Monday, January 21, 2013

The Sessions: Discussing Disability & Sex Work

When I began reading the essay that inspired The Sessions (via @emmajtracey) by the late writer and poet Mark O'Brien, I expected to cringe in much the same way as I have cringed at all the other articles or forum posts I have read about disabled men paying for sexual services. I didn't.

I expected:

(a) Disability as an overarching explanation for sexual drought. There's nothing wrong with expressions of sexual frustration, romantic longing and loneliness (well, you know, there's a time and place), but many people experience these things for a great variety of reasons. Disability can be a massive factor, but it is also a complex and immeasurable one. O'Brien writes;
I had fallen in love with several people, female and male, and waited for them to ask me out or seduce me. Most of the disabled people I knew in Berkeley were sexually active, including disabled people as deformed as I. But nothing ever happened. Nothing was working for me in the passive way that I wanted it to, the way it works in the movies.
O'Brien acknowledges that not all disabled people have difficulties in love or sex. The isolation of having to spend most of his time in an iron lung, together with his shyness and anxiety around sex and romance are acknowledged as the main reasons for O'Brien's lack of sexual experience. He doesn't, as others have done, rail against society in general and women in particular who have "mistreated" him by not being all that interested.

As Mik Scarlet says in his post entitled Brothels for the Disabled? No Thanks!
The effect of this false belief that disabled people need the services of prostitutes more than anyone else is the second reason why I am opposed as it causes issues for the way society thinks about disability... For disabled people, it means they grow up in an atmosphere that makes them believe that they just aren't sexy or potential sexual partners and for the non-disabled community it plays a part in continuing the prejudice around disability. More than that, as all non-disabled people are just disabled people before an illness or injury, it means that if they acquire a disability part of the grieving process they will have to go through revolves around the loss of their sexual confidence.
I decided not to link to any of the uncomfortable articles I refer to, because they are by vulnerable men, usually anxious young men, who are nervous around women and have been quite brave writing about their experiences.  My input to their personal circumstances would probably not be helpful, so it would certainly not be kind.

But just now, there's a young disabled man campaigning for the British government to fund sexual services for disabled men. Apart from the what? how? and given that social care and essential benefits are currently being slashed against a backdrop of stereotypes of disabled people as entitled layabouts, why the hell now?, there's a real problem with defining what experiences are unique to a disabled person. Campaigner Christopher Fulton says
"I have been to nightclubs in Birmingham but they are no good for me. When I tried to use dating agencies as soon as they heard I was disabled they didn’t want to know."
Any other twenty-nine year old man stating this would receive shrugs, commiserations and then maybe some good advice. But because he is a disabled man, this gets in the paper like it is a special experience, extraordinary, part of the tragedy of his situation. It's not. There are aspects of Fulton's life experience which are not normal and must interfere with life significantly - like having no choice about his bedtime (the bane of disabled adults, especially night owls, who rely on state carers to put them to bed). But not getting lucky in a nightclub? Having a demoralising time with dating agencies?

Not only does this encourage the idea that disabled people are especially unattractive (which not only makes us feel less attractive, but reinforces the idea to others), this raises a really obvious ethical point around sex work.  If disabled people are inherently sexually unattractive, and nobody wants to have sexual contact with us, why would a sex worker feel differently?

After all, almost every other article I have read by a disabled man who has paid for sexual services include;

(b) Wild assumptions about the inner life of a sex worker. In regular sex work, one principle objective has to be be to make the client imagine that the sex worker is having a wonderful time, even when she is miserable - even when she is being coerced into the act. The more she pretends to enjoy it, the sooner the ordeal should be over. This doesn't mean all sex workers are miserable or coerced, but this possibility makes it extremely uncomfortable when disabled men who have used prostitutes describe these women's enthusiasm - often in terms borrowed straight from pornography - as a justification for what they have done. Which is a confusing message next to disability as a sexual deal breaker: I am completely unattractive, but I was irresistible to her, because there was money involved. 

O'Brien's physical descriptions of Cheryl, his sexual surrogate, are sparing and as for her feelings, he mostly only reports her expressions and the things she says. Cheryl explains when she doesn't like a particular activity, but that other women may do and it is always important to ask. When asked whether she has had an orgasm, Cheryl gives an honest answer. O'Brien doesn't speculate, let alone make assumptions, about why she does what she does. This makes me feel happier about the physical and psychological safety of Cheryl than any other sex worker I have read about in the third person.

(c) A sense of enormous entitlement. At no point does O'Brien claim that having sex with another person is a right, a fundamental human need or any such thing.  His priority in seeing a surrogate was to sort out some of the psychological baggage he had around his body and sexuality, not to get an orgasm.  He talks about his hopes for the future but without providing an idealised account of the kind of woman he would like to have a relationship with - in fact, he sees the matter of his future desires as very complicated. He acknowledges that he has not often found disabled women attractive without framing that possibility as "settling for second best" (which I genuinely read in one article by a disabled men who had paid for sex).

O'Brien's essay was published in 1990 and he died in 1999 (I know for sure that had he still been here, the internet would have revolutionised his social, sexual and romantic prospects). I would be the last person to suggest we need to turn back the clock on attitudes towards sex and sexuality, but there is a tone to O'Brien's essay which is seldom seen in the discussion of disabled people and sex work today. All the reasons I usually cringe and feel uncomfortable about these discussions are to do with reducing sex with another person - a very human, very organic behaviour - to a consumer right.  It is not fair that I can't have the long-legged blonde of my dreams, just because I'm in a wheelchair. It's my right.

These arguments feel as if they are borrowed partly from the disability rights movement and partly from pornography (which is, of course, a medium of fiction). O'Brien offers a reason why he is particularly disinterested in hiring prostitutes, despite having paid for sexual services from Cheryl:
Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved, body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants.
I wonder if this is why some disabled men so readily and publicly enthuse about the idea of paying for sex - because they are used to having their more immediate bodily needs catered for in exchange for money?  There is even less nuance in our discussions of the highly nuanced business of personal care than in our discussions of sex. Meanwhile, disabled people's bodies are so often seen by the people around us as passive things to be fixed or taken care of, as opposed to tools we can used to express ourselves and potentially, give pleasure to others.

Usually, I leave these accounts feeling that there has been no consideration for the rights of sex-workers or women in general. A person's right not to have sex or engage in sexual behaviour, without financial, social or physical pressure, trumps any amount of sexual frustration.  It's not sexism to only be attracted to one gender and it's not racism or disablism if you prefer tall athletic able-bodied blondes (it can be, however, be a double standard and a quirk that will significantly narrow your chances of sexual fulfillment). Sex-workers are not exempt from these freedoms just because money is involved. Thus, sex with another person can never ever be a "right" and any time it is framed that way, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

But O'Brien's essay struck me as very important, and I recommend you read the whole thing. He recognises the complexity of disability as a potential obstacle to sex and love - practically, socially and psychologically - without making it any less personal or less complicated than it really is.

See also: The Undebateable Undateables


Lisa said...

You're absolutely right that no-one has a right to sex with another person.

But things get complicated around the human need for sexual release. For non-disabled people and most disabled people wanking is the simple solution. But when your range of motion is too limited for that then you've got a problem with meeting that need.

You can't really ask your assistants to get you off in the same way you'd ask them to feed you because that'd be crossing a major employer/employee line.

Sex toys are a possibility; but you still need someone to put it into position. Even if your PA leaves the room immediately after positioning it's still icky messy complicated.

So not having the right to sex and not having the ability to wank can leave someone stuck between a rock and a (probably very) hard place.

The Goldfish said...

This is absolutely true. And there really is a place for discussion of people with such limited range in motion. I think same with discussion of assisted suicide; the vast majority of disabled people can find some means of doing away with themselves if they wish to, but there are a few who just can't do it and so genuinely have less freedom than the rest of us.

But (a) with both suicide and paying for sexual services, the debates focus upon disabled people as a special case because we are disabled, not because of functional impairment.

I have never read an account by a person who paid for sexual services because they couldn't masturbate, although I have read accounts and been privy to confidences where folk are getting help with toys from loved-ones and carers who are not their sexual partner. This is not to say "So they're getting along just fine." - these are a group of particularly vulnerable disabled people whose voices are not widely heard, so I'm sure we're not hearing the whole story.

But this isn't usually what we're talking about. We're usually talking about disabled men paying for sexual services because they are not attractive enough to get sex by any other means.

And (b) even when someone's range of movement is restricted, nobody's sexual rights ever trump another's. The right not to have sex (or any sexual contact) is more important than the right to sexual relief. That rock is unmovable and the hard place is jolly complicated (what with the pneumatics and everything).

This isn't to say that we shouldn't foster a culture of care which bears this stuff in mind, and acknowledges that most adults are sexual beings regardless of impairment. All that is very important for all of us.

But I suspect that encouraging the idea that disabled folk have to pay for sex, only promotes the world's view of us as untouchable, burdensome and unattractive. Which nobody is simply by virtual of a physical impairment.

Matthew Smith said...

As to the matter of disabled men and going without sex, I think that for young people especially, many of them have the perception that other people are "getting it" even when that might not be the case; since it's not cool to be a virgin or even sexually inactive, people may think they're missing out on something because of their disability, when in fact they might not be missing out as much as they think. For (some) men it's a bigger problem because, as O'Brien notes in his original article, he was being tended to by women every day, and the arousal that caused became a source of shame for him (even though the women probably had seen it many times before) as well as a source of frustration. Being tended to by a woman is obviously less sexually arousing for (most) women.

Also, paying for a prostitute is not always that satisfying for a man - for some it tells them "the only way you'll get it is if you pay". The majority of people do not want to have meaningless sex, they want to make love to someone. The same is actually true of masturbation, by the way - the "cool" kids will say it is something inadequate people do - they don't have to because they have girlfriends or boyfriends. As we all know, lots of disabled people have partners and even get married, and there are very few people (I don't suppose O'Brien was really one of them - there was a male polio survivor called John Prestwich who married and lived for years on a kind of portable iron lung) for whom that is simply impossible and are not severely cognitively impaired (Lynn Gilderdale springs to mind in that regard). So, finding partners and ways to make a relationship possible is the best answer to this.

(I remember seeing a film about a young man with a facial disfigurement which was linked to a condition that eventually killed him. His mother knew he was frustrated by not having a girlfriend, but paid for a prostitute for him, and he was aghast to find her in his room when he came home. He didn't have sex with her, just sat and talked. He did have a relationship with a blind girl for a while, but it seems her father split them up, and he died shortly after.)

Stephen said...

Matthew - the film you mentioned is Mask. It stuck in my mind as it features the acting talents of Cher (!) as the mother and Laura Dern as the eventual love interest.

The Goldfish said...

Matthew - I think you're right. Sex means different things to different people (and different things in different contexts), but most people of all genders and sexualities do wish to have loving relationships.

In fact, I imagine this could be especially the case for disabled people, because of trust. Even if we want to, many of us couldn't safely have sex with someone we'd just met for fear of physical pain, injury, panic, and other medical complications. In the normal progression of a loving relationship, you don't have to sit someone down with a fact sheet about your body, it's limitations, your desires and fears when you're about to have sex. Hopefully you've had many conversations where most of that stuff has come out already in the natural course of intimate conversation.

This isn't to say disabled people can't or shouldn't want casual sex, if that's what they're into, but even then, the ideal is that two people who find each other extremely attractive come together, prepared to make a mutual effort to please one another, and to take care of each other for the brief period they're in one another's company. Paying for sex isn't the same thing at all.