“For me and so many others, sex work meant freedom.” These are the words of Lucky, a 21-year-old sex worker from the US with chronic pain and a long-term physical illness.
Lucky, who identifies as non-binary, realised at a young age that having a regular nine-to-five job wouldn’t be sustainable for them. So, at the age of 18, they started producing and selling pornographic content as a way to make a living.
“I learned early on that having to do regular jobs for a minimum of 40 hours a week made both sets of my disabilities so much more painful, and even caused new conditions,” Lucky said.
“It [sex work] is way less physically demanding, the pay is fantastic and it is accessible. On top of that, there is a very strong sense of community.”
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This is the reality for so many people with disabilities, who, often due to inadequate disability payments from their government and ableist discrimination in the workplace, decide to work in the sex industry.
Lucky is one of five sex workers with disabilities – from the US, Canada and Ireland – that I spoke to. They explained how they are fighting for their rights and against the stigma that they face.
Azura Rose, a 31-year-old Canadian sex worker, has worked in the industry for more than eight years. Like Lucky, she found it to be the “best fit” for her physical and mental needs.
“Sex work can be uniquely accessible work. A lot of disabled people need to schedule around bad health days or medical appointments, or may simply be unable to work long hours,” she said.
“Plus, we often have a higher cost of living than abled people, and sometimes sex work is the only option to [pay for] costly medication or treatments.”
Sex work can also offer people with disabilities the option of working from home. This was one of the main attractions for 26-year-old Mx. Rose, who is autistic, identifies as genderfluid and lives in the US.
“For me, being autistic and dealing with people in public or a professional setting is almost painful. I don't really have to worry about ‘masking’ when I am filming something sexy in my room,” they said.
“Not only is there the possibility of a large payout, but we have total control over our schedules. We don’t have to worry about using up sick days or being fired for being depressed or in pain,” they added.
Problems with the ‘Nordic Model’
In most countries, sex work is criminalised, which makes the lives of sex workers (with or without disabilities) difficult as they are often forced to work alone and in the shadows.
Kiko Demon is a 30-year-old sex worker in the Republic of Ireland. She says that disability rights are “intrinsically linked” to sex worker rights and that full decriminalisation is vital to protecting both groups.
In a blog for Disabled Women Ireland, she wrote: “Many disabilities are invisible, and for those of us with invisible disabilities who are also sex workers, our lives, and the challenges we face, are doubly invisible.”
In March 2017, the Republic of Ireland introduced a law that criminalised the purchase of sexual services and sex buyers and decriminalised sex workers. Previous legislation prohibited soliciting prostitution, brothel-keeping and living on the earnings of prostitution, affecting both sex workers and their clients.
The 2017 law follows the so-called ‘Nordic Model’. Advocates argue that criminalising only clients will help reduce the demand for sex work and therefore allow sex workers to exit the industry.
This approach has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada, France, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Israel, despite being strongly opposed by sex workers and sex worker-led organisations.
They argue that it leads to higher rates of violence and discrimination against the community, and also fails to address the material conditions that lead people into doing sex work.
A 2019 study by sex worker organisation Ugly Mugs Ireland found that crimes against sex workers had almost doubled in the two years since the law was introduced, with violent crimes increasing by 92%.
Kiko agrees that the current law is making sex work “more dangerous and more difficult” for people with disabilities, who need the income earned through sex work to survive.
“As disabled sex workers, we are more vulnerable to policy changes because we do not have the privilege of accessing other means of employment,” she said.
She explained further: “For those of us who meet clients face to face, we are also operating under stressful conditions where our clients are criminalised, which creates riskier interactions with our clients.”
A version of the Nordic Model was passed in Canada in 2014 under Bill C-36, which criminalised the purchase of sexual services and largely decriminalised selling sex. However, sex workers can still be prosecuted if they are caught “communicating for the purposes of providing sex” near schools or playgrounds, and the law prevents them from working indoors.
Sex workers in Canada have opposed the law on the basis that it forces them into situations where they have little control over their work conditions, which increases their vulnerability to violence and discrimination.
Azura Rose argues it is because of these “unjust laws” that sex workers are unable to work together, which is particularly important for those with disabilities who might need additional support.
“Disabled people are intimately familiar with others speaking over us and overriding our bodily autonomy, and it is frustrating to see non-sex workers try to push us back into poverty as if that is compassionate,” she said.
Sex work is illegal in most of the US, except in parts of Nevada where prostitution is legalised in the form of strictly regulated brothels.
Stigma surrounding sex work
Sex workers have been extremely vocal about the stigma attached to sex work, which has been perpetuated for decades by politicians, religious leaders and the mainstream media.
The workers I spoke to stressed that it is not something that they wish to be “rescued” from nor is it something they necessarily feel empowered by – it is just work for which they deserve equal rights and opportunities.
Lucky says there is also a prejudice about disabled sex workers: that only those engaging in “fetish work” can be successful and that they cannot be perceived as desirable in other ways.
Lucky rejects this attitude. “We are not valued because we’re broken, we’re valued because we are interesting and ‘hot’ people who other people are willing to spend money to see and communicate with,” they said.
“Whether we’re clients or workers, we are a massive portion of the economy, largely because it is one of the only spaces that allow us to exist and receive intimacy,” they added.
The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking is a key feature of the overall stigma surrounding sex work, and one that disproportionately affects people with disabilities.
In April 2018, the US Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA), which imposed severe penalties on online platforms that facilitate sex work.
For people like Lucky, online sex work allows them to make a living and laws like FOSTA-SESTA have essentially “criminalised living and working as a disabled person”.
Another woman I spoke to (who wishes to remain anonymous) has been doing “full-service” sex work in the US for over five years. “Full-service sex work” (or FSSW) is the term preferred by the community rather than “escorting” or “prostitution”, which many now see as derogatory.
She agrees with Lucky that, although media portrayals of disabled sex workers often portray them as “fetishes”, most people seeking out sex workers don’t even realise that they are disabled.
“I think it is pretty stupid that people assume that disability fetishists (which largely don’t exist) keep disabled sex workers afloat,” she said. “Almost everyone who sees escorts has seen a disabled sex worker and probably didn’t know it.”
Mx. Rose says that more people should be actively supporting the community towards achieving full decriminalisation, particularly given how important it can be for those in need of additional support.
“I wish I could see more people fighting for us, defending us and loving our existence. I want to see people stand by our side in the fight for decriminalisation,” they said.
“There aren’t a lot of options for us in their world, we just want to thrive in ours.”
All illustrations by Inge Snip. All rights reserved
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