Disability Kink

Sex, disability and prostitution

It’s time to talk about sex. I make no apologies for this. One of the problems that arises when discussing disability in relation to sex is that subcultures exist in which members of some impairment groups, such as wheelchair users, amputees, or people with restricted growth, are treated as fetish objects. A common reaction is to be disgusted and hence to regard any attempt to broach the topic of disabled people having sex as unacceptable. For those affected, both extremes can be equally difficult, resulting in unwelcome and often unpleasant sexual advances in one case, and repulsion by the targets of their affections in the other. It may seem odd to complain both about being attractive and being unattractive, although I suspect rather less so to women than to men, but the key point is that neither of the objectionable groups display evidence of considering us to be normal human beings.

Many disabled people find a regular sex life hard to obtain, not only because of physical impairments but also because of psychological ones impacting upon the ability to have a full social life. However, solutions proposed to this problem are not always satisfactory. A Google search shows that, in 2003, the New Zealand Green Party campaigned for the legalisation of prostitution for the benefit of disabled people. In case you are wondering, I have no idea how this would be good for the environment, but it is highly revealing about attitudes both towards disabled people and towards sex workers. Arguments in favour of prostitution should surely be based around the concept of liberty, not just the obvious fact that there are men who want to have sex. Conversely, prostitution is presumably illegal in New Zealand because of the belief that it is exploitation, which can never be justified.

At the other end of the liberalism scale, there have been equally perplexing arguments in Denmark, regarding a government policy to use state funding to provide sex workers for disabled people. The opposition parties have claimed that this is immoral, despite the fact that prostitution is perfectly legal for everyone else in the country. Danish society clearly takes the view that sex workers are not being exploited and so it is absurd to suggest that the situation changes merely because disability access is provided by public money. The European Court of Justice has ruled that prostitution is a service for the purpose of laws on the right of establishment and so it would be entirely reasonable, and some would say necessary, to make it equally accessible to all, in countries where it has been legalised.

I did not take this substantial diversion in order to resolve the question of whether paying for sex should be illegal. In fact, because this is a blog about disability issues, I am going to somewhat tantalisingly reserve judgment. Nevertheless, I am keen to reassure you that any thoughts which I do have on the subject are not influenced either way by the fact that disabled people have been known to use prostitutes. The purpose of raising the topic is to show that the attitudes exposed in the opening paragraph are not just limited to perverted ‘devotees’ with disability fetishes and to sexually repressed prudes. The Green Party of New Zealand seem to think that disabled people have an insatiable appetite for sex which overrides the rights of women while many Danish politicians are obviously disturbed by the fact that we have sex at all. What we want is for people to realise that we are neither uninterested in sex nor gagging for it but have exactly the same desires as everyone else.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser