Disability, Fetishization of

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Disability, Fetishization of

While disabled people have often been stigmatized, a certain fascination with various impairments can also be traced throughout the history of Western societies. Sometimes this fascination has taken the form of what disability scholar Harlan Hahn refers to as a subversive sensualism. For example, in the Middle Ages dwarfs and people with intellectual impairments played an important role in the royal courts as fools or jesters, where they were allowed much satirical freedom, and at least during the thirteenth century, would often perform naked for these royal bodies. Whether this sociosexual fascination with impaired bodies transposed into a psychosexual fetishization during the distant past is uncertain. More recently, with the advent of the Internet and Web sites devoted to the latter phenomenon, there is ample evidence that some people experience a heightened sexual desire for various bodies that fall outside the range of either functional and/or aesthetic normative standards. Those persons who experience a marked sexual attraction to the impairments of disabled people are currently referred to as devotees. While one explanation views this desire as a more pronounced version of the eroticization of unusual physical features, another view proposes that it is simply an example of sexual preference among the range of body types (that is, slender versus voluptuous, tall versus short, and so forth). A point worth noting is that sexual attraction to an impairment does not necessarily trump the desire for what are considered more conventionally attractive features. Rather, desire for non-normative bodies is often superimposed on attraction to these normative features.

There are devotees of people with many different kinds of impairment from blindness to quadriplegia. Generally devotees are sexually attracted to single impairments. Those persons with amputations are the most commonly desired. In terms of gender, men overwhelmingly outnumber women devotees. Sometimes it is a disabled person's crutches, prosthesis or other adaptive device that drives a particular devotee's desire. According to some sources, an extension of devotee desire is when non-disabled people desire to pass as disabled by using an assistive device such as crutches or a wheelchair; these persons are referred to as pretenders.

Further along on this continuum are those persons who actually want to acquire an impairment, feeling that they are in the wrong body. Referred to within the scientific literature as body integrity identity disorder (BIID), this is sometimes likened to the feelings of transgender people about their desire for an altered body. These people have been known to undergo surgical procedures for impairment or in extreme instances to impair themselves. It is interesting to ponder the similarities and differences between undergoing surgery to acquire what is considered in Western societies a functionally impaired and thus deviant body to the body resculpting and mutilation that occurs in some other cultures and which although impairing the individual in certain ways achieves what is considered a normative sexual desirability (for example, foot binding in the history of China, lip piercing by certain African tribes to accommodate the large decorative disks worn on the lower lip). In this short entry, the sexual desire for a person with an impairment will be elaborated and not these purported extensions.

Psychiatric understanding of fetishism views it as a sexual perversion that focuses on a non-genital body part or inanimate object in order to achieve sexual gratification. In this sense, devotees exhibit typical fetishistic tendencies—that is, being sexually attracted to non-genital body parts such as amputee stumps or items of assistive technology. While not considered to be a problem per se unless it is combined with other psychological disorders, the concept of fetishism is yet cast in negative terms in the literature because of its association with the processes of denial, regression, and narcissism. The fetishism for people with certain impairments expands on this negativity and as such is cast in an even more pathological light. Indeed, biomedical discourse generally views the fetishism for impaired bodies as a deviant desire, which requires therapeutic attention. In a cultural sense, this kind of understanding strives to bring devotee desire back within the normative range of relationships.

There are a number of concerns about the concept of fetishization of impaired bodies that emerge from scholars and concerned observers outside psychiatry and the biomedical sciences, only a few of which will be dealt with in this short entry. Some have seen devotee desire as a transgressive overturning of the biomedical hierarchical ordering of bodies. Yet as may be seen from the discussion above of the subversive sensualism of impaired bodies, biomedicine may be a latecomer to this process. If anything, biomedicine may simply have assisted in refining what was initially a much cruder and less functional ranking of bodies. A related perspective questions the easy assumption of an opposition between deviant and normative desire, that is, acceptable versus unacceptable desire, which pervades discussion of fetishism and especially the attraction to impaired bodies. Indeed, what does labeling disability fetishism as pathological say about the cultural perception of impaired bodies?

Another set of concerns surrounds the issue of whether devotees are exploiting disabled people. This concern has especially been voiced in the case of women amputees. Yet those using this argument have a difficult time explaining disabled women who knowingly embrace the devotee's sexual attraction to their impairment; and while there are some disabled women who are suspicious of desire based on fetishism and find it exploitative, there are others who exalt the opportunity and pleasure they access via the devotee community. Some of the latter have noted feeling a boost in sexual self-esteem. But this sense of sexual empowerment can be complicated by what amputee Kath Duncan notes from her own sexual adventures with devotees: that they remain primarily focused on her outline and not on how she views herself. Nevertheless, evidence exists that devotee desire can sometimes lead to genuinely intimate relationships.

While there are a number of personal narratives available written by disabled people who voice their own feelings of being the object of fetishistic desire and speculate on the motivations of devotees, this phenomenon remains virtually unstudied. What is especially needed is systematic qualitative research among devotees and the disabled people who choose to interact with them in order to begin to understand the either exceptional or normative, depending on the point of view, psychological, social, and cultural dynamics that are being articulated.


Aguilera, Ray. 2000. "Disability and Delight: Staring Back at the Devotee Community." Sexuality and Disability 18(4): 255-261.

Bruno, Richard. 1997. "Devotees, Pretenders and Wannabes: Two Cases of Factitious Disability Disorder." Sexuality and Disability 15(4): 243-260.

Duncan, Kath, and Gerard Goggin. 2002. "Something in Your Belly: Fantasy, Disability and Desire in 'My One-Legged Dream Lover.'" Disability Studies Quarterly 22(3): 127-144.

Hahn, Harlan. 1988. "Can Disability Be Beautiful?" Social Policy 18: 26-32.

Kafer, Alison. 2000. "Amputated Desire, Resistant Desire: Female Amputees in the Devotee Community." Disability World 3 (June-July). Available from http://www.disabilityworld.org/June-July2000/Women/SDS.htm.

Money, John, and Kent Simcoe. 1984. "Acrotomophilia, Sex, and Disability: New Concepts and Case Report." Sexuality and Disability 7(1-2): 43-50.

                                   Russell Shuttleworth