The floor to others – Emily Yates

My next interview is with Emily Yates, who presented the BBC3 documentary ‘Meet the devotees‘. Calling her a journalist would not do justice to the many things this young lady does though. Emily is 24, she’s a freelance professional writer who – next to her work for the BBC – works as a travel writer for Lonely Planet, she has her own blog, she’s active in disability awareness training for Enhance the UK and she runs her own business called My Purple Compass, selling mobility and sex aids that “show off just how funky people with a disability are“, as she puts in on the website. Incidentally, or perhaps not, Emily practices what she preaches: this interview was with a woman having purple hair and nose piercings, and the documentary shows she’s got her share of tattoos as well.
On top of that, Emily works as an Accessibility Consultant. Having cerebral palsy and using a wheelchair, she consults organisers of big events on accessibility of services and venues for people with additional needs. A big project she’s currently working on is for the MetroRio Underground System in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, prior to the Olympics and Paralympics to be held there later this year.  She also volunteered for the London Olympics and Paralympics of 2012. It makes Emily a busy person who travels a lot, which explains why it was a bit of a challenge to get this interview scheduled and done. I’ve been after her since her documentary was broadcasted, and only last week was she first available to be interviewed.

This was my first interview done over Skype, which I thought added a lot. Being able to respond to one another directly makes the exchange of thoughts much more vivid, which I greatly enjoyed, and I hope Emily did too. Emily being disabled herself gave her exploration of the world of devoteeism an interesting personal aspect, I think, and it was good to be able to go into that in live questions & answers.

Since the reason to invite her for this interview was the documentary she did, the format of this interview is different. Also, the scope is on devoteeism in general rather than amputee devoteeism. Furthermore, many questions will assume the reader to have already seen the documentary. I’d therefore advise you to watch it if you haven’t yet (link above).

Those of us who saw your documentary know you really journeyed into this world, amongst other things, by joining devotee communities on the internet and asking what they’d like to see in a video of yourself you were going to have made. I’m sure there were other ways to do it, so what made you do the documentary the way you did it?
“Part of it was intended investigative journalism, which I always do as I think it’s vital to get an honest viewpoint, and the subject calls for it, I’d say. The documentary is about a world unknown to many, a world you could call ‘underground’, and it’s still being looked at as some sort of taboo. I also wanted the documentary to be a journey though: the personal perspective – be that mine or that of devotees – always presents different angles, and not adding in a personal perspective would have been a limiting. ‘Talking about’ is never as deep as the actual experience, and I was really anxious to know the world as well as I could.”

So you’d never heard of devotees before?
“Before the response to my Facebook photo as you see in the documentary, I’d never heard of devotees before, no.”

What response did it get you?
“Loads of response! Especially on Twitter but also in many other ways. Most of it was very positive, and I was glad that most people recognised that I really tried to be objective throughout.  There were of course some negative comments too, though.”

About how you pictured the devotee world, I presume?
“Yes, some found we presented it as secretive and creepy.”

I did too.
“I can well imagine you did, and I appreciate that much of it must’ve been tough to watch, but believe me we did try to give an objective picture. I actually did months of research to find characters that would show all angles of devoteeism, but eventually there were only a handful of people willing to feature in the documentary, and it was their choice to appear disguised and with voice distorted, certainly not ours.  My ideal here was to have a blissfully married couple of a disabled person and a devotee in the documentary. I may not have looked at the right places, but I just couldn’t find anyone willing!”

But there was Ruth Madison to make up.
“Oh yes! She was truly great, I thought. And I think she was because she was so open, undisguised, not anonymous. When she heard about my plans for the documentary she insisted she’d be in it, and she definitely wanted to be on camera. Plus I met her in person, which made a big difference as well.”

Is that what explains the big difference between feeling empowered by her, and guys stating their preferences for  your video bringing tears to your eyes? It may have been my perspective, but personally I didn’t think there was a huge difference in what their attraction was about.
“You’re right, there isn’t. But as Ruth said: it’s not what the attraction is about, it’s what you do with it. And she’s open about it, to the world and to her husband – who’s able bodied by the way. She’s also respectful and understanding, and really aiming at creating mutual understanding.
My impressions with other devotees were quite different. Only seeing most of them on screen over Skype didn’t help, I admit, but their wishing to remain disguised and anonymous wasn’t either. I should add though their choice for secrecy also taught me about the loneliness of this: you have to respect individual choice, of course, but to feel compelled to keep feelings like these hidden and secret does have a sad side to it. And of course, to a certain extent, I was distanced from a fair amount of what Ruth was saying as she wasn’t talking about her attraction to and opinions of me.  Regardless of how objective and professional you can be as a journalist, you’re ultimately still a person too, and reading about male devotees wanting to see my spasms and ‘useless legs’ was tough!”

Your documentary concludes with “Not for me”. Was that a final conclusion or one based on that experience?
I’ll be honest with you here, and I hope the documentary also showed this: when about to meet Gray, the male devotee, I felt genuinely excited. I was about to meet someone who’d be attracted to me, including my disability, and no matter your position on devoteeism, that is a huge difference from “You’d be really hot if you weren’t in a wheelchair” and those kind of phrases that many disabled people hear (and are disgusting and desperately need to change, by the way). I think I’m clever, fun and good company, and my disability does not define the person I am. Like everyone else, I like to be found attractive. It’s not vital, but it sure helps, enough to make me really excited for that meeting. So the idea of devoteeism being those men telling me that they’ll take part in the documentary if they can sleep with me afterwards, or at the very least be my carer for 24 hours (which was a conversation I had to have several times) is absolutely not for me. However, if there was someone who loved everything about who I am and just so happened to get quite aroused by my disability too – I have no problem with that.  Again, it’s like Ruth said: it’s not the attraction itself, but how it makes you behave.”

I agree it doesn’t define you as a person. From the perspective of, say, ‘not meeting the culture of the perfect body’ I’d say it does though. Actually, I think that’s where a lot of problems relating to non-acceptance of people with a disability are rooted in.
“I absolutely agree with that, and I think there’s so much that needs to change in our society to improve that for disabled people.  I’ll admit, sometimes I can have a really negative view of my own disability, and that’s not healthy.  It’s lovely that devotees accept disability, but I think there’s a huge difference in accepting it, and then finding it sexually arousing.  Starting a conversation by asking me about things I have difficulty doing is really not what will make me hugely interested in any potential partner. Yet that’s what many devotees do, and it’s not to say I reject them for it, but it’ll never sparkle my interest in them. And I’ve never had the experience, but frankly I think I can be perfectly happy with a guy being attracted to my disability, provided it’d be part of being attracted to who I am, and provided there’d be a genuine understanding of the needs and desires my disability presents me with.  Just like any sexual orientation or fetish, however you want to label devoteeism, there are people who will deal with it in a way that I’ll find acceptable, attractive and empowering, and those who may make me feel objectified and vulnerable.  And I had experiences of both in the documentary.”

‘Para Princess’ also spoke about those experiences.
“Exactly. She put it quite bluntly: “They don’t want to see me flash, they want to see me struggle“, and it was a valid point as it was her experience.  Look at all the videos on the internet. They’re not erotic in a sense I’d call erotic; they totally focus on the disability. I personally fail to see the thrill of watching me transfer, but that’s what many devotees want to see. It sort of makes a point that devotees like to see you do the very things you’d rather not see yourself struggle with. And I have no problem with doing daily tasks that I might find pretty tough at times, but seeing someone derive sexual pleasure from it can be quite hurtful. Plus there’s no connection whatsoever with the things I’d call erotic myself.”

Yet that’s the very essence of what this attraction is about.
“True, but again: it’s what you do with it that counts. I did hear Ruth Madison say she cannot orgasm without thinking of the disability she’s attracted to. That’s quite something, and it touched me. But it touched me because of the way it was expressed.  Ruth was honest, open and not once did she ask me inappropriate or direct questions about my disability, but I spoke to her about it because she made me feel truly comfortable and I felt that I left her house as a friend. Of course there’s a charm in being found attractive, but it’s the way that that attraction is dealt with and expressed that really makes all the difference, and Ruth made that difference for me. That’s why I felt empowered by her.”

So it’s possible to both be blatantly honest about the attraction and be accepted and respected for it?
“I consider Ruth a real friend since my documentary, so the answer would be yes. Attraction to disability is not the issue here: lack of respect and understanding for the needs and desires of people with a disability is. And lack of communication (or inherently direct and inappropriate communication) really doesn’t help.”

There was a lady in your documentary who compared ‘us’ with pedophiles. I found that rather shocking.
“Maybe it was, and I’m not saying I necessarily agree with what she said. On the other hand, it’s her opinion based on her experience, and I’d say that makes it valid. You don’t need to agree with it, but it’s very much an opinion someone got from her own, real experience with devotees, who are therefore responsible for having made her think the way she does. And I’m not saying they’re all the same, I would say it did hit the nail on the head with respect to how far some devotees are apparently willing to go.”

Maybe it’s the nature of internet being responsible for a lot of wrongness here? It greatly increased opportunities to get in touch, it’s however also very much a world of instant gratification, and one that easily leads to forgetting there’s real people with real feelings behind who you’re approaching?
“Interesting point, and it might very well be true, yes.”

It might also very well be the part of the devotee community most objectifying the attraction, and glorifying the presumed helplessness aspect of disability, the struggle part.
“I can’t really answer that, but it makes sense. It’s also related with the loneliness aspect, I think, and with lack of communication. Only looking at photos and watching videos isn’t exactly real life, and doesn’t enable communication with disabled people, and that’s a shame.  Equally, I can understand how views such as Charlotte’s can prevent ‘well-behaved’ devotees, for lack of a better term, from wanting to get out there and converse! So it’s a tough cycle.  Disabled people absolutely need to be made aware of and educated on devoteeism, both the beauty and the dangers of it, and devotees must truly think about how their actions are affecting their whole community, for better or worse.”

I remember you telling me you were at a conference in France about disability and sexuality. It made me wonder if devoteeism was a topic there?
“I actually proposed it to be one, and I would have loved to present something about the documentary.”

I sort of assumed you had, but you didn’t?
“No. I was told it could be a topic outside conference hours. So basically, it was considered something to be discussed over lunch or dinner, which I thought was a real pity. I’m not saying you should be for devoteeism – or against – but people with a disability should have an opinion on devoteeism. It exists, it relates to everyone with a disability, and so you should be prepared for it.”

Prepared as in?
“Prepared as in not feeling intimidated when you’re being confronted with it. No matter your position on it, not being prepared kind of implicitly puts you in a defensive position, and that’s exactly where people with a disability should not be, especially with respect to topics like devoteeism.”

That conference wouldn’t be the first example of devoteeism being declared off-topic.
“No, and that’s a shame because part of this discussion is about our own societal and sexual acceptance as well. I see parallels with how open discussion and coming out has helped the acceptance of other attractions and minority groups.  Just look at the amazing push there has been for the gay community recently – it’s amazing to see.

In the Netherlands it’s almost considered boring 🙂
“Right! (laughs). But there’s a similar thing on the way with acceptance of, for example, the trans community, and, with honesty, openness and the right attitude, I can see doors opening for devoteeism’.

Meaning you do not see an a priori moral wrongness in feeling attracted to disability?
“The behaviour is the bit that can be wrong, not the attraction as such. Why should it be? If people can find big boobs hot, why not my legs then? There’s one big difference though. A disability makes you inherently more vulnerable, and devotees should realise how closely their attraction relates to that vulnerability. As long as they fail to take that into consideration, mutual understanding is never going to work. I should add though there’s a part for my own feelings about my disability in this as well: this is all very much influenced by how society has made me feel about my disability. 

Seeing two sides of things; I’ve always liked that. Please elaborate?
“I’ll be honest, I’ve always been indirectly taught to focus on everything I can improve about myself to almost ‘make up’ for my disability – does that make sense? Society sees a disabled person as almost being in ‘last place’ before the race has even started, so the more exams you pass, jokes you make and business contacts you manage to get, will hopefully allow people to focus on you as a person, instead of your disability.  I’ve always felt a lot of pressure to excel in other areas of my life, so that my disability doesn’t look like it’s holding me back.  And only recently have I learnt that I really shouldn’t feel the need to prove myself. So knowing that someone finds my disability sexy can actually be really empowering, but not if it becomes so sexualised that everything I’ve worked hard for becomes less important than the fact I’ve got cerebral palsy and am a wheelchair user.”

I find that a very interesting view, and with ‘two sides of things’ in mind again: there’s a parallel for devotees too, I think.
“Do tell!”

In contacts with amputees, I’ve often found myself trying to prove I’m ‘one of the good guys’, while that’s over-emphasising the devotee aspect just like being a bad one. Differently, maybe less annoying, but still the wrong emphasis. If I want my attraction to be empowering to her, I need to make it feel like a self-evident part of what I like and appreciate in that person. So, make sure she has reasons for liking me that are irrespective of the attraction and go from there, making the ‘proving myself’ part of who I am rather than an issue as such.
“Yes, that’s really interesting, and I can definitely see that the argument works in both ways.”

That would just leave one thing then. There’s always an inherently ‘false start’ in contact between admirer and admired. No matter how good my intentions, my reason for approaching an amputee is basically her being one. In my view, that makes it as potentially gross as “Hey, I’m seeing you have nice breasts; let’s chat”. And then there’s her cards being on the table and my hand being hidden: I can see she’s an amputee but she can’t tell I’m a devotee. Once there’s contact established, you can let mutual liking and appreciation decide if there’s going to be more, but is there a good way to take the first hurdle? Not being honest about the attraction seems insincere, being open with it hampers an unladen start.
“Obviously I can only speak from my own point of view, but I think a huge part of it is about education.  Not only should devotees recognise that you can be honest about your attraction from the start, without being too graphic, creepy and pushy about it in terms of the questions you ask and the type of communication you expect.  Disabled people, in my view, also have a duty to become educated about devoteeism and work out what parts of it and which behaviours they are comfortable with, or not. In that respect, there’s an encouragement for a devotee to be honest and open whilst behaving respectfully, and also an opportunity for the disabled person to be as equally open about what suits them.  Immediately, that takes away the predatory situation that I think both parties are scared of, and we can start having some open conversations which will hopefully lead to more for those people who are comfortable with it flourishing.  I know that the ‘big boobs’ debate is totally different really, as there’s a full lifestyle and many other factors that come from disability, but to simplify it to a ridiculous extent: if someone could only talk graphically about my boobs, I wouldn’t give them another minute of my time. But if we got on, had loads in common and a laugh and they had also mentioned that they found my chest attractive, I’d be much more likely to see how the connection would develop.  So really, it’s not about choosing to be honest or not, of course devotees should be honest otherwise that can be predatory and creepy, just as it wouldn’t be acceptable for me to go on a blind date and suddenly say “Oh yeah, my legs don’t work, you don’t mind do you?!” What it is about, for me, is feeling comfortable enough to mention the attraction, but not making that the whole focus of any connection.”

And finally, would you say a thing like my blog makes a good way to try and create more mutual understanding? And I don’t know how much you read of it, but would there be things you’d like to see added or skipped?
“I think anything that promotes further thought of a deeper understanding of an issue is amazing whether you agree with everything that’s written or not, so yes! One thing I’d love to read about is devotees who have non-disabled partners, and how their relationships are negotiated.”

Thank you for this inspiring interview!



One thought on “The floor to others – Emily Yates

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