Sexual activity, stimulation and gratification should be just as much a right for disabled people as it is for anyone else. But, argues Kirsty Liddiard, the current debate on access to sex ignores some big important questions.
As a scholar whose research explores the intersections of disability and sexuality, I've been following recent publicity around Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, a film depicting sexual surrogacy, with interest.
The media has also brought Becky Adams to our attention. Adams is a former madam who is opening a new establishment specifically for disabled people, developed from her existing service, Para-Doxies, which enables ‘people with disabilities, the elderly, and terminally ill to fulfil their sexual needs and improve the quality of their lives’, according to her website.
While such publicity is instigating some much needed dialogues around disability and sex, it has also shown explicitly that when disability, sex and ‘prostitution’ are discussed, conversations seldom extend beyond the sexualities and sexual desires of disabled men.
I ask, then, what about disabled women?
Disability Now’s 'time to talk sex' survey of disabled people conducted in 2005 revealed that 22 per cent of disabled male respondents reported having paid for sexual services compared to just one 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.
These responses show the sizeable extent to which gender plays a role in contemplating paying for sexual services, as well as actually paying for them.
These findings also suggest that buying sex is a reality for many more disabled men than women; why? Well, it is embedded in the ways in which sexuality and gender norms are constructed within society. In brief, men are considered to have pressing sexual needs which must be met and women aren’t.
This is, of course, untrue. But these commonplace ideas about sexuality shape men and women’s sexual opportunities, sexual access, sexual practices and behaviours and for disabled people specifically, the amount of sexual support they may be offered.
As a disabled woman who has researched heterosexual disabled men’s experiences with female sex workers, I feel that sex work should be a legitimate form of sexual access, but crucially, not the only form of sexual access for disabled people. I also feel that legalising the illegal aspects of sex work would ensure greater safety and working rights for sex workers, which is very important.
But this doesn’t mean I don’t have reservations; particularly around the ways in which paying for sex is often clumsily positioned as the answer to a much bigger social and cultural issue for disabled people.
Many of the disabled men in my research paid for sex because as they suggested, there was little other alternative and many seldom talked about their experiences of paying for sex as liberating or emancipatory.
For most of them, paying for sex could be sexy, fun and exhilarating, but was also a source of great sadness which highlighted their social and sexual isolation and affirmed their feelings of undesirability.
It’s imperative to keep in mind, then, that sex work is a form of labour underpinned by patriarchy and capitalism. Patriarchy, a social system which affords men more social and sexual power than women, and capitalism, an economic system in which bodies, sex and pleasure are ready commodities, work together to ensure that commercial sex work markets will always cater more to men than women disabled or otherwise.
Secondly, it’s pertinent to question the ways in which sex work for disabled people – as shown clearly in The Sessions and within publicity around Madam Becky's new establishment – is placed in a therapeutic framework, appearing to medicalise their sexual desires. For example, why does a brothel have to become a 'sexual health centre' just because it caters to disabled people?
Some critical reflection is timely to consider why disabled people’s sexual desires have to be couched in notions of therapy, healing and rehabilitation in order to be socially acceptable.
It’s also crucial to acknowledge that these discussions about disability and sex are taking place against one of the most precarious political backdrops in disabled people’s history. It’s frightening how readily the recent splurge in publicity around, specifically disability and sex work, can be used to affirm Conservative rhetoric around 'scrounging' and the 'need' to reduce welfare. One only has to read the comments in tabloid newspaper coverage to see the gritty realities of such commentary: "Why are my taxes paying for their sexual jollies?" and "If they can afford to pay for sex, then they are getting too much money".
This is very risky talk at a time when many disabled people are fighting – as they have before – for their rights to the basics: good quality care (and enough of it), the right to stay living in the community and an income.
But it’s important to state that sex workers, people who use sex workers, Madam Becky or other sexual rights advocates are not individually or collectively responsible for this positioning of sex work.
Finally, returning to where I began: disabled women. Including disabled women’s desires into conversations about disability, sex and sex work acknowledges that disabled women have sexual desires too and that some may need equal support to realise them. There are also other omitted voices which should be included: disabled people who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender and queer.
Broadening our perspectives on disability and sex work to include all of our desires can enable a more critical and reasoned consideration of sexual access for disabled people; from diversifying our male-centric sex work markets, to thinking more fully around what paying for sex can mean politically, personally and emotionally in the lives of disabled people.