Nfld. & Labrador·Access Denied

Sex worker says clients with disabilities are 'just like anybody else'

Sex workers say they're making an important difference in the lives of clients with disabilities, who are sometimes both lonely and treated as non-sexual beings.

Loneliness, alienation common and people have a right to their sexuality, advocates say

This sex worker in Newfoundland and Labrador agreed to an interview with CBC News on the condition that her identity be protected. (John Pike/CBC)

A sex worker in Newfoundland in Labrador says she has had a handful of clients who live with disabilities, and she feels positive about what she's been able to offer them.

"I know it's hard to find someone to be comfortable with in that way, especially with a disability," said Suzie, which is not her real name.

People with disabilities are feeling really lonely and alienated, as though their sexuality doesn't get to exist.- Heather Jarvis

"I mean, it takes a lot of guts to actually go out and do things like that especially if you do have a disability."

CBC News has agreed to hide Suzie's identity for safety reasons.

"What we're hearing again and again from the sex workers in our city is that people with disabilities are feeling really lonely and alienated, as though their sexuality doesn't get to exist," said Heather Jarvis of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, a group that offers support to sex workers.

Suzie agreed.

Sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador say many clients with disabilities are feeling lonely and alienated. (CBC)

Can people with disabilities be sexy?

"They're just like anybody else," said Suzie.

"I mean, a lot of them weren't born with their disabilities. Something's happened and it's made them that way. They're normal people, too, they're just average people," she said.

"The only difference is they have extra struggles — like having to go over stairs is a struggle for them, versus the regular person without a disability, who doesn't even have to think about that stuff."

'He just cried. I cried'

Suzie remembers an emotional moment with a client in a wheelchair, who needed help to get up some steps.

"He's feeling really weak and like he's worthless at the moment," she said.

As a workaround, Suzie carried him over her shoulder while he held onto the stair railing.

"He was really embarrassed about it," she said. 

"I kind of felt bad for him just because he was so embarrassed about it and just didn't want anybody to know about it. I told him it was OK. He just cried. I cried. It was just emotional for him to go through that."

Sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador have used text messages as a way to communicate with clients, including those who are deaf. (Diego Ciervo/iStock/Getty Images)

Suzie says some sex workers refuse to take clients with disabilities, because they might not be sure how to get into a certain position, or are afraid they'll inadvertently hurt the client.

A lot of the time, you don't know until they're almost there … because they're nervous you won't take them.- Suzie

She said she's received some of her biggest tips from clients who are grateful that she didn't reject them.

"A lot of the time, you don't know until they're almost there and they text you and say, 'Do you have stairs? I'm in a wheelchair,' once you've already accepted them, because they're nervous you won't take them if you know prior," Suzie said.

Seen as broken 

Heather Jarvis is proud of the difference that sex workers are making in the lives of clients with disabilities. She says a lot of it is non-judgmental communication, including the use of text messages when a client is deaf.

"Sex workers are saying that they're having a lot of open conversations with their clients when they have disabilities, about, 'This part of my body can only go so far, this part of my body doesn't get touched, doesn't get attention. Would you mind giving it some? It's meaningful to me. I feel like I'm constantly alienated and seen as broken because of the way my body does work and because of my body's limitations.'" 

Heather Jarvis is the program coordinator for the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, which advocates for the rights of sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

Jarvis said plain old companionship can be hugely important to the clients too.

Suzie has had clients with disabilities who become regulars; bonds can form.

But she said clients are often looking to bring experience back to their own homes — experience that wouldn't otherwise be attainable.

"I think a lot of them do it for practice so they know what to do or how to have sex for when they do want to get intimate with someone they care about," she said.

"They know what to do then. They know what will make them tired, what their limits are, that kind of stuff." 

People with disabilities as sex workers

Jarvis said accessibility can also be an issue for sex workers.

She said they might live with chronic pain, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, or hearing loss — and that might be why they got into the business.

"Often, when we know that disability plays a huge role in people not being able to find adequate employment, people do what they need to do to make ends meets, to make an income, to keep [themselves] going," she said.

Stairs are just one of the accessibility issues for people living with disabilities when they visit sex workers. (Shutterstock/Minerva Studio)

Suzie is not a person with a disability.

She said she agreed to speak with CBC News because her clients matters to her.

"They're already going through enough every day," she said.

"It's hard enough just for them to go to a working girl anyway, for them not be accessible, it just makes it a lot harder on them. I just want people to know about it."

Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of accessibility issues and solutions this week online, on CBC Television's Here & Now, and on CBC Radio One. (CBC)