< SWITCH ME >

Imagine a scantily dressed woman gently approaching you, her sensitive hands caressing every centimetre of your body in provocative slowness; deep, glowing eyes set on you, willing lips open in heated expectation while she starts satisfying you… Then imagine that you are disabled. The woman in front of you is a sexual assistant.

Europe is a progressive region for disabled people. In many countries, people are used to disabled parking spaces and disabled toilets. You find the wheelchair symbol on public transport and can go to a supermarket in a wheelchair and find a disabled-accessible entrance. However, if a person wants to enjoy sex but cannot help oneself to actually have it, can one expect to have a "disabled-accessible sex life?"

Disabled-accessible sex, such is the daily business of Catharina König, an educated sexual assistant working in Bochum, Germany. She is a "sensuous woman with a lot of experience in life and love," according to her website, whose somewhat vague title "touch - massage encounter" is unfolded in a number of esoteric bullet points: "mutual embracing of bodies", "immersing in new sensous spaces of experience", and a "journey of feeling, sensing and discovering and giving you enjoyment." But one statement is very definite: "sexual intercourse, oral touching and kissing are not included in my offer. Pornographic fantasies are not catered for." One hour costs €100, plus travelling expenses. Her services address people with disabilitis or limitationss due to old age or disease.

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Photo: Coyau (CC BY-SA-3.0)
Shouldn't all people have equal rights to a sex life?

Catharina König is not alone. There are several organisations mostly in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark educating sexual assistants through practical education, such as the Swiss Sexualité et Handicaps Pluriels (SEHP) or pro infirmis, the Institut zur Selbstbestimmung Behinderter e. V. (ISBB) in Germany and Austrian Fachstelle.hautnah. Some sexual assistants go further than Catharina König and offer full sexual intercourse. Some have women as their clients too, although the business is dominated by the archaic role model: women selling sex, men buying sex. The range is wide and so is the job profile.

Where buying sex can perhaps mean a lot less than sexual intercourse due to physical or mental restrictions, selling sex requires a lot more than just being at someone's disposal. Whereas "active sexual assistance" can intersect with "conventional" sexual services, "passive sexual assistance" includes everything involved in practically advising the client in the area of sex and love.

WHAT DOES SEXUAL ASSISTANCE ENTAIL?

"I have to find out in which direction the development of a disabled person ought to go. For instance, I tell my clients about sexuality, contraception and how to protect against disease. Sometimes, I even have to explain to my clients how to wash and shower their intimate zones if they are physically able to do so themselves. If they wish, I also give my clients advice on where to buy erotic DVDs or appropriate sex toys and how to use them. Of course, I also show them how to masturbate."

That is how sexual assistant Michelle Gut describes her daily work. In 2003, she was inspired by a newspaper article by the Swiss pro infirmis to become a trainee for erotic massages for handicapped persons. "Since I had already massaged disabled clients before and knew about their problems concerning sexuality and having a partner, I found this idea great."

"Sometimes I have to explain to my clients how to wash their intimate zones if they are physically able to do so. Of course, I also show them how to masturbate."

There is strong demand for sexual assistants, yet the topic remains highly controversial. When pro infirmis launched an educational programme for sexual assistants, a major drop in donations forced them to withdraw. Many sexual assistants can talk about their profession only to close friends, and even that can be risky. If they are lucky, one of the sentences most heard is: "I could never do that," perhaps along with: "I never knew such a thing existed." The reactions reach from ignorance to disgust, from respect to scorn. Why is that? What reservations do people have?

the equality-hypocrisy problem

A first possible argument: disabled people are not full-value human beings and therefore have no sexual identity.

At first glance this argument seems not to deserve serious consideration. It is a part of the way a civilised society sees itself, that at least to a certain extent the disadvantaged parts of it can rely on particular support and integration, especially when their disadvantage is no fault of their own and is beyond of their influence. In theory, nobody would argue in earnest that handicapped or disabled people are not equal human beings.

When it comes to practice in everyday life, however, being taken as a "full-value human being" proves not to be so natural as it may sound – especially when real circumstances, due to severe restrictions, are far from being "full-value." A society should beware the hypocrisy of putting the case for a paradigm of universal human dignity and equality without being ready to accept the far-reaching consequences of this idea. Whoever says all men and women are equal (which is obviously a "should"-statement, a declaration of intention, not a description of a status quo) must accept that all men and women can equally have and live their sexual identity (or at least should be empowered to do so as far as possible). The reality is far from that. People like sexual assistants take the noble ideals verbatim to close the gap and equalise the unequal access to sex between disabled and non-disabled people!

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