Periodically, the media will be reminded that some clients of sex workers have disabilities. Sadly these pieces tend to fall in the general category of "OMG hookers aren't all the same!" stories or "OMG disabled people have sex!" stories instead of exploring the serious and complex intersections of oppression, sexuality, and politics at play.
This week, Becky Adams is gaining media attention for her organization Para Doxies, a nonprofit service in the UK that connects sex workers with clients with disabilities. Adams, a former madam, also plans to open a sexual health center that specifically caters to clients with disabilities in 2014.
Though most articles have referred to the project as a brothel, I'm avoiding the term, not only because maintaining a brothel is illegal in the UK, but because the center Adams describes does not fit the standard model most of us understand "brothel" to mean, especially in the US. Para Doxies is currently a telephone based service and operates more like a referral system for clients to find sex workers who can address their particular needs.
My first reaction when I read about this was mild jealousy. This is only possible in places where prostitution is not criminalized. Even though Adams explains that not all the services provided are actually prostitution in the classic or legal sense, I can't imagine an organization like Para Doxies surviving anywhere sex work is criminalized. The legal and social barriers are too strong.
I think this is an amazing project, and love that it's being created as a service that's actually a step removed from sex work. It addresses the different needs and concerns of disabled clients while highlighting the variety of roles sex workers can play in people's lives.
DUBIOUS MEDIA COVERAGE
But I'm still troubled by much of the coverage of the project. While it seems to be "less bad" than most media on sex work, and I'm stoked to see "sex work" as a term being used on the regular, it's still not great.
The stigmas surrounding disabilities and sex work inform the messaging in insidious ways. It's all too easy to assume a hierarchy of which clients of the sex industries are acceptable, such as people who buy porn versus people who pay an escort. And clients with disabilities are often sensationalized, as can be seen in ABC's article, which includes detailed descriptions of some clients' desires, a move I find suspect in any media about sex work, but especially so here.
There is the implicit suggestion that clients with disabilities should be considered completely differently than other clients. Instead of actively supporting disabled people as a unique group of sex workers' clients, this perpetuates the demonization of clients in general and misunderstandings about disabilities and sexualities.
All clients have particular limits and boundaries. There are profound differences between recognizing the different ways limits and boundaries can be affected by disabilities and assuming that disabled clients are fundamentally different because of their limits and boundaries.
I'm deeply uncomfortable with the underlying assumptions that clients with disabilities who visit sex workers are unable to experience intimacy or sexuality otherwise. While this is true for some clients with disabilities, it is also true for some clients without. And while I don't want to minimize the struggles of dating or having sex that people with disabilities face, neither should sex work be positioned as something clients settle for as opposed to "normal" encounters.
STIGMATIZING SEX WORKERS AND CLIENTS
Presuming that sex work is distasteful but OK for those without other options is condescending and insulting to whoever "those" are perceived to be. Experiences and motivations behind encounters between sex workers and clients are varied, just as non-transactional intimate and sexual encounters are.
But casting disabled clients as somehow more legitimate than other clients does a disservice to everyone. It holds up the idea of disability granting some innate nobility while at the same time automatically casting "other" clients in a negative light.
Sex workers AND clients come from all communities with a myriad of motivations and behaviors. Addressing the sex industries without accepting this basic truth is not only misguided, but harmful. Pervasive stigma against clients of the sex industries is dangerous. It helps keep sex work criminalized and underground, ironically empowering abusive and violent clients while silencing all the others.
For me, one of the most compelling aspects of Adams's work is educating sex workers about disabilities. Besides providing professional education and training rarely available to sex workers in general, I see this as a part of a broader effort to promote better understandings of sexuality and disabilities, which is sorely needed.
Highlighting the relationships between sex work and disability challenges perceptions about both the sex industries and the sexualities of people with disabilities. I'm glad to see more of that happening, and glad that Adams is inspiring more of those conversations. But we need to push them further.
Some people pay for erotic services. Some people with disabilities pay for erotic services. How can we make the conditions under which these transactions take place safe and healthy for those involved?