Summary of thesis


The invention of sexual assistance: Sociohistory of a French public problem

Under the co-direction of: Geneviève Cresson (Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Lille 1) and Jacques Rodriguez (Professor of Sociology, Lille 3)

Defended publicly on November 28, 2017

Jury: Pierre-Yves Baudot (rapporteur), Professor of Political Science, University of Amiens; Virginie de Luca Barrusse (rapporteur), Professor of Demography, Paris I; Lilian Mathieu, Director of Research CNRS, ENS Lyon; Isabelle Ville, Director of Research, INSERM

This thesis examines the way in which a new French public problem emerged a few years ago, that of sexual assistance to people with disabilities. My thesis is based on this new configuration. From an investigation conducted during my master’s degree and dealing with the management of physical stigma in the marriage market of highly dependent motor disabled people, I realised the importance of the debates around sexual assistance: almost all of my interviewees had heard about it, and they all had a very clear opinion: most of them saw a risk in it, that of considering all disabled people as sexually assisted, which could harm their ‘reputation’.

The French social sciences lag far behind our American and British colleagues in their understanding of the issue of ‘disability and sexuality’. The development of disability studies since the 1980s has allowed for the emergence of a social model of the theme of ‘sexuality of people with disabilities’ with reflections, for example, on the place of cultural models, sexuality education, the intersection with other social movements, or rather globally on what the validism of our societies implies about the sexuality of people with disabilities. At the same time, France seems to have remained stuck in a medical model of the ‘disability and sexuality’ issue.


To implement this research program, I rely on a diverse body of material that can be broken down into two main categories. Firstly, paper, or digital documents: my corpus is made up of discourses on the sexuality of people with disabilities from the end of the 19th century to the present day. The corpus is vast, and made up of various documents: hygiene magazines, popular literature, grey literature, symposium proceedings, charm magazines, sexology books, magazines specialised in disability, etc. The founding document of the corpus is the magazine Faire Face, the magazine financed by the Association des Paralysés de France. It was chosen because of the central role played by the association in the field of French disability, but also because of the magazine’s longevity (published from the 1930 to the present day). In addition to all these documents, we also consulted the Internet sites of sexual assistance structures, as well as classified ad sites, and we observed social networks.

Second type of material: interviews and observations. I conducted, between 2011 and 2017, 12 observations and 21 interviews. The interviews were with people who have taken a public position on the issue of ‘disability and sexuality’ since the 1980 in France and Switzerland. If the corpus of speeches was easily constituted, through forays into archives and libraries, I had more difficulties for the interviews and observations. There were several reasons for this: some of the people I spoke to were unavailable (they are over-solicited between requests for interviews with journalists or for student papers); others were clearly anti-sociological, claiming expertise on sexuality that a young sociology researcher could not have. This difficulty in accessing the field explains the sometimes-heterogeneous nature of the information gathered: as some information was inaccessible to me, I sometimes had to find information in a way other than through interviews or questionnaires, and by reconstructing the experiences of sexual assistants from secondary sources (interviews or grey literature).

Main Results

I am interested in the social construction of the contemporary model of sexual assistance, by looking at the history of the social management of the sexuality of people with disabilities from the end of the 19th century until today. I distinguish four periods. The first period runs from the end of the 19th century to the 1920s, at a time when the question of the quantity and quality of the population was being considered. I show that it is difficult to extract the men designated as disabled from a movement of the valorisation of sexuality (induced in particular by the development of psychoanalysis and sexology). This is especially true at a time when a certain category of cripples, those that I call the noble cripples, begins to acquire rights, notably in the name of the sacrifice of their bodies in favour of the nation. A second time, which begins at the end of the Second World War until the 1960s, with the constitution of the figure of the civil invalid. The associations will start to be interested in the figure of the solitary disabled person, and will try to act on his relational fabric. It is also the moment when a new public problem is constituted, that of the marriage of the disabled, put back on the front of the scene by the Catholic religious authorities, notably following the armed conflicts and the progress of science. Third time, from the 1960s to the mid-1,970s. The time of activism on the love and sexuality of the disabled. I present two opposing figures: that of Jean Adnet, a militant in a situation of Christian disability, who called on the religious authorities to develop the vocation to love the disabled among able-bodied Christian women; on the other hand, very clearly anti-clerical movements, such as the movement for the struggle of the disabled, which tackled the question of ‘disability and sexuality’ head-on in the institutions Finally, the fourth and last time: the moment of risky sexuality.

The second result, which I think is worth highlighting, is that of sexual assistance as a public problem. Before sexual assistance became a public problem in its own right, individuals and then groups had to prove the legitimacy of such an approach: they then followed the fairly classic pattern of the constitution of a public problem, as many sociologists and political scientists, and in particular Joseph Gusfield, have shown. Several stages mark the constitution of sexual assistance as a public problem. It is the case of the narration of the situations, or the way in which the collectives give a report of sense to the sexual assistance, which will affect thereafter the report of force. Sexual assistance is at the beginning the experience of actors in a situation of disability, men, almost ordinary people who express a disorder: not being able to have sexual activity, while everything seems to push them to do it. Sexual assistance is also an enterprise of a demonstration of the seriousness of the problem: one then attends a massive recourse to science, which is expressed for example the use within the colloquiums, the training or the publications of the writings of sexology, psychology, law, or to a lesser extent of sociology. The idea is then to say that assistance is not just a point of view, something that would defend the situation of a single individual, but a more global phenomenon of society. This is why these structures and collectives seek at all costs to produce numerical indicators, such as surveys, and insist on their status as knowledge producers. However, the use of scientific knowledge and figures is paradoxical in the sense that there is a selection of this knowledge, those that do not correspond to the ideals of the cause being put aside.

Finally, the third type of result: about the functioning of sexual assistance. As well as being a cause, sexual assistance is an activity. I describe, in my thesis, how one becomes a sexual assistant in France today. Several ways are possible: those who are trained by the so-called legitimate structures, or those who self-declare themselves as sexual assistants. The focus is on the so-called legitimate training courses, on their content and on the profile of those who practise it, even if the sexual assistance entrepreneurs deny it, sexual assistance has everything from a side job (F. Weber). It is so by definition, since the structures require another source of remuneration. ‘You cannot make a living from sexual assistance,’ trainers insist. I distinguish between two types of sex workers: those I call sex workers; and body and mind workers. This leads to a real division of labour in sexual assistance. Finally, even if the entrepreneurs of the sexual assistance cause defend themselves, sexual assistance remains mainly an activity of assistance of able-bodied women to men with disabilities.

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