Friday, March 30, 2012

Everything you wanted to know about intimacy (well, maybe)

I am posting this to the blog in case some people missed this when it was released by our officde yesterday.  I welcome your comments.

This week there has been media coverage in South Australia and elsewhere relating to the possible decriminalisation of the sex industry in South Australia. This has included the assertion that decriminalisation will be particularly helpful to people living with disability because of the potential benefits of their using the sex industry.

The JFA Purple Orange responded to media enquiries but we don't think the resulting coverage adequately reflected our view, hence this posting that consders some of the issues when discussing disability nd the sex industry.

The Principle of a Fair Go
As our subscribers will know, we believe that people living with disability should be able to access the same life chances as other citizens. If the sex industry is decriminalised so that adult Australians can access it then this logically and properly includes adult Australians living with disability.

For some people living with disability wishing to exercise choice about relationships and intimacy, this can present several challenges.  For example a significant proportion of the disability community are people living with intellectual disability.  There is a question about who would give consent on matters relating to intimacy. On what basis would someone support a person with their decision-making about relationships and intimacy?

A second kind of challenge is where a person might need practical assistance to take action as a result of their choice. This means for example that a person living with physical disability might need assistance from his or her disability support agency to make a transaction and this might include a transaction in the sex industry. It is not clear, if the sex industry were decriminalised, whether all disability support agencies would routinely support such transactions.

The issue is not about whether a person living with disability is allowed to make choices about relationships and intimacy; it is about how that person is supported to make and enact those choices.

The Issue of Therapy
One argument that is put forward in support of people living with disability accessing the sex industry is that it has therapeutic value. The problem with this argument is that it maintains a medical model perspective on the lives of people living with disability. There are many things in our lives that are enjoyable and bring benefit, for example going to the beach, sharing a meal with friends, watching the sun come up, being congratulated for a job well done, falling in love, earning a living wage, attending a festival event, helping another person, spending time with family, watching our favourite sports team win, and shared intimacy. We may describe such experiences a number of ways; ‘fun’, ‘rewarding’, ‘beautiful’, ‘uplifting’, ‘awesome’ and so on. Typically we won't reach for the work ‘therapeutic’ as our first choice, as in “thank you for the barbeque, it was very therapeutic".
People don't medicalise their daily life experiences so it doesn't seem right that we should do so for people living with disability.

The Issue of Paid Sex
Across a range of jurisdictions there has been no shortage of material on the topic of disability and the sex industry. For example New Zealand MP Tim Barnett, in his 2007 paper on the consequences of the 2003 legislation that decriminalised the sex industry in New Zealand, noted that one of the customer demographics was people living with disability. If nothing else, such commentary helps confirm that people living with disability are actually having sex, which might come as a surprising but necessary revelation to those members of our community who have a problem with this.
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.

One possibility why some people living with disability pursue paid intimacy might be because there are barriers, often literally, to meeting people. For many people who have an intimate partner in their life, they may have met this person at work, at a club, while travelling or on holiday, at the beach, in the library, at the pub, during shared study, and so on.

The chances of meeting someone are significantly reduced if you can't access these opportunities, for example because the venue is inaccessible, or because you are unemployed, or because you don't have a living wage with which to make lifestyle choices, or because you don't have a place to call your own where, with privacy, you can welcome someone into your home and your life.
If we were to properly resolve such issues of access and fair go, we might find that the topic of disability and the sex industry becomes less sensational because people have access to a range of possibilities for discovering friendship and intimacy. Try this 2010 article in the Guardian for more on this.

The Darker Side
Decriminalised or not, the sex industry currently is not a strong socially valued part of our economy. Whether it is fair or not, Sex Worker is not a profession you are likely to see high up on the list of trusted professions, and people are unlikely to include in their résumé list of hobbies that they like to purchase sex.  Many people in our community appear to have a personal moral struggle with the idea of the sex industry, possibly seeing the industry as morally questionable and that, by association, the people involved in that industry are morally questionable, weak or even deviant.   In this way, by linking disability with the sex industry, people living with disability might be viewed as morally questionable or people living with disability might be viewed as morally questionable or deviant because they have been associated with an industry
This unfortunate and unreasonable habit of linking disability with deviance has been documented elsewhere, for example here, and it has been argued this has been at least a partial factor in the creation of institutional services.
While it is important to uphold the rights of people living with disability to access the same opportunities as other citizens, in this case access to the sex industry, there is a risk that this will reinforce the possible view held by some members of the community that people living with disability are morally questionable, and therefore of lower social value in our community, because they want to be involved in paid sex.

The Question of Who Pays
The subject of sex industry services has come up more than once when thinking about an Individualised (self-directed) Funding approach to disability support. In any Individualised Funding mechanism there are at least some rules about what people can and cannot spend their funds on.   It is not unusual for the people in charge of public funds to get very nervous at the idea that a person might use some of their disability support funding to purchase sex services.
Our view is that this relates to at least a couple of bigger issues.  First, most people of working age have access to at least some disposable income because they are in fair waged employment.   If this was the case for people living with disability, then the decision to purchase sex services would be a personal matter based on their personal income, and would not be relevant to any Individualised Funding.
Second, it is entirely possible that many people living with disability are using part of their disposable income to purchase items (such as incontinence support, mobility support etc) that arguably should be met through fairer levels of disability support funding.  If this were to happen, it would free up some of the person’s disposable income which then is available to support other choices.

Sex is a topic that many people find dfficult to talk about.  But when we do talk about it, may we do so in ways that do not set people living with disaiblity apart from other citizens.  Sex can be about many things - desire, fun, expression of love, even business -  which makes it relevant to all human beings.

We welcome your feedback on this posting.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Will the earth move?

image by  'Leagun'
As the disability community watches and waits for the design and implementation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme, opposition leader Tony Abbott did no one any favours when he opined last month that the proposed scheme was an aspirational goal that should only be realised when the Australian economy was in strong surplus.

This brought an understandable reaction from many people within the disability community, and also more recently from members of the Liberal Party’s Parliamentary caucus.

Notwithstanding such pushback, there appears to be increased fretting in political circles about the estimated funding shortfall for the scheme, which rose from $6 billion to over $8 billion as a result of the recent Fair Work Australia ruling on pay equity for staff in the social and community services sector.  

This means the national disability debate could become framed by the timing of the Australian economy achieving surplus, and how aggressive each party’s first budget will be to deliver this surplus should they win government in 2013. 

It is wrong to place increased disability support funding in the context of a surplus economy. Increased funding is intended to advance people's reasonable expectations of ordinary valued life chances. In other words, it is about people getting a fair go, based on every person's inherent value and potential as a human being.

This includes the value of a person having authorship of their own life, accessing opportunities on the same basis as other people, being able to participate in community life, and having authentic active membership of the club called Australia. 

Upholding and advancing these values should not be conditional on an economy in surplus.  And if a National Disability Insurance Scheme is designed to uphold these values, its introduction should be based not on the arrival of surplus but on the principle of doing the right thing.

For contrast, let us look to our neighbours New Zealand.  Despite having a deficit economy that will be around for at least the next several years, the New Zealand government, with bipartisan support, has committed over 8 billion dollars to help rebuild people's lives following the earthquakes in Christchurch.

Some people might argue this is not a helpful comparison because a response to the consequences of an earthquake in New Zealand is different to a response to the consequences of living with disability in Australia.  I disagree, because there are clear similarities.

Both situations involve hundreds of thousands of citizens living with an issue that has had a dramatic impact on their prospects for housing, employment, daily living, health, and participation in community life.

Both situations will cost billions of dollars in remedies, to build or rebuild the capacity of people and communities.

Both siutations involve remedies that will lead to a positive stimulus for the economy.

Both situations are taking place in countries that currently have a deficit economy.

Both situations demand action now, because it would be wrong to leave people in such desperate circumstances.

New Zealand has taken action.  Australia has not.

Be it the large jolt of a high magnitude earthquake or the relentless multi-generational rumble of exclusion and discrimination, the urgency of the imperative is similar.  We cannot wait for a surplus economy before we do the right thing by the Australian disability community.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Relatively Speaking

Sons and Mothers is the latest offering from the No Strings Attached Theatre Company. Part of the 2012 Adelaide Fringe Festival, the show explores the relationship between mother and son, through the lens of seven men.

Devised and led by the creative Alirio Zavarce, the show opened its run on Saturday 25 February at Adelaide's Queens Theatre, a good location for this weighty, industrial scale topic. The weather had turned the venue into 'sauna theatre', and it would have been easy to be put off by the heat. However, like a Native American sweatlodge or a hot yoga class, the temperature added a dimension to the audience's relationship with the performance, a wrap of maternal closeness.

Six of the actors live with disability, and all bring a highly engaging presence to their performance, drawing on differing skills and perspective.  The effect is rich. There are moments of surprise - Ryan Rowland's heavy metal guitar riffs punctuating the story of his birth, and Damien Turbin's Olympian lap of honour in celebration of the son that he is; moments of edgy intensity, like Duncan Luke's instinctive self defence against taunts; moments of stillness, through Ben Wishart's quiet penmanship and Richard Sami's soft movements; and moments of poignancy like Kym Mackenzie’s experience of loss.

The live performance is spliced by large-scale video footage of actors’ mothers talking about their son.  This multimedia approach to the relationship is highly effective, with each actor appearing entirely unfazed by a 4 m high video image of his mother talking about his birth.

Each story in this performance has its own character, as unique as the relationship that every son has with his mother, and yet the stories work together to tell a collective tale, culminating in a final scene that tingles.

I felt grateful for the opportunity to experience these glimpses into the lives of these sons and their mothers.  It reminded me that a parent is often the fiercest campaigner for a person, there for the long haul, and whose commitment, whose stand, reflects the essence of parenthood. 

It also reminded me how boys grow into men, into a sense of their own identity.  In telling their stories, each paying homage to his mother, the actors also convey something strong about themselves and their voice in this world.
With performances through to 11 March 2012, you should go see this excellent production if you are a mother, or if you've ever had a mother.

Purple Orange has three pairs of Sons and Mothers double passes* to give away. Email us at with your contact details.  Names go into a hat and we'll draw three winners at 4.30pm Friday 2 March (Adelaide time).  Read the conditions below.

*Prize is for the entrance fee only. for two persons.  Any other costs, including travel, are not part of the prize, and are therefore the prizewinners' responsibility.  By participating in this competition, you accept that JFA Purple Orange bears no liability for any other costs associated with use of the tickets, or for any costs associated with cancellation or postponement of performance, or for any other consequence arising from your use of the tickets.

Copyright Julia Farr Association Inc 2012; Adelaide, South Australia.