Saturday 10 December 2011

Scarlet Road

I have seen this trailer posted on tumblr and blogs a few times:

Scarlet Road Video from Paradigm Pictures on Vimeo.

Something about the way it was posted as an awesome exciting and sex positive feminist trailer bothered me, but I hadn't figured out just what it was.  The post on Jezebel reminded me of the sort of comment that I've seen in a few places (and I expect nothing from Jezebel, but they're not the only people who have written about it like this).

A post on the The F-Word responded to Jezebel directly:
I then read in Jezebel about a sex worker who is awesome because she works with disabled clients, which apparently makes her intriguing.

And I started to wonder, what do you think of us? Of me? In these three stages, the mainstream, and the left-wing, tell me that I am inferior, and I am other. So very, very other.
I share Philippa's concern with the way people who celebrate this trailer present disabled people and their sexuality, and I want to unpack why I was so troubled by the many people who posed this with the idea that it was awesome, exciting and amazing.


At this movie's centre is a paradox.  It's argument is that men with disability need to express their sexuality just like everyone else.  However, the existence of the movie posits sex with people with disabilities as different.  This trailer, and the people posting it, appear to believe that sex work with men with disabilities is in some important way different from other sex work.  The Jezebel post described her as 'awesome' based on nothing but the trailer.  None of this makes sense if you genuinely believe what the trailer is presenting as the central premise of the documentary.

Of course the reality is that disabled people are de-sexualised by society, there sexuality is denied, and the very limited idea of sex, sexuality and desire that is promoted in our society has no room for them.  That's the social model of disability - disabled people's sexuality is not different because of their bodies, but because of how society responds to their bodies.

The paradox could be undone with media that centres the experiences of people with disabilities.  A story which starts from them could show that there is nothing intrinsically different between disabled people's sexuality and non-disabled people's sexuality - but there is a profound difference in how their bodies and sexuality is treated.

However, by centring this documentary around an able-bodied women, all that happens is the paradox is reinforced, she is awesome because of what she does.


The trailer talks about 'people with disabilities' - but it portrays and focuses on men with disabilities.  Obviously as a feminist I have a problem anytime that happens, but rendering women with disabilities invisible in this context reinforces damaging and pervasive ideas about women's sexuality and about disability.

This is not the first piece of media, which has discussed men with disabilities' sexuality and sex work in a way that makes women with disabilities invisible.   I've been keeping an eye on these stories for at least ten years, and there is a pattern.  Every so often some media outlet puts out a story about men with disabilities and sex work, often crass and offensive, sometimes in a faux 'it makes you think' kind of way about the welfare state's interaction with legal sex work.  This trailer is less awful on those grounds - but it should also be seen as part of an existing tradition.

Why is the media always the same? Why is it unthinkable and unprintable that women with disabilities have sexual desire.  To understand that we have to look at the intersection between dominant ideas about disability and dominant ideas about women's sexuality.

One of the most fundamental (and damaging) ideas in our existing understanding of sexuality is that men desire and women are desired.  This is reflected in a lot of our language about sexuality (think about how the phrase 'sexy' is used by and about women) and the way sexuality is understood in public discourses.

An identical video where the genders which switched, would not have the same feel good response.  Because viewers would assume that the women with disabilities portrayed wanted to be desired as well as have their desires met. In reality of course, most people want both to desire and to be desired. That people with disabilities might desire requires a much smaller change to our understanding of sexuality than that people of disabilities might be desirable.

Therefore the invisibility of women with disabilities in discussions about disability and sexuality, is about the sexual double standard and is based on accepting that women don't desire.  But it is also about bounding and limiting the discussion of disability and sexuality to desire, not desirability, and cutting off the possibility that we might challenge our idea of desirability.

Ultimately it's a failure of imagination.  When I say I believe another world is possible, I mean one where women desire and men are desired, and where disability is not constructed as antithetical to either.


DPF:TLDR said...

"An identical video where the genders which switched, would not have the same feel good response. "

I'm not sure that's true, I think a film about a male prostitute servicing female disabled women would have been just as widely praised in the places you've mentioned. Not in quite the same way, perhaps.

Sige said...

Thanks Maia for articulating this so clearly.

blue milk said...

Great post.

rasiqra/revulva said...

i think the point you raised about gender is an interesting one to unpack. i noticed very little discussion around fetishizing disabled persons, or disabled identity, and i feel that if the sex worker were a man with women clients, that kind of discussion would be unavoidable. i think that many of the people viewing and praising this video are adhering to gendered ideas of how power functions, as opposed to a more intersectional approach that factors in - no, prioritizes - the humanity of disabled persons.