Skin To Skin

Image by Harry Harlow (1958)

Few people would deny the importance of skin-to-skin contact in the psychological, emotional and even physical health of the newborn infant; study after study since Harlow’s seminal work with Rhesus monkeys in the 1950s have demonstrated that even if all of a baby’s physical needs are met clinically and dispassionately, it will not thrive in the same way as one whose bare flesh is pressed against that of its mother.  Indeed, in some cases an infant deprived of this contact will actually sicken and lose weight.  As time goes on, the need becomes less critical; adults can survive without it for much longer periods than babies, and some people manage to go years without touching the naked skin of another person.  But though an adult deprived of such contact is not likely to die, the effect can still be quite harmful; despite the denials of prudes and others who wish to control sexuality, physical intimacy with others is indeed a basic human need, and denying people the right to obtain it from consenting partners is a cruelty verging on barbarism.

In some countries, these statements would be wholly uncontroversial and it would be difficult to find a health professional, lay person or even politician who disagreed with them.  But in others (especially the United States and United Kingdom) the idea of sex as more closely akin to food, sleep and shelter than to television watching is a politically unpopular one, and I won’t be at all surprised to see comments insisting that sex is no more vital to health than candy.  I’m afraid I must politely disagree with them in advance; even in my private life I’ve seen too many examples of the erratic behavior of men long deprived of sex to ignore it, and as a sex worker I was privileged to be a regular witness to the profound restorative effects of simple human touch.  The power was demonstrated to me most dramatically after Hurricane Katrina, when the male population in New Orleans outnumbered the female by a substantial margin and many a client was willing to pay me just to hold and touch him gently, without anything a literal-minded person would describe as “sex”.

For most healthy, socially-adept adults – especially women – the distinction is at best an academic one, because they have little or no trouble securing voluntary sex partners on a regular (or at least occasional) basis.  But this is not so for everyone; some people (a highly disproportionate fraction of them male) have a great deal of trouble attracting partners willing to give them sex for the usual “socially acceptable” reasons such as love, lust, gratitude or even pity, leaving them unable to obtain it except by purchase.  And if a society criminalizes that option (or creates so many impediments to commercial sex that it might as well be illegal), even that route is closed to the man who is too afraid of the police or social censure to take the risk.

Because of the movie The Sessions and the news of retired madam Becky Adams’ plan to open a brothel for the disabled, the topic of sex work and disability is a trending one right now; I’ve probably seen more articles on the subject in the last two months than I had in the preceding two years.  And while I think this is an extremely important subject, I’ve written about it elsewhere and there are some very good charities (and in some countries, even government agencies) working diligently to raise public consciousness on the matter so that the skeptical can be helped to recognize that disabled people have the same need for intimacy as everyone else.  What I’d like to call your attention to now is a fact that may seem obvious, yet tends to get lost in the shuffle whenever the topic comes up for discussion:  not all disabilities are physical.  In my first essay on the subject over two years ago, I primarily discussed physical disabilities such as paralysis, blindness, cerebral palsy and even extreme obesity.  But in the months that followed the majority of men who wrote to thank me for speaking up for them, either in the comments or via email, suffered from “invisible” disabilities such as autism, stuttering, schizophrenia or even crippling social anxiety.  Like those with more obvious problems they found it difficult or even impossible to interact with women in the way most men take for granted, and as a result relied on sex workers for that contact.  A number of them asked my advice in finding the right sex worker for their needs, and one corresponded with me about his plans to travel to Nevada to lose his virginity in a legal brothel, and shared his joy with me afterward.

If someone were to seriously argue that it was wrong to pay for food, and that the restaurant business was by its very nature exploitative and demeaning, we would dismiss him as a crank or a lunatic; if a politician were to propose laws against the buying and selling of shelter, clothing, entertainment, medical care or other needs he would be ridiculed in the press and his chances for re-election would be seriously in doubt.  Yet sex workers are attacked thus every day; our agency is denied, our clients and employees are demonized, our profession is ridiculed and the very real social value of our work is dismissed.  And though we ourselves are the chief victims of this persecution, we should never forget that there are others as well: those people who rely upon us to provide a basic human need which, if not strictly necessary for mere biological survival, is nonetheless vital to make life worthwhile.

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