Whenever we are discussing people’s sexual attraction it is necessary to be open minded. People can’t choose what/who they are attracted to and society has a very narrow definition of what is ok to sexually desire. We have to remember that until recently, homosexuality was considered a mental illness.
With this in mind, my intention here isn’t to cast out devotees, rather I want to open up the conversation and raise concerns with practising devoteeism. To desire something does not mean you have to act on it.
What is a devotee?
“Someone who identifies as having a sexual attraction to disability — someone who finds the kinds of bodily difference that impairment can invoke sexually appealing, titillating and desirable.” – Kirsty Liddiard
Often this is focussed on a particular aid such as wheelchairs, canes, splints etc. Indeed, two of the most common types are an attraction to mobility impairments (and the related equipment) and an attraction to missing limbs.
What’s wrong with that?
The disability, it would seem, has to be physical, it has to be visible:
“When we were in bed together I couldn’t see his disability at all so that would sometimes hamper things for me and I’d be looking over to the side at his chair or his cane to keep me going. Disability is a really important part of my sex life. I don’t orgasm without it.” – Meet the Devotees
If that was me, I’d feel like I was being rejected. I would understand very clearly that this woman wasn’t attracted to me, she was with me for my wheelchair. And is that any different to being with someone for their money? Our relationship certainly wouldn’t feel like an equal one. And what would happen if I suddenly got better and didn’t need the wheelchair?
One of my major concerns with devoteeism is the reduction of a person to their wheelchair, leg brace, impairment etc. Obviously not all devotees will do this, having done a bit of reading, there is, as with most things, a spectrum. Some people are however, attracted purely to the aides.
As Emily raises in her BBC documentary, often devotee porn is focused on an everyday, nonsexual, part of being disabled such as transferring from a wheelchair to a car. Indeed, as part of her research, Emily released a self made video of her doing just that which has received thousands of views.
To me, this is sexualising the everyday struggles (or potential struggles) of someone with a disability. Surely this is much more about power or pity than sex? And watching people struggle so you can get off feels pretty degrading…
Devoteeism objectifies disabled people who are already objectified a lot by society as it is. It treats disabled people as things and that can reduce the perceived need for consent – if you are a thing, then it doesn’t matter that you’ve not consented. This doesn’t even consider situations where informed consent is hard to gain eg communication issues. And if the person is not open to you about their devoteeism, can you truly consent?
We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a society which sees a lot of disabled people as asexual and reducing us to our impairment or our aids is further objectification which risks undoing any progress we have made towards being seen as sexual beings. We are more than our wheelchairs, we are people and in my opinion, devoteeism can do a lot of damage to our identities.
If we are told over and over again that we are not sexual, and then someone comes along who is fetishising our disability, we are at risk of seeing that as the only sexual option for us. And this further tips the scales of equality against us. It reinforces the idea of disabled people as helpless, pitiful, in need of care.
As with most things, there are two sides to the story, some disabled women will enjoy the experience and find it empowering but others will be disgusted by it. The issues of awareness and consent are crucial to the outcome and Kirsty Liddiard notes that “Devoteeism can enter abusive territory very quickly”.
I think, for me, as I said at the beginning, the important thing is what you do with your feelings and your attraction. That is the difference between a loving, empowering relationship between a disabled and abled person and a creepy, manipulative, potentially abusive one.
Side note: Stealing pictures
There is a part of the devotee culture (not sure if culture is appropriate but I hope it gets my point across) that is undeniably seedy. Like society in general, there will always be a cross section of morals and ethics. I am referring here to those people who are in the habit of stealing photos, for example from facebook, to be used on devotee porn sites, an act which can only be construed as sexual violence. These photos then receive obscene comments causing further pain, shame etc for the victims.
Another increasing concern is the photographing or filming of disabled people in public who are unaware and unconsenting and who are just going about their life. These images and videos are used as porn and, in a way which has horrible parallels with child abuse, devotees can and do collect and save these images for their sexual pleasure.
Whilst I’m on the subject, the stealing of photos of disabled people is a wider issue, one which Beth raises from her personal experience. Kirsty Liddiard writes more about this in her paper, Liking for Like’s Sake – The Commodification of Disability on Facebook (PDF).
Side question: Everything I came across on devotees was about non-disabled people, are there many or any disabled devotees? I think that’d be an interesting perspective on the subject. If you’re out there and want your views heard, let me know, I’d love to interview you!