Sex for disabled people is an important aspect of their lives, as it is for most people. But there remains a taboo around sex and disabled people. Discrimination and marginalisation means disabled people often spend their lives denied the opportunity to explore their sexual identities. Consequently, the Green Party in Germany recently proposed “sex prescriptions” for the disabled and the seriously ill, which would allow people to claim back the costs of paying for sex as they might do the cost of a medicine.
Prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2002. Under the proposal, people need only to prove that they have a medical need and cannot pay to visit sex workers themselves. In the Netherlands, it is also possible to claim back the cost of sexual services on medical grounds. But it’s not for everyone – however comprehensive Britain’s NHS, it’s hard to imagine a law allowing the same in the UK.
The Sunday Telegraph reported in 2010 that money earmarked for disabled people was spent on “exotic holidays, internet dating subscriptions and adventure breaks, as well as visits to sex workers and lap dancing clubs”. These payments appear to have been ad-hoc arrangements by individual local authorities rather than a national policy, and using taxpayer money in this way has been controversial.
However, it isn’t illegal for a disabled person to spend their benefits on sex in the UK. Benefits such as Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and the Disability living allowance (DLA) exist to cover the extra costs of disability such as “personal care and transport”. How it is spent is up to the recipient.
Research conducted by the TLC Trust, an organisation that provides peer support and a dating club for disabled people, found that most local authorities do not have a policy on the use of sex workers by disabled people. So whether any particular local authority will condone payments for sex workers using money paid by them is a postcode lottery.
It is well documented that people with disabilities in the UK are losing their benefits to government funding cuts and changes in assessment criteria for benefits such as PIP – payments that are crucial for offering disabled people a life that is more than merely survival.
Alongside the marginalisation and discrimination that people living with a disability face every day, any discussion of sex is still a taboo subject. But that has begun to change – and organisations such as the TLC Trust and SHADA helping to change the public’s perception of disabled people’s sexuality and to connect disabled people with sex workers who can help them. But the issue of whether benefits are used to pay for these services remains.
Discussions about sex and sexuality for people with disabilities have previously been ignored, because the fight against discrimination has tended to focus on the rights of disabled people to work through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and 2005, or discrimination in the workplace under the Equality Act 2010.
Despite the intimate rights of people with disabilities being a central part of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to “provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable healthcare and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health”, for the most part this doesn’t happen.
Sex and society
Sexual imagery dominates our daily lives, on film, television, through advertising and on the internet. The media is filled with images of perfect bodies and cultural rules concerning how or when you should date someone, what type of sex people enjoy, and all the rest. But the culturally dominant view of able-bodied, heterosexual lives does not align itself with the experiences, thoughts and perceptions of people with disabilities, or those with different sexual identities.
Those who identify as LGBTI and who are also disabled may experience additional stigma stemming from their disability and sexual identity, making it even more difficult for them to develop meaningful sexual relationships. So, for some, it may be necessary to engage with sex workers – and if you’re free to spend your benefits where you please, why not?
The German Green Party is unlikely to be in a position to take forward their legislative proposal, but it raises valid points about a controversial issue relating to whether there should be restrictions on how benefits are used, and the enduring taboo around sex and disabled people. It doesn’t seem conceivable that a British political party would ever make such a suggestion. But whether disabled or not, we all have sexual needs – and if we are truly to strive to end the discrimination disabled people face, part of that is to understand and support their right to a sexual life.