The Sessions—the 2012 film about a polio patient who hires a “sex surrogate” to help him lose his virginity—won praise for humanizing a sex worker and her severely disabled client. But a new paper by Kirsty Liddiard, a sociologist at the UK’s University of Sheffield, provides a much more revealing window into the experiences of disabled men who pay for sex.
Liddiard interviewed 25 physically disabled men and women, recruited through ads on websites and in publications for people with disabilities. (The ads didn’t mention that she was studying sex work.) Of the 16 men included in the study, seven said they had at some point purchased sex from a female sex worker. (None of the women had ever paid for sex.) This is consistent with other research that suggests disabled men seek out prostitutes or “sex surrogates” at higher rates than non-disabled men. In a 2005 survey carried out by the British magazine Disability Now, 22 percent of the 1,115 disabled male respondents admitted they had at some point paid for sex, and 37.6 percent said they’d at least considered it. (Only 1 percent of disabled women had hired a sex worker, though 16.2 percent had thought about it.) Researchers estimate that about 10 percent of all British men have ever visited a prostitute.
Liddiard’s subjects’ ages ranged from 20 to 64, and all but one were straight. Most of the interviews took place in person or over Skype, but Liddiard spoke with some through email or instant messaging. Five of the participants handed over their journals rather than speak with her.
She spoke with them about their motivations and experiences of procuring sex, and found that for many of the men, it was as much about demonstrating their independence as it was about the sex. For Harjit, a 23-year-old-student whose parents had moved into his university residence to care for him, making secret arrangements was as much an accomplishment as the sex itself. “From the excitable way such stories were told, it appeared that a lot of the ‘buzz’ … was as much from exercising agency, autonomy, control and independence as it was about experiencing sexual fulfilment, pleasure, and satisfaction,” wrote Liddiard.
Other men simply wanted to have an experience they believed they wouldn’t have otherwise. “I wish I could go out and meet someone, but it’s not that easy,” one man complained. “I can’t go into a nightclub and easily pull, although I have in certain circumstances, but I can’t do it easily,” said another. Mark, a 35-year-old Liddiard interviewed in person, said that his experience with a sex worker was the only time he’d ever felt “sexiness.”
For many of these men, paying for sex provided, for the first time, the chance to experience touch that wasn’t medical or therapeutic. “Men in this study strongly expressed that the commercial context was integral towards learning even the most ‘rudimentary’ of experiences, such as sensuous and erotic touch,” wrote Liddiard.
Abram, 35, told her over Skype:
I’d never even been kissed before [long pause] . . . I think the first thought was how wet her lips were. It was new and I tried to get my lip action going a bit as well. I was able to just experiment, really.
Graham, 52, recalled:
It was the first time I realized a woman’s body was warm, with no clothes on, naked, she was warm and that was a shock to me.
Other men said that paying for sex helped prepare them for “real” romantic relationships. They saw their experiences with sex workers as “a productive step towards (later) gaining a fulfilling, mutual and reciprocal (non-commercial) intimate relationship.”
“I think we definitely need to change the way we think about sex work,” Liddiard told me over the phone. “Our assumptions are that disabled men desperately need sex, but their reasons for paying for sex were varied and were rooted in their experiences of disability.”
All of the men in the study, though, saw paying for sex as a temporary fix. “Many men said to me that, although sex work did important things for them, they were actually quite dissatisfied or unfulfilled after,” Liddiard said. “Men would say, it was great to lose my virginity, but I really want a relationship. How do I express myself sexually without paying for it?” That’s a question money can’t answer.
This piece has been updated.