Podcast: Dating apps and motherhood with Cathy Reay

The Disability Download

This month, we chat to Cathy Reay, also known as @thatsinglemum, about her experiences with dating apps and what needs to be done to challenge some of the ableist views that still exist around about disability and dating.


Erin O’Reilly: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download. The Disability Download is brought to you by pan disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I'm Erin O'Reilly and on this podcast we respond to current topics, share stories, and open up conversations about disability.

Thanks so much for tuning into another episode everyone. So I'm really excited to bring you this month’s episode because I got to catch up with Cathy who many of you may already know as @thatsinglemum on Instagram. Now, a few months ago, Cathy shared a negative experience she’d had while on a popular dating app and it was where another user was disappointingly using disability hate speech on the platform.

Now Cathy raised it with the dating site, but unfortunately, and I guess many people might not find it that surprising, not much was actually done to tackle the behaviour. And this is perhaps all too common, not just on dating sites, but on social media platforms in general. So we really wanted to get Cathy on The Disability Download, not just to talk about that experience, and obviously the experience with her, with the app, and her thoughts on how they kind of dealt with that. But also to talk more generally about dating, sex education, intersectionality and what needs to be done to challenge some of the ableist views that exist around disability and dating. 

Now some of the themes that we discuss around hate speech and vulnerability while dating could be triggering for some listeners.

So Cathy, thanks so much for joining us today. I thought we could start off with an intro to you. So you're a bit of a disability rights activist on social media. So I thought maybe we could start just by talking about how your platform’s kind of evolved overtime.

Cathy: Sure, hi and thank you for having me on. So I started my Instagram a couple of...two and a half years ago, I think, after I broke up with my children's dad, um and I was kind of like in mourning and wallowing and really feeling self indulgent and I was like let me start Instagram where I can talk about how crap men are. I don't know if I can swear [laughs] How bad, how awful men are in heterosexual relationships. And I started talking about that but then kind of as time went on and my account grew, I also started following a lot of people who are disabled who talk about disability, and it was, so much was resonating that they were saying.

And I was uncovering so much of my own kind of experiences and thoughts and trauma and feelings, and I wanted to write about that too. So it kind of, my account kind of morphed into talking actually chiefly about being disabled, and the ableism I've experienced in my life, the ableism that disabled people experience in general. Because that is now much, I mean, it always has been, but it's much more of a kind of something that I go through on a daily basis and will never stop going through. Whereas the breakup with my children’s dad, kind of once I passed the mourning stage, I was like I don't want to talk about this anymore that I'm over it.

So yeah, and I'm not, I don't erm, I know you said when you introduced me that I'm an activist, I wouldn't say that. I would say that I'm a writer, and I share my experiences in the hope that people might take something away from it and or and perhaps more importantly, disabled people might feel a bit seen in the way that I felt seen when I started the account and started following all those people.

Erin: And do you feel like kind of in sort of the last two years that community has really grown as well where more and more people are actually sharing their experiences and having those conversations?

Cathy: Definitely, I think that there is so much to be learned in social media, I think that people kind of bash it and say that you know go read a book, it's much more educational, or it's much more factual. And that might be true in a lot of cases because we are only sharing opinions on social media, we don't have to fact check, we don't have to check for libel or whatever. But we’re...by saying that we're kind of undermining the accessibility of social media, particularly for people with a lot of disabilities that might find it more difficult to just pick up a book, or you know, or to read something that's more academic erm in in the way that it's written.

I think that social media is a great tool for kind of I don't know like sharing everyone's diaries. It's like I find it a bit like a diary. People I follow use it as a bit like a diary as well. It's a bit like oh wow, okay, that's really insightful into your life. Not necessarily the life of all disabled people, or not necessarily the life of all whatever intersectional following but, but yeah, it's just really insightful, and I've learned so much from it, so much.

Erin: Yeah, and I think it’s you know, sharing those personal experiences that get people to listen. Like you can have the facts and the stats, but actually when people are talking about what they've actually experienced, that's the kind of thing...

Cathy: Right, that's what touches people, right? It's what...it moves them in one way or another. It moves them, even if it moves them to think you know, oooh, it it's much more, erm the personalisation of it resonates a lot more, I think.

Erin: And you have talked a bit about dating on the platform. So kind of the one with the chats I wanted to have about today was about an experience that you had on a popular dating platform. Where you experienced hate speech and inappropriate language towards you on the platform, and you actually confronted the provider about that. I was just wondering if you could maybe talk about that experience?

Cathy: Yeah, sure. So I use a dating app, you can visit my profile to find out which one, and this dating app kind of purports itself, positions itself as something... as an app that is safe for marginalised people to use. So obviously I was attracted to it for that reason and it has more of a kind of reputation for being an app that people don't just kind of, or rather, men don't just solicit sex on it.

It's it's more kind of respectful, let's say, in reputation. And yeah, I've been using it on and off for a couple of years and every now and again I get a message from somebody that I match with that is really inappropriate and offensive and I received one a couple of months ago, which is the one you're talking about and it was the most offensive one I've ever received on there. And when I shared that on my Instagram profile, you know a lot of people...that resonate... it touched a lot of people. And then I thought, yeah, actually now I've got this Instagram profile I can, I can reach out to the app because they're more likely to listen. Because brands don't really tend to, they tend to listen a bit more if, if you can influence a lot of people’s minds and views on their on their products.

So they, um, we started speaking over an Instagram DM myself and the brand, and I was really unhappy with the kind of the the way they... Their tone of voice in their DMS was very patronising. They seemed to kind of undermine my experience quite a lot, and eventually I managed to move the conversation to email, although I didn't know the person’s email address, which felt really sneaky like they had a way of replying without revealing their full name or email address. Which felt like they would just like undermine me again and my experience and you know, they're, the whole, the whole experience of talking to them didn't feel like they were on my side or that they wanted to change anything. It just felt like they wanted to keep me quiet.

Anyway it all kind of ended in them sending me a massive bunch of expensive flowers which felt very gaslighty and very kind like silencing behaviour basically. I didn't want flowers. I wanted people like me to know that they weren't gonna, that the app was gonna deal with hate speech if and when it occured. Obviously it does occur and they can't stop it from occurring, but they can deal with those users appropriately after it does occur, right? And that's what they didn't do. And anyway after they sent the flowers, they stopped replying to me.

Erin: You know, like you say, they kind of market themselves as being an inclusive platform where you should feel like you're in a safe space. So what did they kind of give any reason as to why they wouldn't like block the profile or why they wouldn't look into it all?

Cathy: Oh, they just kind of said that they...I don't know how credible this is, but they said that rest assured they had actually blocked it, but they just couldn't tell me that they had actually blocked it for privacy reasons, and I said but, but what you did tell me is that you haven't blocked it. So how is that any less or more private than saying you have blocked it like that doesn't actually make sense. And I think they I think they they played on the fact that there is no way of me knowing whether or not they were telling the truth with all of that, I think.

Erin: So they definitely weren’t practising what they were preaching in terms of....what they were 

Cathy: Yeah, definitely. And when I shared the whole experience cause I've got a highlight on it in my Instagram profile, when I started sharing it, a lot of my followers came to me and were like, hey, I've had a similar experience on this app where they're not necessarily disabled, but they are part of the marginalised group. And, you know a person has behaved really inappropriately or offensively, and it hadn't been dealt with by the app and whenever they contacted the makers of the app, they hadn't received a reply, which again highlights the kind of ickiness of the fact that they only replied to somebody with a profile or a certain following rather than somebody who doesn't have that power of influence.

Erin: Yeah, so it seems like they don't really take you know every individual situation seriously.

Cathy: Yeah, even though they are just of the same severity, they you know, yeah, exactly.

Erin: It's frustrating and and have you had kind of like similar negative experiences on other apps. Is it like quite a common problem across...

Cathy: I do stay with this app because I have had worse experiences on other apps, but have been other apps that are kind of known for being a bit like that, and so I've just kind of given up on them. But yeah, that is it is a rare occurrence that that would happen. Um, but nevertheless it does happen, I guess.

Erin: Yeah, like it shouldn't happen, but if it does happen, it's important there's mechanisms in place so that people can feel confident that it's going to get dealt with and not...

Cathy: For sure

Erin: And that kind of moves me actually on, I guess a bit more, to social media platforms in general cause online hate crime is a rising crime. Something that's like happening all the time. Do you feel that social media platforms are doing enough to kind of intervene and remove users and kind of improve the narrative around what's acceptable on those platforms?

Cathy: No, not at all. I mean if you take Instagram as an example. I haven't, I've received some kind of spiteful, hateful, offensive, ablest messages on there. And reported the profiles only for Instagram to say that they're not doing anything about it or... And I've got a lot of friends who've, who are from different marginalised groups who have had similar experiences and yet repeatedly we’re shown it, not just on Instagram, but on a lot of social media platforms, where we’re repeatedly shown that people that are from those marginalised groups are policed in ways that people who aren't, aren't. And somehow you know, for example, I recently did an ad on my Instagram which was taken down by Instagram for promoting a prohibited item.

It wasn't prohibited at all. It wasn't in their list of prohibited items, and everybody else on the...who'd been on the same ad campaign, none of them were disabled and all of their ads stayed up. And so it feels like that kind of stuff happens all the time and it feels like why are we being targeted, like why are we being watched more than other people who aren't disabled or who aren't from another marginalised group. And yeah, it's kind of wild how that happens.

Erin: Yeah, you kind of see people sharing things where like their images have been deemed offensive or something like that and it's like what's the rationale?

Cathy: Right, there's too much nudity and it's like a fat person or a black person and it will be like ohh it's too much nudity. But then you know, um, celebrities like the Kardashians can basically show themselves entirely nude or whatever you know it doesn't make sense, how that how the algorithms work?

Erin: I think that's just had not enough done to kind of make sure that the platform appears in the right way and that people aren't being discriminated against., but it seems to still be happening a lot.

Cathy: For sure

Erin: Yeah, and you kind of mentioned earlier that on the platform you do talk a lot about ableism and experiences that you've had, and is that something you find as a mother that you experienced kind of often people making generalisations about, about that?

Cathy: About my kids? Or...

Erin: About parenting and myths and misconceptions.

Cathy: Oh right, yeh for sure. Especially when my kids were um, younger when they were like when each of them was like a baby, I would get people like trying to kind of muscle in and help me where I didn't need help physically or because they would see me struggling. But like, and they would think that that's unusual for me, but actually I struggle every time I pick up my kids. It's just normal. Or I look like I am, anyway, and you know a lot of people kind of can't bear the awkward feeling that they feel when they see someone struggling so they muscle in. They try to help and it just makes it a million times worse. So that definitely was something I experienced when they were younger. I remember that really vividly.

I think of being, I mean, I'm going to use the word lucky lightly, but in the sense that people have kind of, I know that there are disabled people, disabled parents, who, whose disability is often called into question in terms of how effectively they can parent. And I've been lucky in the sense that that hasn't happened to my face as much. Um, I'm sure it probably has behind my back, so I have been quite fortunate in that regard. But I think what I found really difficult and again, this was when they were younger when we were constantly in like mum and baby groups and parenting spaces, is like the just the kind of an unintentional, almost exclusion that myself and my kids experienced in all of those spaces. Exclusion in terms of accessibility and how comfortable and how easy it was for us but also just in terms of like being the red herring of the non-disabled white woman, middle class group and not feeling like a part of any of that.

Erin: Has that changed at all overtime or do you still kind of still feel like that is...

Cathy: No. Well I, I started with my eldest, I went to a lot of mother and baby groups. And especially because where we lived I didn't know anyone in the area. And so I thought that would be a good way to meet people. It wasn't. But then with my second I kind of purposely stayed away from them because I recognised how bad they were for my own mental health and I just thought that for me and the baby it would be better for us to just kinda do our own thing and meet up with my friends that I could trust myself being around and not, not come away from the situation feeling harmed. Um, and that just worked out so much better for us, and I don't think anything's changed over that time, but it hasn't been that much time anyway.

Erin: And I guess that kind of feeds into, you know, just so many common myths and misconceptions around kind of disability in dating and sex and relationships and people’s kind of just, erm you know ableism towards that and where that’s kind of built-up overtime. 

Cathy: Yeah.

Erin: Have you found that kind of dealing with stigma and misunderstanding around disability in dating and myths misconceptions around that, that's something you've kind of had to encounter when you've been dating and when you’re  on these online platforms and people kind of...

Cathy: Yeah, I think, I think even, I think it's really difficult for non-disabled people to see disabled people in in motherhood spaces and in dating spaces. Because they don't tend to recognise us as fully human and um, and we so often don't appear in these spaces because we might do things like I did with my second child and hide away from them because they're so violent towards us. And so and so then that's a kind of catch 22, because if we don't appear in them then it's not normalised. But then why should we be the ones to appear in them when they, it feels awful, right?

And so, but when it comes to dating similar, it's like I have, I know a lot of disabled people who just genuinely don't put themselves out there. And, um, I'm not going to speak for disabled people, obviously it's different for everyone, but the, you know, and I've had periods in my life where I haven't put myself out there either, because again, it's you can be met with such erm dehumanisation, that it just drains the life out of you.

And in dating I'm so often seeing, I think mainly because of my size, as something for men to fetishize over. And you know, that's dehumanising on a whole other level. And so putting myself out there into the dating world, I'm constantly subjecting myself to that. And then, it's like even with the men that don't necessarily fetishize me, because I get so much of it, you, you become kinda paranoid that everyone just is thinking of you in the same way. And so it's quite hard for me to feel comfortable with a man and genuinely like he wants to know me for me because that's such a rare occurrence.

Erin: So it must, it must make it quite a challenging experience in that sense. And obviously dating is difficult anyway, especially with the online nature of things....

Cathy: Right.

Erin: So kind of adding that to it, it’s a, it's a challenge. Erm what do you think, you know more people can do to kind of help break down those barriers. Obviously I think you know dating programmes could do a lot more to be more inclusive. I think there’s a lot of work to be done in that space and you know like on social media things are getting talked about more and I think having those open conversations is important, but is there anything else you think needs to be done so that those barriers can kind of come down a bit?

Cathy: Yeah, I mean at the moment I feel like with dating programmes I feel like because, and I'm going to speak specifically to dwarfism here, because I recognise it is so so different across the disabled spectrum, but because people with dwarfism, are seen, especially women with dwarfism, are fetishized so much because we are dehumanised so much in dating.

If we are plonked onto a dating programme, no matter how inclusive they try to be, that will still be the outcome because that is how the world currently sees us. And so what needs to happen is we need to be appearing in more subtle kind of romantic situations or dating situations or sex situations where it's just like we, it's just more normal to see us. You know we need to be, you know a character in Hollyoaks that has a great sex life with somebody or we need to be, you know or we need to be just everywhere we need to be on a on a real life programme, that's nothing to do with our disability.

That's to do with something else, or we need to be on children's TV, of course, we need to be on teenage TV, we need to hear about in the magazine, in teenage magazines we need to hear about people with disabilities who get periods and who fancy boys and get spots. You know, these all need to be so normalised in for in order for people to grow into seeing us on the dating programme and not think that's out of place.

Erin: Yeah, definitely. I think there are starting to be a lot more like disabled actors and actresses in programmes, but it still feels like it's something to be like celebrated. It's like, oh, this like this...

Cathy: Right! 

Erin: This person’s disabled, and it's it's still a novelty where actually it should just be almost like no one even notices if you know what I mean it's just part of, part of it.

Cathy: Yeah, it should just be part of it. And there have been some brilliant examples where it's been, you know it has, they've tried their best to kind of present it in that way. And we just we just need more and more of it, but particularly, I'm going to add in here, we need to see more disabled people of colour as well. Because it's so often white people and the disability movement and like anti-ableism talk and stuff like that it's we just see white people everywhere and that's not that's not representative of our community.

The same for cisgender people with we just see and it's...and again it's flattening the disabled experience because that's just not what everybody experiences and you come away thinking... And I'm, you know, I had years of working for as a journalist for a disability magazine. Um, and I can count the number of black or brown people I interviewed on one hand compared to white people, and even I kind of had that, you know, I'm ashamed to say I had that inner kind of perspective of like, OK, we're disabled people and black people and brown people are black people and brown people, but they're not part of that group.

Like it's all separate, but that's just not true. It's just not true. And to see people in their full humanity, you have to see people. It's really important to see people that meet many intersections in life because, until like, until they are liberated, nobody can be liberated.

Erin: And recognising that intersectionality is so important, you know for people to understand that in terms of like marginalised groups and how that works across different groups, it is really important to have those conversations and awareness.

And erm, going back to what you said about how you want to see this in magazines and books and it, you know, it just become a part of everything. Do you feel like sex education in terms of school could do a lot better in terms of bringing disability into those conversations?

I mean, I think a lot of people will agree, well, I think like when I was at school, sex education was you know really not as good as it could have been. It was quite outdated and you know it really needs to be updated and reflective, but do you think that that could be a way as well of having those conversations and getting people to consider that more?

Cathy: Definitely I mean sex ed when I was at school was really, really limited and it's all from the man's experience and the man's pleasure and then man’s enjoyment. Um, and you know what happens to the man throughout and stuff. And it's like, well, that's obviously still important. Also, what the, what the women experience is important. It's important that we understand what our anatomy is and we’re never taught it, and it's important that we really understand periods beyond the blood, how they can, how they can affect our entire bodies and do affect our entire bodies throughout, throughout the month. From the moment that we get them.

And then also, it's obviously important to share like queer experiences of sex and trans experiences of sex and you know it's important to invite all of these marginalities to the conversation because we all have sex. [laughs] So, um, but yeah, for sure. And sex education could be improved by introducing disability for sure, and it could, you know again, normalise seeing disability. Seeing disabled people as people who can also be sexual.

Erin: 100% yeah. And is there kind of any advice maybe you would give someone that is wanting to date but is maybe kind of you know cautious about the experiences on the apps and kind of how to maybe deal with when there are those difficult conversations, is there anything that you would say about how to approach that, obviously it's different for everyone but...

Cathy: Right, it's different for everyone and it really just depends what you're comfortable with and I would say, you know, lean in to your intuition with that, because my intuition is never wrong. When it comes to dating, it's never been wrong. I can, I can kind of smell a rat in terms of I can, I can weed out the potential matches that would only want one thing from me that I'm not, I'm not currently searching for. No shade to anyone that does.

I can because that that's just because I've been burned right and I've learned through experience and stuff. I think you just, you know, you have to take your time. Alot of men like have tried in the past to kind of rush me and rush different stages of being around me or being in a relationship with me and I've kind of, at certain points I've gone along with it. 

Certain points I've said no, but don't ever be afraid to say no, because if you're not ready yet, in any way, I feel like non-disabled people particularly like really underestimate how vulnerable disabled people have to be to show them, to expose themselves on any scale emotionally, physically, to, to a non-disabled person. Because we're so aware of how hurt we could be in that in that experience.

And how we could be rejected and how painful that could be? And so you know, and I've I've met, I've met people who have said, you know, come on, why you being so shy or why so closed off and I'm like well I just need a bit of time like it's different for me than it is for you. You need to appreciate that and sometimes they go off in huff and sometimes they get it and they say okay then. But would you really want to be with someone that goes off in huff anyway? Like it's good to weed them out that way now.

Erin: Yeah. 

Cathy: And just be honest. Yeah.

Erin: Figure out it early on, then you don't have to waste your time with them.

Cathy: Exactly.

Erin: And it's interesting what you were saying about the vulnerability as well. So obviously in the past few months there's been lots of conversations online about women’s safety and you know texting when you get home and you know those conversations that we've been having, and I think that's another important thing that ties into what you're saying about intersectionality as well and the vulnerability of disabled women in particular. And is that something you that you've kind of been thinking about in relation to kind of recent events as well?

Cathy: No, I think I've been. I don't know if I've been extremely lucky like I have been extremely lucky in terms of my safety when dating. I've never, um, I've had a lot of dating experience, and I've never felt at threat or vulnerable in that in a in a danger sense. And I think you know yeah, that's not the experience for everyone and I've just been very lucky in that regard, but I do think, again, it's like there's an extra layer of vulnerability for disabled people, especially physically disabled people. In terms of, you know, inviting someone home with you or inviting someone to have sex with you.

Because if you are more easily dominated than somebody who is non-disabled or doesn't have the same impairment as you. You know, that's a thing that's scary, because if you want to say no at some point, you want to feel like OK, yeah I, I know I can say no and they will respect it. You don't wanna feel like, oh, I might say no and they might just go ahead anyway so. Yeah, I I definitely think that that's an added layer in terms of inviting someone to bed with you.

Erin: Yeah, and I think those are perhaps conversations that need to be part of sex education and discussions around consent as well.

Cathy: Right, right? Definitely definitely and just like. Yeah, just making people more aware of like normalising the access needs of disabled people but also making space for their vulnerability.

Erin: Well, thank you so much for joining us for this chat. It was really interesting to about your experiences in and get your insight on these topics. I know you mentioned that obviously some of there's more information about what we've talked about on your Instagram, so I'll direct everyone to that in our show notes too. But thank you so much. It's been lovely chatting to you.

Cathy: Thank you.

Erin: So as I just mentioned, I'll pop links to Cathy's Instagram, which is that single mum on our show notes on our Simplecast site, erm, so you can find all the links there, but I thought that's just like a really interesting discussion, not just about you know the importance of driving down hate speech across all social platforms and dating apps, but also just highlighting the work that needs to be done to just challenge ableist views of disability in dating and sex. And you know the important role sex education plays in that as well. 

So thanks again to Cathy for taking the time to share her thoughts with us on this episode. As always, we'd love to know your thoughts too, so please do email feedback and suggestions for future topics or guests that you really want to hear to disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram @LeonardCheshire.

And as always, please do remember to like, share and subscribe to the podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in everyone. Stay safe, until next time, I'm Erin and this has been The Disability Download.