Paying for Pleasure: Interrogating Sex Work for Crips

I recently came across this video clip from the National Geographic television show Taboo.

In it a seemingly cool guy with one of my favorite disabilities (arthogryposis) talks about using government subsidized services of a sex worker to satiate his sexual desires.  The clip raises critical sexual justice issues – specifically that society tends to view disabled people as asexual or otherwise not sexually worthy and that parents often reify those sentiments by sheltering their disabled children.

Though I consider myself to be a pro-sex feminist, I find this sort of public policy and media representation problematic for disabled people for reasons I will explore in a moment.  My pro-sex values include the belief that sexual expression and sexuality education are human rights.  I also firmly believe in the value of pornography and sex work. In fact, before I moved to San Francisco to procure a masters degree in Sexuality Studies, I anticipated focusing my thesis on a theory I labeled “pro-sex disabled feminism.”  The theory adds disability to pro-sex feminist arguments – which assert that pornography can be socially ameliorative because we all can benefit from learning from and masturbating to pornography and that sex work should be embraced and legalized to protect the rights of sex workers, as well as clients.  Pro-sex disabled feminism then argues that disabled people can benefit from watching pornography and utilizing sex work services.  I believed that this theory could be a catalyst for a real revolution between the legs and ears of the masses.

I moved away from the topic because I found something more interesting to focus on and I started to problematize policy promulgating sex work for disabled people.  Learning about the government subsidized sex work program in the Netherlands and the fight for one in Denmark makes me increasingly irked by the concept of government funded sex work.

While many disabled people are economically ghettoized, the framing of policy like this reinforces the charitable model of disability by implicating that disabled people are sexually-deprived.  It supports the already pervasive claim that disabled people are not sexually worthy and thereby must seek out the services of a professional, because few, if any, would voluntarily have sex with us.

I internalized and believed this cripsex myth for a number of years and hated myself because of it.  As a sexually frustrated teen, I felt undesirable and believed I might die a virgin.  I assumed everyone in my peer group was having sex and that I was subhuman because I was not.  This primal cry for sexual satisfaction lingers in me and fuels my work in sexuality today.  Many disabled people are sexually excluded and this is something everyone needs to confront. As one of my cripsex colleagues Russell Shuttleworth explained that “When you are growing up in a cultural context that is highly sexualised and you don’t see any models for yourself in terms of being seen as sexy, it can build barriers inside yourself.”  If this was the topic of shows like Taboo – rather than policy solutions such as condescendingly throwing sex workers at us – the disability community would be better served.

While these state funded programs are problematic, they are worth the risk to embrace to assert the human rights of both disabled people and sex workers.  When polices are in place that prevent sexual expression of disabled people, we fall into the pervasive trap of the façade of benevolence in over-protection. This is like the truly oppressive and offensive proposed piece of legislation in Massachusetts which would make the possession of erotic imagery of elders and disabled people a crime – analogous to the possession of child pornography.  Underpinning this proposed law is that disabled people have no agency or ability to consent to being represented as erotic and somehow need government intervention to mediate our pathetic lives.

Anti-agency arguments are also used to “protect” sex workers; such as the one deployed by a woman interviewed in the Taboo clip.  She explains sex work is inherently abusive and non-egalitarian. The problem with her statement, those made by many anti-pornography scholars, and in laws like the one proposed in Massachusetts is the assumption that people cannot consent to sexual activity because of unequal social constructs.  In this line of thought, sex workers cannot consent in a patriarchal society in which women are not paid or treated equal to men and disabled people cannot consent to sexual behavior because we are vulnerable.  Plenty of sex workers are vocal and mobilized to express the contrary – i.e. they have the right to work in their chosen field.  Similarly, disabled people are increasingly telling their stories of the need for sexuality.

While I do not completely embrace subsidies for sex work for disabled people or the media representation thereof, I do think they assert the truth that all people need and deserve mutually satisfying sexual pleasure. If policy-makers are to engage in this topic in a just way – I encourage following the Australian model, in which brothels are made accessible and sex workers collaborate with disabled people to meet their needs360 Documentaries did a good piece on this subject.

Beyond simply the need for sexual pleasure, what is lost in these tired paternalistic debates about pornography and sex work – is disabled people finding agency to have intimacy in addition to sexual pleasure.  Sexual agency then does not just concern sexual activity; it includes the right to intimacy, relationships and love.  These are human rights.  And despite what countless sources argue, disabled people are human enough for human rights.

In sum, please a crip, don’t tease a crip!  Happy Valentine’s Day.