Interview: Tuppy Owens, specialist in sex and disability


Following on from the interview we did recently with Paraclimbing World Champion Fran Brown, and then David Niemeijer, Founder and CEO of AssistiveWare, we have a special one today….

Tuppy Owens is a qualified sex therapist and the founder of Outsiders, which supports disabled people to find partners. She also runs the Sex and Disability Helpline, and was a founder of the TLC-Trust, which ‘connects disabled men & women to responsible sex workers & professional sexual advocates’. She’s also written an astonishing range of books on sex, disability and sex *and* disability. Her wikipedia page is here, and I regret that we only had time for a tiny percentage of the questions I wanted to ask…

It should be fairly obvious that some of this content may make some of my more straight-laced readers blush…

Me: You’ve been referred to as “The Sensual Patron Saint of the Disabled”, but a lot of your work, particularly earlier in your career, is more mainstream. Would you say sex and disability is a real focus of your work, or is this the natural result of “Many people talk about sex without regard to people with disabilities – but Tuppy Owens talks about *everybody*”?

Tuppy: Where on earth did you find this title? I hope it was “Sensual Patron Saint of Disabled People?”!

Me: It’s here actually, but we should certainly take the better worded one… 🙂

Tuppy: I don’t feel I was ever what you could call “mainstream” but I started off as a zoologist and switched to publishing my own sex manuals, using my own photography and text, and later the annual The Sex Maniac’s Diary for 23 years — all progressive and certainly not conforming to the norm.

Producing an annual diary gave me spare time, hence having the time to run the Outsiders Club, which has always been my main focus, and unpaid. I now don’t do any writing or work which is not to do with disability, and am currently writing a very outspoken book for health professionals on sex and disability, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley (if they don’t become too scared) this year.

Me: Something that comes up a lot in any discussion of intellectually disability and sex is the issue of consent – not just the obvious issues, but also including recent court cases that resulted in court ordered abortions (and denial of abortions). Many health professionals (and family carers) react to this by effectively requiring celibacy. Do you have a more nuanced view? And if so what do you think the key practical things to consider are?

Tuppy: Of course, I am totally against anything like enforced celebacy. I work closely with Claire de Than, Senior Lecturer in Criminal and Human Rights Law at City University. The law on consent does not stop learning disabled who are labelled unable to consent from being given the chance to enjoy sex, so long as it’s in their best interest, and this is agreed by the team in charge of their care.

The need for abortions may be real, if it’s agreed to be in the best interests of the learning disabled person, if their lives and the life of their baby would be unworkable. I fight for all disabled people to enjoy masturbation, even if they are learning disabled and haven’t fathomed out how to do it, or if they are physically unable and need assistance. Obviously I fight for disabled people to find partners and enjoy sex too.

Me: Some of the text on the TLC Trust brings out the scientist in me. For example “There are sometimes lesbian and bisexual women who hire the ladies on the site, but gay disabled men seem to find what they need elsewhere.” That’s interesting from a research perspective; from talking to people do you think there is, for example, another website used by gay disabled men, or do you think it boils down to a cultural difference?

Tuppy: I think the reason why gay disabled men do not very often join Outsiders or use our male escorts on TLC is a combination of two things.

First, being disabled and gay is just too much stigma for some boys to take. Having put up with staring, isolation and bullying because they are disabled, when they realise they are gay, they may decide this might jeopardise the care their parents or care staff are giving them, or it would upset their parents too much and seem ungrateful! These days they can sneak into what they seek on the internet in the privacy of their bedroom. In fact, disabled gays may find they are more accepted than in the past, but such change has only happened recently. There is still fierce resistence: both disabled and gay boys find themselves forced into heterosexual marriages!

The other thing is sites like Gaydar have sections for blind and people with other impairments. Gay men tend to have specific sexual tastes, and find sites catering to these tastes, and others out there may be happy to find another man with the same tastes, so don’t worry about their impairments. There is even a lovely lady called Amanda Gay Love who runs Queer Hearted workshops in London, and she welcomes disabled participants. Her worshops include Queer Conscious Orgasms which are hands free — may be useful for paralysed and physically impaired people. With such opportunities, perhaps gay disabled men find sex without paying, so do not need the TLC-Trust website.

Me: Last data-nerd question – I saw you carried out some Freedom of Information work to find out if local authorities allowed hiring sex worker as part of a Personal Budget – such a study is quite an onerous quest but the results were fascinating – where you shocked that only 4% allowed it, or was that what you expected and do you think the situation has improved in the last few years?

Tuppy: Of course I was shocked, especially that there was such ignorance of the law — it has never been illegal in Britain to buy or sell sex. Both the media and health and social care professionals promote ‘prostitution’ as illegal and totally undesirable, listening to the religious and feminist campaigners instead of the clients and those wonderful people who actually provide sexual services. One of my disabled helpline callers who has just left college aged 20, told me that the sex education he’d received at school and college was worse than useless and he thought that sex workers who see disabled clients should take on the role! I shall of course be quoting him in my book.

Me: When I speak to people about issues like sex workers, it appears that the people I talk to are much more accepting of a disabled person hiring a sex worker, than they would be of someone who isn’t disabled yet hiring one. I happen to think that this is a fairly patronising double standard, but I wanted to ask if this matched your experiences, and if that is the case, do you see think disabled people really are at the vanguard of overall social change on this issue?

Tuppy: One, they probably think the two stigmatised groups, disabled people and sex workers belong together! I think it’s even more horrid that the public are more tolerant of disabled people using sex workers than finding partners! Disabled couples say they are stared at more in the street than when they go out alone. The TLC website gets more donations than the Outsiders Club, which is sad as the Outsiders Club costs thousands to pounds a year to run, whereas the TLC costs nothing. I think they are giving to “poor frustrated disabled people” whereas I think if you expect a service, you should pay for it, otherwise there is an imbalence. Sex needs to be either mutual lust or love, or paid for.

To answer the last bit of the question, I do always try to add the disability perspective when campaigning for the rights of sex workers — as well as the other laws which ban our sexual freedoms — because it makes a strong argument. If, for whatever reason, the person depends on something as their only sexual outlet, this needs to be taken into account in the law making. There is currently a new bill about the depiction of rape in porn, and I asked the campaign group to add that rape is a common fantasy resulting from people being told sex is wrong, or having been sexually abused when young. Both these include disabled people. That I am not listened to by polititians, shows their callousness and bloody mindedness.

I don’t know if disabled people are actually at the vanguard of social change on this, but there are some disabled men campaigning for sex work being freely available to disabled people and Asta Philpot campaigns for accessible brothels.

I should reiterate that things are changing fast. The public acceptance of people in care homes paying for sex has even reached Northern Ireland, and this amazed me when I appeared on Radio Ulster last year. Getting my outrageous synopsis accepted by Jessica Kingsley shows a great shift in thinking, from the mouldy risk-centred attitudes of the past, to acceptance and person-centred care. Young professionals are joining SHADA (the Outsiders Trust group the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance, up for a Sexual Health Award next month), who are challenging their governing bodies, pressing for the inclusion of sex and disability in training and policies on sexuality to be in place. These pioneers work in the medical profession, social work, and occupational therapy. Sadly, the guidance from the Royal College of Nursing, the only body to actually have sex policy and guidelines in place, has recently vannished and can’t be found anywhere! Naturally, I am causing a fuss!

I am determined to leave this world having won the battle. The problem is that sexual tolerance seems to wax and wane in societies, but at least the documentation will be there for future generations, so long as we don’t get blown up first!

Questions I missed out? Issues you’d like to raise? Let us know in the comments! 🙂 

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