Journalist and BBC Three tv-presenter Emily Yates, who signed for the documentary, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. It was a picture of her in that wheelchair posted online that first got her to know about people being attracted to disability, when someone left “Pretty cripple” as a comment. After having recovered from the shock, her journalist’s instincts did the rest. She decided to go and investigate this world.
She went in with an open mind. She didn’t come out with an open mind though, and the why is worth taking to heart for devotees.
Within the context of her project, Emily introduced herself to a community of admirers of her type of disability, announced that she was going to make a video of herself and asked people what they’d want to see her do in that video. She had two reasons for it, one being that she wanted to know exactly what this attraction was about, the other a personal. As she put it herself in an item on this documentary on the BBC website: “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by the idea that there are people out there who would happily love and accept every little bit of me, especially the bits that I’ve always considered flawed.” As her idea moved along, her feelings changed though: “But, as I started to come face to face with people in the devotee community, I felt wary.”
Her wariness also turned to grief, and she found acclaim with a woman she interviewed, a British porn star who contracted paraplegia. It made her look for a different audience rather than stop being a porn star, and her aim as ParaPrincess was to show that girls in a wheelchair can be every bit as feminine, sexy and desirable as any other.
She however soon found out her new audience wasn’t really interested in her sexiness. They didn’t want to see her flash, they wanted to see her shower, get dressed, they wanted to see her struggle with her disability. And she has a point. Much of the video material on disabled women is not explicitly sexual; it’s focussing on the disabled body.
Partly, this is as much a valid point as it’s an open door. Devotees watch videos that trigger their attraction, obviously they do. And their focus is on the disabled body; that’s what they’re attracted to after all. But take a look at any (porn) website dedicated to a specific liking, and you’ll see the same. The porn industry, that of fetish porn in particular, is one of objectifying gratification.
I added partly however, and it’s because the perception on what’s being shown and looked at differs markedly between the woman modeling and the devotee, at least it does whenever the modeling is done for a dedicated audience. Emily Yates put it rather strikingly herself when getting ready to be on her video. She’d dressed up nicely for it, was putting on some make-up, and then she said: “It’s almost a little bit pointless, because I’m doing this for me. They’re not going to be interested in this, they’re going to be interested in this (pointing at her legs).”
Devotees with a genuine interest in the person excluded, this is very much true. However, there’s also a side to this not occurring with other fetishes or likings. The average porn star showing off her boobs doesn’t give a damn about her audience. She flashes, collects the money – happily and with unconcern – and goes on with life.
The disabled model with an aim does not however. If her aim is to be appreciated as ‘sexy despite’, she’s not gonna find the devotee world do that. And a porn star would be terribly naive to not expect viewers of her video to get off on whatever particulars she’s showing to her dedicated audience, for a disabled model this is quite a different matter to realise. Moreover, the porn star had her tits pumped up for the purpose more often than not. And the disabled model never had that choice.
There’s an easy answer to this: if you can’t bear the consequences, don’t do it. It’s true. It’s also too easy. Like everyone, people with a disability too have a right to not be excluded from the sexual domain. And not only are they quite often, the above shows that when they’re not, it’s for the wrong reason. “My disability doesn’t define me,” Emily Yates puts it, “and I’m always shocked at people who think it does.”
The people who most think it does, are the devotees, which was very likely the reason she concluded her journey into the world of devoteeism with: “It’s not for me.”
Along the way, she addressed a few things worth going into though. I must say I didn’t like the way devotees interviewed were shown: with faces blurred and voices distorted to make them unrecognisable. It added a very shady impression to a world that’s – and this she showed very well too – often one of suffering and loneliness. The very good exception here though was Emily interviewing Ruth Madison, a female devotee of paraplegia and related disabilities requiring use of a wheelchair.
Like in her excellent video diary, Ruth hits the nail on the head again, and she does with admirable honesty. Like many of us, she was really young when she first became aware of her devotee feelings, and she describes the moment as:”The one thing I realised immediately was that I couldn’t let anybody know. That there was something really, really horribly wrong about this, and that people would hate me if they knew.” It was the start of years and years of intense secrecy and fear, but Ruth decided to come out. And she does with total honesty, even while sitting opposite Emily interviewing her: “Disability is a real important part of my sex life. I don’t orgasm without it. I can’t.”
Here, Ruth touches something I went into as well, in my Shades of Gray blog: being sincere about your devoteeism doesn’t put you in a different league compared to ‘bad devs’. Not principally. Every devotee is one because of the attraction being sexual. Degrees may vary, but in the end it essentially is sexual, by definition, and Ruth admits it when responding to interview shots of ‘creepy devs’: “I’m not gonna say that they’re different from me. We have the same feelings, we have the same attraction.”
Ruth says it at the end of the documentary. Emily Yates even allows her the very final words, and rightly so: “What we do with it, is the deciding factor between creepy and not creepy.”
I couldn’t have said it any better. People are not will-less. Devotees aren’t either. We can’t help we have these feelings. But being a creep about them is a choice.