We live in a society saturated with sex, but disabled people can often feel they've not been invited to the party. Some feel prostitution might provide the answer. But is visiting a brothel the right thing to do?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Taking your first steps. Riding a bike. Your first kiss. The first time you have sex. All standard rites of passage for anyone growing up in much of the world.
But what if you never took your first step? What if you couldn't ride a bike? What if the disability you were born with distanced you socially? What if there never was a first time?
Asta Philpot, 25, is a confident, extroverted person, similar to many other British men in their 20s. But he was born with arthogryposis, a condition that severely limits the movement in his limbs.
"Are you having a nice night?" is a line Asta is used to hearing, delivered by women in pubs and clubs throughout his adult life. There often seems to be a patronising undertone. Flirting isn't easy when you can't move.
Last year, he chose to lose his virginity in a licensed Spanish brothel. This year he took two other disabled men on a bus trip to the same brothel, filmed by BBC's One Life.
"When I was younger I had a friend and we always used to talk about relationships. He had muscular dystrophy and passed away without having a sexual experience. Why should people struggle for that experience?", Asta says.
This is the decade when discrimination against disabled people is finally being tackled in the UK, but while the law can open up a workplace or install a ramp, it is never easy to change what is in people's minds. And there are many people who would shy away from a relationship with a disabled person.
"I've been out to pubs and clubs, you see people with each other. Then they go off home. But people look at disabled people as not being able to have a relationship."
Asta Philpot believes visiting brothels is acceptable
Society has a difficulty with disabled people and sex, Asta suggests. Television, and particularly the film industry, doesn't like to present people in wheelchairs in romantic scenarios. As objects of pity, or as exemplars of an inspirational fight against adversity maybe. But when was the last time you saw a disabled person playing the run-of-the-mill romantic lead?
To Asta, the situation is stark. Sexual experiences are a vital part of life. They are hard to come by. And visiting a brothel is the right course of action, he thinks.
"I feel more confident with girls. I'm totally for it. Not one regret. Disabled people are so sheltered and protected, in an institutionalised forcefield."
He believes in legalised prostitution, a view that many across society will not share but that appears to have currency within the "disabled community".
A survey for the Disability Now website in 2005 suggested that 75% of disabled people believed in the legalisation of prostitution, with 62.5% of men and 19.2% of women saying they would use trained sex workers. It's a situation that exists in the Netherlands where a voluntary group provides just such a service for disabled people. Most clients pay for it themselves but some local authorities subsidise the service.
There is also a group within the UK attempting to put disabled people in touch with suitable prostitutes, but there are those for whom visiting a brothel is morally wrong.
Anna Bowden, of Eaves, a group that helps vulnerable women, including those who have been trafficked into prostitution, recognises that disabled people face "a very difficult situation".
Many disabled people feel socially excluded
"Obviously I don't think the answer is perpetuating a form of violence against women. We reject the view that men have a right to sex."
But the notion that visiting a prostitute is intrinsically wrong is not shared by all. Cari Mitchell, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, make no distinction between disabled and non-disabled.
"Prostitution is consenting sex between adults. There's nothing uniquely degrading about prostitution except that it is criminalised," she says. "Men with disabilities going to a brothel is no different to any other men. They have the same needs as anybody else and should be entitled to the same access to paying for sex... as anybody else."
But counselling psychologist Simon Parritt, the author of the 2005 Disability Now survey, says it is difficult to see brothels as the answer.
"I think everybody has the right to a sexual identity," he says. "I don't think everybody has the right to sex with another person. That involves somebody else's rights."
And in the eyes of some, he says, the Netherlands approach risks "ghettoising", with disabled people regarded "as something so different they need some kind of specialised charity sex".
But it is clear that many disabled people in the UK face sexual exclusion.
"The process of learning from experience is limited. When you get to 15-16 you may go out clubbing. The gap between you and your peer group becomes particularly big. Sexual and relationship skills get left behind," Mr Parritt says.
And he has first-hand experience of people's attitudes. Some years ago he placed identical personal ads, one mentioning that he was disabled, one not mentioning. The advert that mentioned his disability drew the better quality of responses but they were vastly fewer in number than the advert that did not mention his disability.
"People end up in their mid 20s and later not having had any kind of sexual experience. The right kind of experience gives you confidence."
Confidence is one of the things Asta was seeking. He thinks he has found it.
Asta Philpot's story is told in One Life: For One Night Only at 2240 BST on BBC One on Wednesday 24 October.
Below is a selection of your comments:
Although I am not disabled and have no physical or mental problems, I am a young adult who has never had a sexual relationship. I find social interaction difficult, and there is no way I would ever be able to "pick up" a girl in a bar or club; I simply don't have the confidence. Despite this - and it is frustrating and depressing to think that I may die a virgin - I would never, ever visit a prostitute. It is a form of gross exploitation of women that is morally wrong and debases the whole idea of sex.
This isn't, in the end, about disability. Disabled people are not the only people who are unlikely to form normal sexual and romantic relationships. But those of us with this problem should deal with it, just as other people in society have to deal with their own problems. I have no respect for anyone who visits prostitutes.
Thomas, Oxford, UK
We live in a very anti disabled society from top to bottom. My brother has hydrochephalis and despite applying for jobs every week always gets turned down because of his disability. He is also (as far as I know) a virgin but he still goes out every weekend to have fun and hopefully meet someone. It makes my heart break but what can I do? Part of his problem is a lack of confidence, after all he is not that that disabled compared to many, he can walk, feed himself etc.
A job would be a good start for him to give him confidence and Jon Major did bring in a system where small companies were set up to employ disabled people. Tony Blair shut these places and it seems whenever there is a cut to be made in services the disabled are the first to be targeted, nobody cares.
I agree completely with George, UK. I'm 22 years old but being an adult with ADD (particularly a woman)has made relationships impossible - ADD is not just a kid's thing, or even just a learning disability. ADD tends to affect me very much in social situations - I find it very hard to relate to my work colleagues and didn't have a true friend until I was 19 - I'm so easily distracted I find it hard to read people - which impedes the old flirting! I didn't even realise I was gay until I was 20! I don't drink (alcohol and ADD - never a good mix) so that makes socialising (especially on the gay scene) difficult because people tend to hold it against you. Needless to say, sweet 22 and never been kissed, never mind the other. I don't blame Asta at all - if it gives him the confidence, brilliant.
Many disabled people have difficulty with having relationships, in particular those with Asperser Syndrome and autism. I am 29 and I have never had sex with a woman in my life - embarrassing, isn't it? It absolutely infuriates me when I hear about young people less than half my age losing their virginity and being sexually active. It is not as if people like myself are two-timing someone, is it? I remember reading about the fact that most disabled people are often regarded as asexual. Why is visiting a brothel often regarded as disgusting? So, because of my disability, society does not want me to be the same as other people? That is unfair.
As someone who has grown up with a chronic illness I lost my virginity in a massage parlour because it was not possible to find a woman at a young age to accept the health problems I had. It was a good experience and we both treated each other with respect. Since then I have had girlfriends some of whom have been fine despite any sexual problems because of my health, whilst others made me feel completely worthless sexually and some very cruel, saying things like "can I have a lover?". Now somewhat older I have been in a stable relationship for the past 6 years and we are sexually compatible. During my periods of rejection exploring my sexuality with "prostitutes" has been on the whole a good experience. The moral issues are far more complicated than simple statements of right and wrong made here...many of these women are very sensitive and respectful and relate to people with life problems and I have always treated them that way and while I would not condone trafficking, that is a separate issue to "paying" for sex and the morality of prostitution.
Dr Robert, London
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this matter. I speak as a person with MS, and fully understand the difficulties that might arise with the need for sex within a disabled life. I have had a satisfactory relationship, I am lucky - but now unlucky since it has ceased. I therefore feel that I have some understanding of how an individual may feel when relationship/sex is not forthcoming and can see how the services of a brothel would answer that need. However, it is not just sex, for many there is an enormous emotional link formed between the two consenting partners during the sex act.
So I would say be careful before propelling ones self - or anyone else, into a sexual relationship even at brothel level, without thinking how any bond between the partners can be handled or dealt with. Importantly consider allowing disabled folk - male or female, the opportunity to satisfy their needs in this respect. So what am I saying - yes allow brothel visits but be prepared for any emotional side effects.
Anthony Jones, Carmarthenshire
This is a decision for the individual and not for someone like myself who cannot for a moment imagine what it is like to be disabled to have an opinion. This life is harder enough for everyone without a moralistic society dictating what people should and shouldn't do. If it is consenting sex (whether paid for in an 'illegal' way or socially acceptable way) then that is for the parties involved.
Ian Gray, Haywards Heath
If prostitution were to be legalised and regulated then it would remove a great deal of the stigmatisation and threat of violence against sexworkers, both men and women. People with disabilities should be entitled to engage in and enjoy the same pleasures as everyone else in society and the answer should be legalisation of prostitution and not partial decriminalisation or state funded provision of sexworkers purely for the disabled.
Erm... no one should be going to brothels. What the hell is he thinking? Look, I can't pick up girls in a nightclub or bar. You have to do and be certain things in order to do that, things that demean men as much as women. And yes, being disabled is one of the things you're not allowed to be if you want meaningless interaction with girls in bars. That's not going to change, I'm afraid.
I agree that there is a widespread attitude of patronisation and an assumption you'll be single, and it sucks. I feel for anyone in this predicament. But brothels are patently not the answer to this. You'll just look pathetic and desperate. You think that a sex worker is going to think of you in any other way than as another loser punter?
The last sentence of this article seems the saddest conceivable commentary on the whole situation. Of what possible value is the kind of "confidence" that can be bought in this way? Paying for sex seems to be the ultimate degradation. And I say this as someone who has spent large periods of his life celibate.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade
I don't think anyone has the 'right' to have intercourse with anyone else because it doesn't make sense ('rights' being a legal construct an' all) but I do think that prostitution should be legalized as it's a business arrangement between consenting adults. It would provide a great opportunity for a person to experience a sexual relationship which might otherwise be denied them. That goes for the disabled as well as the lonely, shy or downright busy females and males amongst us.
Lou, New York, USA
I am amazed that the question (is it ok for disabled people to visit brothels?) is even raised. Of course it is. It is a bit like asking whether it is ok for them to go shopping. Surely, they do not need such patronising.
Alan Hainsworth, Worcester, UK
I understand his plight, but since when was it society's fault that someone can't get sex? A disabled person may not ever had landed the starring role in a romantic comedy, but neither do ugly people, hugely fat people etc. The reason women/men are not immediately attracted to disabled people is because we instinctively look for "healthy" genes. Therefore we are less likely to want to procreate with someone who has to use a wheelchair, particularly if the reason for that wheelchair seems to down to a genetic disease. It's not deliberate discrimination, it just IS.
E Morris, St Albans, UK
"There is also a group within the UK attempting to put disabled people in touch with suitable prostitutes..." Instead of this approach would it not be better to put disabled people in touch with other opposite sex disabled people?
Rob Lawson, Manchester
Why should anyone be excluded to anything others have just because of a 'disability'? If anyone else went to a prostitute, no one would say anything yet as soon as someone in a wheelchair visits such a place it's frowned on. We are all human and in reality the only thing that is different between us is our DNA.
Colin B, London, UK
This article on disabled people visiting brothels seems to start, not from the reasonable assumption that it is harder for disabled people to have sexual experiences, but from the erroneous assumption that all able-bodied men can easily get sex, and that disabled people need special looking after. I think considering prioritising the needs of disabled people in matters which are as intimate as this is a very odd idea.
I don't see any reason why, if sex with a prostitute really is 'sex between consenting adults', disabled people should not go along and use this service as able-bodied people do. But no one has the 'right' to have sex and there are plenty of lonely, able-bodied men around who also have a very difficult time achieving sexual closeness without the excuse of being in a wheelchair. Think how much more galling and rejecting all this is for them! As for disabled people not being run-of-the-mill films - do you ever see anyone who is not the Hollywood norm in both appearance and personality in run-of-the-mill films?
Alpha Beta, London
Society highlights all the people who "get lucky", which gives us all an unrealistic picture. Frankly, I think a lot of able-bodied people are actually not sexually active on a regular ongoing basis, but most of us do have at least a brief period in our lives when we are sexually accepted by another person/persons. I've been personally inactive now for about seven years with no apparent change on the horizon, but at least I have memories of a great five years in Denmark in the 70s. I wonder how it feels to have never been sexually desired by anyone ever?
P James, Leeds, England
I am able bodied, but my father had muscular dystrophy. He married my mother in the late 1950s. They were very poor and lived in a caravan to start with. It was a hard life, but they rose to the challenge and produced us four healthy children. We all love to dance - my brother is a professional ballet dancer. It must have given my father great joy to have produced the four of us in the face of the prejudices of the time and in spite of his physical problems. I remember comments being made when we were young, and people staring when we were out, but for me, I just assumed that everyone's father was on wheels! Sex is a normal need for us all and I believe that brothels are one answer, but that it is far more important to change what goes on in peoples' heads and their attitudes towards the disabled. My father died at the age of 46. I believe that he lived longer because of having a family of his own.
Jo Carter, Folkestone
Whilst I agree that everyone has a right to sexual experience, everyone has a right to choose. This article implies that there is something wrong with the choices that people make. Now if someone who was disabled showed me that they could provide me with an interesting sexual experience, and provide me with stimulating companionship as well, I wouldn't hesitate to go out with them. However, I will not deny that I see many disabilities as an obstacle to a long term relationship and as an obstacle to a physical relationship. As a woman, I want to take part in a mutual sexual relationship. If I have to do everything, I am doing nothing more than providing a service, which this article implies that these men want. I want a mutual physical and sexual relationship and I find that someone asserting his right to a sexual experience both off-putting and offensive.
Emily, United Kingdom
It is not ok for anyone to visit a brothel, regardless of their physical abilities. Prostitution is one severe example of our societies continued subjugation of women. Without wishing to deny the importance of agency in a women's decision to become a prostitute, surely an individuals belief that their subjugation is their choice is the ultimate form of subjugation.
As with most free market situations, it is the persistence of demand that ensures the persistence of supply. In that sense it is the customers of prostitutes who facilitate the opportunity for women to put themselves in physically and mentally dangerous situations. It is society's continued inability to emancipate women and offer them alternative opportunities that perpetuates some women seeing prostitution as an acceptable option. The approach must therefore be two-fold: a proximate one of punishing those seeking the services of prostitutes, and a structural one of ensuring that opportunities exist for vulnerable woman which enable them to avoid putting themselves at physical and mental risk through prostitution.
Nathaniel Hobbs, London, UK
You admit to making a documentary about the above mentioned unfortunate individual who felt he needed to pay for sex. BBC's participation in this documentary is really a way of publicly offering your support to the immoral deed and trying to get the public to do so too. To think that my licence money is spent in such a way makes me sick. No, you definitely won't have the courage to publish this.
I think that the problem is largely one of self esteem. As our modern, secular society is obsessed with sex, disabled people feel 'non people' unless they share in the general licentiousness. Therefore, sex is a way of making feel the disabled person 'normal'. The problem is that sex with a prostitute offers nothing emotional or human - it is purely a sex act and nothing more. In many ways, this activity, after the novelty wears off, becomes a hobby, like collecting coins. This is a shame, because what disabled people should be aiming for is relationships, not meaningless sexual encounters. The ideal scenario is for disabled people of both sexes to meet and socialise more easily, so that proper relationships can be formed, rather than to have to resort to paid sex.
Mark L, Reading, U.K.
Oh good grief is what I say. What is this big thing about 'brothels'. People continuously squeak about them, try and hide them under the paperwork and/or deny their existence. There is nothing wrong with sex - it is a normal human function, disabled people have as much right as an able bodied person to enjoy sex so stop wittering - accept it and move on. Geesh, there are so many more important things to worry about !
Susan Du Becker, Breda, Netherlands
The focus is always on disabled people. As a full-time carer for a disabled person, I would continue, and argue that it is most definitely OK for the carers to also visit brothels. Not only been a full time carer, but aged 23 and staying at home alone all day, one has no other interaction. We always seem to be forgotten. There is no discrimination between disabled and non-disabled persons, but how about me when I want a job? I have already been discriminated against as I do not have enough team working experiences over the last 2 years, yet I have a first class degree, have been a member of the TA and have had many different roles... though not within the last 2 years, as I've been too busy being a carer and saving the social security payments.
Small minded able-bodied people are to blame for this situation, pigeon holing disabled people. Shame on them.
Why can't people understand that being disabled does not mean you are devoid of emotions and needs.
Sarah, Epsom, Surrey
"Why should people struggle for that experience?"; Asta, I think the question is why should people be subjected to such things as prostitution. It is a very self centred thing to say.
A Hutton , Leics. UK
'I don't think anybody has the right to have sex with another person'....Quite right, but you should have the right to sell/buy sex in a safe healthy environment if you choose to. Whether the prostitute or the punter is disabled is completely irrelevant.
Of course it's OK. 'We' seem to expend effort everywhere to ensure accessibility for all, and then suddenly become squeamish when that accessibility might include conceding someone with a disability might have sexual feelings. The argument about the morality of prostitution is a red herring as it doesn't apply any more or less to a disabled person than anyone else. Make the question "Why isn't it OK...?" and, aside from a morality question that applies to all, there's no good reason at all.
Alastair Alexander, Watford, UK
This is a ridiculous article. Firstly, its not a human right to have sex before you are 30. There are plenty of non-disabled people who didn't lose their virginity before 20 or 25 or whatever. Secondly, if its ok for disabled people to go to a brothel then it should be ok for anyone. To suggest that they should be given a special dispensation because they are so unattractive is just insulting.