Come As You Are: “This isn’t about sex; it’s about intimacy”

Disability activist Asta Philpot on how his real-life journey to a brothel became the inspiration for new movie Come As You Are

Robrecht Vanden Thoren, Tom Audenaert and Gilles De Schryver in Come As You Are

Robrecht Vanden Thoren, Tom Audenaert and Gilles De Schryver in Come As You Are

Fri, May 31, 2013, 00:00

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: three virginal young chaps set off for a sunny Spanish brothel in the hope of upgrading their sexual status from non-active to active. At first glance, Come As You Are appears to have rolled off the same cherry-popping conveyer belt that gifted us Superbad and the American Pie sequence. But the Belgian co-production – marketed in mainland Europe as Hasta La Vista – isn’t just another summery farce about “getting some”. The three young men at the centre of the comedy are disabled and the film is based on the real-life adventures of Asta Philpot, a disability rights activist.

“It has been an amazing experience,” says Miami-born, Leeds-raised Philpot. “The trip was the subject of a documentary in 2007 and as soon as he saw it, the Belgian producer wanted to make that journey into a feature film. So my family and I have been involved since the very beginning. I was a consultant on disability issues on the production. We went to Malaga for the shoot. And we’re still involved.”

Come As You Are – the crowd-pleasing winner of multiple audience gongs including awards from Karlovy Vary and the European Film Awards – sees paraplegic Philip, visually impaired Jozef and terminally ill Lars – sneak away from their parents and carers so that they can avoid dying as virgins.

Though the film fits neatly into the spot occupied by last year’s The Intouchables, Philpot insists that around 70 per cent of the high-jinx depicted onscreen correspond exactly to his own 2007 vacation with two disabled friends.

That sojourn, however, occurred in consultation with his parents. Wasn’t that a difficult conversation to have and itinerary to plan?

“I can see it might be tricky for a lot of people but for me it wasn’t tricky at all,” says Philpot, who is a descendant of the nineteenth century Irish orator John Philpot Curran. “When you’ve lived with your parents for as long as I have, and when they do so much for you, that relationship is on a completely different level. You tell them everything. They know everything about you and every part of your body. There are no real barriers. And leaving aside the brothel and that our carers and parents were involved, this was a proper lads’ holiday. We went on an amazing trip to Spain together as friends.”

Philpot, 30, was born with arthogryposis, a condition that severely limits the movement in his limbs. A chipper fellow who says he loves his own body and thanks God every time he wakes up, Philpot is the loudest, proudest voice behind intimacy4all.org, a campaign highlighting the issues that come between the disabled and intimate physical contact.

“When you raise this issue, people instantly think of sex,” he sighs. “What a lot of people don’t see – that whatever you want to call the providers; sex workers, sex therapists, prostitutes - they provide an intimate experience for people with disabilities that they can’t get anywhere else. I’ve known people who have gone to prostitutes and sex workers and they don’t even have sex. They hug all the way through the experience. They go just so they can have that piece of normality in their lives that they’ve never experienced before or elsewhere. This isn’t about sex; it’s about intimacy.”

But don’t we have to be careful here lest we end up promoting the exploitation of women in an industry that has not, traditionally, been kind to their gender?

“Absolutely,” he says . “We absolutely need to protect women. It’s important that nobody is going somewhere seedy. The Spanish brothel depicted in the film has maybe 10 women on staff who are specially trained ands sensitive to issues around disability. There’s another establishment in Germany like that. Both would have widened doors and things like that. They don’t need hoists or anything; they’re just aware of certain needs and sensitive to certain things.”

There are, of course, larger issues involved here, says Philpot, who acted as an executive producer on Come As You Are. Maybe there wouldn’t be a need for the disabled to have access to sex professionals if the rest of society was just a little more accepting of difference.

“I see it all the time,” he laughs. “Sometimes people approach me to shake my hand and it’s really funny. They’re almost there – almost – and then they back off, like I’ve stuck a green tongue out at them or something.”

So this is most definitely a campaigning film?

“Yes, absolutely. And it’s a very simple idea. People with disabilities want exactly the same as everybody else. We want to go away with friends on holiday. I want to have a girlfriend and have a relationship. I want to get married. At the end of the day, every human being needs some kind of closeness and contact with another human being.”

He’s right, of course, but one suspects that Come As You Are would never have scored all those audience awards and people’s choice prizes if it weren’t such a potently humorous corrective to the more usual saintly representations of the disabled.

“Oh yeah,” he agrees. “It’s a fun movie and a great mix of things. And it’s so much better than the usual thing of seeing a wheelchair coming along with Coldplay playing in the background.”

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