Sex for the disabled

New Zealand needs a formalised pimp service to help people with disabilities get sex, not just for pleasure but also for their health, those working in the disability and sex sector say.

Male sex worker and activist Saul Isbister left New Zealand in the mid 1990s and headed to New South Wales where he helped establish Touching Base with his friend and colleague Rachel Wotton.

The pair is in New Zealand to promote their documentary Scarlet Road and to share their own experience, with the hope that New Zealanders will start talking more openly about this work, and in turn help to de-stigmatise two sectors of society which are discriminated against.

Touching Base trains sex workers and those who work in the disability sector and acts as a referral agency, matching people with disabilities with prostitutes.

The charitable organisation started in 2000 after a series of conversations between interested parties.

Mark Manitta, who has Cerebral Palsy and features in the film, was at the initial meeting.

"I still remember exactly what he said," Mr Isbister says.

"Mark said 'All I want is to be touched all over my body once a month,'...I still get choked up when I remember what he said because it seemed to be such a modest request."

A similar structure to Touching Base was discussed by New Zealand sex workers and the disability sector in the mid 90s, but it never gained momentum, New Zealand Prostitutes Collective national coordinator Catherine Healy said.

The collective often fields requests from people with disabilities and their carers wanting to put them in touch with someone who can fulfil their own, or their client's sexual needs.

Wellington brothel owner Mary Brennan says she sometimes takes calls from parents hoping she can put them in contact with a sex worker sensitive to their child's needs.

"People with gloves on, that's the most intimacy most disabled people have," she says.

Touch and sex can have great benefits for their physical and mental health, Ms Brennan says.

"Making them forget their body doesn't work, making them feel accepted and attractive - basic human needs. Just making them feel the same as anyone else."

But there's a great need for an organisational body to be the link between sex workers and people with disabilities, Ms Brennan says.

"It's really important for a lot of disabled people who haven't had access to this industry before to know how it works, and from a sex worker's point of view, well they have probably never been disabled before."

Training is needed to ensure that sex workers and their disabled clients know what to expect and know how to communicate with each other, Ms Brennan says. An established referral agency is also needed, Richard, who works in the disability sector but only wants to be known by his first name, says.

"Often they don't know where to start and are too embarrassed to ask or too shy to ask so while they may have the needs or wants they don't know how to fulfil them."

Touching Base helps to alleviate fears and dispel myths and preconceived ideas, migrant sex worker Rachel Wotton says.

Ms Wotton has received hundreds of messages from people around the world since the movie premiered last year.

"People with disabilities all over the world are asking 'Do you know anyone in my country or are you coming here, I would like to see you'. I think there really is a need and decriminalisation allows us to openly discuss the services...and it gives clients permission to approach sex workers openly and honestly," she says.

"Not everyone wants to see a sex worker, and certainly not every person with a disability needs or wants to see a sex worker but it's about choice and your choice to spend your money how you wish."

The Ministry of Health does not have a policy on this area, and would not say if it was aware of sex workers visiting homes for people with disabilities, had done any research into this area or had considered establishing an organisational body to facilitate this.

But Mr Isbister says the government should be interested in this area.

"Government has a role to play in facilitating better protection in other industries, so why would it even hesitate when it comes to such a core aspect of human needs?"

Fairfax Media