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The Moral Significance of Sex Workers and People With Disabilities
NOTE: I recommend you click "View Entire Story", so the endnotes work.
When prostitution cases are brought before a judge in Britain, a particular kind of “John” (or customer) will almost always have the case tossed out of court: that is, if the customer is a person with a disability. So explains a member of the group TLC Trust to me: a group that defends and promotes the interaction between sex workers and people with disabilities – TLC, as you’ll see, and similar groups, has become my new favourite advocacy group. This powerful statement, of judges dismissing almost out of hand any prostitution case involving persons with a physical disability, sets an important moral precedent that I think we all ought to follow.
For many, voluntary sex work - that is, done by people who do it without being physically forced or blackmailed into it - is inherently wrong for reasons I find extremely wanting (unless they mean sex trafficking, in which case we're not talking about the same thing. Please see the notes below for more). But many, including judges, accept that there is a unique situation when it comes to the relationship between sex workers and people with disabilities**. However, what I perceive from sex workers and this relationship is an element of morality worth emulating and promoting; and thus ultimately treating both sex workers and people with disabilities with the respect both groups deserve, as persons with interests, that warrant wider respect and, indeed, admiration.
I’ve never understood the inherent problem with sex work. As the wonderful Martha Nussbaum has famously argued, all kinds of careers – from plumbers to pop-stars – use their bodies to fulfil some demand made by another. Whether this is dancing in small clothes or fixing a leak, we use our bodies to bring comfort, fulfilment, etc. to others, in exchange for money.
What makes a (non-coerced, voluntary, etc.) sex worker any different to a pop-star? Some say that the main difference is that the sex worker engages in sex. However, that’s just a restatement of his or her career: you might as well say a pop-star sings. Is there something special about sex that somehow makes it beyond something we pay for? Just as we can ask a friendly neighbour to help us fix a leak or pay plumbers, we can ask a really friendly neighbour for consensual sex or pay a sex worker. What exactly is the problem? I’ve not read an account that adequately explains why the latter is problematic, inherently.
Perhaps it’s that the sex worker engages directly with the client. Why this matters morally is unclear: perhaps it is that the sex worker in direct physical interaction with the client raises the danger, complicates the power dynamics, and so on. But why do these aspects make sex work inherently wrong? There are plenty of dangerous jobs and plenty of direct proximity ones (dentistry and surgery, for example). Talk of danger is important and, indeed, essential but that’s not what makes something wrong. Indeed, if danger is the main opposition then you would want sex work “out in the open” (legal or decriminalised), under the scrutiny or, better yet, the protection of relevant authorities: sex workers deserve protection, security and the knowledge of acquiring these from relevant governmental places – from policing to medical – without unnecessary hassle. Abuse happens because they have no proper protection, not because abuse is built in to their career (indeed, abusive relations with pimps can be combatted if sex workers receive proper protection and little harassment from legal officials. See first note below).
We must protect both the sex worker (and his or her clients), through, for example, supplying effective contraceptives or preventing physical abuse. Why should sex workers not receive the same protections as almost all other working people, especially in a career that brings special fulfilment to many people and who, as workers, are persons like everyone else?
The relation to people with disabilities
Their relationship with people with disabilities confirms this. As many of them will testify, being a person with a disability makes acquiring sexual and romantic fulfilment difficult. Denise Beckwith, a medal-winner in the Sydney Paralympics, told ABC News that her interaction with a sex worker helped her develop in ways she otherwise may not have. “I have a disability (cerebral palsy) and my first sexual experience was with a sex worker, and I really value that experience because it gave me confidence to then pursue other relationships.” When she was 16, her father helped her acquire time with a male sex worker. ‘Brad’ from South Australia told Touching Base (another organisation helping people with disabilities reach sex workers):
“I would not argue for a minute, that the services of a sex worker can replace a loving intimate partnership. It cannot. I married a few years later, in my early 40’s, for the first time.
However, anyone with a few grams of practicality and common sense can see that disabled people are not as freely able to access forms of erotic touch, as every other person. It is disturbing, heart rending, when it is stated that disabled people are not as readily chosen as sexual partners as those without disabilities and many people rush to deny this fact.”
Indeed, even he acknowledges one of the problems that reverberates into making such interaction harder for people like him is “a lack of respect of the role of the sex worker”.
Sex workers are able to cater to those needs, allowing for these persons to fulfil their fantasies in a consensual relation with another adult. As sex worker and campaigner Rachel Wooton said: “I treat them as human beings. And they all have different needs and desires…it’s just about changing my service delivery slightly.”
Testament after testament tell us how people with disabilities have never been treated better, have never felt more fulfilled, thanks to caring sex workers. This doesn’t mean it is impossible for them to obtain these situations without sex work, as ‘Brad’ above indicated, but it does, according to testaments and cases histories, make it incredibly easier if there are avenues for people with disabilities to safely and easily contact available sex workers. The Internet, thankfully, makes such transactions more accessible (this is the natural extension of how we cater to people with disabilities already, by giving them designated parking areas, ramps and so on).***
There are obviously dangers in many of these areas. But we benefit no one by pretending the entire area is one that should be taboo, wrong, criminal. We benefit no one and protect nobody by asserting our disgust, hatred and antagonism of sex workers and/or people with disabilities. We allow our own privileged positions as capable or strong or non-disabled people – able to have ‘normal’ consensual adult relations – to cloud ourselves if we think everyone else is capable of this.
Indeed, sex workers' services shouldn’t only be recognised in the light of people with disabilities, but people with, say, psychological hangups, and so on (and of course average, 'normal' people, too). This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with people who choose sex workers because they ‘can’t get' anyone without paying for it – just as people don’t ‘resort’ to online dating, since it’s equally as effective and allows for long-term commitments, so seeking out sex workers is nothing to be ashamed of; it's not wrong, or indicative of being a failure, deviant or a slightly off human being. However we find fulfilment, as long as we are not harming others, shouldn’t be an issue and we should celebrate that there are people, like sex workers, helping and facilitating this.
Consigning worries to the shadows does not dispel them, it only removes them from sight.
Sex work is important because persons are important: more so a broad, powerful group that help cater to the needs of another marginalised group of persons (and others, of course). Whatever dangers you can suggest are well-known already to many of the men and women involved, some having lived through them already. And seeing as we are dealing with adults, making claims that these relationships aren’t real is, again, unfounded since it presumes to know what all relationships should be like, or that there can only be one kind of relationship or fulfilment.
We should be glad this is getting exposure but we should utilise this opportunity to accept sex work as a legitimate and worthwhile endeavour for many people. Whatever dangers there are should be discussed openly and without scorn for the sex workers or their clients – unless we have reason and evidence to suggest particular cases warrant such reactions.
* There is of course the idea that no one grows up wanting to be a sex worker; that, though people aren't forced into it, their economic and societal standing are forces that compel them into this line of work. This means they're forced into sex, when they don't want to be. I sympathise with this view, but for the sake of focus, I'm not on that case. On a related note, making sex work illegal won't make such situations disappear: indeed, it would possibly make it worse for these unfortunate people in this position, since not only are they forced into a career they would otherwise not want, but, operating in a crime environment creates a cycle from which it is difficult to escape: since you're already a criminal, your "protection" and income come from people who have no regard for law or civility. Thus leading to blackmail and people stuck, endlessly tied to paying back pimps. ^
** I realise that constantly reading ‘people with disabilities’ seems long, jarring and uncomfortable; but I do not wish to call such persons merely ‘disabled’, since according to many reports, they find this term offensive and hurtful. The term focuses on the disability, instead of them as persons. Language is a tricky area, so out of respect and with my limited knowledge of how to engage, I ask my readers and persons with disabilities to aid me in this way: if you are a member or know an appropriate term, please do contact me and I will update it as such. Since this article is about promoting the equal respect that people with disability deserve, I naturally want to communicate appropriately! Thank you. ^
*** It seems to me then that it is helpful to consider sex a human right. But that might be needed to developed further. ^
UPDATE: This post is generating wonderful discussions and debate at Reddit. I recommend you look at all the different threads.
Image Credit: Hasloo Group Production Studio
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."