Monday, April 30, 2012


Very recently a dev/pretender friend alerted me to a rather interesting website which shares the goals of this blog. “Disability Trolls” is authored by a self defense instructor who is unique in that he focuses on more than just the physical aspects of self defense. Erik Kondo emphasizes those aspects of self-defense which are all too often overlooked in the digital age. It is a necessary task, though not always an easy one.

Just two days ago I was writing about the problems of sexual assault, the need for men to take an active role in preventing that, and the particular issues that arise when we look at this within the context of devoteeism. Erik does a fantastic job of explaining how people can keep themselves safe. For a long time I felt like I was the only one taking active steps to counter the effects of coercive devoteeism. Interestingly, the entry where I discussed this receives most of the traffic of everything I've written to date. I can't be sure of who is reading my writing, but given the massive and consistent increase in traffic I had immediately after being listed on, I assume most of them are devotees.

It's quite invigorating to see that, in regards to Facebook, what he's saying is nearly a carbon copy of what I've been telling people for a long time now. The principles of staying safe online aren't horrendously complex (though Facebook seems aggressively intent on changing that), so on some level this is to be expected, though it does make me smile to finally hear someone echoing in earnest what I have been saying all along.

Erik has a very thorough understanding of self-defense, especially at the physical level. He runs a non-profit teaching self-defense which is admirable in itself, but also a number websites and blogs exploring these concepts specifically as they relate to the disabled. However, anyone able bodied or not can stand to learn something from listening to him speak and reading what he has written. When it comes to his "5D's” the guy really knows his stuff.

He approaches the issue of devoteeism from the perspective not only of a self defense instructor, but of an inveterate wheelchair user as well, specifically, that of a paraplegic. Just as my devoteeism gives me a certain perspective on devotees and disability, so does his disability influence what he encounters and how he interprets it. Everybody operates within some kind of context.

This isn't just me being pedantic, it's actually quite relevant if you look at how he conceptualizes the issue. Here is a quote from the first article on his site.

“A Disability Troll is a general term the describe people on the internet who are actively searching and “trolling” for people with disabilities on the internet. Trolls come in many forms:

  1. Wheelchair Pretenders – People who pretend to have a disability. The most common Pretender is someone who deceives people into thinking they are a wheelchair user. Pretending to be an amputee is also common.
  2. Devotees – People that are attracted to people with disabilities specifically because of the existence of the disability.
  3. Disability Fetish – People who have an unusual sexual attraction to actual or pretend disability.
  4. Disability Stalkers – People who actively seek out and stalk people with disabilities.”

What is really commendable on his part is how he tries to distinguish between sub-groups. It's practically charitable to see anybody actually taking the time to explain that we're not all one and the same. There are a diversity of experiences within our community, and it is very refreshing to see someone attempting to tease them out a bit.

Despite this, I don't think Psychology or Human Sexuality have been a persistent area of study throughout his career. He doesn't seem to be familiar with paraphilias as a word or on a layman's level. Even technical terms like “abasiophilia” and “apotemnophilia” have evaded his apprehension. We can learn a lot by examining how he uses and doesn't use words. To begin, there is the little double entendre he employs with “troll”. He juxtaposes “troll”, a word referring to monstrous beings of Scandanavian folklore, and the internet slang term for a willfully disruptive person, with “trolling” which means to fish with a baited line trailed behind a slowly moving boat. It's a great way to catch red herring.

You'll notice that items three through four are actually written and titled very generically to apply to really any disability, which follows how the phenomena has been observed to occur according to both official academic sources and informal evaluations by devotees themselves. However, his first term is titled, “Wheelchair Pretender”, not something like “Disability Pretender” as we might expect. People interested in amputation, who anyone could tell you are by far the most common through every facet of Devotees, Pretenders, and Wannabes, are an afterthought.

It is worthy to note that his entire site, “Disability Trolls”, is written to suggest that it covers the subject in a general sense. However, if you'll read through all of the elements listed, you'll find they all involve people in wheelchairs, almost exclusively due to spinal injuries. Indeed, his experience has led him to believe that, “The most common Pretender is someone who deceives people into thinking he is a wheelchair user.” He operates very clearly within the context of a paraplegic, and this has certainly shaped his understanding. In a similar way, you'll find out a lot about my proclivities as a devotee by examining what I link to, and thus I too am no stranger to such a bias.

What bothers me though is that Erik attempts to act in many ways as an expert on devotees when he is anything but. He has no knowledge of what John Money, Alison Kafer, or V.S. Ramachandran have written about us, nor their reputation as researchers and theorists. Overall, he is sparsely informed on devotees, and even then only a specific subset, and while this is bad in itself, it regrettably impairs his work in advocacy and prevention as well.

“Devotee Trolls” focuses almost exclusively on what happens on Facebook. As someone who has been doing the exact same kind of work he has I can assure you this problem stretches much farther than just one web 2.0 destination. He doesn't seem to have familiarity with negotiating Yahoo's byzantine network of links to submit a takedown request, or chasing down a photographer so they can make the request as well, or what a pain it is to try and explain to someone in Eastern Europe with only Google Translate at your side why their photos haven't been taken down, and how to stay safe in the future.

He doesn't know how horrible it feels as a devotee to have to let someone know that everyone commenting on their vlog has ulterior motives. He doesn't know how horrible it is to have someone hate you anyway. Furthermore though, he doesn't have the kind of understanding of this condition that comes with growing up alone and afraid, knowing you are different, knowing you must hide, knowing you are stuck feeling this way and that you must find a way to live with yourself that neither harms others nor yourself. 

In a better world, he wouldn't make these mistakes. He wouldn't make these mistakes because he wouldn't know about us. He wouldn't have to do the work that we do. He wouldn't have to write everything he has written, and neither would I. We should not have to write anything, because this problem should not exist. This is an absolutely preventable problem, and it starts not with the victims, but the perpetrators.

As I've pointed out before, coercive devotees who steal and take pictures know their actions to be improper. Despite this, they manage to inure their negative feelings and convince themselves that what they are doing is in no way wrong or harmful. I don't want to retread old ground by reiterating everything I've already said about Jackson Katz and the problems of coercion. This is in part because it would be redundant, but also because it would obscure a newer point of grave importance to devotees the world over.

First, we must retreat a bit a consider how Erik Kondo, or anyone in his situation, has come to write about devotees.
Overwhelmingly these narratives of devoteeism as only coercive arise from negative experiences, either direct, anecdotal, or observed. When devotees are discussed in disabled circles it is almost always the result of, or quickly accompanied by, one or more stories of devotees abusing people with disabilities, either online, or in person, or by lying to them in a relationship. This is how we arrive.

Thus, it becomes very easy to conclude that all devotees are predatory and coercive. Reasoning in droves with swiftness and ease they absolutely do reach and preach this conclusion to the detriment of the rest of us. This is one of the more frequently vexing aspects of discussing devotees at all.

It is wrong though to blame the disabled for doing so. Given the greater likelihood for physical and sexual assault the disabled face, they are only acting in their best interests. It is, of course, vital that we seek to correct these distortions, though if you've ever tried doing this, you can understand what a difficult endeavor it proves to be. Indeed, we have a pre-existing stigma placed on us, and this phenomena only works to create and reinforce false notions of devoteeism as unavoidably coercive.

When a coercive devotee steals a photograph, or sends someone a lewd message they harm the disabled. I've also argued that they end up harming themselves in the process. They also end up harming the rest of us. Those of us who do not act coercively must live with the burden they have created. Much of the stigma and oppression we face is a direct result of their selfish actions.

The utility of a single stolen photograph produces more harm for a greater number of people than the fleeting happiness it produces for the devotee who stole it. We, devotees opposed to sexual exploitation, are also victimized by their actions, and as such it is not merely through a duty to others, but to ourselves as well, that we ought to work, as Erik has done, to end these predatory practices.

Indeed, there are safe spaces of healthy, non-abusive, consensual devoteeism and we ought to work to ensure those grow. I've talked at length before about the ParaDevo boards commitment to railroading anything even suggestive of coercion, and of course the ParaDev blog which nurtures a community of devotee fiction (no pictures) which allows devotees to express their sexuality without involving people with disabilities. 

There is hope. I believe that we can peacefully coexist with the disabled online and off. However, before this can occur, we must change our thoughts and actions on the issue of coercion in our communities. It is not enough that we merely cultivate and nurture communities of healthy deovteeism, but we must also work actively in opposition to coercive devoteeism. We can not afford to turn a blind eye to these failings in ourselves, nor in others.

If you are currently engaged in coercive practices, I want to let you know that you don't have to. What you're doing is bad, but you can change. There is a way out, and there is no shame in speaking to someone if you feel you need help. This means putting others needs before your own pleasures. It may not be as “fun” as what you have come to know; though sometimes the most painful person to have to lie to is yourself.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Although this article gives plenty of information, it misses the target in one major area. That is, in spite of how loving a devotee believes himself/herself to be, the relationship with the diabled individual is based on enabling or victimization. For example, I have read comments made by amputee women who are so grateful for their devotee partners because without them they would have no love in their lives. This smacks of low self-esteem. The relationship reinforces needines or perhaps provides the devotee with attention i.e. such a hero for helping or being seen with her. It seems like co-dependency to me.