Was it truly essential to dedicate such a considerable amount of time to discussing sex workers in the review of Sex, Me and Disability?
The film begins with Rhys Bowler’s tattoo artist posing a daunting question for disabled individuals: “How do you engage in sexual activity?” Despite having Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative condition that requires assisted ventilation and an electric wheelchair, Bowler responds with good humor, admitting that “everything functions” but he tends to be “lazy and passive”.
This is a scripted reality tool that efficiently conveys key information to the audience, but it also addresses the main dilemma of this emotional documentary: society holds many biases and taboos surrounding the sex lives of disabled individuals that must be challenged. However, ultimately, it is a private matter; the notion that it is anyone else’s concern is likely part of the issue.
In this story, we follow Bowler, who is 34 years old, as he searches for a romantic partner and also works to educate others about the fact that individuals with disabilities, like himself, desire and are capable of having sexual relationships. We witness him giving talks as a sex and disability educator, navigating a long-distance relationship, and having candid conversations with his dedicated mother, who could be considered the true star of the narrative. At one point, she discovers that Bowler has been looking at ads for sex workers on his laptop and her reaction is reminiscent of scenes from shows like “The Royle Family” or “Phoenix Nights.” Surprised, she exclaims, “Bi-curious?! Oh, they want to try. Try before you buy, like.”
The program heavily focuses on Bowler’s experiences with sex workers, which were facilitated by his mother as a Christmas present. This aspect of the program raises questions about its relevance and representation of the disabled community’s lives, as well as the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about disabled individuals. While Bowler’s mother acknowledges the potential exploitation involved in paying for sex, the issue is not thoroughly addressed except for one troubling anecdote where Bowler was taken advantage of by a sex worker. Bowler strongly advocates for sex workers to be covered by the NHS for individuals with disabilities, prompting ethical considerations about society’s responsibility to fulfill sexual desires and what that would entail. This also raises questions about disabled men’s desires being seen as needs, while the same consideration is not given to disabled women. Although these complex dilemmas are not easily answered, the documentary could have been improved by at least addressing them.
Throughout the film, there are some questionable choices made by the director. One particular scene shows Bowler, a disabled character, being assisted by a personal assistant to change clothes and apply deodorant. While I commend Bowler for his openness, I can’t help but question the purpose of these moments. Would we see a non-disabled person doing the same before a date? This is further emphasized by shots that focus on Bowler’s medical equipment and wheelchair. It’s a delicate balance between authenticity and fetishization. On the other hand, the film lacks exploration of the societal factors that contribute to Bowler’s disability. For instance, there is a scene where he has to use a straw that is a meter long to drink from a mug because he does not have constant care support. Unfortunately, these important details are not given enough attention.
The movie improves when Bowler converses with fellow individuals with disabilities. He presents a talk for a disability group, sharing practical advice on how to experience pleasure in sexual activities despite physical limitations. The most emotional moment occurs when Bowler meets Samantha, a woman he has been talking to online. They both have similar disabilities and share a unique connection. Their relationship feels most authentic when they are depicted as any other young couple, with Samantha teasing Bowler about his poor communication abilities.
Interestingly, the most impactful connections in the show are not romantic, but rather familial. Bowler’s sibling, Geraint, who also had DMD, passed away in his twenties due to a heart attack. Bowler openly admits that Geraint was the love of his life. Their mother describes the loss as a physical ache, comparing it to a knife being dragged down her body. She also knows that with her other son’s life expectancy being affected by his disability, she may have to endure this pain again.
Meanwhile, Bowler simply desires to experience life – with all its chaos, happiness, and sadness. While the title of the show may mention “sex”, it is truly a tale about love: the innate human desire for companionship, to love and be loved in return. Bowler reflects, “There comes a point in everyone’s existence when we require someone else.” He admits, “I yearn to find happiness once more.” The audience will undoubtedly wish the same for him.