Last week, BBC3 showed a documentary, Meet the Devotees (on youtube for non-UK types). I, of course, got excited, but I’ve held off watching it because I’ve been: a) on thesis-writing deadline lockdown; b) enjoying a fibro-flare and thus trying to rest. I’m really bad at resting, resting is boring, and so is being too tired to function. So I watched it. I’m going to talk about the programme itself shortly, but first, for those of you wondering what the bloody hell I’m on about, a brief guide:
What is a devotee?
Devotees are people who have a sexual fetish for disability, usually in that they desire a visibly disabled body, and they get turned on by the scenario of having sex (or some other form of erotic/eroticised contact) with a disabled person. Devotees can be of any gender, any sexuality, and they can have very specific fetishes, or more general ones. Some devotees are turned on by the accoutrements of disability, particularly the medical aspect – devoteeism sometimes overlaps with medical play.
What is a fetish?
In this context, a fetish is a sexual desire “in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object” (OED, 2016) – in other words, the object or act is needed for the person to achieve erotic pleasure. The other meaning of fetish is a superstitious object (so a voodoo doll might be more properly called a fetish doll). But to unpick fetishes for a moment – fetishes are only identified when either the object/act in particular is “abnormal” (e.g. shoes, restraint, catheters), or the degree of desire is “abnormal” – so, to be a little simplistic: Person thinks red high heels are sexy: normal; Person can only reach orgasm while wearing red high heels: abnormal. We categorise certain things as fetishes, but not others – Person can only reach orgasm when their genitals are touched: normal; Person can only reach orgasm when they’re tied down: abnormal.
This rather obviously leaves a bit of room for interpretation, but in general, fetishes are only identified as such if they involve objects (aside from sex toys) or particular bodies that are already identified as abnormal. When I say bodies that are already identified as abnormal, I mean fat people or disabled people – or, arguably, children, but I want to put paedophilia in it’s own little box marked “no” for this blog, along with bestiality and zoophilia, because non-consensual sex is a whole other thing in so very many ways. The abnormal bodies I’m talking about are ones that people are not “supposed” to find sexy, or are supposed to be asexual.
So, back to devotees
In case you were wondering – this doesn’t mean that anyone who has a sexual relationship with a disabled person is a devotee. Devotees tend to be seen as “weird,” for a variety of reasons. First: they are sexually attracted to “abnormal bodies”. Second: they have assigned a sexual meaning to something that “most people” would see as asexual – a body part, object, need, or behaviour that is associated with disability, which is seen as asexual. If the devotee’s fetish is associated with caring, needs, or struggle – then this quite often comes into a third area; they are sexually attracted to bodies that are seen as infantile – bodies that need care, bodies that need other bodies to help them, or bodies that can’t do certain things. Then, finally, we have the fact that devotees are tarred with the label of “kinky” – they’re in the area of non-normative sexualities..
From the point of view of disabled people (although: not all disabled people), devotees are problematic for other reasons; firstly, because they are objectifying a person, and that can be uncomfortable for lots of reasons. Ableism already objectifies disabled people, turning them into objects of pity or care; on top of that, most fetishes are associated with objects (e.g. shoes) – and nobody wants to be a thing. This objectification can lead to the second reason: some devotees not being overly concerned about consent – in that if they haven’t declared they’re getting off on a body part, or a behaviour, and asked if you’re ok with that – and that’s not ok. This is obviously exacerbated by rape culture (which situates all objects of desire as being willing because they are desirable), and by ableism, which says that disabled people are either objects (and therefore incapable of consenting anyway), or unattractive and therefore so desperate for sexual attention that they’ll take whatever. Then, of course, there is the issue where a person is turned on by something that the disabled person doesn’t consider sexy at all – and may even find repulsive. There may be some internalised ableism here, or it it might be because they don’t find that body part or activity sexy. And finally – they don’t want to be associated with kink, because eww.
What this all boils down to is a complicated situation with multiple conflicting views. Which is an excellent point for an half-hour documentary!
Meet the Devotees
I liked it, overall. It was balanced, and nuanced, especially considering it was half an hour long. It didn’t go into some of the issues I wanted it to, but it tried to show both sides. I scribbled notes as I watched, so the following thoughts are (sort of) in order.
Porn: I’ve run across Leah Caprice (aka Paraprincess) before – she’s a disabled porn performer and sex worker. In previous research I did (unpublished; for my masters – into acquired disability and queer identity), some of her videos were mentioned by a participant because they liked seeing a disabled person being sexy, and they felt seeing her doing something sexual/erotic normalised disabled people as sexual people. While she quite clearly thinks those who buy videos and images of her doing everyday things are a bit weird, she’s also happy enough to make these videos. That said, the discussion about porn performance and “non-sexual” acts – particularly “watching the struggle,” “floppy feet,” and so on – is a little uncomfortable. Because dropping stuff isn’t sexy, nor is falling over or going down the stairs on my bum – at least not to me, and I don’t think it’s particularly sexy for Leah either. A lot of people probably wouldn’t find it sexy, but we have culturally constructed notions of what sexy looks like, and just because it isn’t normally sexy, doesn’t mean it can’t be. We have yiffing and splosh and hundreds of other things that I don’t find sexy at all, but other people do. I think this is a case of YKINMKATO (Your Kink Is Not My Kink and That’s Okay) – to be honest, as long as everyone involved is ok with it, I’m not going to object. Leah has the right to choose what she does with her body, including using her body to make money through other people’s sexual gratification.
The definite dark side: this is where I get uncomfortable and a bit angry, but probably not entirely for the reasons you’d think. Charlotte Fielder’s non-sexual photo had been lifted off one website and uploaded onto a devotee porn site – and this is not ok, and her anger and upset is understandable. However, this was presented as though it is something that only happens to visibly disabled people, and is particularly disturbing when it happens to disabled people. But it isn’t. Charlotte is understandably angry over people covertly taking her picture – and those of other disabled people – but this isn’t just something that happens for other people’s sexual jollies. We regularly see clickbait articles about non-disabled people doing kind things for disabled people, and the pictures or videos are often taken and shared without the consent of the disabled person involved (but often involving a quote from the non-disabled “hero”). What Charlotte’s experience shows is a mixture of objectification and a lack of consent – the objectification of disabled people, and a denial of our right to give consent. The focus, however, was on the sexual objectification, but not the lack of consent. The lack of consent is everything here.
Being objectified without your consent is of course going to result in emotional damage. But the culture that condones this behaviour – taking images of people without their consent, for an audience’s gratification – is rooted in ableism and misogyny, in a culture that treats women and disabled people as less that capable, and less than deserving. In some ways, because the people being hurt/objectified/preyed on are disabled we see it as worse – because ableist culture says we need protection (for our own good!), and are also not sexual beings (unlike non-disabled women, who are of course there as decorative scaffolding for their genitals). Charlotte compares it to paedophillia, and in this case, she’s not wrong – it’s predatory behaviour, and despicable and horrible. But this also means disabled people are childlike, and I’m uncomfortable with that – it’s like saying all porn encourages rape, or all kink encourages abuse. Devoteeism is not that simple – and I’d like to have seen this highlighted, or Charlotte’s simplistic portrayal of it challenged.
Negative experiences of devoteeism: the cause of these experiences are creepy devotees being creepy and horrible. That’s undeniable. However, their devoteeism itself is not the cause of them being creepy – their behaviour would still be awful no matter who they were creeping on. And their behaviour may stem from a lack of discussion in wider culture about consent, good relationships, and treating other people like human beings worthy of respect (it may not, and they might just be dickheads) – as well as from a culture with fairly narrow rules about what is and isn’t sexual. The problem of creepy devotees is twisted and arguably confused by the issue of disability – which is not to say it isn’t awful and bad, but that it is a deeper and wider problem. This is behaviour we see elsewhere – catfishing, revenge porn, fake online dating profiles, ghosting, fuckboys on tinder … the list goes on. “I want to suck on your residual limb” is a variant on the unsolicited dickpic, the upskirt photo, or the tube groper.
This is my issue with Michael First, a professor of clinical psychiatry, who also happens to be Editor of the DSM-IV Text Revision (the DSM is the standard classification of mental illnesses) – one which classed fetishes or an interest in BDSM as a mental disorder, regardless of whether everyone involved was a consenting adult. He divides interest in disability into an orientation or fetish, saying that a fetish has the potential t be harmful, and “can interfere with the ability to develop mutual caring relationships” – which is only true because we don’t talk about consent or sexuality beyond the very normative. Kink can occur within mutual caring relationships, and if kink includes fetishes – then surely devoteeism can be a part of a caring relationship, provided it is mutually consented to. Consent is the key part. And of course if professionals in positions of power situate fetishes outside of normal relationships, they will be pushed under the carpet, hidden away – and thus they will cause harm because of course people don’t want to consent to something they think is weird.
Emily’s Video: Emily Yates, going slightly gonzo here, makes a video aimed at devotee viewers as a part of the programme – however, one of the videos that depicts a visibly disabled person going about their everyday business, albeit doing something physically difficult or awkward. Not what would be more easily recognised as porn – Emily doesn’t get naked or do anything normatively erotic. Some of the proposals made by the devotee community she’s been talking to ask for upset Emily a little (perhaps a lot) – and understandably so. Because what they’re asking for is not her doing something she finds physically easy or straightforward – but something awkward. Essentially, they are asking her to degrade herself for their pleasure – which, if we take an approach from the wider kink community, is only ok if the person degrading themselves is okay with what they’re doing, and aware that what they’re doing is both degrading and getting someone else off. Consent is key.
The Devotees: Emily – and by extension, her audience – meet several self-identified devotees, some of whom are willing to talk online, and others who willingly meet face-to-face. The man’s identity is disguised, but he doesn’t strike me as particularly creepy. When he says “a leg brace or a wheelchair is like a party dress,” it’s a little odd at first – but that’s because I, like everyone else, is not culturally conditioned to think of mobility aids as sexy. I’ll admit, my bar for weird is probably quite high, but Emily doesn’t seem phased either. The woman, Ruth Madison, is a public devotee, and I find her Sims devotee porn weirder than anything – but YKINMKATO, and just like cultural constructions say mobility aids aren’t sexy, it also says porn should involve flesh-and-blood performers and not pixels. Ruth is no more awkward or creepy than your average person when asked to explain their sex lives – because we don’t have the cultural scaffolding to talk about this stuff – and her talking about her earliest experiences sound a lot like kink practitioners talking about their kink. She admits she likes the accoutrements of disability – but she also wants her partner to be into her being turned on by her fetish. It’s ok for them not to be devotees themselves, but they have to be ok with (if not actually excited by) her devoteeism – consent is key.
Just like Emily making her video – if lipstick and a nice bra is getting you in the mood, and you being you in a wheelchair is getting them in the mood, and you both know what’s getting the other person in the mood, that’s ok. It’s also ok to take your clothes off for money, or take a bath in custard for money, knowing other people are going to get off on it. It’s ok to be into wheelchairs or naked people (in custard or not) provided everyone involved knows what’s going on.
Creepy and predatory devotees are a problem. Any and all creepy, predatory behaviour is a problem. Creepy, predatory behaviour doesn’t respect consent – doesn’t even consider it – regardless of whether the target is disabled or not.
Ultimately, the documentary didn’t make enough of two things: the need for communication and consent in our relationships, and the cultural construction of what constitutes “normal” sexual behaviour. Both of these underpin why devoteeism is seen as “bad” or “weird”, and why disabled people are often uncomfortable with devoteeism and devotees. It’s something that needs more discussion about, from all sides.