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.

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