Mark Manitta loves sex. Can’t get enough of it. But being confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy has cramped his style. So, for the past seven years, he has been a client of Sydney sex worker Rachel Wotton.
“People do not understand the difference that sex makes,” Manitta explains in the new SBS documentary Scarlet Road, speaking through a voice machine that makes him sound like a randy Stephen Hawking. “Part of having cerebral palsy is spasticity and muscle spasms. I need sex all the time to make my muscles relax. And I like sex.”
Three years in the making, Catherine Scott’s documentary explores the relationship between people such as Manitta and Wotton, who specialises in disabled clients. The film, which has been nominated for a Walkley Award, provides a rare glimpse into a world that most people are oblivious to or would rather pretend doesn’t exist.
“People assume disabled people don’t have the same biological needs and desires that everyone else has,” Wotton says. “But sexual expression is a basic need for everyone, not just for those who can walk and talk freely.”
Outspoken, articulate and utterly unflappable, Wotton, who has spent 17 years in the industry, describes herself as a “whore”, a brazenly self-deprecatory term that belies her intelligence and ambition. But it’s her empathy and pragmatism that resonate most strongly.
“Part of my reason for doing the film was to wipe away the ‘us and them’ mentality,” she says. “We’re all one car accident away from being in the same position as these guys. Tomorrow we could all wake up out of coma and not be able to eat let alone have sex or touch ourselves. What I say to people is imagine the next time you go to have sex or masturbate having to call your mum and have her organise it all for you.”
Indeed, for parents brave enough to recognise their disabled children as sexually mature adults, sex workers such as Wotton are a godsend. “I remember the first brothel we visited,” Mark’s mother, Elaine, says. “It was supposed to be wheelchair accessible but it wasn’t. So I had to carry Mark up the stairs. Then I just broke down and cried the whole time I was there. But then as the years have passed I have got to enjoy waiting around and meeting the girls. It’s just become part of life.”
Getting the clients and their parents to come on board wasn’t as hard as you might think, according to Scott. “People with disabilities want to be viewed as whole beings.
“Think about how important your sexuality is to how you are perceived. These people aren’t seen like that, so you can imagine how that makes them feel.”
One of Scott’s favourite scenes is when wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis sufferer John Blades, who sadly passed away only days before the documentary went to air, is sitting at an outdoor cafe with friends, having spent the previous night with Wotton. “It was just a great night of sex,” Blades tells them. “It made me feel like a real bloke again.”
Scott hadn’t planned to take three years to make the film. “But it actually worked out really well,” she says. “Because it took so long, all these things happened, like Rachel fell in love.
“In the end, you get a picture of her as a real, rounded person who is doing this extraordinary work.”