When it comes to sex campaigners, you won't find many more hardworking than Dr Tuppy Owens. Since her debut book, Sexual Harmony, was published in 1969, the sex therapist and publisher has been at the forefront of sexual liberation in the UK for the best part of five decades.
Owens was the first person to publish a visual aid for putting on a condom in her best selling annual The Sex Maniac's Diary and, alongside the National AIDS Manual, became a key player in the fight for AIDS awareness in the UK with her slogan: "On me, not in me." Since the 60s she's advocated the rights of sex workers and, in 1996, helped to set up the Sexual Freedom Coalition to protest against government repression tactics, including the ordering of police raids at swinger and fetish clubs.
Owens has also campaigned for the sexual liberation of people with disabilities. She set up the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA), disability dating and matchmaking charity the Outsider Trust, and, most recently, the TLC-Trust website, which provides disabled men and women access to vetted sex workers. She also founded the Sexual Freedom Awards – which celebrate their 20th anniversary this evening – and publishes her latest book, Supporting Disabled People in their Sexual Lives, next week. We had a chat with her the day after her 70th birthday.
VICE: Hi Tuppy. You studied zoology at Exeter University. How did you go from that to producing sex books?
Dr Tuppy Owens: I was a wedding photographer at that time, working for my dad as a Saturday job. I had a boyfriend whose father was a printer. He took me into the printing machine shop one day and there was this porn coming up – it was dreadful. I thought: 'I could do better than that,' so I produced a book called Sexual Harmony exactly at the time that the Ann Summers shops started up and I started to make quite a lot of money (my book was much more rampant than The Joy of Sex) and I decided to do it for a living. I left zoology and plundered into sex publishing.
Did you produce all the words and the images yourself for Sexual Harmony?
I got some help with the writing but the photography was mine. For the front cover I got this really nice couple into the studio with a bed – he's on top of her and she's actually got her back on the floor and her bottom on the bed because he's fucking her so hard that she's fallen off the bed and they're both laughing. That was unheard of, really, that people were having sex and laughing and having fun. It was all very stiff before that. And it just sold. I'm not sure it was the best instructions for having sex, though, because I was quite young at the time.
You were in your mid-twenties. Was there a backlash?
I was pretty much hated. It was the beginning of feminism and they thought sex was disgusting. They didn't like me at all.
Blimey. After Sexual Harmony you then went on to produce the Sex Maniac's Diary, from 1972 to 1995. That was a huge success.
I did that for 25 years. It was a big bestseller – they had it by the till in newsagents. It sold partly as a joke and partly by people who wanted to consult it. It was like a Yachtsman's Diary but about sex. A lot of people thought it was funny but actually it was also very useful. I did my research properly. If I mentioned a club in Euston it was because I'd gone and checked it out. It had sex position of the month, condom of the week, a thesaurus with the phrase "my wife and I would like to make it with you" in 12 languages, including Chinese. It was a lot of work but being a scientist helped. I approached it in a research-led way.
Your big passion is raising awareness of the sexual needs of people with disabilities. What is the message you want to get across to people?
That people with disabilities, just like anyone else, feel randy. They want to have sexual touch. They just feel like other people don't quite accept it. In actual fact, when I've done radio, I've found that people are far more accepting of disabled people paying for sex than they are of them having a relationship, which is a bit weird. But they approve of relationships and disapprove of sex work in other demographics. People with disabilities are accepted in society but not when it comes to them being a sexual person. It's awful.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Outsiders Trust – a matchmaking club for people with disabilities which you set up. How did you come up with the idea for that?
Doing a yearly book that's a success means you have a bit of spare time and I had a friend who lost his sight. When his girlfriend left him, I supported him to meet new women. At the same time another colleague had referred a man in a wheelchair to me who wanted to start a sex life and I helped him. It was really good fun and I actually felt useful so I thought ,'Why don't we start a club?' We thought it probably wouldn't work, but we had a party and 150 people came from all over the country. They did half a page in the Guardian on it and we were off.
People with disabilities, just like everyone else, feel randy
Then, at the turn of the century, you set up the TLC Trust, a website where disabled men and women can access sexual services. How did you develop that?
Years before, I'd watched a disabled man who used sex workers become incapable of starting a relationship. But then I ran something called Prostitution Pride and met lots of workers who saw disabled clients. I realised that they were actually doing a huge service because they could teach them what their bodies were capable of and also teach them how to please a partner. They were instrumental in making them more likely to find someone. I thought it was important to find people who are going to be reliable with disabled people and put them all on a website, so that's what happened.
With either Outsiders or TLC, have you ever had any support from the government?
No, nothing, and I'm really desperate to find some funding now because, at the age of 70, I have to think about not being able to work 15 hours a day, every day. I'd like to slow down a bit, perhaps. Or have a holiday.
Tell me about your book Supporting Disabled People in their Sexual Lives. It's a kind of self help book for sex workers and people with disabilities, right?
It's for health professionals and parents of, as well as, disabled people – how they can support them in their sexual lives, find a sex worker, gain sexual confidence. It's about being positive and enjoying it, because it's great fun and you get the reward of a great big grin on their faces when they've had some sexual fun for the first time in their lives.
Tonight, the Sexual Freedom Awards celebrates its 20th anniversary. What are they all about?
I set it up because I thought sex work was never rewarded. It was originally called the Erotic Awards, and was for writers and photographers. Now it's more for pioneers – focusing on the professionals who offer sexual services – and their allies. Strippers and sex workers are currently being demonised, with strip clubs being closed down, but their great work with disabled, disfigured and other marginalised people is rarely recognised. Winners are presented with a golden flying penis trophy.
Finally, in your 70 years, what moment stands out the most?
At one of our fundraising events there was a room called "Anything Goes". I took a look at about 3AM and there were three couples on the bed and three wheelchairs parked beside it. That said a lot to me, that we'd got this acceptance of disabled people, because it wasn't a disability event – it was just a fundraiser. It was so beautiful, a vision of success.