Iowa Court to Consider Dementia and Sex

Apr 14, 2015

An unusual question is being asked this week in an Iowa courtroom in Garner. When is a previously consenting spouse who is suffering from dementia no longer able to say yes to sex?

Does prohibiting sex take away someone's personhood? - Emily Wentzell

After a four year battle with Alzheimer's, Donna Rayhons died in a nursing home last August. She was just a few days away from her 79th birthday. A week later her husband, Henry Rayhons, was arrested. He was charged with sexual abuse. State prosecutors accuse him of having sex with his wife while she was incapacitated by dementia.

Rayhons is a nine-term Republican state legislator in Iowa. He decided not to seek another term after this arrest. Rayhons' trial is rare and possibly unprecedented in its examination of a seldom explored aspect of consent.

"This is really happening at the intersection of two social movements at odds," says Emily Wentzell, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa, referring to the fight against sexual assault and the fight for disability rights.

She says it is good to consider the rights of people with disabilities, but thinks it can be looked at both ways. Wentzell says that this case begs the question: "Does prohibiting sex take away their personhood?”

In this River to River discussion, host Ben Kieffer talks with Wentzell, as well as Kitty Buckwalter, who helps explain the effect of dementia on decision making. Buckwalter is Co-Director of the National Health Law and Policy Resource Center and professor emeritus in the University of Iowa College of Nursing.