In my role as a sex worker who sees clients with disabilities, I find I’m constantly learning about clear communication. Learning a lot…
I’m lying quietly on a bed with a man, Keith (not his real name), embracing him in the closest thing to being in each other’s arms. Generally speaking, the only other times this man is touched is when he needs to be washed, changed, dressed, lifted into a wheelchair or medicated – all forms of physical contact responding to the needs of his disability; touch mostly happens, in other words, when other people are required to deal with his problems.
I take his hand and hold it against my breast while I kiss his head. To me, we’re sharing a moment of deep affection… Sometime after our booking, I hear from Keith – what he really wants is to have anal sex while watching porn! If I ever needed a lesson about the importance of authentic communication, this was it! (He’s fine with me sharing this, by the way.)
It can be incredibly difficult for people living with disabilities to find opportunities to express their sensuality with another person. The world of disability services is emerging from a culture of misunderstanding and stigma when it comes to clients’ sexuality, and has only recently begun to consider the issues involved; institutions, carers, family members may prefer to avoid the subject of sex altogether, whether out of embarrassment, shame, ambivalence or attitudes informed by conservative beliefs about sexuality. They may assume a client is asexual or hyper sexual, or dismiss their desires as infantile, as urges that perhaps ought to be medicated or dealt with by finding someone to hold their hand.
Barriers are all the more powerful when it comes to a woman – sexual double standards mean those caring for her can be especially uncomfortable acknowledging her right to an erotic life, let alone be able to bring up the subject of her sexual satisfaction with a view to facilitation. For someone with a disability, access to sexual engagement might be seen by others as dangerous, physically or emotionally fraught, or just too hard to deal with.
If you’re caring for someone who has difficulties being understood by others, what do you assume? That ignorance equals safety? That your client’s heterosexual? That what they really want is romance and affection? That they do or don’t want penetrative sex? If a client never refers to sex, do you conclude they’re not interested? There’s only one way to find out, and that is to ask them.
Recently I spoke at Sexed-Up, a Disability Sexuality Expo in Melbourne, in a workshop about diversity in the sex industry, one of a series intended to provide ‘a platform for discussion, education and policy development to improve, enable and enhance this often unacknowledged aspect of people’s lives.’ I asked Keith to share some thoughts: ‘People in this line of work must see the person before the disability,’ he says. ‘I can read dancers’ and sex workers’ faces when they don’t want a bar of disability. It’s a damn shame. People with disability are the same as other people – we love to drink, have sex and play sport. See the person first, not the disability.’ An experience with a sex worker can be a positive and encouraging experience for someone whose sexuality has long been ignored. Another client has this to say: ‘It’s hard for me to make the conventional pick-up moves. People speak to me differently because I have a disability. And they forget that I’m a man!’
‘We don’t want them to see sex workers; we want to encourage them to have real relationships.’ This comment came from a disability professional during a Question and Answer session at Sexed Up – people for whom this woman is a gatekeeper. One of the many problems with her observation is the assumption of romantic (and no doubt hetero) normativity. What are ‘real relationships’ anyway? A client with a disability may indeed want romance. Or they may want to get down and dirty with a hired hand, get in some sexual practice, engage in the sort of fantasy sex one might usually pay for, the full-on ‘porn star experience’, for example. They may form a finite yet loving bond with a sex worker and be happy with that.
Sex workers and disabled people may have a few things in common when it comes to other people’s perceptions. We live in a world that talks about us, assuming what is good for us — rather than asking us what we want or waiting to hear our answers. There are strong stigmas in our culture about sex work, and some powerful voices are determined to see what we do as a manifestation of male violence against women (forgetting that not all sex workers are women), without actually talking to workers themselves. Many powerful voices maintain that we need to be helped when what we need is to be able to carry on our business safely, on our own terms. As one sex worker activist noted at Sexed Up, "laws are made without consulting with peer-led organisations, and those laws that have a negative impact on people’s lives and how they work."
The anti-sex work lobby likes to maintain that sex workers are desperate victims of something or other and that we’d rather be doing something else for a living, whereas I’d hazard you could make that last observation about practically everybody in the workforce. As US labor journalist Sarah Jaffe so pithily commented "No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry." *
Campaigners aiming to eradicate ‘prostitution’ should think about the reality of people who depend on sex workers for intimacy. Many individuals, living with or without disabilities, for various reasons may not have the option of forming a ‘real relationship’ and this is where sex workers play a crucial role. Once society sees a sex worker’s labor for what it is – service work – it will be easier for those with living disabilities (and anyone else experiencing themselves as having limited dating options) to openly engage workers and enjoy sexy fun times, too.
*quoted in Playing The Whore, the Work of Sex Work (Verso 2014) by Melissa Gira Grant, page 39