Is Sex A Human Right?


Kelly Vincent, the South Australian Dignity for Disability MLC, is campaigning to decriminalise prostitution so people living with a disability can have greater access to the services of sex workers. Not unexpectedly, the response to what is one of many such campaigns worldwide has been mixed and often hostile. Is sex a human right? Why is it so hard for us to accept and respond to a call for sexual attention from those who experience sexual dispossession?

When was the last time you had truly great sex? When you felt that someone really met you where you live, when you lost and found yourself at the same time. A time when your body became at once more familiar and strangely new. When all of the separate parts of you came together. Great sex is magic and transformative in ways that are hard to explain. If you’re lucky, it’s been a part of your life at some time. If you’re really lucky, it’s a regular thing. I struggle to imagine it’s a right, but it often feels like a privilege.

Great sex is never about ability, technique or physical perfection. We know from research on the components of great sex, that presence, focus, connection and empathy are far more important to our pleasure than our form and function.

Great sex work can offer connected and caring pleasure to clients who are able to access and to afford it. It can be a relationship where someone is focused purely on your desire, and for many of us, even those of us who have regular sex, this is a rare experience. Some of my friends who have worked in the sex industry describe the joy of offering this pleasure, sometimes for the first time; of being teacher, explorer, facilitator, and of the sense of pride that comes from having your work respected and valued as an essential service.

Sex is not currently protected as a right by any society. The closest we come to this is the protection of the right to a private life, which is still subject to a number of moral and ethical escape clauses.

Using the language of rights to talk about sex obscures some of the realities both of the importance of sex and its place in our lives. Often we use the language of rights as a screen to hide behind when we don’t want to undress our feelings in company. We say, "I have a right!" when we’re afraid to say that we want, that we desire, that we need. We distance ourselves from our personal feelings, either because we believe they will be disregarded or because we are ashamed of them.

Supporting access to sex workers for people living with a disability is a challenge to those of us who are not on speaking terms with our own sexual needs and desires. The focus of sex work on fulfillment and pleasure is extremely uncomfortable when we don’t believe in our own ability to express our need for exciting and caring sexual touch. Why should anyone else get what we’re too ashamed to ask or to pay for?

If we’re afraid to want ourselves how can we really hear about the needs of others? It is almost impossible for most of us to imagine offering someone what we are denying ourselves. It requires a significant amount of compassion to help others get what we are afraid to receive. And when it comes to sex for people living with a disability, help is often necessary.

Sex workers active in the disability field have worked hard to explain and to support their working relationships with people living with a disability with a view to empowering and connecting two groups of disenfranchised people.

People living with a disability are so often without privacy, and so often infantilised. Transport, money, autonomy and communication can all be obstacles to sexual contact. Carers and family are often a constant presence. So for a sexual life to be possible, it has to be actively supported. This requires openness and sexual comfort on the part of support people. It can require money. And it requires a fundamental belief in the importance of a sexual life.

For so many of us our sexual desire and our need for touch has been experienced as secret and shameful, particularly growing up. Watching director Catherine Scott’s documentary about sex worker Rachel Wotton who works with people with a disability,  I was moved to tears by the care one mother took to ensure that her son had a fulfilling sexual life.

How many of us were encouraged to pursue enjoyable sex by our parents? No wonder there are so many voices opposing the call for a more open and permissive attitude to sex work and disability. Some of us have barely begun to admit we want sex. When it comes to the expression of sexual desire and need we tend to minimise, pathologise, ignore, restrict and punish. What this latest equity campaign is asking of us is that we offer, accept, embrace, encourage and celebrate. I hope we can come to the party.

Many thanks to Sandi Rapini for her generous help with sourcing sex work links for this article.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.