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The twinkle in the eyes of Mark Manitta is worth a thousand words.
Born with cerebral palsy, Manitta uses a wheelchair to get around. His arms and hands are crooked due to spasticity. Without speech ability, he uses an alphabetic table to communicate. The person Manitta is talking to points to the table letter by letter until Manitta blinks when the person arrives at the one he wants. Letters become a word and words form a sentence.
Manitta is talking to Rachel Wotton, a woman with long blonde hair and a warm smile. She is a sex worker and a sexual health expert. They are sharing a bed as well as laughs. She will be staying the night with him.
It has been Manitta’s dream to spend the night with a woman and to wake up with someone beside him. As he turns 46, he will finally experience it.
That was a scene from the documentary film Scarlet Road, which tells the story of the life of Sydney-based sex worker Rachel Wotton. Released late last year in Sydney, the documentary highlights the meeting of the lives of two marginalized groups in Australia — sex workers and people with disabilities — and the therapeutic nature of sex.
Director and producer Catherine Scott followed Wotton for three years to document her life as the latter worked with clients with disabilities, completed her Master’s degree in sexual health, and set up an organization that connects sex workers with people with disabilities.
Scott, who had known Wotton and is a close friend, wanted to break down the misconceptions that people have about sex workers and people with disabilities.
The documentary was nominated for a Walkley award in Australia and has toured the world in film festivals, including the SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas.
Society’s usual perceptions of sex workers are that they are either promiscuous immoral floozies or powerless women who unwillingly become prostitutes due to economic circumstances. While there are indeed real problems in the sex work industry, for some people like Wotton, sex work is a professional choice.
The perception of people with disabilities, meanwhile, is also full of misconceptions, as they are commonly seen as asexual, their needs for sex and intimacy unacknowledged.
“There is this social misconception that people with disability are nice and quiet and pleasant. Sexuality and sexual expression is the last bastion in lots of ways. People with disability want connections and intimacy and touch,” says Denise Beckwith from the Sydney-based NGO People With Disabilities (PWD).
Beckwith, who also appeared in Scarlet Road, was born with cerebral palsy. In the documentary, she says that her first sexual experience was with a sex worker.
Intimacy and touch are some things that “able-bodied people take for granted”, Scott said in a telephone interview.
Through her friendship with Wotton, she was exposed to the lives of sex workers in Australia and their activism for freedom of sexual expression. She also found out that some of her clients are people with disabilities.
Wotton, however, was initially hesitant about Scott’s idea. Wotton agreed to be filmed but Scott said it took time for her to open up. “Rachel was quite uneasy with me filming because sex workers are not very well portrayed in society. They’re exploited in the media here and there. Even though we were friends she still had to learn to trust me as a filmmaker,” Scott said.
As Scott showed Wotton some of her edits, she became more comfortable.
Broaching a subject that is sensitive, Scott said she kept the documentary unpolished. “It was a very fine line, I want to show intimacy and touch and what the business is all about but not quite gloss over it,” she said. “I didn’t want to shock people and I didn’t want to titillate people,” she said.
The result is a gentle story about not only Wotton but her clients and their families, her partner, and her personal growth as an activist.
In the documentary, viewers will see Manitta staring into Wotton’s eyes as they wake up in the morning and another client of Wotton’s, John Blades, describing his time with Wotton as having increased his self-esteem.
Blades, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 23, died last year from a complication of cancer therapy, a few weeks before turning 52.
The loss of mobility often comes with the decrease in sexual confidence, as Blades shared in the film. “You can never think of yourself as particularly sexy although I’ve got a beautiful red and orange wheelchair – not quite enough to make it on the level of being sexy.”
But after seeing Wotton, Blades says she makes him feel “so normal”. “I thought I was an able bodied in a disabled shell. It made me feel like a real bloke again!”
Scott said that surprisingly Rachel’s clients and families were eager to be part of the documentary.
“They were very excited to be in the film, which kind of surprised me. I thought I need to do a kind of a tap dance to get them to come and let me film their lives. They were really excited to be part of the film because I think as people with disability they’ve been so overlooked. As people they’re not seen as people that are sexual really.”
Manitta makes it really clear that he is a sexual being. “People do not understand the difference that sex makes,” he says. “Part of having cerebral palsy is spasticity and muscle spasms. I need sex all the time to make my muscle relax,” he added. He also says that he likes sex.
After a screening of Scarlet Road, Elaine Manitta, mother of Mark Manitta, said she agreed to be part of the documentary to help other parents. “You know people are a little bit concerned of what they’re getting into and I just really feel that I wanted to sort of help other mums and dads and people with disabilities.”
Having a disabled child, Elaine said she had to help her son in his sex life, as without her help her son would never have access to it. After he conveyed his wish of wanting to have sexual experiences, Elaine took her son to a brothel.
For Elaine, the documentary helps open parents’ minds. She said that it made parents realize that disabled children are normal people who have sexual needs. “I think it is hard as a parent to make that decision — giving a sex worker for your son or daughter. I really feel that this documentary has opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. And I hoped that I helped and Mark helped in our own way to do that.”
Wotton said that while the documentary has received positive responses, it has drawn negative ones as well. “I had a ridiculous email saying I hope you die a slow painful death,” she said. Wotton said that connecting people with disabilities and sex workers is only one of the alternatives so that people have a choice.
Being a sex worker for more than 14 years, she is impassioned by sexual empowerment and sex worker’s rights. “Sexual empowerment kind of drives me I guess you could say. And that is because I think everyone has the right to sexual expression and that includes people with disability,” she said.
The state of New South Wales in Australia is the only region in the country that has decriminalized sex work. With her fellow sex worker Saul Ibister, Wotton set up an independent organization called Touching Base. The aim is to connect people with disabilities who otherwise would not have access to sexual pleasure with sex workers. The organization has held workshops for sex workers about how to be able to work with clients with disabilities.
Her dream is to become an expert in sexual health by pursuing a Ph.D. and to set up a not-for-profit brothel.
When she started the profession, she thought of doing it for a short period of time. But as time passes she says she can see that she might be able to do it for years to come.
“I like the fact that my job always entails pleasure — making someone feel better about themselves — that they are the center of someone’s attention and that they deserve to smile.”