I got to thinking about the intersection of disability, sex and sex work after reading this excellent Guardian feature by Frances Ryan. It was good to read a considered, non-hysterical look at the often-glossed-over issue of disabled sexuality, and hear from those who are experiencing the issues first-hand. The part I wish had perhaps been expanded on was where Ryan acknowledges that the discussions about sex being a 'need' which disabled people have the right to fulfil, "is language that is rarely used in reference to women with disabilities".
This, to me, is one of the areas that I've always had most issue with when it comes to defences of sex work. My thinking on sex work is, I'd like to say, evolving - although unfortunately so far it's only evolved to a point where I often feel completely caught in the middle between abolitionist and sex positive feminists - but I do find the argument about sex workers providing a valuable service to disabled people a little troubling. Leaving aside the fact that sex workers also service plenty of able-bodied men who presumably have much less trouble finding sexual partners but for some reason choose to pay for sex instead, the notion that sex work is valuable because it provides "disabled clients who would otherwise never experience the joy of skin to skin contact" rankles with me. First off, it's patronising. As Mik Scarlet points out in Frances Ryan's article, "It's like the world telling you that disabled people are so unsexy that the only way they can have sex is to pay for it". And secondly, it's inaccurate. What the statement really seems to refer to is disabled men.
Although the Guardian article is illustrated by a picture of the late Helen O' Toole holding a sign saying 'disabled and horny', the article doesn't actually quote or speak to any disabled women who have paid for sexual services (or managed a sex life without paying for it). In a Twitter exchange, the author of blog A Glasgow Sex Worker suggested to me that these women are certainly out there, they're just not seeking sexual services as much, or speaking out about it as willingly, as disabled men because of stigma. Women aren't supposed to need to pay for sex, the stereotype goes - we're the ones with the prized 'pussy' and therefore are in a much stronger position than those needy, testosterone-addled men. Therefore there's the inevitable feeling of 'Am I a sad cow if I have to pay someone to fuck me?' - and I'm not being disrespectful here to any men or women who feel that way, because that's exactly how I felt when I was 18 and genuinely believed I was so fat, ugly and hideous that my options were either to die a virgin or pay a male prostitute. I'm not disabled and have long since realised that my barriers to a sex life were much less insurmountable than I thought there were. But my point is, I can well believe that there might be women out there considering the option of paying someone to pleasure them, but not wanting to admit to it. I'd also wager that's a more realistic explanation than the patronising idea that women 'just don't need sex as much' as men, or that we can 'go without' more easily. As Lesley Chenoweth writes, disabled women are at particular risk of being painted as 'asexual', and this is a destructive assumption of the kind feminists have long battled.
Still, it's interesting that only 19% of disabled women said they would see a trained sex worker, compared with 63% of men (Disability Now survey, 2005). It's suggested that disabled women - who are indeed much more vulnerable to violence and abuse compared with the rest of the female population - would not trust a male sex worker not to abuse them. This wariness is understandable, especially when the dominant social myth is that "women with disabilities are so unattractive they should be grateful for any sexual advances made to them". But this leaves us with the kind of asymmetry which is one of my main remaining objections to the sex industry - that it exists for the benefit of men and their sexual needs (which MUST unquestioningly be met), while women just have to sit by the sidelines, horny and frustrated, their needs ignored.
My viewpoint may be superfluous to the debate - after all, I'm not a sex worker, or disabled. But I have been a care worker for nearly 7 years, and worked up close and personal with a lot of disabled people of all ages, abilities and proclivities. I've had the face-reddening tasks of trying to stop autistic teenage boys publicly masturbating, dodging accidental erections whilst trying to put a catheter sheath on men with paralysis, and asking a woman with cerebral palsy exactly how she planned to use a vibrator if she did get her wish of going to an Ann Summers party. I've seen paraplegics who are married with children, and ones who live alone, seeing no one from one day to the next. I've seen people's engagements and marriages buckle under the strain of a serious accident or illness, leaving the disabled person with the double blow of being injured and being abandoned by their lover. I know a woman in a wheelchair who uses internet dating and remains hopeful despite telling me 'I know 99% of men are put off by the wheelchair". I've seen the isolation and frustration disabled people go through just struggling to access the basics of everyday life, let alone the 'luxuries' of a social life. And I can painfully empathise with the desire for love, for sex, for contact, for cuddles. But I'm still not convinced it's something that should be paid for, and I'm not convinced that the need for it automatically legitimises sex work. If the benefit of sex work to women, and the acknowledgement of female sexuality, desires and needs, were more apparent to me, I might be less sceptical. But there's something about justifying sex work on the grounds of serving disabled people that just smacks to me of prioritising men while women are yet again invisibilised, and that's hardly helpful to an already marginalised group.
All that said, until we live in a society that's capable of acknowledging that women get horny and frustrated just as men do, that they seek release through masturbation and sex just as men do, and that sex isn't just something women 'endure' or 'have done to them' but actively pursue, participate in and enjoy, perhaps it's unrealistic to expect disabled women to be on the front line of smashing stereotypes about female sexuality. I'd also be interested to hear what abolitionist feminists think of the woman in a wheelchair who hires a man to pleasure her, (or pays her care worker to hold her vibrator for her...) - is she just as much part of the patriarchal machine that has reduced sex to a commodity as the man who goes to a sex worker? Or do we need to stop seeing sex as such a sacred cow that must never be paid for, and start seeing it more as (in some cases, at least), a therapeutic service? Is a trained masseur, dancer or farmer 'degraded' because they use their body in their work?
Many questions. Many more possible answers. I wish I had more of them. All I know is I'm on board with Mik Scarlet when he says "I want a world that sees disabled people as sexual and valid prospective partners".