People with disability accessing sex workers

David Heckendorf has kindly given permission for us to publish the thoughtful and moving speech he gave as a panellist at a Touching Base seminar in the ACT Legislative Assembly, on 5 April 2012. This event was generously hosted by the Amanda Brennan, MLA – ACT Greens

About the Speaker:  David Heckendorf is a man with cerebral palsy, who has never allowed his disability to stand in the way of his studies, his role with the ANU College of Law or his involvement in human rights issues. Although cerebral palsy limits his physical ability and the clarity of his speech, David holds two Bachelor degrees in Philosophy, Sociology and Law and a Graduate Diploma and Masters Degree in Law.


Starting with a joke: 99% of people say that they don’t have sex (or masturbate) and 1% lie about not doing so.

The percentage of people who don’t masturbate or engage in some form of sexual activities is probably closer to the same percentage of the population who are not able to physically use their hands. Like other members of society, we might also have been told as a child not to play with his/herself and haven’t since been told differently.

We all would enjoy the luxury of having a private place to sexually enjoy our own bodies.

If you ask ten different people what sex is, you would probably get ten or more different views.

  • For some people sex is closely linked to self-esteem, personal identity or a sense of acceptance by another person.
  • For others sex is merely a physical activity, a form of recreation or enjoyment and not linked to romantic relationships at all.
  • For some sex is closely linked to religion and/or faith, good/bad, godliness/evil and so on.
  • Sex can often be the cause of tension between couples and, in some situations, people engaging in a sexual relationship often has massive life changing consequences events that are felt for generations.

For people with profound disability, sex is not able to be a purely private matter.  For people with profound disability and limited self-directed movement or abilities, access to sexual activity requires the assistance of another person. Whether it is to assist with the application and removal of a sex toy or to provide the actual stimulation, for this group of people, assistance is an integral part of their sexual activity.

Obviously, this raises a number of questions around the practicalities of assistance.

  • Who can assist with purchasing sex toys or using them? Most of us would feel very uncomfortable asking a friend or a relative to assist.
  • Who can you ask to assist with the actual use and application of the item/s?  We can’t really advertise in the local paper – eg ‘A friend with benefits required’
  • In terms of paid personal carers, sexual activity is usually considered inappropriate or not part of their role.

In the case for the person with a profound disability, professional sex workers are the only remaining practical solution. This solution is akin to masturbation rather than as a substitution for a loving partner.  The health benefits, both physical and mental, of sexual activity are well known. Increased self esteem and reduced anxiety levels are an immediate result of sexual activity for the majority of people.

Part of the problem with sourcing professional sexual assistance for people with profound disability, is the uncertainty in the law which remains in some jurisdictions.

  • With limited knowledge and understanding of the law and with a general presumption that people with disability are vulnerable, it is understandable that many disability service providers are cautious about facilitating or helping their clients source or access professional sex workers.
  • Even the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is not terribly helpful. While the CRPD talks about the right to have a family and relationships, it is largely silent on recreational sex or sex outside of marriage.
  • Article 19(c) of the CRPD states that ‘Community services and facilities for the general population are available on an equal basis to persons with disabilities and are responsive to their needs’. While this Article may be of some help in requiring governments to ensure the sexual rights of people with disability, it often meets with the question is sex is a ‘need’?

So, what is the role for professional sex workers and people with profound disability?

  • Professional sex workers are not only prepared to meet the sexual needs of people who require assistance, but they are very experienced in this arena of life. Very few people are prepared to do this work, because it does not fit within their motivations for having sex or it is generally understood or assumed that to do so is against the law.
  • For people with profound disability, the absence of access to sexual release or experience can result in them being less ‘safe’, because we could be more tempted to take greater risks to have our needs fulfilled. We could, for instance, request sexual assistance from paid carers or accept sexual propositions from strangers, both of which create considerable risk to both parties.
  • In order for professional sex workers to be able to meet our needs, the community needs to provide us with the means to access their services. The community does not meet our needs simply by allowing us (ie simply removing legal barriers) to access sex workers, when doing is results in us going deeper into poverty. As people with profound disability, we are the only substantive sector of community who has to pay to masturbate.  There are governments of some states and countries which allocate funding for people with significant disability to access sex workers.
  • This leads into the next question around how often people with profound disability, such mine, should wait to see a professional sex worker. I don’t have an answer to this except to say that, while once a month might not be often enough for some people, it is a vast improvement on not being able to have any sexual contact or stress release.
  • Investment in meeting the needs of people with profound disability should not be seen as ‘welfare’ hand-outs to lazy unemployed people. Rather, as well as meeting our human rights needs,  these funds go into the pockets of local professional small business women and men and are also likely to be spent in the local economy.
  • Sex workers are often stigmatised and stereotyped. Yet as often highly educated professionals, many sex workers own and operate small businesses which contribute to the economy like other tax-paying businesses.

If it was not for professional sex workers, many of us would never experience the joys and pleasure of a respectful sexual experience in a safe appropriate environment.

Thoughts to take away:

  • Sexuality is everyone’s right.
  • It is a challenge: NOT a problem; and
  • The disability sector and the sex industry must work together towards practical solutions to the benefit of people with profound disability.

Thank you
David Heckendorf
5-April 2012

Touching Base endorses The Uluru Statement from the Heart and acknowledges First Nations as the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia, their diversity, histories and knowledge, and their continuing connections to land and community. As Australians all, we respect our nation’s First Peoples, their cultures, and Elders of past, present and future generations.