Ours is absolutely a story of sex and disability. It’s just not the one you think.
In order to explain, I’m going to have to start way, way back. Back to when I was a little girl. Even then I knew there was something about disability that made me pay attention in a way other people didn’t. I was a little girl who didn’t see the point of the part in the story of Rapunzel where she cries into her prince’s eyes and his sight is restored. I was a little girl who couldn’t understand why everyone at church got so emotional about Jesus healing people all the time. I was a little girl who didn’t really want to go to heaven because it was made quite clear to me that there wouldn’t be any disabled people there.
And I thought that sounded boring and un-beautiful. Not heavenly at all!
I didn’t understand the compulsion of all the grown-ups in my world to try and eradicate disability. I think even back then I knew in my deepest self (without understanding the politics of it at all) that somehow that desire to eradicate came from a view of the world in which disability was “less” and therefore disabled people were “less”. I couldn’t buy into that view. It just wouldn’t lodge inside me at all.
All my favourite stories featured disabled characters. As I grew older my favourite stories morphed from mystery and adventure to romance. But always, always, my very favourites were the romance stories featuring a disabled hero. And, in my mind, and in my young teenage journals, I was starting to develop a dream of myself as the heroine in a similar romance of my own. I was a good Baptist girl, being raised in a deeply fundamentalist home (with “purity culture” very much in full swing), so the only meaning I could possibly make of this unusual “leaning” of mine was that God must have a disabled fellow waiting in the wings for me, and I had been designed as a perfect match for whomever he was. I couldn’t wait to meet him.
But as I grew older shame began to kick in. I realised that what I was feeling when I read my romances or watched my favourite movies was strong and was sexual. And that felt…wrong.
It wasn’t just my evangelical brainwashing that made it feel wrong (although that would almost certainly have been capable of doing the shaming all by itself). There was another layer that made the whole thing feel so terribly repulsive to me. In addition to my romances I was also reading biographies of disabled people and gaining a deeper understanding of the non-romantic aspects of disability. I was reading about their frustrations, their pain, their real difficulties in coming to accept their disabled bodies in a world largely unaccepting and inaccessible to them. But here I was – someone who got turned on by disabled bodies. Bodies that, for many of the people whose stories I was reading, had been a source of immense pain, and even in the most positive of cases, still caused them a whole lot of inconvenience.
What kind of a sicko was I?
So I packed it all away. I got rid of the dreams and my journals and my books and my movies. And despite my childhood dreams of a career where I could work with disabled people, I chose a field of study as far removed from anything to do with disability as I could.
And there, while studying, I met a guy.
He was tall, dark and handsome. He shared a very similar religious background to mine. We had a stack of interests in common. Our personalities complemented each other. He soon became a very good friend. And after a while there was even a little chemistry – not hurt by the fact he was very attracted to me. I liked that. And I liked him. I let my guard down and allowed the chemistry to develop. Which it did. And so, later, when he asked me to marry him I said “yes”.
It was the final nail on the coffin of my weird attraction, I thought: “Till death us do part”. With an able-bodied man.
Except it wasn’t. Our marriage started out, as so many marriages do where “purity culture” forces a couple to have to try to go from 0 to 100, from “sex is sin” to “sex is sanctified” literally overnight, with a lot of sexual problems. I battled vaginismus, which caused immense pain when we tried to have sex. He was confused and under-confident and neither of us knew what to do. And we didn’t know who we could talk to. So we battled on alone. It was a real struggle.
And somewhere in the midst of that struggle I started “collecting” books and movies and TV shows with disabled heroes again. And I discovered something. If I could take that “erotic charge” after I’d secretly binged on a story or a film or TV episode into our bedroom with me, it made things a bit easier for me. And if, while we were making love, I could manoeuvre us into a position where I could, in my imagination, pretend he was disabled, it made things even better. We were finally making love. But I couldn’t admit to him, or even myself, really, what was going on.
Eventually, though, I had to. We were now in the age of the internet, and so I tentatively started doing a little research. I discovered a few things. I found out that attraction to disability was a thing. That people with that attraction called themselves ‘devotees’. Initially I resisted applying the label to myself because most of what I was reading talked about fetishisation of disability, categorised devoteeism as a paraphilia/sexual perversion/sexual deviation, and described extreme behaviours such as stalking and voyeurism – none of which had any bearing on my experience. (These were the days before the DSM-5 finally separated paraphilic disorders from atypical sexual interests). After a while, though, still feeling so desperate to gain some kind of insight into myself that I was willing to wade through some pretty uncomfortable material, I came across a message board for devotees of disabled men and finally started reading stories that sounded more like my own.
The first stirrings of acceptance began. They were infinitesimal, but they were enough so that seven years into our marriage I was finally able to come out as a devotee to my husband.
Rather than the shock and horror I’d expected, my revelation was met with delight by him. He’ll need to speak more on this for himself, but the gist of what he’s told me about how he felt about my revelation, is that he’d been deeply concerned I had very little by way of a sexuality at all, and so the discovery that not only did I have one, but that it was powerful, was a huge relief to him.
For the next twelve years we only played a little with my devoteeism. He asked if he could started watching my shows with me, and when I allowed that we’d both enjoy my “revved up” state in the bedroom afterwards. Sometimes I’d share one of my books with him, and we’d chat about it a bit after he’d read it. I was still carrying immense amounts of shame about my sexuality , though, so even having him be part of it in this small way was very difficult for me. At the same time having someone “in the know” and so accepting was huge. It was a slow process, but over time I was becoming less ashamed.
He was struggling, though. With getting myself “juiced up” for sex being such a labour-intensive exercise, I was not coming to the party sexually nearly as often as he needed, and this libido mismatch between us was causing him some serious distress. A few months after our nineteenth wedding anniversary he confessed to me that if the situation did not change, he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to stay in our marriage.
I was devastated. I honestly didn’t know how it could change. My distress, though, triggered a huge acceleration in spiritual re-direction and growth for me. We’d been moving away from our Christian Evangelical roots for a while by this stage, but suddenly things got real. I began meditating seriously and doing some deep inner work to start healing old childhood wounds. We began listening together to sex positive podcasts. I made small amounts of progress in the libido department. He reassured me that he wasn’t going to do anything rash – he still loved me, he wanted to stay faithful to me, he just knew he wouldn’t be able to keep going forever as we had been.
And he began to plan something special for our 20th wedding anniversary.
It was his revelation to me of those plans that changed everything. He’d booked a tiny, remote cabin in the middle of the Namibian desert for us for four nights. He showed me the website. And my disability radar – always on – noticed the tiny “wheelchair accessible” sign in the corner of the page.
I screwed up all my courage and made a request.
He said yes.
And James and Tamsin’s first ever Sexy Outdoor (Wheelchair) Adventure was conceived.
We found a second-hand fixed-frame chair for sale on a second hand website. It wasn’t super-sexy, but it was the best we could afford at the time. We drove it with us to Namibia, and from the moment we arrived at our cabin and had it assembled, James went into it and into his new, temporary, role as my “paraplegic” lover. (“No cheating no matter how difficult it gets.”)
I had been working purely on instinct from the moment I’d seen that wheelchair-friendly symbol on the website so, to be honest, I had no idea how I would actually respond to seeing him in a chair – to spending time with a “disabled” version of him. I had real worries it would be too intense, too weird, too awkward – that it would trigger more shame than I could deal with.
But it didn’t.
Instead I came alive.
I realise now – three and a bit years later – that those four days were my actual sexual awakening. I had not known myself as a sexual being until then. Even now it’s hard to think back without getting very emotional. The sheer intensity of joy and amazement and exhilaration and lust and desire I was feeling for him was mind-blowing. And he, for the first time, was having to slow me down so he could keep up. (Har!)
We were discovering for ourselves the raw power of role-play in our particular sexual context. And we knew it was going to have to become a consistent and important part of us. Which it has.
It was also on that weekend that we began to play seriously with one of James’s long-held fantasies. Outdoor nude photography was something he’d expressed an interest in before, with me as his model. We’d tried it a couple of times, but I’d been uncomfortable and unsure of myself on those occasions, and he hadn’t really pressed the matter.
My newly-evolved self, though, turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be quite an exhibitionist. And so another element was added to our Sexy Outdoor Adventures – documenting them photographically. James discovered himself to have some candaulistic tendencies to go with my exhibitionist ones and began (with my consent) putting some of his photographs up on social media and here on this blog.
Initially he just posted photos of me. But soon he began posting photos of himself on those accounts. In role. In the chair. I will confess to having had some discomfort about that right from the beginning – there’s a “pretender” aspect to it that made me very uncomfortable – but a combination of things stopped me from insisting we tell the truth right from the beginning. Firstly, I was still far too ashamed of my sexuality to come out publicly. I am very aware devotees are perceived negatively by many disabled people. This is often for good reason. The majority of disabled people’s experiences with devotees seem to be with those who exhibit unhealthy, stalker-like behaviours. The rest of us “healthier” devs tend to remain very closeted. Secondly, I’ll admit I was loving having myself mirrored back to myself as “the lover of a disabled man” in so many of the comments on his posts. I was seeing a reflection (even if not perfectly true) of the person I have dreamed of being for my whole life – and it was exhilarating.
This strange pandemic year, though, has brought new challenges, and has forced a new period of intense spiritual growth – growth that is making it increasingly difficult for me to maintain the incongruity between our real story and the story people are inferring from our posts. And so I have decided, as a way to show love to myself, to show acceptance of myself, and to honour my sexuality the way I now realise it needs to be honoured, that I need to tell this whole story. I know some of our followers will be shocked, disappointed, possibly even hurt. And I regret that. But I also know I need to begin accepting myself unconditionally to fully understand my own worthiness. Coming out like this, even in the face of possible negative reactions by others, is a next step on my journey towards that self-acceptance.
Thank you for reading my story. I know it’s long and complicated and I appreciate your time.
Written with love. For all of us.