Allusions to this type of attraction are found in, inter alia, Herodotus, classical Vietnamese legend, works by Bruegel the Elder, de Brantôme, de Montaigne, Pushkin, Brecht, Bulgakov, Dalí, Hemingway, Mayakovsky, von Stroheim, Helmut Newton and Buñuel, and roles by James Dean. The attraction may be present in the Chinese foot binding tradition.
This type of human sexual attraction has become more widely known over the past century through Interwar decadence, the Sexual Revolution, and the advent of the world-wide web. A number of artists have portrayed it: drama producer Andriy Zholdak produces plays with disabled people, sculptor Marc Quinn makes statues of them, photographers Gerhard Aba, Petrina Hicks, Eric Kroll, Ronald Parisi, Romain Slocombe and Yury Solomko portray them, directors produce films like Um crime delicado and Chinese balletomanes produce dance performances with them. The attraction also features regularly in Japanese anime and manga and has established a large, mostly apocryphal, online presence.
As this form of human sexual attraction moved from the taboo into recognized mainstream culture, small informal networks of men attracted to disability emerged. In the 1920s, linked largely by correspondence, a subculture of disability fetishism had also developed. This attraction was broached in popular magazines in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, being covered ad-hoc by minority erotica in the interim. By the 1980s, a community involving non-disabled and disabled people was emerging in the USA, gatherings (Fascination conferences, after the name of the community's journal) beginning in June 1985 in Chicago. A virtual world community has been coalescing since the 1990s as a fragmented set of internet fora, chatrooms and p2p networks, rather than a monolithic lobby.
The rare pathological attraction to disability has been studied by psychologists since the late 19th Century, with a relative resurgence of interest since the mid-1970s. Until the 1990s, it tended to be described mostly as acrotomophilia, at the expense of other disabilities, or of the wish by some to pretend or acquire disability. Bruno (1997) systematised the attraction as factitious disability disorder. A decade on, others argue that erotic target location error is at play, classifying the attraction as an identity disorder.
In the paraphilia, the attracted ("devotees") are specifically aroused by disabled people, simply because of their disability. The disability may be minor like missing fingers, profound like blindness and (stereotypically) amputation, or quadriplegia. Some devotees desire people with cognitive disabilities.
Desires to pretend to be disabled and acquire a disability are extensions of the pathological disorder. About half of all devotees occasionally pretend (43 per cent of Nattress , sample of 50). Avowed "wannabes" seem to number not more than five per cent of the devotee-wannabe population, though Nattress (1996) found 22 per cent of his sample of 50 had wanted to become disabled. Accordingly, Bruno (1997) puts those afflicted with versions of the paraphilia under the broad heading of Devotees, Pretenders, and Wannabes (DPWs), as used here.
Well over half of DPWs have felt this pathological attraction since childhood, as typical in paraphilias. The Amelotatist (see References) found that 75 per cent of its sample of 195 were aware of the attraction by age 15. Those attracted often cherish early memories of a sexuoerotic tragedy (a "first sighting") involving an object of their future attention, often an older member of the opposite sex, as stereotypical in paraphilic etiology. About a quarter report discovering the paraphilia in puberty, and a few in maturity.
In intensity, this pathological type of attraction ranges between optional and preferred in most DPWs. As its intensity grows, pretender and wannabe elements may emerge and increase. Thus, detailed enquiries as to what sensations there are or are not in the parts of the body affected by disability are regularly posed in DPW fora frequented by disabled people, suggesting an exhaustively detailed DPW curiosity as to the experience of disability. Avowed wannabes seem to feel their aspect of the attraction significantly more keenly than ordinary devotees, and for many it has exclusive intensity.
The aforesaid has given grounds for the attraction to disability to be represented as the continuum Bruno (1997) termed factitious disability disorder. At its less-intense devotee end, there is sexualised fascination with the existential aspects of disability and its appearance. In its middle pretending area, is strong desire to reproduce the sensations of disability. At its intense wannabe end, is an imperative to acquire a disability which may prompt self-harm.
The attraction does not appear to pose dangers to DPWs' partners or third parties.
DPWs' erotic ideals are conventionally attractive people who happen to be disabled. They are at ease with their disability and, rather than resenting it, do little to conceal it. Their attractiveness grows in direct proportion with the extent to which they parade their differences in contravention of social norms.
DPWs have individual preferences: those desiring people with one disability may feel little or no attraction towards people with other disabilities. Alongside defining the preferred disability, preferences may define whether it is acquired or congenital, traumatic or caused by illness, elapsed periods since it was acquired, whether it involves physical scarring, and even trivia such as whether it affects the left or right side. How the disability is displayed is a preference area, with some DPWs having preferred clothing, props, behaviour, and even environments. The enormous variety of devotee preferences is shown by the large number of narrowly-specialised devotee fora: groups dedicated to amputees with bandaged stumps, people in leg-braces, disabled brides, hook prosthesis users, leg amputees who use pylon prostheses, non-users of prostheses, people with one short leg, people with limbs in plaster casts, et c..
Individual preferences may be firm or flexible and may evolve with time but seem rarely to 'switch' from one type of disability to another. Individual DPWs' exact personal preferences are rarely, if ever, replicated in others.
A key feature of the attraction, preferences seem to serve two purposes. First, they fix the appearance and circumstances of the sexuoerotic tragedy, perpetuating and reinforcing its influence. Second, they act as an excuse which keeps inhibited devotees from pursuing relationships (see Behaviour), since narrow preferences are unlikely to be satisfied.
There are many indications that male and female DPWs may have differing overall preferences. Thus, the preference for women with one leg who walk with crutches appears most common among males, while preferences for men with one arm or are paralysed appear more common among females.
DPW preferences are overlaid over common attractiveness criteria. Male DPWs routinely rank disabled women by looks, while female DPWs routinely rank disabled men by charisma, with "looks" and "charisma" having mainstream meanings.
A distinction has to be drawn between people who feel some sex-tinged fascination with disability on the one hand, and aware members of the DPW subculture on the other (also see Behaviour below).
In 1976, Ampix, a company selling DPW pornography, had a clientele of about 300. A decade later, Fascination, a DPW community quarterly publication, had a circulation of under 1000. As the world-wide web began rolling-out a decade hence, DPWs in dedicated for a numbered under 10,000. By 2006, the world devotee community comprised up to 100,000 members of several hundred internet fora. Duplication/multiplication of memberships, dead memberships, and the probable 'grey zone' of under-motivated, merely-curious or accidental forum members would indicate that there were anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 DPWs worldwide in 2006.
By sex, it is consistently reported that over 90 per cent of DPWs are male. Women attracted to disability may view their feelings as romantic rather than sex-centred, or be disheartened by male domination of the DPW scene.
By sexual orientation, the share of homosexual and bisexual DPWs appears identical to that in the general population, implying a dominant heterosexual interest. There are indications, however, that some heterosexual DPWs may be attracted to members of their own sex with their preferred disability. This ambivalence may be more common among female DPWs. There are also indications that where the "first sighting" involved a person of the same sex, the future DPW may grow up homosexual.
By age, the acknowledgement of the attraction may occur from pre-puberty onwards, with today's DPWs discovering the subculture in their teens.
By educational and career attainment, The Amelotatist reported a high proportion of highly educated and successful people among its sample of 195. This was confirmed by Nattress (1996), all of whose 50 subjects had completed higher education and pursued careers. This may indicate greater than average DPW susceptibility to parental and peer pressures.
By geography, in 2006 DPW fora membership indicated one or fewer DPWs per million inhabitants in some countries, with a mean of 5 to 8 a million, and peaks of 30 to 50 a million. North America and Western Europe had most DPWs, followed by the former USSR, eastern China, Japan, Australia, Southern Africa and the rest of the world. Southern Asia and Africa appear to have none or extremely few DPWs. Differing levels of internet access are clearly at play, though the spread also reflects national, cultural, class, lifestyle and period factors, and parent-child and peer relationship paradigms.
DPWs appear to fall into two groups: most think they are unique; some assume the attraction is universal and are disappointed to find it confined to very few others.
Many DPWs feel intense guilt and shame at deriving pleasure from others' misfortunes and fear parental, family, peer, and public reprimand. They sense the stigmatic-eligibilic paradox and fear ridicule for desiring people whom convention brands. They also fear censure from the very people they desire.
Some wannabes report mistrusting their feelings and being unwilling to surrender to them. This guilt and fear from all sides, added to the customary guardedness of sexual minorities, form powerful inhibitors to DPWs' publicising their feelings and pursuing preferred partners. Claims to have overcome guilt and fear appear to bestow DPW community cudos.
Under different formulations, the question of whether — given an opportunity — a devotee or pretender would embark on a relationship with a disabled person, is posed occasionally in devotee fora. Answers indicate that inhibitions are so powerful in some devotees and pretenders that they exercise strict self-denial. They also indicate that many devotees and pretenders feel ill-equipped for relationships with disabled people, not only as regards the attendant family, social, career, etc. dimensions, but also as regards the prosaic realities of living with disabled partners. Those declaring willingness to pursue relationships often decry the lack of set etiquette for encounters between themselves and disabled people who may also be dealing with significant inhibitions.
Instead of relationships, some DPWs seek unencumbered and non-committing transactions with understanding or needy disabled people. This is evidenced by at least three devotee fora (2007) for disseminating and sharing information on disabled prostitutes, and a dozen 'disabled courtesan' websites (2006). Rather than being merely sexual, however, it seems that such transactions involve the disabled partners displaying a wide range of intrinsically 'disabled' behaviours, including dressing in specific clothing, play-acting specific routines, and optionally making public appearances with their escorts.
There are claims that female DPWs may be less inhibited and more direct about their attraction, and that they tend to form relationships with preferred partners more easily.
The defining dilemmas DPWs face is that their ideally desired relationship is highly unlikely to materialise, and if it does, that it is unlikely to be successful.
The statistical/probability dilemma is that the very small number of potential partners is further reduced once the usual criteria which apply in relationships are applied. Thus, a DPW seeking an ideal relationship must first find potential partners who have the preferred disability. Further, they must be available for a relationship. Still further, such potential partners must also be personally appealing to the DPW and vice versa. To these criteria are added practical/logistic considerations which reduce the availability of potential partners practically to nil.
The emotional dilemma is the inability of sexual satiety to satisfy broader emotional needs. The issue at play is the disparity of motivations: in a relationship, devotees seek to satisfy an unusual sexual drive, while their potential partners seek satisfaction for the usual range of human relationship needs.
DPWs sense these dilemmas and react to them in three basic ways which often form a sequence. Denial involves the stubborn belief that a partner is waiting and needs to be discovered, or the obstinate insistence on prolonging unsuccessful relationships with persons with the preferred body type. Resignation involves abandoning, or not embarking upon, the search for a partner. Accommodation involves three basic behaviours which ameliorate the perceived truth that the 'ideal' relationship is unattainable: fantasising with or without able-bodied partners, seeking purely sexual encounters, and (rarely) celibacy.
The Amelotatist found that 55 per cent of a sample of 195 DPWs had dated disabled people, 40 per cent had been sexually intimate with disabled partners, and 5 per cent had current disabled spouses. Nattress (1993) found that 41 per cent of a sample of 50 DPWs had, or were in, relationships with disabled partners.
Relationships between DPWs and disabled people tend to be reported as being ordinary, the attraction being sated by the fact of the partner's disability. It appears that the attraction to disability is undisclosed in a proportion of DPW-disabled relationships. DPWs may press disabled partners to put their disabilities to the fore in intimate situations and exhibit them in social ones. Sexually, some DPWs have been reported to engage in active tactile observation as much as in intercourse.
That DPWs find it hard to satisfy both sexual and emotional needs is borne out in findings by both Nattress (1996) and Dixon (1983). They report that, despite reasonable success in obtaining sexual contact with disabled people, just 21 per cent of DPWs had had long-term relationships with disabled partners. This is not dissimilar to behaviours in other sexual minorities such as some gay men.
About half of DPWs fail to establish relationships with disabled people. 'Second-best' options for them are relationships with pretenders and wannabes. Practically all DPWs have experience of relationships with able-bodied partners. Such relationships are also reported to be ordinary despite the (mostly undisclosed) attraction to disability on the part of one partner.
Many DPWs redirect their desires into creative pursuits. A number of them occupy positions offering professional contact with the disabled. Others are members of disabled people's social and/or political fora. Collecting disability-linked objects is a pastime for some DPWs.
Over the past decade, a number of DPWs have launched websites with images of their ideal partners, descriptions of fictional encounters with them, and DPW pornography (often produced in cooperation with disabled people). Online, DPWs exchange images of disabled people, descriptions of sightings and meetings of/with them, potted biographies of disabled people, techniques for attracting their attention, and opinions on acceptable DPW behaviour. There are attempts to condemn the objectification of disabled people. Wannabe fora are dominated by enquiries as to which doctors may be willing to inflict elective disability.
The DPW community has a growing English-based jargon which emerged in the 1930s. The label "devotee," adopted in the early 1980s due to the rhyme with "amputee" has entered research usage. "Wannabe" is another internal label, with a variety of other terms coined (thus, "sighting" for an encounter with a disabled person), borrowed or modified from the disabled world (thus, "sticks" instead of "crutches") or other sexual minorities (thus "devdar," a modification of "gaydar," denoting the supposed devotee ability to foretell "sightings" of people they desire, or "transabled," another term for wannabe and an alliterative modification of "transsexual").
As stated above, many DPWs derive pleasure by pretending to have a disability. Others may persuade some non-disabled partners to pretend. There was overwhelming evidence that males in the devotee chatrooms which sprang up during the 1990s pretended to be disabled women en masse. This confirms a widespread proneness to pretending first mooted in The Amelotatist, as well as the continuum between devotees, pretenders, and wannabes. Being a premeditated confidence trick, pretending tends to be viewed as unedifying by the high DPW community.
Some DPWs collect personal data on disabled people, follow and photograph them candidly, call them and write to them, contrive to encounter them, and seek them out at healthcare establishments and disability gatherings. This "potted palm syndrome" (practitioners are said to peep from behind parlour plants) is condemned within the DPW community. Where it spills over into stalking, such behaviour may give grounds for prosecution. Over 85% of Nattress's sample of 50 DPWs stated that they would follow an unknown disabled person matching their preference. Over 57% stated that they would attempt to start a conversation with a randomly encountered disabled person who matched their preference.
The wholesale circulating of images of disabled people is a behaviour under impotent attack from some sections of the DPW community. Most images are obtained candidly, distribution (if commercial) does not benefit those depicted, and risks compromising them since the context is sexual. Alongside this, commercial images of disabled models are invariably "copywronged" by DPWs posting them on the internet for free use by others, thus depriving models of expected income. "Electronic surgery" ("ES"; retouching photographs of able-bodied people to make them look disabled) is also popular in some DPW circles. The resulting images are widely circulated on the DPW Web, jeopardising the reputations of the original subjects. Images of people known to be dead continue in circulation.
People attracted to disability appear to have been obsessed with images for as long as the attraction has been known. Stories are told within the community of collectors who had succeeded in garnering tens of thousands of images in the pre-internet era. The DPW fascination with images lends considerable credulity to claims that the attraction to disability is voyeuristic and hence forms part of the sadomasochistic continuum.
DPWs practising intrusive, stalking, and fetishist behaviour, and who peddle images, often plead a paucity of potential partners, of opportunities to approach such partners in a normal fashion, and the lack of established etiquette for such encounters.
There follows a listing of proffered explanations. A number of them are repeated (under different formulations) by all relevant sides.
Psychology views sadism and masochism as interchangeable, with voyeurism and exhibitionism as their respective aspects. Devotees’ observation-based behaviour and preference for display-minded partners seem to support explanations 2 to 4. Devotee pornography tends to display the appearance of disability across a range of activities, rather than focus on sexual situations.
Subsidiary observations include:
Contemporary sexology does not consider the attraction problematic unless exercising it infringes the rights of one of the parties and/or those of third parties. Explanations include:
The DPW community constantly debates the origins of the attraction ("the Why?"). The Amelotatist, reporting a poll of 195 devotees was a community contribution and the first synthesis of explanations. A 2005 straw poll in two DPW fora revealed that in childhood many respondents (often first or only children) felt alienated from peers, forming solitary interests in, inter alia, transportation or collecting. This may indicate that empathy with the disabled, subject to exclusion in most cultures, is among the motivations for the attraction. It may also indicate that admiration is at play in the attraction, inasmuch as the disabled perforce overcome inhibitions similar to those many DPWs face, as hinted above.
Current explanations and claims include:
A widespread view by disabled people outside DPW circles is that the pathological type of attraction results from low self-esteem. Lack of success in attracting able-bodied sexual partners on the part of such individuals may drive them to view disabled people as 'soft targets.'
DPW-aware disabled people generally adhere to the DPW community's explanations. In particular, they draw attention to the untenability and political incorrectness of the argument that denigrates them to the status of second-best partners for social inepts. They do, however, draw a very sharp distinction between 'sound' DPWs and "fetishists" who engage in borderline behaviour and objectify disability.
Assertions that the attraction is a paraphilia are borne out by numerous aspects of it, including the early sexuoerotic tragedy and the DPW proneness to other paraphilias. The attraction's complexity and breadth, however, do appear to reach across into states which are not classifiable as paraphilic, as well as to spill over into the area of identity disorders (at least for some wannabes).
Voyeurism/exhibitionism/sadomasochism and fetishism are certainly present in DPWs, but far from the forefront and not to the exclusion of a very broad range of other, and predominant, motivations. The latter are a diffuse blend of sexualised compassion, protectiveness, and maudlin empathy with the poignancy of stigma and disability. There is anecdotal evidence that some DPWs exhibit mild introversion and alienation. If true, this would tend to make them more likely to empathise with the experience of disabled exclusion and stigma, or to admire the perceived heroism of disabled people in overcoming exclusion and stigma, hence prompting them to seek disabled partners.
The DPW claim that the desire is an augmentation of widely shared attractiveness criteria is amply borne out by widespread public erotisation of commonplace physical distinctions ranging from dimples and gappy teeth, through moles and freckles, to spectacles, dental braces, and limbs in casts. The fact that 'freak shows' featuring disabled performers were popular fairground attractions until after the Second World War hints that a significant number of ordinary people harbour curiosity about unorthodox appearance and modi operandi, at least some of which can be assumed to be tinged with sex. The undying popularity of elective physical modification such as body part piercing, tattooing, and sundry cosmetic interventions (surgical or not), exhibits at least some drives in common with wannabeism. The attraction to disability appears to be the extreme tip of a 'pyramid' of commonplace, less common, and minority attractions to unorthodox physique, and the desire to have such physique oneself. For the most part, these attractions are not paraphilic.
Another DPW claim — that the attraction visits different people for different reasons — also appears reasonable in view of the sheer number and diversity of proffered explanations (most with their 'lobbies'), coupled with the extremely small number of DPWs and the DPW community's palpable heterogeneity.
Scientific, quasi-scientific, and self-generated explanations seek to highlight the causes of the attraction. This section outlines the stances of those most affected by it and the modi vivendi they are developing.
Since DPWs desire disabled people, the latter's views of devoteeism form the undoubted crux of the DPW community's attention. DPWs have tended to emphasise their usefulness as political and social allies to the disability movement. For its part, since a glad discovery of the attraction in the 1970s, that movement has largely disabused itself regarding DPWs.
DPWs assert that the attraction appears deviant only from the untenable position that disabled people are intrinsically unattractive or asexual. Since devotees' desired relationships are voluntary and equal in principle, and since the disability has already been sustained, they point out that issues of deriving pleasure from others' misfortune have no place in debates on the attraction. While disclaiming paraphilic explanations, they stress that their preferred relationships are 'because of,' rather than 'despite,' disability, thus unwittingly restating the stigmatic-eligibilic paradox.
The DPW community rejects scientific enquiry into the attraction because it may throw an unhealthy shadow over it and because it feels science can bring no real insight. It is minded to move towards coalescing as a lifestyle grouping like the gay community; today, scientific enquiry into the latter is viewed as unnecessary and discriminatory. Similarly to the gay community, which rejected the term "homosexuality" in favour of "gayness," devotees reject terms like "amelotasis" in favour of internal ones like "devotee/ism." Words like "fetish" or "paraphilia" appear to raise loud devotee hackles, probably due to very widespread ignorance and/or alarm of/at their meanings and implications. DPWs energetically dispute sadomasochistic explanations, claiming that to them the disabled are not less able and inferior, but hyper-able and superior ("godlike"; this dovetails with the element of admiration mentioned above). Teratophilic and coprophilic explanations are vigorously rejected as fanciful and offensive.
Disabled people have been welcomed into the DPW community since its emergence. The community feels that public acceptance of the rights and equality of disabled people would benefit its members, not least by removing blocks and inhibitors to their self-expression. In social attitudes, some DPWs appear to sense a paradoxical parallel between their position and that of disabled people. They also feel that borderline behaviour by some of their number would be curtailed or obviated by social acceptance of the attraction. Hence, their community expresses unreserved support for the disability movement.
Despite the explosion of the DPW Web, many disabled people remain unaware of the attraction. Those newly-introduced to it often report initial alarm and deep shock. Subsequent reactions (often after further research) appear to involve deep introspection and an eventual revision of attitudes. While some aspects of the attraction remain unacceptable and disquieting to disabled people, others appear welcome and liberating. If DPW forum membership is a sign of approval, by mid-2006 there was one disabled member for ten or more DPWs: a proportion somewhat lower than a decade earlier. Nevertheless, in 30 years, up to 500 disabled people have offered images of themselves for sale to devotees, several dozen of them even becoming 'devotee courtesans.' Often, their 'impresarios' are themselves disabled women. This may be interpreted as approval, but also as economic opportunism.
The disability movement is many times larger than the DPW community and the latter rarely comes to its attention. The movement perforce backs the DPW stance that the disabled ought not to be branded unattractive and asexual, but by the same token resists suggestions that they ought to welcome the attentions of a sexual minority. If it has any real stance on DPWs, the movement is generally negative, seeing them as unacceptably needy and fetishistic. Despite early hopes that DPWs were welcome allies in the battle against lookism, the movement has found that they do not offer any escape from the tyranny of visual norms; they merely pile bizarre standards atop mainstream ones. In addition, the 'hero adulation' and protectiveness elements of the attraction are ideologically most unwelcome to the movement. More insiduously, DPWs are seen as entryist. Thus, 'visibility' is a disability movement issue on which DPWs are attempting to influence views. Cosmesis is widely available to the disabled. Some welcome this as hiding physical differences and aiding integration; others claim it perpetuates a visual norm implying that disability is ugly; DPWs promote the latter side.
The attraction to disability has not occasioned public concern, even in the more extreme forms which have come to light since the 1990s. It has also failed to occasion genuine concern among disabled people. Most DPWs appear not to find the attraction burdensome and to resist treatment as threatening the entire fabric of their sexuality, as well as stigmatising them. The sole reported exceptions involve wannabes presenting to medical professionals to request treatment. Researchers are non-judgmental; the two exceptions are Riddle (1988, 1988 ) who believes the attraction opens new opportunities to disabled people, and Bruno (1997), who feels the attraction holds scant promise for DPWs and disabled people.
As far as informal remedies go, it may be claimed that the 'disabled courtesans' mentioned above offer a form of 'treatment' by offering an 'escape valve' to those DPWs who have the means and need to enact the purely physical imperatives of their desires. It may also be claimed that the DPW/disabled people gatherings mentioned above offer a loose form of 'group treatment' to DPWs who have the means and feel the need to attend.
Reported medical treatments centre on psychotherapy for distressed individuals presenting for treatment. Thus, Riddle (1988, 1988 ) suggests that the aim in a psychotherapeutic encounter should be to make devotees "learn to love themselves," while Bruno (1997) elaborates by advocating the pre-planned thought stopping, substitution of appropriate behaviors and introspection methods.
In the case of wannabes suffering distress through erotic target location error, Lawrence (2006) moots the possibility of testosterone-lowering medication in parallel with that of elective limb removal through surgical intervention.