and she demonstrated good knowledge of DNA and the importance of gathering it.
One participant (no. 7) said that she and a friend had reported a person for sexual abuse, but that both of their cases were dropped. She was asked how she felt when the case was dropped, and she said: “It’s almost like banging your head against the wall. Nothing is happening, and it is sad. It is very uncomfortable afterwards when the person who has been disgusting doesn’t face any consequences.”
Trauma and fear
Some participants reported fear and trauma after being sexually abused. They described knowledge that they did not have at the time of the sexual abuse, but which they acquired afterwards.
One participant (no. 2) reported that she was anxious and tense after experiencing sexual abuse. She said: “I received compensation, but it doesn’t help much. I have a lot of trauma in my head. It doesn`t go away.” Another participant (no. 7) talked about her own physical experience during the assault. She said:
I was speechless. My whole body was completely frozen. Shock. It was very uncomfortable. I did not quite know what to do, but I saw he had put the cell phone on the grass. I looked at the clock. Time passed. As time passed by, my brain had to think. One of my brains said, “Take it.” The other brain said, “Get away.”
One participant (no. 7), who had been exposed to sexual abuse several times, described incidents where she had been offered money from a stranger one late evening downtown. Another random man tried to touch her. From experiencing an earlier assault, she had learned to defend herself by saying: “Leave me alone. I do not want anything from you. You are a stranger to me.” She continued: “It is because I obviously have had a lot of negative experiences that have made me sceptical. I have learned to defend myself in a way.”
Some participants explained that they have been scared, and refer to guilt related to the experienced sexual abuse. One participant (no. 2) said:
Yes, I was scared, and it was a little bit my fault. I did not want to say it. I was afraid and did not dare to tell anyone, but I have heard them say that it was not my fault.
From this quote, it seems that she is not convinced that she is entirely innocent, even though others have told her it is not her fault. Another participant (no. 7) said that she was sexually abused in exchange for something she wanted. She said:
He is a stranger, and you should stay far away from strangers. But I didn’t know that. I had no idea. I was mainly interested in the cell phone he had, and I did not understand what he was thinking. It’s like what you call an afterthought—something I did not understand, not at all, but what I felt wasn’t good, and I had to get away [speaking quietly and slowly].
The same participant also talked about an episode where she brought a stranger home: Actually, I should not invite a stranger home to my place, but I did not know because I was only 18 years old. I had no clue about that.