Since last October, I've used this column to try and shine a light on sex and disability, a topic that's often seen as taboo. I haven't always had a lot confidence with women and have generally taken to view my wheelchair as one gigantic cock block. In high school, I never thought sex with another human being would be possible for me. Even milder amorous activity seemed out of my reach. It didn't help that my teachers didn't believe educating teens about sex was important.
I eventually lost my virginity at 23, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel 100 percent ready until I met Joslyn Nerdahl a year later. With Joslyn's help, I have been able to fully express myself in a healthy way. Because of my disability, I already need help with so many intimate things as part of my everyday routine, such as getting dressed and using the bathroom. So I felt uneasy asking somebody to assist me with sexual activities, too. But Joslyn is very good at what she does and understanding what my needs and fantasies are, and I now feel comfortable with my sexual preferences.
Having gotten to know Joslyn over the past two years, I wanted to ask her about her important work as a sex surrogate and how sex and disability are major arguments in the movement to decriminalize sex surrogacy in Canada.
Want to see what sex surrogacy is like? Watch 'Inside the World of Medically Assisted Sex':
VICE: So tell me a little bit about yourself and your work.
Joslyn Nerdahl: I'm 34 years old. I'm a mother of a wonderful seven-year-old boy. I'm a sex educator, and I'm an intimacy coach. Or I'll say I'm a clinical sexologist. People usually say, "Well, what the heck is that? What does that mean?" And so I say, "I do sex education services, and I do rehabilitative services with the physically disabled." I liken it to palliative care.
Isn't it considered medically assisted?
Yeah. In Canada, there is no classification for what we're doing. So we use the word "surrogacy," and we're gonna be using the word "surrogacy" during this interview. But actually there is no surrogacy protocol in Canada yet. We're working on creating that right now. Surrogate partner therapy really only exists in the US. There's no regulating board, and there's no certification, and there's no training for surrogates at this time in Canada.
How did you first get involved with sex surrogacy?
I met [my boss] Trish when I was transitioning into my sex-coaching career, and a friend of mine sent me an article about her company. And she said, "Hey, I think you'd be really good at this job." A year later, Trish's agency was featured in a newspaper article, and I saw it. And so we got together, and it was just a total meeting of the minds.
How do you explain something like this to a partner or a loved one so that he or she would understand?
That's something that has come up for me in different ways a lot over the years. I explain this the same way that I would explain it to somebody that I just met on the street. I'm assisting someone like yourself access their body. And I'm assisting them with their sexual development. Everyone's needs are very different. I have a partner in my life who's extremely supportive of my work and very proud of me. But he's also very openminded, and he's also very mature when it comes to sexuality in general.
How is sex surrogacy different than other sex work, like escort services?
The difference between prostitution and what I do is that we were saying 1) this is medically assisted, but 2) it's not just about getting your money. I shouldn't say prostitution's all about money, but if you were just to hire an escort, she's not necessarily going to care about getting you to a better place than when she found you, or to help you achieve whatever it is or help you learn something or help you explore something. The other thing is, she wants your repeat business. With us, we have more of a set protocol. Because emotional attachment is an issue that comes up, especially when you're dealing with intimacy like this, there is a cap on sessions. And there's a debrief that is supposed to happen at the end of each session, to help the clients process what's happened and to help them process any emotional attachments that have maybe come up. And to make sure that everybody stays in a healthy space with it. It's very client-led. The client identifies what it is that they want to explore or what it is that they want to learn or experience, and the coach is there as a guide or as a facilitator.
This service is predominantly used by men. Has anyone ever had the idea to make it accessible for women with disabilities?
We are open to women clients as well—we just don't get calls from them as often. And it's interesting that you're asking this because I actually just did another interview with a PhD researcher from Toronto, and she asked the same question about how often do I see women clients. I specialize in couples. We've gotten calls from couples where they want a facilitator to come and give them some ideas about how they can spice things up and that kind of thing. But yeah, it doesn't seem to happen as often.
How similar would you say your field is to forms of therapy—psychology and physical therapy?
A psychologist and a physiotherapist would not be able to deal with the sexual side of what we do without losing their license. And so they need to refer out to someone like us. Psychology comes into play just in understanding where somebody is at in their sexual journey. The physical aspect of it is obviously something that you can't get around, either. Because that's one of the job descriptions—we are using our bodies to experience intimacy. And so that is very therapeutic.
What steps are you taking to break down the stigma between sexuality and disability?
I'm really passionate about breaking down the stigma around sex work period. And sex and disability is a huge part of that. I'm proud of the work that I do, and I am happy to put my name and my face to it.
Do you feel that sex surrogacy should be legalized or regulated?
I don't think that surrogacy should be legalized because then it will be regulated. I think that decriminalization is the way to go because as long as what's happening is happening between two consenting adults, there's no reason anyone should be criminalized for it. All sex work should be decriminalized because it's the easiest way for everyone to stay safe. Everyone's getting their needs met. And everybody's happier and healthier at the end of the day.
There is quite a debate right now about decriminalizing sex work in general. Sex and disability is a major argument. If people can understand how it makes sense for someone with disabilities to get their sexual needs met by a professional, it's one small step away for them to understand that able-bodied people also have lots of legitimate reasons to seek out professionals to fulfill their sexual needs as well. Maybe they're depressed, maybe they're anxious, maybe they have social anxiety.
"All sex work should be decriminalized because it's the easiest way for everyone to stay safe. Everyone's getting their needs met. And everybody's happier and healthier at the end of the day."
What do you think Canada can learn from the Nordic model?
Canada adopted the Nordic model in 2014. That means that selling sexual services is not illegal but purchasing them is illegal. The people who implemented this think that it's going to decrease demand and that is completely flawed. There is not ever gonna be a decrease in demand for sexual services. And the reason that that is true is because people are always going to need an outlet for sexual expression. They're always going to seek out ways to do that, whether it's legal or not. You're not a criminal for purchasing a service from me that helps improve the quality of your life. I think that Canada really needs to take a look at the difference between sex trafficking and medically assisted sex and what we're doing, what we said, what we're talking about. There's a big difference.
If you've got questions or would like advice about dating and sex in the disabled community, drop us a line and Spencer will try to address it in a future column.