The theme of fetishism and disability came up in ribald and raunchy conversation during the Talking Dirty session at the Unlimited festival held at London’s Southbank Centre in September 2014.

A central theme of the festival, which celebrates disability arts in all its forms, was the importance of sexuality. During that particular session, a number of prominent disabled activists talked about the importance of speaking out about and celebrating sexuality. One panel member praised the beauty of another participant’s particularly well-shaped feet, saying she had been “given permission” to fetishise them. The discussion was good-humoured and funny, and an insight into an area of sexuality that has become increasingly of interest – and controversial – over recent years.

Mik Scarlet, one of the panel members, spent some time in the 1990s partying at fetish clubs with his wife, Diane. “We found that disabled people were accepted there. But when we talked about it on TV, it was presented as if ‘Diane likes [having sex with] Mik because he’s a cripple, and she likes [having sex with] cripples’. That taught us that when it comes to sex and disability, it can be presented as a freak show, if you’re not careful.”

What they want to stress, instead, is that the fetish scene is far less likely to reject people with impairments and that many people feel welcome in fetish clubs (some of which make demonstrable efforts to be accessible to disabled people).

A fetish is broadly defined as having a strong sexual response to an object, behaviour or type of person. People involved in the scene often self-define as ‘kinksters’. The fetish scene is booming in many Western cities and there are growing online fetishist forums, such as FetLife. As the British sex therapist Dr Tuppy Owens says in her new book, Supporting Disabled People With Their Sexual Lives: “Fetish clubs are more welcoming to disabled guests than most night clubs, and I feel sure this is because most disabled people and fetishists feel stigmatized.”

Some fetishes can become problematic for disabled people, however – for example, if their impairment becomes the object of sexual arousal in a way they find disturbing. There are many websites created by so-called ‘devotees’, usually men, who have a sexual attraction to amputee women or those with other impairments. Sometimes ‘wannabes’ – who desire the amputation of a limb themselves (a condition known as body integrity identity disorder) – also have a sexual attraction to amputees.

Some people with disabilities find this a tricky issue, but the reasons why are difficult to summarise. Disabled people are often disturbed by devotees who are attracted to an impairment per se, rather than the disabled person with the impairment. For instance, some devotees will collect photos (or even take photos, without permission) of disabled people’s body parts, to which they are ‘devoted’. Some might desire a relationship with a disabled person – for instance, a wheelchair user – not to promote their independence but to encourage their perceived helplessness.

Dr Kirsty Liddiard, a disabled sociologist at the University of Sheffield, explains some of the complexities: “I’ve met disabled women who like it [devoteeism] and were empowered by it – as empowering as being an object of desire can be... but, again, in the context of disability, this is very powerful. I've met disabled women (and men) who were disgusted by it.

“Where an objective desire excludes all else then it can enter problematic territory, but objective desire is OK if both parties are aware and acknowledge this in the exchange. Devoteeism can enter abusive territory very quickly, however.”

The unequal power dynamic manifests itself most clearly online, where you can find websites on which desperate amputees in low-income countries offer photographs of themselves and their impairments for sale to devotees – sometimes to pay medical bills.

This feels dehumanising and ultimately disempowering for people who have to deploy their impairment as a sex object for money. If a devotee is taking photos of disabled people (in some cases, children) without permission, that is equally disempowering and – akin to wolf-whistling in the street – makes their very presence sexualised, whether they want it to be or not. The fact that it is disabled women, rather than men, who are primarily the object of disability fetishism suggests a very disturbing trend. 

Note on terminology: The author has used language that disabled people employ to describe themselves in the UK. Terminology is different in other countries, so where contributors from other countries have used different vocabulary, that has been preserved. Any offense is inadvertent.

By Katharine Quarmby, a contributing editor at Newsweek Europe who has worked as a journalist for the BBC, including stints as Newsnight’s science and politics producer, and at The Economist, as well as contributing to other papers. She tweets @KatharineQ. This story first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.