Breaking Muse

Rebecca Fitzgibbon // MONA Events media manager // Mercury culture columnist // Warp music & arts magazine writer, sub-editor // Australia

Offering a touch of dignity

                           Sex worker Rachel Wotton with one of her clients in a scene from Scarlet Road. Picture: SBS


IF you were in a car accident tomorrow and left disabled, would you be prepared to give up sex forever?

Society seems to think that if you are born disabled you have no sexual needs, or that if you become disabled, suddenly all your sexual needs disappear.

Of course, neither is true.

Disabled individuals and their bodies are often treated or imagined as asexual, meaning that they must live without the pleasures of sex that the rest of us take for granted.

It’s not that they have a lack of desire, but that they may have an inability to adequately communicate their needs and lack of access to partners. And if they can adequately communicate their needs and do not fear the repercussion of expressing those needs, what is a parent or carer to do about meeting them?

These awkward taboos over sexuality and disability are broached in a new documentary film, Scarlet Road, which follows the extraordinary work of Australian sex worker Rachel Wotton.

Rachel has been working in the industry for 18 years and specialises in a long overlooked clientele: people with disability.

Her philosophy, that human touch and sexual intimacy can be therapeutic, has a dramatic impact on the lives of her clients.

Sexual behaviour has an impact on the self-image, sense of self-worth and value of disabled individuals, affecting mental wellbeing and, as Rachel has found, alleviating or even reversing symptoms.

Independent Australian director Catherine Scott and producer Pat Fiske’s film Scarlet Road is testament to this philosophy, as it follows Rachel Wotton’s work with Mark, a client with cerebral palsy, and John, with multiple sclerosis.

"People put me on a pedestal, that I’m so good or so brave to see those people, but I’m not," Rachel said.

"It’s certainly not a charity, but I happen to be non-discriminatory about who I do provide services to.

"I like to try and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and see how they feel."

Holding hands and slow touching are just as important as intercourse to many clients, and actual penetrative sex may be a small element of the services disability-friendly sex workers provide.

To be held in a way that doesn’t involve washing or bathing or taking a temperature or undressing or dressing through assistance is part of a full adult life, that many people do not have the opportunity to experience.

People with a disability have an equally intrinsic right to sexual expression, according to the United Nations’ Bill of Human Rights. This right enables people to develop relationships, have sex, explore and express their sexuality and achieve intimacy without personal or systemic barriers.

But a lot of barriers remain.

Striving to increase awareness and access to sexual expression for people with disability, Rachel Wotton is a founding member of Touching Base NSW, an organisation with a network around the country that facilitates the links between people with a disability, their support organisations, and the sex industry.

Touching Base encourages information sharing and educational training programs for sex workers, people with a disability and their carer, and raises public and professional awareness of the issues surrounding the access and provision of sex industry services for people with a disability.

"To me, it always comes down to choice — it should always be about choice," Rachel said.

"If people say ‘it’s not for me’, that’s completely fine. If people say they would like to have this experience, then it’s about consenting adults wanting to do something.

"Some people choose to pay for that experience, some people have the capacity to date and have loving experiences.

"People get caught on the nitty gritty — heaven forbid two people having sex!"

Rachel is also an active campaigner for both policy makers and the general public to recognise that sex work is work.

Acknowledging this is a step towards ending the social stigma as well as the discriminatory attitudes and practices that surround the occupation, and affect the men and women employed within it.

Scarlet Alliance, the national sex workers’ association, also strives towards these same goals, providing access to services in Tasmania.

Stigmas are perpetuated by the wildly generalising and sensationalist representations of sex workers that we see in the media. Stories about sex workers often neglect including the voices of sex workers, and depict them as either street-based workers or high-class escorts.

Rachel Wotton is neither of these. She is an educated, intelligent professional who acts with compassion, leadership and competency in her chosen industry.

Many people may be surprised by the ethical and social responsibility adopted by disability-friendly sex workers in particular.

While Rachel avoids the term, they are community service providers in a sense, working in an area that most people would consider to be in the “too-hard basket”.

"There were a lot of reasons that we wanted to make [the film] Scarlet Road, and dismiss some of the misconceptions of the sex industry,” she said.

"The biggest things are that we know how to make things safe for us, and that legislation is the biggest danger to us. Politicians need to communicate with us to create a safer environment."

Anyone who says they want to support sex workers — either entering, working, or leaving the industry — needs to support decriminalisation, not legalisation or the “Swedish/Nordic model”, Rachel insists.

"Decriminalisation means that we can be treated like any other business," she said.

"I’m hoping that Scarlet Road will get people thinking about all the issues from a different standpoint."

First published in the Mercury newspaper on August 15, 2012.

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