Outside in: the changing attitudes to disability and sex workers

Jenny McBain hears how sex workers are enabling disabled people to have fulfilling sexual experiences

Public opinion about the rights and wrongs of sex work is ever shifting. However, there is a cohort of individuals who are consistent in their wish to see the UK follow the ‘Nordic Model’ of legislation.

The Nordic Model, introduced in Sweden in 1999, saw the traditional onus of criminal liability in prostitution flipped, meaning that paying for sex would become a crime, but being paid for sex would not.

Dr Tuppy Owens is a sex therapist, and co-founder of the Outsiders Club. The organisation is a social, peer support and dating club, run by and for social and physically disabled people, supporting the rights of disabled people and their sexuality.

Sex workers help to teach disabled people how to enjoy their bodies and please a partner

In the UK, prostitution itself is legal. However, soliciting in public, kerb crawling, pimping, and owning or managing a brothel are all considered crimes.

“People who oppose the purchasing of sex are ignorant,” Owens said. “They don’t understand how precious the opportunity for disabled people to have sex is. Sex workers help to prevent depression and they teach disabled people how to enjoy their bodies and please a partner.”

Owens meets with sex workers, readily prepared to pass on their details so that club members who wish to engage the services of a sex worker can be referred to appropriate professionals who have experience in meeting the sexual needs of disabled clients. She also vets prospective members of the club, knowing that many of the club go on to make friends and long-term relationships with her blessings.

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Forty-eight-year-old Steve has cerebral palsy and utilises the services of sex workers, after a stint of past-relationships. Steve worries a change in the law in future would deny him something he not only finds enjoyable, but beneficial:

“I think I would feel frustrated and it would cause a lot of problems emotionally for me and I think I would get depressed. I think sex workers are probably underrated by people. They provide a very good service that extends beyond sex. They are actually very therapeutic.”

Wheelchair user

Steve previously received telephone therapy from Dr Owens as well. He said: “My contact with Tuppy is very good because you normally find if you speak to a young GP or a young health professional about sex, there’s a lot of them who are not trained or who actually feel uneasy talking to a disabled person about these things.”

It’s not only the users that have strong opinions on legislation surrounding sex work, sex workers themselves, inevitably, have their own views.

Glasgow based sex worker Laura Lee think that she can provide a valuable service to her disabled clients. Studying for her BSc in Psychology after completing her law degree, Lee is now in her early forties and has been involved in sex work since her student days in Ireland.

She says, “I think disabled people are entitled to the same opportunities as their able-bodied counterparts.” One of Laura’s clients feels they are unable to make friends and socialise due to severe mobility issues.

“He describes me as his lifeline,” She says. “He doesn’t have any other social life really. For him the experience of body-to-body contact and intimacy is more important than swinging from the chandeliers as it were.”

Lee would like to see the UK take inspiration from what she sees as an enlightened approach to the provision of sexual services. She says, “In the Netherlands the government actually pays sex workers to look after the needs of disabled people which I think is excellent.

Disabled people are entitled to the same opportunities as their able-bodied counterparts

“It’s quite specialised. It takes a lot of learning. Over the years, I have learned a lot about moving and handling and about changing a catheter, using a bed hoist, etc. There is a bit of learning to be done but it is very rewarding.”

Prostitution in the Netherlands is currently legal and regulated. Dutch government currently supports the sexual health of disabled people through regulated organisations, which are free to be paid for through national health insurance, or various disability grants.

Steve would welcome such a move, however, his long-term aim is to find a new partner. Meantime, he dreads any change in the law that would criminalise him for purchasing sex.  He says, “If it came to it I would have to travel abroad for sex and that would be a bit much for me financially.”