Documenting the initiative helping disabled people explore sexuality

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Six years ago, Simone Cerio came across a newspaper story that made him sit up and pay attention. Referencing an organisation called LoveGiver, the article was about the practice of sexual assistance in Italy, and its controversy in the context of the law. Sexual assistance is “a holistic practice of massage and erotic stimulation”, says Cerio, one designed to help disabled people develop their sexual identity as well as a sense of their bodies both within the context of a relationship and for themselves alone.

“Sexual assistance is confused with prostitution,” the photographer continues. “But the difference is that there is no penetration or oral sex. It’s very different from prostitution, but there isn’t, so far, a clear way to get this practice legalised.” Cerio started to research the subject, contacted the organisation (whose name he adapted as the title of his resulting project, Love Givers) and was subsequently introduced to both practitioners and clients. His work explores, with startling intimacy, a transformative practice that for many people remains unknown.

One of the most striking images from Love Givers was selected as the winner of the ‘Hidden Worlds’ category in 2019’s Wellcome Photography Prize. It depicts two women lying on a bed together, partially dressed, hands intertwined and heads tilted towards one another. They are Francesca, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy, and Debora, Italy’s first sexual assistant, whose services technically remain illegal under Italian law.

Gabriele Piovano, 27 years old, is affected by spina bifida, a disorder that has forced him into a wheelchair since birth. It is commonly believed that disabled people have no sexual needs and their isolation causes them deep psychological problems. © Simone Cerio

Francesca had found that her relationships were undermined by the emotional impact caused by her condition, but in Debora she found someone with whom she could discuss topics such as sex, masturbation and eroticism; “a special rendezvous aimed to strengthen self-esteem and express sexual energy,” as Cerio puts it.

The project also tells the story of Gabriele, a man living with spina bifida; Cerio’s photographs of him initially seem lonely, the portraits pensive and shadowy, until the point in the narrative when Debora arrives. They greet each other warmly, and his expression is transformed into one of enjoyment and sensory abandon. The third chapter of the work focuses on the perspective of a sexual assistant, Nina, a woman living in Switzerland who works as a prostitute but offers her services exclusively to disabled people. In each case, the relationship between the assistant and their client is manifestly tender and respectful, as is Cerio’s photographic approach.

During the session the tact is stimulated by caresses and massages.

From the outset, the photographer was conscious of the stereotypes and stigmas he was pushing against. Society’s ill-informed assumptions about disability can be cruel: “that disabled people can’t have relationships, or sexual relationships,” Cerio notes of some attitudes he encountered during his initial investigations. “That’s why it was important to cover this story: to make a change in society.”

When Love Givers went on to be selected as a winner in 2019’s Wellcome Photography Prize, the story reached a broader Europe-wide audience. The project was the result of a considerable period of diligent research, and time spent getting to know his subjects. “I covered this story for a year, and so step by step I created relationships. I decided to go back two, three or four times for each story.” Initially, Cerio was shooting video to accompany the work, short interviews with each subject, but he soon decided that photography’s more indirect approach was better suited to cover the story with the delicacy that he intended for it.

“I was very lucky with this project, because the people that I photographed were always open to tell their story,” the photographer says. He was particularly touched by the welcome he received from Gabriele and Francesca’s families, who were supportive of the work from the outset. It had been difficult for these able-bodied parents to understand their children’s experience of their bodies, especially during adolescence, and so organisations like LoveGiver have been able to provide the kind of embodied education the parents were unable to. Hence their openness in telling the story, in the hope it may help others.

Francesca Penno’s mother while helping the daughter to get ready for the session. The role of the parents is very important as they are the first to be aware of the needs of their daughter/son. Parents are often forced to turn to prostitutes as the the sexual assistant job is not yet recognized. © Simone Cerio

Cerio was also especially mindful about avoiding voyeurism while depicting such intimate subject matter. “My priority is always to create trust,” he says. “I tried to focus on the emotional aspect, and not be too explicit.” The result is a body of work that — though it deals with sexuality and approaches a subject matter that many viewers will never have come across — is sensitive and measured, emphasising the inner lives of his subjects rather than the facts of their bodies.

Gabriele, Francesca and Nina were all pleased with the outcome of the work. “They’re enthusiastic, especially because they really appreciated the approach I used to tell their stories, and the intimate way I took the pictures,” Cerio says. Love Givers has received plenty of positive feedback from an audience curious to learn more about the practice, as well as from people who may be able to benefit from sexual assistance directly. Parents of disabled adults have called the photographer to ask for more information, hoping to help their own children by introducing them to this particular therapeutic context.

A moment at the end of the session. © Simone Cerio

Following this reception, Cerio intends to continue the project, as its ramifications reach further than he had anticipated. “Other people connected with the topic still contact me wanting to tell their story,” he says. “A few days ago someone called me wanting to tell the story of his relationship with his girlfriend, who is disabled.” The photographer will continue with his patient, deliberate approach, taking time over each subject, and would eventually like to bring the stories together in a book. He is still in touch with his previous subjects, and the positive effects of the sexual assistance they have received are resoundingly clear. Francesca, for example, is now in a relationship, and is expecting a baby.

The Wellcome Photography Prize is calling for work that will shed light on, and raise awareness about, stories of health, medicine and science.  Each category winner will receive £1,250 and be featured in a London exhibition; the overall winner will receive £15,000. Entry is free and the deadline for submissions is 11:59pm GMT 16 December 2019. Please click here for more information about collaborating with Studio 1854.

Torino. The view from Gabriele’s window. © Simone Cerio