“Pretty Cripples” And Devotees- The People Turned On By Disability
After posting a photo of herself online, disabled BBC Three presenter Emily Yates was shocked to receive a message saying “pretty cripple”. It led her to investigate the secret world of “devotees” – those who are sexually aroused by disabled people and their struggles.
It was 2011 and I was living in Melbourne, Australia, when I posted a photo of myself in my wheelchair on Facebook ahead of the university’s annual ball.
Later I saw a few friendly comments had been added from people wishing me a great evening but below that I was shocked to see the words “pretty cripple” posted by a friend in New York.
I was hurt that compliments and negative terms could go hand-in-hand in this way, but was even more offended when I later discovered that, to some, it was the biggest gesture of admiration he could have given me.
After an angry Facebook rant, I found myself being introduced to a community of people who are sexually aroused, and attracted to, disability as friends pointed me towards some websites about people known as devotees.
The websites would become the doorway to discovering some pretty dark stuff but, surprisingly, I found it strangely refreshing at times.
I’m ashamed to say that I often find myself almost apologising for my disability. I have cerebral palsy and, when talking to guys online, I make sure they know I’m a wheelchair user so they have a get-out clause before choosing to meet me.
In a world that constantly tells us anything out of the realms of “normal” is undesirable, 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.
But, as I started to come face to face with people in the devotee community, I felt wary.
One of the first I met was Gray, a husband and father in the USA, who wanted to remain anonymous as even his wife doesn’t know of his interest.
He seemed both confident and lonely – accepting of his “devness” as he calls it, but equally trapped by it.
He told me he thought my legs were “very nice and sexy” and sees leg-braces or wheelchairs in the same way others see party dresses. For him, relationships with disabled women can offer more intimacy than those with able-bodied women.
Gray’s interest in disabled women first emerged at school when a girl with a very short leg and one arm entered his classroom, he says he fell immediately in love: “To me she was obviously the most gorgeous woman in the whole school district.”
As I spoke to him, though, I wondered if his attraction was more about vulnerability and power – things which I didn’t want others to consider when they look at me.
It was through meeting Gray that I discovered some devs are solely attracted to the disabled body, and cannot find sexual gratification with able-bodied partners.
Ruth Madison, an American author who writes fiction about a teenage devotee and her love for a paraplegic man, is open about her devoteeism, which is perhaps why I liked her so much.
She says she was a toddler when she first realised her desire for disabled people but knew she “couldn’t let anyone know”. This led to years of intense secrecy.
When I met Madison she proudly showed me her desk chair – it’s a second-hand wheelchair – and said her feelings are now so intense it impacts her sex life.
People she gets involved with have to be noticeably disabled. One boyfriend she had was paralysed but only had a damaged spinal cord rather than a completely severed one and so had a certain degree of mobility. “He didn’t always use equipment,” she says, “and when we were in bed together I couldn’t really see his disability.
“That would sometimes hamper things for me,” she says, and admits she would have to look at his stick or wheelchair to become aroused.
Meeting Madison and seeing her open and honest attitude empowered me.
Devoteeism finally had a face and a name which invited me into a home, was transparent and much more than an online presence with a disability fetish. It helped make me realise devotees are people too.
But I also came into contact with a section of the devotee community called the “bad devs” – those who enjoy watching someone struggle.
Simply put, this particular fetish focuses on the difficulties someone with a disability might face in their everyday life, such as using stairs.
To find out more about this for myself I decided to make my own “devotee porn” for bad devs.
Strangely, it’s not like the porn you might be thinking of. Imagine the most mundane everyday task acted out by a disabled person. Not worth watching, right? Some devotees couldn’t disagree more.
Putting a call out on social media I asked what my audience wanted to see from me. Their requests came thick and fast. Some said they would love to see me transfer from my bed to my wheelchair with a clear view of my feet and legs and someone else added they hoped I would have a few muscle spasms too. They were very upfront about what they like.
I made a short film of me transferring from my wheelchair to my beloved car, but I almost cried beforehand because I felt so objectified.
If it was a performance and I could look really sexy that could be really fun, but actually what they’re asking me to do is something I do every day and have difficulty with.
While wandering through this world of devoteeism I have come across examples of troubling empowerment and exploitation but, at the same time, I’ve learnt something important and positive.
I met many devotees along the way and some were really genuine, I understood them and liked them.
Essentially what they were saying was, “Why should we exclude anybody when disabled people can be just as beautiful?” But I think there’s also a problem when you fetishise something, that it can hamper you from having feelings for the full person.
Am I here to judge devoteeism? Of course not. In fact, I believe that putting this otherwise hidden subject out in the open will help both devotees and disabled people to find what they are looking for, or what doesn’t interest them.
Do I want to ensure that we all have the knowledge and confidence to make our own sexual decisions, weighing up pros and cons, regardless of ability? Absolutely, and I hope my investigation is just the start of encouraging that conversation to flourish.
If you are interested, you can watch the documentary on BBC Three’s Youtube channel here.