This article was originally published at Feminist Times and has been reprinted with permission.
Debates about the sex industry are never far from any feminist’s consciousness, and one argument that always catches my attention is that prostitution should be legalized because, without sex workers, those poor, pitiful disabled people would never get any sex.
People who have never showed any interest in campaigning against disability benefit cuts or fighting for accessible premises are suddenly preoccupied by our “right” to sex? It’s disingenuous, and it hides a not-so-subtle disablism behind the rhetoric.
The assumption that nobody would ever have sex with a disabled person through personal choice is not only inaccurate, it’s also offensive. An infantilized view of disabled people also contributes to the idea that sex with one of us is wrong or weird, adding to the stigma and prejudice that limit our lives.
In the current media environment, we are portrayed as lazy scroungers. In movies, we are the plucky, inspirational characters who exist to motivate others into action by guilt-tripping them into thinking about how terrible our lives are. And in the medical realm we, ourselves, are the problem, with our wonky bodies and minds requiring expensive treatments that the health service can resent providing.
So it’s no surprise that non-disabled people don’t know what to think of us. If they do fancy a disabled person, questions about whether they would break during sex (hint: communicate), whether sex would hurt (hint: communicate), and so on, can create barriers that a lot of people see as too difficult to tackle. In fact, a staggering 70% of British people would “not consider” having sex with a disabled person, according to an Observer poll.
Societal prejudice runs so deeply that even some people who are disabled themselves are wary of dating other disabled people: in two examples, both published on Disability Horizons, one disabled man – worried about getting a date himself – wrote offensively about women with mental health problems, while another – justifying his use of a woman in prostitution – referred to disabled women as the ‘second best’ option.
It is important, then, to see that the supposed inevitability of disabled people never getting a shag is entrenched in societal prejudice. And, rather than fight this and challenge the misconceptions and the offensiveness, there are still those whose solution is to advocate for the right of disabled men (almost always) to have sex with a prostitute. So if you’re fighting for a disabled person’s “right” to sex via prostitution, consider the thought that you are reinforcing discriminatory ideas, not liberating us.
It may be unpopular, but it is true to say that nobody needs sex. It is not like food or water, where you will die if you go without. Sex can be fun, stress-relieving and exciting, and not having sex when your libido is high can be frustrating and depressing. However, the failure to orgasm on a regular basis has yet to cause somebody’s heart to stop beating or their genitals to fall off.
The sense of entitlement can be astounding, and the problem with arguing for a disabled man’s “right” to use a sex worker is that it is pitting his desires against a woman’s bodily autonomy. For those sex workers who love their jobs, this is not an issue. However for the 95% of street sex workers who reported problematic drug use, the 78% who report being raped 16 times a year by their pimps, and 33 times by johns, and the 4,000 people trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation at any one time, the story is not quite so positive.
At what point does a disabled person feeling horny overtake the rights of the woman who began being prostituted as a child, which is the case with approximately 75% of all women in prostitution? As psychologist Simon Parritt explains, although “everybody has a right to a sexual identity. I don’t think everybody has the right to sex with another person. That involves somebody else’s rights.”
When I see those same campaigners attending demonstrations against the way disabled people are being treated under this “austerity” government, or objecting to the closure of the Independent Living Fund, then maybe I will start to believe that they do care about disability rights. Until then, I just see people using disability as a convenient argument in support of maintaining men’s access to women’s bodies.
There are complex issues at play where disabled people and sexuality are concerned. Technology, advice, or even special training may be needed for a successful sex life, but the problems we face are a result of disablist discrimination, not some kind of innate inability to meet a sexual partner. And just as disabled people need equal rights so do women, including the right to not be exploited or abused.
Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.