Firstly – is sex a right?
Are we all entitled to have sex? I firmly believe we should all have the option of having a good sex life. We should all be able to choose to have sex in the context of a mutually beneficial situation where no one involved is forced, coerced or has no real alternative.
Which brings me onto sex workers. Which is a huge topic with so many different perspectives. Including people who freely chose to work in the sex industry. There are however many people who are forced, coerced or have no real choice. Women can get trapped in the sex industry and this has to be an important part of any conversation around the right to have sex. However they’ve entered, or whatever the reason they stay in sex work, we need to ensure that our desire for sex doesn’t further exploit sex workers. Whether it’s through trafficking, sex slavery, being wilfully mislead or whether it’s because they need the money, they’ve got addictions which need feeding or even situations as complicated as a history of abuse which makes them feel like they have no other option, sex workers deserve the same respect as anyone else.
“[sex] is every bit as important as the right to practice one’s chosen religion or to not be discriminated against. It should be included on this list because, like religion, nobody should be forced to participate, but similarly, nobody should be denied access either.” the conversation
Sex workers and sex surrogates
Within the context of disabled people paying for sex, the phrase sex surrogates comes up a lot. What does this mean?
Sex workers – a sex worker is anyone who works in the sex industry eg porn actors, prostitutes, lap dancers, phone sex workers, sex surrogates etc. The predominant definition requires the worker to be involved in “sexually explicit behaviour”.
Sex therapists – licensed mental health professionals, think counsellor. A sex therapist will not have sex with or engage in any sexual activity with the client.
Sex surrogates – a surrogate does engage in sexual activity with the client. They aren’t (or don’t have to be) medical professionals but they do engage in work which addresses particular sexual difficulties such as erectile dysfunction, anxiety, lack of confidence… Think of this more like a way of being able to practise sex or masturbation which the support of someone. There is an International Professional Surrogates Association which offers training for surrogates.
Should disabled people be able to pay for sex?
Firstly, who would be allowed? Would you have to show that you receive disability related benefits? Prove that you’re disabled? How do invisible disabilities factor into this? Would it just be for people who’ve proven they can’t find a partner? How would people with mental illness show that they were eligible? What would happen to people who faked disability in order to be legally allowed to use a prostitute?
Ok, so that was a bit of playing the devil’s advocate but this is a hugely complicated issue. If you decide that yes, disabled people can pay for sex, you then have a whole load of logistics and specifics to sort out. Especially if you’re also in a society where non-disabled people aren’t allowed to pay for sex.
Rewinding a bit, let’s look at the arguments for and against disabled people paying for sex.
Rachel Watton, from the Australian organisation Touching Base, believes for people with disabilities, being able to pay for sex is a right. She acknowledges that society should change but feels that in the meantime sex should be available.
44% of people in a Guardian poll said they had never had sex with someone with a physical disability and probably wouldn’t. Those odds don’t work well for a disabled person looking for a shag…
Rachel stars in a documentary, Scarlet Road, about her life and Touching Base and providing sex to disabled people. The film doesn’t address the issues that some sex workers face in terms of exploitation, indeed, the white sex workers featured appear to dismiss and invalidate the experiences of exploited workers. I was pleased to see that disabled people were included in the documentary but the language used about them wasn’t always so positive. The word “they” to refer to all disabled people was used a lot, as was “deserving” which to me can conjure up ideas of pity and can feel demeaning. Why do I deserve sex more than the next person? Does my disability make me that special?
However, Scarlet Road wasn’t all bad. They talked about developing training for sex workers who were working with disabled people. This included things like manual handling, ways of communicating etc. This has potential to lead to resources and a bank of knowledge for disabled people and their partners.
Within this discussion, the most important voices are those of disabled people and the sex workers. Disability Now conducted a survey in 2005 which revealed that 22 per cent of disabled male respondents (compared to an estimated 10 per cent if you look at the whole male population) reported having paid for sexual services compared to just 1 per cent of disabled women. Similarly, just 16 per cent of disabled women had considered paying for sex compared to nearly 38 per cent of disabled men. This figure increases if you ask about paying to see specially trained sex workers.
Would legalising sex work for disabled clients make the industry safer for the sex workers? The pros and cons of legalisation are far too big a discussion to go into in this blog but it is an important part of the conversation so I’d highly suggest going away and doing some reading about it.
What about the therapeutic benefits of sex? Orgasms can help reduce pain, being touched in a none functional way can have mental health benefits and sex can be relaxing.
Would allowing disabled people to pay for sex normalise the idea of disabled people as sexual beings? Or would it make it easier to see us as “freaks”..?
Examples of where this already happens
Mark O’Brien, a disabled writer, wrote: “I wanted to be loved … held, caressed, and valued. But my self-hatred and fear were too intense. I doubted I deserved to be loved … Most of the disabled people I knew… were sexually active, including disabled people as deformed as I. But nothing ever happened.” O’Brien went on to see a sex surrogate and lost his virginity with her, she speaks in a TEDx talk.
In Holland and Denmark, support needed around sexuality and sex is something which social workers discuss with their disabled clients and have funded visits to sex workers or sex assistants.
Side note: a sexual assistant is a Dutch model which seems to offer a none penetrative sexual service, instead more focussed on erotic massage, teaching etc. Some sites suggest no kissing, no oral sex and no penetration. Perhaps a sex surrogate lite?
The horrifically named, White Hands offer a masturbation service to disabled men in Japan (I’m hoping something got lost in translation of the name because there are some troubling connotations with it’s English version). The video I watched spoke of clients who didn’t understand their sexual urges and desires and who got confused or ended up hurting themselves because they didn’t know what to do with their feelings. The service appears to help clients understand how to react to sexual urges as well as providing masturbation for physically disabled men. From my perspective, it felt rather clinical… Slightly reminiscent of the Victorian woman going to her doctor to have her hysteria treated by orgasm.
Returning to Rachel Watton’s stance on the issue – society should change but until it does sex should be purchasable – an argument could be made that providing the service could hinder or prevent society from changing. It puts a plaster over the issue and means that it’s less visible. Disabled people have a means of having sex so society no longer needs to address discrimination, perceptions of disabled people etc…
Legalising paying for sex for disabled people is a way of ignoring the issue of disability and sexuality, society doesn’t need to change because we can get sex at a brothel (assuming it’s accessible of course!)… It’s an attempt to pacify us. It also assumes that disabled people are only looking for the physical side of sex and that we don’t want or don’t deserve an intimate relationship. It feels like allowing sex work for disabled people ticks the box of the functional desire for sex and allows society to ignore the need for intimacy which would require a lot more change and participation of society to achieve.
Allowing disabled people to pay for sex focuses heavily on the individual disabled people who may want to use this service and adapting things for them rather than on changing society. This approach feels much more in line with the medical model approach of disability, something is at fault with this person let’s fix them, rather than addressing how disability is perceived and how we are disabled by society. If disabled people were seen as accepted members of the community, would we even be having this discussion?
In an Atlantic article, Alex Ghenis and Mik Scarlet echo this tokenistic gesture and the troubling implications on how we’re seen by others.
Alex Ghenis, an American disability advocate and former dating and relationships columnist says of paying for sex: “It commodifies sex in terms of an action. It makes it so society can check this box that men are getting laid, so we don’t have to have broader social change—we are giving them sex through a brothel, so we don’t have to change our social attitudes around socially excluded people with disabilities…And it pities and coddles us, as if we are being given things that will assuage us … rather than have society change around us.”
Mik Scarlet, a disabled TV presenter and musician: “Imagine this, I’m disabled, growing up in Luton, and it’s now legal for me to go to a brothel—to have sex for money—because apparently that’s the only way I’m going to lose my virginity. Instantly, my relationship with sex is distorted, and it means that everyone I meet afterwards is going to say, ‘He’s disabled, that means he’s paid for sex; I don’t want to go to bed with someone who’s paid for it.’ You’ve reinforced the fact that you can’t give it away because you’ve paid for it. We are reinforcing the idea that some people are too hideous and too disabled to have sex like the rest of us, and so they have to pay for it.”
Paying for sex risks making us more “other”. It could demean our (none paid for) sexual experiences – the idea that if you’re disabled, you’ve probably had to pay for sex and if you’ve paid for sex, the experience is therefore lesser. Paying for sex could further marginalise people with disability. It reinforces the idea we are too ugly, too broken, too disabled to have sex and not pay. It also makes us ‘special’, a subset of society who are “allowed” to buy sex. It feels like a strange extension of the charity model of care…
Paying for sex is also expensive, especially if your disability means you can’t work or you live in poverty. This could result in more division within the disabled community – a tier where more privileged disabled people can afford to pay for sex and less privileged can’t. Some people would argue that benefits shouldn’t be spent on sex but I don’t feel you can police what people do with their money. NB. some countries do pay for disabled people to access sex services rather than the disabled person paying themselves.
There is also potential for sex workers who specialise in sex with disabled people, to be seen as a higher class of sex worker. An elevated role. Or by allowing sex workers for disabled people, the argument for sex work more generally could be justified.
When it comes to consent, there is the issues of the sex worker, are they freely consenting to the work they’re doing as well as issues of consent for the disabled person. If you happen to have seen Who’s Driving Doug, you may recall a scene where Doug (a disabled man) has been bought a prostitute by his driver. He seems reluctant to make use of this “present” but ends up going ahead with encouragement from the driver, his friend and the worker (who possibly wouldn’t get paid otherwise?). Whilst I think it was a consensual act, it highlighted the pressures that can lead to coerced consent. Feeling that peer pressure means you can’t refuse. Spending the money and then changing your mind but again, feeling you can’t call a stop to things. The pressure society puts on people to lose their virginity… Situations where someone is nonverbal and someone else decides that of course this person would want to use a sex worker because it’s “normal” to have sex… What about situations involving dementia or other memory issues? And what if someone appears to be consenting but actually doesn’t have the mental capacity to do so? And communication issues?
All about the (straight) men?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the information around this topic I could find is focused on disabled men… From what I could find, there are far more female sex surrogates which suggests that it’s easier for straight men to find someone. Something I read but can’t find also suggested that disabled women felt more at risk of abuse from male sex workers than disabled men with female sex workers.
And in conclusion…
I’m not actually going to conclude anything. It’s a complicated, multi-faceted topic and there’s too much I still don’t know and I still have too many questions. I hope that this post has raised some of the arguments for and concerns with the idea of sex workers for disabled people. I’d love to hear your thoughts and further arguments for and against.