Disability Rights Meet Sex Workers’ Rights: the Making of Sexual Assistance in Europe

  • Giulia Garofalo GeymonatEmail author


The last decade has seen an expansion in initiatives promoting the development of special sex services oriented to people with disabilities, which in Europe are increasingly labelled ‘sexual assistance’. These have become the object of political and media attention, and arguably call for a critical analysis incorporating both disability and sex workers’ rights perspectives. Based on an 18-month embedded participant observation, I explore the case of a grassroots organisation which brings together sexual assistants, disabled activists and (potential) clients, and their allies in Switzerland. Opposing ‘therapy’, ‘charity’, and ‘care’ approaches to sexual assistance, members of this organisation work within their own model of ‘ethical’ services. While they place sexual pleasure at the centre of this approach, in practice, they promote forms of self-regulation aimed at limiting the risks of sex services, connected in particular to intimate violence, stigmatisation, sex normativity, and the role of intermediaries. Clearly rooted in a disability rights perspective, this grassroots initiative does not only concern sexual assistance but more largely sex services. In this sense, this study invites us to look at sexual assistance as an interesting space for alliance between sex workers’ rights and the rights of people with disabilities, as a uniquely politicised group of (potential) clients.


Sexual assistance Sexual surrogacy Disability rights Sex workers’ rights Sex workers’ clients Prostitution Switzerland 



I am very grateful to all the people that participated in my research and contributed their insights. I would also like to thank P.G. Macioti for her comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Funding information

This study was originally funded by the European Commission under FP7-PEOPLE-2011-IEF, Award N. 302299, Project Acronym: Sexual Assistance. This particular piece of writing was also supported by the COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scaled and Cultures of Governance’.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that there are no conflicts of interest.


  1. Abberley, P. (2002). Work, disability, disabled people and European social theory. In C. Barnes, M. Oliver, & L. Barton (Eds.), Disability studies today. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Ltd..Google Scholar
  2. Aloni, R., Keren, O., & Katz, S. (2007). Sex therapy surrogate partners for individuals with very limited functional ability following traumatic brain injury. Sexuality and Disability, 25(3), 125–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andrijasevic, R. (2013). Migration and sex work, Europe. In I. Ness (Ed.), Encyclopedia of global human migration. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.Google Scholar
  4. Arreger, J. (2016) L’assistance sexuelle: Une réelle amelioration de la qualité vie des personnes vivant avec un handicap, âgées ou souffrant de troubles sexuels, grace a une prestation de travail du sexe: est-ce socialement acceptable et integrable? Memoire: Sexologie clinique, Université de Geneve: Accessed 27 Jan 2019.
  5. Bahner, J. (2015). Sexual professionalism: for whom? The case of sexual facilitation in Swedish personal assistance services. Disability and Society, 30(5), 788–801.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Beckett, C. (2007). Women, disability, care: Good neighbours or uneasy bedfellows? Critical Social Policy, 27, 360–380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bonnie, S. (2004). Disabled people, disability and sexuality. In J. Swain, S. French, C. Barnes, & C. Thomas (Eds.), Disabling barriers, enabling environments. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  8. Boris, E., & Salazar Parreñas, R. (Eds.). (2010). Intimate labors: Cultures, technologies and the politics of care. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Bouma, G., & Atkinson, G. (1995). Handbook of social science research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bournot-Trites, M., & Belanger, J. (2005). Ethical dilemmas facing action researchers. Journal of Educational Thought, 39(2), 197–215.Google Scholar
  11. Brasseur, P., & Detuncq, P. (2014). L’assistance sexuelle : Qu’est-ce-à-dire? Quels enjeux? Vie sociale et traitements, 3(123), 51–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bugnon, G., Chimienti, M., & Chiquet, L. (with J Eberhard) (2009) Marché du sexe en Suisse : Etat des connaissances, best practices et recommandations, Volet 3 – Mapping, contrôle et promotion de la santé dans le marché du sexe en Suisse, Sociograph 7. Genève : Université de Genève.Google Scholar
  13. Campagna, N. (2012). La sexualite’ des handicapes. Faut-il seulement la tolerer ou aussi l’encourager? Geneva: Labor et Fides.Google Scholar
  14. Campbell, F. K. (2008). Exploring internalized ableism using critical race theory. Disability & Society, 23(2), 151–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cruz, K. (2013). Unmanageable work, (un) liveable lives: The UK sex industry, labour rights and the welfare state. Social and Legal Studies, 22(4), 465–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. De Boer, T. (2015). Disability and sexual inclusion. Hypatia, 30(1), 66–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. De Vries, N. (2013) Training to become a sexual assistant for disabled people, unpublished text. Google Scholar
  18. Dewey, S., & Zheng, T. (2013). Ethical research with sex workers: anthropological approaches. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dufour, P. (2013). L’expérience Handie. Handicap et Virilite. Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble.Google Scholar
  20. Dufour, P., & Thierry, J. B. (2014). Les impasses de l’assistance sexuelle. In Y. Jeanne (Ed.), Au Risque du Désir. Editions Érès: Toulouse.Google Scholar
  21. Earle, S. (1999). Facilitated sex and the concept of sexual need: Disabled students and their personal assistants. Disability and Society, 14(3), 309–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fassin, E. (2010). National identities and transnational intimacies: Sexual democracy and the politics of immigration in Europe. Public Culture, 22(3), 507–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fiduccia, B. W. (2000). Current issues in sexuality and the disability movement. Sexuality and Disability, 18(3), 167–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fine, M., & Glendinning, C. (2005). “Dependence, Independence or Interdependence? Re-visiting the Concepts of “Care” and “Dependency”’. Ageing and Society, 25, 601–21.Google Scholar
  25. Fritsch, K., Heynen, R., Ross, A. N., & Van Der Meulen, E. (2016). Disability and sex work: Developing affinities through decriminalization. Disability & Society, 31(1), 84–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Galvin, R. (2004). Challenging the need for gratitude: Comparisons between paid and unpaid care for disabled people. Journal of Sociology, 40(2), 137–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Garofalo Geymonat, G. (2014). Oltre il dibattito pubblico, ma non oltre la critica: pratiche di assistenza sessuale in Europa. In M. Ulivieri (Ed.), LoveAbility. L’assistenza sessuale per le persone con disabilità (pp. 99–114). Trento: Edizioni Centro Studi Erikson.Google Scholar
  28. Garofalo Geymonat, G., & Macioti, P. G. (2016). Ambivalent professionalisation and autonomy in workers’ collective projects: The cases of sex worker peer educators in Germany and sexual assistants in Switzerland. Sociological Research Online, 21(4), 10.Google Scholar
  29. Gatenby, B., & Humphries, M. (2000). Feminist participatory action research: Some methodological and ethical issues. Women's Studies International Forum, 23(1), 89–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gerschick, T. (2007). The body, disability, and sexuality. In S. Seidman, N. Fischer, & C. Meeks (Eds.), Handbook of new sexuality studies. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. ICRSE. (2016). Nothing about us without us! Ten Years of Sex Workers’ Rights Activism and Advocacy in Europe. Accessed 27 Jan 2019.
  32. Inckle, K. (2015). Debilitating times: Compulsory ablebodiedness and white privilege in theory and practice. Feminist Review, 111, 42–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Jeffreys, S. (2008). Disability and the male sex right. Women’s Studies International Forum, 31, 327–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Karpman, S. (1968). Fairy tales and script drama analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 26, 39–43.Google Scholar
  36. Kelly, C. (2015). Disability politics and care. Vancouver: UBC Press.Google Scholar
  37. Kittay, E. F., Jennings, B., & Wasunna, A. A. (2005). Dependency, difference and the global ethic of longterm care. Journal of Political Philosophy, 13(4), 443–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kulick, D., & Rydström, J. (2015). Loneliness and its opposite: Sex, disability and the ethics of engagement. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Liddiard, K. (2014). “I never felt like she was just doing it for the money”: Disabled men’s intimate (gendered) realities of purchasing sexual pleasure and intimacy. Sexualities, 17(7), 837–855.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maxey, I. (1999). Beyond boundaries? Activism, academia, reflexivity and research. Area, 31(3), 199–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. McCarthy, M. (1999). Sexuality and women with learning disabilities. London: Jessica Kingsley.Google Scholar
  42. McCarthy, M. (2016). Understanding and exploring the effects of informal care on the sexual self: A disability perspective. Graduate Journal of Social Science, 12(1), 96–117.Google Scholar
  43. McReur, R., & Mollow, A. (2012). Sex and disability. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Milligan, M., & Neufeldt, A. (2001). “The Myth of Asexuality: A Survey of Social and Empirical evidence”. Sexuality and Disability, 19, 91–109.Google Scholar
  45. Mona, L. (2003). Sexual options for people with disabilities: Using personal assistance services for sexual expression. Women and Therapy, 26(3–4), 211–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Naples, N. A. (2003). Feminism and method: Ethnography, discourse analysis, and activist research. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  47. Nayak, L. (2013). Une logique de promotion de la ‘santé sexuelle’. L’assistance sexuelle en Suisse. Ethnologie Française, 3(43), 461–468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. NSWP. (2017). Sex work as work. Policy Brief. Accessed 27 Jan 2019.
  49. Nussbaum, M. (2007). Frontiers of justice. Disability, nationality, species membership. Cambridge (MA)/London: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  50. O’brien, M. (2003 [1990]) Sex surrogate. In O’Brien, M. (G. Kendall) How I became a human being: A disabled man’s quest for independence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  51. Oliver, M., & Barnes, C. (2012). The new politics of disablement. Tavistock: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Östergen, P. (2017). From zero tolerance to full integration: Rethinking prostitution policies. DemandAT working paper 10 Accessed 27 Jan 2019.
  53. Pitcher, J. (2015). Sex work and modes of self-employment in the informal economy: Diverse business practices and constraints to effective working. Social Policy and Society, 14(1), 113–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Plows, A. (2008). Social movements and ethnographic methodologies: An analysis using case study examples. Sociology Compass, 2(5), 1523–1538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Prayez, P. (2015). Non-assistance Sexuelle à Personne en Danger. Paris: L’Harmattan.Google Scholar
  56. Richardson, D. (2017). Sexuality and citizenship. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  57. Sanders, T. (2007). The politics of sexual citizenship: Commercial sex and disability. Disability & Society, 22(5), 439–455.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sanders, T. (2008). Selling sex in the shadow economy. International Journal of Social Economics, 35(1), 704–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Scoular, J., & Sanders, T. (2010). Introduction: The changing social and legal context of sexual commerce – Why regulation matters. Journal of Law and Society, 37(1), 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Shakespeare, T. (2000a). Help. Birmingham: Venture Press.Google Scholar
  61. Shakespeare, T. (2000b). Disabled sexuality: Towards rights and recognition. Sexuality and Disability, 18(3), 159–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Shakespeare, T., Gillespie-Sells, K., & Davies, D. (1996). The sexual politics of disability: Untold desires. London: Cassell.Google Scholar
  63. Shildrick, M. (2007). Contested pleasures: The sociopolitical economy of disability and sexuality. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 4(1), 53–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Shuttleworth, R. (2007). Introduction to special issue: Critical research and policy debates in disability and sexuality studies. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 4(1), 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Shuttleworth, R., & Sanders, T. (Eds.). (2010). Sex and disability: Politics, identity and access. Leeds: Disability Press.Google Scholar
  66. Siebers, T. (2012). A sexual culture for disabled people. In R. McRuer & A. Mollow (Eds.), Sex and disability. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  67. Silvers, A. (1995). Reconciling equality to difference: Caring for justice for people with disabilities. Hypatia, 10, 30–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Stanley, L., & Wise, S. (1990). Method, methodology and epistemology in feminist research processes. In L. Stanley (Ed.), Feminist praxis: Research, theory and epistemology in feminist sociology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  69. Stone, E., & Priestley, M. (1997). Parasites, pawns and partners: Disability research and the role of non-disabled researchers. British Journal of Sociology, 47, 699–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Tampep International Foundation. (2009). Sex work in Europe. European network for HIV/STI prevention and health promotion among migrant sex workers.Google Scholar
  71. Taylor, Y., Hines, S., & Casey, M. E. (Eds.). (2011). Theorizing intersectionality and sexuality. Hampshire: Palgrave McMillan.Google Scholar
  72. Tepper, M. (2000). Facilitated sex: The next frontier in sexuality? New Mobility, 11(84), 21–24.Google Scholar
  73. Tepper, M. (2006). Sexuality and disability: The missing discourse of pleasure. Sexuality and Disability, 18(4), 283–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Thomas, C. (2002). Disability theory: Key ideas, issues and thinkers. In C. Barnes, M. Oliver, & L. Barton (Eds.), Disability studies today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  75. United Nations. (2006). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. New York: UN.Google Scholar
  76. Wagenaar, H., & Jahnsen, S. (Eds.). (2017). Assessing prostitution policies in Europe. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  77. WHO. (2006). Defining sexual health. Report of a Technical Consultation on Sexual Health 28–31 January 2002. Geneva: WHO.Google Scholar
  78. Wotton, R. (2016). Sex workers who provide services to clients with disability in New South Wales, Australia. Master of Philosophy Thesis, University of Sydney. Accessed 27 Jan 2019.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Cultural HeritageCa’ Foscari University of VeniceVeniceItaly

Personalised recommendations