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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

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

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’.

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Correspondence to Giulia Garofalo Geymonat.

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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.

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Garofalo Geymonat, G. Disability Rights Meet Sex Workers’ Rights: the Making of Sexual Assistance in Europe. Sex Res Soc Policy 16, 214–226 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-019-0377-x

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Keywords

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