Article part of a serie published on www.scarleteen.com on July 28, 2017.
When we talk about disabled people having awesome sex lives, sometimes something dehumanizing creeps into the mix: Some (usually nondisabled) people profess an “attraction to disability.” What they mean is they find disabled bodies — not disabled people — sexually stimulating. That means seeing your body as a sexualobject. If that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you’re not alone.
Some refer to it as a fetish, others as an attraction, and some call themselves “devotees.” Devotees say they find disability a big sexual turn-on, and while there are lots of different versions of this particular phenomenon, the community is especially active around amputees, wheelchair users, and people who wear braces or use crutches. This can also manifest in the form of attraction to or obsession with people dealing with mental health conditions.
There’s probably a lot going on psychologically behind devotees, but this isn’t for or about them. We’re interested in the cultural implications of treating members of the disability community like things. This is for and about those of us who are disabled.
People aren’t objects. And yet, objectification — the degrading practice of treating people like things instead of whole human beings — is a very common experience for people in marginalized social groups. You may have heard people talking about how the way we treat women is “objectifying,” for example.
Some devotees are interested in people with physical impairments that may require mobility aids or accessibility tools, including wheelchairs, braces, canes, walkers, and other equipment. Others are more interested in a psychological element — for example, they may romanticize depression, and like the idea of “rescuing” someone with a mental illness or intervening in treatment for drug addiction. Among devotees who do fixate on mental health conditions, some may say they know what’s best for someone and become very controlling, pushing people to drop out of counseling or stop taking medication.
We’re attracted to people — and they to us — for all kinds of different reasons, like their minds, what they look like, and the things they do. Attraction is that thing that starts your heart pumping a little faster, has you feeling a little dizzy and giddy, and can make life feel like a roller coaster when the person you’re interested in is around.
But having someone attracted to you solely on the basis of an identity trait outside your control — like race or disability — usually feels deeply dehumanizing. Just like it will often feel gross to hear people talk about wanting to date a person because they have big breasts, or make explicit comments about Black men’s penises, it will usually feel gross to have someone attracted to you only or primarily because you walk with a cane.
There’s another thing about devotee culture that’s dangerous, too. It also tends to perpetuate myths that “no one else” would ever be interested in dating you by implying your disability is necessarily singular, pervy and weird, and that’s both false and not good.
Throughout your life, people are going to be attracted to you because you’re their jam in a bunch of different ways. Maybe you’re gorgeous, or funny, or smart, or adventurous, or super knowledgeable about something, or kind, or dedicated…everyone has that special combination of traits that gets them going.
Your disability is part of who you are. It’s not the only thing about you, not by a serious long shot. Just as you would be suspicious of anyone who says they’re attracted to you “in spite of” your disability, it’s reasonable to be wary of people who say they think you’re the bee’s knees because of your disability, unless they’re talking about in the sense of who you are as a whole person.
Think about the difference between: “I’m so happy I started dating Lakshmi, her disability activism and drive make me work to be a better person, she’s so pretty and funny, and she makes amazing roti!” and “I’m so happy I started dating Lakshmi, it’s so hot when I see her on the sidewalk with her wheelchair.”
It’s often pretty easy to identify a devotee, because many people are quite open and loud about their interest. However, some devotees like to prey on disabled people, especially young people who may not be as familiar with the ways of the world, or might not have a lot of relationship experience. As you probably already know, being disabled is one thing that can make you more vulnerable to abuse and abusive people in general. It can also be harder to spot the alarm bells when you’re still super new to this whole dating and relationships thing!
- Express a sexual attraction to your disability and/or your mobility devices
- Take/ask for pictures of you using mobility devices
- Talk about you primarily in the context of your disability
- Express a lack of interest in everything else about you
- Ask you to perform disability-related tasks for them to watch, like transferring in and out of your chair, adjusting your braces, changing catheters or colostomy bags, and similar activities
- Ask a lot of invasive questions about your disability and how it affects your daily life
- Push you to stop using necessary medication or equipment
- Undermine your health care providers, saying they “know what’s best” or suggesting they can take charge of your treatment
- Romanticize your mental health condition
- Attempt to make you economically or otherwise dependent on them
Many local disability communities also tend to keep track of known devotees in the area, so if someone is making you uneasy, ask around.
You deserve to date people who are into you for you, not your disabilities; who see you as a person, not an object. Some disabled people do date within the devotee community and say they feel happy, fulfilled, and healthy doing it. As an autonomous human, you get to make your own choices about the dating partners you’re comfortable with and whether you’re open to dating devotees. But whether you are or aren’t comfortable with it, people should be open about the nature of their interest in you, and respectful of your boundaries — including the right to say, “No thanks, I’ll wait for a partner who’s into me for who I am, not for my disability.”