In the latest episode of ‘You couldn’t make it up’, a court has ruled that it is lawful for carers in particular circumstances to assist their clients in paying for sex. The case was brought on behalf of a 27-year-old mentally disabled man who was described as wishing to ‘fulfil a natural desire.’ Since when was paying for access to the inside of a person’s body for one-sided sexual gratification a ‘natural desire’?
The ruling, unless successfully challenged, will have major implications not only for carers but for society at large. Government ministers have been granted permission to appeal the decision because it clashes with its aim to eradicate prostitution by way of criminalising the demand for sexual services.
Does a disabled man have a right to sex? Does anyone? The right to sex is not enshrined in the Human Rights Act, nor is there any evidence whatsoever that celibacy, voluntary or involuntary, causes harm. That's not what the Incel movement would have us believe, but after all, Incels are misogynists with a grand sense of entitlement.
Since 1999, when Sweden criminalised the purchase of sexual services, and at the same time decriminalised the selling of sex, there has been a global debate about the ‘right’ of any human to access sex via prostitution. Those calling for the blanket decriminalisation of pimping and puntering have come up with a variety of ways to justify paying for sex. One of the most persuasive arguments is that disabled people can't get a real date. They don't quite put it like that: more that war veterans with their legs blown off are unable to get out to meet women and therefore are left with ‘no option’ but to pay for sex.
One of the most pernicious stereotypes of disability is that it renders a person so unattractive that no one would ever consider them as a consensual sexual partner.
Prostitution is not some kind of social service like meals on wheels. A clue is that there is a human being involved – the prostituted person. The idea that men are entitled to exploit prostituted women because they ‘need’ sex is a deeply pernicious one. Where is the dignity of prostituted women? Or the carers expected to facilitate these interactions?
During research for my book on the global sex trade I visited a project in Nuremberg which offers ‘training’ for women who wish to leave prostitution to become ‘sex surrogates’, whereby they ‘teach’ disabled men how to have sex. This is nothing more than prostitution by any other name.
Providing sexual services to disabled men is seen as an altruistic service. But why should anyone be entitled to sex by arguing that they are ‘undatable'? What about men that are conventionally unattractive, or boring and tedious, and those with poor hygiene? Should they also be provided for?
In 2015 I took part in a TV programme debating whether prostitution should be legalised. On the panel was an a young, severely disabled man sitting next to his mother. The mother explained that John had been hit by a car aged five and since then had used a wheelchair. As he entered puberty she decided that to meet his ‘sexual needs’ she would take him to a brothel. She was so delighted with the consequences that she decided to buy him his own brothel. The audience clapped with delight on hearing this story. I wonder what the response would have been had she told the same story but about an able-bodied man?
The majority of nurses and carers for elderly and disabled men are female. The vast majority of disabled people wishing to access prostitution services are male. Cleaning up vomit and excrement is a fact of life for carers, but the idea that women might also have to clean up after this is surely something beneath their dignity? This ruling will have the effect of further destigmatising paying for sex, and will set back the campaign to abolish commercial sexual exploitation in this country, which many feminists and other human rights activists campaign for. It is time to speak out loud and clear against disabled people being held up as a handy smokescreen for pimps and exploiters.