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.
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
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
Lookthat was a prime fetishand 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
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 connotationitself
highly fetishizedwhich 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 tendencywhich society
defines as "unhealthy"is programmed into us biologically as
males. The content, however, varies: muscles this decade, mustaches
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 fetishone
that I think is very important to talk about with respect to disabled
menand that's the emotional component, the emotional fetish,
if you will. People have a very strong imageand I use that
word to bring in the visual connotation, they have an image emotionallyof
what is going to be fulfilling for them, even solve their problems.
That emotional sense is even more fetishized, I think, than the
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 prizedis, 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.
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!
things even more, the opposite
was true as well. Women's special abilities were fetishizedthe
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
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 Saintand 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
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
mannerat 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 tooshall we call ittopheavy; 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!"
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
fetishas 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
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
Now, while physical perfection
seems a quintessential gay male icondon'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
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,
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
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
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 fetisha big motorcyclewhatever 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 stumpbut 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
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 attractionanatomical or prostheticnearly
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 aroundthe way I don't doubt many disabled men
would preferbut 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
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.
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
BG: Speaking personally,
I can tell you you are absolutely right.
AS: So maybe itwhatever
body part or "condition" the disabled owner is unhappy withbecomes
in his own eyes un-sexual, a reason for rejection.
BG: Yes. Those
body parts become emblems of shame and disgrace, never badges of
AS: Exactly. Except to peoplewe've
agreed for this conversation to call them fetishistswho 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
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.
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 knowand I've never met people like this, but maybe
through BENT they can talk to usis, 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
BG: Yes. Or missing
body parts, or "disfigured" body parts. What I told myself at the
timeand now I'm reexamining it all in light of this conversationwas
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 inclinedfor well-known reasonsto 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
BG: Of course
they're not all creeps. But, again, what's operative here is the
small number of men we're dealing witha 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.
AS: Yes, but it might be very
usefuland 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
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,
stylesthat 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 youwe, all of ushave 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 becauseand I wish I knew more about this so I could
make a stronger casebut 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.
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.
way of helping someone say, "Hmmm. I happen to bethough not
by choicea 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 goldthat'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 onfetishizing!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
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
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 email@example.com.
-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.