Sunday, February 12, 2012

Devotees & The Disabled: Mutually Oppressed

I went through a long period of my life where I wanted to study the disability rights movement, and the politics surrounding ableism in society, but I felt that as a devotee it was inappropriate. I felt that this was not my, or any devotees place. My thoughts on this have shifted since then.

Currently I believe it is actually beneficial for devotees, the transabled, pretenders, cast fetishists, foot lovers, furverts, Star Wars enthusiasts, and even the disabled to study disability. I believe that there are many barriers we erect without being aware, and this is especially true for devotees.

However, the study of disability by a devotee need neither be one of self flagellation nor of some abstract sexual urge, but rather one of self-advocacy. As some have pointed out, in the West we are held back by an antiquated system of values surrounding sex inherited from the Victorian Era when the act lost its value in pleasure, and instead became one of pure procreation. This system of cultural values is largely what dictates where the devotee finds themselves relative to everyone else.

However, there is something else at work which makes the devotee perceived as more bizarre than say a balloon fetishist or a furry. I believe that in part there is a strain of ableism.

Of course, devotees are no stranger to the fact that there is a stigma surrounding disabled sexuality. Though of course devotees carry their own stigma. In Gendering Disability (which every devotee should read), there is a paper which details the experiences of one researcher who took a serious academic look at devotees. She mostly limited herself to lurking on one board for amputee devs, but what I read was unnerving.

Having grown up a child of the internet generation, I was in many ways raised into sexual maturity amongst a “culture of devoteeism”, as I imagine no person in the history of the world before me has done. I generally thought I had a very good idea of what devotees were like and what they did and did not do, yet what I read here shocked me. I do not mean to downplay the seriousness of issues surrounding the abuse of the disabled by devotees with cameras, but I had honestly suspected that, as far as the internet is concerned, it got no worse than that. I was wrong.

The group observed in this paper was fond of sharing their “sightings”. This refers to sharing stories of something as simple as seeing an amputee in the mall, or a blind person on the sidewalk. While unnerving, this seems to be ultimately harmless enough. However, there is a darker side. These people also felt that there was nothing wrong with posting the time and location of these sightings, along with detailed descriptions of the people they saw.

It is an old and sad truth, which only grows sadder with age, that the disabled are overwhelmingly more likely  to be the victims of sexual assault as compared to the able bodied. When you view the behaviors of these devotees, building the infrastructure for and even tacitly encouraging, stalking, it is easy to understand why we have the reputation we do. What I have read suggests that disabled children comprise the bulk of victims though, so this isn't a phenomenon quite attributable to most devotees.

I believe that devotees are created, not born. As such it becomes important to look at the factors which influence this. The problem we must acknowledge before beginning this is that we do not know why or how devotees are created.

Freud had a theory that as children there are certain moments where their minds become susceptible to influence and whatever they happen to observe they will become fixated on. His reasoning went that because children were often crawling on the floor around the age when this “fixation” happened, that it explained the high prevalence of foot fetishes. More recently the neuro-scientist V.S. Ramachandran, who everyone should know of by now, has made some interesting proposals regarding “neural crosswiring” along the areas of the brain responsible for mapping the body, and the area responsible for sexual function.

I realize that there are a number of theories out there, thus far none of them proven regarding acquisition of paraphilia. However, I feel that it is quite appropriate for us to understand that regardless of how a given paraphilia, in this case devoteeism, is acquired, the world in which the afflicted find themselves has an effect on how they understand themselves, and act.

The dominant stereotypes we hold about the disabled are overwhelmingly negative. These too owe their present manifestations in part to a harmful historical legacy. Things have improved since the Bronze Age when the disabled were not allowed inside Jewish Temples , or the Medieval period when they were dressed up as court jesters and abused for entertainment. Indeed we've come a long way, and yet we still have a long way to go.

The truth of the matter is that human sexuality stretches far beyond our average conception. For example, your grandmother may still masturbate. The disabled are fully sexual beings though this is quite often ignored, or even more absurdly, and harmfully, treated as taboo. 

 This image represents one of the only instances in recent pop-cultural media where the subject of disabled sexuality has been directly addressed. Also, due to reruns and syndication it is one of the most repeated, giving it greater cultural influence than others.

The mechanism through which this occurs is one of imposed silence. It would be political suicide these days for someone to publicly oppose the notion of disabled sexuality, but we have many things to say about that which is done, and less to say about that which is left undone. Ignorance is easier, and harder to detect.

In this way whatever calls to mind a positive association between “disability” and “sexuality” is met with the same, or an even harsher retribution. While things are changing, there is a large part of the world that wants to ignore disabled sexuality. This is where we come in.

In some sense you can argue that the mere existence of devotees naturally works in opposition to this repressive force. The traces we leave behind online, especially in places like YouTube, scatters the notion of disabled sexuality further. We unwittingly carry the message, though rarely in the best of ways.

It broaches the silence imposed on the subject calling it to attention. Now, much can be said for the damage likely caused by someone's first notion of an association between “disability” and “sex” being YouTube slideshow of stolen pictures, though I do hold hope that more positive efforts will counter this. Though devotees wishing to leave behind the shame they often experience for their exotic desire have an imperative to do more than this.

I have heard countless devotees discuss the issue of shame, guilt, and even suicide. I've been there myself, more times than I'd like to recall. If we do wish to one day see a new world where we may live not merely without shame, but perhaps even with pride, if we care not just for ourselves, but for our fellow devotees, and even for those not born yet, then by all means we ought to take an active role in helping create it.

This begins at the personal level. Every devotee must strive to deal with their feelings with integrity. We ought not hurt, nor take advantage of others. As I've said before this means that you can't simply take every picture and video you find. This may not sound like it is the most appealing option, but if you agree that you don't want to hurt those you love, then you won't.

This goes farther than just what you use though. Streetsie is a blog with a lot of devotee content, some of it poorly written and obviously fictional, but still of interest to the well informed dev, however, I don't go there. In addition to all the writing they produce, they have a gallery dedicated to sharing photos. Some of these are fine, but the vast majority are not. I don't give Streetsie my traffic because doing so would be supporting their community of coercive abasiophilia.

While we may work for the creation of a new world through passivity, that is not enough. We can refuse certain material, and ignore certain websites, but this is just a refusal to contribute to their project, and does nothing to stop them. We must do more.

I used to spend a lot of time pontificating to coercive devotees that their behaviors were terrible, immoral, and hurting the disabled as well as themselves, and after months and months of work it barely had an impact. I heard people parroting my arguments from time to time, but it was without sincerity. When I stopped preaching, I stopped hearing my echo.

We can not stop devotees, or anybody for that matter, from acting on impulse ignorance, though that does not mean that we can't work to reduce the incidence of it.

In my experience coercive devotees will rarely listen, though the disabled are another story. I would encourage everyone to do what I do, and take an active role in warning the disabled about coercive devotees. We are still by a large a rare topic of conversation amongst the disabled, and thus there are many who wander the net unaware.

The simplest strategy is, “If you see something, say something.”

Time and again I have seen disabled people on YouTube who unwittingly become the object of dev admiration. Sometimes they realize it, though more often they don't. Here is where you can help. Send them a message. I've sent plenty of these over the years. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic, but explain to them that they might be getting some attention they didn't expect. Let them know what they can do, and how to stay safe in the future. At the end, and this always goes at the end, add something to this effect. “Again, I'm sorry if this has shocked or hurt you in any way, while some devotees do bad things, we're not all bad people.”

It's nice and subtle like that. You are being straight and honest with them by disclosing your status as a devotee (which you
ought to do) in a gentle way, while pointing out, with your message as tangible proof, that not all devotees are coercive. Also, it's at the end. You never know what someone's past with devotees may be like. If it's bad, then they might hear devotee and head for the hills. Trust me, always put it at the end.

This part is often controversial enough. I have been on the receiving end of a very harsh stream of devoted vitriol for doing this. To be honest it hurts. I wish we could all get along, especially the small group of people who know what it feels like to live with this condition, but in the end it is worth the effort.

There is one last strategy I would encourage everyone to take up.

It is not merely enough that we warn the disabled as they are violated. It minimizes the amount of harm caused, but we must also invest in more preventative measures. If we can stop the problem before it starts, we can win the game.

I once combed through Google trying to find every Spinal Rehab center I could. Most of them, curiously, did not have any way of being contacted by email. I was too embarrassed to use a phone, but I gathered together about all ten or so I could find that allowed for email contact and sent them a message. I asked that they try to include something in their program which would help their patients understand the importance of privacy settings.

The advent of the information age has had far reaching effects and in many ways society is still learning how to adjust to those changes. In general people have a lack of proper education regarding the internet and digital media. Rehabilitation is the first place to begin explaining to the disabled that it can be wise to act cautiously.

If we act in this way our actions help us two-fold. To begin we work to quash the efforts coercive devotees, stopping their treachery as and before it happens. Further though we work to spread awareness of those devotees opposed to sexual exploitation.

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