Online dating can really suck. Wait! Don't run away. This isn't another diatribe about the moral pitfalls of Tinder (or whatever dating app you're into) and the hookup culture it's supposedly spawned.
But it's true, right? We put up profiles, trying so hard to appear smart but approachable, passionate but looking-for-something-fun-and-light, goofy but also sexy. For all your lip-biting and teeth-grinding as you try to create a snappy account, despite that bottle of red wine that you chugged before finally writing those two paragraphs, all you may earn is a grainy picture of some guy's hairy junk.
I knew these horror stories and so I thought I knew what I was getting into when I first made a dating profile for myself. I wanted something real, so my profile included a few lines informing readers that I use a wheelchair. I figured that the disclosure would work as a first line of defence: It would weed out any creeps and save me from the visual onslaught of strangers' private parts.
For the most part, I was right: I didn't get any dick pics. Instead, a couple of months later, this message landed in my inbox: Have you always used a wheelchair? I find them very sexy.
Now, let's get this straight: I love my wheelchair, I do. It gets me around exceedingly well. But, sexy? That's taking it a bit too far.
I asked my disabled friends what I'd stumbled upon, and they, veterans of the dating world, had an answer: The guy who'd messaged me was probably a devotee.
Devotees are people who are turned on by disability. Certain aspects of disability, such as amputation, paralysis, and muscle weakness, and atrophy appear sexually desirable to people who enjoy the fetish.
According to my friends, devotees are pretty common. If you have a disability and try dating, chances are you'll bump into one soon. Yet, the idea of someone being turned on by my disability seemed both baffling and distasteful to me. So, I decided to find out more.
I found a forum for devotees, made an account, and posted a couple of requests asking if both devotees and disabled people who had encountered them would be willing to talk to me about their experiences. A surprising number of people replied, mostly devotees. While their preferences and experiences differed widely, each mentioned that they thought devotees are widely misunderstood, and they wanted to explain themselves.
For some, the attraction was based on physical attributes: They enjoyed the look of atrophied or amputated limbs. Megan*, who has some hidden disabilities herself and is in a relationship with a woman with MS, said she had always enjoyed the look and feel of unconventional looking objects. As an example, she pointed to Jimmy Darling's lobster hands from American Horror Story. She thought they looked interesting and sexy, and her fascination extended similarly to amputated limbs.
Other devotees mentioned a personality trait that they had noticed in the disabled people they had dated. Mitch*, who has been in several relationships with women with spinal cord injuries (SCI), said, "A major part of my attraction is the personality of a woman with a SCI. I can't define it but a SCI changes a person on a very personal level. They are all living life as normally as possible and there is something inexplicable about their view of the world that makes them so attractive."
Mark*, a man from the UK, said he was attracted to people who struggled with walking and/or used wheelchairs. "I guess, I enjoy watching their struggle, the way their bravery triumphs, and how others react to that."
I asked if they didn't think that sounded insulting. I felt a little insulted myself. Surely, they must recognize that disabled people struggle routinely and on an existential level, not for their entertainment or inspiration. Aren't they glamorizing disability?
Mitch shrugged. "I have had real relationships with both paraplegic and quadriplegic women and there is no romanticizing the disability. Also it's not just the disability. I have to be attracted to the woman first, the disability comes second."
John*, a wheelchair user who has dated devotees in the past, said he didn't find it insulting either. "That is based on the assumption that my disability causes problems—it is what it is, and you just deal with it. I don't see it any different to being attracted to different shapes of bodies. People get together with all sorts of initial attractions."
Sam* acknowledged that he often feels shame but he is very strongly attracted to women with disabilities. "I know and I'm sure that I see the person beyond the disability and it's not like I see a disabled person as a sexual object. It's way more that that." Sam could think of a number of reasons for his attraction to disability, but at the top of the list was, "I love the fact that I can help someone, and who better than a person with disabilities? In a few words, being able to help and be important to someone is a turn on."
Ivan, a Swiss man with a predilection for women who are short-sighted or visually impaired, echoed his thoughts. "I know that these women are perfectly capable of looking after themselves, but still ... there is a 'tug' [of being needed] that I somehow feel."
I have to admit that I found reading these responses difficult. I expend a great deal of effort toward being independent, and the thought of someone being attracted to my vulnerability was offensive. I sought out more disabled people who didn't seem to mind devotees to try to understand why they weren't put off.
The first person with whom I chatted almost changed my mind. Chris*, a 19 year old with Holt-Oram syndrome—which leads to skeletal abnormalities of the upper limbs and heart problems—was incredibly enthusiastic about his experiences with devotees. With their help and attention, he had learnt to not feel ashamed of his body. He didn't care that they were attracted to his disability. In fact, he said, "I love that they are, and it makes me feel a hell of a lot more confident."
Nate* chimed in with a more detailed explanation. "A devotee's attraction doesn't make the condition worse, but it may make it better. Having someone attracted to my disability is one of the good things it could cause. So often we receive a negative reaction, it's nice to get a positive one too."
Objectively, I understand this. One of the hardest things about dating as a person with disabilities is being perceived as asexual—or even worse, being dismissed entirely because the disability is seen as an overwhelming drawback. Rather than being ignored altogether, wouldn't I rather be with someone who appreciates and embraces my disability?
I've been thinking about this for weeks. Ultimately, I keep coming back to what Lucy, a below-knee amputee wrote to me. "It makes me vaguely queasy to discover that someone is attracted to me because I have a little 'hitch in my giddy-up' or, worse yet, is attracted to my stump. I feel that it diminishes me as a woman and negates all the effort I have put forth to return to 'normalcy.'"
I am much more than my disability, and I think I rather wait for someone who'll compliment my smile or sense of humour than my "struggle" or my assistive equipment.
But remember that first message about my "sexy" wheelchair? Mitch cleared that up for me too. "There is a certain level of attraction to the assistive devices as well. Just like a woman climbing out of a sports car can be hot, a woman who sits in a sleek wheelchair is hot." Isn't that interesting?
* Name has been changed