Have you seen the sex scene between Maeve and Isaac in the series Sex Education on Netflix? It’s really, really fucking hot.
Spoilers ahead: The two characters share on-screen chemistry for more than a season, their irreverent banter hinting at a deeper longing to connect. And then, finally, they get intimate. Isaac has a disability - due to a past injury, he spends quite a bit of time in a wheelchair and doesn’t have sensation below a certain point on his body. So as they begin to kiss and undress, they also have a discussion about what sex might mean for them, and where they each like to be touched.
In an article for Gal-Dem, the Triple Cripples emphasise just how important this moment is for television. It shows what we should already know, but sometimes forget - that everyone deserves sex and intimacy, regardless of their level of ability: “His pleasure, as well as hers, being centred in this engaging and intimate moment, is significant to see.”
Working as an escort has given me an appreciation for the range of ability that exists in the population at large. It’s not all about wheelchairs - chronic pain, neurodiversity, and mental health are all relevant too, and learning to talk with clients about what they need and how they experience pleasure is essential.
It might feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. To shed some light on the topic of sex work and disability, I recenty spoke with sex worker Melihan Viking and sexuality occupational therapist Tess Deveze, to give workers some tips for seeing clients with a disability.
About our experts
Our two guests both have a formidable level of training, on-the-job learning, and lived experience.
Melinah Viking describes herself as the ‘wheely queen of pleasure’. She’s an award-winning adult film and cam performer, independent escort, and activist. She’s worked in the sex industry for over sixteen years in various roles, including modelling, escorting, porn and fetish work.
“I had an accident before I started in the industry and lost all my body weight.” she says. “Finally, I decided that I was happy with what I saw. And so I was like, 'Oh, I need some money. What can I do? I know, I can take my clothes off.' So that's how it started. It's not for everybody. But I've learned so much along the way and it's changed my outlook on my own sexuality and how I see others.”
Providing a clinical perspective is Tess Devèze, a sexuality occupational therapist & facilitator, specialising in cancer & disability. Tess has been working in sexuality for about a decade, and studied occupational therapy to add to their skill set. “ At first, I didn't realise that occupational therapy actually included sexuality,” they say, “And then at uni when we started studying, it was like, 'Oh my god, I can do this as part of my job!'”
They began to work in neurological rehabilitation with people who have acquired brain or spinal cord injury, and quickly realised that sexual health was an important piece of the puzzle. “I started addressing sexuality with my clients in hospital settings. I realised that no one else is doing this...so I moved my whole practice to focus solely on sexuality for people with disability, chronic illness, and cancer, to try and fill that gap in the system.”
Disability means a lot more than just ‘stuck in a wheelchair’
‘Disability’ means more than many of us realise. Although the stereotypical image - often reinforced by the media - is of a guy in a wheelchair, the reality is that there’s a huge range of differently-abled people out there; that may include our family members, friends, fellow workers, and clients. Basically, it's one word to describe a lot of different people with different needs.
Tess says, "Disability and sex are so huge and broad terms. I see people with post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, brain injury, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy. I help people to connect with others in a social way, to build friendships and relationships, understand how their own bodies function, and I sometimes help people to access sex workers." Tess is quick to point out that disability is basically anything that impacts 'standard human function'. There’s really no ‘normal’, and anything that interferes with daily life can qualify.
Melinah agrees. “I mean, we all have a disability to some extent. It's more severe for some people. So sometimes, for example, people can't do particular sexual things but may not understand that as a disability. Where do you draw the line?”
It’s important to understand that disability isn’t always visible. Being non-neurotypical - such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - can affect how we get through the day. Issues such as endometriosis or fibromyalgia can cause chronic pain that might not be obvious, but have a huge impact on quality of life. All this, and more, affects our sex lives and intimate relationships. “There are people with autism that can walk around, but have trouble being close and intimate with somebody. That's measurable, but people don't see that,” Melinah says.
So, what do sex workers need to know, if they’re approached by someone who has a disability? Both our experts have a lot to say...
Tips for sex workers who are seeing a client with a disability
1.Understand the barriers your customer might be facing
When you’re approached by someone with a disability, they may have overcome a lot of hurdles even before your first conversation. Understanding how difficult this process is for them can help put their needs and requests into context.
The most basic barrier is admitting that they have these needs at all. Many folks often assume that people with disabilities don't want sex and shouldn't be allowed to get laid. Tess says, “When I was studying health conditions we would hear from people with lived experiences of like, 'Hey, I've had a stroke. This is my wheelchair.' And so many students would ask, 'Do you have a libido?' My jaw hit the floor.” This prejudice means that even raising the topic (with a carer, a support person or directly with a sex worker) can feel really scary for a potential client.
Then, there’s the practicalities. Depending on their needs, a client may have to negotiate with their family or carers for assistance seeing a sex worker. Getting to and from bookings, moving on and off the bed, paying for the service - all of this could require outside help. And asking family or staff for help with seeing a sex worker can feel awkward, as you can probably imagine!
Fortunately, Tess suggests that times might be changing. "There are plan providers out there who are so supportive. I have a few clients right now whose goal is to see a sex worker, and the team are so excited, because they know this is going to help with their quality of life." But it’s not guaranteed - your client might need to persuade the people around them, just to get to the point where they’re ready to contact you and ask for a session.
There might also be a gap in knowledge and education. Tess’ experience is that some clients simply haven’t been given the chance to learn the social or sexual skills they need. “My clients come to me, most of the time, with zero education, zero knowledge. If you're growing up and you have a disability, you're just assumed to be non-sexual. So you're not given any education at all.” This includes, not just the specifics of things like safer sex, but also information about how to interact with people, go on dates, flirt, and all the other fun stuff we need to practise in order to get sexy with someone.”
This could mean your client needs to take things slowly. You may wish to take a bit of extra time to explain things like safer sex, if you feel there’s a need. It’s not applicable to everyone, but it’s useful to be alert to gaps in their knowledge, and set aside time for that all-important communication.
2.Don’t assume it’s just about sex
We often say that, when you see a sex worker, you're not paying for sex. You're paying for an experience. This principle applies to everyone, regardless of their level of ability. People spend time with sex workers for many different reasons, both physical and emotional.
In Tess’ experience, needs can vary hugely from one individual to another. "The people who want to see a sex worker, sometimes it's about sex. But most of the time it's about connection, companionship. They just want to be held. They just want to be treated like a person. They just want to be touched. It's a very broad range, but I think it's not just sex, it's sexuality.”
There are benefits to seeing sex as more than just intercourse and orgasms. Depending on mobility and level of ability, erections or penetration might not be on the table. It’s down to you and your client to decide what the sex will look like - whether it’s soft cock play, mutual masturbation, a make-out session, sensual ear-stroking, nipple teasing...or simply a good cuddle session.
3.Ask the right questions, and listen to the answers
Are you and your client a good fit? How comfortable you are - and whether you can provide the right services - will depend on their needs, your boundaries, and how well you can both communicate.
As a person with a disability, Melinah is often approached by differently-abled clients because they feel she’s best-placed to understand them. But her physical abilities and theirs sometimes don’t match. "A lot of people with disabilities will contact me and expect me to be able to provide them with a service. And I can see why they're contacting me, but they don't think about the logistics of that. Like, I can't get on top of somebody that can't mobilise themselves. And that's heartbreaking, because that's what I would like to do. But in reality, I can't."
She suggests asking a few questions: What are their limitations, physically? What are they wanting out of the experience? What are they wanting to achieve? But often, understanding a client’s needs goes beyond the physical. “You might want to go deeper than that and say, 'What is missing in your life that you think I could fulfil?' That can get a little bit traumatic for some people, but sometimes when we bring it to the surface, we feel so much better afterwards.”
Tess reminds us that disability is a common issue in the general population, and clients don’t always bring it to our attention. "Disability is very broad and diverse. And a lot of the time you won't even notice, unless you ask." Your questions don’t need to specifically focus on their disability. Many of the questions you might like to ask would be useful for any client.
"You treat the client the same way whether they have a disability or not,” Tess says. “Say, 'Tell me about your body. Do you have any limitations?' It doesn't have to be scary."
Of course, asking doesn’t mean you’re always going to get answers. It’s still up to your client to communicate their expectations and needs. Assessing their awareness of what they need and their ability to communicate with you could play a part in deciding whether you’re a good client/provider fit.
4.Make a game plan together.
Get the practicalities sorted. Where will you meet? How will the client be getting to and from the session, if that’s required? Will lifting be involved, and who will assist with this? What time will their carer return?
If there are mobility problems, there needs to be a discussion about who is going to lift the person into and out of bed. A carer can often fulfil this role, but it’s never safe to assume. Melinah notes that sometimes, whorephobia comes into play and carers don’t want to cooperate. "Some service providers at the moment are saying, 'Yeah, we can take clients, but it's up to the sex workers to get them on the bed. It's not our responsibility."
If a transfer to bed isn’t possible, there may be other options. "So with me, if my client is in a wheelchair, there has to be wheelchair sex. Sometimes it can be easy, but it depends how much mobility the person has, and what I've got, and whether it matches." Melinah says.
How to be more accessible for differently-abled clients
If you’re keen to cater to people with diverse levels of ability, Tess suggests adding some specific wording to your advertisements. "You can have things like, 'Please specify if you use mobility aids', 'If you need assistance with transfers, you must bring your own support person'. So people understand that they can be open from the beginning."
If you’re approached by someone who has a disability, it could feel tempting to turn them down immediately because you feel you don’t have the required experience. But it could be worth having a conversation first, before you decide you’re not a good fit. "I would say, ask them what their limitations are.” says Melinah, “Ask their carers, if they can't communicate that. Just ask the question, rather than being daunted by it. You're not gonna know unless you try.”
As workers, we always have the right to say ‘no’ to a potential client. But seeing someone who has a disability isn’t necessarily as daunting as we might first assume, and it’s worth having a chat about practicalities before you decide whether to accept the booking.
“If you've got all the information that you need and you still can't do it, that's cool. No judgement on that. But at least you've given it a go." Melinah says.
There are plenty of benefits to keeping an open mind. Melinah says, "You're learning more about yourself as a worker and how you make yourself a better worker in that way as well. So you might discover something about yourself that you didn't know - that you could deal with a situation that you thought you couldn't."
Being a sex worker has helped me a lot with having the conversation. Often, my clients don't know how to ask what they want. It’s on me to say, 'Hey, what kind of experience are you looking for? What have you done in the past? What do you find hot? What are you hoping might happen?' It's actually made me better at being upfront about what I want too.
And that’s something all three of us can agree on: as with all good sex, communication is key. Melinah says, "The more we as workers can be transparent, the more clients are going to be transparent. And the safer it is for everybody."