autism, prostitution, and utopia

In These Times just published a piece on When Sex Workers Do the Labor of Therapists. It opens by telling the story of an escort dealing with a suicidal client, but it actually devotes more discussion to autism. The premise is basically, “thank god there’s prostitution so autistic men can have sex.”

Research suggests that upwards of 6 million men are affected by depression every year. Suicide remains the seventh leading cause of death among men in America. While it’s impossible to gauge exactly what percentage of that demographic frequents sex workers, the experiences of those in the field can offer some insight. During Sky’s last tour at the Ranch, she scheduled about seven appointments. Out of those bookings, only one involved sex. “We do a lot of companionship and intimacy parties,” she says. “The clients who sign up for those bookings are the ones struggling with loneliness.”

And people with depression aren’t the only neurodivergent individuals sex workers encounter on the job. Those suffering from anxiety, a common accompaniment to depression, show up frequently. They also see a lot of people who fall on the autistic spectrum. In fact, Sky says she sees men who fall into the latter demographic relatively often.

Sky first got her start in the industry working as a professional dominatrix. While she has since pivoted her position in the industry, she’s found ways to incorporate that expertise into life at the brothel. Sure, she offers standard escort services, but she also books sessions dedicated to BDSM, an acronym that can be broken down into three sub categories: Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission and Sadism/Masochism. Each dynamic refers to a specific form impact play [?] that participants can find deeply pleasurable. That kind of tactile experience, she suspects, might offer a certain special appeal to men with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). And she might be right.

Among the many symptoms of those diagnosed with ASD is a resistance to physical contact. According to the CDC, early signs of the disorder may present in the form of an aversion to touch. At the same time, touch is an important sensation to experience. A lack thereof can lead to loneliness, depression and even a more secondary [sic] immune system. Researchers have determined that therapies designed to nurture regular sensory integration can help in this regard.

Dominatrices are surely not the only workers paid to abuse autistic people. The point about BDSM and an altered sense of touch is interesting, even.

What I think this really illustrates is the death of utopianism on the left, and why we need it back. “Sex positivity’s” vision of society is one in which, thank god, rejected autistic can traumatize women because they have money from somewhere. While that might be achievable as a political goal, it’s not very ambitious. We’re supposed to want a society where people aren’t that lonely and people aren’t that poor, so why would prostitution even be a thing in utopia? You have to actually try the thought experiment of “everybody has dignity.”

This makes sex work sound heroic:

And maybe it’s not just in the interest of clients to see someone trained to provide the level emotional support they may be after. “It can be heavy,” says Sky. “I’ve had days where I have to take a minute for myself and get myself back together.”

Still, it seems as though few in the field shy away from providing the emotional labor that clients demand. “There’s this huge misconception that at the brothel we just have sex all day,” Sky explains. “But there are a lot of people who come in to work out some serious emotional issues. It’s really a good chunk of what we do.”

“I love my job,” she adds. “But there are certain parties that make us feel like we’re actually making a difference in the world – that we’re actually doing good things and not just providing a good time. And that can be super fulfilling.”

It’s not even wrong, but is this a phenomenon we should celebrate? Can’t we agree that there’s something obscene about emotionally unloading someone likely having a worse day?

This trope of “autistic men need prostitutes” was criticized by Jess Martin</>, radical feminist whose brother has autism and Down syndrome. Among the points she made:

People with disabilities do not need prostitution in order to have intimacy or to have sex. Many disabled people have sex with each other or with non-disabled people. Typically in the community of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, individuals will have sexual relationships with others at a similar cognitive level to minimize the risk of power imbalance. The matching of cognitive abilities is not a concern for people whose disabilities are physical; indeed, I know of many with fully-abled partners. People with disabilities have dating relationships. They have marriages. They have casual sex. Occasionally they’re doing it in inappropriate locations or contexts but, trust me, they’re doing it. Get over it. If you as a reader were patting yourself on the back for being progressive enough to think that disabled people could have sex, you can stop now and don’t let your prejudiced condescension hit you in the ass on the way out.

Let’s contrast that attitude with Kathy Lette, who wrote about almost getting a prostitute for her autistic son. She explains herself:

So, how did this sick scenario come about? Well, years of endless rejection by girls meant that my son’s self-esteem was limbo-low. Since puberty kicked in, he’d attempted everything to attract girls. Well, everything bar smothering himself in cupcake icing and sauntering through town holding a placard saying, “Free designer shoes!”

But to females his own age, he just proved too exotic. He might as well have been a sherbet-winged flamingo flying down the high street. Girls he met tended to act as though he’d just been beamed down from Planet Weird and had lost his guide book to understanding earthlings.

“I can’t fathom why no girl wants to date me,” became his sad mantra. “Do you know why, Mum?”

Of course I knew why. Because saying you are autistic and socially isolated is like saying that you’re on a diet and hungry.

“Will I ever get to kiss a girl? What can I do?” he pleaded.

What could he do? I’d racked my brains. Mail-order bride? Auction him on eBay? This, too, I seriously considered, and was discouraged only by the fact that it’s illegal to sell live things on the net.

Friends I’ve made in the autistic community are equally anxious about their own “grown-up” children. Some have tried dating websites. But an autistic person’s profile – “Encyclopedic knowledge of Amazonian moths, mathematical equations and black holes” ‒ tends to put girls off.

I can confirm that autism does NOT help with writing profiles. Why doesn’t she write down why even now? Saying “autistic people are lonely” like it’s our nature doesn’t leave us much hope of getting anywhere by working on ourselves. I’d much rather have family members like Jess Martin than Kathy Lette, who sides with the bullies. Lette can’t explain why we’re untouchable. We just are because duh. And then she wrote a novel about this topic!

As all my 50-something, divorced female friends are chewing holes in the furniture with sexual frustration and all the autistic young men I know are priapic, perhaps I could match-make them on an app called (maybe) Square Pegs for Round Holes? Or Au-tinder? Or Tinder-ism?

But before I had time to write my tech pitch to Mark Zuckerberg, nature took its course: my son found a girlfriend and fell in love. Still, my maternal anxieties got me thinking about sex for the “differently abled”. How does someone with special needs fulfil their inalienable right to the pursuit of life, liberty and human sexual contact?

About that time, I read of a father arrested while kerb-crawling to pick up a prostitute for his autistic son and realised with a jolt that it could have been me. And then I had the beginning of a novel. I also couldn’t find any novels addressing the issue of sex and disability. In fact, you never see “differently abled” people depicted in a strongly sexual context; they’re either pitied or inspirational.

And so I set about writing a comic novel which examines a young autistic man’s experiences of sex, dating, disability and navigating sexual and romantic intimacy – and the bumpy emotional ride endured by his devoted mum. I hope I’ve written it with wit and pith, as well as poignancy. And as the reader will discover, when it comes to sex, we all have special needs.

And here’s the book description:

TO DO LIST1) Buy hummus2) Pay Pilates teacher3) Find prostitute for son…When it comes to sex, even the best laid plans come unstuck – in the stickiest way possibleAs a crossword-addicted English teacher, Lucy never expected to be arrested for kerb-crawling. But her autistic twenty-year-old son Merlin is desperate to lose his virginity, and a prostitute seems like the only option . . . only Lucy picks up an undercover policewoman instead. Let off with a suspended sentence, Lucy resigns herself to the fact that her son will never have sex, let alone find love… until the morning she miraculously discovers Merlin in bed with a girl. But is tough, tattooed Kayleigh just taking Merlin for a ride? If so, why? And what has brought Lucy’s snake of an ex-husband wriggling back into their lives? As all her best laid plans for Merlin’s happiness chaotically unravel, will Lucy ever be able to cut her son’s psychological umbilical cord and start to live her own life? And will the funny, quirky and marvellously magical Merlin ever find real love? With plenty of comic twists and emotional turns, Kathy Lette’s riotous yet heartrending novel tackles the taboo subject of sex for the ‘differently abled’ – and shows us that when it comes to sex, we all have special needs …

Her son asked why it’s hard to find a girlfriend, and she couldn’t answer because she’s the reason.

“Sex positivity’s” defense of my dignity would be to praise Lette for wanting to help her son with his loneliness. Carrie Weisman’s article at In These Times did try to help out by quoting a certain Goddess Aviva, saying autistic men aren’t the scary ones you need to worry about:

Goddess Aviva, who also prefers to be referred to by her professional name, is a lifestyle and professional dominatrix based in New York City. Like Sky, she sees a good amount of clients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and also men dealing with depression and anxiety. She takes certain measures to screen clients. After all, violence against sex workers is an ongoing issue in the United States, and the wavering legality of the trade doesn’t exactly help combat the issue. In the wake of new federal legislation that has largely kicked sex workers offline, and with them, the ability to vet clients from afar, sex workers must be more vigilant than ever about whom they decide to take on. The clients who are neurodivergent or live with mental health conditions don’t seem to be the ones sex workers are worried about.

“You don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to be a shitty person, and some of my clients who do deal with mental illness are wonderful, kind people with good intentions,” says Aviva. “I’ve never felt unsafe with a client that makes it all the way to a session. What matters most to me is that someone is respecting my boundaries, time and protocol.”

lol to be damned with faint praise

Aviva is someone whose promotional photos on her website feature black dudes on leashes, kissing her ass. Serious question: if blackface is inappropriate, why is this not? I don’t think white people should be encouraged in slave owner fantasies, ever. There are white men in charge right now who want to make nonconsensual versions of those photos a reality again.  This person is not my “ally”.