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-dating resources on the internet. Some blog about the ups and downs with sensitivity and eloquence. There are great how-to guides about 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.
Secret Diary season 2, episode 5: client with spina bifida,
brought to appointment by his father.
brought to appointment by his father.
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!