Is Sex a Human Right?

Sexual Entitlement among Men with Disabilities

Over the past several years a hot topic within the disability community has been the unawareness of the sexual needs and rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs).  PWDs are often infantilized, or seen as dependent and socially maladjusted individuals, a perception which essentially strips them of their adult sexuality. While it’s true that PWDs all over the world experience various levels of isolation and limited access to intimate relationships, it’s completely absurd to suggest that PWDs don’t experience the same needs as non-disabled people, or that they are incapable of pursuing satisfying and healthy sexual relationships with their partners. Reflecting this asexual perception of PWDs, medical practitioners and policy-makers have tended to focus more on equalizing basic opportunities for PWDs, such as employment and access to essential facilities, instead of access to leisure, travel, social events, dating, etc.

The lack of social opportunities, combined with narrow and inaccurate perceptions of disability, leaves many PWDs feeling ignored and frustrated in their love lives. As a result, the practice of sex facilitationsex surrogacy, and sex therapy have become more popular options, although they still remain controversial. In these cases caretakers, therapists, or sex workers assist individuals with disabilities to achieve sexual satisfaction either by themselves or with their partners. The demand for sex surrogacy among PWDs has reopened the debate to legalize sex work in the UK. In 2008 the Sexual Freedom Coalition organized a demonstration in which men with disabilities campaigned against legislation that would prevent men’s right to access prostituted women. In 2005 Disability Now, a prominent UK-based magazine which focuses on disability-related issues, conducted a survey among over 1,000 individuals with disabilities. The survey showed that 63% of the respondents supported the use of available legal sexual services.  Additionally, TLC Trust, another UK-based organization, works to connect caring, respectful, and professional therapists, sex workers, massage therapists, and tantric specialists who are willing to offer their services to PWDs who wish to experience intimacy.

The problem is that most of the people who seek these services are men, and most of the facilitators and surrogates are women. The Disability Now survey also mentioned that 62.5% of men stated that they would use trained sex workers, compared to only 19.2% of women. A prominent example was the highly-publicized case of Asta Philpot, a 25-year old British man with arthogryposis, who chose to lose his virginity in a Spanish brothel, and is an avid supporter of sex work to benefit PWDs.  Another example is James Palmer, the founder of TLC Trust, who began his organization after he became frustrated about still being a virgin in his 40s.  In our sex-obsessed society, I can’t help but feel that this gender discrepancy is tied more to masculinity, self-image, and appearances than the actual human need for intimacy.  Our society says it’s not okay to not be sexually active, and that a healthy sex life is a rite of passage for male adults (a message conveyed in hit movies like The 40-year Old Virgin or the American Pie series over ten years ago).

Recently, I had a conversation with a cultural anthropologist who studies and publishes research on masculinity and strip clubs. When she had the opportunity to interview a few men with disabilities who frequented the clubs, they candidly revealed that visiting these establishments was a way for them to feel normal, and to gain access to certain types of women. Gaining access to more attractive women reflected positively on their masculinity, and improved their self-image.   Thus, this practice only perpetuates the purchase and exploitation of women’s bodies, making it okay for men with disabilities to purchase sex the same way that men without disability are permitted to purchase sex. This doesn’t solve the problem of sexual exploitation, but rather equalizes opportunities for men with disabilities at the expense of women’s rights to not have their bodies objectified as trophies.

The further misstep is that British councils have condoned the practice in the past by financially subsidizing these services using funds from taxpayers, including funding a trip to Amsterdam for a man with a developmental disability, so that he can spend time with a sex worker. This is troubling not only because it introduces the aspect of sex charity, but it also sends unsupportive messages about women to movements that are working to end sexual exploitation. The pursuit of mutual, healthy intimate relationships is a right, but sexual attention by itself is neither a need nor a right to which individuals are entitled.

(For more information on this topic, be sure to visit this site dedicated to Disability and Sexuality).



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