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

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

First, Believe Them

If you do just one thing in the promotion of equality and social justice, it should be this:

When someone gives an account of their own experience, believe them. 

If at some point along the way, something jars, something doesn't feel right and you begin to doubt what's being said, then by all means, doubt away. But always start off from the default position of faith in your fellow man.

One of the defining experiences of belonging to a marginalised group is to be mistrusted at every turn. You go to the doctor, they won't take your symptoms seriously. You go to the police about a crime committed against you, and justice is a pipe dream. You're treated as suspect because of who you are. You wish to marry and you're told your love isn't what it feels like. Every time you try to make your own life better - or simply more bearable - you are up against gatekeepers who don't trust your motives, who don't believe your account of things. You assert your faith or lack thereof and are told you are deluded. Then when people, whether this week's comedian or fashionable activist, say disgusting and insulting things about people like you, any argument you make will be dismissed as if you are the one throwing the shit, spoiling the fun and turning positive movements in on themselves.

I've often suspected that there's something about me which makes me particularly credible. But in common with anyone (especially a woman) who has seen enough doctors, I have been told on occasion that my perceptions of what is happening to my body (particularly gynaecological events) are wrong. Not the cause of my experience - I'm not a doctor - but the very symptoms I am experiencing.  As a bisexual person, I've been told that whatever I say about deep-seated emotional experiences, I am in fact straight.  Not that I have misunderstood what bisexuality is, but that it is impossible that I should feel what I say I feel.

Nobody has directly questioned my experiences of various forms of violence and abuse, but this is largely because I have not given them the opportunity; I certainly live in a culture which treats these experiences with scepticism and I read and hear opinions which question experiences just like mine. I read and hear questions about;

  • Whether these things really happen.
  • Whether these things are really all that big a deal.
  • Whether in fact, both parties are equally to blame. 
  • Whether victims may be motivated by the prospect of compensation, a favourable divorce settlement, a legal advantage in custody battles, malice, the need for attention or a wish to cover up their own misbehaviour.
It isn't that nobody ever lies.  People do lie and some people will tell lies in just about any context you can think of.  But most people don't lie, most of the time.  And when someone is vulnerable and needs support, medical treatment or police help, when someone comes out to you, or expresses a fear, tells you a secret or recounts the hurt they have felt, they have a particularly strong motivation to be telling the truth.  Nobody does any of these things for no reason. They have a huge cost when they go wrong - some have a huge cost whatever happens - a cost that a casual fibber is unlikely to risk.  

Meanwhile, the only way to get to the truth is by listening to all the information. The only way to do that is to start from a position of faith in what you are being told. Automatic scepticism shuts down this opportunity; you will never know whether you were being told the whole truth, a half-truth, a complicated truth or an outright lie. 

This isn't all about power, but it is power that ties all these strings together. Whilst many of us have faced this mistrust, all of us have the power to mistrust others. And folks do. In newspapers and around dinner tables, we regularly see this kind of scepticism applied to those with less power than us.

Take fat as an uncomplicated and sadly socially acceptable example. Roughly every week or so, there's a news story about the Obesity Epidemic with angst about how fat everyone is. And do you know one of the big reasons it's still acceptable to talk about fat people in derogatory and judgemental terms? Because, many believe, they tell so many pork pies. I'm afraid my family are weird and anxious about food, weight and health, so regularly have discussions where I hear that fat people;

  • lie to themselves and the world about how much food they eat and how much exercise they get.
  • lie to themselves about how heavy they are, and pretend they don't have a problem.
  • lie to themselves about what they look like.
  • lie to the world about any medical conditions, medications or other life circumstances that make weight much harder to control. 
  • lie to the world if they have mobility problems; a fat person who can't walk, can't walk because they're fat.  Fat people are immune to ill health unrelated to their weight.
  • lie to the world if they say that they're fit and healthy. 
  • lie to the world if they say that they're happy the way they are.

(Incidently, these discussions frequently involve one or two people who would fit medical criteria for morbid obesity, but of course, aren't fat fat and anyway, in their case, it's glandular. Meanwhile, there are invariably people there who smoke or eat no fruit and vegatables or indulge in similar behaviour in breech of universal guidelines for healthy living. But exposing the lies of those others, these absent fatties who are not there to defend themselves, gives folk at the table such power.)

Less often, in my presence, these conversations are about disabled people - not me, you understand, or anyone else we know, but those others, most so-called disabled people in fact, who are just exaggerating things, or making them up entirely, and just looking for attention and money - so much money to be made by affecting a limp! I try to tell them how much - I can provide figures and stats - but they don't believe me.

I was thinking about all this in a week where the police report into Jimmy Savile's prolific abuse of women and children was published, and folk come up with all manner of explanations for how he got away with it. One big reason - not the only one, but a whopper - is that we treat young people, especially girls and young women, especially poor youngsters, especially those identified as troubled on account of their mental health or family background, as if they cannot be believed. We treat almost anybody who complains of sexual assault as someone who is probably lying, even when any reason we can dream up for such a lie is far less likely than an actual sexual assault taking place.

Also this week, following the reporting of malpractice allegations against a particular gender reassignment doctor, there's been the #Transdocfail hashtag, which has flooded my Twitterstream with tales of mistreatment, dismissal, neglect, misdiagnosis, personal insults and sexual harrassment endured by trans people seeking medical treatment. There was then an almighty row over the language used by femininist Suzanne Moore (in this piece, the non-apology, but particulary on Twitter). Moore left twitter and several prominent powerful journalists and writers spoke of her having been hounded off by a politically correct mob - folk like Paris Lees, who wrote this beautiful letter to her. There then followed the single most vile piece of hate speech I think I've ever read in a national newspaper, by Julie Burchill, which has been taken down for now and I can only conclude was a cynical move on the part of the Observer to get more website hits when everyone flipped out over it.

So trans folk are certainly a group who are not believed about their life experiences. People seem to doubt;

  • Whether they are transgender in the first place (and whether that status exists). 
  • That a trans person can have medical and mental health problems unrelated to gender.
  • That a trans woman is a woman, like other women, who experiences sexism and other gender nonsense (let alone additional gender nonsense). 
  • Ditto trans men. 
  • That when a trans person says they feel hurt or upset, it is because they feel hurt or upset.  

We could add to this list that trans people are not a powerful and aggressive political lobby, braying to lynch anyone who uses out of date terminology. But I suspect people only pretend to think this when called out on their own abusive behaviour. See, as with all things, there is a time for doubt.

Trans is an area where I had a long way to travel. I used to think that, whilst magnanamously believing that the happiness of people alive now was paramount, one day we would achieve complete sexual equality and everybody would be happy in whatever bodies they'd been born into. I believed this, partly because of nonsense I had been fed (my feminism being forged in Greer) and sheer ignorance, but partly because I had gone through something of a struggle to come to terms with being a girl.  What's more, as a younger woman, I really did believe that being a decent sort, believing in equality in principle,  meant that I couldn't go far wrong.

I didn't analyse it then - the ignorant aren't all that introspective - but it must have made me feel superior. There were these people, making themselves utterly miserable, undergoing a humiliating process of psychiatric assessment, hormonal treatment and sometimes multiple surgeries in order to feel okay in their own skin and here was I, having worked it all out, feeling absolutely fine in mine.  I always had great sympathy for trans people, probably the single most discriminated group of people and one manifestly less fortunate than myself (more likely to be abused at home, more likely to be harassed and attacked in the street, more likely to be murdered, more likely to live in poverty etc.), but for some years, I went round believing that they simply hadn't figured things out as well as I had.

I'm not going to swear at my younger self and I'd rather you didn't - she's no longer here to defend herself.  She met people, she read a lot and acquired a great deal more compassion.  But it wasn't all about what she didn't know, it had to be a bit about power. After all, it is an incredible leap of faith to believe that you understand someone's profound experiences better than they do. It's not impossible - there are circumstances, with close kith and kin where we perhaps do understand a situation better than the person in the middle of it all. But these are very complex experiences effecting thousands of people.

It's not nearly such a leap of faith to take someone's account of their own life at face value. It just requires us to bite the bullet of not knowing better. I have struggled with this more than once. Other people - including people who are, as it was put the other day, "on the right side" - seem to share this difficulty.

(By the way, if someone is offended by something you've said or done, that isn't an automatic reason to stop doing it. Lots of things offend lots of people. But it is impossible to work out how best to proceed, to behave decently, if you do not believe that someone has been offended. Listen!)

I guess scepticism makes us feel clever, the opposite of gullable.  It is a bit like when you read a murder mystery and you've got your eye on the friendly tea-sipping parson for the murder, as opposed to the ill-mannered thug of a scarf salesman who was found with the body. Only, in the last book, you fancied him for the village fete poisonings when he had a rock solid alibi, and in the book before, you had him down as chief suspect for the bank robbery when he wasn't even in the country. Sooner or later, you've got to admit you've got it in for that parson or else, at the very least, you're behaving as if you do.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Mary Seacole vs. Admiral Lord Nelson

When I was at school, we didn't hear about Mary Seacole.  In fairness, we missed her period, but British history, despite being a history of migration, immigration and colonisation involving, at peak, around a fifth of the world's population, was the history of white straight men.  When we came across a woman, any woman at all, I paid attention. For example, Rosa Luxemburg is a footnote to the story of post First World War Germany, where various extremist factions are squabbling over a devastated young country. But she's a woman and a Jew with one leg shorter than the other. She tried to make the world a better place, died for her trouble and had a really cool name.

Michael Gove is a strange fish, who's latest brainwave is to replace various characters in school history syllabubs with the traditional British heroes that he learnt about when he was at school in the 1900s. It's really tricky to find what he actually said at source and you'd hope that history is never taught as a series of biographies in any case, but the idea of wiping Mary Seacole from school curricula has invited particular comment. In one paper, it said they were going to swap William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole for traditional British heroes such as Lord Nelson, Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill.

I could say a lot about all those figures, but I wanted to focus on Nelson and Seacole.  They are both interesting characters - I'd invite either round for dinner - they both lived through and played a role in events that were much bigger than themselves and they were both true celebrities who captured the public imagination of the day.

It seems to me, we study history for five reasons:
  1. To understand the evolution of ideas in technology, science, religion, social justice, politics, fashion design etc..
  2. To understand what people can do for each other if they are good, strong and brave.
  3. To understand what people can do to each other if they are bad, weak and cowardly.
  4. To understand the nature of history itself, how is it is recorded, revised and understood (as well as hidden, twisted and misunderstood). 
  5. To understand the series of events which lead to the state of the world in the present day.
Arguably, both Seacole and Nelson's stories touch on all these things.

Of course, different areas of history appeal to different people.  Personally, I like pretty much all of it.  I haven't yet given in to my Mum's recommendation that I visit the local Drainage Museum, but I do know that if I went there and learnt about the history of drainage, I wouldn't be bored.  Not the first time I went, anyway. 

But history is about asking questions.  Questions such as, how come a huge swathe of unfarmable, barely habitable marshland in East Anglia was drained to make up part of the bread basket of England; who did it, how did they do it and why?  I trust all these questions and more can be answered at the Drainage Museum.  And, through what little knowledge I have of the Fens, I do know that this stuff touches on important and current issues, such as immigration (it was mostly Dutch labourers - experts in drainage - who did this work for us), the environment and environmental technology. 

I didn't study Nelson at school, but I know an awful lot about him through cultural osmosis.  He's the bloke at the top of the big tall column in the most famous thoroughfare in our capital city.  How could I not know about Nelson?

Nelson became a hero in his lifetime because he was very good at his job and he was involved in crucial military campaigns - events which held back the spread of French imperialism and have influenced British political life and culture to this day. Anti-French humour still refers to the Napoleonic wars. These wars are the inescapable backdrop to all of Jane Austen's novels, as well as being used as a setting for popular literature - both adventurous and romantic - to this day (notably the Sharpe, Hornblower and Master and Commander novel series). When Harrogate were first allowed to elect a mayor, they voted in a man in a monkey suit to commemorate the poor innocent monkey that was once hanged there as a French spy. 

But Nelson's life story is not all that remarkable.  He did not rise from humble or disadvantaged origins. He was on the right side only sometimes (Trafalgar was about fending off an invasion, but that wasn't the only thing the British Navy got up to at this time).  He was good at his job at a crucial point in history, was a massive celebrity in his lifetime and died a hero's death, defending his country.  

Some Other Facts I Know About Admiral Lord Nelson.
  1. About five miles up the road from where I sit, there is a sign that announces "Welcome to Norfolk: Nelson's County". Before Stephen Fry, Nelson was the only famous person ever to come from Norfolk.  Actually, no, I'd forgotten about Delia Smith! 
  2. Nelson had a famous extra-marital affair with Emma Hamilton who, in terms of truly remarkable life stories which tell us much about the age they lived in, trumps Nelson's any day. The story of their love affair and its notoriety, which at one point had them living very publicly as lovers in the same house as Hamilton's husband, is remarkable and comes at a turning point in British social history. Had they lived in England at any time in the following hundred and fifty years, their romantic lives would have been a dirty little secret at best, and potentially, the end to Nelson's career. 
  3. Nelson is a very famous disabled hero, with only one eye and one arm. He is quoted as saying various stoical things on the loss of his arm and almost undoubtedly returned to work within half an hour. It was, of course, extremely commonplace for sailors to be disabled at this time, whilst still being able (and expected) to continue sailing and fighting. This is an age where disability is conceived in a completely different way to the 21st century and in some respects (not all, but some) the position of disabled people was better then it would be for most of the next two centuries. But I don't think Michael Gove imagines a focus on Nelson from this point of view.
  4. Similarly, the fact that his final words were a request for a kiss from his male friend.  The fact that people still argue whether he said, "Kiss me, Hardy" or "Kismet, Hardy" is both an amusing and important point about our cultural investment in history. Nelson was dying, he probably wanted comfort or else to say goodbye to his friend, at a time when there were very different social rules about physical affection between men.  According to my very brief and inadequate research, the first use of the word kismet written down in English comes forty-four years after Nelson's death.  I'd be more inclined to think his last words were, "Ouch, urgh, bugger."  
  5. Nelson had a godson who married a woman of colour. Her name was Mary Seacole. 
Now, I know all this through bits and pieces I've picked up in books, TV and radio programmes, none of which were specifically about Nelson.  And some of these points raise questions about our past and present.  But when it comes to Seacole, pretty much all I have is questions.

Some Questions I Have (and Have Heard Asked) About Mary Seacole

I know much less about Seacole than Nelson.  I'm not that interested in her time and place, so I haven't read up on her, but I have heard some questions asked about her, and have others of my own. 
  1.  Was Mary Seacole black?  What does that even mean?  These days, you and I would regard her as black because blackness is a political status, but the exact pigment of her skin seems to have been and remains a cause for a great deal of analysis and speculation.  Even she wrote about herself as "only a little brown."  Why would anyone care so much?  It's very like the way we talk about sexuality and disability today, struggling all the time with the non-binary nature of identity.
  2. What was it about Mary Seacole's life which made it possible for her, as a fat single middle-aged woman of colour, to do all kinds of things that were unthinkable for the vast majority of women within British and Jamaican culture at that time? She traveled, she ran her own businesses and whilst not coming from quite the bottom rung of society, she rose to fame and respect which had her massaging the Prince of Wales' gammy leg. Was this something in Seacole's character? Did her marginalised identities mean that she had nobody in her life trying to control her?  
  3. What on Earth is a woman from Jamaica doing risking her life to nurse wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War?  What was the Crimean War even about?  (It may be just me, but I've never grasped what any of us were doing there, apart from being killed and horribly wounded.) 
  4. How could someone be so famous in their lifetime and then disappear from the history books, when the activities and events they were involved in (the nursing revolution that took place in the Crimean War) continued to be read and studied?  What is it about Florence Nightingale - a figure not without her own controversies - that means that every one of us knew who she was before we left primary school and I only heard of Mary Seacole about ten years ago?
  5. Is some of Seacole's history completely made up? Apparently, she wrote an autobiography - the very first by a black woman in the UK - which some consider to be something of a fiction.  Florence Nightingale said she had an illegitimate daughter and was running a brothel on the front-line of the Crimea War.  Is Seacole overrated because we are desperate for a heroic black woman in this part of our history? Is she a politically correct construct, as the Daily Mail would have you think? 
You can never look at two characters in history and say that one is more important.  As I said, history shouldn't be all about biography anyway.  Oliver Cromwell is a terrifically important figure - probably the closest we have had to a Stalin or Hitler - but you couldn't possibly study him outside the full context of everything that was going on at the time (pretty much the most important period of our political history - everything we are comes from what happened during and directly after his lifetime). 

However, there are lives which raise more questions about our past and our lives today.  I suspect that Mary Seacole is more useful to study than Nelson - and kids will learn about Nelson anyway.  And yes, it does matter that she is a black woman.  Race and gender matter both in the context of her story and the way we tell it - or try to dismiss it - today.