By Jacqueline Gwynne
One of the reasons used to justify prostitution is men with disabilities’ entitlement to sex with a prostitute. What about the disabled men? Men with disabilities have the right to sex too, don’t they? people say. Although it’s worth noticing that this is not something argued by organisations of people with disabilities but by able-bodied people justifying the sex trade.
I worked as a receptionist in a high-end legal brothel in Victoria, Australia. Prior to that, I would have agreed with this argument, but having seen the inside of the sex industry and how misogynistic and exploitative it is, and how seedy and sleazy brothels are, I see things differently. Now I see this argument as discriminatory and offensive for a multitude of reasons.
It is sexist because it only considers men’s sexual needs and not women’s. It is demeaning and ableist because it implies that people with disabilities are too grotesque to be sexually attractive and are not capable of sexual expression and forming partnerships with other people. It is exploitative and classist because it requires a class of women to be prostituted. These women are generally socially disadvantaged and many have disabilities themselves, often undiagnosed. But that is for another article.
As a receptionist in the brothel, I answered the phones, and took enquiries and bookings. Not once did I take a booking for a man with disabilities or an enquiry on behalf of one. After I joined the sex trade survivor movement in April 2016, I became curious and started asking questions and researching this claim. I put a call out via my social media networks to gauge what demand there was from men with disabilities. I also spoke to social workers in Australia.
I got responses from 10 women who had worked in the sex industry, some for decades. They said only about 2-5% of their clients had physical or mental disabilities. Why is this tiny percentage used to justify the entire sex industry?
Carrie* worked as a prostitute for over a decade. She said:
“I saw very few disabled men but actually preferred them as clients because they did not physically threaten me like able bodied men. They were usually brought in by a female carer who, because of a duty of care, stayed to watch while I performed the service.”
“The men were so profoundly physically and/or mentally disabled that I doubt they were capable of consenting to sex.”
If the men weren’t capable of giving consent, what does that make it? Who is deciding for them? Who is paying for it? How degrading it must be for the prostituted woman to have someone watching.
It is common in Australia for female social workers and carers to have to take male clients to prostitutes. It is said that it makes the men easier to manage. But why do only female social workers and carers have to do this? In any other workplace setting, being forced to watch someone have sexual intercourse would be regarded as sexual harassment.
The two social workers I spoke to both said they had no choice but to do it. If they expressed distress about it, they were ostracised or sacked. Lisa* from Melbourne has been sacked twice for opposing the practice because she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women.
Barbara* from Queensland expressed disquiet that the men are not able to give consent but are forced to go to prostitutes:
“Disabled men’s sexuality is considered sacrosanct and takes priority over the rights of a socially disadvantaged prostituted woman and the rights of female social workers. Disabled women, on the other hand are denied any sexuality at all and it is common practice for them to be sterilised. Disabled women are often given a hysterectomy and have their ovaries removed. This is equivalent to castration – cutting a man’s testicles off. It’s considered too cruel to perform on convicted paedophiles but families opt to do this to their own daughters.”
According to Carrie, clients were often unable to climax and seemed uncomfortable being there. If it was not forced upon him by his family or carers, he probably would never have contemplated it. It is sexual abuse if he’s not willingly choosing it.
The average price for a one hour “basic service” booking with a prostitute is approximately $180-200 (Australian). Who pays? Is it government funded? How can that be justified for men with disabilities when women with disabilities are denied their sexuality entirely?
If the men’s families pay, the practice must be confined to affluent families, which makes this whole argument for the necessity of prostitution elitist, classist and absurd.
Sex is not a human right and it is not a life or death matter. A man will not die if he doesn’t have an orgasm.
Male sexual entitlement does not take precedence over women’s rights. Men with disabilities make up a tiny percentage of prostitution users and it is a myth that is used to justify the entire industry. Men’s sexual needs are not more important than the dignity and safety of female social workers and carers, even if those men have disabilities. Disability is never a reason to justify the sexual exploitation of a class of disadvantaged women. To suggest this, is misogynistic, ableist, elitest, classist and downright offensive.
* Names of women interviewed have been changed to protect privacy.
Jacqueline Gwynne’s account of working as a receptionist in a high end legal brothel in Victoria, Australia, was published by Spinifex Press in Prostitution Narratives.