‘Scarlet Road’: Sex Work and Disability

[caption id="attachment_8101" align="aligncenter" width="260"]Scarlet Road promotional poster. Scarlet Road promotional poster.[/caption]

Written by Erin Tatum.

I was originally hesitant to give Scarlet Road a chance. As a general rule, I hate documentaries about sex and disability. Most of them are incredibly patronizing and spoonfeed the presumably able viewer flowery messages about compassion for the human experience that do little to actually help the audience understand disabled sexuality or the problematic consequences of assuming universal asexuality for people with disabilities. Plus, the trailer really overdoes it with the piano music, which is never a good sign.

That said, this was the first documentary on the subject that I genuinely enjoyed. At first, I was a little put off that Scarlet Road was subtitled “A Sex Worker’s Journey” because I felt that it was trying to pull focus away from the disability aspect of the film and emphasize the importance of able subjecthood. I was soon able to work past that when I realized that the film was tackling much more than disability alone. Director Catherine Scott chronicles the daily life of Rachel Wotton, an Australian sex worker who frequently works for the disabled, as she attempts to break down stigmas around sex work and disability. Rachel’s situation is especially unique because she lives in New South Wales, where sex work is decriminalized, and so she is able to advertise herself and others as any other business would.

Rachel could not have been a better spokesperson. She is fun, relaxed, and articulate. Rather than seizing the podium to “educate” the audience about the mechanics of sex with the disabled, she simply advocates for everyone’s right to sexual expression in a manner that’s casual and friendly, rather than appealing to sympathy and shaming able people for their social superiority complex. Rachel is the sort of person that you could imagine yourself sitting down having coffee with and when you’re dealing with allegedly taboo subjects, that sort of familiarity is vital. It’s easy to see why she excels in her profession. I never doubted that any of her passion wasn’t 100 percent genuine.

[caption id="attachment_8103" align="aligncenter" width="300"]John enjoys a session with Rachel. John enjoys a session with Rachel.[/caption]

All of Rachel’s clients who were interviewed were disabled men. Some of them presented relatively familiar disability narratives. The first client, John, a man with multiple sclerosis, talked about nearly being driven to suicide by the degeneration resulting from his disorder. He says that working with Rachel “makes him feel like a real man again.” It’s also implied that his sessions with Rachel have even restored some of his functions or created some sort of new pathway for sexual response. Basically, masculinity is once again inextricably tied to regular sexual expression, but I won’t gripe too much because it isn’t framed in a way that compels us to pity him.

[caption id="attachment_8102" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Rachel and Mark walk hand-in-hand as they go to lunch. Rachel and Mark walk hand-in-hand as they go to lunch.[/caption]

There’s also another guy Mark who has cerebral palsy (like me, holla!). Mark looks to be in his 30s and just chills with his parents. His parents are awesome and the three of them seem to love hanging out together. After so many stories of disability being a draining burden on everyone you love, it’s really refreshing to see a family that doesn’t bat an eye at the logistical complications. Mark’s mom gives him an allowance to pay for his sessions with Rachel. Mark’s mom is a cool lady. Mark says he wants a girlfriend and that although he understands Rachel is a sex worker, he likes that Rachel makes him feel as though he has a girlfriend. That’s an important distinction that the trailer conveniently cut out. People with disabilities are not children who form childish emotional attachments from fantasies. We understand reality, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to escape it from time to time like everyone else. Mark and Rachel have lunch while Mark’s parents set up his bed, complete with flower petals and chocolate. Not only do they seem completely at ease, but they chuckle and chatter excitedly the whole time about how pleased they are for Mark. Can they adopt me? Mainly, this documentary convinced me that I need to move to Australia.

[caption id="attachment_8107" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Displays of vaginal swabs taken from sex workers and non-sex workers. Displays of vaginal swabs taken from sex workers and non-sex workers.[/caption]

I was surprised with the amount insight we were given into the sex work industry and the prejudice it faces. I was pleased that the scrutiny was taken off of disability for a while. Rachel helps run and facilitate an organization called Touching Base, which aims to educate sex workers on a variety of topics, including how to best assist disabled clients. She goes to a conference on sexology in Belgium. Even there, many participants express uneasiness or confusion about sex work. Really? I know it’s unfair to expect everyone to be an expert, but you would think that sex work would be a pretty big field in sexology. Rachel remarks on a poster that displays images of a vaginal swab of a sex worker versus that of a “normal” woman. She points out that images like these perpetuate the myth of sex workers as “vectors of disease.” The film makes it clear that people with disabilities face a lot of unfair hurdles and social judgment, but moments like these remind us that sex workers encounter similar biases. Both groups are routinely dehumanized to create an imagined sexual hierarchy of authenticity.

[caption id="attachment_8111" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Rachel relaxes in bed with her boyfriend. Rachel relaxes in bed with her boyfriend.[/caption]

Nonetheless, Rachel thrives in her personal life. She has a boyfriend, Matt, who doesn’t seem to mind her choice in career at all. He’s just as laid-back as she is. When asked the obvious question of whether or not he gets jealous, Matt flatly shrugs it off. Interestingly, when asked about Rachel’s disabled clients, he says that he understands why it needs to happen because they don’t have opportunities. I held my breath at this point because it looked like he was teetering on emasculating the disabled men by insinuating that it wasn’t “real sex” to shore up his own masculinity, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t appear to perceive any of her clients, able-bodied or otherwise, as a threat to him or his relationship. He knows Rachel’s work is her work and understands the sexual economy in relation to the disabled as evening out (one aspect of) social inequality. You go, Matt. I just want to give everyone in the film high-fives.

[caption id="attachment_8112" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Rachel on her graduation day. Rachel on her graduation day.[/caption]

Adding yet another element, Rachael graduates from university with a bachelor’s, having done her research in sex work. She wishes to pursue her PhD. I think that the unexpected fusion of these two areas reveals something very important about our cultural biases against sex workers and why we view them as unworthy of social respect. On one hand, academia is revered as taking quite a lot of skill to master. Supposedly, you have to be smart to earn a bachelor’s or PhD, and if you’re intelligent you must be someone worth talking to! On the other hand, sex workers are harshly stereotyped as often lazy criminals. Even when they’re marketed to be palatable to mainstream, like in Secret Diary of a Call Girl, escorts are portrayed decadent and opportunistic. In truth, there can be much more overlap between sex work and almost any other walk of life than most would care to admit.

Ultimately, the audience can recognize that there’s a great deal of intersectionality in the way that both sex workers and disabled people are policed and shamed about their sexual expression. Rachel reminds us that the two groups can work together to lessen collective stigma. Some of the issues that sex workers face directly impact the disabled community as well, such as the tendency to demonize or prosecute the client in areas where sex work is illegal. Rachel holds a banquet for Touching Base to celebrate the organization’s progress. Fun fact: she tells us that her current boyfriend, her three ex-boyfriends, her mother, plus several of her disabled clients and their families are there. No one even flinches. I love Australia. She talks at length about how much her disabled clients mean to her. After the preceding documentary, we can truly believe in her commitment to the cause.

The future of sex work and disability looks bright with Rachel Wotton at the helm.