This article examines how mutual aid efforts between sex work activists and disability activists straddled the tension between respectability politics and subversive work to invigorate feminist disability justice in Argentina. I specifically focus on a 2021 Instagram Live conversation titled "Putas y Discas" to elucidate how public debates during a pandemic and in the digital age contribute to the conceptualization of 'access intimacy,' a term introduced by disability activist Mia Mingus. I attended the event as a user taking notes and paying attention to how labor rights, disability justice, and online censorship converge in the Global South to strengthen the solidarity between sex work and disability activists, featuring digital platforms as a potential arena to uphold access intimacy. The juncture of sex work and disability activisms in Argentina informs notions of interdependency more broadly and reconfigures the relationships between vulnerability and resistance, especially in the pandemic context. "Putas y Discas" invites us to include sex as integral to health demands and recognize sexual assistance as part of a bundle of disability policies covered by healthcare. A more inclusive politics of desire can also identify the labor of sex workers as communal care and consider how the more revolutionary aspects of sex work can inform the broader politics of labor. In the form of access intimacy, sex work activism and disability activists contest the malfunctioning healthcare system that bypasses sexuality as integral health, displaying the vitality of collectives and the possibilities for digital activism.
Sex worker and activist Georgina Orellano was 23 years old when she was approached on the street by a middle-aged woman. Instead of asking her to leave the corner, as Georgina assumed she would, she shyly asked to discuss a personal matter. Georgina invited her to a nearby café frequented by her regular clients. Despite stares from the other tables, the woman began crying and said, "I do not know what I am doing here with you." For a moment, Georgina thought she might be the wife of one of her clients. She was not, and took a roundabout way of telling Georgina about her situation. At home, in discussions with her husband, the existence of their son's sexual desires was not up for debate. Her husband insisted that their son did not feel any desire and that she was "crazy." "The institute" provided no help: the psychologist suggested stimulating "him" with didactical games. "Who is he?" Georgina finally asked. "I am talking about my son," she said. She then looked Georgina in the eye, took her hands in front of everyone at the café, and told her, "I know you can help me." Her son Martin was a 20-year-old with Down syndrome, and his care—including the task of figuring out how to attend to his sexual needs or advocate for ways he could meet them—was, in the ableist context in which she found herself, left to her.
Martin's mother often found Martin masturbating. Her husband reacted by scolding Martin and telling him never to do it again. The approach of the educational center Martin attended was no better. Staff at the center increased Martin's homework to keep him occupied with crafts like soap making. Out of useful suggestions, the mother looked online and learned that sex workers have historically filled the social role of servicing disabled people (Villar 2015). This finding led her to seek out a sex worker on the streets of Buenos Aires. When Georgina contemplated servicing Martin one day a week as his mother proposed, she wondered how much she should charge. Should she charge more? What unfamiliar aspects should she consider? She was unsure how to prepare because she had never serviced a person with Down syndrome. She asked the mother if she should be careful with anything and the mother, unaware of sexuality outside of an ableist framework, said she did not know but trusted her. Georgina's meeting with Martin broadened her view of sexuality as a political platform and a critical avenue to end the stigmatization and criminalization of sex work and disrupt hegemonic notions of sexuality that exclude a host of non-normative subjects.
On the day of the encounter, the mother was more nervous than Martin. She dropped Georgina and Martin off a block away from the love motel and picked him up right after the service. In the room, he undressed and lay down on the bed. Georgina followed and lay next to him. Martin spent half an hour caressing her body. Georgina tried to get things moving, but he told her it was ok. "I have never touched or smelled a woman's body." He kept caressing her until he finished. "Not all sex is penetration," he told Georgina right before kissing her. They soon left, and before parting ways, he whispered into her ear that everything went just as he had hoped. Georgina refused payment, saying she would accept it next time (Orellano 2022). This time, Georgina was grateful for what Martin had given her: an expansive interpretation of sex. Since then, she has learned from Martin and other disabled clients that people can position their bodies differently to find erogenous zones.
Realizing that the erogenous zones can be many—licking the armpits, tickling the feet— led Georgina to a broader understanding of sexuality. "I had to process my prejudice, and Martin was the client who made me see sexuality differently" (Orellano 2017). The frustration of a client using a wheelchair brought another realization for her. While public transportation and banks offer ramps, love motels do not, reinforcing the misconception that disabled people are asexual (Gallop 2019, Gill 2015, Kulick & Rydström 2015, McRuer 2006, Siebers 2012). In what follows, I consider the intersection of sex work and disability activism to reveal how liberatory notions of what bodies can do widen the horizons of desire and uphold accessibility as a salient feature of community living. According to Georgina, learning about disability through sex work enhanced not only her sexuality but also informed her activism to include ableism as interlocked with classist, racist, sexist, and ageist systems of oppression.
In 2014, Georgina co-organized a symposium in the legislature of Buenos Aires on Sex Work and Disability to push for a law recognizing sexual assistance (Lipcovich 2014). 1 The symposium was attended by legislators, sex workers, sexual assistants, and disability advocates. Among the presenters was Norberto Butler (1957-2016), a polio survivor and disability rights activist who fought to include sexual assistance for disabled people in Argentina's healthcare system. While the labor of sex workers and sexual assistants sometimes overlaps, sexual assistants are distinct in that they are trained by sex educators specialized in inclusivity and disability to support people with disabilities by providing emotional, erotic, and sexual services (Garofalo Geynomat and Macioti, P.G., 2016, Garofalo Geynomat 2019). Sexual assistance is not just about providing sexual services to disabled individuals; the assistant can also work with couples learning new ways to place their bodies for sexual pleasure or even to help put on a condom. Casting the state as responsible for the inclusion of sexual assistance in health policies places accountability on medical institutions to front the costs of sex work (if performed by a sexual assistant) and on the state itself to ensure accessibility in the locations where the services take place.
At the symposium, Butler argued that sexual assistance should be part of a bundle of policies to promote integral health for disabled people, recognizing sex as constitutive of a life with dignity. For Butler, not all disabled people need a sexual assistant, but it can be a valid option for many. Further, the inclusion of sexual assistance in the healthcare system provides a public platform to discuss a topic that remains taboo for many families of disabled people. In addition, the push for the legislation aimed to remove sex work from the clandestine realm and erode the stigma that sex workers face. The symposium offered the opportunity to rethink sexuality, labor, and inclusivity in a public forum. It also set the stage for alliances between disability and sex work advocates committed to reducing the structural inequality both groups face. Rather than forge this alliance privately, advocacy groups for sex workers and disability activists called on the state to recognize sex workers for their care labor and ensure sex workers receive their pay from healthcare providers rather than clients.
In this article, I examine how mutual aid efforts between sex work activists and disability activists straddled the tension between respectability politics and subversive work to invigorate feminist disability justice paths toward new cultural and political imaginaries. I specifically focus on an Instagram Live conversation titled "Putas y Discas" hosted by Georgina Orellano in February 2021 to elucidate how public debates during a pandemic and in the digital age contribute to the conceptualization of 'access intimacy,' a term introduced by disability activist Mia Mingus. Access intimacy brings to the fore care practices that challenge ableist assumptions by working to meet each other's physical and emotional needs, recognizing our differences, and honoring our interdependence (Mingus 2011, 2017). I attended the event as a user taking notes and paying attention to how bodies, labor, and desire coalesce in the Global South to inform the politics of a postcolonial capitalist state. My previous ethnographic research analyzed the intersection between feminist social movements and prison abolition in Argentina (Savloff 2019, 2020). The focus on criminalized women led me to new questions on how organized sex workers resist institutional violence and expand notions of gender and sexuality through social media activism (Boyd 2014, Friedman 2017, McKinney 2020).
In the next section, I contextualize "Putas y Discas" and consider how labor rights, disability justice, and online censorship converge to strengthen the solidarity between sex work and disability activists, featuring digital platforms as a potential arena to uphold access intimacy. "Putas" (sluts/whores) is a reclaimed term organized sex workers in Argentina often use to identify their labor and political identities. Disability translates to discapacidad, and "Discas" refers to the political identity of disabled people and people with functional diversity in Argentina. Akin to the term "crip" conceived in the global North, "disca" is specific to the Latin American context, and it celebrates noncompliance while rejecting assimilationist and respectability politics. It acknowledges the plurality and fluidity of identities (and their intersecting axes of inequity) and is inextricably linked with the feminist and LGBTI+ movements that have animated the region for the past decade (Romero 2020).
Sex Work Activism and Disability Justice
Since 2013 Georgina Orellano has been the elected secretary-general of Ammar, the unofficial union of sex workers in Argentina. Ammar—Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices Argentinas— also translates as 'To Love.' Without denying the subversive qualities of sex work, Ammar contests the social stigma attached to sex workers and seeks to improve their conditions by eradicating the institutional violence that impinges on their lives. Improving working conditions involves, for example, putting an end to the constant mistreatment and harassment carried out by the police. Their efforts also include demanding labor rights for sex workers to access benefits such as healthcare and retirement funds. They decry discriminatory practices at the hands of health practitioners and emphasize their identity as distinct from sex-trafficking victims. 2
Ammar's political agenda employs various strategies, some of which fall under respectability politics and others that dismantle heteronormative ideals. They frame sex work as 'just like any other job' to make their demands legible and fight against discrimination while at the same time resisting assimilationist policies. 3 It is not a side job, a hustle, or a tragic turn of events, but work. They describe sex work as a profession of care that serves the community. 4 As Angela Jones has argued, using respectability politics has limitations as it "involves subordinate groups demonstrating to dominant groups that they are worthy of rights. In this case, to gain access to basic rights, sex workers must prove to political gatekeepers that sex work is honest labor and like any other job in the service economy" (2020, 2). For Jones, emphasizing sex work as 'just like any other job' plays down the subversive contributions of sex work. Namely, that sex work pushes the boundaries of citizenship outside of middle-class nuclear family ideals, that it provides higher salaries than comparable service industry jobs, and it defies hegemonic notions of diversity, recognition, and autonomy, among others (Bernstein 1999, Jones 2020, Sabsay 2011, Shah 2014). Heather Berg has described sex work as a space of refusal and world-making (Berg 2021a). In a daring combination that demands decriminalization and disavows assimilation, Ammar highlights the need to reimagine communal bonds. To contest ageism, in October 2021, Ammar hosted the fundraising event "Puta Fest," featuring nine artists and collecting enough funds to provide a month of retirement for twenty sex workers between 50-70 years of age. This streaming event, meant to inspire sex workers to imagine a future with retirement funds, portrays the intersectional framework that Ammar embraces, advocating for racial, gender, class, sexual minorities, and disability justice.
The COVID-19 pandemic (which prompted a lockdown in Buenos Aires from March to July 2020) heightened the precarity of sex workers while also introducing opportunities to rethink advocacy and disability justice. Disability justice is a framework conceived in 2005 by disabled queer activists of color (Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, Stacey Milbern, Leroy Moore, Eli Clare, and Sebastian Margaret) that understands that "able-bodied supremacy has been formed in relation to intersecting systems of domination and exploitation" (Berne 2015, paragraph 12). It centers disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, and people with disabilities who had their ancestral lands stolen, amongst others (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018). Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance group based in Oakland, CA, insisted that conversations about disability can also be about sexuality, beauty, autonomy, and desire (Kafai 2021, 31). 5 Yet, social distancing during the pandemic posed new questions about how to reinscribe what community-living and solidarity mean today (Spade 2020). In Argentina, mutual aid efforts entailed grassroots organizations like Ammar distributing groceries, cleaning products, and staples to workers in the informal economy whose income was upended during quarantine times. Mutual aid also found expressions in virtual community events hosting conversations about resisting the social, economic, and political inequalities that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and proposing an expansive view of disability that includes intimacy, sexuality, and desire. One example was the Instagram Live event "Putas y Discas," featuring Georgina Orellano and disability activist Ayito Cabrera. As the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic partly inspired this event, I consider how this global crisis impacted public discourse and highlighted interdependency in the following section.
Pandemic Time, Crip Time
"Even as crip time is a space of frustration and often of loss, then, it is also a space that offers new kinds of connections and presence that are fundamental to imagining a new world into being"
It has been years since the global pandemic redrew the boundaries of public discourse and reshaped labor and domestic life. What began as a six-week quarantine has expanded into a washed-away extension with no clear end. The use of the internet, already always relevant, has now opened new windows into our homes and communities. New configurations emerged on Zoom and social media platforms that destabilized what inclusion meant before social distancing. For instance, workplaces widely implemented flexible accommodations that people with cognitive, emotional, and physical disabilities have been championing for years. These new configurations generate conversations about care and disability in the pandemic's shifting context that inform the labor of sex workers and beyond.
In a recent publication, Ellen Samuels and Elizabeth Freeman noted how since COVID-19, "workers who had previously resided in the sheltered space of the norm were thrust into the time-consuming, often frustrating space of crip time" (Samuels and Freeman 2021, 247). Crip time refers to that temporality outside the norm in which mundane tasks can take up tedious amounts of time and effort. Samuels and Freeman also define crip time as "paradoxically both liberating and confining, because it breaks open rigid socioeconomic structures of time and affords others, and because that breaking is not a choice but a necessity, an enforcement issued by the physical and mental strictures of the crip bodymind" (Samuels and Freeman 2021, 249). Crip time is broken time as it "requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world" (Samuels 2017, paragraph 13). As remote work from home became the norm for many, it exposed how virtual spaces could have provided a seat at the table (and countless jobs) for disabled people years ago (Aydos, Navarini, and Oliveira 2021). Such accommodations made clear that workplaces and institutions are willing to accommodate non-disabled bodies during a pandemic but not disabled people before COVID-19. With remote work accommodations, discussions about unequal treatment for disabled people converge with renewed opportunities to incorporate new internet practices. How do activists in the Global South make sense of this paradoxical confining and liberating instance of labor under COVID-19? How do these changes impact workers in precarious work conditions who cannot rely on remote work?
In Feminist Queer Crip, Alison Kafer defines crip time as a shift in mindset. It requires understanding that the flexibility of crip time is not only about providing accommodations to those that need "more" time. More importantly, it is a challenge to normative and normalizing expectations of how long things take—"rather than bend the bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds" (Kafer 2013, 27). This definition invokes the social model of disability, which focuses on removable barriers people with disabilities encounter in their social and built environment. These preventable obstacles fuel the ideology of ableism which defines able bodies as the norm and discriminates against those that deviate from this framework by limiting their access to education, housing, and employment.
While social media and streaming services animated political events, the expanding algorithmic censorship on Internet platforms harmed sex workers by blocking them from using online forums to offer their services and forcing them to find work on the streets (Horn 2018). Shutting down websites that offer sex services impedes sex workers from verifying or vetting clients (Jones 2020). Pay apps locking sex workers' accounts and confiscating funds make it difficult for sex workers to process payments (Suprihmbé 2018). It reduces their safety by thwarting their work-from-home options and removing their screening mechanisms. It also exposes sex-work advocates to political attacks, demonstrating how the SESTA/FOSTA bill (passed in the United States in 2018 to ostensibly curb sex trafficking) amplifies carceral logics and expands surveillance mechanisms on a global scale (Petillo 2018, Valentina 2020). 6 In 2018, Ammar had its Instagram account taken down, losing its 16,000+ followers and all its content. In addition, the two account managers also had their accounts suspended for 30 days. Online censorship leaves sex workers exposed and endangered when online work is a matter of life and death (Noble 2018).
In February 2021, Ammar co-organized the event "Putas y Discas" with Ayito Cabrera, a travesti, disability activist, and writer, to subvert such censorship. 7 The term travesti claims a position outside the binary, intending to destabilize heteronormative gender categories. The term also refuses a politics of respectability, seeking to dismantle the hierarchical order that devalues identities and subjectivities (Berkins 2006). In describing a conversation between two activists via Instagram Live, I am attentive to instances of what Mia Mingus calls 'access intimacy.' According to Mingus, access intimacy is "that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else 'gets' your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be how your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met" (Mingus 2011, paragraph 4). There is a phrase for campaigns for sexual assistance that says, "Without support, my body is not mine" (asistenciasexual.org). This slogan refers to the need for assistance so that people with disabilities can enjoy autonomy in all aspects of their lives. Access intimacy speaks to the acknowledgment of needing support to enjoy autonomy. Ramps are undoubtedly necessary at banks and union buildings, but they are also crucial at love motels. "Without support, my body is not mine" also points to the role of interdependence as a political vitality for Latin American social movements that identify the body as a site of struggle (Escobar 2020).
Sex work activism in Argentina provides an expansive network of interdependence that interweaves street sex workers, older sex workers, trans and travesti sex workers, gender non-conforming and non-binary people, and sexual dissidents to acknowledge disability justice as an integral part of the broader movement of social justice that seeks to expand the realms of desire and intimacy. In The Force of Non–Violence, Judith Butler suggests that a new idea of equality can only emerge from a more fully imagined interdependency. That is, equality necessitates acknowledging the relationality that configures our lives. Interdependency is not only personal but unfolds in practices and institutions that redefine civic and political life (Butler 2020, 44). Importantly, equality here is not an individual right, but, instead, as part of a collective, "claims of equality… emerge from the relations between people, in the name of those relations and those bonds, but not as features of an individual subject" (Butler 2020, 45). Equality is thus "a feature of social relations that depends for its articulation on an increasingly avowed interdependency—letting go of the body as a 'unit' to understand one's boundaries as relational and social predicaments" (Butler 2020, 45). Ammar is an example of collective and communal work that, during pandemic times, focused on sex worker-led activism, engaging in mutual aid efforts to dismantle ableism and expand the horizons of desire. 8
Since the conversation focuses on sexual assistance, the following discussion is geared towards physical and visible disabilities, though that remained unspoken at the event. It is important to note that this renders other disabilities (such as cognitive difference, chronic pain, and mental illness) invisible and fails to acknowledge sex workers with invisible disabilities. The erasure of invisible disabilities was a missed opportunity to highlight the subversive quality of passing: "the passing subject…a defiant figure who, by crossing the borders of identities, reveals their instability" (Samuels 2003, 243). While the conversation did not include invisible disabilities, it still illuminates a critical aspect of the potential of access intimacy: it can also happen across digital platforms.
The Event: A Conversation
"Putas y Discas" was an Instagram Live conversation led from Georgina Orellano's account. 9 Orellano is a self-identified bisexual Brown woman with mid-length dark hair and blunt bangs, a prominent mole between her eyes, and a tattoo on her right arm that spells PUTA. 10 When Ayito Cabrera joined the event, he chose the mustache filter as part of his self-presentation, collapsing gender performance across the digital and embodied selves (Drax 2018). Cabrera had bowl-cut pink hair, hoop earrings, and reading glasses and wore a black and white chevron shirt. Following the disability justice framework, "Putas y Discas" claimed a place in the public sphere to defy constrictive assumptions of sexuality as part of their resistance against institutional violence. The conversation was dedicated to the late Norberto Butler, a prominent activist for disability rights in Argentina. Georgina Orellano began the event by asking: "who fucks someone in a wheelchair? With lupus? With Down syndrome? Who fucks those who suffered a stroke and have half of their body paralyzed? Historically, it has been sex workers because disabled bodies have been infantilized and asexualized by the broader society." With this opening, the questions posed challenged assumptions about who counts as desirable to shed light on the mechanisms that promote ableism.
Orellano and Cabrera discussed sexual assistance to bring the public aspect of sexuality to the table, address it as a concept that can be negotiated, and illuminate the ways patriarchy weaves through normative constructions of sexuality (Siebers 2008). Ayito Cabrera remarked that when we erase autonomy, sovereignty, and the rights to decide whom we live with, which education we receive, and what we can feel and enjoy, "we dim the lights" for people with disabilities (Ben-Moshe 2020, Lewis 2020). Ensuring access to love hotels acknowledges disabled people's right to enjoyment and pleasure. Georgina Orellano added that when sex work is formally recognized, it must address the healthcare system and the services provided by sex workers.
The conversation "Putas y Discas" pushed for sexual assistance to reduce the structural inequality that disabled people and sex workers face: harassment from the police in the case of sex workers and barriers to employment in the case of both sex workers and people with disabilities (Ferrante 2020). Such was the case with Ayito Cabrera when he applied for a teaching job, got an interview, and was met with anger when he showed up using a wheelchair. "You made a huge mistake in not telling us," the school principal told him and added that they did have an elevator, but it was not working, and they were not going to remodel the school for this 'little matter.' This incident prompted Ayito Cabrera to study the laws regarding disability. In realizing that there were many, in 2020, he became part of La Barra Disca Nuestramericana, a Latin American collective for disability justice, and turned to social media for his political activism (Romero 2020). The creation of La Barra Disca Nuestramericana provides another example of access intimacy across Latin American borders, a space for people with disabilities to organize and learn from one another to disrupt hegemonic representations of disability.
While discussing ableism in "Putas y Discas," Cabrera remarked that sexuality and disability combined are such a taboo subject that even the sex education curriculum for Argentine public schools does not include disability as a topic. He further called for the state's role to ensure disabled people have access to sex work and sexual services. Since disabled people often face economic constraints, sex services are a luxury few can afford. While the Argentine constitution guarantees 4% of work quotas for trans and disabled people, its implementation is failing. Work opportunities, noted Ayito Cabrera, must go beyond the tokenizing capitalist image of a person with Down syndrome making employee of the month at a McDonald's. Job training programs, insisted Cabrera, must refute tokenism that fails to address material inequities.
Similarly, Georgina Orellano recounted how sex workers are often perceived as victims (Snowden 2011). Accounts of her experiences and the experiences of a disabled sex worker signal the cultural shifts afforded by crip temporalities and the political work of Ammar. Orellano mentions the many clients that have tried to 'save' her, encouraging her to do something else with her skills. Rather than respect their choices as legitimate, clients assume sex workers would prefer to be doing something else. In contrast, when sex workers stand up for their rights and make demands, they are deemed suspicious. In the digital world and on the ground, activism and alliances among collectives and organizations provide an array of cultural events where dissident desires and disobedience are some of their main components. While sex work activism worked to dismantle heteropatriarchal gender norms and sexual violence, disability justice activists in Argentina emphasized the importance of an intersectional framework to redefine contemporary community living. Georgina Orellano also advocated for disability justice by stressing how much they have learned from collaborating with disability activists, disabled sex workers, and disabled clients. Ayito Cabrera suggested focusing on the diversity of identities and the knowledge gained from mutual affinities, from building community with fat bodies, trans bodies, non-binary people, lesbians, non-white racialized bodies, disabled bodies, and sex workers to confront how a paternalistic state traverses our lives (Spade 2021).
In the Latin American context, mutual aid efforts make evident the patriarchal and colonial assemblages that inform current racist, sexist, ableist, and classist expressions of power over dissident bodies. In 2008 the Argentine state granted a pension for disabled people. But the law still falls short in recognizing disability issues and fails to enforce existing benefits and protections. Ableist assumptions predominate cultural imaginaries, and activist spaces are not always inclusive. Cabrera appealed to Orellano, telling her that unions often hold their meetings on underground levels with narrow stairs making it inaccessible for some disabled members.
"Disabled members?" asked Georgina Orellano, recounting how in her 15 years of working in the streets, she only met one self-identified disabled sex worker. While working in the neighborhood of Constitución distributing condoms, Georgina Orellano saw a woman on crutches and kept walking. She did not pause to reflect on why a woman on crutches would be standing among sex workers. She just walked past her because she could not recognize her as part of the group. 11 The woman whistled at her and said she wanted condoms too. She began attending union meetings and complaining, not of police brutality but of being ignored during police raids. She was thankful that her disability kept her from body searches and police harassment. Yet, during police raids, she insisted on witnessing even if the police officers wanted to help her cross the street and asked her to go home. Despite working on the streets of Constitución, a popular neighborhood for sex workers of all genders, and witnessing police raids, she noted sex workers did not include her. When she was working on the streets, people tried to help her. Neighbors gave her bags of clothing, assuming she was a beggar and offered to help her get her pension. She receives her pension, but that is not enough to cover the bills because she lives independently. To contest this welfare approach, she ordered custom-made crutches with animal print, making herself visible to clients, neighbors, and colleagues. She demanded the right to be a sex worker, emphatically insisting she is a sex worker at heart. This account illustrates how access to sexual assistance is only one avenue to challenge ableism. Cultural shifts are necessary to accept disabled sex workers as actors in the economy that expand notions of desirability.
According to Ayito Cabrera, disability often obscures all other identities, keeping disabled people dependent, like children. The independent life for disabled people described by the law does not exist in practice. The pension is a form of financial aid that complements formal work. Yet, the law states that disabled people can only work six hours or less per day, failing to cover the additional living costs faced by disabled people, such as therapies, treatments, crutches, special shoes, and taxis to locations where public transportation is not available, among other expenses. When Mauricio Macri became president of Argentina in 2015, he removed the benefit of the pension only to bring it back during the ballotage (runoff voting) for his reelection. In other words, he used the pension benefit as a reelection tactic. This form of institutional abuse is burdensome as it reflects the ignorance of public representatives and illustrates how public policies influence and shape public discourse. By promoting ableism in the legislative process, broader society fails to see the relevance of disrupting it. Ayito Cabrera provided the example that, even on crutches, he often must argue with people to cut the line at the bank or the stores. The imposition that he must be able to stand in line like the majority shows the lack of access intimacy he experiences in his everyday life.
On Vulnerability and Resistance
At the Instagram Live event, Ayito Cabrera explained that social media can be a site for dissident identity formation, "Many say that activism takes place on the streets, but we know that there are other ways." Ammar and Ayito Cabrera proposed building a "crip nation" where bodies who get tired after walking a few blocks, and even those that cannot even walk, can resist and work from the online world, offering a digital version of access intimacy. Their crip nation offers accommodations in love hotels and sexual services the state provides. Ayito Cabrera added that "creating a world where we consider disabled people as sex partners ultimately opens up the possibility that someone can also fall in love with me." By building networks of interdependence, sex work activists and disability activists ensure sex life becomes a part of public discourse in ways that undoes normative constructions of sex and desire.
When Ayito Cabrera mentioned the desire to find a romantic partner as a disabled travesti, he also pointed out how sexuality and gender identities are sites of negotiation. In "Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance," Judith Butler argues that acknowledging vulnerability can be vital in resisting. "Does resistance require overcoming vulnerability? Or do we mobilize our vulnerability?" (Butler 2016, 13). According to Butler, mobilizing our vulnerability involves describing the "powerful citational force of gender norms as they are instituted and applied by medical, legal, and psychiatric institutions, and object to the effect they have on the formation and understanding of gender in pathological or criminal terms" (Butler 2016, 18). The theory of gender performativity, explains Butler, has never prescribed which gender performances were proper or more subversive and which were wrong and reactionary. The point was precisely to relax the coercive hold of norms on gendered life—which is not the same as transcending all norms—for the purposes of living a more livable life (Butler 2016: 18). Ayito Cabrera stressed the need to rethink social relations and identified the challenges disabled people face when discouraged from leaving their homes. For disabled people to be desirable, there needs to be a shift in access and representation. Going out involves asking for help when there are no ramps or inclusive bathrooms. Consequently, in a society that lacks accommodations and overvalues self-sufficiency, disabled people are framed as demanding. Ayito Cabrera mentioned that tourist locations are particularly challenging to manage, often organized in ways that suggest disabled people do not belong there. He also explained that better access and representation would open romantic avenues for disabled people and provide fertile ground for growing access intimacy.
Orellano and Cabrera agreed that it is crucial to reimagine social norms to achieve healthcare benefits that include social assistance as an option. Social assistance would incorporate sexual assistance and other benefits such as housing, employment, and food security. Why is it that a disabled person must hire a sex worker to access sexual pleasure? Why do disabled people have to circumvent the law to meet their needs? Ayito Cabrera asked, "Can we think of disabled people as desirable and have a broader understanding of desire? Can we desire bodies that lie outside the normative standards of beauty?" However, what is considered desirable remains homogenous in mainstream media, and disabled people and sex workers are on the receiving end of society's pejorative gaze. While Orellano and Cabrera agreed that social media could be part of the struggle, they also warned about the lack of representation for disabled lesbians and disabled trans and travestis in such platforms. This lack of visibility has serious consequences. For example, remarked Ayito Cabrera, during the pandemic, the state issued the card ALIMENTAR (a food assistance program) for women with up to five children and incorporated trans people in their job-training program 'Potenciar Trabajo' to address unemployment. However, there was no policy to support disabled people during the pandemic. The state did not even raise the pension despite sharp inflation rates.
The ongoing pandemic continues to spark actions and discussions about living and loving together during grueling times. Movements have incorporated the ethos of crip time to reconsider how we relate to one another and the access values to include in the labor politics of today and tomorrow. While current capitalist conditions devalue care labor, the advent of social media platforms has channeled sex work into novel forms of representation and community-building that resist criminalization and demand disability justice. According to Mingus, disability justice is not about inclusion as "We don't simply want to join the ranks of the privileged, we want to challenge and dismantle those ranks and question why some people are consistently at the bottom" (Mingus 2011, paragraph 5). So rather than work towards inclusion, Mingus proposes access intimacy as a tool to challenge ableism and the isolation disabled people endure. "Access intimacy is interdependence in action," writes Mingus, explaining that access intimacy is about acknowledging the impact an inaccessible world and an ableist ideology have on disabled people. She continues, "The power of access intimacy is that it reorients our approach from one where disabled people are expected to squeeze into able-bodied people's world, and instead calls upon able-bodied people to inhabit our world" (Mingus 2017, paragraph 19). Similar to Kafer's definition of crip time, access intimacy calls upon non-disabled people to disrupt the dominance of ableism, not by running away from disability but by moving towards it.
The conversation between Georgina Orellano and Ayito Cabrera portrays access intimacy via the digital world, opening their affinity for others to learn from and experience. It is imperative to examine the struggles of the Global South, where postcolonial arrangements are rife with the repercussions of imperialism seeking to exploit and control oppressed racialized bodies. Internet censorship in the Global North endangers the labor of sex workers in Latin America along with their activism. At the same time, it is on those same platforms where activists create opportunities for access intimacy. The juncture of sex work and disability activisms in Argentina informs notions of interdependency more broadly and reconfigures the relationships between vulnerability and resistance, especially in the pandemic context. "Putas y Discas" invites us to include sex as integral to health demands and recognize sexual assistance as part of a bundle of disability policies covered by healthcare. A more inclusive politics of desire can also identify the labor of sex workers as communal care and consider how the more revolutionary aspects of sex work can inform the broader politics of labor (Berg 2021b). As Ammar and disability justice activists imagine inclusive worlds and advocate for sexual recognition, they also challenge institutional violence for its abuses and neglects. In the form of access intimacy, they contest the malfunctioning healthcare system that bypasses sexuality as integral health, displaying the vitality of collectives and the possibilities for digital activism.
I am grateful to Georgina Orellano, who in 2018 invited me to Ammar for an interview and granted me access to their impressive archive of newspaper articles covering sex work in Argentina. I also acknowledge the critical activist work by Ayito Cabrera that made this research possible. I thank the editors of this special issue and the anonymous reviewers, whose detailed feedback helped develop and clarify my argument. Research funds from Elon University supported this research.
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Sexual assistants, also known as sex surrogates, are sex workers that focus exclusively on assisting people with disabilities. They provide support so that people with disabilities can access their own bodies or the body of a partner. Sexual assistants often do not have sex with people with disabilities: there are no kisses, hugs, intercourse, caresses, oral sex, etc. Rather, they follow the instructions of people with disabilities who express with their autonomy how they can seek pleasure. Sexual assistance can range from helping them explore their own bodies, masturbate, or achieve certain positions and/or movements with someone else (https://asistenciasexual.org/asistencia-sexual/).
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The conflation of sex trafficking and sex work has produced an array of negative impacts for sex workers. Online censorship after the passing of the SESTA/FOSTA package is recognized as a prominent limitation for workers. For more on the dangers of online censorship, see McCombs, Emily. 2018. "This Bill Is Killing Us': 9 Sex Workers On Their Lives In The Wake Of FOSTA," https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sex-workers-sesta-fosta_n_5ad0d7d0e4b0edca2cb964d9, Chamberlain, Laura. 2019. "FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost." Fordham Law Review, 87(5), 2171- 2211.
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Specific barriers that sex workers face in the Argentine context include but are not limited to: no access to credit options due to lack of pay stubs, limited rent options due to lack of evidence of salary, lack of access to healthcare and retirement funds, impossibility to register as self-employed since the category of sex work is non-existent (in this instance suggestions include registering as a masseuse, hairdresser, tarot card reader, or as a provider of elderly care). Placing structural barriers ensures sex workers remain in precarious and unsafe locations, exposing them to prejudice, discrimination, and violence.
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Casa Roja, a place of belonging welcoming all sex workers opened in 2019 as a communal space located in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Constitución. Casa Roja serves as Ammar's headquarters in Buenos Aires (they have chapters throughout the country) and as a community center that provides information, legal assessment, and offers workshops and performances. Casa Roja also organizes grocery runs for workers unable to make ends meet during the pandemic.
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Disability justice emerged as a critique of the disability rights movement, which often centered the experiences of heterosexual white men with physical disabilities to the exclusion of others. Sins Invalid identified ten principles of disability justice: intersectionality, leadership of those most impacted, anti-capitalist politic and a commitment to cross-movement organizing, recognizing wholeness (valuing people as they are, for who they are outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity), sustainability (understanding embodied experience as a critical guide toward justice and liberation), commitment to cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access and collective liberation (Berne 2015).
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The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) known as the FOSTA-SESTA package became law on April 11, 2018, in the United States. FOSTA/SESTA massively incentivizes big platforms to block individuals without bothering to comb through the nuances in their content (Holmes 2021).
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At the time of the event, Ayito Cabrera self-identified as trans. Shortly after, he self-identified as travesti, a term that refers to dissident gender identities in Latin America that question the notion of identities as limits.
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Ammar's activism promotes networks of care, such as creating an app to inform each other about clients to avoid and issue warnings about police raids. Political campaigns against sex-trafficking threaten this form of care as they take down websites that advertise sex work services and censor apps for sex workers.
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The event is still available in Orellano's Instagram Story Highlights: https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/17856247865422812/
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I include visual descriptors of the two actors in "Putas y Discas" because the site of analysis where the conversation takes place (Instagram) is a social media platform that relies heavily on the visual. Accessibility efforts in this platform include alternative text for images, closed captioning, subtitles, and descriptions for video.
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This lack of recognition signals that Georgina possibly met other disabled sex workers but was unaware of it.
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