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Acting local: improving community life

In this video, Denise Beckwith introduces Touching Base, an organisation which advocates and supports sexual expression for people with disabilities.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Touching base.
DENISE BECKWITH: Touching Base was established in the early 2000s after the two groups, people with disability and sex workers, came together and realised that there are parallels between the two communities. And they decided that because of the physical aspects of seeing a sex worker in some establishments, that some people need to see sex workers in their own home or where they reside, whether that be a group home. And so they decided that this group would come together and join forces. I am a past vice-president of Touching Base. My current role is the referral officer. So I make the referrals on behalf of people to sex workers.
And that can be actually making phone calls on behalf of people, like to sex workers to set up appointments. But it can also be actually just giving them the number and names of people so they can follow up on their own behalf. Touching Base offers training to sex workers. It’s called professional development awareness training. Sex workers have always been working with people with disability. However, this gives it some formality and some extra skill development, because when I have made referrals on behalf of people with disability in regards to the topic of seeing a sex worker, I’ve had referrals from parents. I’ve had referrals from friends.
And they need to know that it is possible, but they want it done in the safest and the most sensitive way. So this training provides that safety and that security for people in that they see that they’ve gone through training. And it’s not safety as in safe sexual practises, necessarily. It’s safety as in they’re not going to be tormented, or they’re not going to be laughed at because they want to try different things, because sex workers see the value in seeing their appointments as a way of developing people’s skills. So they need to develop their skill about communication and different communication methods such as communication devices, and communication boards, and things like that, because some of the clients are non-verbal.
But they are able to express consent. Touching Base does involve both advocacy and activism. It came together as a group to do just that. I mean, recently, they have developed resources, plain English resources, and they are about the process of accessing a sex worker and the process of going to a brothel, so a sex establishment. And it breaks it down in very plain English in a non-confrontational way. And it is about doing that. So we advocate with other sex workers to increase their knowledge and awareness. Within the service provider land, we also do work around sexual expression– and sexuality for people with disability is a form of expression that people with disability want to experience, and they want to have.
So services and service providers have to be open to the idea of that. So we provide training to service providers as well. And what that involves is actually seeing people with disability and them telling their experiences of seeing a sex worker. But it also involves them meeting a sex worker and not being confronted by it– like, just seeing them as an everyday person. So it’s breaking down a lot of those barriers that– people with disability are just everyday people. And so are sex workers. So that has involved a lot of advocacy and activism, because we’ve had stories where services go “No,” plain, straight up, “no, a sex worker can’t come in here.”
I had a group home where the group home actually said, “Oh, no, we can’t have sex workers come in. It will open up a can of worms for other clients as well. So they can’t see clients in there.” And I’m going, “No, you can’t not allow the person to see clients there, because they pay rent to you. They are a tenant.” In the state of New South Wales, sex work is not illegal. So therefore, you can have a sex worker in your home. A group home is someone’s home. So therefore, they should have the right. And they do have the right to have a sex worker there. So I’ve had to do that as an advocate quite often.
Like I’ve had to say, “No, they are a tenant. They do live where you are housing them and meeting their needs. This is just another one of their needs.” The way a person consents may be different. But as long as you get a consistent response, that is still consent. And what people don’t realise a lot of the time is that sex workers won’t proceed without knowing that there is consent. So they will be reinforcing and re-checking that the person is consenting. And they will stop. So it’s explaining that as well, that it’s not always about just sex and stuff like that.
It’s about allowing a person to be able to understand their own body and their own touch, because a lot of the touch that people with disability get is necessary touch.
So advocacy and activism has come about and needed to be present in the discussion, because people see, oh, they’re getting their needs met. So that’s all they need to do. That’s all we need to do. And it’s like, well, no. They’re not getting all their needs met, because you’re touching them in a necessary way, whereas they don’t want to be touched in a necessary way by someone they want to pursue intimacy with. And it’s also explaining that they realise– that people with disability realise– that sex work is a service.
Because a lot of the time people worry about people with disability developing ongoing relationships with a person who is a sex worker and seeing it as a relationship, or a girlfriend/boyfriend relationship. So it’s breaking that down and explaining that. And that’s what advocacy is. It’s about going step-by-step and taking people on a journey. And that’s what the value of Touching Base is. It’s about breaking down the myths, the barriers, and then actually taking people on a journey.

In the last step, we touched on the importance of advocates supporting one another and working together to improve individual lives and communities. In this step, we look at Touching Base, an organisation that attempts to form connections between two marginalised communities — people with disabilities and sex workers — to enable access and decrease discrimination in New South Wales, Australia.

As advocate Denise Beckwith explains in the above video, Touching Base engages in individual advocacy, and it also works for systemic change in the local community by providing training, education, and awareness-raising programs. You can see how Denise in her advocacy role has had to navigate the local legal system, take a hard line with local businesses, provide clear and accurate information to clients and their families, and work to dispel myths about disability and sexuality in the community.

In 2011, the documentary Scarlet Road, about Touching Base co-founder Rachel Wotton and a number of her clients, was released. The documentary attempts to subvert popular presumptions about both sex work and disability (Rozengarten & Brook, 2016). But interestingly, as Rozengarten and Brook (2016) point out, “Scarlet Road” does not tell the whole story about sexuality and disability. Despite its best intentions, the documentary tells stories about people with disabilities being unable to enter non-commercial sexual relationships because of their impairments (rather than because of stigma). It also risks holding Rachel Wotton up as a charitable figure. Rozengarten and Brook (2016) make a plea for “no pity,” which echoes Denise’s views as well as advocacy work within the Disability Rights Movement over the last fifty years.


Rozengarten, T & Brook, H. (2016) “No Pity Fucks Please: A critique of Scarlet Road’s campaign to improve disabled people’s access to paid sex services.” Outskirts, Vol. 34, p. 1-21.

Talking points

  • According to Denise in the video, what is some of the core advocacy work that Touching Base is involved in?
  • Denise describes advocacy as a process of “going step-by-step and taking people on a journey.” Is this a useful description for you?
  • What advocacy skills do you think are needed when working for change at the community level?

In the next step, we look at different ways of working with, and influencing, local governments.

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