When I was hospitalized for my mental illnesses in 2016, I knew that neither returning to my previous job nor finding a new one was an option. Even if I found a workplace that actively accommodated my disabilities — and only 40 percent of workplaces have a formal plan to help disabled employees — my ability to work was so severely limited I could not physically work enough hours to pay for my basic needs. To put in plainly: being disabled and trying to find a sustainable form of employment sucks.
Like many disabled folks, I began seeking self-employment opportunities that could accommodate my health needs. After skimming my fair share of scammy “work-from-home” ads, my search eventually led me to become a phone sex operator and virtual sugar baby. I began happily earning my living as an independent contractor from the comfort of my bedroom.
As I found my way to virtual sex work through my disabilities, I discovered my experience was not unique. Many patrons also seek out sex workers due to their disabilities, whether they have a chronic physical disability, or struggle with mental health issues that affect their ability to spend time outside their home. For too long, disabled sex workers and clients have been forced into silence because of the stigmas surrounding both sex work and disability — but the connection between these two marginalized communities is undeniably important.
Being disabled and attempting to find employment in the United States is enormously difficult. After facing back-to-back repeal and replace efforts led by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, disability rights activists spent this past summer organizing die-ins and healthcare rallies, some quite literally fighting for their right to live. People with disabilities face applicant and workplace discrimination, despite promised protection under the ADA. The Nation reports there are over 94 million adults not working or searching for a job at all, citing chronic pain as one of the main reasons for unemployment. Even disabled folks who manage to find a job with necessary accommodations are projected to make significantly less money than non-disabled or able-minded peers, earning 37 percent less on average. Many say a solution for this gap is in supplemental Social Security income, but some people with disabilities who receive these benefits have expressed concerns that income limit caps can trap many disabled folks in a cycle of poverty.
My job as a phone sex operator not only liberates me from much of the adversity I face due to disabilities, but also allows me to subvert discriminatory workplaces that left me barely able to support myself. I talk to clients at my convenience, I work around my mental health needs, and I feel more in control of my income. As I became more active in the virtual and full-service sex worker communities, I realized many of my fellow sex workers chose the sex industry because they have a disability. In Nevada, escorts even formed the activist group Hookers For Healthcare to fight the repeal of the ACA, and advocate for sex workers who have a pre-existing condition.
The intersection of sex work and disability rights doesn't just encompass sex workers themselves, but also to a vast amount of clients with disabilities. Disabled people face considerable stigma when it comes to their intimate lives, despite the fact that sex can be a huge help for sufferers of chronic pain or stress. Though my clients come from a myriad of backgrounds, a significant amount of them have a physical or mental disability. Many struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or social anxiety, and desire a virtual “Girlfriend Experience.” In my role as a virtual sugar baby, I often serve as a liaison for intimacy. I provide a safe space for a client to gain confidence and develop a sense of self before they seek out in-person or physical relationships. I feel rightfully proud of my sex work, especially knowing I have helped many of my clients through their own healing processes.
Sex is healthy and normal. Intimacy is a need. Sexual expression is not a luxury exclusive to non-disabled people
Sex workers have long been advocating for disability rights on the behalf of their clients who live with a physical or mental disability. Rachel Wotton, a sex worker who was featured in the documentary Scarlet Road: A Sex Worker’s Journey, campaigns by sharing her journey as a sex worker who almost exclusively services people with disabilities. Across Europe, sex work advocates such as Kate McGrew often speak about the inseparable connection between sex work and disability.
This is not to suggest people with disabilities can’t develop sexual relationships without paying for a sexual surrogate, or that non-disabled people can’t also pay for consensual sexual service. However, the need for disability-focused sex work is evidence that ableism in our society is alive and well. Disabled people routinely face a degree of exclusion from non-disabled people, dealing with harmful microagressions that further marginalize them. As Katherine Quarmby reports in the Atlantic, “Disabled people’s sexuality has been suppressed, exploited, and, at times, destroyed over many centuries. It has been seen as suspect, set apart, and different from the sexuality of non-disabled people.”
Amber Rose, famed sex worker-turned-entrepreneur and author, proclaimed, "I began to realize that I’d be called a 'slut' whether I behaved according to other people's standards or not. So, I decided to take the power out of that word and reclaim it." And Rose is completely right — unless our current society changes drastically, disabled folks and sex workers will face discrimination no matter what they do, or how they behave, so why not reclaim our identities?
I see sex work as an accessible way for many disabled people — sex workers and clients alike — to rediscover their sexuality in a sexist, ableist society. Sex is healthy and normal. Intimacy is a need. Sexual expression is not a luxury exclusive to non-disabled people.
Unfortunately, the conversation about sex work and disability will prove to be an uphill battle while both topics face remain shrouded in stigma. Sex work is regularly conflated with human trafficking, leading to large misconceptions about what it truly means to be a consensual sex worker. Often times, people believe I have been exploited or forced into the sex industry, but this couldn't be farther from the truth — becoming a sex worker was an autonomous choice I made that positively impacted my life in a way I could have only imagined before.
Sex workers have attempted to re-educate people on sex work, using the phrase "rights, not rescue" to sum up the needs of people in the sex industry. Not to mention, as long as the United States as a whole has an unhealthy attitude toward sex and toward people who openly enjoy it, sex work will be treated as taboo.
Most refuse to call sex work what it is: real work that provides a service for people that makes them happier and healthier. I’m hopeful as sex work and disability continues to make its way into our conversations, that our culture will unlearn sexist and ableist behaviors that has left both disabled people and sex workers invisible.