NUREMBERG - The cozy office of the Kassandra counseling center for sex workers in the southern German state of Bavaria, features one bright red sofa, a large wooden table and pastel-colored painting on the wall. This is usually where men and women who wish to leave the sex industry come in search of training classes to change careers.
But a different kind of training is underway this evening. Seven workers have come to earn their diplomas in "qualified sexual accompaniment and assistance."
Barbel Ahlborn, who heads the Nuremberg counseling center, is proud of the courses that Kassandra developed with Pro Familia, a family planning center. "This is a unique model project for the nation,” she says.
The training has taught sex workers Erika, Birgit, Kai, Elisabeth and Romy, as well as Richard and Kurt (all names have been changed), how they can help disabled people to blossom their sexuality.
The end of the course is celebrated with some sparkling wine, pizza and salad. But participants know that their having a certificate in accompaniment and assistance is not going to change what many people think – because their very line of work, i.e. prostitution, is still taboo.
Even more alienating to many, they believe, is the idea that paid services should be available to those with physical and mental disabilities. Says Romy: "Public opinion will be split – some will welcome this, but the many who have always been against sex workers will say it’s perverse."
Simone Hartmann, deputy head of Pro Familia in Nuremberg doesn’t see things quite so pessimistically. "Today, the sexuality and sexual autonomy of disabled people is no longer a taboo subject, even if it isn’t yet absolutely normal to actually deal with it," she says.
That much was clear at a Munich conference on the sexual and reproductive rights of disabled people, which was held a few months ago. While many heads of facilities for the disabled no longer disagree with the fact that handicapped people have a right to express their sexuality, to publically acknowledge that their establishment allows sex workers to operate in it is an image issue, they say.
Meanwhile there are frequent discussions on Internet forums about the sexuality of the disabled. Can paraplegic men, for example, have sex? And if so, how? In her blog, the female partner of one such man reveals that: "Over time, by learning to caress parts of the body we didn’t use to find erotic, we rediscovered each other in new, more intense, ways."
Prostitution or “sexual accompaniment”?
Erika, who moonlights as a sex worker, says she thinks people have the wrong idea about “sexually accompanying” the disabled. "It’s not always about intercourse, but also touch and tenderness," she points out. She tells the story of her first visit to an old man in a retirement home, an experience she calls one of the very best she’s had as a sex worker because of something he said. When she left, he whispered: "If the others only knew how wild we were being!” And yet: "All we did was dance and touch each other a little."
Now the Nuremberg native will be providing services to physically and mentally disabled people as well, for which she charges 150 euros. Her partner knows what she does: "He’s a grown man, not a boy, and he knows me and knows I’m not crazy – just a little different from other people.”
Social worker Kurt says that he first became aware of the sexual needs of the disabled from working as a group leader in a facility for the mentally handicapped. "Sexuality is something that must be experienced but these folks don’t have the chance," he says. He doesn’t have concrete ideas about his new line of work yet – "I think a lot of it will be about explaining, helping people learn about their bodies, letting them see and touch a naked man, that kind of stuff,” he says.
Unlike Richard, who only wants to work with female clients, Kurt says he can see himself with men although it would depend on whom. Kurt has grown children. They know about his plans, "and it’s no big deal, they think it’s cool," he says.
But Birgit, a lively slim woman who’s been earning her living as a sex worker for the past 26 years, says that her daughter did not welcome the news when she told her.
While qualifications in sexual accompaniment and assistance may be a new milestone, several therapists in Germany have been urging awareness of the issue since the 1990s , and there are individual practitioners around the country offering services – as a general rule, caressing, body contact, massage, in some cases sexual release but without kissing, oral sex, or intercourse. Indeed, to the annoyance of Kassandra’s Ahlborn, Pro Familia has even drawn a line between prostitution and “sexual accompaniment.”
"Prostitution is legal in Germany. Sex workers are independent business people. They pay taxes,” she says.
Course participant Kai, who has worked as a professional for many years, believes that the prejudice against sex work is unfair. "It’s serious work," she says, pointing out that not all men are lucky enough to find life partners and sex workers bridge a need. She adds that she’s happy that the joint effort by Kassandra and Pro Familia has lent an open “note of seriousness to our work."
For her part, Pro Familia’s Hartmann is aware that prostitution is a sensitive issue. If Pro Familia teamed up with Kassandra to run the course, she says, it was because it was necessary: "Particularly in Bavaria, the need for appropriate and qualified people to work with the disabled in this regard was becoming ever more pressing,” she says.