Sex work and disability: a crucial need seldom spoken about

Jonathan Dockney
Photo by GroundUp staff.
Jonathan Dockney

On 19 July 2013, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) hosted the Sisonke Open University Seminar on sex workers and people with disabilities. Ntokozo Yingwana, an Advocacy Officer at SWEAT, said that the seminar dealt with disability in the sex industry. She said she hoped the conference would help lift the stigma on this topic.

For many people with disabilities, sexual contact with themselves and other people is difficult. Many disabled people are unable to fulfil their basic needs without some form of assistance. In the case of people who have acquired a disability (as opposed to having been born with one), they may have to relearn sex.

Sex workers can have an important role assisting people with disabilities to express their sexual needs, particularly in cases where some clients are severely handicapped.

The seminar was live-streamed across the country to Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Musina. About 60 people participated in Cape Town.

Guest speakers shared their experiences. Discussions focused on legal and human rights issues, the particular needs and vulnerabilities of disabled people, and the therapeutic role of sex services.

Jacques Lloyd, South African National Aids Council Disabilities Sector representative, spoke of the vulnerabilities that disabled people face concerning their needs and their safety. Some physically disabled people need assistance in preparing for sex. He was aware of cases where disabled people had been abused and exploited by sex workers.

SWEAT’s Yingwana said disabled people needed to be included in conversations addressing these concerns.

Dr Sumaya Mall, a psychology post-doctoral research fellow fellow at Stellenbosch University, spoke about the human rights associated with sexuality and people with disabilities. She raised several issues: how HIV has forced us to critically think about disabled people’s sexuality; how, considering human rights, disabled people should be able to have a healthy sexuality; how sex workers can play a vital role.

A film called The Scarlet Road was also screened about the sex industry in Australia. The film follows the life of a sex worker, Rachel Wotton. Some of her disabled clients are interviewed in the film. They spoke about how Rachel and other sex workers have helped them to improve their lives and sense of self worth.

Priscilla, a transgender male sex worker who attended the workshop, said she had learned that sex services comprise just one element. In some cases, sex workers build caring relationships with disabled clients whose sexual needs are so often ignored. She said that in some instances, disabled clients simply enjoy talking to sex workers, which can help them “feel healed” and overcome the sense of frustration many feel as a result of being disabled.

She also spoke about how she is discriminated against by other sex workers as a result of her having disabled clients. Sex workers who attended the seminar generally felt that they learned from their colleagues who specialise with disabled clients. Brothel owners also learned about making their facilities more accessible to disabled clients.

According to Lloyd, the safety of people with disabilities, particularly people with mental disabilities, is of great concern in the sex industry. In South Africa, there are programmes in place that aim to educate people with disabilities about sexual health, reproduction and safety, such as those run by the Association for People with Disabilities.

Sex work is currently illegal in South Africa under the Sexual Offences Act. Sex workers face considerable mistreatment and discrimination from community members, police and government officials according to the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

The debate in South Africa on whether to legalise or decriminalise sex work is on-going. The argument focuses on legalising sex work in specific contexts or decriminalisation and protecting sex worker rights under normal labour legislation.

Both approaches agree that law reform can only apply to consensual sex work between adults and must exclude all non-consensual sex, trafficking and child prostitution.

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TOPICS:  Gender Health Human Rights

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