they do it better in dutch: sex workers and the disabled

by caitlin meredith

painted wheelchair on dutch beachMy mom’s last two blog posts about sexual surrogacy and the movie “The Sessions” (see part 1 and part 2) reminded me of one of my old pieces of dinner party trivia. In Holland, the government pays sex workers to have sex with physically disabled people. I know – crazy, right? At least that was my first reaction.

At the time I learned about this little social service gem I was working in Sudan living with three Dutch colleagues. So many of the things they revealed about their quirky country astounded me that I became used to having daily conversations sprinkled with counter intuitive nuggets. None of them had ever tried drugs, including pot? What was the point of living in the Netherlands?? The government had public health campaigns encouraging people to snort their snot back into their noses instead of using a tissue?? This was deemed more hygienic? Their national cuisine is a bowl of mashed up everything called stamppot?

By the time someone casually mentioned the generous sexual services benefit I was a bit jaded and it almost escaped my “Wait, what??!!!” radar. Almost.

After I had them repeat the information several times, making sure nothing had been mistranslated (nearly impossible since most Dutch people speak better English than I do), I was then able to move more deeply into the “Are you fucking kidding me??” phase of the conversation. They were as incredulous at my incredulity as I was incredulous at this impossible-to-integrate fact. (If you’re still stuck in the “could that possibly be fucking true?” phase, check out this New York Times article I just found that talks about the service.)

There are certain times in my life where I can actually feel the physical sensation of thinking. This was one of those times. It felt like I was mentally directing a marble through a labyrinth of questions, assumptions, judgments, and fears, trying desperately to inch it forward to more comfortable terrain. I was a product of the epicenter of free love and acceptance (San Francisco Bay Area) – why did this idea agitate me so much? I went to Montessori kindergarten with a girl named Meadow Rose for Christ’s sake!

The first layer of my reaction was, regrettably, revulsion. To contemplate the idea as a whole I had to first acknowledge the existence of sexual thoughts, needs and experiences among disabled people. Why is this so uncomfortable?

Writing this now I’m reminded of a gay friend’s coming out story. He told his mother he was gay over the phone. Twenty minutes later his grandmother called him. “Steven, let’s make a deal. I won’t tell you about my sex life and you don’t tell me about yours.” I love the way she so deftly communicated both her love and acceptance for her gay grandson as well as the parallels in societal disgust for gay male sex and old people sex.

It was this same weak, ungenerous and irrational impulse chiming so loudly in my ears. It’s as if even imagining a world in which non-movie actors might engage in sexual activities equated to the lessening of control over my own body. That’s why I used the word revulsion – there was a physical quality to my reaction. It wasn’t just displeasing to consider, it felt actively threatening.  Can someone explain this to me? God, Americans are so weird about sex.

Once I talked myself down from my differently-abled-sexuality phobia, the next layer to conquer was the idea of the government’s role in this arrangement. It’s one thing to accept that disabled people have sexual selves just like “the rest of us,” it’s quite another to assign tax dollars to accommodate those selves.

For my Dutch friends there was nothing so complicated about it at all. In their typical blunt way, they laid out the reasoning. Sexuality is an innate part of the human experience. All people need food, education, a safe place to live, and, just as importantly, a safe outlet for their sexual needs. If the government is providing support services to disabled people like mental and physical therapy to enhance their quality of life, sex is an integral part of these services. They didn’t end their explanation with a side-mumbled “You boorish American!” but that’s how I felt. How ridiculously unevolved I was, and my entire culture. The distance between American thoughts on sexuality and the Dutch government’s ethos on complete humanistic care is too vast to measure.

In the Times article the organization they spotlight, the wonderfully named Foundation for Arranging Alternative Relationships, points out that while disabled people have the same sexual desires and needs as the rest of society, they have fewer opportunities to pursue sexual relationships. It’s hard enough for most people to find a date – why don’t you add societal prejudices and mobility issues and see how much luck you could have? Lack of sexual intimacy – or, more importantly, any prospect of ever experiencing it, ever – seems like it could have a profound effect on your self esteem, confidence, quality of life and ability to fully engage in relationships.

By the end of the conversation with my Dutch friends I became a total convert. My puckered heart had plumped with appreciation for a culture – and government, no less – with a more robust, generous humanity than my own.

One of the things I appreciated so much about “The Sessions” was its depiction of sexuality among the disabled community that Mark O’Brien relied on to help him through his sexual exploration. More than the graphic bedroom scenes between the two leads, the frank discussions, humor and sass on display among these peripheral characters brought differently-abled sex to the mainstream. The novelty of virtually hanging out with that crowd in the living room made me understand – at least partly – my reaction in Sudan. Things I’ve never seen can be scary just because I think they must be so different than my own experiences. The total lack of portrayal of disabled characters in movies and TV shows effectively blacks out most parts of disabled people’s existence in my imagination, not just sexuality.

So, when I read about my mom’s experience at a dinner party getting withering remarks about Cheryl’s profession, I could relate. I had been the one at the dinner years ago spouting the withering remarks. Fortunately for me, my Dutch friends were patient enough to talk me through my addled state. Now, if I had been at the dinner table with my mom’s friends I would’ve upped the ante. Not only do I think Cheryl’s work as a sexual surrogate is invaluable, I think Medicaid should pay for it.

Look at me now, Dutchies!!