Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Scarlet Road: Sex work and disability

"Scarlet Road follows the extraordinary work of Australian sex worker, Rachel Wotton. Impassioned about freedom of sexual expression and the rights of sex workers, she specializes in long over-looked clientele--people with disability."

Catherine Scott's Scarlet Road is a compelling documentary that tells the story of Australian activist and sex worker, Rachel Wotton. The film is primarily situated in Rachel's life in the Australian state of New South Wales, where sex work is legal. She also travels to speak and work with groups in Sweden, Denmark and the UK and trains sex workers to work with clients with disabilities. Through the film, we meet some of Rachel's clients, and their families, who allow the camera into their homes to provide insight on their struggles and what Rachel brings to their lives.

Rachel has also been instrumental in the foundation of the organization, Touching Base, which was developed out of a need to support people with disabilities and sex workers. The organization facilitates workshops, training sessions and provides information that focusses on addressing discrimination, human rights and legal issues in addition to confronting attitudinal barriers and stigma associated with sex work and disability. Touching Base provides options for those who haven't easily found intimacy due to physical or cognitive barriers.

Touching Base has been receiving more media coverage after the 2012 release of The Sessions--a film, based on an essay by Marc O'Brien, a poet who was paralyzed from the neck down due to childhood polio, who hires a sex surrogate to lose his virginity.

Rachel has made it her life's work to raise awareness and reduce stigma surrounding sex work and disability. Her philosophy, that advocates the therapeutic benefits of physical touch and intimacy, is evident throughout the film. Through the documentary, we see how many of Rachel's clients primarily experience touch in medicalized ways. It's clear that she makes a dramatic impact with her work by offering sexual intimacy, companionship and comfort to her clients.

"People with disabilities are not seen as sexual beings and on the other hand, sex workers are often portrayed as oversexed, victims or damaged goods. I really wanted to tackle these stereotypes head on," says director, Catherine Scott, who filmed Rachel for over three years. "It was a delicate balance. I wanted to show the touch and intimacy, without objectifying Rachel or her clients and reveal the sexual tenderness without titillating or shocking the audience."

Despite the acclaim for Scarlet Road, there are still some questions worth asking. As Leah Jane from The Quixotic Autistic points out, "not all sex workers are able to do what Rachel does, because of the circumstances surrounding how they came into sex work, they may not have the chance to advocate for themselves, or if they do, they won't have as receptive of an audience or be taken as seriously. Rachel's university education and ability to travel to advocate for sex workers abroad, going all the way to countries like Denmark and Sweden in order to speak out, are not the universal truth for sex workers."

Although the film primarily challenges stereotypes surrounding sex workers and people with disabilities by highlighting Rachel's experiences with male clients, it only touches briefly on the experience and sexual identity of a woman with cerebral palsy who volunteers at Touching Base. While it is important to highlight the positive impacts of Rachel's work with male clients, I'm interested pursuing questions that address the ways in which systems of misogyny might be perpetuated or challenged in her work.

Despite being a moving documentary, might the focus on male clients reinforce the rendering of women with disabilities as invisible, de-sexualized persons and further perpetuate damaging ideas about women's sexuality? While Scarlet Road is a powerful and worthwhile film to take in, I hope to see more documentaries that focus the lens on sex workers and their female clients.

For more information:
Sex Workers Unite!: The SXSW Interview with Catherine Scott and Rachel Wotton
Rachel Wotton, Australian Sex worker
Elizabeth's Story-Touching Base
Scarlet Road - Trailer
Watch Scarlet Road from inside Canada on CBC


  1. Thank you for this post, Anne! I had mixed feelings when confronted with this film. While Rachel's work is in many ways positive and inspiring, I am wondering what message this film, and her work, sends regarding people with disabilities having to rely on paid interactions for sexual contact? Does that not also somehow feed into the narrative of people with disabilities being viewed as non-sexual? Or as only receiving sexual attention by having to pay for it? I am not trying to make a judgement or an assertion - it is just something I am struggling with thinking through.

  2. This is a helpful link that debunks myths and misconceptions around women with disabilities and sexuality.

  3. Thank you both for your comments and link. To touch on the question about the message that the film and Rachel's work sends about feeding into the idea that people with disabilities are viewed as non-sexual - I don't think so. I think the film does a good job at highlighting sexuality, but for men. I think your question about receiving sexual attention by having to pay for it, is a good one - I think that what this might generally speak to is the pervasive stigma in society that exists surrounding disability and sexuality. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done there, and on many levels.

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