We need to talk about sex work... and disability.

Wotton with a client.



Sex worker Rachel Wotton counts a number of men with disability among her clients.

A loud advocate for strengthening ties between sex workers and people with disability, Wotton has already co-founded Sydney-based organisation Touching Base.

Her organisation claims that access to the sex industry is a human rights issue for people with disabilities. They aim to assist “people with disability and sex workers to connect with each other, focusing on access, discrimination, human rights and legal issues and the attitudinal barriers that these two marginalised communities can face”

Wotton has also said she aims to eventually create the world’s first not-for-profit brothel.

Today, Mamamia sits down with Wotton to ask about her interaction with clients’ parents, her work with older men, and why she found Helen Hunt’s portrayal of a sex surrogate in The Sessions ‘really uncomfortable to watch’.

Q: You’ve said elsewhere that the role of a sex worker, in relation to some clients with disability, is about more than the act of sex itself. Tell me a bit about this role.

A: People so often have this myopic view of what sex workers do, and who we are and what we look like, hence one of the reasons why Scarlet Road was created- to really show the diverse nature of the sex industry, and the diverse nature of those who participate in the sex industry and our client base.

The definition of disability is a very wide spectrum- so, someone with depression who hasn’t been touched for four years- [there’s an element of] ‘skin hunger’ there. They’re not [always] utilising a wheelchair, and they don’t have a cast on their leg or anything like that; we’re talking about people with a whole range of disabilities. [Also,] the clients are getting older…


Q: So the age of your clients is something you’ve had to accommodate?

A: I’ve had some lovely older gentlemen whose lifelong partners have died, and they’re lonely. They haven’t been touched for two or three years since she passed away, and they’re just easing themselves back in, so they come to see me just for a sexual massage- so there’s no penetrative sex. There’s a lot of sexual massage.

…My friend, she’s in her 60s, and she talks about [how] her client’s daughter organised for her to go and see her father, and her father’s suffering from dementia… Someone who’s 90 doesn’t want a 20-year-old. They want someone older with life experience and things that they can talk about.

Q: So what sort of challenges do you face in seeing clients with disability?

Wotton with a client in her documentary, Scarlet Road.

A: Third-party assistance, I guess, is the biggest difference that sex workers to have to get used to [in working with clients with disability].

When there’s a carer, or a support worker, or a parent, or a brother or sister who’s assisting someone to see a sex worker- that’s a different part of my professional life as a sex worker that is different. Generally when you’re a sex workers you speak directly to the client and its all very quiet and discreet.

Q: How common is it for family members to arrange visits between sex workers and people with disability?


A: It’s certainly increased, and I think that’s just because there’s been media coverage and more people are discussing things. Scarlet Road has certainly broken the ice in a lot of families and a lot of organisations, and people’s sexuality is on the table.

There’s been a lot of people around the world who have seen the documentary and suddenly realised that they are sexual human beings and they do have rights… they just maybe need assistance with transfers from the bed to the wheelchair and vice versa, or someone to get the money from the ATM, or for transportation, to assist them to come to the right places.

Q: How do you adapt to different physical considerations of clients with disability?

A; You just adapt, and you just alter your service delivery according to what best meets their needs. There’s no difference- a gynaecologist doesn’t get asked these questions if they’re doing pap smears for women with disability. Even with personal trainers, people adapt their service delivery according to the range of movement and motion of the person’s body and their physicality- what they can and can’t do.

…I think [a] good thing about being able to work in the industry where it’s a legally-recognised occupation [sex work is decriminalised in NSW] is that sex workers can teach each other different things. If you see Scarlet Road, Mark’s mum teaches me to use an electric hoist. Now I can show another sex worker where that’s stored; I can teach another sex worker about some very specific things that he may like, or how he’s using his eyes to direct me, what that means, and how to read that kind of communication.

Q: You must get compared to Helen Hunt’s character in The Sessions a lot.

The Sessions was based on the true story of poet Mark O’Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of polio.

A: Personally I found it really uncomfortable to watch because I found Helen Hunt in her character to be completely unprofessional.

Q: Why is that?

A: There’s a lot of overlap between sex workers and sexual surrogates. We’re dealing with people who may be very uncomfortable with their bodies or very nervous- it may be the first time that we’re doing this.

So our role is to relax people and make them feel comfortable in a safe, warm, expressive environment. And [when Hunt’s character] walks in, she doesn’t even make contact with him, she just starts talking to him, she’s not at his same height- he’s in bed, he’s very nervous … He says ‘your money’s on the table’ and she just basically verbally slaps him and says ‘I’m not a prostitute.’

She also talks over her shoulder to her client while she’s getting undressed. I just cringed at that, because this is a person who hasn’t lost his virginity, has never had any sensual contact with another human being, and she’s wrecking the undress thing!

For some of my clients with disabilities, who may have limited experience in sexual expression, being able to undress in a sexy way and to get them involved- even if you have to help someone’s arm and hook their finger around the bra so they’re kind of helping you get undressed, that’s something that I do a lot.

So [Hunt’s] role as a sexual surrogate, I found a bit crass.

Watch the trailer for Scarlet Road below: