Many people with disabilities find that most of their needs can be met by carers, parents or friends - with one notable exception: sex.
Able-bodied people dance around the topic, leaving those with disabilities to figure it out, and some find that hiring a sex worker provides the outlet they are looking for.
In the Netherlands, where sex work is legal, the government offers grant schemes whereby citizens with disabilities receive funding to pay for sexual services up to 12 times a year.
Paying for sex is not illegal in Ireland, but many activities associated with it are, such as soliciting sexual services in public places. Irish sex workers typically advertise their services online, and many offer services for clients with disabilities.
Laura Lee is an Irish sex worker based in Scotland, and is a member of the TLC Trust, an online network that helps to connect disabled men and women with responsible sex workers in the UK.
Laura praises the “wonderful” service, and believes there ought to be a similar structure in place in Ireland. At the moment, the closest thing to it is an option on the popular EscortIreland website to find “disability-friendly” sex workers.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Laura reflects. “I started my career working in the parlours in Dublin and I worked back then with disabled clients, but there was no kind of formal structure in place.
“There were girls who wouldn’t work with disabled guys at all, they were afraid of them. But I was happy to see them and to bring happiness into their lives.”
Through the site, Laura is approached by a range of people, from individuals themselves to carers and even parents of disabled people.
Some of her clients have been disabled since birth. They have limbs missing, or they are living with cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease.
She also works with people with mental health issues such as Asperger’s, autism, acute OCD, and soldiers returning from the frontline with PTSD.
“A lot of times I get carers that have done all their research and know what it’s all about before they contact me,” she explains.
“Their main concern is the security and comfort of the individual concerned, so I need to reassure them that I’m not going to compromise anybody’s safety, and I’m certainly not going to nick somebody’s wallet and run off.”
It is also common for mothers, fathers and siblings to arrange visits from sex workers for their disabled family members.
“I get parents as well, and I think that’s quite amazing actually, that parents can reach the point where they think, ‘Well, I do everything else for my son and this is quite a natural progression into adulthood, so why shouldn’t he experience the same joys as someone else?’”
Over the years, Laura found there was quite a steep learning curve when working with some of her clients with disabilities.
“I have learned a lot along the way, about myself and about disabled people. I’ve learned practical things, like how to roll them or move them across the bed or use a hoist, to bathe them and how to change a catheter, but it’s also about getting to know them individually and their needs. They can often come with some issues.”
The job can prove emotionally challenging at times, as Laura’s clients can become frustrated.
“They can feel a little bit resentful that all their friends are having nights out in pubs at the weekend and they’re left behind. Sometimes they can feel a bit of anger, so it’s about trying to get past that as well,” she says.
For some disabled people, sex workers can help them prepare for romantic relationships. Laura explains that part of her job is “about giving (people) the confidence to go out there and try to chat somebody up”.
“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than when I get an email a couple of months later saying ‘Thanks so much, I’ve finally slept with my girlfriend and we had a great time,’” she says.
However, depending on the nature of a person’s disability, that’s not always an option: “Sometimes, that’s physically impossible, as they just can’t get out of their houses.”
Laura argues that the sexual needs of disabled people need to be recognised in Ireland, and refers to the system in place in the Netherlands.
“That’s something I would like to see happening right across Ireland and the UK, but it will be a long, long road,” she says.
“Unfortunately we are going backwards here in Ireland which is a great shame, because other countries have recognised that it’s a real need that needs to be filled.”
Sex worker Kate McGrew counts a number of men with disabilities among her clients, and says they tend to be younger than the average age of her clients, with most aged in their 20s and 30s.
She adds that it is not uncommon to find people with disabilities working in the sex industry, as the flexible work schedule can suit people who fatigue easily and who want to define for themselves what they can accommodate at work.
“Since I started work in 2002 I have had clients with disabilities. I've had clients who have mild to severe cerebral palsy, dwarfism, and various other physical disabilities,” she explains.
While most of Kate’s disabled clients contact her independently via her online profile, she has also heard from parents and siblings who wanted to arrange a booking for their loved ones.
“They might briefly touch base after the first booking, but as with the family members of able-bodied people, they don't really want to know the details!”
Arranging visits with her disabled clients can be more difficult, requiring additional time and preparation, along with good communication.
“Depending on the nature of the disability they either come to my in-call location or I go to their care facility. In care facilities, it is certain staff that have been identified by the client as informed and safe for me to interact with, and the need to be discreet is extra important,” she says.
“Once, in a first booking with a client who doesn't speak, I thought that we'd been very thorough going over all the important details via email. But when I arrived, I realised the room was set up differently than what I'd expected. His carer had explained to me how my client says yes and no, and so I just took my time to make sure I got clear signals from him.”
Kate agrees that while the work can be emotionally challenging at times, it’s nothing she hasn’t experienced before, and that when it comes down to the act itself, her disabled clients are no different from her able-bodied clients.
“It can be emotional, if it has been a particularly long time since the client has had intimate contact. However I will say that is the same for my clients who are able-bodied!”