Scarlet Road: Exploring the healing side of sex work

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Once I was chained to a ceiling by a paraplegic man.

He welcomed me warmly into his studio and we hit it off immediately. I came to his house having no idea that the photographer I would be modelling for that day had contacted me via email using a combination of his mouth and a metal dowel attached to one elbow. In fact, everything he did in his life he did that way. A cable extension from his camera that he could hold in his mouth and bite down was all he needed to activate the shutter, and for changing the camera’s setting he used his lips and tongue.

 As we started the shoot and warmed up to one another, he began to say things like "I'm just going to adjust that light down a bit" and, seeing no one else around, I would scurry to adjust it. "I'm going to pull the backdrop out more," and I felt like my arms were an extension of his intent. It made perfect sense to me at the time and we fell into a harmonious work flow. After an hour or so of me trying on different outfits, posing, talking, and occasionally adjusting equipment, he asked if I might be into the addition of some bondage. Well, sure I would.

We uncovered a large Rubbermaid box of cuffs, collars and chains of every variety, and went upstairs to his room. Those bars and pulleys located over the beds of physically challenged people so that they can be hoisted in and out? They will never look so innocuous again.

"I'm going to attach your right cuff to that upper bar, if you don't mind." And my right arm was securely strapped over my head. "I'm thinking I'm going to put that collar on you now," and I was collared. He kept his distance and continued to shoot.

"So this might be a long shot, but I get the feeling you're a Dom?" I teased him. Somewhere between being handcuffed to his bed frame and chained by my neck to his bedroom ceiling, he and I chatted lightly about BDSM, sexuality and ability. He joked that for someone like himself, being a sub might be somewhat redundant. He spoke about the feelings of power, desirability and control he achieved from having a submissive eagerly bend to his will. When our shoot was over we had tea, he paid me for my time, and my partner came to pick me up. I haven't seen the photographer since but we've keep in touch.

Why am I telling you this?

Last week I had the pleasure of viewing the documentary Scarlet Road at Concordia University, presented by Cinema Politica, Stella (an organization run by and for sex workers) and the Simone de Beauvoir Institute.

Scarlet Road follows Australian sex worker, activist and academic Rachel Wotton. Her story is noteworthy not only because she is incredibly outspoken about sex worker's rights, but also because of her interest in a particular clientele: differently-abled people. She has created a non-profit organization, Touching Base, centred around training sex workers to work with people with diverse needs and abilities. Wotton herself joined us for the evening to answer questions from the full house, where she also reminded us to push for the full decriminalization (not legalization or regulation: those are different matters entirely) of sex work. I'm still a little after-glowy.

Early into the film I couldn't help but feel guiltily voyeuristic peering into the sexual lives and desires of men and women living with physical and mental disorders, diseases and delays. This was until I realised that yes, this kind of candid disclosure from those who are more commonly called "disabled" is necessary.

All too often one might conclude that these people's sexuality was also disabled, if present at all. I was nearly brought to tears a few times by the tender depictions of the joy and healing brought to the lives of people who may otherwise never be touched or get to touch in that way. And sex work, for a moment, got to bask in the angelic glow-by-association.

After leaving the theatre I asked one of my companions (who has mixed feeling about sex work) what he thought of the film. His first reaction was that he was touched by the compassion extended to differently-abled folks through the linking of their desires to trained sex workers.

Funny, I thought. I thought it was good business. Wotton herself echoed my sentiment in the question-and-answer period. Sure, it's wonderful that her clients enjoy greater quality of life, companionship, and even healing through her work. But when it comes down to it, they are also a great client base that it only makes sense to tap into. (Enjoyment, companionship and healing are what she offers to her other clients, as well. This is nothing new!)

Is it compassionate to realize that a person's sexuality does not dissolve the moment they are seated in a wheelchair, or is it just (a very uncommon) common sense?

I have to wonder why sexual desire and the receiving of it are not viewed through the lens of compassion more often. Why does one still need an excuse to want sex or the company of someone whose expertise is in giving pleasure and comfort? Does one really have to be disabled first? Would Wotton have received the standing ovation that she did if the documentary had even touched on the other half of her clientele: normatively-abled folk? Does that standing ovation indicate how progressive our society has become, or does it more accurately reflect the convenience of publicly supporting sex work under particular, honorable-seeming, conditions?

I think it shows that sex and sexuality can be imagined as liberating and essential, but so far, only for some people, under some circumstances. Am I "justified" having engaged with someone's sexuality, so long as that person's position in life is to be pitied and the sexual aspect was out of "compassion?"

If I had gladly gotten chained up by the photographer before his life-changing spinal cord injury, would I be seen as saintly, or just slutty?


Clay Nikiforuk is a recent Creative Writing graduate from UBC and lives in Montreal. She is currently writing her first book exploring and critiquing the sociology of sexual assault. When not reading, writing or getting into vehement debates with strangers, she is dancing, taking pictures, and an avid potluck-attendee. To help fund her book you can go to

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