Francesc Granja welcomes visitors by pressing a button that makes the front door of his home swing open. He lives in a bright apartment in Barcelona’s Olympic Village that he has adapted to his needs. Granja has been a quadraplegic for the last 20 years, ever since he was involved in a car crash on his way home from a meeting. He usually moves around in a wheelchair, but today he is held back by painful sores. Sitting next to him are María Clemente, a psychologist specializing in neurorehabilitation, and Eva, a sexual assistant; they are two essential figures in Tandem Team, a non-profit run by Granja that provides sexual assistance to disabled people.
All three of them are listening to a conversation between two other people in the room, Felipe and Lau (both assumed names). Felipe is a paraplegic and Lau is the assistant he met through Tandem; Felipe passionately argues that these encounters should always be honest and phoney feelings should never be expressed.
“I have a partner, but during the time I spend with a user, he becomes the man in my life,” says Lau.
“You can fall in love because you are very needy, but you could just as easily fall in love with the baker or with anyone who treats you well. We both know what this is all about,” insists Felipe.
María Clemente, the psychologist, jumps in to note that if they realize a person is psychologically dependent, they recommend that he or she refrain from requesting a sexual assistant, as the relationship could end up being more hurtful than useful to them.
Lau, 38, studied nursing and veterinary medicine. She teaches tantra workshops, and when a friend told her about Francesc and his project, she was enthusiastic to take part. Her background was a perfect fit with what the association was looking for: experience in the health sector, no economic motives, and a concept of sexuality that went beyond genital encounters. Asked about what limits she would place on sexual practices and types of disability – some volunteers, for instance, will not work with amputees, people with certain hygienic complications or significant physical traits such as dwarfism – Lau answered that she had none, and that it would depend on the moment and the person, “just like in any relationship.”
A few days later, Felipe and Lau met for coffee. They hit it off, and arranged for a more intimate date. Felipe, 42, had had one other relationship since becoming paraplegic, but it didn’t work out. Another time he hired a prostitute. “But the girl had a timer, and for someone with my problems, that does not work.” But his experience with Lau has revived him: “You remember feelings that you thought were long dead.”
Felipe is one of the 45 members of an association created in October 2013. After ruling out 50 percent of the applicants for volunteer work, the association settled for 15 sexual assistants who represent a balance between men and women. They also work with different sexual tendencies. “Our very first user was a surprise,” smiles Francesc.
Tandem does not charge for putting users and assistants in touch with each other, and recommends that any agreed economic compensation should not exceed 75 euros. “It is usually around 50 euros, because you need to go to the user’s home, park, eat out…,” explains Eva. “But often we don’t charge anything: money is not our motivation.”
For now, the association is living off contributions from Francesc (who is a teacher at ESADE business school and gets a pension) and María’s volunteer work. The initiative has created expectation among disability groups.
“We have been viewed as sexless little angels, but that is not the case,” says Francesc. Sexual assistants and prostitutes working with the disabled are nothing new. But so far it has been done covertly, even as the debate has moved on to the public arena elsewhere in Europe. Switzerland has the most advanced model, although many people consider it interventionist, with fixed monthly appointments and assistants who have a university diploma. Belgium has a very understanding approach that operates in a legal environment. Sexual assistance exists in some form or other in Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands and Germany. And the debate rages on in France even though a national ethics committee last year recommended not making the practice legal. The issue there was partly brought to the fore by the movie The Intouchables, which was a box-office hit.
Some volunteers will not work with amputees or people with certain hygienic complications
“There are different models,” explain Esther Sánchez and María Honrubia, “but the main thing is to reveal that the problem exists in the first place.” Sánchez is a nurse with a master’s degree in sexology, while Honrubia is a psychologist. Both women preside the National Association of Sexual Health and Disability (Anssyd), which partnered with another group called Sex Asistent to organize Spain’s first workshop in sexual assistance for the disabled. There were 15 participants, from physiotherapists to sex professionals. “The training is very practical, and explains what a service involves: what to expect from a person with mental problems, how to react to a rise in blood pressure, and so on,” explains Sánchez.
For confidentiality reasons Anssyd did not let EL PAÍS take part in the courses. The association admits that the content could prove controversial. “There is a legal limbo when it comes to [sexual] assistants and the closeness to prostitution. But in 50 percent of cases there is no intercourse. Many users just want to see or caress a naked body. That is an amazing experience. There are even individuals who are cognitively disabled and only want some physical affection; by law, a regular caregiver cannot provide this,” explains Honrubia.
But the road here has been a long one. “We have been teaching for 25 years, but only now are we starting to get some recognition,” she adds. For two decades, both professionals endured the misgivings of colleagues who did not believe in the goal of their research.
But the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and the 2010 Law on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Voluntary Pregnancy Termination (popularly referred to as the abortion law) established the need to train professionals. It also spawned a wealth of associations to promote the sexual rights of the disabled. All these initiatives were swept away by the crisis.
“Legend has it that if you talk about sexuality, you awaken it,” says Sánchez. “But the desire is always there, silenced. You have no idea how much hidden suffering there is.” And they are not exaggerating: people who refused to have their names published told hard stories about 20 years of a sexless marriage maintained for the kids’ sake, and parents who masturbate their mentally disabled children to provide them with relief.
For now it does not look like there will be easy solutions to these barriers. The first ones are borderline legal. Inside a Barcelona apartment, Lau hugs and kisses Felipe goodbye.