GRENOBLE, France -- In her sexual fantasies, she is a fit and impetuous blonde who dominates her male partners. In real life, she is a virgin who relies on an electric wheelchair, her body touched only by home care aides and medical personnel.
"A disabled person is seen as a child," said the woman in the wheelchair, Laetitia Rebord, 31. "So inevitably, child and sex don't go together." A translator and teacher, she has a genetic spinal muscular atrophy that has left her entirely paralyzed, except for her left thumb and her facial muscles.
Ms. Rebord, who says she feels physical sensation acutely, has looked for sexual relationships through friends of friends and men on dating sites and even with male escorts. But her disability has scared many away, and she says she is now ready to pay for sex in Switzerland or Germany, where so-called sexual surrogates are legal.
Stories like Ms. Rebord's are far from unusual in France, where behind a facade of sexual freedom, disabled people struggle to have a sex life. But their desires are often disregarded, and while prostitution is legal here, soliciting potential clients and serving as an intermediary between prostitutes and clients are not.
The issue of sexual surrogates came up in March, after the National Ethics Committee, which advises the government on health issues, issued a report criticizing the practice as the "unethical use of the human body for commercial purposes." The report, commissioned in 2011, was approved by government officials, including Marie-Arlette Carlotti, a junior minister responsible for issues involving those with disabilities, who called sexual assistance for disabled people "a form of prostitution."
But encouraged in part by the publicity around "The Sessions," a 2012 American movie about the sexual awakening of a disabled man by a sexual surrogate, some legislators and associations of disabled people are demanding the legalization of sexual surrogates.
"Prostitution is a fake debate; the goals are different," said Pascale Ribes, who in 2011 founded the Disabilities and Sexualities Group, an association defending sexual surrogates in France.
"Sexual assistance is about allowing a disabled person who can't access sexuality in a satisfying way to reconnect with the body," Ms. Ribes said.
Her association is lobbying for a change in the law to allow disabled people, their parents, their friends or directors of approved institutions to arrange meetings with sexual surrogates, who typically charge around $130 a session. She speaks of the "sexual distress" of many of France's 1.8 million disabled people of working age, especially women.
Some need sexual assistance to recover their sexual drive after an accident, Ms. Ribes said. Others are disabled couples who need help to "share intimate moments together." Many wish to explore their sexuality to regain self-confidence, she said. Most sexual surrogates are women, Ms. Ribes said, adding that "it is harder for disabled women rather than men to ask for a sexual surrogate."
In France, the rarity of debate over the subject, the laws regulating prostitution and the refusal to legalize sexual surrogates have encouraged illegal practices.
Aminata Gregory, 66, is Dutch. She retired as a supervisor in the construction industry, and she has been performing sexual assistance illegally in France for more than a year. She was trained as a sex therapist in Switzerland, and her work mostly involves massages and erotic games without kisses on the mouth or sex.
"If someone is in a wheelchair, I start in the wheelchair," Ms. Gregory said. "I start playing the game of getting undressed on the wheelchair. It becomes a little like a game."
Ms. Gregory's clients find her through word of mouth. She has about 10 disabled clients in France and charges them through her company in the Netherlands. Her sessions cost about $130 and often take place in her clients' houses. They begin with background checks and discussions about the clients' needs.
"During the session, I can be a friend, the lover, whoever they want," Ms. Gregory said. "They can dream, they can speak, they can ask what they want, and I give them as much as possible."
Ms. Gregory finds France's attitude on sexual assistance intolerant. "In Holland, we have integrity over our body," she said. "In France, the law always decides for the individual, and not in his favor."
On a recent Saturday, Ms. Gregory went to Vedène, in southern France, to meet one of her clients, Daniel Doriguzzi, 49, a town hall employee. Mr. Doriguzzi has a rare genetic disease called Friedreich's ataxia, a condition that is making him gradually lose physical coordination and the ability to speak fluently.
"With a prostitute, there is sex and it's over," said Mr. Doriguzzi, speaking from the veranda of his modest ground-floor apartment. "It lasts for a limited time and nothing else."
With Ms. Gregory, he said, "we put ourselves in a bubble and become a normal couple. We talk to each other. We do whatever we want. We ask each other whatever we want. At the end of the session, we break the bubble."
Sexual surrogates are legal in most countries that allow prostitution, like Switzerland, Germany and Denmark. In Switzerland, several associations offer training for sexual surrogates.
In 2008, Catherine Agthe Diserens, a Swiss-German educator, started a six-month training program with former prostitutes, nurses and physiotherapists. It included classes about disabilities, internships in institutions, collaborations with sex workers and practical courses exploring what Mrs. Agthe Diserens called "body skills."
"It is a totally atypical and extremely specialized training," she said in an interview from her home near Geneva. "It requires a lot of preparation beforehand, and it is extremely intense." She plans to set up a second training session in the fall and bring more prostitutes to train, she said.
In France, offering such training would be unthinkable. For many French feminists, who associate undesired sex with violence, sexual assistance is humiliating both for the woman involved and for disabled people.
"It's like telling disabled people that since they will never have a sex or love life, we'll prescribe them sexual assistance as a palliative," said Anne-Cécile Mailfert, a member of Osez le Féminisme (Dare to be feminist).
For Ms. Mailfert, sexual assistance can also create dangerous emotional dependency between those who practice it and their clients. The central question, she said, is less about sexuality than about teaching medical professionals to understand the sexual needs of disabled people and to help them meet other people.
But many disabled people, including Ms. Rebord, believe that they have a right to sexual assistance, a psychological and physical means to overcome their inhibitions and empower them to find love.
Marcel Nuss, a severely disabled father of two who breathes with an artificial respirator, is the author of "I Want to Make Love." The book describes his personal fulfillment through love with his former wife and a sex life with escorts. His experiences, he said, persuaded him to support the use of sexual surrogates.
"Someone like me can't do anything on his own," said Mr. Nuss, who runs a consulting firm specializing in helping disabled people. "Sex helps the disabled to reincarnate themselves and recover their human aspect."
Ms. Rebord shares Mr. Nuss's optimism and openness about sex. She lives in a tidy, modern apartment, has a decent paycheck, a Facebook account and a taste for "Sons of Anarchy," an American television series featuring a group of tattooed bikers.
She believes that a conservative society like France moves slowly, as it did before finally legalizing abortion. In time, she said, France will legalize sexual surrogates, too, although she was not holding her breath. "I hope," she said with a laugh, "I'll still be alive to see it."
Stefania Rousselle contributed reporting from Vedène, France.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.