Amputee Attraction: Devotees and the Amputee World

This article is of interest to the leg-brace devotee community as many of the comments made about amputee attraction apply equally to leg-brace attraction. Substitute the word "amputee" for "leg-brace" or "leg-brace user" and I think you will agree.

 

Reprinted by kind permission of the Amputee Coalition of America,
inMotion magazine, Volume  12., Issue  3 ( 2002).


Type the word "amputee" into any Internet search engine and you will find a mass of Web sites. Unsurprisingly, most of these sites detail support groups, sports teams and merchandise for the amputee community. However, what may be surprising is the number of sites dedicated to people who, though not amputees themselves, harbor a fascination for "all things amputee." Web sites such as www.ampulove.com and www.overground.be facilitate the interests of three main groups of people, who are known on the Internet as "devotees," "pretenders," and "wannabes." While the individuals in each of these groups are usually able-bodied themselves, the intensity of their interest in amputees means that they may interact or intersect with the amputee community in dramatic ways. It is, therefore, important that all amputees have some understanding of the interests and characteristics of these amputee enthusiasts.

By far the largest of the three groups, devotees are individuals who are attracted to amputees, generally in a sexual way. Pretenders, or “hobbyists” as they are also known, are able-bodied people who enjoy dressing up as amputees, often going out in public in wheelchairs, on crutches or with braces. Wannabes, the smallest and perhaps the most startling of the three groups, are individuals who wish to become amputees themselves through elective or accidental amputation of a healthy limb or limbs. While each group has a set of distinct practices, characteristics and desires, the groups can overlap, with some devotees also desiring the loss of a limb and some wannabes dressing up as amputees for “practice.”

The various Web sites offer devotees, pretenders and wannabes a plethora of information, with some even acting as a kind of dating agency. But perhaps the most important aspect of these Web sites is that they act as a meeting place, putting the groups in touch with each other and allowing them to exchange information, experiences, photographs and merchandise. In fact, it is by logging onto the Internet that many devotees, wannabes and pretenders reportedly first discover that they are not the only person in the world with a “thing” for amputees.

Another important aim of many of the Web sites is to discourage the feelings of shame apparently prevalent among devotees, pretenders and wannabes and to encourage acceptance and understanding among amputees. This aim is particularly evident in the case of devotees, who are very likely to interact directly with amputees. As the OverGround site explains, many amputees feel less attractive upon losing a limb or limbs, and yet they are initially disgusted that there are individuals who find this impairment attractive. The site states that it intends to communicate with amputees and devotees and to bring them together. Like Grant C. Riddell in his book Amputees and Devotees, devotee sites often implore amputees to become more accepting of devotees’ attraction and to make the most of the opportunity to find people who are specifically attracted to their bodies. However, despite the best efforts of the devotee Web sites and support groups, there is a certain stigma attached to being an amputee devotee. This stigma may in part be due to the psychological profession’s classification of devotees. 

Even though devotees represent by far the majority of those with an interest in amputees and amputation, outside of the Web they are almost unheard of, and there is certainly very little information about them in academic and medical literature. Renowned Johns Hopkins University psychologist John Money, along with Gregg Furth and Russell Jobaris, published the first scholarly article on devotees in 1977. The article, “Apotemnophilia: Two Cases of Self-Demand Amputation as a Paraphilia,” appeared in the Journal of Sex Research and detailed the case histories of two men who sought treatment at the psychohormonal research unit at Johns Hopkins. Both men expressed a sexual attraction to amputees and wished to become amputees themselves. Money termed their erotic obsession for amputated limbs “acrotomophilia” and their desire to become amputees themselves “apotemnophilia.”

Money’s neologisms are interesting because they make a very specific judgment about what is “wrong” with devotees and wannabes. In both cases, Money classifies them as suffering from a kind of mental disorder called a paraphilia. According to the American Psychiatric Association, a paraphilia is a condition that manifests itself through recurrent, intense sexual urges, fantasies or behaviors that involve unusual objects, activities or situations and which causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. Therefore, a paraphilia is by definition a negative condition, and certainly the paraphilia examples of pedophilia, exhibitionism, sexual sadism and sexual masochism listed by the Association in its publication Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders contribute to the idea that the desire is problematic.

Money is not the first person to classify an attraction to amputees as a psychosexual disorder or perversion. Over a hundred years ago Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his book Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) listed an attraction to what he called “bodily defects,” including amputations, in his list of pathological fetishes. Then, in the 1920s Wilhelm Stekel in his book Sexual Aberrations called people with an erotic attraction to amputees sadists and latent homosexuals. Like Money, Krafft-Ebing and Stekel describe devotees in pejorative terms, a description that almost certainly stigmatizes devotees as mentally disordered and possibly even dangerous.

One of the only studies of devotees certainly seems to indicate that many devotees feel anxiety and shame as a result of their desires. In the mid-1970s an organization called “Ampix,” which dealt in amputee stories and photos, mailed questionnaires to its members asking them about their attraction to amputees. The study received just fewer than 200 replies from its almost exclusively male sample. Among other things, the study found that a significant portion of the devotees surveyed had at some time had collections of amputee pictures that they had later destroyed out of guilt and anxiety. However, only 14 percent had sought psychiatric help for their feelings about amputees. 

In addition to the stigma resulting from the mental disorder classification, devotees also have a reputation for engaging in behavior that can be disturbing, and even frightening, to amputees. For some devotees the attraction to amputees appears to become almost an obsession. Devotees have been known to stalk amputees, photograph them without their permission, or proposition them directly for sex. Of a group of 50 devotees surveyed by Lee Nattress, PhD, adjunct professor in the department of social work at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, over 85 percent agreed with the statement, “If I see a female amputee at a shopping mall I will follow her,” and over 57 percent agreed that, “If I see a female amputee in a store I will try to talk to her.” Such behavior can be counterproductive if devotees are actually seeking meaningful personal relations with amputees, and their actions can certainly be threatening to amputees.

It seems clear that many devotees are aware of how their attraction to amputees appears to others, and certainly some devotees act in disturbing or threatening ways. However, it is not so clear whether it is actually correct to say that devotees suffer from a paraphilia and are, therefore, mentally disordered. Very few studies of devotees have been carried out, and the medical and psychological literature on devotees is extremely sparse. A close examination of the American Psychiatric Association’s definition reveals the often-overlooked criterion that to qualify as a paraphilia, the urges in question must cause clinically significant distress or impairment of functioning. It might be said that being sexually attracted to amputees is not in itself a mental disorder. However, if and when the attraction causes the devotee to act in an anti-social, intimidating or even illegal manner it may be more properly said to constitute a paraphilia. In other words, one might argue that a simple attraction to amputees should be considered a sexual preference, like an attraction to blondes, but that an obsessive and compulsive attraction, which interferes with a devotee’s day-to-day life or causes him or her to act in a threatening way toward amputees, can more properly be considered a mental disorder.

Amputees certainly need to be aware of the existence of people who are attracted to them on account of their amputation, and they should bear in mind that for some devotees the attraction is almost uncontrollable. Amputee women, in particular, should expect to be approached by a devotee at some time, and the usual caution regarding encounters with strangers is obviously applicable. However, as with all human sexual interactions, physical attraction could act as a catalyst to a fulfilling union, and it would seem premature to view all devotees as necessarily dangerous. It is not yet clear that devotees, or pretenders, or even wannabes, are paraphiliacs or sufferers of some other mental disorder. Where possible amputees should maintain an open mind, while always being mindful of their own emotional and physical safety.


About the Author

Josephine Johnston is a lawyer who recently completed a Master’s of Bioethics and Health Law through the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her dissertation considered the legal and ethical implications of healthy limb amputations for wannabes. She is currently a research associate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Copyrighted by the Amputee Coalition of America