Disability and the Sex Industry

The recent changes to the benefits system in the UK have seen masses of disabled people thrown off disability benefit. In some cases leaving them to cope with the demands of jumping through the hoops of job seekers allowance and others seeing them cut off benefits entirely.  In such a climate, people will seek to survive in any way possible.  One such method is survival sex, but the intersection of disability and the sex industry is complex, and murky, area.

The current reassessment of disability benefits in the UK is causing massive levels of problems.  Disabled people are being thrown off benefits and left without the means of survival through a calculated attempt to reduce the social welfare bill.  The ATOS assessments have been roundly condemned by the vast majority of the medical profession and in particular, people with hidden disabilities – such as mental illness, are very poorly served.

Two of the strongest indicators for mental health difficulties in women are the experience of sexual violence and poverty.  More than half of all women who have experienced gender based violence suffer mental health difficulties while poverty is a known risk factor for mental ill health.   These factors are also highly correlated with women’s entry into the sex industry.  Women who have experienced ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of a relative or intimate partner are massively over-represented in the industry, and it is poverty which frequently drives women into the industry.

Women are aware that when in a difficult financial situation, sexual favours can be granted for the basic necessities of life, and many women on facing such will enter into sexual relationships that they would not have freely chosen under other circumstances – be that exchanging sexual favours for “hospitality”, moving a casual sexual relationship to a live-in arrangement, accepting sexually exploitative work, such as lapdancing, that they would have declined under other circumstances or more direct exchanges of sexual activity for cash.

There is already evidence that female students are turning to prostitution to fund their studies and that younger mothers who are being badly hit by other changes also exchanging sex for survival.  Making the links between poverty and experience of sexual violence as risk factors for both mental ill-health and participation in the sex industry, at a time when ATOS are leaving mentally ill women destitute creates a perfect storm for the influx of women with such difficulties to enter the industry in even greater numbers, and – given the links between prostitution and PTSD – exacerbating their illnesses.

For some, however, it would seem that disability isn’t a risk factor for sexual abuse through prostitution, but an excuse to for it.   The Chaseley nursing home in Eastbourne has been facilitating prostitution within its care homes.  The former manager explains…

 If you have a resident who is groping staff, one way of resolving that problem is to get a sex worker in who is trained to deal with that situation.

Care homes have a duty of care to their staff and it is perfectly appropriate that they should explore ways of solving the problem, but the idea that sexual harassment can be “resolved” by the provision of someone who is paid to accept it is abhorrent.   The former practice of care workers procuring sexual services for clients has now ended as the care home has enlisted the services of an “independent consultant” to procure women on the resident’s behalf.  The care home claims that this is a valid approach because the residents have no other outlet for their sexual frustration, but the idea of promoting commercial sex as a solution is deeply harmful. Yet when some residents of a care home did decide to have some mutual consensual interpersonal interaction, the response of the home was to kick them out on their ears.

When I worked in a special needs school with young adults, a decade ago, the sex-education provided was woefully inadequate.  It was tacitly assumed that those that we taught would not have sexual relationships and to provide them with too much information about sexual activity would be frustrating and damaging.  The one exception to this was a very sweet teenage couple with Downs Syndrome, who were due to get married the following year.  A rather quaintly titled “Marriage Preparation Course” had been put together – covering not only the biological and mechanical basics, but  with lots of information, presented very simply, about reading another person’s body language in a sexual context, appropriate behaviour in public and in private, on obtaining consent and with some key phrases that they could use to communicate both desires and boundaries.

It was a great course, and although I haven’t thought of them for many years, I hope that they are still as happy with one another as they were as teenagers; whether the marriage survived or not, I am sure that the tailored sex education that was given would have given them a level of sexual confidence, respect for other people’s boundaries and personal awareness that they may not have otherwise obtained.  But it was disappointing that the other teenagers, who had not established a substantive relationship, did not have the same opportunity.

What was provided to the other teenagers was a great deal of warnings of bad touching, of what to do if they felt that someone was pressurising them sexually and where they could go to get help and support.  Given that people with learning difficulties are sexually abused at a far higher rate than the general population, it is appropriate that they are given advice on how to protect themselves, but without positive guidance, many young adults with learning disabilities grow up feeling both frightened of others sexuality and overwhelmed by own.

There is indeed a role for care workers in facilitating sexual experiences for disabled people.  Many disabled people – particularly those living in care homes have difficulty meeting others, while the establishment of sexual relationships with others in the home is often frowned upon. A more positive attitude to disabled people as potential lovers, rather than as potential sexual preditors to be diverted to the sex-industry to keep them from imposing their base desires on respectable women would go a long way to solving the frustration which goes way beyond mere sexual need.  Enabling opportunities for disabled people to form sexual relationships based on mutual desire is both more healthy and more respectful. Moreover, many – particularly people with physical disabilities – find difficulty positioning themselves and their partners, in a way which is mutually desired – again, there is a role for care workers to assist with the mechanics of the physical arrangement needed for people who desire sexual activity with one another to achieve it.  This is not “sex-work”, but care work in a sexual context.

It would seem for some in the sex-industry, the behaviour of Chasely isn’t exploitative enough.  There are currently plans to establish a brothel exclusively for disabled clients.  It claims that this is a “sexual enabling service” and as mentioned above there is a role to be played assisting disabled people to physically manage their relationships with their lovers, This “service”, however  is run by a former pimp, who has links to a sex-industry pressure group, the TLC trust, which supports disabled sexual preditors to demand that the government  gives them grants to procure prostitutes – muddying the waters between legitimate care work including elements of sexual assistance, and sexual exploitation.

The double standard narrative in discources of sex work and disability is evident.  Many women are being left disabled through PTSD or physical attacks through their experiences within the industry while the current disability benefits regime likely to be penalising women with hidden disabilities, who can be forced into survival sex, including prostitution.  At the same time the sex-industry is being promoted as a “solution” to the sexual desires of disabled men and even as an entitlement.

Disabled people  face many challenges at the moment, their rights are being systematically eroded, but the standards which apply to everyone to obtain meaningful consent for sexual engagement is not negated by their disability.  It is not acceptable that disabled women should have their sexual autonomy denied as they are forced into prostitution through the denial of subsistence while disabled men defend and demand the right to abuse women as “compensation” for their condition.


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