I had a wonderful time on Wednesday at the screening of Scarlet Road, an Australian documentary centring on Rachel Wotton, a sex worker from New South Wales who is passionate about challenging stereotypes surrounding sex workers and disabled people and who merges these types of activism as a sex worker who caters specially to clients with disabilities.
Rachel can only do the type of work she does because NSW is one of the few places (I believe New Zealand is the other one, correct me if I am wrong) where sex work is completely decriminalized. There’s a special emphasis to the “completely” part; in many places, sex work is only partially decriminalized, for instance, in Canada, sex work is, on paper, legal, but there is a great deal of red tape surrounding it, as demonstrated by the recent decriminalization of brothels in Ontario. The most glaringly obvious example of “incomplete” decriminalization is the Swedish model, which Rachel explores during a trip to Stockholm: Criminalization of the purchase of sex work, rather than criminalizing sex work, and criminalizing the profit off sex work of others, or “pimping”.
In theory, this sounds like a great way to help sex workers stay safe. In practice, it drives it underground and makes it more dangerous for sex workers. They can’t advertise their services in the papers, because then the paper could be interpreted as “pimping”, and they can’t hire people like drivers and bodyguards, or have brothels/safehouses, because they might all be “pimping” under that definition.
Apart from her information on why she’s able to do this type of work and her endorsement as a sex worker for the New Zealand/NSW model of sex work legalization, Rachel and the film spend a lot of time exploring what she does with her clients. They vary greatly, from people with developmental cognitive/intellectual disabilities to those who were physically disabled later in life, and the film stresses, regardless of the disability, that they are human beings who deserve dignity and a sexual identity.
To an outsider, the most controversial case could be Rachel visiting a man with down syndrome who wants to lose his virginity, and his mother hiring a sex worker to make it happen. It got her quite a bit of press in the UK, but I don’t think anybody could think negatively about this quest after seeing Rachel and the man discussing what he wants during her visit, his sexual and physical preferences (He likes women with big breasts, so Rachel suggests that he consider titfucking, or “A Spanish” in Sex-worker lingo) and seeing that he’s no different from a neurotypical person when it comes to sex. For someone like me, Rachel stressing repeatedly that he was just like any other person who wanted sex, a “regular bloke” seemed a bit silly, but I had to remind myself that there are people who can’t see that and need to have these anvils dropped on them!
It was touching to me to see how dedicated Rachel was to making her clients happy and giving them their money’s worth. She mentions a few times that her clients are not moneyed people, and often have to save up for months and months at a time just to afford a single visit with her. One of her clients admits that since he can’t afford the price of a night with her too often, he just tries to keep the memory of his last sexual encounter fresh until he saves up enough.* Because of this, it’s Rachel’s dream to open up a nonprofit brothel, so that sex workers can train using clients with disabilities without the price burden coming in the way between sex workers and disabled clientèle.
I was very impressed with the film. It’s one of a kind, and very necessary, because I don’t often see disabled people being acknowledged as having a full sexuality. When the topic comes up, able-bodied neurotypical people seem to get downright uncomfortable at the idea, and are not at all keen to discuss it, let alone think about “how does it work”? Scarlet Road encourages people to think outside of the box when it comes to how we define “sex”; too many people still think “sex” equals “able-bodied adult cisgendered man and woman having penis-in-vagina sex”, and don’t ever expand their horizons. This is detrimental not only to the imagination, but to people like me who are in a queer relationship, non able-bodied people, and those whose genitalia may not fall within the defined “norm”, such as trans* or intersex people.
After the film, an occupational therapist who was serving on the panel with me asked the audience if “sex” was that narrow definition I described above, would what they do if, in a twist of fate, after going to this screening, they got into an accident on the way home and ended up being paralysed from the waist down or quadriplegic, and therefore, unable to have any feeling in their genitalia, how would they experience sexual pleasure, have sexual release or go about having sex? Nobody in the audience seemed to have a response. When you are disabled, you have to get creative in the sack, but you don’t have to be disabled to broaden your idea of what sex is like.
The film isn’t perfect, of course. Not all sex workers are able to do what Rachel does, because of the circumstances surrounding how they came into sex work, and they may not have the chance to advocate for themselves, or if they do, they won’t have as receptive of an audience or be taken as seriously. Rachel’s university education and the ability to travel to advocate for sex workers abroad, going all the way to countries like Denmark and Sweden in order to speak out, are not the universal truth for sex workers.
I was also quite sad that only one disabled woman (One with CP) was filmed talking about her sexual identity and experiences, and she got very little screen time compared to men whom Rachel serviced. Disabled women deserve a chance to discuss their sexual identity and their desires, I found it odd that they couldn’t find more to put in Scarlet Road, and that there were no queer disabled people willing to be interviewed for this. Surely Rachel or another sex worker has woman clients who want to enjoy her company? It was a minor hiccup though, the film is otherwise excellent, and we need to keep having these conversations about sex and disability, because there’s still a great deal of talking to do until this is seen as normal, not novel.
I’d like to thank everyone who came to Scarlet Road to watch the film and listen to me and my fellow panellists talk about the film afterwards. I had a great time, and the questions the audience asked were excellent and thought-provoking.
* I understand some people might ask, “So why doesn’t she just give them a discount?” A lovely sentiment, but Rachel has the right as a skilled worker to decide her prices and make a profit, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to dictate to her what prices she should set.