Thursday, April 21, 2011

Belle de Jour on Sex and the Disabled

As a physically disabled woman, I know first-hand how invisible we are within the culture when it comes to meeting or even discussing our sexual needs.

I have blogged about my own situation extensively, that is why it was so heartening to read a wonderful and insightful post by Dr. Brooke Magnanti, the real woman behind award-winning erotic U.K. author Belle de Jour.

The post appeared on Brooke's new blog, Sexonomics, which launched earlier this month.

Brooke writes that many clients (I assume women as well as men) who frequent prostitutes have various types of disabilities. Sex workers provide these disabled people with a level of unconditional acceptance and lack of judgment little experienced in the "real" world. They have also learned the requisite skills to provide each client with the maximum pleasure possible.

I cannot tell you how important talking openly and honestly about this topic is. It is also incredibly freeing to be able to acknowledge that I remain a sexual being despite my disability. Bravo to sex workers who understand that, too bad that information has not percolated up to the general population!

Brooke has a unique and important voice that should be taken seriously about many topics that happen to include sex work and sex workers.

In 2009, Brooke revealed her identity after a newspaper was about to disclose it without her permission. Brooke, formerly of Bristol, England, was a noted scientist whose specialist areas were developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and had worked at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health as part of a team that researched the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

But, from 2003 to late 2004, Brooke worked as a high-class call girl for a London escort service. She has written an award-winning blog and several bestselling books based on her experiences as a sex worker. Her writing also formed the basis of the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl on Showtime, starring Billie Piper in the title role of "Belle."

Please read this great post in full below, or visit Brooke's new blogsite:


Sexual Ability

One of the more common questions I am asked as an ex-sex worker is "what sort of a man uses prostitutes"? The answer, if I'm feeling flippant? "All of them."

The reality is that while sex workers can (and we certainly do) have a laugh among ourselves about certain annoying client 'types', it's really no different from a group of friends laughing about non-paid dates. Sex work literally does take all kinds.

One of the most frustrating stereotypes is that of the faceless, nameless, conscience-less "John" who is somehow both ubiquitous (he'd have to be, to be supporting the fictional 80,000-woman-a-year forced sex trade) and at the same time, not a person anyone will admit to having met. Because we'd hate to think people we know bought sex, wouldn't we? And yet, of course they do!

Anyway. One of the best tools to challenging this assumption is asking those who stereotype clients: what about disabled people?

There are all kinds of disabilities, and these have all kind of effects on the sexual lives of people. Some people experience varying degrees of difficulty; others make use of mating-and-datingresources on the internet. Some blog about the ups and downswith sensitivity and eloquence. There are great how-to guidesabout the mechanics of wheelchair sex on the web. There's all manner of great stuff at Outsiders. And of course there is the legendary Bob Flanagan.

But the truth is, even with help, guidance, and guides, it's just not always easy. And so disabled clients are a significant part of the client base for sex workers. If you have been a sex worker for any length of time, you have had a disabled client. And they have probably made you see things somewhat differently. Now, disabled people are not the majority of most sex workers' clients, but they're a significant group.

It's well-known what the effects of denying human touch are to babies and children, but few people consider the effects on adults. In my opinion, touch is a basic human need... so basic, it might as well be at the base of Maslow's hierarchy alongside sleep, food, and all the other physiological needs.

The environment in which most of us operate is almost callously unable to provide this need to those who don't easily fit in physically. Added to which, many adults with disabilities live at home with family members, which can make it difficult to be seen as a sexual adult. Even if you're not the most touchy-feely person, you can probably appreciate how even little things like being a different height to everyone else would have a knock-on result to, say, getting hugs. People who like hugs can usually get them. If they're standing face-to-face with others. Or if their limbs are fully mobile. Or if they have all their limbs.

And for people whose mobility is seriously limited, the most intense touch they might get in a day could be a carer or nurse changing their clothes. That is just not on. Restrictive, sense-deprived environments create knock-on effects for physical and psychological well-being. Here's a 1957 article describing early experiment in limiting senses and mobility, and the effects.

Over time, I came to see sex work as a kind of social service; many others do too. Because access to touch, to pleasure and yes — to sex — is something we regard as natural and accessible to everyone. Even to those without money, without jobs, without rights. And yet there are people in our rich, employed, democratic society who struggle to scratch this basic itch. Fulfilling this need as a paid sex worker is not about pity - it's about providing a basic service. Groups like TLC Trust openly acknowledge this reality.

With constant challenges to legal sex work in the UK (especially in Scotland, where I live), I can't help but wonder if the trendy Swedish model of criminalising clients would actually have a knock-on effect of targeting disabled clients. Law enforcement shows a disinclination to pursue difficult criminals in favour of nabbing easy ones. It feels inevitable that someone is going to start "juking the stats"* to make it look like "sex criminals" are being rounded up in unprecedented numbers. Who are those people going to be? The ones who are easiest to find and catch, of course.

A lot of folks point to the Swedish laws that criminalise clients as if they are some sort of panacaea, in spite of criticism of their actual effectiveness. And they defend them using ideology alone: invoking a world in which all who pay for sex are able-bodied, wealthy, and male. A world in which all sex workers are disadvantaged, poor, and female.

The myths perpetrated by opponents of sex work assume that men always have more power than women, and that only cisgender, heterosexual people are involved. It's not true.

It's not a realistic view of the diversity of what goes on between sex workers and clients. Passing laws based on the narrowest and most stereotypical of assumptions will surely become just one more example of bad law.

* - Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of statistics. But I'm also a fan of transparency in statistics... making it clear exactly what collection and analysis methodology has been used to draw which conclusions. Part of the point of the scientific method is to put it all out there so the accuracy of your results can be tested.

This post actually came from a Twitter discussion with another blogger about something else entirely — will get to writing about prostate massage another time!"

Posted by Belle de Jour at 05:20

If you have any interest in thoughtful discussions about sex-related and scientific topics, I urge you to follow Brooke's blog. She is a unique woman, and an equally unique writer who should NOT be missed.

Brooke's books include: Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men, 2009; Belle’s Best Bits, 2009; The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, September 2005; The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl, May 2007; and Playing the Game, June 2009.

Each one is well-worth reading and re–reading, you can trust me! You can find all of her books at the U.K.’s largest independent bookseller, Waterstones.

Also check out Brooke's op-ed articles on a variety of topics including reforming libel law in the UK, as well as the importance of ensuring the rights of sex workers.

— The Curator

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