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TV review: Sex on Wheels (Channel 4) - a look at the carnal needs of four disabled individuals

Bradford: City of Dreams, BBC2
  • @GerardVGilbert

It can’t be very often that a mother arranges for her son to be visited by a prostitute. But then desperate times called for desperate measures, reasoned Tracy in the documentary Sex on Wheels – her 26-year-old son John’s severe learning disabilities getting in the way of an active sex life, or indeed any kind of sex life.

Once you get over the cringy bit it’s no different from travel-training John, or teaching him how to spend his money,” said Tracy, a warm and thoughtful woman who hired Laura, a maternal (I don’t think there’s anything to read into that) sex-worker used to servicing the needs of the disabled. The cameras didn’t intrude on John’s two-hour sexual initiation, which is more than can be said of Carl’s visit to another paid professional, Larissa.

Carl from Cheshire, a bit of a stud by his own account, until he was paralysed below the waist in an accident, can no longer get it up, and such was his obsession with having a full erection, Carl said that if he had to choose between that and ever walking again, he’d choose the middle leg.  “I want my hard-on back,” was his plaintive response to  the psychosexual therapist trying to interest him in finding alternative routes to sexual arousal.

Having bought a drug on the internet and injected it  into his penis, with no resulting “flag up the pole” (Carl’s  language was instructive), he reluctantly agreed to visit “sacred sexual healer”, Larissa. What looks to be a branch  of tantric sex, “sacred sexual healing” involves Larissa in  a lot of non-phallic skin-to-skin contact, and happily Carl declared himself aroused.

Now all this might have been prurient, but what made Emma Young’s documentary so heartening was the  openness and honesty of her subjects. They didn’t come across  as exhibitionists, not even Pete from Hampshire, who has  cerebral palsy and dreams of  becoming a porn star. There  was one scene involving Pete that Ricky Gervais would have appreciated, as the blue-movie stud he visited tangled himself into knots when discussing “the quite big niche carved out in the adult entertainment industry by dwarfs… who are kind of disabled”.

Sex on Wheels is bound to induce similar charges of  voyeurism as were levelled at Channel 4’s recent documentary 40-Year-Old Virgins, in which a middle-aged British man was shown being initiated by an American “sex  surrogate”. Only one segment here, where would-be porn star Pete visited a glamour model shoot, felt remotely  voyeuristic. What’s more interesting perhaps is the glimpse afforded of the grey – or off-white, perhaps – area where prostitution meets therapy.

Given that many male teenagers today are introduced to sex by way of online pornography – some of it sadistic – perhaps Tracy’s maternalistic approach, to treat sexual initiation practically, like potty training or road safety, is not as outré as it might at first seem. And with 10 million Britain today living with a disability, that’s a significant niche for an enterprising escort.

Graham, the star turn in Bradford: City of Dreams, has found himself not one but two lucrative niches. In a post-industrial city scarred by the 2001 race riots, Graham has bridged the city’s ethnic divide and discovered that learning a few words of Urdu goes a long way, becoming both the builder and the grave-digger of choice to the city’s Asian community. This simple illustration of pragmatic economics was part of a determinedly upbeat look at the Yorkshire city that was once one of the richest in Britain, encouraging waves of migrant workers, but  that is struggling now that all the mills are gone.

The suggestion that the solution lies in enterprising  individuals like Graham might be hopelessly optimistic, but then optimism is in short supply at the moment.