Q: I’ve met someone who seems to really like me, and sometimes it even feels like they are actually turned on by my disability. It seems a little weird, and I’m not sure what to make of it because we’re also enjoying getting to know each other and share a lot of interests. What should I make of this?
A: There are people who are sexually stimulated by someone with a disability. They’re called “Devotees.” You need to take this seriously if you suspect your friend is of this type, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Just as some men are turned on by breasts or feet, or women like big muscles or an uncircumcised penis, being aroused by disability can be, for some people, simply the thing that excites them; A preference.It can also be a real cause for concern. You need to judge their motives to determine whether their devotee impulse can be integrated into a healthy relationship. You don’t want to be with someone who is intent on casting you into a submissive role for their benefit, for instance. Some devotees are turned on by the notion of having someone to take care of, and think of someone with a disability in terms of dependency. Such a person would want to keep you in an inferior role, without control. Dare I say that you don’t want to go thereâ€¦
Devotees have a presence on the internet, where web sites include stories which cast disabled “objects of desire” in belittling roles. The evidence is clear that getting involved with a devotee has its risks, yet I’m also aware of couples in which one is openly a devotee, and they make it work for them.
It’s about honesty. Since you’re sensing something that “seems a little weird,” then ask about it. Hopefully this person will be open about what their turn-on is about. The couples who succeed with this know exactly what’s going on. There are no hidden agendas to figure out. If you feel truly seen and loved, then the devotee aspect might be no problem for you, or even something you appreciate. It might even help you transcend an issue like being self-conscious about your body image, or fearing that your disability precludes the possibility of being in a committed, loving relationship. Much less have great sex.
Someone I know is with a devotee, who says, “He’s turned on by my disability. What’s the problem here?!”
We know that talking about our disability and our sexuality freely is crucial to being able to achieve intimacy. Same thing here. If this person is a devotee, they need to know that they’re accepted for who they are, just as you do for your disability.
Studies have been conducted which consider the source of the devotee impulse. For instance, it’s possible that your friend felt unloved or neglected growing up, and might have witnessed their mother being loving and supportive with someone who had a disability. As a child, it’s possible to make a transference from this experience, and integrate a belief that it is only someone with a disability who truly deserves love. Such dynamics happen on a deep unconscious level, and this example is only one of many ways someone might have adapted to their childhood experiences around love, intimacy, and sexuality.
Which raises the question of whether this should be addressed in therapy; whether it is to be considered a problem. In general, the more awareness we have about what drives us the better, but there is also a danger of stigmatising this person that you seem to care for, and labelling their devotee interest as a sickness. A delicate and fascinating dynamic, isn’t it?
You’re after satisfying sex, right? You want to be with someone who can enter a passionate, intimate, erotic space with you, right? Being with a devotee is one (but not the only) way of getting there. If all of the other elements - friendship, mutual support, honesty, acceptance, are in place, then why not?
So, don’t be too quick to judge negatively, but at the same time be very, very careful. Take your time, and you’ll be able to tell whether they love the whole you, or are only out to satisfy the devotee impulse.