Sexuality is one of those topics that is simultaneously commonplace and taboo. People love to talk about sex, but only in specific contexts. This often leaves marginalized communities — such as queer people, transgender people, the elderly and people with disabilities — out of the discourse entirely. And when those communities are included, the discussion tends to miss the point by using patronizing language or crude shock value.
Take, for instance, the recent coverage of the ways in which the Putting People First initiative, a government-funded program for people with disabilities and the elderly in the UK, are assisting some people with disabilities with their sexual health. Rather than explore the reasons why government support of the needs — including sexual ones — of people with disabilities might be a good thing, the press has exploited the private cases of specific individuals. The initial attack was launched last week by The Sunday Telegraph, which “investigat[ed]” Putting People First and discovered that the program covers activities such as internet dating, trips to lap dance clubs and visits with sex workers. Naturally, this revelation has lead to a knee-jerk moral panic in the UK, as able-bodied taxpayers are shocked that their money is being spent on programs that support the sexual well-being of people with disabilities.
From the Telegraph:
Matthew Elliot, chief executive of The Taxpayers’ Alliance said it was “deeply worrying” that public money had been spent on the services of prostitutes, lapdancing clubs and to pay for holidays.
He said: “Many taxpayers will be appalled and offended that money intended for social care has been used in this way. What’s more, it’s deeply worrying that this scheme has been so vulnerable to these abuses. It’s essential that where public funds are involved, there are the sort of checks and balances in place that prevent money being wasted in this way”.
It is important to note that none of the services endorsed by Putting People First are illegal. On the contrary, prostitution is legal in the UK, meaning all citizens — including people with disabilities — are entitled to participate in sex work. If prostitution was illegal, I could see why this might be a problem, but there is no sense in moral outrage over anyone participating in an institution that is open to everyone in the UK anyway.
Also, I find the argument that it is wrong to use “taxpayer money” in this way disingenuous. I pay taxes in the U.S., and I have no say in how the U.S. government uses my money. I would prefer that it not go toward fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is not up to me to decide. As a citizen, it is my duty to pay taxes, regardless of how those taxes are spent. It doesn’t matter whether or not people in the UK believe that sex work is moral or that people with disabilities have a right to have sex. Since sex work is legal, and people with disabilities do have the right to be sexual, I see no problem with social services concerned with the well-being of people with disabilities condoning prostitution and other activities.
The focus the private needs of specific individuals should not have been the focus of public discourse. People with disabilities are just like able-bodied people — they may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, queer or asexual, and none of those identities or practices should be open for public scrutiny. In fact, it it the public scrutiny itself that should be open for discussion. Naomi Jacobs sums it up best at the Guardian:
Disabled people’s sexuality is a social issue. Many of us are having sex. We choose both disabled and non-disabled partners. We come in straight, lesbian, bi, gay and trans varieties. We’re at it – get over it. For for those disabled people who want to be at it but aren’t, the reasons are endemic in our society. They can be seen in the patronising language used in media commentary and in the irresponsibility of discussing confidential care plans at all.
That “icky” response towards disabled people having sex is not about evolutionary impulses – a fashionable excuse by people who want to justify feeling this way. It’s about ignorance. That same distaste is to blame for some real human rights violations, such as the right to marry and found a family: a recent case brought under the Mental Capacity Act is just one of many examples of disabled people who are forcibly prevented from having children. And this ignorance, not the personal intricacies of people’s sex lives, is what we should be discussing.
All people have a right to education, support and care when it comes to sexual health. Moreover, all people have a right to engage in legal, consensual sexual activity, including prostitution and other sex work. So why should the activities of people with disabilities be the focus of discussion. It seems to me that the prejudices against people with disabilities — such as the attitudes that people with disabilities should not be having sex or benefiting from the sex industry — are what should be discussed. If we keep ignoring those negative attitudes, people with disabilities will continue to be marginalized in conversations about sex. The only way to begin to break the cycle is to call out prejudice when it appears.