When I read Emily Lazatin’s Huffington Post article about a new Vancouver-based prostitution agency catering toward disabled men, I felt compelled to respond from my perspective as a woman with two developmentally disabled brothers (one blood-related, one in-law) and roughly a decade of work experience in Special Education and respite care. I’ve also spent nearly 10 years providing practical support to a group of former sex-industry women who do self-advocacy. I hope the combination of these experiences gives me adequate license to address the topic of disabled men using prostitution.
My brother, who has both Down Syndrome and Autism, was born two months before I started Kindergarten. The relationship I have with my brother has had a profound impact on me. It has been central to the formation of my personality and my choice of study, my career, and even my spouse. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this article would carry more authority if I were a woman with disabilities myself, but I’m not. I have a point to make nonetheless.
This may come as a disappointment to you if you don’t have much experience with disabled people beyond Forest Gump or I am Sam, but individuals with disabilities do not exist exclusively to inspire the mainstream population and they are not immune to feminist critique. An uncomfortable but integral part of honouring the humanity of people with disabilities is recognizing that, not only can they be feminists and feminist allies, but they can also be misogynists, racists, and ableists. Frankly, I would suggest that disabled men who use prostitution to satisfy their sexual appetites are often a combination of all three.
When I hear non-disabled people frame the use of women in prostitution by disabled men as a human rights or sexual expression issue, my blood boils. There are three false statements implicit in this argument. The first is that disabled people are so sexually unappealing that no one would have non-paid sex with them. The second is that sexual preferences are a human right. The third is that the sexual appetite of disabled men should take precedence over the advancement of women’s equality. Let’s address these in order. Shall we?
People with disabilities do not need prostitution in order to have intimacy or to have sex. Many disabled people have sex with each other or with non-disabled people. Typically in the community of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, individuals will have sexual relationships with others at a similar cognitive level to minimize the risk of power imbalance. The matching of cognitive abilities is not a concern for people whose disabilities are physical; indeed, I know of many with fully-abled partners. People with disabilities have dating relationships. They have marriages. They have casual sex. Occasionally they’re doing it in inappropriate locations or contexts but, trust me, they’re doing it. Get over it. If you as a reader were patting yourself on the back for being progressive enough to think that disabled people could have sex, you can stop now and don’t let your prejudiced condescension hit you in the ass on the way out.
This brings us to our second point. Sorry Ghomeshi, but sexual preferences are not a human right. They never have been and they never will be. As a result of porn culture, however, a lot of men in general (including men with disabilities) end up believing that not only do they have an inalienable right to partnered sex, but they also have the right to have sex with women that look and act like the women they see in porn. It is a grave mistake to conflate sexual preferences with sexual expression. We as humans are all sexual beings but partnered sex is not a requisite part of sexual expression. Some of us will have other people that play a role in our sexual expression and some of us (including both disabled and non-disabled people in my life) may not. On the other hand, when it comes to “physical intimacy” (as many sex industry lobbyists like to call it), sexist, racist, and ableist expectations (such as the desire to only have sex with thin, able-bodied women with hairless vulvas and perky breasts or the desire to sexually act out racist tropes) aren’t helping anyone. Prostitution harms intimacy development in non-paid relationships because it teaches men to order women the way one might order an americano misto.
Lastly, disabled men’s sexual desires cannot take precedence over the advancement of women’s equality. Even if partnered sex were a human right, it would not justify the existence of prostitution — a system of deeply entrenched inequalities. I’m not going to detail the “women’s liberation approach” to prostitution here (some call it the “Nordic Model” position and some call it the “abolitionist” position) but I would encourage readers to look into it in order to put my point into context. One tenet of this position is the idea that, unlike Nico from the Huffington Post article, the majority of women in the sex industry enter because of desperate material need. Even if disabled men weren’t able to find willing partners, would it be just for the most marginalized demographic of women — many of whom are physically, intellectually, or developmentally disabled themselves — to provide this “service?” I believe not. It’s unacceptable to pit the interests of two vulnerable people groups against each other.
I do recognize that society must be improved to make sex more accessible and enjoyable for people with disabilities. However, I do not see prostitution as part of this advancement. In fact, it is antithetical. We need to look to communication technology, mechanical technology, and public education instead. My brothers hold women in the utmost respect as their family members, friends, support staff, and caregivers. They don’t use prostituted women and they don’t need us to feel sorry for them. Any society that offers up prostitution to people with disabilities as a substitute for mutually gratifying, unpaid sex is a very regressive society indeed.
Jess Martin is the founding member of Exploited Voices’ Allies, a group of advocates taking leadership from former sex-industry women. She lives in Vancouver.