10 May 2013

Disability and Sex Work II - More Thoughts after watching 'Sex on Wheels'

I wrote about the issues surrounding the intersection of disability with sex work earlier this year, and got to thinking about it all again last night when I watched the Channel 4 documentary 'Sex on Wheels'. The immature and often downright cruel reactions to the hashtag #sexonwheels implies that a lot of people's thinking about disability and sex has not evolved beyond 'disabled bodies, EWWW, they're freaky, I don't want to see that shit' and 'crips having sex, how hilarious!' (this ableist language was actually used on Twitter). And I thought in terms of depicting explicit matters sensitively and tastefully, the documentary didn't do too bad a job. A lot of people seemed surprised/disgusted that a show about disabled sexuality would show a disabled man trying to give himself an erection (their reaction wasn't so much prudish, rather 'eww, gross, I've just had my dinner!'), but what exactly did they expect? The effect of spinal cord injuries on sexual function is an oft-ignored issue, but having cared for men with SCI, I can attest that it is indeed a problem, and one that can result in a lot of humiliating and undignified situations. Perhaps I'm a bit immune to the shock factor, having cared for a tetraplegic man who had to give himself an erection in order to put his catheter sheath on every morning (I would discreetly leave the room at this point), but I don't think it's a bad thing for able-bodied folk to see what disabled people actually have to go through, especially after a body-altering injury.
However, perhaps the facepalm-inducing reaction of idiots on Twitter was evidence of why the men in the film (and perhaps tellingly, the documentary focused on 3 men and only 1 women) felt the need to use escorts and/or pay for sexual services. When people's reaction to your sexuality is "I'm scarred for life after watching that...need therapy" (genuine Twitter comment), it's small wonder you might feel less assured about seeking a sexual partner than 'normal' people (I use this in quote marks but the phrase did come up several times during the programme). Even though Leah, a female wheelchair user with brittle bone disease, was shown going out to pubs/clubs and interacting with men, the reaction of one of her prospective partners was disheartening, implying he saw her as an 'experiment' or a box to be ticked ("I've never done that before, so..."). On the one hand, Leah seemed to be 'ahead' of her male counterparts in terms of being able to go out and seek sex without paying for it, but, if the only takers she got were (as a disabled Twitter user phrased it) 'creeps wanting to have a go on a crip', it wasn't a particularly positive picture of the disabled sex life either.
The justifications for disabled men paying for sex all seemed to be along the same lines - that disabled men couldn't get to pubs and clubs to meet women (none of the men portrayed were housebound or indeed seemed to have any problem getting around or meeting people), that their conditions made either interacting with women problematic (in the case of learning disabilities) or sexually engaging with women difficult (in the case of SCIs). There was talk of the need for skin-to-skin contact. But it all seemed framed by the assumption that the male desire to have sex is a need or a right which must be unquestioningly met, by any means necessary. And as both a care worker and a feminist who still struggles with the ideologies used the justify sex work, I really question that assumption. Even the description of the programme on my FreeSat box used this language, calling sex 'that most basic human need'. Er no, folks, I think we'll find oxygen, water, food and shelter come under 'basic human needs', not sex. Yet we saw the poignant struggle of the mother of John, a young man with a learning disability, who'd decided that the best way to deal with her son's 'loneliness' was to hire a sex worker for him to lose his virginity with. We weren't told if she'd considered other ways of helping John meet a woman - helping him to do online dating, or to access the community. He certainly wasn't housebound or incapable of socialising - we saw him playing football with other able-bodied men his age, and working at horse-riding stables. Yet for whatever reason his mother felt that his journey to discovering sex was one that had to be paid for.
While John's mother came across as incredibly well-meaning (not to mention pained and conflicted), and I don't judge her at all for her actions, I feel her quest was misguided. She was conflating female affection and company with sex, and assuming that sex would make her son 'a man'. As John himself pointed out, laughing 'I've been a man since I was 18!' - but the implication was obviously that until he had had sex, he was not, as a 26 year-old virgin, a 'normal' man. While the sex worker who visited John came across as sensitive, level-headed and compassionate, it all just seemed so contrived as she got ready in thigh-high boots and lingerie. How exactly was this going to relieve John's 'loneliness'? If he went on to make acquaintances with non-sex worker women, I didn't think that this experience was setting him up with particularly realistic expectations of what women act like or dress like in the bedroom. Also, the punchline was that after losing his virginity to the sex worker, John did go on to start dating a girl he met at a Christmas party. So, one couldn't help but wonder, was any of this actually necessary? Perhaps his first sexual experience had given him the confidence to approach the girl, but are we to believe that he would have been incapable of doing it as a virgin? By assuming that John was so socially incapable (a notion belied by the fact he actually went to a Christmas party in the first place) and that his first sexual experience had to be manufactured in this way, I feel that his mother ended up indavertently doing John and other learning disabled individuals a great disservice. There was also the somewhat offensive implication that virginity is a burdensome badge of unattractiveness that you should be eager to be rid of.
The attitude towards women and sex that this way of thinking promoted was pretty depressing to see. Watching John's friend flick through lists of available escorts on a computer reminded me of doing one's Tesco shop online, and made it feel distinctly as if the women were products to be selected. Much as I have tried to get on board with the defence that sex workers mount when accused of selling their bodies - namely that they sell their labour/services, not their bodies, just as everyone sells some kind of labour under capitalism - I don't think you can honestly divorce the job from the body. After all, escort sites are all about pictures, pictures of women dressed up and posed in the kind of way men are expected to like (lots of black and red lingerie, bending in various positions and lots of pouting and come-hither eyes). If sex work was really just about 'services', presumably the picture would not be necessary and you could just list the services offered. I think my biggest ideological problem with sex work is that it contributes to and endorses a picture of female sexuality that has nothing to do with female pleasure, and everything to do with male desire. While I'm not na├»ve enough to imagine that there aren't sex workers who enjoy what they do and exercise a great amount of control and choice over who they see, what they do and what they wear, my problem is that nothing about the concept of women selling sex to men promotes those things. In my view, it actively erodes it. The sexual desires, clothing choices and personalities of the women on those escort sites may have been partially present in their profiles, but I'd imagine were largely manufactured to flatter the ego and cater to the desires of the particular men considering the escort. As a feminist, I find it difficult to defend this, when I believe one of the most important tenets of feminism is fighting for free expression of female sexuality, unimposed upon by male demands (although this is not the same as saying I support hating on, shaming or imposing draconian laws on sex workers, as I believe that is equally anti-feminist).
All that said, it was interesting to see the experience of Karl, a man who had lost a great deal of his physical fitness after a spinal cord injury, and had seen his previously active sex life compromised by SCI-induced erectile dysfunction. Convinced that getting his erection back was the only way he would truly be happy (which I do think says a lot about how damaging prescriptive models of what constitute good sex can be), Karl ended up going to see a sex therapist/surrogate/healer. What actually took place between the two was tastefully glossed over, but we did see both Karl and the therapist completely naked together, and a lot of touching/stroking/cuddling which he clearly enjoyed. Divorced from the tacky-feeling tropes of naughty lingerie and seedy hotel rooms, this portrayal of a disabled person seeking sex came across as a lot less depressing, couched as it was in the kind of imagery we're more used to seeing in, say, reiki healing or reflexology. A friend of mine who is anti-sex-work said to me during a debate on the issue that she approved of this kind of holistic therapy, but not the dominant model of hiring someone just for mechanical, impersonal sex. I asked her at the time if that wasn't just making false distinctions, implying there's a 'right way' to do sex work and it's OK as long as it's all spiritual and touchy-feely and compassionate? Obviously I was making that value judgement myself, by virtue of the fact I felt less uncomfortable, and had fewer objections, watching this example of sex work than I did with others portrayed in the show. Maybe it was because the therapeutic angle was clear - Karl was being helped with a concrete problem and the therapist was not moaning, writhing or faking orgasms to make him feel good, but instead was engaging with his body much like a masseuse or reiki healer might. That said, we didn't see if any penetration took place, and if it did, that part might have looked a lot less 'therapeutic'.
The documentary raised a lot of questions for me, in terms of assumptions we make about sex. I object to the assumption that there is a 'right' to sex which permeated it, because I do believe that being intimate with another person's body is something you should have to work for. And I don't mean 'work for' in terms of buying drinks, expensive meals or jewellery, but rather work for by engaging with that person on some level. That engagement might only be a quick chat, or it might involve months of slowing getting to know someone, but I do think it should take more than a click of a button. Because otherwise, for all the insistence that sex workers don't sell their bodies, being able to order sex online like a bag of salad does seem pretty close to suggesting women are purchasable. I don't buy the excuses given about it being too hard for disabled men to meet women, because all the men in show were able to go out and about (we saw one doing karaoke), and as I've said above, one did a meet a girlfriend during the filming of the show. With online dating (which is what one of my disabled female friends uses), meeting people from the safety of your home is also easier than it's ever been, and if my experiences with online dating are anything to go by (and I mean the offers I received as well as the few I acted on), there are plenty of people who are up for no-strings-attached sex if that's all a person really wants. So the justifying of sex work via the 'needs' or the 'rights' of disabled people - and in the case of this documentary, it was only disabled 'men' whose needs for sex were justified thus - just doesn't ring true for me, based on this documentary or my real-life experiences with disabled people.
You might ask, what's really the difference between a one night stand and paying a sex worker? Probably not much, in terms of the interaction that actually takes place. But my objection is that one enshrines the entitlement of a man to sleep with a woman, whereas the other only reflects the freedom of two individuals to sleep with, or not sleep with, whoever they want. And yes, I know many sex workers would argue they are free to choose their clients, but that argument only extends so far in a job where turning down clients is obviously going to decrease your earning potential. It's also not the 'choice' to do the work that I'm denying. What I'm objecting to is about the social structures that this work feeds into - the still all-too-dominant idea that says men NEED sex at all costs, women must supply it regardless of their own wants and desires, and women who are lonely or horny will just have to live with the fact nobody wants them, and head to Ann Summers instead.

While the documentary unfortunately probably did little to change the minds of those who view disabled people as gross or comical (and who talk about the sex workers who visit them in slut-shaming terms), it did raise a lot of interesting questions about how we frame and view sexuality in this society - the pressures heaped upon men to assert their masculinity through fucking, the propagation of myths about the male sex drive, the often-invisibilised sexuality of disabled women. But it was disappointing in its assumption that sex must be obtained via any means necessary, and its failure to question why the obtaining of it must automatically, for disabled men, involve paying for it.

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