The Politics of Sexual Relations
My interest in the subject of sex and people with disabilities had actually been piqued several years earlier. In May 2005, while conducting research on Japanese disability politics, i attended a monthly study group at one of the Kansai area's leading independent living centers for people with disabilities. That month, we were discussing two books that had just come out, the aforementioned Sex Volunteers, by Kawai Kaori (2004), and I Was a Delivery Health Girl for People with Disabilities, by Ōmori Miyuki (2005).
The discussion leader was one of the personal care attendants at this independent living center (iLC). Most of the care attendants were college students or college graduates in their twenties or early thirties. People with severe physical disabilities who were living independently could request personal care attendant services through the government social welfare office. The care attendants were paid to do a wide range of tasks, from simple ones, such as pushing wheelchairs or guiding blind clients, to much more personal ones, such as assisting in eating, toilet, and bathing functions. At this iLC, all clients with disabilities were matched with personal care attendants of the same sex. With the economy in Japan still struggling and unemployment especially high among youth, being a personal care attendant was generally seen as a comparatively well-paying, socially useful occupation versus being a “freeter.” Our discussion leader, Mr. Suzuki,6 started off by noting that most me-
Dia coverage of people with disabilities portrayed them as having no sexual desires. Mentioning the film Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish (inudō 2003; cf. Nakamura 2008), suzuki said that he felt it was easy for directors to make a “pure” (junsui) love story with a disabled protagonist.
In suzuki's experience as a personal care attendant, many of his clients did not have much sexual information or experience. They might have passed through adolescence in an institution or lived with their families all of their life. Especially people with severe disabilities were always under close supervision, with very little privacy and unstructured time, a situation that made exploration difficult. This restriction was on top of their functional limitations on selfand other-exploration.
Because the center at which suzuki worked matched personal care attendants with same-sex clients, he could speak only to the experiences of men. Suzuki was not sure how women with disabilities could achieve satisfaction, but he noted that while “men can go to health clubs, as an attendant myself, i can say that 90 percent of health clubs will not accept someone with disabilities.” Suzuki asked one of his clients why he liked to go to the health clubs. His client responded, “Because the women at the soap clubs will wash my body much cleaner than the staff at the institution. They will even wash underneath my penis. It feels really good to have my penis that clean. [suzuki], when you wash someone as an attendant, do you pay so much attention when you wash him? There aren't many men who will do it that much.”
People with disabilities are often instructed to think of their personal care attendants as a form of assistive technology. Thus they do not need to thank their care attendants each time they do something for them or to feel that they are imposing on them in any way. The care attendants are there to be their legs or their arms or their eyes. You do not thank your arm when it reaches for a glass of water, so why should you thank your care attendant each time you ask him or her to do the same? The goal of such instruction was to overcome the socialized disinclination of people with disabilities to be a “burden” (meiwaku) on other people and to bolster their own sense of agency and independence.7 there was discussion in the study group, though, about the appropriateness of asking personal care attendants (who were after all, being paid by the Japanese social welfare system, and thus taxpayers) to take their clients to health clubs or soaplands. Was it okay to ask them to guide them to the entrance? To carry them up the stairs if the entry was inaccessible? To help them undress? To help them with the sexual act itself? At what point did the personal care attendant cease to be the detached legs and arms of a person with disabilities and become someone with his or her own moral strictures and personal feelings? And then there was the issue of legality. Prostitution was illegal (even if there was no punishment defined), a fact that cast a pall
Over the entire question of using soaplands and health clubs.
But at a more intimate level, if the personal care attendant is the arms of a person with disabilities, would it be okay to ask him or her for help with masturbation? And if so, would we have to think about not only the sex, but also the sexuality of both the client with the disability and the care attendant? Suzuki also brought up the case of sar, a social welfare organization in the netherlands that provides sexual services to people with disabilities. He noted that 90 percent of the clients of sar were men and that the organization not only advocated that people with disabilities had the right to sex, but also argued a distinction between sex and love. Suzuki raised the question as to whether
This meant that people with disabilities were entitled to sex but not love. Several years later, i asked this question of sakatsume shingo of white Hands.
He argued that all people were entitled to self-pleasure (i.e., masturbation). Able-bodied people could self-pleasure whenever they wanted to, but people with severe physical disabilities could not. Thus people with disabilities were entitled to self-pleasure through the “white hands” of his staff. Here, whiteness has multiple connotations, including the use of sterile gloves by his staff, the notion of white-gloved professional service providers such as chauffeurs, and the purity of the act being performed.