Nobody’s entitled to sex, including disabled people

Image from The Sessions
Image from The Sessions

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 per cent of street sex workers who reported problematic drug use, the 78 per cent 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 per cent 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.

This article was originally published at Feminist Times and has been reprinted with permission.

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  • anaelir

    Very good points raised here, I just wish I could have read more!

  • “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.”

    Thank you! Apparently this needs to be said again and again, because pornstitution advocates seem to think they can lie their ass off claiming that men need sex, and not expect to be called out on it.

    • polarcontrol

      Also, nobody is stopping anyone orgasming on a regular basis. Apparently people need to be reminded about masturbation again and again too..

  • aims

    Very enlightening piece.

  • I’m glad to see someone within the disability movement challenging its sexual libertarian positions. The movement’s apparent support for prostitution and BDSM was one of my major gripes with it. Nobody has a right to sex and making me feel sorry for a person will not convince me that they should be able to automatically access a women’s body without having to interact with her and get to know her as a human being. If sex was a right we would be obligated to send prostituted women into disaster zones along with rescue workers. Thankfully, we don’t.

    That said I still take issue with the worldview promoted by the disability activist movement. It strikes me as one of those “just think positive” worldviews that I find irritating. If you can reinterpret a disabling injury (or having a disability more generally) as an empowering opportunity or a “blessing in disguise” then good for you, but I doubt everyone is going to see things that way and we cannot simply compel them to “think positively” and tell them to shut up when they state that having a disability has not been a pleasant experience for them and that they would prefer it if there were a cure for their disability.

    Another issue I have with disability activism is the implications it could have for other progressive, political movements. Marxists and supporters of workers’ rights more generally have argued, for a long time, that one of the problems with capitalism is that it compels some workers to labour under conditions that are physically dangerous and are likely to result in the loss of a limb or other disabilities. If the disability activist viewpoint is correct then such an argument will have to be abandoned because it’s based on the assumption that workers losing limbs is a bad thing, not an “empowering opportunity for growth”. If one were to consistantly apply the views of disability activists they would have to denounce those fighting for safer working conditions on grounds of preventing disability as “ableists” and claim that any factory or workplace that did not regularly kill its workers was acceptable. I understand that disability activists are not out saying this sort of thing, but I don’t see how you can avoid such conclusions if you accept the viewpoint that disabilities are a good (or at least neutral) thing.

    Then there are the implications of disability activism for radical feminism. First off, much like in the case of working conditions, if the disability activist viewpoint is correct then there’s nothing wrong with sexual relationships or acts which physically damage women’s bodies so long as the act is consensual and does not kill her. Of course liberal, porn-loving, pro-BDSM feminists would have no problem with such a viewpoint, but I’m pretty sure that radical feminists do. I can’t claim to speak on behalf of radical femininists, but I for one want women to have healthy, functioning, non-impaired bodies. That’s why I object to high heel shoes, not only do they prevent women from being able to walk properly while they are wearing them, they also damage women’s legs in the long run. If I’m not mistaken Shelia Jeffreys even goes as far as to call high heel shoes “disabiling” in her book “Beauty and Misogyny” (which I love.) Is that not “ableist” according to disability activism? Again, I’m not accusing disability activists of holding anti-radical feminist positions (although let’s be honest, most disability activists nowadays are probably liberals, since that’s the dominant worldview on university campuses) but I don’t see how they can avoid them without being inconsistent.

    There’s also this anti-war song I really like called “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. It’s about a man who fights in World War I and loses his leg (or legs depending on how you interpret the lyrics.) It clearly presents being disabled as a negative thing, so a consistant disability activist would no doubt have to denounce it as well.

    I must stress that I do not have any negative feelings towards disabled people (except perhaps the natural feelings of frustration that come from disagreement.) I do not believe that being disabled makes one inferior (or “gross” or “wrong” or any of those things) any more than being raped, having cancer or getting exploited in a factory makes one inferior, but that does not mean that being raped, having cancer, etc. are good or neutral things. Viewing a condition negatively does not mean viewing the person with the condition negatively. I despise libertarian capitalism-lovers who think disabled people are leeches or wastes of space. I also support making buildings accessible for disabled people and providing them with support in numerous other ways. I don’t oppose the outcomes which the disability movement aims at, only its view that having a disability is a good or neutral thing. We live in a society where victims and weak, “whiny” people are despised and so it’s not surprising that disabiliy activists would proclaim that they are not victims of their disability and that they are empowered and don’t need anybody’s sympathy, but I feel that such thinking promotes a hatred of people who don’t feel so empowered and happy and strong.

    I am doing my best to be sensitive and honest at the same time and I am hoping I didn’t offend anyone. I have honestly looked into the disability activist movement and done my best to understand it. If there’s anything I don’t understand, feel free to straighten me out.

    • Your interpretation of what disability activism is about is not one that I recognise at all. I, myself, have written plenty of articles against inane ‘positive thinking’ crap, and that tends to be something that’s imposed on disabled people by non-disabled people, rather than the other way round, e.g.

      Re: “if you accept the viewpoint that disabilities are a good (or at least neutral) thing”

      Disability is best defined as “restrictions caused by society when it does not give equivalent attention and accommodation to the needs of individuals with impairments”. So only disablist people think disability – i.e. restrictions and prejudice – is a good thing.

      Do you mean that the disability rights movement views impairments as a good thing? If so, that’s certainly not universal.

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment, but it doesn’t resonate with anything I’ve seen from the disability rights movement, if I’m honest.

      • Leo

        Agreed, I don’t really recognise that perspective at all. I’ve mostly only really seen that kind of ‘disability activism’ from clueless able-bodied people. I don’t really regard my disability as an entirely negative thing, though – what people may mean when they say that it isn’t just a negative thing, is that it is part of who they are. I don’t use person first terminology for myself for this reason, and am quite happy to say I’m a disabled person instead of a person with a disability, because people do need to accept me along with my disability, it doesn’t actually help if we try to pretend it’s not part of me (it’s a connective tissue disorder that’s genetic in origin), and it kind of encourages the idea that there could be a ‘me’ without it. It’s not a good thing, it’s rotten to live with on bad days, but it’s not something totally separate to me that the ‘real’ me can be rescued from, either. I’ve learnt things because of it that I might not have learned otherwise, even though it has been learning the hard way, it’s part of who I am today, and I don’t regret that or want people to feel sorry for me because of it (genuine empathy and understanding however is of course appreciated). I also don’t believe the physical pain (which is severe due to nerve damage), despite being a big factor in my chronic depression, has actually caused me as much psychological harm as the lack of understanding shown by others, from bullying at school to dehumanising treatment from medical professionals. So it being seen as an outright bad thing, even if meant only to apply to the condition and not the person (which just plain doesn’t work if it’s a neurological condition), does tend to directly lead to lack of consideration (I would in some ways be better off had medical professionals not tried to ‘fix’ me, ending up themselves the cause of many further issues).

        So, to me seeing it as purely negative doesn’t work, nor seeing it as positive (can’t stand the ‘positive thinking’ stuff), I just try to see it for what it actually is.

        As for the article, all I can say is very well written piece, I absolutely agree. As a disabled woman, I find it absolutely disgusting and reprehensible to see disability being presented as justifying the use of prostituted women by disabled men – because it is almost always men.

        And although I understand the need for caution here, because a common assumption about disability is already that disabled people have no wish to be sexual, those kind of arguments do tend to exclude those disabled people for whom sex actually really ISN’T pleasurable or wanted, too. Seeing sex as a crucial human right and need (though mostly just for men) is indeed part of the issue. There’s so much else in life, it really doesn’t have to be so important and obsessed over, that’s just boring.

      • First off, let me say that I read your article and I liked it, though I would prefer it if you didn’t use the term “inspiration porn”. I think that when people call things that are not porn “porn”, it trivialises pornography and makes it seem less harmful than it actually is. As intellectually vapid and offensive as “inspiration porn” maybe, it has little resemblance to actual pornography.

        “I, myself, have written plenty of articles against inane ‘positive thinking’ crap, and that tends to be something that’s imposed on disabled people by non-disabled people, rather than the other way round.”

        There are different kinds of “positive thinking”. You’re article deals with the type of crap that gets promoted in films like “The Secret” which assert that people have the magical ability to change the world with their thoughts. I know disability activists don’t buy into that nonsense. But there’s another type of “positive thinking” which asserts that events and circumstances which seem bad need to reinterpreted as opportunities for personal growth and that we should try to see the good in every situation. It may sound nice, but it’s used as an excuse to shut people up when they complain about things.

        I’ve seen disability activists promote the second type of positive thinking in the comment section of this post

        Examples include: “There is a difference between seeing the positive side of having my particular disability (yes, I don’t have many friends or much of a social life, but I play four instruments and read like it’s an olympic sport) and forcing myself to think cheery thoughts in a misguided attempt to make myself better.”

        Imagine if this sort of thinking was applied to domestic violence and someone said “you should see the positive side of being abused by your partner, yes he may not allow you to many friends or much of a social life, but you can read books and learn to play instruments while he keeps you trapped in his house”. I know this commenter may not be trying to force that way of thinking onto others, but I think people might feel compelled to think that way if everyone around them does.

        “Do you mean that the disability rights movement views impairments as a good thing? If so, that’s certainly not universal.”

        Yes, I did mean impairments, forgive my sloppy language. I’m glad to know that not all disability activists think that having an impairment is an empowering opportunity, but this does seem to be the dominant view among disability activists. At least this is the view I encounter most often when I encounter disability activism either online or at liberal feminist events.

        For example the wikipedia definition of “ableism” states that “The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity …..” I’m ableist by this definition since I don’t view impairment as a positive or neutral characteristic. People with disabilities who rejected the idea that their impairment was a good thing or just “part of who they were”, would be “ableist” by this definition, especially if they wanted their impairment cured or if they wanted to be euthanised. I think people should have a right to be cured or euthanised if they want to be and they should not be condemned for seeking to avoid pain.

  • Missfit

    I once saw a documentary about prostitution and people (a.k.a men) with disabilities. A man interviewed indicated that he pays for sex once a month (using the pretext of his handicap for justification), making it appear as if this was a health issue. Apparently, he was (conveniently) not aware that there are plenty of people who don’t have sex on a regular basis for multiple reasons and that there are people with disabilities that do have relationships and a sexual life. There was even the ridiculous suggestion that sexual services for disabled people should be covered by medicare. I can already hear men wishing they were disabled if that was to be the case.

    Nobody will deny that men and women who conform to the conventionally attractive stereotype ideal (including no handicap) have certainly an easier time to find a mate. But why stop at disability? What about the ‘socially awkward’ (a loose term that seems to include anybody form the shy to the rude)? What about seniors? It’s certainly more difficult for a senior to ‘score’ with the women he fancies and it is not because a man is old that he should content himself of old women. What about anybody who’s not young/fit/good-looking/confident and/or rich? And why should a man waste time in respectfully engaging on an equal ground with a woman, pretending interest into a mutual relationship? Isn’t everybody (a.k.a men) entitled to have a ‘hot young woman’ at their disposal? What are there for if not to please men?

    Feminists have fought the idea of the ‘conjugal duty’ (sexual subservience) and this idea, through the sex industry, is simply being transferred into the collective realm, continually reinforcing men’s sense of entitlement (erasing any sense of mutuality) to women’s bodies, care and time. This persistent notion affects all women-men relationships and is simply anti-equality (thus anti-feminist). And it helps trivialize sexual exploitation.

  • Rchen

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It seems to me the idea that disabled men should be able to access prostituted women is just another extension of the idea that men are entitled to access young conventionally attractive women for sex no matter what harm they may doing to that woman, or women in general. I was perusing the comments on an article advocating the Nordic model and a disabled man commented that he was unable to find a partner without using prostitutes. He claimed he needed sex of course, claimed that the woman he saw was definitely not trafficked, claimed he was “respectful” to her and she liked her work etc, as if he could really know her situation outside of work or her real feelings toward him. I wondered what disabled women might have to say to him and it was great to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    • Yes, I think it is just an extension of all men’s entitlement to women, but disingenuous sex industry activists will use disabled people as a way to forward their arguments if they think it will help.

      I’m glad it helped, anyway. Disability activists are as diverse as feminists in that there is a massive range of views, but these are mine, and they are how I combine disability activism with feminism as best I can.

      • Rchen

        It is pretty sick for sex industry advocates to use people with disabilities to try to forward their cause. Like you pointed out in the article, the idea that no one or very few people would willingly be sexual with a person with disabilities is extremely offensive. Such views only serve to further the prejudice against people with disabilities that can make it hard for them to find a partner rather than helping at all.

        Thanks for replying to me and thanks for putting these ideas out there.

  • Grace

    This is terrifyingly ableist, but who’s surprised given the author?

    • Meghan Murphy

      I’m totally confused by this comment? The author is an advocate for people with disabilities. We don’t do slander here so please take it elsewhere, thanks.

    • What part of this article is ableist?

      • Meghan Murphy

        Yes, Grace. We’d all like to know.

  • Laur

    A few points: if “no one” wants to have sex with a man with a disability, why would a person in prostitution want to? Oh, I forgot–woman in prostitution are just naturally horny and want to have sex with every man or woman they see. Clearly, if someone is disabled, or for whatever reason NO ONE wants to have sex with this person, paying another person to have sex with them IS forcing unwanted sex on another human being.

    Another point: I know a man who is paralyzed from the waist down. His wife left him. He’s also a genuinely happy person and does work he finds fulfilling. He will never have sex, but his philosophy is that people who want to complain about something will always find something to complain about and those who want to be happy will find ways to be happy. I don’t know that I totally agree with that, but it has worked for him.

    A former poster with poor social skills (he described himself that way), said he would kill himself if he was unable to see a “prostitute woman” regularly. There is no need for sexual stimulation from another human being. Giving this man sexual access to a woman each month is not going to solve whatever underlying issue makes him think about killing himself. If someone MUST HAVE sexual stimulation from another human being or they will kill themselves, they need help, not sexual access to women’s bodies.

  • Here in France we have a public nuisance named Marcel Nuss who is instrumentalizing his disability to demand access to women and–get this–Sécurité Sociale reimbursement for it. Not surprisingly he’s appealing to pity. “Je veux faire l’amour” (I want to make love). Yeah, you and millions of others, but guess what? You’re still not entitled, you gotta do it the old fashioned way: win someone over. Now, he has had relationships, so he’s not as helpless as he makes himself out to be. Link to an article in Libération, which I’ve noticed tends to run pro-male:…/marcel-nuss-touchable_871738

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  • Anon

    Good argument. No need to be sidetracked by men’s false “concern” over the rights of disabled people to get some, when they are really just concerned with themselves. How totally disingenuous!

  • Kellyann Conway

    Waste management. sewage removal, roadwork; those are “tough jobs that somebody has to do.” While anyone has the inherent right to masturbate, no one has the inherent right to masturbate in or on another person. Jacking off in or on another person is not a basic human right. Your penis is not just a job that somebody has to do.