Pleasure, porn and power: rethinking sex and disability

Exploitation or empowerment? Joel Bedford/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Pleasure, porn and power: rethinking sex and disability

Exploitation or empowerment? Joel Bedford/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Is sexual attraction to curving spines, scarred stumps, leg braces and prostheses any different to finding certain types of breasts, waists, and legs appealing? Devotees don’t think so.

If you don’t know, a (disability) devotee is 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.

In prevailing sexual cultures that reify sexual normalcy, this form of sexual attraction is pathologised as sexual perversion and paraphilia – a state in which a person’s sexual arousal and gratification includes fantasising about something deemed “atypical”, “abnormal” or “extreme”. Examples of this include abasiophilia – an attraction to disability aids such as leg braces, and acrotomophilia – an attraction to amputees.

A documentary on devoteeism, with a disabled presenter, the wonderful Emily Yates, recently aired on the now online-only BBC Three.

As a proud disabled woman who researches the intersections of gender, sexuality and disability as a sociologist, it struck me as I sat watching – at 31 – how seldom I’d ever seen a disabled woman as a presenter or protagonist on television. We so rarely get to see disabled women as thinking, feeling, and acting subjects.

Meet the devotees.

Yates’ confident and interventionist approach – which involved making her own devotee porn as part of her research for the documentary – served to counter common assumptions of disabled women as inherently vulnerable, undesirable and sexless.

Her self-made devotee porn film, in which she filmed herself transferring from her wheelchair to her car (it is not uncommon for devotees to want to see the pragmatics of living with disability), has since had more than 4,000 views, much to the excitement of the Daily Mail.

Such an approach embodied for the audience a woman – a disabled woman – provocatively playing with power, desire and pleasure in ways seldom avowed.

Hopelessly devoted to you

The debates that surround devoteeism as a practice are complicated, and take place both inside and outside of disabled people’s own communities and movements.

Devoteeism is a vehicle that opens up possibilities for rethinking the conventional erotic body at a time when narrowing aesthetic ideals – which very few people embody – are closing it down.

Devoteeism is often only viewed as a sexual fetish – a pleasure taken from the product of niche pornography – rather than a sexual preference, a form of intimacy, or part of a loving relationship. The latter are some of the ways disabled people in my own research have spoken about devoteeism, and of their own experiences with devotees.

Representations of devoteeism often reiterate well-rehearsed “preference or perversion” debates, when in reality devoteeism can be both, neither, and anything in between.

Proponents of devoteeism often argue that it serves to challenge conventional notions of beauty and attractiveness, as common understandings of the impaired body as “abject” and “grotesque” radically shift.

Power and pleasure

But for many, devoteeism is often far more about power than pleasure; a form of exploitation. Disabled people of all genders – but particularly women – can be abused and exploited by devoteeism.

Many devotees enjoy videos of disabled people transferring in and out of wheelchairs. Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

In the documentary we see Yates become upset at the objectification of devoteeism – she questions whether the devotee with whom she is engaging is looking at her or her body, herself or, as she puts it, her “struggle”, the daily tasks she finds hard.

Devotees’ potential arousal at Yates’ “struggle” – marked as a point of shame for her – is degrading. A common thematic across much of mainstream pornography. Maybe, then, this raises broader questions about the limits of pornography, and disability within it?

Disabled people are routinely objectified, made a spectacle of and denied a lack of privacy in their lives; often reduced to object, other and burden. But the visual politics of pornography do not always have to render the subject an object. There are forms of pornography, such as self-directed porn and feminist porn (porn made by self-identifying feminists), which can give the subject much greater control over representation.

Sexual violence?

The documentary touched upon devotees secretly filming disabled people on the street, and stealing their images from social media – which of course, without consent, is sexual violence.

Disabled women already experience sexual violence in greater numbers than disabled men and non-disabled women. They also experience an overwhelming lack of access and support to leave situations of violence – partly because the majority of women’s services and refuges don’t cater to their needs.

But while abuse, exploitation and violence can be a reality for disabled people, these aren’t necessarily behaviours inherent to devoteeism as a practice – as long as full consent is present.

But we must also be mindful that disabled people can exploit and abuse devotees – vulnerability isn’t inherent to, nor the preserve of, disability.

So while devoteeism isn’t for everyone, sexual modes through which disabled people can erotically play with disability – in ways that do not reproduce them as an object – can be progressive.

It might be more helpful then, to consider the ways in which devoteeism, like kink, BDSM, and voyeurism can be safe, consensual, and reciprocal; and acknowledge that together pleasure, power and play are not innately deviant or dangerous, even in the context of disability.

Either way, Yates’ explorations embodied these complex debates in new and interesting ways. She has moved the conversation forward and done so from a perspective that is so often missing – that of disabled women themselves.