Cleaning a peer

The incident

I was working as a “personal assistant” at a centre for children and adolescents with multiple disabilities, impairments or special needs.  My job was to support and aid the people during their daily routines, personal hygiene, entertainment and past-time. The only time that I ever felt overwhelmed by a task I had to perform, was when I had to clean a client who was a seventeen year old male.  I had to wash his behind and also scrub faeces off his erect penis.  This situation where there was someone who was so like me, had become my friend, who liked to watch the same series as I did and had a similar strange type of humour as I did – who could not handle his body in such a basic way, made me struggle.

1. Identities of the actors in the situation


The narrator is 20 years old, a male high-school graduate from a highly educated family background. He has one younger brother. He has lived in different non-European countries as a child, was born in Germany, but spent the largest part of his 20 years in Austria.  He works at a facility for teenagers with multiple impairments and is a trained personal assistant intending to take up academic studies soon.  He has no physical impairments, is a very open-minded and social person and politically active with a leftist orientation.  He identifies as heterosexual but is open to diverse forms of sexuality.  He was not in a committed relationship at the time of the incident.


The person causing the shock is a male Austrian teenager around the age of 17. He is paralysed and intellectually impaired.  He needs of 24/7 care.  During the day, he attends a schooling facility for teenagers with multiple impairments.  He comes from a middle-class family background.

The narrator has been working with the teenager for quite a while.  They have developed a personal relationship and the narrator considers them to be friends.  They are both young males living in Vienna, from educated family backgrounds.  What sets them apart is that the narrator is able-bodied, while the teenager is physically and mentally impaired. The narrator is the care-taker, while the teenager is receiving the care.

2. Context of the situation

The situation took place at a facility for teenagers with multiple impairments that offers care but also training and entertainment.  The narrator was working a usual day, performing his tasks which involved aiding the teenagers with their daily routines.  These tasks included cleaning them and taking care of their toiletry needs. When he was cleaning the teenager, there was nobody else in the room.

3. Emotional reaction

The situation took place at a facility for teenagers with multiple impairments that offers care but also training and entertainment.  The narrator was working a usual day, performing his tasks which involved aiding the teenagers with their daily routines.  These tasks included cleaning them and taking care of their toiletry needs. When he was cleaning the teenager, there was nobody else in the room.

4. Representations, values, norms, ideas, prejudice: The frame of references of the person who experienced the shock

Sexuality for the narrator is not just a bodily function, but something connected to concepts of autonomy and free will.  Becoming the object of a sexual encounter without consent is uncomfortable.

  • One element of the shock points to the taboo of sexuality of disabled persons. Sexuality and disability is a rarely discussed subject in public debate. While there are very specific discussions among disability activists and organisations, on a more general level the topic is stigmatised as something potentially disturbing.


The incident threatened boundaries of professional practice and conceptions of the narrator’s professional self.  Sexuality belongs to the private sphere and is not to be incorporated into professional encounters.  A transgression of these level challenges norms of professional conduct.

  • Adhering to the value of professionalism renders not knowing how to act problematic, since professionals are trained for specific courses of action. They are experts within their specific field. Uncertainty challenges notions of professionalism.
  • Therefore, the incident addresses the limits of professional care and assistance. Whilst cleaning the teenagers is not a problem, touching a sexually aroused body is.  One element might be covered under the taboo of sexual services, which are a very specific type of service, which can be made use of, but constitutes a different professional realm than the one of personal assistance.
  • The narrator became part of a sexual act without consenting to it, thereby transforming the relationship between him and the teenager from a friendly work-relationship where the narrator is aiding the impaired teenager to being an issue of sexual infringement.


Non-autonomy (dependency or compulsion) is experienced as disturbing:

  • The narrator is questioning the teenager’s autonomy in being able to control having an erection. The shock derives specifically from this perception of losing control over bodily functions tied to sexuality. While the narrator had known for a long time that the teenager was not able to regulate his body in the same way he himself did, it became problematic in terms of their relationship when sexuality was concerned.
  • Since it remained unclear to the narrator whether the erection was voluntary, he was uncertain how to react: the taboo of addressing “slips” of the body due to controlling one’s body is tied to Western notions of autonomous self-hood. The person the narrator considers to be a friend is reduced to a slipping body during the incident.


The incident points to self-shock by the narrator, when realising how relating to his friend, the teenager, is fundamentally altered by acknowledging the difference of being able-bodied himself versus his friend being impaired.  His value of being an open-minded person is threatened by experiencing how relating to people at the same level is dependent on specific bodily preconditions.

5. What image emerges from the analysis of point 4 for the other group (neutral slightly negative, very negative, "stigmatized", positive, very positive, real, unreal) etc?

Neutral; helpless; The narrator portrays the teenager as a mere body.

6. Representations, values, norms, prejudice: The frame of references of the person or group that is causing the shock / that caused the shock in the narrator

Since the narrator and the teenager never talked about the incident there is very little information regarding the perspective of the teenager, i.e. whether the erection was intentional, his views on sexuality and his sexual preferences.

In case of intention the teenager might have wanted to exert his agency and demonstrate that he is a sexual being despite being physically impaired, pointing to values of autonomy in relation to the norm of a (non-)functioning body as well as to the taboo of sexuality and disability.

  • He might be demonstrating his independence in light of stereotypes of disabled people he is confronted with.
  • In relation to him being a teenager one could also suspect that he is exploring his sexuality, being curious or adventurous.
  • Since there is little public discussion about disability and sexuality, he might be testing the waters with little guidance on how to act and what to base his actions on.

Maybe he was recognising the specific relationship with the narrator as care-taker, reacting to physical touch from an emotionally close individual, demonstrating empathy.

  • Sexuality is an issue of relationship, friendship, closeness.
  • Where is the line between caring touch and sexual touch to be drawn?
  • The caring relationship symbolises a safe space for the teenager where he does not have to constantly control himself or be subject to strict codes of conduct.

On the other hand, he could also be leaning towards sexuality being primarily a bodily function, arousal being caused by touch.

  • Sexuality is part of life and not something exceptional.
  • The teenager could be challenging that autonomy that should be demonstrated by the body or a specific way of regulating the body.
  • Since bodily functions and products are part of the care taking relationship, there is no staunch orientation towards the public and the private as separate spheres, but a more fluid concept of privacy.
7. Does the situation highlight any problem concerning the professional practice, or in general about the respect of cultural differences in intercultural situations?

Boundaries of assistance / care-taking professionals

  • Training of care-taking professionals: Addressing the topic of sexuality and disability, scrutinising personal views on sexuality and disability and exploring possibilities to deal with and discuss challenges
  • Setting boundaries within professional care relationships: How to react when personal boundaries are crossed?
  • Furthering dialogue between care professionals and professionals in the realm of sexual services to enhance knowledge transfer but also cooperation and referrals.

Definitions of sexuality

  • Facilitating communication about disability and sexuality, challenging taboos concerning non-normative bodies and thereby strengthening the agency of people with disabilities
  • What types of bodies are considered sexual beings?
  • Since disability and sexuality is considered a taboo, there is little sex education for youths who are disabled as well as little recognition of their needs and desires, pointing to a training need for educators and care takers.
  • Stigmatising the sexuality of disabled people contributes to a lack of open communication with possible consequences for care taking relationships – regarding quality of care but also the creation of a comfortable working environment for care taking staff.

Ideal of independent self worth

  • Self-worth in Western societies rests heavily on notions of independence that are tied to your control over a functioning body (normal view).
  • Challenging these norms and exposing how they devalue a broad spectrum of disabled people.