BY PATRICIA MOWBRAY
Adelaide Now recently published an article titled “Disabled deserve the joy of sex.”
Kelly Vincent, a member of the South Australian Parliament has been dubbed the “Dignity for Disability MP”. She advocates the decriminalisation of sex work, calling for a "more permissive” culture around using disability services funding to pay for access to a sex worker or sex therapy.
In her proposal, money already allocated for physical therapies or mental health services could be legitimately spent on sex services. Her reasoning is that there needs to be a culture of recognising that people with disability are sexually active or have sexual desires.
The article is concerning on a number of levels. To begin with, there was no reference to assisting the person with disability to explore other avenues of sexuality such as forming relationships, and honouring and respecting the body.
The discovery of one’s sexuality is sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging, sometimes lonely and sometimes painful for everybody. These experiences are no different for people with disability.
Providing sex-workers to people with disability who may not have the capacity to understand the situation is not appropriate or welcomed. Indeed, the provision of sex-workers is not the healthiest or most appropriate way of helping any person to discover their own dignity or explore their sexuality.
My experience as the Disability Projects Officer for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and as a mother of three young men with Down syndrome has led me to a number of conclusions about which I am very passionate.
In our case, I wonder what choices our sons would make if offered the choice of visiting a sex-worker. I’m fairly certain they would not know what a sex-worker is or what service they offer.
My hope, is that they, as full citizens of our society, would have a choice not just be coerced or directed to this particular type of service. I think they would be more interested in an authentic, ongoing relationship with someone that touches many parts of their lives and is not limited to sex; intimacy is much more than the sexual act.
Jean Vanier is well known as the Canadian founder of the L’Arche movement. He has spent most of his life living and working with people with disability. His integrated approach, inspiring writings and practical solidarity make him one of the most reliable voices in the world when it comes to advocacy on behalf of some of our society’s most marginalised people.
In his book, Man and Women God Made Them, he is critical of the approach of sexual pleasure being a right of the person with disability. He argues that the promotion of a right to sexual pleasure leads to superficial intimacy.
Without authentic relationships the person is lead deeper into loneliness and the hunger for intimacy is increased. How would we function if the only intimate relationships we had were through a sex worker?
Fully integrated and healthy sexual relationships imply equality and recognition of the dignity of the other person. Vanier says that sexual education isn’t just “teaching how to do” but implies “growth in the capacity to see the other person as a person with needs.”
This is a real learning process that requires much sensitivity towards the other (and most often it is the man who has to learn to be sensitive to the woman's body). It is important for young people to know that sexual relationships don't 'work', are not completely fulfilling, right from the start.
– Jean Vanier Man and Woman God Made Them.
Once again, groups and politicians, in this case, the Scarlet Alliance and Kelly Vincent MP, are using disability as a way of ‘pushing their own agenda.’ It appears that the real agenda is creating the means to legitimise prostitution by appealing to a ‘worthy cause’ and claims of altruism. I’m yet to see any research that claims the lives, sexual education and formation of people with disability is enhanced by using sex workers.
Recently I discussed this with Deacon Anthony Gooley from Brisbane Archdiocese. He claimed that these calls for prostitution services for people with disability originate in the prostitution operators not disability groups. People with disability, especially those with intellectual disability, may be vulnerable to manipulation and may lack the moral skills to make positive choices in this regard.
As a Church, we need to encourage real (not paid) friendships. He went on to say that, “Meaningful relationships should be the focus of relationship education for our communities, whether people have a disability or not. There is an urgent need to access or develop resources to support families in providing education about sex and sexuality for people with disability. This should draw on sound empirical evidence and not untested assumptions.”
When I have discussed sexuality with some of my friends with disability they have emphatically stated that they are more interested in forming lasting relationships than having casual sexual relationships.
As faith communities, we need to foster meaningful relationships in our parishes, workplaces and wider communities. I agree with Jean Vanier’s view that sex is a ‘gift’ rather than a ‘right’. This applies to all of us; our sexuality is a gift. We are all crying out for love, acceptance and intimacy. We all truly desire authentic relationships, where we can live out our God given gifts. Perhaps it’s time to really listen to the cry of our hearts and reach out to each other in loving and authentic relationships.
Patricia Mowbray is Disability Projects Officer for the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life.
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