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Let’s Talk Disability Fetishes

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29 Dec 2023

Close up of a person in a wheelchair, with only the legs and wheelchair visible

This post was written by our Resident Sexual Health Clinician, Dr. Kathryn Ellis, OTR/L, OTD, AASECT-SC, an occupational therapist and American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists Certified Sexuality Counselor. If you'd like her to answer your questions, submit them at the end of this page.

Living with a disability, you may or may not have come across someone who sexualized you because of your disability. 

Devotees are people who fetishize and sexualize people with disabilities. Their intentions can range from an attraction and genuine interest in forming a relationship to dangerous and harmful. Devotees are different from folks in interabled relationships. 

A devotee is not synonymous with an able bodied person in a relationship with a disabled person. A devotee specifically is attracted to disability and sexualizes that quality in a person. Interacting with a devotee can be a safe, fun, and playful experience, however there are many scenarios that can be harmful. 

You get to decide if you want to be sexual or in a relationship with a devotee based on your own perceived comfort and safety. We wanted to address this topic head on and provide some strategies for determining if you feel your comfort and your whole person is being respected and valued. 

Two people holding hands over a table while on a date

Ways you might know if the interaction is uncomfortable

  1. You get a creepy or shameful feeling from their interactions
  2. You communicate boundaries and they don’t respect them
  3. They are overly interested in your disability 

Sometimes devotees are forthright about their fetishes, while others are not. Here are some cues that can help you determine if they are a devotee:

  1. They express an overt interest in your disability, adaptive equipment, or health information.
  2. They ask you sexual questions that also have to do with your disability, for example, “do you have sex in your wheelchair?” 
  3. They may pretend to be a medical provider and ask you questions about your condition.
  4. If you’re meeting them online, they may pretend to be a peer with a disability and use photos of someone else with a disability. You can reverse image search and see if the photo is stolen. 

Also, someone may not necessarily be a devotee, but they may be interested in how you are sexual to satisfy their own curiosity. These folks can tend to be imposing and disrespect disabled people’s right to privacy. 

Again, you get to decide how you interact with these people. You can ignore them, you can educate them that their questions are rude, or, if that feels like the right approach in the context, you can play into their questioning and have fun with it. 

In any dating situation, it’s helpful to vet partners. All potential partners should go through a vetting process and this can be even more helpful when you’re considering dating a devotee. 

Two people on a date on a bridge as the sun sets behind them. The man has an amputation on his left leg and a prosthesis.

Basic ways of vetting strategies when deciding whether or not to date someone or consider them for a long term relationship

  1. Suggest hanging out with a family member or a friend of the person you’re interested in. Meeting someone in their family or a friend can be helpful to get a broader view of the person. You can see how they interact with people they care about, if they have other loved ones in their lives, and if they are willing to introduce you to important people in their lives. 
  2. Share a boundary, something you don’t want or don’t like, and a preference, something you enjoy and want to do. See how they interact with you stating your needs and wants. Do they listen to you? Do they laugh or make fun of you? Are they turned off by assertive communication? Do they demonstrate understanding and also share some of their boundaries and preferences? 
  3. Go on a one-on-one date in public that is activity based. Dating in public can offer insight into how the person acts outside of their home or your home. You can also learn alot about someone by watching them engage in an activity versus the classic sit down dinner date. A public activity date can show you how they will treat you in public and how they react if you need accommodations for accessibility. Some ideas of what to do for an activity-based date are to go to a museum, a sushi making class, or a book reading event. 
  4. Take note of the time they communicate with you and want to hang out. If you find they typically want to hang out with you late at night or last minute, with little pre-planning, they might not be willing to prioritize you throughout the day or plan in advance to see you. That said, getting evening or spontaneous communications to hang out or flirt can be fun and you can certainly engage with them if you want. 

Dating with a disability can be fun and exciting, but, as is true with dating in general, there’s a lot to figure out about other people and yourself. Taking time to get to know people and trusting your gut can be helpful to putting yourself first and having fun and safe dating experiences. 

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