HOW TO FIND LOVE
WITH A FETISHIST

BENT editor Bob Guter
talks to psychotherapist Alan Sable
about the difficult dynamic between men who desire
disabled men and the objects of their desire.

The images that accompany this interview are the work of San Francisco photographer Chris Komater. To see more of Chris's work, go to www.chriskomater.com.
All photographs © 2001 Chris Komater.

 

AS: I want to start with a disclaimer. I'm not an "expert" in this area, which is probably a good thing. I've been a psychotherapist working with gay people for about twenty years. During that time I've talked a great deal about fetishes and fetishism, but I'll admit I knew nothing about disability fetishism in particular until several years ago when a client mentioned it. So I bring both experience and naiveté to the subject.

An observation I've always made regarding other fetishes I've worked with is that all fetishes are essentially similar. I'm making the same assumption about disability fetishism. I'm sure this generalization, however true, also loses something, because each fetish is imbued with its own richness and specificity. But to the degree that the disability fetish has a lot in common with other fetishes, what I'm going to say may be helpful. I may also miss a great deal, probably things only a fetishist could tell us, which is one reason you should consider interviewing a fetishist.

BG: I understand that your perspective is not that of someone who "owns" the disability fetish, but the viewpoint of a professional and unbiased observer. Before we began running the tape, you put the discussion in context by observing that we're a fetishistic society across the board, whether we're gazing at sculpted pecs as a sexual fetish or drinking a ridiculously expensive bottle of Italian mineral water as a kind of socioeconomic fetish. Can you talk a little about some of the sexual fetishes we may be more familiar with, to give us a point of reference from which to start our search?

AS: I think there are two great components to a fetish. The first is the predominantly visual, which comes across in the various "looks" we are familiar with in the gay world. In my time as a gay man it started with the Clone Look—that was a prime fetish—and the associated Leather Look. Those were definite looks, or fetishes, if you will. They are still around, but the Look of the Moment happens to be the Muscle Look. Michelangelo Signorile wrote about all this in Life Outside.

Clustered around the dominant Look of the Moment are the many variations that appear and reappear, like the Young Waif, the Grungy Guy, the Attractive-Younger-Guy-Who . . .

BG: As you describe these variations I'm beginning to wonder: what is a fetish and what is merely a look?

AS: Exactly. Can an ordinary look be a fetish? I have been using the word fetish with gay abandon to make a point, which is that the word itself has a connotation—itself highly fetishized—which I, and I suspect many of us, have trouble with. It's a judgmental word growing out of a clinical perspective, one that says it's unhealthy by definition. We're stuck with a pejorative term, and I think its built-in negativity is a reflection of what the clinical word actually describes. It suggests that you fail to involve yourself with the real human being, that you're only involved with an external, superficial, visual thing, whether it's a muscle or a mustache or whatever.

This is the heart of the clinical meaning of the word. And yet I suspect the tendency—which society defines as "unhealthy"—is programmed into us biologically as males. The content, however, varies: muscles this decade, mustaches the last.

BG: You've already enlarged my understanding of the definition of fetishism. I remember reading a contraband copy of Studies in the Psychology of Sex when I was about fourteen. Reading those Edwardian British case histories was an enormous turn-on, from which I got the idea that a fetish involves things like gripping a riding crop in one hand and your penis in the other, or masturbating over Lady Wimbley's silk reticule that you'd filched while she was having tea with Mother. The idea is that sexual gratification involves having the desired object readily "at hand," so to speak.

AS: Yes. Remember, the riding crop and silk reticule are both symbols of Looks. Remember also that, while masturbating over the reticule would be considered pathological, dreamily dissociating while clutching a lock of the same lady's hair, symbolic of the same Look, was an "approved" fetish.

BG: So the tendency to fetishize is preprogrammed, you say, whereas content is more culturally and historically induced?

AS: Yes. And this is where I want to bring in the second great component of a fetish—one that I think is very important to talk about with respect to disabled men—and that's the emotional component, the emotional fetish, if you will. People have a very strong image—and I use that word to bring in the visual connotation, they have an image emotionally—of what is going to be fulfilling for them, even solve their problems. That emotional sense is even more fetishized, I think, than the visual.

Sometimes it's feeling that I need a Big Strong Cop; it can be needing the Wonderful Husband, if you're into the domestic scene; or the Perfect Lover, if you're a Romantic. Another version is the Daddy, or alternately, the Son. And I think yet another version involves the Abled and the Disabled. Often the fetish is something we ourselves don't have, whether it's big muscles or a certain kind of "masculine" look. The do-have/don't-have contrast can be translated into connotations of "top" and "bottom." And, just as we can treat muscles as a fetish, we can treat ability the same way: the Sports Hero, for instance, is a society-wide fetish. Think of how his sweaty shirt is prized—is, in fact, fetishized.

BG: The sweaty shirt that some guys would love to imagine masturbating over.

AS: Exactly! Ability is a socially-approved fetish, with those having less of it tending to fetishize it in those who have more of it. So, when we look at the Nondisabled who fetishize the Disabled, we find it's counter to, or the converse of, a dynamic that is a given fact in our society.

Keep in mind also that for every fetish there's a corresponding complementary fetish, or co-fetish. For every Bottom there's a Top. The Waif Kid needs somebody to come along and pull his life together, so the Dad steps in to take charge. But just as the Kid (who may be chronologically no kid) needs the Dad, the Dad figure needs the Kid.

"IN THE GAY SUBCULTURE,which fetishizes masculine beauty and perfection,disabled gay men have a problem from the start."

I find this aspect a positive one, for reasons which I will go on to discuss. Traditionally, we've seen this kind of fetishism operating between men and women. Men have forced women to be, or to seem to be, less able, which led to the fetishizing of women's inability, or disability, if you will, the idea that women were attractive because they were the "weaker vessel." Lady Wimbley's soft, vulnerable, feminine silk reticule is, in fact, a disability fetish!

To complicate things even more, the opposite was true as well. Women's special abilities were fetishized—the idea that women were attractive because they could do things men couldn't do, like all the female abilities that centered around nurturing, caretaking and intuition, for example. Or, on a trivial, joking level, "A man just can't seem to wash a dish properly"—unless he's gay, of course. So you can see that there are many, many fetishes around issues of ability and disability, and from both sides. This is an important part of the context of our discussion of disability fetishism.

I think that what readers of this webzine are going to be interested in is how physical disability, whether visible or not, becomes an emotional icon, or symbol for the fetishist. I think it's primarily because it's a way to care for someone, a way to approach someone vulnerable. Which is also saying it's a way to see someone as approachable. Just as gay men are attracted to the "masculine," partly because it's seen as powerful and even, in fantasy, invulnerable, all of which is easily fetishized, all that invulnerability and power is not always approachable, and so we find the emotional counter-fetish that involves someone we can care for, the man who needs our help.

The person in need can be the Cute Young Kid, with obvious needs, or the Big Hunky Guy who needs a good Husband/Wife behind him to keep the shirts ironed and the checkbook balanced. For essentially those same reasons, I think, some nondisabled men are prompted to love someone disabled, because that person is perceived as someone to be cared for. So in these ways I do not see the disability fetish as intrinsically strange, because it is constituted similarly to the others. But it must be comparatively rare numerically, which would explain why I never ran into it in twenty years of professional or social life.

BG: Its comparative rarity may be hard to assess. I do know that you now can find a fair amount of disability fetishism online.

AS: That's interesting. Perhaps more people are coming out with this fetish than before. I'm sure it exhibits "dark" sides, too. Undoubtedly some nondisabled men feel, "Oh, I'm not very good-looking, but this disabled guy will find me appealing simply because I'm abled." Again, this sort of calculation would not be unique to the disability fetish. Another problematic side would be the nondisabled's stereotype of the disabled person as The Saint—and wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all marry Saints! This Saint-with-a-Disability will be a caring person, someone who has suffered a lot, a wonderful person who has overcome his disability, who has climbed Mt. Everest in a wheelchair, so imagine what he's going to do for me emotionally!

BG: And furthermore he's going to be appealingly innocent sexually because he's had no experience.

AS: Right. Absolutely! He'll find me really hot; he'll appreciate me. I'm also hypothesizing that the fetishist of the disabled may also tend to be what I call an Emotional Top, someone who likes to be in control of the emotional field between himself and another; and that the disabled person, to respond to that fetish, has to be in some ways a Bottom, has to be someone who is going to be responsive to the emotional needs of this "more masculine" or more powerful person, the Abled person.

And so when you get a disabled person who does not have that personality, who doesn't have that interest, he's not going to respond to being fetishisized that way. Suppose he isn't a Saint. Or suppose he's the Emotional Top. He's not going to want to be fetishized in that manner—at any rate according to this hypothesis.

A further problem is that many disabled people are, in my experience, highly able, emotionally and physically. They can, in fact, take care of themselves very well, which does not make them good candidates for caretaking. Remember, fetishes have to fit. If you want to be a Cop and you want me to be a Robber, I have to find it in me to want to be a Robber. Two Cops are not going to work. Or two Daddies or two Sons. And my guess is (and this is where I don't know enough to outline it in detail) that the Ablebodied man who fetishizes the Disabled man is going to want to care for that person. But suppose the caregiver's emotional needs are too—shall we call it—topheavy; the would-be caregiver may wrest security and power from the other's disability. He may want to give a lot but also control a lot. Turn up the darkness and dysfunction, and in that way the Helper can easily turn into a Nurse Ratchet.

BG: I had one very bad experience with someone who matched precisely the profile you're describing. It was hellish and it took me eighteen months to extricate myself from the relationship. He was exactly the controlling kind of Emotional Top you described, and I was not prepared to be the Emotional Bottom in the almost caricatured way that would have made him happy. And, again, like you, I'm not talking about sexual mechanics at all, but much more subtle issues. He was determined to help me whether I needed it or not!

There's one incident I'll never forget. We were at a restaurant with two friends. In the past I had said to Danny, "You know, I really don't need any help cutting my meat" (even though I don't have much of a right hand). Well, it seemed I finally got this across to him. So there we four were and I ordered a whole lobster, which can be messy to handle even for people with the full complement of fingers. Noticing that I was having some trouble, the friend to my right asked, very casually, very appropriately, "Can I help with that?" To which Dan replied, loudly, too loudly for a public place: "You touch that lobster and I'll break your hand!"

AS: He wanted to do the lobster.

BG: Or an even finer nuance: if he was prevented from helping me, nobody else was going to get away with it.

AS: That's a fine example of the absence of the complementary fetish: he obviously felt a need to take care of you in a way that you did not need.

BG: In a way that I found demeaning. Alan, the way you're describing the disability fetish—as involving an Emotional Top with a need to take care of someone he sees as vulnerable— that seems terribly unappealing to me, since the whole dynamic is informed by the belief-system: disabled equals needing care. That equation is a real red flag.

AS: Yes. Like many disabled people you tend to be extremely able, you can indeed cut your meat. You've had, I imagine, to learn very consciously to do certain things that the rest of us take for granted. You're responsible; you like to do things for yourself and you, like the rest of us, like to be in control.

So Danny was coming into direct conflict with your own need for power and agency. I imagine that kind of clash occurs frequently in the experience of your readers. That being said, I believe that most disabled men, like most people, want to be loved. And, like most gay men, I believe they want to be loved through their bodies.

Now, while physical perfection seems a quintessential gay male icon—don't we, all of us, want to have powerful, sexy, perfect bodies . . .

BG: . . . perfect, symmetrical bodies; I also think that the ideal of symmetry equaling beauty is something that's built into us.

AS: Yes, maybe biologically, as some think, and without a doubt culturally. That's an age-old image of beauty, at least in the West. If the disabled are not seen as symmetrical, they may not be seen as graceful, as powerful, as "perfect" and thus, by extension, as masculine. In the gay subculture, which fetishizes masculine beauty and perfection, disabled gay men have a problem from the start.

Now the "secret" that all therapists know is that all gay men, no matter how gorgeous, have been rejected many, many times, and are deeply wounded by that. Virtually all gay kids were rejected, even self-rejected, simply because of their gayness. And even if they grow up to be beautiful swans they still conceal an ugly duckling, the rejected part, which, in one way and another, continues to suffer rejection! Those gym-toned hunks are rejecting each other all the time. And, sometimes, we lesser mortals reject them.

I mean, just go into any porn store and you'll see maybe a hundred magazines, each with an impossibly glamorous porn star on the cover. And what do we do? We casually pass up most of them, pick up a few, put them down. These gorgeous men who are paid to have their pictures out there, are rejected all the time!

BG: Men are extraordinarily picky, looking for specific . . .

AS: Inherently, essentially fetishistic, you see.

BG: I do begin to see what you mean. We men connect with something and often we can't even consciously identify what it means to us. Which is perhaps why we're always ready to laugh at the preferred fetishes of our friends, what gets them in a lather, erotically speaking.

AS: You're exactly right. There is all this pickiness, everyone is trying to look perfect, yet everyone in the gay world is supersensitive about rejection because it's happened to all of us. Probably the central experience of gay life is rejection.

BG: Not just rejection in love, either. Rejection by parents, by straight peers, by other gay men, by God . . .

AS: Then on top of all that, disabled gay men have various body types that are not now, never have been, and may well never be, seen as perfect, almost by definition. So given this perfection-obsession that is so much a part of masculine fantasy life, disabled men are going to endure a double dose of rejection. Now here is where the big question, the startling question, arises: Is it possible that the fetish element might be useful to disabled men?

BG: This is a startling question. And shocking. The answer you imply is: Yes, the disability fetish can be useful to us.

AS: It is a very radical-seeming idea. Let me try to lay out the basis of my inquiry. Firstly, some qualifications: I am aware we haven't yet fully dealt with the problem of the disability fetish's inbuilt potential to lead to a clash over caregiving of the kind you experienced with Danny. I'm proposing we put that problem aside for a moment, to be looked at again later. The other qualification, of course, is that I'm aware that not all disabled men will be interested in nondisabled men. This inquiry will only be of interest to those who are.

To begin with, let's think of what most men do. They fasten on a part of their body they believe comes closest to the ideal, a part that at least some people will like, and they emphasize that part. They allow it to be fetishized and presented to the world. Currently that means guys go for hours and hours and weeks and weeks and years and years to the gym to get big muscles. Then there are men blessed with big cocks, and they show them off and emphasize that attribute as a way of connecting. Or a guy wears leathers, or chaps with a bare butt because he thinks they flatter his body type. Or maybe he buys the fetish—a big motorcycle—whatever he believes will draw men to him.

Fetishes are important to gay men, the whole culture is highly fetishized. In a funny way, disabled men have a built-in fetish for those who are into their disability.

BG: The only problem being, a lot of us crips, maybe most of us, tend to be turned off by this fact. I've spoken to many guys who have found the attention of their nondisabled admirers a little bit, how shall I say this, "single-minded." Oh, Hell, kinky is what I mean. One friend calls them the droolers. Another friend, an amputee, put it this way: "Love me, love my stump—but love me first!" His point being that he wanted to be loved for the totality of himself and that if his stump provided a jolt of additional sexual energy, great, but he does not want to play "also-ran" to his own stump.

AS: You know, and this is the point I would like us to consider: It may simply be a question of waiting for the shift in attention. In gay life, whether it's biceps or a mustache or glasses or crutches or a stump, I believe that the physical attraction—anatomical or prosthetic—nearly always comes first. Then, if it's longer than a one-night stand, the physically appealing parts begin to get folded into the whole personality, not the other way around. 0f course, it can happen the other way around—the way I don't doubt many disabled men would prefer—but I strongly believe this is how it usually is for us gay men.

Don't we all look at the "fetish" first, then the person? One conclusion you could come to is: If someone is interested in what you've got, play that card. So my hope, my wish, for the disabled man is that he may achieve some measure of comfort in playing the card he has.

BG: This is radical. If I understand you, what you're saying to disabled readers is: The disability fetish may be the road leading to the intimate relationship you want, so wouldn't it be useful if you could accept this kind of attention? Even more radical: from what you said earlier about corresponding co-fetishes (the Daddy's Son, the Robber's Cop), are you wondering about men with disabilities actually getting into the fetish?

AS: Yes, it's all very well to be sitting here theorizing, but we are now down to the wire. This is where the disability fetish is different from the other fetishes. Let's look at that. Say you happen to have a big dick. You can certainly use that as your calling card. It's easy for you to use because you probably value a big dick, too. You think, "Ah, well that's sexy, and I've got one of those sexy things, so I'll use it." But if you're disabled, you probably don't think your "other stump," if that's your disability, is as sexy as that first one. You are probably not going to see it as a sexual thing, but as an object very, very different.

"SO GIVEN THIS PERFECTION-OBSESSION that is so much a part of masculine fantasy life, disabled men are going to endure a double dose of rejection. Now here is where the big question, the startling question, arises: Is it possible that the fetish element might be useful to disabled men?"

BG: Speaking personally, I can tell you you are absolutely right.

AS: So maybe it—whatever body part or "condition" the disabled owner is unhappy with—becomes in his own eyes un-sexual, a reason for rejection.

BG: Yes. Those body parts become emblems of shame and disgrace, never badges of erotic power.

AS: Exactly. Except to people—we've agreed for this conversation to call them fetishists—who are turned on by the stump or whatever other . . .

BG: I think we've gotten hung up on stumps! Probably my fault . . .

AS: We've been using "stump" to stand in for the whole range of disabilities. It's a handy symbol because it's so phallic. The point we don't want to lose here is that the man who is turned on by certain physical parts or features has already sexualized them, whereas the chance that the disabled owner of those parts is going to eroticize them is small. To him they have a different meaning, probably a very anti-sexual meaning. They have been incorporated into the feeling that, "Gee, I'm not attractive, I'll never find someone." It's the part of his body that feels least erotic, even though to the admirer it may feel most sexual.

It's asking the disabled man to do a lot to eroticize, to fetishize, something he has anti-fetishized. Whereas if you're turned on by sculpted abs, it won't be difficult to find someone with those abs who thinks they're as sexy as you do, who wants to show them off, who wants you to admire them. As with the conflict over emotional dependence we talked about earlier, what we're describing is another way of talking about the lack of congruity between the admirer and the object of the admiration.

BG: Those simple words sound painlessly clinical, yet what they describe is very, very painful to feel.

AS: Yes. And because this is so painful, and so crucial and specific, let me see if I can summarize where we are in this exploration. I believe that gay men often meet through a fetish. You like big cocks. I've got a big cock, we can make music. And then maybe we'll fall in love. So I do think that most gay men love the cock first and then the person. And that's easy to fetishize both ways, because everything in gay culture says "big-cock-equals-sexy."

But suppose I see you on crutches and a man with crutches is my ideal, for whatever reason in my personal history. But you think your crutches and perhaps your thin legs are ugly, so you won't be in a position even to try to understand my attraction. You may be frightened by my attraction. Your whole psycho-sexual history will be threatened by my interest because you have spent your life dis-identifying with those parts instead of identifying with them. You and I may be disposed to like each other in a number of ways, but how on earth do we make music when we're in such emotional conflict on this pivotal issue? Is there even a way of getting through the issue?

BG: I agree that this is the core question. It's not so important, in practice, to ask where the disability fetish came from. It's more important to ask what do we do about it and with it in terms of relationships?

AS: So, how do we continue the investigation? Where can we find the data? One of the things I would like to know—and I've never met people like this, but maybe through BENT they can talk to us—is, what about disabled and nondisabled guys who make it, because their fetishes are complementary? The nondisabled guy who likes what the disabled guy has got and the disabled guy who likes his own stuff well enough so that he can say, "Yeah, let's go for it!"

BG: I don't know how typical I am, but I've had experiences that cover some of this territory. With most of the men I've had sex with there was no reference, even implicit, to fascination (or revulsion) with my disabled status or particular body parts; however I have made it with a small number of guys who flagged themselves as fetishists (though not one of them would have used that word, precisely because of the clinical, pejorative connotations you mentioned earlier). I met these guys through a personals ad many years ago, just after I had broken up with my partner of fifteen years.

Most of the men I met through that ad (which I ran in Jarrod International, a small, ahead-of-its-time personals publication, now defunct) I found incompatible. I found that they were, well, body-part obsessive is the only way I can describe it.

AS: You mean the disabled body parts?

BG: Yes. Or missing body parts, or "disfigured" body parts. What I told myself at the time—and now I'm reexamining it all in light of this conversation—was that their particular interest didn't disgust me, it just didn't turn me on. More often than not, the single-mindedness of their approach bored me. Of course, a good part of it may also have been a kind of general incompatibility on other grounds, like music, food and politics!

After about half-a-dozen such misfires, I did connect successfully with someone who found me attractive for many reasons, including my disability. Raoul was a desirable partner for me for innumerable reasons; for one thing, he didn't focus on body parts or disability per se. Furthermore, he seemed not to obsess emotionally over those same issues in the way you and I were discussing earlier. We didn't have a conflict over caretaking. His concern that I didn't overtax my physical resources was something I came to accept as useful to me, and I didn't experience myself as on the bottom emotionally, perhaps because I knew how dependent he was on my caretaking in many, many areas of his life. By stumbling along together, by default, and by practice, by talking to each other a lot, we found the kind of equilibrium that allowed us to function as a couple for quite a while.

AS: That is interesting. What happened to that relationship?

BG: His visa expired and he had to go back to Brazil. You know, for all the reasons we've discussed, I'm resistant to saying: Yes, the Disability Fetish did play a part in my relationship with Raoul. And yet, if you put this very broad frame around it, it becomes hard not to see it that way. I guess what confuses me is that I like the way you have broadened certain definitions, but if we broaden them too much the edges get so blurry that I find meaning evaporates. So I find what you're saying very liberating in one sense, but the broader it becomes the more difficult it is for me to hold onto it as an idea.

AS: And you see, that might be the healthy thing. Maybe the whole notion of fetish is oppressive, maybe we need to blur it out of existence, and to see that there are attractions that people have that we might at the present find unconventional, but the trick is to do what you and Raoul did, to allow time to subordinate those elements of attraction to the two people themselves, who are so much more complex and real. In that sense, the feeling that I come first and the fetish second is valid, the fetish has to be subordinate to the relationship. But, as we have seen, it is also true, that the physical attraction, the fetish, usually comes before the relationship.

BG: Sure. If I go into a bar, it's likely that the first man I find hot I'm attracted to because I like Roman noses and he's got the best example I've seen all week, not because I've chatted him up for half an hour first.

AS: Yes, exactly. Wherever on his body that "Roman nose" is! After all, the first thing we see is the first thing we see. In a situation like that, if you get from bar to bed you're still initially seeing him as an object. But even at that point the object is weighted with emotion. And certainly the objectified body of the disabled man is very weighted with emotion for both partners. But as we've noted before, it may be difficult to find congruent, complementary emotions that cluster around those desired objects, simply because most disabled men understandably prefer to have the fact of their disability, or its particular physical manifestation, noticed as little as possible.

BG: Oh, yes! In fact some of us still try to pass whenever we can and however preposterous the success of that goal may be.

AS: And there's the conflict, the incongruity again. The disabled man is trying to hide what his would-be partner may find inherently desirable.

BG: Yes, and, in my experience, it is not the only conflict attached to trying to hide my disability. I have noticed that I'm very much happier, more at ease when I'm over the stage of hiding, and here I'm not talking in the context of fetishists, but generally. When I was younger and in the market for sexual partners, I suffered great anxiety cruising somebody, but once we got past the point of shucking our clothes and getting into bed, for some reason I was OK.

"FETISHES ARE IMPORTANT TO GAY MEN. The whole culture is highly fetishized. In a funny way, disabled men have a built-in fetish for those who are into their disability."

AS: That's very interesting.

BG: It's as if once we got past the preliminaries, I could feel enough confidence that the guy found something attractive about me, and then once I got rid of the wooden legs, which I have a strong sense of not being me . . .

AS: Then it didn't matter.

BG: Then it didn't matter, because what they're getting is really me and, at a certain level, difficult as it might be to reach that level, I'm comfortable with me.

AS: And I think that's really the key, Bob, your accessing your own level of comfort. As you remove parts, your prostheses, that are not really you, and present who you actually are, by that time you have enough confidence in yourself and your partner for the night, that you feel at ease, you can offer your Self, which is a great turn-on. But I think a lot of people disengage from what they're offering. Sometimes, for example, gay men almost literally become their cocks. Listen to the personals; a lot of them say: "I'm seven inches." They over-identify with the cock, they over-fetishize it and their partners do, too. So it becomes more like two body parts having sex instead of two people

You know, underneath all this fetishistic disengagement from Self, I think one of our greatest difficulties, but one of our greatest desires, is to connect with another Self, something that doesn't come easily. When, having completed your undressing, you were suddenly offering your personhood to that trick, that was very appealing, in fact, because ultimately he wanted that.

BG: I can see that clearly now, although I don't think I saw it then, or at least not so clearly.

AS: I want to try again to go a little further here. I would like to suggest that, if you're comfortable with you, and if you are offering your Self, then it doesn't matter if the other person is fetishizing a part of you, because your Self permeates the part you're offering. I think it's possible to do both, to fetishize and to personalize, in parallel in the same relationship. It sounded to me, from what you said earlier, that something very like this may have occurred in your partnership with Raoul.

Now I have a question, or proposition to pose, which at this stage I will qualify as very tentative and simplistic. Maybe the key to success for disabled men who find themselves at the receiving end of the kind of attention we have been describing as the disability fetish is to offer the fetishized part, but to be sure to offer your Self with it. Admittedly, some fetishists will balk at that. They'll want only the part, because dealing with the human being is too complicated. This reminds me of what you said earlier about "droolers," those you see as absolutely unwilling or unable to connect. But I think even this can be reframed: I think almost every one of them would learn to connect, to personalize, if only given enough time. Of course, many will need much more time than most of their contacts would be able to stand, or would want to allow them.

BG: You're saying: If guys with disabilities could only stand the drooling long enough, then . . .

AS: . . . one day you might wake up and feel loved in a way that works. I humbly concede it's a very, very big IF, presupposing an all-but-saintly capacity for bringing the Self, and the desire to understand the partner, to the relationship.

BG: I think I understand what you're saying, and I believe that you're saying it not so much because you feel it's necessarily what we should do, but more to illustrate the map of the territory where, out of necessity, we disabled gay men find ourselves operating.

AS: Yes, exactly. It's less a should than a "what if?" There are many, many gaps remaining to be filled in. And the other thing I have of course been doing is focusing on the disabled man's side of the equation, principally because I have worked with a number of gay men with disabilities and have some little background in this area. We need to explore corresponding possibilities for behavior change on the part of the nondisabled fetishist. I'm sure of this, but, as I've said, I have never met such a person and, at this stage, can only speculate.

BG: Many of the personals ads I've read seem to cry out for understanding, but one aspect puzzles and irritates me: why are so many of these men so stuck on fetishizing particular and only particular disabilities? "I'm not interested in quads, thank you very much, I'm interested only in CPs with black hair and mustaches who use crutches, NOT a wheelchair." Apart from the difficulty of understanding why, doesn't this make a mockery of the endeavor to find someone? How many potential responders can possibly exist?

AS: It gets so narrow, right. But on the other hand, with the Internet and with journals like this one, there's a new sort of reality at work. You can find niches, sometimes. People do. BENT's personals listings might allow people the chance to find exactly what they desire, at least in terms of the category of person. And that can be just as true for your disabled advertisers as it is for the nondisabled ones. There's a big leap from the category to the actual person, but it's a start.

Given that caveat (and without minimizing its importance), I believe that something like the Internet is a much better vehicle than, say, the bars. My understanding is that cruising the bars is fraught with complications for gay men with disabilities. I'm sure you can speak to this.

BG: Absolutely. If I, obviously disabled, walk into a bar and cruise somebody I think is hot, what if he returns the look? I don't know if he's interested in my cruise or merely curious about my appearance.

AS: Right. Obviously physically disabled people are used to attracting attention. It's confusing because bar etiquette says that if you're looking, you're interested, but you can't assume that. If he's looking, he might not be interested; and conversely, because the disabled in our society are stigmatized, an interested nondisabled man might be embarrassed to make an overture, for fear of being associated with the stigma. So, if he's not looking, he may yet be interested.

BG: That's very true. Either way, many of us are sensitive to approaches from the nondisabled. We can be hard to cruise by them. Broadside targeting of disabled men by nondisabled men can be an instant turnoff. Too many unpleasant associations. When approached by Joe Nondisabled, the guy in the chair or the guy with the limp may or may not assess him for a fetishist . . .

AS: He may or may not be a drooler . . .

BG: But the disabled guy is all too likely going to assume, "Oh, no. Another idiot. Another pity-monger. Another creep."

AS: Yes. I've been acquainted with enough disabled people in therapy to recognize that as a powerfully negative counter-stereotype, arising for reasons which are very, very understandable: disabled people are subjected to all these kinds of undesired approaches. And yet I think it's important for the guy in the chair to be prepared to relinquish that stereotype, because the particular nondisabled guy in question may or may not be a creep.

And, you know, this word "creep" sets me thinking. Creep suggests someone with an agenda he's not telling you about. And this brings us back to trying to understand the guy with the disability fetish. You see, I think that the fetishizers of the disabled do have an agenda, as most people do. By agenda I mean the impulse to some kind of emotional/psychological working-through of something. If you're a fetishizer of the modern Muscle Man, the "normal" gay fetish, well, what's your agenda? Usually it's to work through your sense of insufficiency as a male. You do this by trying to get close to men who embody male sufficiency in an exaggerated way. You want that. And you're supposed to want it. It's the same agenda, in fact, as the Muscle Man has.

"IT'S ASKING THE DISABLED MAN A LOT to eroticize, to fetishize, something about his own body that he has anti-fetishized."

What is so striking to me about the disability fetish, by contrast, is that it's not the normal one; you're not supposed to have this one. This tells me that the person has something interesting about him, he has his own agenda that's specific, one that's not the usual prepackaged agenda sold to us. Now I think there's already evidence of sensitivity in that agenda, something of caring for a person, which is positive. And surely courage is something the fetishist must also have. He's taking a risk, as you point out, simply by approaching the object of his desire.

All of this tells me that there has to be a vulnerability to the person with this fetish, which we are inclined—for well-known reasons—to overlook. Even though we don't understand it at present, is it too much to ask disabled men to grant their admirers at least the acknowledgment of some underlying vulnerability?

BG: You have come up with another radical concept. That we may be so busy nursing our own vulnerabilities that we don't see anyone else's. The concept of "I'm not the only vulnerable person around here" certainly would tend to make the playing field more level. And it appears to tie in to some degree with what I said earlier about the many ways in which, with Raoul, I was the one looking after him. His vulnerabilities were accessible to me. We've come a long way in this conversation. What you have said makes me think we might even be able to discuss, well, strategies for the disabled gay man in the dating marketplace.

AS: Yes. It seems it may feel easier when you can take on board the possibility that the other guy has something he needs help with. Perhaps this is the hidden other side of the moon. So you might begin by trying to diminish your prejudice toward the fetishist, at least enough to test some of what I've been saying, by talking to these people, seeing what they're like. It could be that I have too indulgent a view. Maybe they are all creeps, but I doubt it.

BG: Of course they're not all creeps. But, again, what's operative here is the small number of men we're dealing with—a minority within a minority within a minority. Suppose a guy finds me attractive because I'm an amputee. So we go out for coffee and it turns out he's an opera queen and I'm a '49ers fan, he likes red meat and I'm a vegetarian.

AS: Granted. Although to pursue my point, I think this is precisely where the most useful testing can take place, in conditions where thoughts of romance have been abandoned. One of the absolutely most difficult things we face as gay men is making friends when one of us rejects the other sexually. That becomes a very hard friendship issue. We can only do boyfriends, tricks, lovers, and girlfriends. It's hard for us to befriend someone who rejects us sexually.

BG: Very hard.

AS: Yes, but it might be very useful—and interesting. Remember, it cuts both ways. It's equally hard for someone we reject. After all, what have you and I been talking about but a disabled man who rejects a fetishist? He may in fact, be especially vulnerable to such rejection. Now, might it be valuable for that disabled man to say to his suitor, "Look, I'm not interested at all in going to bed with someone who fetishizes my disability, but I'd like to get to know you and find out what makes you tick."

Here is where the other side of the equation comes in: surely this is where the fetishist has to be willing to make his leap in the direction of confronting those things which make him most vulnerable. Surely if he's sensitive, intelligent, and a little bit experienced, he'll be interested in learning to stop the exaggerated behavior you've called drooling and look at the realities of forging a relationship. So we come to see that what I said earlier was too simplistic. We see now that, if it is our hope for the disabled man to gain greater comfort in his dealings with the fetishist, we must also expect the fetishist to try to become comfortable with exposing his vulnerability to scrutiny.

I think these questions are not just rhetorical or hypothetical. From what I know about disabled gay men it seems they tend to think their best prospects are with men who just don't care about the disability, it's just not an issue, because they have so much else in common— interests, personalities, styles—that a disability is a minor dimension. Their hope is to find these men in the course of ordinary social life, which may include some forays into gay bars. Now, this is an attractive goal. But the problem of the minority within a minority within a minority applies here too. And what do you do while you're waiting to find just that right niche?

BG: Your analysis forces only one reply: Place a personals ad in BENT! Try your luck testing encounters with, among others, some of the people we've agreed to call fetishists.

AS: I think there is much to be gained, on both sides, by engaging in the dialogue.

BG: You're urging us to break through the impasse. I'm impelled to ask, then, What is your agenda?

AS: My agenda as a psychotherapist and as a person is always to encourage people's pursuit of intimacy. At this point in our discussion, not breaking through the impasse seems to me like settling for less. You see, and this is a kind of hobbyhorse of mine, I also want to say that I think the bars are rotten venues for disabled men. In fact, they're rotten venues for anybody who's looking for a relationship. Now one of the problems with what I've just said is that disabled men want sex, too, so why not go to a place where it's easy to find? But as a psychotherapist, I'm also saying (and this doesn't always go down well in the gay community) that love is more important than sex. And it's also true that disabled men are not going to do as well, in general, in the purely sexual arena.

The privilege of doing well, generally, in this arena, belongs to the nondisabled, the attractive, and the young. At some time you—we, all of us—have to say, "Well, I probably won't do well in that particular arena because I don't have those attributes." I run into this when counseling gay men who are getting older, and I say to them, "Look, even if you go to the gym every day, you're sixty-two years old. You will look like a sixty-two-year-old man who goes to the gym every day. Is it really worth the investment?"

The same with disabled men. As I see it, they need to say to themselves that that arena, the arena where guys are looking only for the stereotypical Body Beautiful, is not one where I may expect to excel. But who knows what I can do in the emotional arena? Now, this may seem ironic, but I think that disabled gay men's best chances in the emotional arena lie on the other side of the impasse presented by the disability fetish. This is because—and I wish I knew more about this so I could make a stronger case—but my guess is that the fetishizers of the disabled are going to be very strong and interesting people emotionally, as indicated by the fact that they haven't fallen for the standard fetishes.

They probably have a strong caring element, which is a valuable human capacity. They are persistent in the face of the rejection and the prejudice they encounter from disabled and nondisabled alike, which shows how very important and emotionally driven are their desires and their underlying vulnerabilities.

"I WOULD LIKE TO SUGGEST that if you're comfortable with you, and if you are offering your Self, then it doesn't matter if the other person is fetishizing a part of you, because your Self permeates the part you're offering."

BG: In my experience the caring sometimes doesn't show through the single-minded persistence.

AS: The potential negative character we mentioned earlier is the possible control-freak aspect. That can be a big negative, but lots of people have that anyway, without the disability fetish! I guess what I'm saying is: disabled men are probably going to do better going for the Gold, the solid, emotional connection with a partner, than they are going for the Silver, the superficial attraction of sex with such horny men as may be culled from the bars. And where to find the Gold? I think that we have, between us, made at least a case for the idea that a vein of solid, relational gold exists within every fetishist. As I see it, this gold offered by the fetishist may be more available to the disabled man than either the silver or the other gold, that harder-to-find lucky strike offered by men who are both congenial and have an entirely neutral stance in relation to disability.

BG: I find that analysis revelatory if only because of the way it flies in the face of convention. It's simply not the way society conditions us to think; it's not the way we have been raised to think; it's not the way our families have instructed us to think. And it's not the way our disabled peers advise us to think. Some of us have learned through much experience, not all of it easy, that your paradigm of mutual negotiation of the impasse can be a modus vivendi. And for those who haven't come so far, or who haven't been able to put their thinking into practice, it's very helpful to hear you lay it out so clearly.

It's a way of helping someone say, "Hmmm. I happen to be—though not by choice—a dealer in Asian art, but I seem to be surrounded by people who are collecting Frederick Remingtons. Maybe I ought to seek out the people who want Ming vases."

AS: Indeed. Asian art is of enormous value to a few, and collectors of it value it and love it. Why that perspective is valuable, Bob, is that it's the truth. One of the things I've found in psychotherapy and in my own life is that the thing that helps the most is the hard truth, the commodity we're apt to resist the most vigorously. In this case, the hard truths may be these: we happen to be a dealer in this commodity of our disability. We don't like it, but we can't escape the fact. For people like us the supply of casual sexual silver is unreliable. There is relational gold to be mined, but it lies within the hills we most fear approaching. In view of these things I think one of BENT's most important goals might be to encourage a greater dialogue between disabled men and those who find them attractive.

BG: I think so too, not least because the further truth is this: men with a disability fetish are out there anyway in sufficient numbers to have an impact on us. The creepy-seeming approaches on the street will continue, with or without BENT's mediation. Because the impact on us is intense, we disabled gay men need to acquire ways of dealing with it. And, if dealing with it brings us one step nearer to stumbling upon a nugget of gold—that's a bonus!

And I agree that we need to hear more from nondisabled men, telling us why they are attracted to disabled men. They have a lot to tell us about their successful emotional and sexual experiences and about their rejections. What does rejection mean to them? What does the pejorative way we're accustomed to thinking about them mean to them?

AS: They get rejected a lot, I'll bet, and harshly. And yet they still keep coming back for more. This certainly suggests to me that they need some special fulfillment that only the longed-for disabled partner can provide; it means yearning, vulnerability, wanting a gift from the disabled partner. The question then becomes what is the exact nature of the vulnerability and of the gift, and what does the disabled partner get in exchange?

BG: My understanding from our conversation so far is that the nondisabled man gains a sense of wholeness and masculinity, which for some reason he needs despite the fact that he seems to have those things already. But does this mean that the disabled man has to surrender his own need for masculinity and power?

AS: You see, that's the stereotyped, overfetishized analysis of the disability fetish. And clearly it has validity, as we have discussed, at any rate up to a point. What is equally clear, now, to me, is that there's something else we're just beginning to see. Stereotypes are never the whole story. As you say, the nondisabled fetishist would seem to have a sufficiency in masculine competence. And yet there is his underlying profound vulnerability, out of which comes the search for the gift that only the disabled partner can give.

That's the area in which the disabled partner has the deep power, the master card, he did not know he held, because he was focusing on—fetishizing!—the more superficial power and privilege which society confers upon Abled vis-à-vis Disabled. And that deep powerful hold the disabled partner may command over the other man is what I would examine carefully, because I don't know the answers. That's where we next need to go.

BG: And what do you say to those who may respond by saying, "This is all so much psycho-babble. These people with the disability fetish are SICK!"

AS: I would say this is a legitimate and understandable point of view, but you should know I think it will keep you this side of the impasse we have described, and I would invite you to look at what the implications are for you of keeping yourself on this side. To the extent that you are on the lookout for sickness, you will fear it and see it, and find it, and label it, and it will be real. And you will be doing exactly what nondisabled society does to the disabled.

If your greater interest is to look for connection, you will find that this inevitably means becoming curious about taking on some other guy's emotional baggage, finding that it's connected in some way with your own, and both of you somehow learning to bear the joint burden.

 

© 2001 Alan Sable and Robert P. Guter
An earlier version of this interview appeared in Able-Together magazine.

We are eager to continue examining the ideas that emerged from this interview. We invite readers who have had experience with the disability fetish, especially nondisabled men, to write to us at fetish@bentvoices.org. -Alan and Bob

Alan Sable is one of the first self-identified gay psychotherapists in the United States. He was educated at Stanford and Harvard and taught sociology at Harvard, Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. Interested in the social, familial and political forces affecting gay people, Alan sees the heart of his work as helping his clients with the need to love and be loved. Dr. Sable maintains a private practice in San Francisco. He can be reached at alansablesf@AOL.com.

 

BENT: A Journal of Cripgay Voices/May 2001