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Disability, sex rights and the prostitute

Matthew Holloway |  18 September 2012

Disability and sex iconAustralia is seeing a divisive battle of rights. On the one hand are those arguing against people being forced into sex work and needing to perform sexual services for money. On the other are politicians and sex industry advocates calling for legislation to entrench the right for those with disabilities to be able to access sex workers.

There are some major questions at play in this particular issue. First and foremost is the question of why access to sex is being portrayed as a human rights issue in Australia.

This issue is being played out in South Australia by Kelly Vincent, a disabled woman who was elected to South Australia's upper house under the Dignity for Disability ticket at the 2010 state election.

Disability rights advocates are divided over Vincent's push to bring about the legal use of prostitutes by people with a disability. Vincent said: 'For those who are feeling frustrated, alienated, alone and sad because they can't access this experience, and for those people for whom the services of a sex worker could make a genuine huge, positive difference to their lives, in a private, intimate manner, then I don't see why that can't be allowed.'

South Australian Labor MP Stephanie Key has unsuccessfully advocated decriminalisation of the sex industry since 2010, now in 2012 Key has reframed the debate as prostitution being needed to allow people with a disability to experience intimacy.

Due to Key's past of pushing for legalisation of the sex industry, it is questionable whether she is using people with disabilities to further her pro-sex industry agenda and whether the reframing of this debate is an attempt to evoke sensibilities of political correctness by portraying access to prostitutes as a disability rights issue.

In both a national and a global climate, legalisation is on the nose and states such as Victoria and New South Wales are now considered failed experiments which have led to a massive expansion of both the legal and illegal sex industry. Such a claim was backed by former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon who stated 'Serious and organised crime is well entrenched in regulated industries such as prostitution and gaming.'

Vincent promotes the benefits of allowing access to sex workers stating it will improve the mental and physical wellbeing of those with a disability. What Ms Vincent has failed to concern herself with is the negative mental and physical impact sex work has on a prostituted person.

Many prostitutes are victims of childhood sexual abuse. Evidence backing this claim can be found in a 2009 study conducted by the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology. Women were surveyed from three sections of the sex industry; 103 private sex workers, 102 legal brothel workers and 42 illegal sex workers, 33 of whom were street workers.

The results showed that 83 per cent of illegal sex workers had been exposed to sexual abuse during childhood, and 45 per cent of licensed brothel workers and 48 per cent of private sex workers also reported childhood abuse. It also showed that 52 per cent of illegal sex workers had been raped or bashed by a client; 15 per cent of private sex workers and 3 per cent of brothel-based sex workers had had this experience.

The study highlighted that street workers were four times more likely to have mental health problems than brothel workers, but overall prostitutes from all sectors had poorer mental health than Australian women of comparable age who were not involved in the sex industry.

Vincent has stated that she believes the wonderful thing about her campaign push is that it's all about 'choice'. What needs to be questioned is how much 'choice' is present in this debate when one disadvantaged group, prostitutes, needs to stay disadvantaged in order to service another disadvantaged group, disabled people.

Sexual exploitation in relation to men with disabilities is revealed in a UK study in 2005 showing that 22.6 per cent of men with disabilities had accessed prostitutes compared to 1 per cent of women. This shows that men make up the majority of those utilising sex workers who are primarily women.

The other concern is whether the male right to sex could lead to sexual abuse of women, girls and boys. Anthony Walsh of Family Planning Queensland told Radio National's Damien Carrick:

Our experience at Family Planning Queensland suggests that many men with significant intellectual disabilities are perpetrating sexual offences. Now those are usually against other men, women or children who also have a disability, because they're the people to whom those men have access. So in effect, denying those men sexuality education and appropriate support could be increasing the risk of sexual assault against vulnerable people in our society.

In this instance it is important to discuss the need for sex education among those with disabilities; Sheila Jeffreys responded to Walsh's comments in her article 'Disability and the male sex right'. Jeffreys states:

The worrying possibility is that service providers might consider prostituted women as the appropriate deliverers of this form of 'education', especially when brothels set themselves up as specialists in the field and specially train their workers, as is happening in legalised brothel prostitution in Australia.

The sexual use of prostituted women, who are paid to dissociate emotionally whilst their bodies are entered, is not an appropriate means of sex education, or of reducing men's sexual violence. Rather than teaching boys and men with disabilities about mutual sex, respect for the personhood of women, relationships and intimacy, prostitution teaches the exact opposite.

The issue was also raised by Naomi Jacobs, a disability rights advocate from the UK. Writing in the Guardian, Jacob's argued against the unfair assumption that disabled people can only have sex through accessing prostitutes. Jacobs concludes: 'When we are seen as equal people, equally sexual people, we will be empowered to move on from the idea that we can only have sex by exploiting others.'

Robbi Williams, a disability advocate from the Julia Farr Association, also attacked the position of Vincent, stating that linking prostitution with disability rights creates a risk of association and potentially stigmatised people with a disability. Williams states:

The danger with the periodic focus on disability in the sex industry is it may create the impression the only way a person living with disability can have sex is if he or she pays for it. Presumably this is because some people assume the person's disability renders that person unattractive to every potential partner out there in community life. This doesn't seem fair or true.

A push to limit critical debate has denied the voices of sex workers and failed to correlate the evidence based approach currently taking place in European nations such as Ireland, France and Israel. All these nations are pushing for Nordic style legislation in a move to protect sex workers and end the crossroad which is liberalised sex laws, sexual exploitation, slavery and trafficking.

Equally people with disabilities are being further stigmatised and fed the notion that they are incapable of forming intimate relationships. This reinforces a notion that they are incomplete human beings, incapable of having sexual relations through any means other than a financial transaction.

Through arguing access to prostitutes as a human rights issue there is a failure to recognise the correlations of prostitution as a harmful cultural practice which furthers inequality and has silenced dissenting voices and those of sex workers themselves. Australia needs to question the motives of politicians and sex industry advocates in their push to normalise prostitution and reframe prostituted people as entrepreneurial sex therapists.

The premise that access to sex workers is a right and offers choice is a limited view spawned from a failed notion that prostitutes themselves have choice.

Legalising prostitution in the name of disability access to sex will do little more than create state sanctioned stigmatising and discrimination against prostituted persons and the disabled. 

Matthew HollowayMatthew Holloway is a freelance writer and social justice advocate from Tasmania, where he stood for state and federal parliament and co-founded Tasmanians for Transparency. He was awarded Second Prize in the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for the above essay. 

Judge's citation for Matthew's essay:

This article addresses an important contemporary issue. It is not simply whether or not people with a disability should have access to prostitutes (or sex workers, as they are now euphemistically called).

More than that, it is whether or not agencies which provide services to people with a disability should facilitate these encounters. It is whether or not these encounters should be paid for with government money. And it is whether all of us should support or question these encounters.

As I read this article, I recalled several conversations with people who work in agencies which provide services to people with disabilities. I remembered their anguish as they tried to strike some balance between their duty to facilitate the wishes of their clients, and their instinct that encounters with sex workers would ultimately be harmful to these people whom they serve and obviously care about.

This article adds another important perspective to this debate. It reminds us that many sex workers are already the victims of childhood sexual abuse, and that they are further harmed by their involvement in the sex industry.

In this way, the article exposes the moral dissonance between claiming a right for people with disabilities, while at the same time ignoring the abuse which is inherent in the sex industry.

The author of this article is obviously very well informed about this debate, and I was impressed by the number and variety of sources on which the author drew. This great familiarity with the debate also allowed the author to present the debate in an interesting way by reporting the positions taken by two South Australian politicians.

I do offer two critiques. Firstly, I wonder whether the article relied too much on the findings, comments and views of others. The author offers his own views in the concluding paragraphs. These comments and arguments are very good, and I wonder if the article would have been improved if we had heard more from its author.

In the eighth paragraph, the author reports the view of South Australian MP Kelly Vincent that access to sex workers would 'improve the mental and physical wellbeing of those with a disability'. This is a strong claim, and I think that it should have been more strongly refuted.

For example, I found myself adding the following sentences to the penultimate paragraph: 'South Australian MP Kelly Vincent claimed that access to sex workers would improve the mental and physical wellbeing of people with a disability. Given this stigmatisation, the real effect may be exactly the opposite of this.'

All things considered, however, this is a very valuable article about a very important topic. It certainly merits Second Prize in the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers. 


Matthew Holloway

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Submitted comments

The whole idea is repugnant to me.

Trent 19 September 2012

I hope you continue to win prizes for writing and raising those important issues that our culture need to discuss. Your love of being human and your concern for the dignity of all can inform any debate on the issue of human sexuality, regardless of where you may plant your vote on any particular matter. Integrity, not politics or relativism is obviously your hallmark.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew 19 September 2012

The author seems to have a vision of a perfect world where people accept and fall in love with all types of people - this just does not happen. While turning to a prostitute may not be the perfect or morally acceptable option (for able or diabled people), this essay would have been greatly improved by offering some legitimate alternatives for disabled people with a legitimate desire. This is a difficult topic. There are certainly dating sites for disabled people but these are few and far between and opportunities for intimacy for disabled people are rare. Their need to be fulfilled in this way is not a fact we can selfishly overlook because it makes us feel a little uncomfortable. I think disadvantage needs to be addressed in both areas and will only happen incrementally. The idea that we find this repugnant is a reflection on how far we have to go as humans rather than a reflection on the interaction itself. People with a range of disabilities are denied this experience and until a viable alternative is found, which will probably be a long time coming, a blanket ban on access to sex workers who are properly trained to help in this important way is not assisting anyone.

Lyndall Edwards 19 September 2012

I was only "normal" for the first six weeks of my life. I applaud you, Matthew, for your essay!

folkie 19 September 2012

The author fails to address the realities sex workers faced prior to decriminalisation and the high incidence of sexual abuse of girls generally. If you focus solely on any female population you will find high rates of abuse. compare sex workers rights here to that experienced by American ones and decriminalisation has far from failed. It is conservative policies that have repeatedly failed in this area. Having said that, criticisms regarding people with disabilities is well done and needs to be examined.

Sam 19 September 2012

In the issue of rights of sex workers and those with disability, I am intrigued that in a Roman Catholic Jesuit journal, zilch consideration is given to the rights of God Who has the right to expect adherence to sexual morality as enunciated in Scripture and RC magisterium. Such censures sex outside marriage as a Grave Mortal Sin worthy of eternal hellfire and damnation. Christ said to the adulteress: "Go and sin no more" [not "sin some more"]. Having myself in recent years become disabled by thalamic stroke, hemiplegia, cancer and peritonitis, I fully sympathise with the disabled, but Gods rights ought not play second fiddle to immoral sexual reductionisms [aka 'rights'] however politically correct, or statistically, sociably justifiable. Has Jesuit ES lost the plot again?

Father John Michael George 19 September 2012

I was greatly saddened by this essay. As someone who was professionally trained & worked for a number of years with the intellectually disabled, most of whom were severely so. I am saddened that much was made of the needs of the sex workers (NOT a euphemism; that's what they are) & so little of the needs of the disabled, especially the intellectually so. Education in this area is very difficult with those who have severe intellectual disability, especially in concepts such as 'intimate relationships' & if you think such people do not have difficulty finding sexual partners then you are wrong. I am not surprised that some find the whole idea repugnant; too many people find the intellectually disabled repugnant anyway. People don't chose to be intellectually disabled but some sex workers do choose this profession. I shall never understand how a religion that supposedly preaches love is so cruel when it comes to sexual matters. No wonder I don't follow it.

rosemary west 19 September 2012

Everyone, including jesuits, need to consider the outcomes of what they advocate. Refusing to support criminalisation of adultery does not mean you condone it. Likewise, unflinching opposition to divorce has led the church to marginalize women who leave violent husbands whilst being conspicuously silent on the violent men. The church cannot police itself, we certainly shouldn't let it determine public policies.

Sam 19 September 2012

It is a shame that the author is allowed to get away with a statement saying that legalisation of sex work is a 'failed experiment'. Where's the research? How does one define failure? Because there is a flourishing illegal industry as well? On that logic, might as well not have driving licences, given the number that drive unlicenced.

Vanda Hamilton 19 September 2012

Between the sort of organisations which are promoting the 'sex worker as poor victim' line and the organisations that work on behalf of the sex work industry, the voice of women who work in the industry is being silenced. If women have a story and an experience which does not accord with what either side of this argument believes, they are not heard.

The judge/s note that the article relied too much on findings, comments and views of others. That is because all articles of this ilk do. And that is because no-one who writes articles like this has anything original to say because they never do their own research. I have seen the only bit of research referred to in this article referred to in about five other articles of the same type.

Vanda Hamilton 19 September 2012

Vanda, many people around Australia are saying that legalisation has failed in Australia, I can not speak for many states but I certainly can speak for the problems in my home state of Victoria. There is numerous research if you cared to look, also I think the point is that illegal brothels have flourished under a legalised regime, comparing the exploitation of people through this means to licences shows how out of touch you are with the experiences of sex workers. Victoria’s legalisation experiment has certainly been a failure which has allowed all sectors of the industry to flourish. 2011 highlighted many of the problems from 20 years of legalisation with Victoria police investigating council officials taking thousands of dollars in bribes to turn their backs on illegal brothels operating in their districts. (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/councils-targeted-in-illegal-brothels-probe-20111015-1lqlk.html#ixzz1jPDK4crd) ABC’s Four Corners expose with the Age brought to light the crime syndicates operating through legal and illegal brothels housing sex slaves. (http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2011/10/06/3333668.htm) The Melbourne Leader found licensed brothels breaching laws by offering full-sex-services without condoms. (http://melbourne-leader.whereilive.com.au/news/story/illegal-sex-over-street-from-regulator/)

Megan Tatham 20 September 2012

The Age published a story about a sex worker suing a brothel where she was threatened with a gun after refusing unprotected sex. Also cited was NSW research showing women in legal brothels safety concerns relating to violence from men demanding unprotected sex. The article stated that safety in legal brothels was bureaucratic fantasy, such concerns were backed by the organisation RhED. (http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/brothel-safety-a-dangerous-myth-20110714-1hfwh.html) Illegal practices were also revealed in a report commissioned by Consumer Affairs Victoria finding licensed brothels where workers workers did not have autonomy around refusing clients, could not come and go as they pleased and were forced to work full shifts before receiving payment. ($file/CAV_Monash_Report_Brothels.pdf) The Victorian example has shown that legalisation has failed to protect workers; in fact it has lead to a massive increase in illegal brothels and has also lead to an expansion of street sex work and made Melbourne a focal point of sexual trafficking in Australia.

Megan Tatham 20 September 2012

I am appalled that Eureka St would consider this a prize winning essay. It totally lacks balance and adds to the ill informed prejudices that make real reform to the sex industry impossible. I have had substantial contact with the Touching Base Sex Workers services in NSW which trains and supports sex workers who offer services to those with disabilities. I've met some of the clients whose lives have been enhanced by the service. The sex workers are good people who decide to offer these services. Banning their services and other well run sex services is neither feminist or fair. The NSW university research data shows fewer STDs and better use of healthy processes in a decriminalised system than Vic or Qld where there are licenses that create illegality. The problems of sex workers often come from illegality and prejudices that stop good OHS and working conditions. Moralistic misjudgments and paternalistic assumptions create the environment where services become illegal and crime flourishes. I expected better of your journal than this prize suggests. I'd have failed it as an assignments for its failure to look at both sides of the data and reiterating prejudices. I am also not an advocate for the sex industry which is the first indication of the author's bias against those of us who offer alternative views. I agree there is exploitation and crime in the sex industry but its continuation is often a product of the views expressed in this article which prevents normalising good services and closing crook ones.

Eva Cox 20 September 2012

Exactly what do people who think decriminalisation has failed think would have happened to a sex worker in an illegal brothel if they were threatened with a gun for refusing unprotected sex? I doubt anyone would be sued and sex workers would be more vulnerable to criminals. Yes there is corruption but notice howUS police are very good at charging street workers but are mysteriously inferior at finding their customers. When sex work is illegal it is invariably women who suffer the consequences. After a millennium if teaching men that women are inferior to them and are nothing more than property, not to mention the women are to blame for all men a sins , this is hardly surprising.

Sam 20 September 2012

Thank you, Eureka Street, for recognising and publishing this well written, sophisticated and socially sensitive piece of writing. The author articulates a viewpoint that is well in the minority in Australian society at present. Views such as the ones advocated by Cox enjoy mainstream and industry support, and are difficult to challenge in the current climate, particularly when libertarians hold sway in the academy (and would even fail students for writing these views!). Holloway has shown enormous skill in grasping and articulating a counter-prevailing view on an important human rights issue. One of his major points--that the 'sex work as a disability right' rhetoric effectively plays off one disadvantaged population against another--is an inspired critique that I haven't read elsewhere. Holloway's ability in writing to clinically present a well-reasoned argument while still moving the reader to sympathy and solidarity with the group of women in Australian society who perhaps face the worst health, violence, and well-being outcomes of any other group really is evident. For those of us concerned about the hijacking of human rights concepts by big business interests like the sex industry, Holloway's piece is an important contribution to democratic dialogue in Australia.

caroline norma 20 September 2012

I support the right of sex workers to have an opinion on their own lives and the right to the same protections you and I enjoy at work. We've had centuries of failed policies based on illegalities. Legalization has, for the first time, afforded sex workers protection under the law which they can enforce. That's not a failure.

Sam 20 September 2012

I am surprised by the way of how references were used by the author, and use apparently not checked by Eureka Street (because this is 'writing' not science reporting?). The Nixon article, for example, is 5 years old and does not actually mention brothel legislation being a failed experiment as suggested by the author. The Queensland study provides a far more nuancesd picture than suggested by the author. The study points to significant differences between illegal and legal sex workers in terms of mental health and provides in-depth analyses of the situation. I can only recommend readers interested in the topic (and those assessing articles on the topic) to go back to the primary source!

Chris 20 September 2012

When a person has to resort to normalising the demonising of opponents for their views, as Eva Cox has attempted to do, they really have lost the plot. Quite simply, the biggest threat to the sex industry in Australia is the ever increasing uptake of Nordic model laws across the world and growing community interest in these laws for adoption in Australia. The Nordic model laws are a paradigm shift from the views of those like Eva Cox who want to ignore the major shift to a human rights based approach to prostitution in many other jurisdictions internationally. Eva, like so many sex industry advocates is unable to rebut the growing evidence that has underpinned a more progressive approach to gender equality and violence against women in the sex industry globally. It is nothing but sheer lunacy to suggest that opponents of prostitution exacerbate exploitation and crime in the sex industry and for Eva to suggest that her “alternative views”are less biased than Matt's “alternative views” is equally bizarre. Congratulations Matt for your excellent article and to Eureka Street for awarding you Second Prize in the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers. A welcome tide is turning on the issue of prostitution in Australia.

Isla MacGregor 20 September 2012

Re-comments by Sam, I think the point which many people seem to be missing including you Sam, is that of course sex workers need safe work conditions but pro-industry advocates believe that brothel legalisation is some kind of magic bullet. The truth is that legalisation does not move street sex workers from the street into brothels. In fact is it has a completely negligible effect on street sex work, because many street sex workers are not employed in brothels mainly cause of the many statistics consistently show these workers as vulnerable and having higher incidence of mental health, homelessness and substance abuse issues. How do you propose legalisation will help these people? Equally i do not think the crux of this piece in any way argued for criminalising sex workers, in fact i imagine that if the author is discussing the Nordic Model there would be a proposal for supporting sex workers and decriminalising sex work.

David Lawrence 20 September 2012

Thank you for writing about this. I've been hearing of this lately and have been disturbed by the framing of sex as a human rights issue. The pro-sex work lobbyists will do anything to make their demands more "legitimate" -- glad someone is speaking out...

BK 21 September 2012

All models have problems, including the Swedish model. I suppose the difference is that I have worked with and consulted sex workers who are silenced in this debate even though they suffer the consequences. Some have very real concerns that the Swedish model encourages violence against them. If it's illegal, the motivation of black mail and murder goes up not down. That is a problem no one has squarely addressed

Sam 21 September 2012

If you want to help homeless women you have to engage them with respect. Too often well meaning but naive individuals approach them with pity and further alienate them. That is what Eva is rightly criticizing. The voices of sex worked need to be heard in this debate, sadly disrespect and paternalism will prevent that.

Sam 21 September 2012

This article brings up so many issues I honestly don't know how to comment. All I can say is that I know Christian churches have got a lot wrong about their approach to sexuality. I truly believe that until the church - particularly Catholicism - has a serious and rational and fresh look at sexual moral issues - it should at least remain silent and not condemn faithful, good people to hell and damnation. Just as the development of physics has discovered the Higgs boson particle - which has been nicknamed the "God particle" - I believe Christian ethics/theology is yet to find the missing wisdom on the deeper meaning of human sexuality - and I would call it "the God particle" as well. The current Christian teachings on sexuality are at odds with society's understanding of accepted psychological findings. The burdens we place on people far outweigh the spirit of sexual morality expressed by Jesus.

AURELIUS 21 September 2012

Sam - i would think the article seems to be about listening to sex workers, it is those who are using the disability trump card as a way of avoiding listening to sex workers and as the article says, 'telling sex workers that they need to stay marginalised in order to service another marginalised group, disabled people.

Megan Tatham 24 September 2012

mental and physical well being? how about moral well being from institutionalised mortal sin?

Father John Michael George 25 September 2012

Oh, Father John, having sexual intercourse out of wedlock is not going to send anyone to the fires of hell. Let's stop hiding behind the fears of false dogmas. If non-procreative sex was so deadly, anyone who dared to even masturbate would be doomed. (99% of humanity - and the other 1% would be in purgatory for telling lies.)

AURELIUS 25 September 2012

Megan: the article flow is an interesting construction isn't it. I don't think it's ok to deny either group (disabled, women) the right to determine what they consider ok for them. Personally, I think it's sad that the author uses the disabled for his vendetta against sex workers and, more generally, the right to use sex as acommodity (which of course upsets religious types). Trading sexual favours happens all the time and on various levels in society. Calling the most explicit form "harmful cultural practice" is about dogma, not about understanding the circumstances.

Chris 25 September 2012

You can't engage sex workers by vilifying their occupation.

Sam 29 September 2012

Sam - maybe you should be a bit more selective of your language. I can't see your logic: how you construct your belief that concern presented for marginalised sex workers and the way they are being used in this debate by the sex industry is defamatory towards them.

David Lawrence 03 October 2012

I could not help noticing that providing appropriate, healthy family relations through marriage services and a possible marriage facilitation agency for people with disabilities was not even proposed. Marriage has been identified and recognised by all human societies throughout history to be the appropriate form of family and sexual relationships. Lying under legal, medical and social regulatory guidance, marriage offers choice, intimacy, partnership, safe sex, mutual mental, emotional and physical support, independence, and motivation to advance on all aspects of life. Therefore, an organised agency specialising in arranging courtships amongst people with disabilities and indiscriminatively the rest of the society, sparing about the same effort and capital as arranging for prostitutes minus the massive costs of legislation research and sociopolitical hazards, should have been the first option in hand. Marriage arranging and partner matching agencies are quite a prosperous business, which would revenue all stakeholders involved. Thanking you dearly for the chance to express my honest opinion. Ahmed M. Zaki 1/10/2013

Ahmed M. Zaki 01 October 2013

I believe I have been quoted out of context in this piece.in the interview on ABC radio, I was speaking about the effect of Queensland law on two separate things - access to sex workers AND the provision of comprehensive sexuality education to people with disabilities. In the piece quoted above, i am referring to the situation where a peculiar form of words in Queensland's Criminal code has made disability support workers fearful of providing sexuality education to their clients. i was not, at that point, talking about access to sex workers. It was never my intent to imply that access to sex workers was a form of sexuality education; indeed I would argue most strenuously that it is NOT. The argument I am quoted making above for the provision of sexuality education is NOT an argument for access to sex workers. i would suggest that the author's attempt to conflate the two is suspect.

Anthony Walsh 25 January 2016

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