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Sex Workers and Persons With Disabilities

Some persons with disabilities find affirmative intimacy through sex workers.

Key points

  • Persons with disabilities are often treated as though they are asexual and may have limited access to affirmative intimacy.
  • Some persons with disabilities choose to see sex work providers to accommodate or overcome their limitations.
  • In NSW Australia, access to sex workers is supported by national health insurance for persons with disabilities.
 Image by Vance Hedman, used by permission of Andrew Gurza.
Source: Image by Vance Hedman, used by permission of Andrew Gurza.

This piece was co-authored with Andrew Gurza – award-winning disability awareness consultant.

Every few months, co-author David’s friend Miguel, an occupational therapist, drives around and picks up several clients, adult men with severe developmental disabilities.

The men’s families hand Miguel wads of cash as the men excitedly get into the van. The cash isn’t for Miguel, though. It’s for the dancers at the strip club they’re headed to. Miguel doesn’t bill for these trips but provides them pro bono, given caution over ethics and his commitment to supporting his clients' holistic needs.

At the club, it’s a quiet afternoon, but the dancers are excited to see Miguel and his clients. The performers are gentle with the men, welcoming them, hugging them, and rubbing their bodies against the men. The dancers know, as do these men’s families, that sexuality is a healthy and important part of life, especially for those with disabilities.

People with disabilities are often treated as though they have no sexuality. As a result, many people with disabilities turn to sex workers for a safe, judgment-free exploration of their sexual needs.

Co-author Gurza started seeing sex workers in 2017 regularly because he wasn't able to meet people on the queer apps due to ableism.

I was lonely, sexually unsatisfied, and I knew that I would have to take matters into my own hands. As a full-time power wheelchair user, I was scared that my disability would get in the way of sex, but meeting my current and favorite sex worker, Jon, changed all that for me. He had never been with a disabled person before me, and together we have learned and taught each other.

Using sex workers as a queer disabled person comes with a ton of stigma and shame. People ask, why can't you find sex the normal way? For Gurza, building a relationship with a sex worker allowed him to embrace his queerness and crippledness fully. Jon’s patience, humour, willingness to learn, and honesty gave Gurza his sex life back. “I think that all disabled people should have access to sex work (if they choose) because it has transformed – no – saved my sex life, and I am very proud about that.”

Bill is a computer programmer with a lifelong history of autism and hearing difficulties. “I’ve had a whole bunch of shame related to sex my whole life,” he said. His social difficulties have made it hard to navigate emotional and intimate relationships.

During the pandemic, he struggled, isolated, lonely, and confined. Bill explored whether going to a sex worker was a healthy avenue. “The first provider I contacted had lots of autistic people in her life, so she knew how to communicate with me.”

Through interactions with the provider, Bill overcame erectile difficulties and feeling “sensory overwhelmed” during sex. “I started feeling attractive again, I could enjoy sex, and someone could enjoy sex with me.” Bill sees a difference between dating versus seeing a sex worker: “When we date, the expectation is that both people do their fair share of emotional labor. But with providers, they’re willing to take on more, which for a person with disabilities, can be important.”

Jessie Sage is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the sex worker Bill first saw. She described:

In my experience, autistic clients often have difficulty knowing how to go about having their emotional and intimacy needs met because they struggle with interpersonal relationships. Sex workers can offer to these clients a straightforward encounter where the rules are worked into the interaction.

One autistic client, for example, asked me prior to our first date to lay out the specifics of how we would greet each other upon meeting. Having a very specific behavioral protocol took a lot of the anxiety out of the experience for him.

Like Bill, she saw the difference between dating versus seeing a sex worker as where the focus was:

One of the advantages of hiring a sex worker is that sex workers, unlike most romantic partners, are comfortable catering the entire session to the clients' needs without projecting our own needs and expectations onto them.

Image used by permission of Jessie Sage
Source: Image used by permission of Jessie Sage

Persons with disabilities are often taught by society to feel guilty or ashamed of asking for accommodations – seeing a sex worker may overcome that by explicitly focusing on the client’s needs and abilities.

In New South Wales, Australia, sex work has been decriminalized since 1979. Touching Base is an organization that exists specifically to help persons with disabilities access affirmative sexual and physical intimacy.

Sam Hunter is a Touching Base provider who has a passion for supporting persons with disabilities:

As a sex worker, I see women across the whole gamut of human diversity and each is treated the same way, with a genuine intimate connection. Seeing a client with a disability is no different. Sex workers provide a safe, nonjudgmental space to all our clients. The first time I met Stephanie, who has Cerebral Palsy, she simply said 'Don't treat me any differently.'

When co-author David emailed Stephanie, she described that the first time she met Sam, she was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, but that the experience ultimately boosted her self-confidence. It helped her to both understand her sexuality and to feel “normal.” “When I am with Sam, he makes me feel like I am the sexiest person alive, and he doesn’t see my disability. He only sees me and is always attentive to my sexual desires and fantasies.

Image used by permission of Sam Hunter
Source: Image used by permission of Sam Hunter

In a few states in the United States, the practice of sexual surrogacy is recognized and distinguished from sex work by the inclusion of a therapist and a clinical model. Sexual surrogacy for persons with disabilities is depicted in the film The Sessions.

Unfortunately, in many areas of the world, sexual surrogacy is not available, and seeing sex workers may be an option. However, legal issues can be a concern with both surrogacy and sex work, though surrogacy is generally undefined from a legal perspective. Michelle is a surrogate partner who explained: “If the client is only seeking an experience, they likely only need a compassionate sex worker. Unless there is trauma, I think it’s generally what most actually seek.”

Jessie Sage suggested that persons with disabilities (and their family members, if they’re supportive and involved) should think carefully about how to screen for safety and match:

I would say that it is just as important for them to vet providers as it is for us to vet clients. They should look for providers who say things specifically in their ads or on their websites about their interest in or experience with clients with disabilities or neurodiversities.

Being upfront with their provider about the nature of their disability and how it will impact the session is important, and the way the provider responds will give them a sense of whether it’s a good match for their needs.

One thing many people don't know is that sex workers themselves are a community overrepresented by disability, much of which is invisible (neurodiversity, chronic pain, mental health, etc.). Being open may lead to openness in return on the part of the provider.

Going to sex workers gave me agency over my sex life, in a way that wasn’t available to me before,” shares co-author Gurza. In New South Wales, access to affirmative sexual experiences through sex workers has been included in government-funded health insurance for persons with disabilities:

Historically people with disability have been subjected to societal beliefs that we are either asexual or hypersexual, while constantly being denied full autonomy over our own bodies.

Many people with disability also experience overwhelming stigma and discrimination when seeking to form intimate relationships with others. It is important that sexual services are recognised as a legitimate service for people with disability where they are currently unable to enjoy intimacy, sexual pleasure and release with another person, or to sexually express themselves in any other way. (Touching Base)

Note – given the complex maze of legal issues surrounding sex work, the authors encourage persons with disabilities to carefully consider these matters as they explore whether this is an avenue for healthy intimacy experiences.

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