As a person who has lived with a disability for most of her life, Melanie Hawkes hadn't experienced much intimacy.
Diagnosed with a rare condition that caused the paralysis of her legs, Hawkes, now in her 40s, has been in a wheelchair since she was just a toddler.
In a candid interview with the Australian magazine Take 5, Hawkes - from Perth - revealed how a recent health scare led to an epiphany that changed her life for the better.
As a two-year-old, Hawkes was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord, resulting in the paralysis of her legs and limited movement in her arms. Hawkes received her first wheelchair at three, and has been in one ever since.
More than four decades later, at the age of 43, Hawkes had never had a sexual experience. Speaking to Take 5, she said: "Growing up, the only time sex had been mentioned was when my parents warned my three brothers not to get a girl pregnant before marriage. It wasn't like I could sneak out, so they weren't worried about me."
But in 2022, a massage by her support worker awakened a new interest in intimacy she hadn't experienced before. At the time, Hawkes was recovering from a bout of COVID-19 and suffering from a strained neck after nights of sleeping upright to help with her breathing.
That day, her support worker had been giving her a bath when she offered to massage Hawkes' neck to ease the pain.
"She began to massage my neck and back and I loved the feel of her soft hands on my skin. Although it was just a massage, it was the first time I'd been touched so intimately by anyone," Hawkes told Take 5.
Later, the support worker asked Hawkes if she had ever considered hiring a sex worker who tailored their services to people with disabilities.
"'I used to be one', she said. Her confession stunned me," Hawkes continued to Take 5. "The next day, I was working from home and that was all I could think about. I'd liked a guy in uni, but after he was teased about having feelings for me, he kept his distance. After that, I assumed my dream of having a partner someday wouldn't happen, so I busied myself with work and other commitments.
"But experiencing COVID made me realise life was too short… Feeling a thrill, I searched for sex workers online and found an independent escort website.
"I was disappointed most of the men didn't show their faces. If I was paying good money – around [AU]$400 an hour, depending on the experience – I wanted to know what I'd be getting."
While perusing the site, Hawkes came across a photo of a man called Chayse. Unlike the others, his face was on display - and he was "gorgeous", she said. His profile also noted he had experience with clients living with disabilities, an added bonus for Hawkes.
Hawkes sent Chayse a message expressing her interest and just minutes later, received a call.
"He sounded so upbeat and friendly, I instantly felt at ease. We chatted for a while, getting to know each other," she told the outlet.
Chayse suggested beginning with a two-hour massage to create a foundation they could build on. Excited, Hawkes booked an appointment for the following month but was so eager, she ended up moving it forward.
When the day arrived, Hawkes said she was "full of beans" and had purchased "sexy underwear" in preparation for the appointment. She enlisted the help of her support worker to get her ready, before driving her to Chayse's home.
"He was just as handsome in real life. Tracy helped me onto the massage table then left us to it. The two hours flew by," she told the outlet.
"Two weeks later, we met again at my house, as it was better equipped for my needs. We were together for three exhilarating hours."
Now, she and Chayse see each other regularly. Their sessions together have helped to empower Hawkes, she said, adding that she has since found the confidence she needed to "put myself out there".
"[Chayse] has opened me up to a world I'd been missing for so long, and I'm loving every minute," she told Take 5. "I know some people will judge me, but that's easy if you don't have a disability. You don't know what it's like.
"People who matter to me are supportive and this is the happiest I've ever been. My only regret is not doing it sooner. I'm speaking out now, so people with disabilities know there are options for intimacy."