Is it OK for anyone to go to brothels?, I ask. The title of this BBC online magazine article neatly sidesteps what I see as the rather more pertinent question, framing the debate as one of discrimination against disabled people rather than the exploitation of women. Indeed, women are conspicuously absent from the discussion of whether it is OK for disabled people, sometimes unable to enter into a sexual relationship due both to their disability and social exclusion, to resort to using prostitutes to gain sexual satisfaction. Because, as the enraged friend who brought this article along to our Fawcett meeting last night pointed out, the journalist not only almost entirely glosses over the rights and experiences of the women in the brothels, but refers to ‘disabled people’ when what he actually means is ‘disabled men’.
While the issue of disabled people’s access to sexual experience and their ability to engage in sexual relationships is an important one (this article on the development of a thorough sex education syllabus in a college for disabled over-16s is very interesting), the issue in this particular situation is not one of discrimination against disabled people if we deny them access to brothels, but of whether men – or anyone – has the right to sex in the first place. And, if this right does indeed exist, is it more important than a woman’s – or indeed a man’s- right not to be exploited and abused?
It’s a big ‘no’ to both those questions from me. We do not have a right to something that necessitates the involvement of another person, precisely because we cannot force someone to do something against their will. It follows on that a disabled person has no more right than any other person to access another individual’s body. As things currently stand in the UK, we have little or no way of assuring that a prostitute is acting of her own free will, that she has not been forced into prostitution through trafficking, drug addiction or poverty. Therefore, taking the decision to go to a brothel involves being willing to risk exploiting and – if the woman is not in a position to freely consent – potentially raping another person.
Now, whether we will one day be able to engage in mutually consensual sexual business transactions with individuals who have freely chosen to enter a non-stigmatised sex industry that is not largely based on the trafficking and exploitation of women and girls is another matter (and a very long sentence), as are the moral arguments surrounding the selling of sexual services. What matters is that prostitution is overwhelmingly not, in its current form, ‘consenting sex between adults’, as Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes claims, and visiting a brothel is not, in my opinion, a decision that anyone – disabled or otherwise – should take.