While Tumblr has offered a unique opportunity for sexual empowerment of people with disabilities, it has also created an avenue for disempowerment through the fetishization of disabilities. Fetishizing a disability dehumanizes a person by objectifying them for the site of attraction: often the part of the body where a limb was amputated or a prosthetic. In this post, I will explore the ways users indulge in fetishization on Tumblr and how it impacts the ways that we understand and interact with people based on their physical disabilities online and offline.
The word fetish has been defined in many ways. For the purposes of this post, I use the term fetish to describe “any object or nongenital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation” (1). Fetishes are generally considered taboo. It is okay to be turned on by long hair, tattoos, pornographic images, but not okay to be a stigmatophile, trichophile, or pictophile. The difference? Partly the terminology: the name medicalizes the experience, drawing parallels with some of the other “philes” with which we do not want to be associated. Those words also strip a “turn on” of any casualness. Some argue that ‘true fetishism’ is requiring the fetish (or fantasizing about it) for sexual gratification. So while it is generally accepted that people have sexual quirks even if it is taboo to discuss openly, the moment it turns from a preference to a necessity, it becomes... creepy.
Lenore Bell writes that “Tumblr has become a unique platform for the expression of identities which do not openly express themselves in the physical world” (2). If we want to talk about fetishization and the shifting dynamics of sexual agency and bodily sovereignty, Tumblr is the best place to look. While it may be taboo to speak openly about fetishes in person, the anonymity of the online world offers that safe space. Tumblr has been a vehicle for the creation of communities in which users can retain their own degree of anonymity and control interactions with others. As such, communities of devotees, pretenders, and wannabes have sprouted up across the platform. In the “A to Z of sexual history,” Cameron King defines these terms as the following:
Devotees, who find a particular disability attractive.
Pretenders, who find play-acting at been disabled irresistibly erotic.
Wannabes, who actually set out to disable themselves. (3)
In this post I will focus only on devotees, but the arguments can be similarly applied to pretenders and wannabes. As King explains, devotees are people who are sexually attracted to disability. Two of the most common roots of devoteeism are abasiophilia- the sexual attraction to mobility impairments (and often assistive technology such as wheelchairs and leg braces), and acrotomophilia- the sexual attraction to missing limbs. I intentionally say attraction to the disability and not to the person with a disability because the fetish has little to do with the person and more to do with a fixation on the disability itself. Devoteeism is a much larger phenomenon that includes the fetishization of any disability, especially visible ones, but I only focus primarily on the former, sexual attraction to amputated limbs, for its prominence on Tumblr and for the sake of brevity. When most able-bodied people see people with disabilities, they don’t often think about them as sexual beings. Whether this is a result of the mindsets crafted through inspiration porn or the portrayal of people with disabilities as asexual in film- or the fact that the erotic body in the media is never a disabled body (I would love to be proven wrong), we don’t know. It is peculiar, then, to encounter someone with a sexual attraction to someone with a disability and consider that attraction normal. As mentioned earlier, when we attach a word ending with “phile” to the experience, no one wants to admit to it.
In face to face encounters with most of the people in your life, that is. Tumblr thus becomes a platform for the devotee to come out. Consider “Chris the Devotee," also known as ampadmirer, in this post a few months ago:
I AM A DEVOTEE
I am a devotee or in other words I admire amputees. I perceive amputees as beautiful. You probably wonder why and the honest answer is: I don’t know.
I know that it is not normal to feel that way. But I didn’t choose to feel that way.
His post continues to describe the nature of his attraction to amputees as mostly emotional rather than sexual. It was through this post that I found a user by the name of GayAmpDevWannabe, who reblogged the post through ampadmirer and added “That’s very much my story too.” GayAmpDevWannabe (who remains unnamed) is more forward about his sexual attraction to amputees, made clear in both the about section of his blog and the blog’s content.
[First image: About section on ampadmirer ("Chris the Devotee")'s Tumblr. Text reads: I am a computer scientist and I am a devotee. I want to write about my life as a devotee and devotee culture. / To further understanding. Feel free to ask me questions: I am looking forward to hearing from you.]
[Second image: About section on GayAmpDevWannabe's Tumblr. Text reads: This is an adult - 18+ blog. You can guess my interests from the blog title and the pictures I post. / Although I am gay, the persons in the posted images may not be. They are men whom I find attractive and, in many cases, how I would like to be. / Feel free to make contact if my blog interests you.]
Varying degrees of concentration on the degree of pornography of images exist in many other devotee blogs, including (NSFW & content potential upsetting for objectification) ampadmirer, ampmirer, ampfantasy, id-do-it-all-for-you, todevotee, unusual-passions, vonabi112, tarahunaincognita, handlessmaiden, and many more (I honestly don’t recommend looking at these blogs because of the ambiguous nature of any sexually explicit image on the web but put them here to demonstrate that this is more than one blog). There is one thread in all of these blogs that remains highly problematic: many of the images depict people engaging in non-sexual, everyday activities. These are just a few examples:
So what’s the problem? Tumblr has become a platform in which devotees can indulge in non-consensual acts of sexual exploitation and gratification. Not all devotees are guilty of this and not all disability fetishes are bad, but I will come back to this. Devotee culture has blossomed on Tumblr and and become self-validating and self-enforcing through the continued circulation of images of people with disabilities- images often taken without the intention of being arousing. To take such an image and and make it okay to value them for the pleasure received from the objectification of a visible disability is not only a violation of privacy, but a violation of individual sovereignty over one’s own body. This is not an issue limited to people with disabilities. Numerous marginalized groups have become the non-consenting objects of pleasure because of their race, ethnicity, age, or other visible characteristic. The act of creating shareable, public content on a blog to satisfy a devotee’s desires oversteps the argument that sexual attraction to disability is innate and even the root of self-hatred because it turns that feeling into behavior. This behavior takes a group of people with a long history of oppression and disempowers them them further through objectification. There is nothing empowering about your body becoming an object, regardless of whether it is desired or undesired.
Tumblr thus acts as a weapon for the reduction of individual sovereignty and the redistribution of power over oppressed bodies to the actors who participate in this specific type of devoteeism. A person with a disability cannot remove the disability like someone can remove the object of other fetishes like leather, vinyl, latex, roleplaying costumes and props. In the same way, people who are curvy, black, asian, latin@, older, younger, transgender, etc. cannot take off that part of themselves. Moreover, the fact that the object of attention is most often a woman adds another degree of injury to an existing history of oppression. They are therefore always at the risk of being objectified by voyeurs or by anyone taking their photo and posting it on Tumblr to share the “sighting” and pleasure received.
Before we go any further, we must consider the idea of digital dualism. Head over to part 2 for more.
1. Definition of fetish: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fetish
2. Bell, Lenore. "Trigger Warnings: Sex, Lies and Social Justice Utopia on Tumblr." http://ojs.meccsa.org.uk/index.php/netknow/article/view/296
3. King, Cameron. "A to Z of Sexual History: D – Disability Attraction is Older than Crash." Vice. 3 December 2009. http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/a-to-z-of-sexual-history-disability-attra...