Issues of Disabled Sexuality and Consent: When Parents Get Involved in Their Children’s Sex Lives


sexy ISA

Image Description: A stencilled modified image of the International Symbol of Accessibility, A presumably male stick figure in a wheelchair being straddled by another stick figure who is presumably female because of the addition of a ponytail hairstyle.


Australian-British author, Kathy Lette considered hiring her son a sex worker*. She considered doing this because her son is autistic. This narrative in and of itself is not new or particularly shocking. Parents have discussed considering hiring their disabled sons a sex workers before. I’ve seen narratives written by disabled men talking about their experiences hiring sex workers. The thing that makes Lette’s article so horrifying is the lack of involvement and consent from her son as she goes through her consideration of hiring him a sex worker.

There is also the fact that this narrative comes from her and shares a lot of extremely private medical information about her son. The over sharing of private information about disabled children is inappropriate and exploitative generally but is particularly heinous in the case of Lette as she is literally using her son’s story to sell her novels.

Lette describes her process of seeking a sex worker for her son as follows,

Not one, but two of the mothers I’ve befriended through the National Autistic Society suggested that we take our sons to a brothel. I mean, what kind of mother gives her son the sort of advice championed by Silvio Berlusconi?

But even the temporary solace of sex might do something for his flagging confidence.

Is soliciting a prostitute a seriously abnormal thing to do? Yes. But mothering a child with autism tends to recalibrate one’s view of normal. And so we asked our male friends how to go about it – only to be met with blanket non-co-operation till one pal replied facetiously, ‘Great idea. I’ll just run it by my wife, shall I?’

I asked a French girlfriend who is very worldly. ‘How can you, a feminist, condone prostitution?’ she responded with a searing glare.

Soon after, I was driving past a red-light district near Liverpool Street station. On impulse, I veered off the main road into a labyrinth of dark streets. As women skulked towards me out of the shadows, my heart thumped against my ribcage. What the hell was I doing there? I was more likely to be found at a book club than on a kerb crawl.

Besides, even if I did pick up a prostitute, how would I negotiate the transaction?

No, this was a bad, bad idea. I waved my hand back and forth like a windshield wiper to shoo the women away. When it came to parenting, I obviously needed a hat marked ‘trainee’.

It also crossed my addled brain that I was contemplating an illegal act. Kerb crawling for your child would prove a pretty hard concept to explain to a judge. And, how would I survive in jail? I’m a writer. The only wound I’ve ever received is a paper cut.

I went into spooked deer mode and bolted.

At no point, does her plan involves discussing it with her son. I can only imagine the bizarre and awkward scene that would have followed her impromptu “kerb crawl” if she had in fact succeeded in hiring a sex worker and had taken her home to her unsuspecting son.

“Hello, dear, I hope you’re having a good evening. By the way, I’ve hired you a sex worker. Here she is. Go at it. Have fun.”

The best case scenario is simply a lot of awkwardness. The worst-case scenario is that she, having presented her son with a sex worker, ends up pressuring him into a sexual experience that he does not want and is thus along with the sex worker complicit in a sexual assault.

This narrative falls into the egregious stereotype of disabled male sexuality which suggests (quite incorrectly) that their sex drive is simply constant and completely undiscerning. The very idea that you could simply present someone with a willing partner and assume that they would automatically be attracted to that person and in the mood for that sexual liaison is absurd.

The level of hopelessness that Lette describes, about her son ever finding a girlfriend (which he does eventually do all by himself) is also unnecessarily exaggerated. He is in his early twenties. Contrary to narratives in popular culture, it is still not entirely uncommon for people regardless of disability to have not had a successful relationship by the time they are twenty-one.

I am also struck by the masculine centred nature of these disability and sex worker narratives. The horrific failure of consent that is the Lette example aside. These stories are so frequently couched in a need to explore and affirm sexuality. But they are almost always focused on men. I have never heard a narrative written by a disabled woman or from the parent of the disabled woman in which they seek a sex worker. A 2005 survey suggested that 22% of disabled men had sought the services of sex workers as opposed to only 1% of disabled women had done so.

When it comes to narratives of providing supportive assistance in facilitating sexual relationships for disabled people, women are left out. The social taboo of women hiring sex workers completely overrides the narrative of affirming sexuality that often accompanies stories about disabled men.

This is problematic not because women aren’t seeking sex workers but because it reinforces the idea that men are in some way entitled to sex while reinforcing the idea that disabled women are sexually passive and that disabled women having sex or seeking sex may be in and of itself cause for concern.

Lette’s article reinforces this idea of male entitlement to sex through her complete lack of consideration of consent. It is simply assumed that this is something that he would want and be willing to participate in.

She also entirely fails to consider or address the way that disabled people have been culturallyy desexualized that has led to the conclusion that relying on sex workers for giving disabled men, sexual experiences in the first place. She simply laments that women will not think outside the box. She doesn’t look at how those boxes are created and socially maintained or how they might be broken open and destroyed to include disabled people as socially acceptable and desireable sexual and romantic partners.

Ultimately, the expression of sexuality by disabled people should be led by them. Even in circumstances where third-party assistance might be necessary to fulfil the expression of sexuality, the decision on how and with whom should always come from the disabled person themselves not from a parent or anyone else.

*Lette never actually uses the term sex worker in her article, choosing instead to use more disrespectful language.


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Dear Parents of Disabled Kids: Please don’t Share Videos of Your Mostly Nude Children

I want to preface this with an assurance that this piece is not moral posturing. I will not be suggesting that sharing images of very young children is in any way sexually deviant or even that the viewers of those images are doing so for any reason other than to learn about your child’s development and to find solidarity and understanding with other parents or children.

This is in response to a video I saw shared on the Facebook group Cerebral Palsy Worldwide. It was not originally posted there and there is no way of really knowing how far this video will be shared or viewed.

The video in question is of a rehabilitation session featuring a young girl (likely under 5 or 6). The girl is dressed only in her underwear and is learning to walk using a walker. I will not post a link to the video because I find these sort of videos being shared publicly problematic.

I understand the point of the child’s state of undress. It is easier for the doctor or therapist to see the child’s movement clearly so that they can better judge progress and suggest improvement. I even understand taking video as it helps on an individual level to keep track of progress and past therapies. To a lesser extent such videos can help in an educational capacity, showing physiotherapy and medical students both technique and familiarizing themselves with the way certain disabilities manifest before they are given access to patients.

Even then I would counsel parents to be cautious about giving their permission for video to be used in ways that are not directly related to the care of their children. This is primarily because these videos while informative can serve to dehumanize the children in them both in how they are portrayed and in the way the images are used.

For most children, nudity is not an experience associated with medicalization. Children are frequently naked for many innocuous reasons like bathing or from a simple desire to play naked (most of us have been there). Yet there are specific boundaries placed on children and nudity that they internalize even if they ignore them like the appropriateness of time and place and context. Running through the sprinklers is fine as is bath time but nudity and closeness to strangers is taboo.

I was aware of the distinction and was often uncomfortable during my annual check-up with the orthopedic surgeon when I would have to walk around in my underwear so that the doctor could check my gait, hip alignment and leg length discrepancy. I was keenly aware that under other circumstances that this situation would be considered deviant. My only indication that this was somehow an exception was that my parents remained nearby.

Children don’t function well with undefined exceptions. They may accept them but uncomfortably. Having a record of how their experience differed from their peers only adds to that discomfort. Something is different about you, the rules are different but no one explains why. The idea of a video of that separateness being uncontrollably circulated is cringe worthy as it so starkly differs from images of children shrieking with glee as they run through sprinklers.

It tells you that your body is somehow inherently different. You don’t get to experience the world the same way. Our bodies are not deserving of the same respect and deference. Instead our bodies are free to display to any and all even when we are at our most vulnerable.

We are not seen as happy playful children but instead as patients and exhibits for study.

I understand the impulse to share knowledge and experience with people in similar circumstances but this is a time when it is far better to use words rather than pictures. Even though having a disabled child can often feel like a public event please try to keep their actual medical lives private.

If you are approached by a medical professional who wants to show videos of your children for educational purposes.  Make sure that the images are used only in classrooms and are not made public.

If you want to educate more widely and feel that video is the appropriate medium, try to show more than just the medical side of your child. Give context. And above all choose the clips carefully so that if your child finds them later on, that they don’t feel alienated by how they have been publicly portrayed.