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.
Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) has ectrodactyly, a condition which earned him the stage name “Lobster Boy.” Photo by American Horror Story: Freak Show
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.”
“A devotee’s attraction doesn’t make the condition worse, but it may make it better.” Photo by Natalie Jeffcott via Stocksy