The sexual needs of people with disabilities have come under the spotlight like never before with the screening this week of The Sessions, written and directed by Australian Ben Lewin.
Based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist who contracted childhood polio and is confined to an iron lung most of the time, the film won a special jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Mark can move only above the neck, and is left with muscles that don’t work, but he can experience sensations in the rest of his body, including his penis, which works perfectly well. The problem is that he can’t move his hands to touch himself.
At the age of 38, he decides that he no longer wishes to be a virgin, and being a devout Catholic, contacts his priest to give him permission. Father Brendan (played in the film by William H. Macy) is an open-minded priest who tells him: “I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one – go for it”.
He helps Mark (played beautifully by John Hawkes) by contacting a professional sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). Cheryl is a married woman with a teenage son who takes her unorthodox job seriously. She takes time to make Mark feel comfortable in a sexual setting - no easy task for a man who spent most of his life in an iron lung.
Mark has lived mainly inside his head; he has never seen a naked woman in the flesh and never experienced the pleasure of been touched or enjoyed an orgasm. The encounters are frank and sometimes explicit, but never exploitative. The Sessions is a touching and profoundly sex-positive film that equates sex with intimacy and emotional connection.
In NSW, my professional organisation ASSERT NSW (Australian Society of Sex Educators, Researchers and Therapists), does not officially recognise sex surrogates as ‘therapists’. In 1979, the decriminalisation of sex workers in NSW recognised sex work as a lawful occupation. The sex industry has a wealth of practical knowledge in dealing with a wide range of sexual issues, one of them the provision of sexual services for people with a disability.
In 2001, a group of sex workers, disability advocates, sexual health professionals and others who wished to provide services for clients with special needs, formed the organisation Touching Base Inc. This charitable institution developed out of the need to assist people with disabilities and sex workers to connect with each other, focusing on access, discrimination, human rights and legal issues.
Touching Base believes people with a disability have an intrinsic right to sexual expression. They provide educational training programs for sex workers, people with a disability and their carers. They keep a referral list of disability-friendly sex workers and accessible commercial sex industry premises. They deliver popular workshops for disability providers, and speak at conferences and forums.
It is often very difficult for parents of disabled grown up children to deal with their sexual needs, especially when they have severe physical problems. In my telephone counselling practice, I discuss this issue with parents, family members or carers who sometimes ask me for advice. I refer them on to Touching Base or suggest they watch Scarlet Road, a finalist at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival.
A wonderful documentary, as shown on SBS, made by film maker Catherine Scott, Scarlet Road tells the story of a remarkable Sydney sex worker Rachel Wotton. The film explores the relationship between Rachel and some of her clients, providing a rare glimpse into an unfamiliar world most people would rather not want to know about.
For parents who are brave enough to recognise their disabled children are sexually mature adults, sex workers such as Rachel are a godsend. One of her clients, Mark, has cerebral palsy and we are shown his mother Elaine preparing his bedroom with candles and rose petals in preparation for a night with Rachel to celebrate his birthday. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching scene.
Rachel has said that one of the reasons for doing the film was to wipe away the "us and them" mentality. "We are all one car accident away from being in the same position as these guys. Tomorrow we could wake up out of a coma and not be able to have sex or touch ourselves. Imagine the next time you have sex or want to masturbate you have to call your mum and have her organise it all for you."
In the Netherlands there are several organisations that provide what is called “social erotic care” to help people with disabilities connect with sex workers and in several municipalities there is also the possibility of financial re-imbursements of part of the fees.
Closer to home, the new National Disability Insurance Scheme will be introduced in July next year. Should the Federal Government consider offering some financial support for sexual needs?
Matty Silver is a Sexual Health therapist based in Sydney, www.mattysilver.com.au.