Disability and Delight

Disability and Delight:
Staring Back at the Devotee Community

by Raymond J. Aguilera

From Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 18, No. 4, 2000 who own the copyright. Reproduced here in good faith. Will remove if a problem.


INTRODUCTION

This article is the most recent incarnation of an ongoing research project. While an undergraduate in the English department at the University of California at Berkeley, I set out to examine the nature of sexual attraction to people with disabilities, as well as the responses to that attraction, by using firsthand accounts of both people with disabilities and self-identified "devotees." In addition, I cast a critical eye toward some of the existing scholarship on the subject. My work yielded several surprising questions, including, Does the attention of devotees exploit people with disabilities or does it empower them?

"It is hereby prohibited for any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or deformed in any way so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view."
- City of Chicago ordinance, circa 1911. (1)


INJURED? Leg in a cast? bandaged? On crutches? In neck brace? I can care for you. Good-looking Gay White Professional Male seeks similar who needs my help.
- While it may sound like an ad from a personal assistant, this is a personals ad, published in March, 2000.

Quite a change over the past eight decades . . .

In 1997, I began researching what's known as the devotee community while I was a student at Berkeley. "Devotee" is the self-selected term, which broadly refers to people who are sexually aroused and/or interested in people with disabilities. While the most commonly fetishized group is amputees, there are also devotees fascinated by wheelchairs, crutches, braces, cerebral palsy, and virtually any other subgroup of the disability community you can think of.

Several subgroups exist among devotees, too. Most notable among them are pretenders, (people who pretend, publicly or privately, to be disabled themselves) and wannabes (people who want to become disabled, sometimes resorting to crude methods of self-mutilation in order to achieve the disabled body they desire).

When I began my research, I first turned to disabled colleagues. A few were willing to share their own stories, while others helped steer me in the right direction. The point is, nearly everybody I talked to had at least some insight into the topic, a testament to how widespread it really is.

Diane, whose left leg was amputated above the knee, recounted the first time she noticed attention from a devotee: I was in a bar with some girlfriends. It was a weeknight, so there really wasn't a 'meat market' scene that night. Still, there was this guy who kept staring in my direction. I was still newly disabled, and with my lowered self-esteem, I assumed he was interested in one of my friends. Eventually, he came over and struck up a con-versation with me . . . I kept noticing him looking at my legs . . . Finally I just said "It's a prosthesis. I lost my leg
in an accident." I guess I wanted him to know from the beginning, so that he wouldn't freak out later. Anyway, he asked about the accident, and then I changed the subject. He seemed like a nice guy, but he was so . . . preoccupied. (2)

When it came to finding devotees themselves, however, I began to hit stumbling blocks. Like many sexual fetishists, people who desire a disabled partner tend not to announce their particular persuasion publicly, and San Francisco Sex Information, the wellspring of information on All Things Sex, couldn't provide any help. Testing the theory that anything and everything is available on the Internet, I began to search for leads online. Little did I know that I had hit the jackpot.

The first devotee web site I found was the DragonWorks Devotee WebRing. At the time, it was one of the only collections of devotee web sites, but its depth was impressive. Toward the end of 1997, the DragonWorks ring featured an extensive collection of individual web sites, all focused on devotee material. Pictures, videos, erotic fiction and more than a few personals ads were mainstays of the sites.

I was intrigued by the fact that when I found sites with amputee pornography, the pictures were relatively soft-core, and could, in fact, barely be called pornography at all. By this, I mean that while the pictures and stories appealed to "prurient" interests, they were notably less explicit than mainstream pornography. In fact, the raciest pictures I found would have been entirely appropriate in a lingerie catalog. Nowhere did I find the traditional pornographic images of pouty-lipped women crawling toward the viewer on all fours, or the salacious woman pictured rubbing her thighs.

In the stories too, there seemed to be a surprising lack of actual sex. One story of over thirty pages, single-spaced, included only one scene that contained any sex at all. At first I assumed that this was an anomaly, but other texts available on the various DragonWorks sites followed the same pattern: much background and history of the disabled individual, but relatively few depictions of sexual activity. After familiarizing myself with some of the more accessible websites, I slowly began acclimating myself to the devotee community, and discovering cyberspaces where devotees congregated. Pictorial web sites led me to chat rooms, which in turn led me to connections with individual informants.

Robert, a fifty-one-year-old-devotee, served as one of my first informants. He pointed me to other Internet sources, in addition to magazine-style publications featuring pictures of amputee women. All the material exhibited the same soft-core "Victoria's Secret Catalog" quality. When I asked him why there wasn't sex of a more explicit nature, he claimed, "I like it better that way . . . it leaves a lot to the imagination. If I saw them engaged in sex acts, it would ruin the idea that I have in my head." (3)

Aside from being a source of erotic material, the Internet was also used by the devotee community as a means of making contact with the objects of their desire. Poet and writer Mark O' Brien, the subject of the 1997 Academy Award-winning documentary "Breathing Lessons," offered me valuable insights from his own perspective as an "object of desire." As we sat in Mark's Berkeley apartment one day, he related the story of some fan mail he began receiving shortly after one of his essays was published: "I got an e-mail one day from this woman. She wanted to meet so that we could have sex. She had a thing about quadriplegics . . . She said that she masturbated, moaning my name."

When I asked if he responded to her e-mail, he laughed and said, with a wink and a grin, "No. I could have, I guess. It just seemed . . . really . . . weird."(4) Mark's reaction was hardly unique. In fact, over the course of interviewing more than a dozen disabled people who had firsthand experience with devotees, I found that they all had similar feelings of apprehension. Most of the informants who had had sexual relationships with devotees reported that these relationships were far from the torrid, sex-filled dalliances they had imagined.

Steven, a gay man in his forties, whose left leg was amputated in early childhood, recounted his first experience with a self-identified devotee: It was the late 70's, early 80's, crazy times. This guy had flirted with me for quite some time, and I was in an "anything that moves" stage in life. We got to bed, and he was just absolutely fascinated by my stump. Wanted to touch it and suck on it, and spent a great deal of time rubbing his dick against it. I was sort of into it, only because it seemed strange and new. No one had ever lusted after me because of my body, it was usually in spite of my body. Once I realized that all of this was more than the foreplay I assumed it to be, I quickly got bored with the whole thing. Finally, after about twenty minutes of this nonsense, I looked up at him, and said "Um… so do you want to have sex, or what?" He got pretty embarrassed, and we ended up having unexciting, mechanical sex. I never did call him back. (5)

Armed with some first-hand accounts, from both devotees and disabled people, I became curious to see what my fellow scholars had written on the subject. One of the most prominent pieces I came across was a study by Dr. Richard Bruno, published in the Journal of Sexuality and Disability.(6) While the study itself, a clinically-centered review of "Two cases of Factitious Disability Disorder," remains one of the most widely quoted sources on the topic, I found it's scope severely limited, and pretty far from where the rubber meets the road. In particular, I was concerned with what I take to be a condescending attitude toward both devotees and disabled people.

Dr. Bruno's study characterizes the attraction to disability as a "disorder." Reading between the lines, the implication is that someone who is attracted to a person with a disability must be sick. My initial suspicions about the study were confirmed when I encountered, archived on the Internet, a 1999 radio interview with Dr. Bruno. (7) In the interview, Bruno asserts, when questioned about his motives for the study, that he wanted to make sure that the disabled community was warned of devotees. He characterized devotees as predators. Bruno also went so far as to say that devotees are people that "[the disabled community] should probably run away from."

While sexual predators are one of society's more unsavory groups, the characterization of a particular set of people as predators seems unfair at best, and patronizingly sex-negative at worst, particularly when there is no evidence in the study to support such claims. Bruno's study also fails to take into account the free will of a disabled individual in choosing to form a relationship with a devotee. Instead, he pathologizes the attraction, and thus demeans people with disabilities. Not only are we unattractive, but we also are apparently unable to make our own decisions about our sexual expression, and must be warned by the likes of Dr. Bruno.

In fairness to Dr. Bruno, it bears mentioning that he does make one half-hearted attempt to appease those of us with disabilities who find his tone denigrating. He says, "While it is both odious and unsupportable to imply that people with disabilities will be desirable only to those with a paraphilic attraction, there is evidence that devotee's unique attraction is not particularly useful in bringing—and more importantly keeping—couples together."(6) It is a revealing statement, and in my mind, an unenlightened one, sexually speaking.

Bruno begins by pledging his allegiance to the idea that, quite possibly, there are other people besides devotees who could be attracted to people with disabilities. He then shifts focus to assert that a devotee's attraction is not "particularly useful" since it does not create, nor does it maintain, monogamous couples. Far from this being the feel-good statement that Bruno intended, his proclamation seems to further demean the sexuality of disabled people; if we can't be part of a couple, then the relationship is not "particularly useful." In fact, throughout the written account of the study, one must question not only why Bruno insists on casting devotees in a sinister light, but also how he approaches issues of disability in general.

One popular theory on the origins of devotees' attractions is the idea that devotees feel as if they are disabled, and project these feelings onto others. Of this theory, Dr. Bruno says: " . . . the notion that an apotemnophile (8) is a "disabled person trapped in a nondisabled body" is difficult to justify, there being no 'naturally-occurring' state of disability that would correspond to the two naturally-occurring genders."(6) For my purposes, it is not the fact that Bruno disagrees with this theory that is interesting, but rather the way in which he refutes it.

He is, of course, making reference to transsexuals, who often state that they are born into biological bodies that do not match the genders which they truly feel themselves to be. While Dr. Bruno claims thusly that there are no corresponding "naturally occurring" states of disability, I find this assertion hard to swallow. On the one hand, I can see how he can make his claim. Anyone, at any time, can sustain an injury resulting in a permanent disability. In this way, the categories disabled and nondisabled are hardly the (mostly) static categories that male and female are, from a biological standpoint. Still, I would argue that since many disabilities are caused by genetics and other "non-injury" factors, the birth of disabled babies, and thus the creation of the groups disabled and nondisabled can be in fact just as "naturally occurring" as are differences in gender. The fact that disability status can, and does, change over time has little bearing on the "naturalness" of disability as a state of being. As Mark O'Brien was so fond of saying, " Everyone eventually becomes disabled, unless they die first."[4] How much more natural can you get?

Perhaps the most revealing of Bruno's remarks is his conclusion. Referring to earlier work by another researcher, Bruno states, "Riddle's conclusion-that "part of the answer is that [DPW's](9) need to learn how to love themselves"—contains both the essence of the problem and its potential solution, in Bruno's eyes.(6) Clearly, he has laid all his cards on the table in this one sentence. He does see devotees as a problem. Is it any surprise, then, that he feels the need to warn people with disabilities of their alleged predatory behavior?

In conducting my research, I ran into several patterns in peoples' responses to my work. One of the most often encountered was something along the lines of "those people are oppressing women." In June of 2000, I was in Chicago presenting sections of my paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Disability Studies. In that presentation, I concentrated on the relative explosion of devotee erotica available on the Internet over the last three years. Inevitably, I was approached after my presentation by several people who were of the "porn oppresses women" school of thought. I found these interactions to be particularly interesting, given the content of my presentation. Almost all the web sites and companies I mentioned as purveyors of amputee erotica were owned and/or run by the models themselves, most of whom are women, since by and large, devotees tend to be heterosexual males. (10)

When I started my research, what I found were blurry scanned images from medical texts and low-quality snapshots. Today, there are dozens of web sites selling professional photos, CD ROMs and videos of amputees. Judging by the recent traffic on a devotee e-mail list, the most sought after is a video featuring Playboy's Miss August 1987, Sharry Konopski. She acquired her disability post-Playboy, and has since become the darling of the devotee community. He website announces: "It's here and available now! Paralyzed Playboy Playmate Sharry Konopski has made a video for devotees!! The video is one hour long and is of excellent quality" The promo goes on to note that Sharry does various tasks in different outfits. These include multiple transfers in and out of bed, modeling shoes, nightgown and a bikini, and putting on (and standing in!) a set of Thermoplastic leg-braces.

It is impossible for me to decide for anyone if devotees are "good" or "bad." Reaction by disabled people is mixed, and unfortunately much of the scholarship in this area has unequivocally painted devotees as predators exploiting disabled women. I find this view to be not only patronizing and patriarchal, but also extremely sex-negative. What I attempted to do in my research was to present a more well-rounded view of the devotee phenomenon. I spoke to people with disabilities and their lovers and partners. I spoke with self-identified devotees. I frequented the chat rooms, e-mail lists and websites that many see as the backbone of the "community."

Unfortunately, the question that I get asked most often remains, "Are devotees exploiting people?" Undoubtedly, there are some devotees who might fit this description. Much of the previous scholarship seems to be based on this presumption. My biggest concern is that this view does not take into account the choice that some disabled women and men may make to participate as partner to a devotee, or as a model for a picture or video.

When I began my research, I found only a few companies selling devotee material. Now, a search through Yahoo yields countless sites, many run by the women themselves, selling everything from photos to videos to used crutches. One of the oldest, and most respected, is CD Productions, run by Carol Davis, an amputee.(11) Carol's site features almost two dozen videos at $100 each, as well as photo sets, which sell for $65 each. Is this kind of venture oppressing women, or is it empowering them through capitalism?

While it is impossible to come up with an "answer" to the question of devotees, I think the most salient point to remember is this: while it is undoubtedly true that there might be a few sexual predators preying on disabled people, I hardly think it is the forgone conclusion that Dr. Bruno feels it is. Meanwhile, it may be true that some porn producer is "oppressing" someone right now, as you read this. Does that make porn-as-oppression the rule? Probably not. In the words of Jeff C., a self-proclaimed devotee whom I interviewed, "it's just another physical attribute like any of the more typical that people are permitted to express attraction to."(12)

What do you think?


Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 18, No. 4, 2000.


References

1.) Fries, Kenny, ed: "Staring Back: The Disability Experience From the Inside Out." New York, The Penguin Group, 1997.
2.) C., Diane: Personal Interview. San Francisco, 1997.
3.) E., Robert: Telephone Interview, 1997.
4.) O'Brien, Mark: Personal Interview. Berkeley, CA. 1997.
5.) G. Steven: Personal Interview. San Francisco, 1997.
6.)Bruno, Dr. Richard L: "Devotees, Pretenders and Wannabes: Two cases of Factitious Disability Disorder." Journal of Sexuality and Disability 15: 243-260, 1997
7.) Bruno, Dr. Richard L; Koffman, Dr. David: Interview: "Devotees, Pretenders and Wannabes." Dr. Richard Bruno talks with Dr. Dave. At Your Own Speed (Internet radio program http://www.ownspeed.com/1999shows/nov04.html) November 4, 1999.
8.) Apotemnophile is a term coined by John Money, meaning a person who achieves sexual fulfillment by fantasizing about being an amputee. Commonly referred to in the devotee community as a wannabe.
9.) Bruno uses the term DPW for the entire spectrum of the devotee community, including devotees, pretenders and wannabes.
10.) Dixon, D: "An Erotic Attraction to Amputees." Sexuality and Disability 6: 3-19, 1983.
11.) Davis, C. CD productions. http://www.cdprod.com/
12.) C., Jeff: Personal Interview. San Francisco, 2000.