Sunday, June 3, 2012

Defining Devotees, Pretenders, and Wannabes/Transabled

Definitions are not to be taken lightly. Linguists will tell you that while words may exhibit a great deal of variance based only on context, there are some aspects which seem to be entirely intrinsic. The study of these is called Semantics, and it is a bit of a slippery fish.

Let's suppose you are trying to come up with a definition of dogs which would allow you to distinguish every dog from everything else in the universe. The following definition certainly seems reasonable, “A dog is a quadrupedal land mammal with fur and a tail; it barks, eats meat, and lives with people.” However, the Basenji doesn't bark, the Mexican Hairless is of course hairless, and furthermore some dogs are wild. This goes on and on to what some see as ridiculous lengths until we end up asking what is common to a picture of a pipe, the word 'pipe', and a pipe itself.

This might seem too abstract and theoretical to ever apply to any of our lives, so let's look at an historical example. Race relations as we know them in the United States owe their legacy to a Swiss Biologist named Carl Linnaeus whose most enduring contributions to science were his works in Taxonomy and the creation of binomial nomenclature (L. canis lupus etc.) Taxonomy, you may recall from Biology when you were made to memorize, by whatever cheeky mnemonic, the following categories: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

It's an old idea which ultimately stretches back to Aristotle's concept of “categories”. So taken was Linnaeus with Taxonomy that he set out to categorize everything in the natural world up to and including humans. While he certainly did a great deal to advance our understanding of and ability to talk about the natural world, in some ways he was blithely na├»ve.

Regrettably, Linnaeus did end up classifying people according to their skin color which naturally paved the way for more than two hundred years of heartache and bloodshed, whose ill effects are still being felt to this day. So, while I am certainly no Linneaus, I still feel a measure of trepidation as I approach this task.

Here, I will do my best to describe as accurately as possible my community and its various sub-groups with which I am not as familiar. While I certainly care about doing this right, I am limited in many ways. There is a strikingly spare amount of empirical data available about devotees and so I have little to rely on save for my own observations which naturally taint any effort toward objectivity.

That being said...

There appear to be three primary categories people in this community tend to fall into. The main categories provided here have been created by these people, and are frequently listed in this order, to describe and distinguish themselves from others both in and outside of their community. There are though, a number of people who occupy more than one category, or all three.

It is wise though to treat these not as rules of human behavior, but rather a simple guide to some of the more common forms. There are quite likely more varieties than those described below. One key concept stressed in this entry is that human behavior is rarely so neatly compartmentalized. There are absolutely cases of overlap between the three main categories, and even within each category between its sub-varieties; thus the situation is potentially much more complex than what is presented here. Each person in any of these categories has a different life story and thus a different set of circumstances from which they approach these issues and thus the subject of dis/ability in general. It is dangerously reductive to suggest that we could understand an individual's current situation, development, etc. based on these labels alone.

Devotees (D) People identifying as devotees have an attraction which is in some way connected to disability. There are devotees representing many different ages, races, income levels, national origins, genders, sexual orientations, and even states of dis/ability. However, one of the only stable and unifying points found in research regarding devotees is that something around 90-95% of them are men.

Currently amputee devotees seem to be the most common form, though this likely changes as disability does in society (i.e. during the polio epidemic of the 1950's) Some devotees are attracted to or by one specific disability (i.e. right above the knee amputees), a handful of seemingly unrelated disabilities (i.e. quadriplegia, blindness, and cerebral palsy), or sometimes to or by a certain class of disabilities (i.e. mobility impairments). Some though may be specifically attracted to or by the assistive devices involved, and thus the presence of a disability in their partner is of lesser or sometimes no importance. Thus pretenders and wannabes/transabled people end up abused in many of the same ways. Some even prefer able bodied partners who pretend to have a disability. This is an important distinction to draw.

Naturally there are those who may share varying types of attractions. For example it is not uncommon to find some devotees who are attracted to people with disabilities as well as certain assistive devices involved. These attractions though are not always in equal proportion, and this point must be stressed.

Some devotees, for example, are only attracted to people with disabilities, and some are only attracted to people who use assistive devices (for any reason). Some though are attracted to people with disabilities, and people without disabilities; they can function sexually without the presence disability or assistive devices, though they may prefer or enjoy them from time to time.

In Psychology there is a concept called “paraphilia” which, in the DSM: IV at least, originally refers to a disorder whereby a person must have a given non-human object present in order to achieve orgasm. This has been somewhat revised with the inclusion of a paraphilia called “partialism” referring to a paraphilic focus on a certain body part (conventionally, big breasts, though in devotees this can be understood as being attracted to the disability itself regardless of the person involved) The general name for the paraphilias associated with devotees are “abasiophilia” and “acromotomophilia”, though there has been very little research into these. Generally speaking, once a person has a acquired a paraphilia (any paraphilia) or a psychologically significant kinky attraction, they do not go away, and there are few proven methods of eliminating these desires.

As has been implied, not all devotees are paraphiliacs, though some are. This is a phenomenon we can see repeated in BDSM culture as well. Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy have talked about “kinky” sex existing on a continuum instead of a binary “you-are-or-you-aren't” mode of being. Some people enjoy sex accompanied by elaborate scenarios with lots of whips, knots and leather, and some people may enjoy the thrills of riding a fast paced roller coaster, and having “vanilla” sex afterward. In either case , to hear Easton and Hardy tell it, these people are playing with the same emotional “energy”, even though each may think the other to be weird.

[Note: Just to clarify any speculations which may arise, there is no known limit on the number of paraphilias one person may have. However; in one text I found, which had a heavy diagnostic emphasis, the authors had found one documented case of a man who reported having nine paraphilias. It's the largest number I, or the authors of that text, have been able find.]


Pretenders (P) – Pretenders, as the name implies, pretend that they have some sort of disability or disabilities. The population for pretenders is just as wide as that of devotees, though they have been studied even less and there is relatively nothing empirical to draw from. Pretenders here are distinguished from people who pretend to have a disability in order to qualify for benefits from the government, insurance companies, to avoid armed service, etc. Pretenders find that they are driven to pretend not by any financial, legal, or other outside incentive, but by the act itself.

As with devotees, it appears that amputee pretenders are more common, though there are those who pretend they have many other types of disabilities. Pretending, it must be noted, can be done in the absence of assistive devices (supposing they are even necessary to simulate the given disability), though generally it seems that the more important a device is for someone with a given disability to accomplish ADL (Activities of Daily Living) the more important it will be to the pretender.

Some pretenders are very secretive and will only pretend unobserved in some safe isolated space, usually the home, though others enjoy going out in public. Some only go out in public to relatively deserted places or at night when they are sure they will not be seen, though others enjoy going out in public during regular business hours and interacting with others, some even going so far as to take full vacations simulating their given disability. I have known a few who sought mental health counseling and were encouraged to periodically go out on pretending trips far away from home, as the practitioner felt it was easily analogous to cross dressing, for which a similar “treatment” is often advised.

There are debates among pretenders who do venture outside the home about how to behave in public. Some believe it is appropriate to use adapted bathroom stalls, hotel rooms, ramps, and even accept discounts etc. though others do not. This is part of a larger discussion about to how present one's self when in public so as to avoid defaming the disabled by acting too rude or helpless etc. It is hard to draw a consensus here, though what I have seen from those who have regular internet access and are brave enough to talk about it, most agree care should be taken to avoid rudeness etc. Opinions though do differ, often fervently, on whether or not to use bathroom stalls, and other services which may cause the pretender to interfere in the life of someone with a disability.

As with devotees there are many reasons pretenders find themselves wanting to pretend. There are pretenders who are simply fascinated with the given assistive devices. For example I have known some groups of pretenders who enjoyed toying with and customizing wheelchairs the same way some people enjoy toying with and customizing cars. Some I've known enjoy toying with both in the same manner. In some ways it appears as a fascination with alternate forms of mobility which has merely found its focus.

It is not uncommon though to hear other pretenders describing their pretending as similar to cross dressing. This is said speculatively by pretenders who have no history of cross dressing, though it is also said by pretenders who have been life long members of the transgender/transsexual/transvestite /etc. community. Pretenders who cross dress have sometimes described their pretending as an extension of their cross dressing.

For some it may have a sexual dimension. If we understand that transvestite pretenders see their pretending as an extension of their crossdressing, then we may infer that perhaps for some pretenders who have a sexual dimension to their pretending it could be understood as similar to transvestic fetishists who are aroused by wearing clothing of another sex. Again, there are many overlaps between these three groups, and so we can understand that the devotee who is attracted not so much to the person with a disability as the assistive devices involved, may find enjoyment merely in various types of interaction with a given device, and thus also be a pretender, potentially at least.

There does exist a certain category of paraphilias which involves arousal associated with certain conditions being applied to the self. Autogynophilia involves feelings of arousal of having the genitalia of the opposite sex. This specifically applies to male identified people, and is curiously more often discussed than its female counterpart. It is likely then that there are also pretenders who are aroused at the idea of being disabled, and pretending for them may sometimes be an extension of that. However, just because a pretender is aroused at the idea of being disabled, and pretends to aid in this arousal, we still can not claim that every act of pretending is taken toward this end. This is one of the more frustrating aspects of classifying mental events based only on things like behavior and stated desire. Perhaps we will one day see neuroscience shed some light on this matter.

Pretending is not limited to simply how one acts in real life. As social networking has reared its head certain forms of pretending have become more common.

When anyone creates a facebook profile and uploads a picture of themselves, it is unavoidably a picture from their past; this is the nature of the medium. Sometimes the gap between the time the photo was taken and the present becomes excessively long, and the question of representation and reality is raised. The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote at length about such counterfeits, and their implications, before the internet was a whisper of what we know now. Without delving too deep though, my point is that Devotees, pretenders, and wannabes/transabled people find themselves amidst a world of false, or at least misleading appearances, and this leads to a number of quandries and abuses.

The most common abuse we find is that of devotees who will create fake profiles on social networking sites, presenting themselves as disabled (often with the aid of stolen photos), to gain the trust of disabled people, steal their photos, and perpetuate the cycle of abuse. This is problematic and widespread, though there is a problem here of how to classify this behavior and its perpetrators. Is it pretending?

The definition of pretending I have been working with is this, “Pretenders are driven to pretend not by any outside incentive, but by the act itself.” Pretending thus is autotelic, to use a technical term. It is an act performed as an end in itself. The devotee who creates a deliberately fake profile to lure the disabled into their gaze is thus not a pretender, but rather a coercive devotee.

Devoteeism, like literally every other sexual kink, thought, and emotional state, hurts no other person until it is in some way acted upon. While there is ample room for argument about how devotees may act upon their feelings, there is none here. This is just as coercive and damaging as a voyeur or exhibitionist.


Wannabes/Transabled (W/T) – There are two words in contemporary parlance to describe this group of people. Originally, they were called wannabes, though eventually Sean from Transabled.org felt that this did not adequately describe his condition, and thus he created his website. Here I must digress slightly...

I have seen the claim raised that the used of the prefix “trans-” by the transabled amounts to “cultural appropriation” of the larger trans* community. In many ways this is based on a poor understanding of the situation, though I can't say I blame transpeople for the misunderstanding. You'd have to be a dedicated reader of Transabled.org to catch Sean brining this up, but he is a longstanding member of the trans* community. He enjoys cross-dressing, and insofar as he created the term to clarify his situation, and he is to some degree a gender variant individual, it makes these already flimsy claims of appropriation more difficult to advance.

Getting back on topic though, people identifying as Transabled are indistinguishable from wannabes. What is different is not their pathology but rather how they articulate their feelings. “Wannabe” is a crude and simplistic term coined long ago and it in many ways misses the mark, yet despite this you will still find some people who prefer this term to Transabled.

There is an interesting phenomenon called Capgras' Delusion which has led to a lot of interesting speculation as of late. The patient, usually suffering from a traumatic brain injury damaging the section of the brain which maps their body, will find themselves utterly disavowing a certain body part. Specifically, there was one case where a man with this delusion swore that his left arm was not his own, but was some sort of counterfeit and demanded that it be removed.

It is here that the famous neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran found something of interest. We know that “errors” and “deformations” of all sorts occur as a child is being produced in the womb. These occur everywhere. The are genetic “errors” like Fragile X Syndrome, and “deformations” of the central nervous system like Spina Bifida. There are also similar “errors” in the development of the brain, and it would seem ridiculous to suggest that the area of the brain which maps the body would be somehow specially immune to the vicissitudes of human development.

The condition described by just such a congenital disorder is Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), and I'm sure you can imagine how controversial the issue is. This is especially true considering that BIID it arises in the context created by the previous three categories.

I would argue that not every person who experiences feelings of desiring a disability has BIID, even if they think they do. What is different about BIID as I understand it, is that unlike the other categories it is a bit easier to point to. Perhaps it can only be confirmed if an autopsy is done, though it is still something which has a more easily verifiable physical presence as opposed to feelings or memories which may exist only as a synaptic neurochemical current traversing the brain. However, because so little is known about BIID, I will avoid saying anymore.


* * *

What's really tragic is that despite the length of this piece and the tedious detail I've rendered the subject in, there is still more to cover. I have written about the three common categories and touched on some of the possible overlaps to give you an idea of how much more complex it may be. I have made a venn diagram which should help explain the other possible categories, though it must be understood that even this is shortsighted.

D = Devotee, P = Pretender, W/T = Wannabe/Transabled

I say these are possible categories because I haven't personally seen people who I would identify as hailing from certain overlapping categories, and more importantly I haven't met anyone who self identifies with many of them either. Also, the notion of someone being both a pretender and transabled gets very tricky. Transsexual people have often claimed that they do not cross dress, but rather dress to match their true selves. It's not hard to see how such an argument could arise with transabled people.

Devotees, Pretenders, and Wannabes do not exist in a vacuum, there are many other overlaps with other fetish communities. I have run across devotee furry art before, and devotee-pretenders who were also interested in robot porn. If you scan through most devotee porn vendors' back catalogs you'll find plenty of instances of models fulfilling what can only be fan requests for plenty of other fetishes, some relatively common, some quite obscure.

Often when considering any of these categories and the people who inhabit them, there are attempts to understand why they feel and act the way they do. People in these categories often undergo a similar, and sometimes more distressing version of that experience. There are many common theories, such as a deeper unconscious need for, or attraction to, the special attention surrounding disability, or some level of excitement derived from playing with an imbalanced power dynamic. These rarely prove effective because too often there is a belief that one or two of these can explain away the whole of DPW/T behavior, though, as has been covered, when looking at human behavior, especially an individual, there is frequently a plurality of causes.

Regarding causes and motivations, if I desire to write truly then I may only speak for myself. I have been to multiple mental health professionals employing a variety of approaches in an attempt to understand myself. One of the most prominent common threads held by all of them has been a focus less on causes and cures, and more on how to accept yourself as you are, and live a healthy and fulfilling life. Perhaps others could benefit from adopting such a strategy.

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