The Argus can today lift the lid on the use of “sex surrogates” in Sussex care homes. Our revelations have prompted East Sussex County Council to launch an urgent investigation. But health workers argue helping disabled people to access sex workers is a matter of meeting their basic human rights. Bill Gardner reports.
Care homes are inviting prostitutes through their doors to offer sexual services to their disabled residents, The Argus can reveal.
One local authority said it would launch an urgent investigation into the possible “exploitation and abuse” of vulnerable people following our findings.
But some health experts and sex workers defended the practice as “therapeutic” – and said it had been happening in some homes across Sussex for years.
One care home manager said staff who helped disabled people access prostitutes were defending basic human rights.
Helena Barrow is the ex-manager of Chaseley, a nursing home in Eastbourne for 55 people with neurological problems and learning difficulties.
'Sexually enable people'
She told The Argus that prostitutes were regularly contacted by staff, welcomed into the building and provided with a room to meet residents.
She said: “The fact is, sex workers are allowed by law to sexually enable people but care workers are not.
“So, if someone asked, we would often call in a professional, someone trained to do that. It’s known as the resident’s ‘special visit’.”
The act of paying for sex is not in itself illegal – but a string of laws criminalises activities around it.
Mrs Barrow, who left Chaseley a year ago to manage another care home in St Leonards, insisted residents always paid for the call girls themselves through their pensions, savings or benefits.
She said staff at her former workplace would often telephone sex workers and invite them to the home.
When possible, they would dial the number and hold the phone to the disabled person’s ear so they could make the call themselves.
She said: “If you have a resident who is groping staff, one way of resolving that problem is to get a sex worker in who is trained to deal with that situation.
“But most of the time, these are people who feel frustrated by a primeval need they cannot fulfil.
“So we would help them with the phone, dial the number, or use the computer to contact someone who could help.
“If we refused, we would not be delivering a holistic level of care.”
'Special red sock'
When the call girl arrived, they were welcomed into the building and escorted by a member of staff to a room where a resident was waiting.
Staff would then put a “special red sock” on the door handle to make sure the couple were not disturbed before checking on them every 15 minutes.
On one occasion, local strippers were invited into the home to perform a “special show” for residents.
Sue Wyatt, Chaseley’s current manager, confirmed prostitutes were still welcomed to the home but insisted staff were no longer making the calls directly.
Instead, she said a “third party consultant” was now used to contact the sex workers.
'Here to help'
She said: “People have needs, so sometimes we might need to set up a room in a certain way. We are there to help.
“We use a private consultant who arranges everything. They are an independent person who works in the home. She puts people in touch with people.
“We respect our residents as individuals so that’s why we help this to happen.”
Chaseley is an ex-military nursing home which now houses a mix of residents whose places are funded by private arrangements or by social services.
A spokesman for East Sussex County Council said the local authority had been unaware of Chaseley’s policy of inviting prostitutes on site and “did not welcome” the idea.
He said: “We will examine our concerns through the Pan-Sussex Multi-Agency Policy and Procedures for Safeguarding Adults at Risk.
“This has the potential to place vulnerable East Sussex residents at risk of exploitation and abuse.”
But other senior health workers welcomed Chaseley’s decision to actively help its residents have sex.
Denise Banks is director of social care provision at Chailey Heritage Foundation, East Sussex, where disabled adults are cared for as part of the Futures@Chailey Heritage project.
She revealed the foundation had contacted Chaseley to help develop a policy where prostitutes could be found for residents if needed.
Mrs Banks said: “The work they [Chaseley] are doing is certainly pleasing.
“If someone asked us to contact a sex worker for them, we would have to be open to that. If we resisted we would be going against the Human Rights Act.
“We would try to facilitate that somewhere else to protect that individual’s privacy and dignity. It’s a much nicer way to do it. But we need to develop a proper policy.
“We do have to be very careful because when you are working with very vulnerable people you have to make sure they are not being pushed in a certain direction.”
Mrs Banks said the Chailey Foundation had been working with the Sexual Health and Disability Allliance, a national group that campaigns for disabled people to be allowed access to sex workers.
She said: “It’s really down to an individual approach. We want to allow people to express their sexuality.
“It’s completely within the law but of course there has to be boundaries.”
Dr Tuppy Owens, convenor of the Sexual Health and Disability Allliance, visits care homes across Sussex to give them advice on sexual issues.
She said prostitutes were already operating freely in many care homes across the county.
She said: “Many disabled people are living in perpetual frustration.
“If someone wants to access a sex worker and they can’t make the phone call then they should be allowed to do that. There’s nothing illegal about it.
“What’s illegal is for disabled people to be denied their human rights.”
But other experts raised health and safety fears around allowing vulnerable people access to sex workers without proper checks.
Nick Tapp, chief executive of East Sussex Disability Association, said he thought the approach was “broadly a good idea” but that it posed “certain problems”.
He said: “People are body fascists, which means disabled people lack opportunities.
“Allowing them release in this way would appear to be a good thing. However, there’s always an issue of risk which is for local authorities and health authorities to look into.
“How do you know the sex workers are not carrying infections? There are certainly safety issues there.”
Lorna Couldrick is a lecturer at Brighton University, specialising on issues related to sexuality. She has worked with care homes across the county to help them deal with the sexual needs of their residents.
'Under the radar'
According to her, many have been inviting prostitutes into the homes on a regular basis for years.
She said: “It’s underground, not out in the open, because it has to be. It’s under the radar.
“The thing is, if you have a severe disability it can affect your ability to have sex. But why should that mean you should be stopped from having sex for the rest of your life?
“It makes sense to me to legally employ a prostitute to resolve that problem, rather than a member of staff.”
The Care Quality Commission (CQC), the care watchdog, refused to reveal whether it was aware of prostitutes being invited into care homes.
A CQC spokeswoman said: “Where an individual care need is identified, we expect care plans to reflect that, and for all the appropriate safeguards to be in place to ensure that the individual concerned and others potentially affected are protected against the risk of abuse.”
Secretive world of sex surrogacy
So-called ‘sex surrogacy’ is now in the spotlight thanks to a new Hollywood film, The Sessions.
Released in the UK a week ago, the film confronts two taboos – the sexual needs of the disabled and the controversial role sometimes played by surrogates in order to fulfil them.
Often dismissed as prostitutes, the ‘surrogates’ claim they are actually therapists. But critics dismiss the work as morally dubious, degrading and of no therapeutic benefit.
One agency in Brighton and Hove offers disabled people the chance to lose their virginity in exchange for cash.
‘Velvet Venus’ is an older lady who runs a private brothel for disabled people near Brighton station.
John Hawkes and Helen Hunt star as Mark O'Brien and sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene in The Sessions.
She said: “It’s a very secretive world. I have to live a complete double life. If I was exposed that would be awful.
“But there’s nothing wrong with what I’m doing. My clients all leave happier than when they walked in.
“It should all be made completely legal. The law is a complete ass and that’s how it is.”
Another sex worker, Anika Mae, said some disabled people found it difficult to find a partner.
She said: “A lot of people haven’t had sex for a long time, if ever. It’s good for people to have some relief sometimes.
“I have worked with people with Parkinson’s and missing limbs. I also dealt with a guy who was completely paralysed after being in a car crash.”
Sex worker's regular visits to care homes
One sex worker told The Argus she was “regularly” called to care homes across Sussex.
She said staff members usually escort her up to a room where a disabled resident is waiting.
She said: “I go to one particular nursing home in West Sussex at least once a month, more often once or twice every two weeks, but others too.
“The staff know what is happening, they lead us to the room – it’s embarrassing really.”
The call girl revealed there was usually a “mutual understanding” between sex workers and care staff.
She said: “It’s like, you know why I’m here, I know why I’m here.
“In hotels you sometimes get awkward questions from hotel receptionists but nothing like that happens in a care home because the members of staff always know exactly why you’re there.
“Obviously every client has the same colour money and the job isn’t done for enjoyment’s sake.
“Having said that, aside from the initial embarrassment of being led to a room, it’s an easy job.”
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