The representation of disabled people in mainstream culture leaves a lot to be desired. They're fetishized as impossibly heroic, doomed figures (see: The Fault In Our Stars), presented as the unwilling, sexless inhabitants of a life not worth living (see: Me Before You), or else outright mocked by the incoming President-Elect. Rarely do we talk about people with disabilities in more nuanced, complex terms—and rarer still do we acknowledge their sexual desires and needs.
Now a German political party has proposed that disabled citizens should be able to pay for sex workers using public funds. The BBC reports that a spokesperson for Germany's left-wing Green Party told newspaper Welt am Sonntag that she "could imagine" authorities paying for "sexual assistance" where those with disabilities could claim back money paid for sex, as long as they could prove medical need and that they lacked sufficient funds to hire a sex worker.
The idea of government-funded sex workers has attracted controversy in the past. In 2010, an investigation by the Sunday Telegraph found that UK local authorities paid for sex workers and internet dating subscriptions for adults with physical and learning disabilities. Critics argued that it was a misuse of taxpayer funds that left vulnerable people open to exploitation, while others said that sexual expression is a human right.
Disabled people have been campaigning for the right to live fully autonomous sexual lives for years. In 2013, campaigner Chris Fulton—who has cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy—called on the British government to introduce a grant scheme to allow those with disabilities to visit sex workers. And while the Dutch government doesn't explicitly fund sex workers in this way, people sometimes use government disability grants towards paying for sex services.
Not all disability rights campaigners are in favor of the German proposals. "I think [it] could be seen as a bit patronizing," explains Dr Tuppy Owens of the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA). Owens also runs the TLC Trust, which helps disabled men and women to find responsible sexual services. "Mostly, disabled people would like to be treated the same as anyone else."
Owens concedes, however, that under certain circumstances it is essential that people with disabilities have access to sex workers—government-funded, if necessary. "Sex work is best paid for by the person who's having the sex. Ideally, the disabled person should pay. But, if it's absolutely impossible for the individual to afford the sex worker, than the government should step in."
A common misconception is that paying sex workers is only about immediate physical gratification. "Often, disabled people use sex workers to help them move on, so they can find a partner," Owens explains. "The sex worker can help them gain sexual confidence and understand how to please a partner. When they know how to be a good lover, they can find someone to date. Because most disabled people don't want to have to pay for sex for the rest of their lives."
But Owens adds that those with disabilities face other hurdles in hiring sex workers. From her experience in running the TLC Trust, she says that few specialize in working with people with physical and mental disabilities. "I got a call this morning from a disabled woman wanting a male sex worker in Glasgow," she says. "The nearest man I know of is in Manchester [nearly 335km away]."