Barrier-Free Brothels. Sex Volunteers, prostitutes, and people with Disabilities

Karen naKamura

In 2004, journalist Kawai Kaori shocked Japan by writing Sex Volunteers, a book that chronicled how people with disabilities were being sexually “serviced” by the eponymous sex volunteers for lack of romantic/sexual partners. This sparked a national conversation on the intersectionality of disability and sexuality—and a flurry of books with scandalous titles such as “I Was a Sex Worker for People with Disabilities.” Feeding into this moral panic were deeper concerns over disability and the family, democracy and social responsibility, and the future of the national health-care system. Various elements within disability communities used this opportunity to push a more sex-progressive agenda— promoting internal conversations, for example, about the appropriateness of using state-provided personal care assistants to take members to “soapland” brothels (see below). The sum of these developments has allowed for new discourses on marginality and inclusion to emerge in the lost decades of the début de siècle.


One of the subplots in alejandro González iñárritu's (2006) Oscar-awardwinning film Babel involves a Japanese deaf teenager, wataya Chieko, played

202 By hearing actress Kikuchi rinko. Emotionally traumatized by her mother's suicide, Chieko has a difficult relationship with her father and is struggling with her growing sexual needs and frustrations. When a police detective comes into her life, she finds herself sexually attracted to him. In one of the critical scenes in the film, Chieko invites the detective into her family home, steps out for a moment, and then returns stark naked.

This scene invokes many of the intersectionalities of sexuality and disability in a dark Japan. Some of the motifs are common to early twenty-first-century Japan, such as the growing gulf between generations and the moral panics over schoolgirl sexuality and values (Leheny 2006; Miller 2004; Ueno 2003). The skill of iñárritu's directing, however, is that he adds the additional layer of Chieko's deafness. Able to communicate easily only through sign language with another deaf girl, Chieko is cut off linguistically and emotionally from the rest of the world, which floats by as she gazes at it through her father's car window.

Chieko's segment hinges on her deafness. Most viewers (as well as the fictional detective) would not have experienced the same shock value if Chieko had been hearing. The motif of gulfs of communication and desire woven into her story would not have been expressible the same way if Chieko were able to talk with her father, the detective, or the hearing boys her own age whom she found attractive. There are some reverberations within the intersection of sexuality and disability in Heisei Japan that make such a scene powerful.

Even as we enter fully into the twenty-first century, the notion that people with disabilities can have sexuality and sexual needs still seems far from our minds. American documentary films such as Murderball (rubin and shapiro 2005), which involves young male athletes who become paralyzed—and then remain their former sex-starved, misogynistic jocks while in wheelchairs—are designed to shock and surprise us with the incongruity. More recently, the academy award–nominated film The Sessions (Lewin 2012) chronicles the true-life story of a man with polio who hires a “sexual surrogate” to lose his virginity. This shock over the notion that people with disabilities might have sexual needs is not just restricted to the west. In this chapter, i will explore how the development of various services in Japan for people with disabilities, such as sex volunteers, sex helpers, and barrier-free brothels, have challenged the idea of people with disabilities as sexually unaware and caused critical conversations about disability and sexuality.

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