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Alison Kafer’s Desire and Disgust and Benevolent Sexism

By Caitlyn Flores


Far too often disabled individuals are subjected to marginalization and objectification for simply existing. In Desire and Disgust, Alison Kafer explores the dynamics of desire and disgust in relation to disabled people and asserts the need to rethink our understanding of bodies in order to challenge the normative assumptions that underlie them. While Kafer focuses on the relationship between disabled individuals and its politics, this paper flips the narrative and critiques devoteeism in the lens of desire and disgust as well as examines the various patriarchal themes that permit individuals to create harmful environments for disabled women. In doing so, the oversexualization and objectification of disabled women along with toxic masculinity will be addressed in order to prove that devoteeism is a form of benevolent sexism. Additionally, this paper will focus on two perspectives: one that views devoteeism as a source of disgust as a result of its patriarchal themes leading to dangerous situations for women, and the other that views devoteeism as a source of desire for disabled women who seek love and protection. Ultimately, the overall theme of this paper is that devoteeism is a double edged sword that has negative consequences for women despite both perspectives.

Brief Overview of Desire and Disgust and Devoteeism

In her paper, Kafer discusses the complex relationship between the politics of desire and disgust in regards to disability. She argues that disability is often understood to be an undesirable state of being that must be cured and brings to light the various ways in which disgust is used to marginalize individuals who do not adhere to societal norms. Kafer's analysis highlights how disgust can lead to the exclusion of certain bodies from public spaces and the perpetuation of marginalization faced by individuals with disabilities. However, Kafer challenges this view of disgust and argues that disability can also be a site of desire as it allows individuals to feel empowered as they challenge the traditional view of disability being an undesirable state. As Kafter navigates the politics behind disabilities, she introduces the notion of devoteeism and how it encourages problematic behaviors all while trying to understand devotee logic herself. In Desire and Disgust, devoteeism is defined as the sexual attraction towards only disabled people, usually amputees. Kafer describes the main demographic of devotees to be white, middle-to upper-middle class, well-educated, non-disabled men between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five who are seeking disabled women. The appropriateness of this attraction is deliberated as she brings to light the many ways in which men use devoteeism as an excuse for their dangerous behaviors. These behaviors will be explored more in the next section, but after reading Kafter’s paper, it became apparent that devoteeism is simply a more subtle form of sexism that is actually just a guise to mask the exploitative behavior of devotee men (Kafer 331-354).

Devoteeism as Benevolent Sexism

Throughout her paper, Kafer provides various examples in which devotees have rationalized their dangerous behaviors by referring back to their “harmless” intentions. For instance, the paper starts off with a letter sent from a devotee to Alison Kafer saying that he previously has stalked disabled women, but maintains that he really just wants to love and protect them. This behavior can best be described as benevolent sexism which is a subtle form of sexism that is presented in a positive way. Benevolent sexism is expressed as an emphasis on men's role to protect and provide for women by putting them on a pedestal in a chivalrous way in exchange for women's compliance to traditional gender roles (Mastari et al.). Referring back to the example provided above, devotee men put women on a pedestal by emphasizing their attraction to solely disabled women and using this as justification for harassing and stalking them. Devoteeism is presented as an amputee’s only path out of disgust and that practices that might otherwise be seen as threatening are cast as harmless, even beneficial. Devotee men latch onto the idea that women can only gain self-worth through male validation and they use this to their advantage to further their agendas and oversexualize disabled women. Devotees furthering the idea that nobody else would find amputees attractive is a form of manipulation to diminish a person and make them believe they don’t deserve to be treated in ways other than being stalked and harassed. Kafer goes on to provide even more examples of instances in which women are overly sexualized for simply existing and objectified as devotee men diminish disabled women to purely sexual objects. This deduces one’s status as being only an amputee and not a complex person, so their exploitative behaviors of stalking and harassment only works to disempower women and reinforce gender stereotypes that women should be seen and not heard.

Devoteeism as Disgust

In the devotee logics, women’s “shortcomings” of disability allows men to feel like they have the power and control in a relationship with a disabled woman. Because devotees are often shamed for their interests and behaviors, devotees construct a bond with amputees on the basis of their shared rejection by non-devotee culture. In our patriarchal world, devotees perceive this societal rejection as a deficiency in their masculinity and they seek other ways to achieve status as a man. These perceived shortcomings come at the expense of disabled women's safety and when combined with toxic masculinity, which is the dominant form of masculinity that asserts dominance and control over women, this fetishization can become even more harmful and exploitative to women as they are objectified and dehumanized by devotee practices. For example, Kafer describes multiple instances where she has witnessed devotees creating unsafe environments for women, like when she attended a support group and devotees managed to spread her information, resulting in email harassment and objectification. Additionally, she describes what devotees call "sightings," in which they track the names and addresses of disabled women on website forums which allows devotees to track women at “safe distances.” These dangerous behaviors are framed in a way that makes the complaints of unhappy amputees seem unreasonable and unappreciative of the attention. Instead of acknowledging their behaviors as harassment and stalking, devotees use their own logic to excuse their behaviors and frame it in a guise of love all while endangering the lives of disabled women. Because of this, devoteeism is a site of disgust that limits women's agency and puts them in positions where they risk being assaulted and stalked.

Devoteeism as Desire

In our patriarchal world, the way women are viewed and treated is dependent on how attractive they are perceived to be. Quite often, women who don't conform to societal beauty standards are treated unfairly which has a negative impact on their views of self-worth. Due to the constant societal messaging that disabled women are unattractive, these harmful views become internalized leading to adverse effects on their self-esteem and allowing them to be vulnerable to the influences of devotees. Because devotee logic holds that devotees are the only people who could ever love disabled women, this leaves disabled women no choice but to accept the love they think they deserve. This devotee logic serves as a form of emotional manipulation as it enforces the idea that the only way for disabled women to discover self love is to accept male validation and objectification from devotees. This perpetrates the ableist assumption that disabled individuals are undesirable and leaves unchallenged the notion that amputees are properly objects of disgust. While the desire from devotees can seem beneficial for improving disabled women's self esteem because of the abundance of love and attention, this asserts that amputees struggle because they hate themselves and lack suitable lovers, not because they live in a society structured around the needs of the non-disabled. This diminishes the real structural issues disabled people face and is a deduction to one’s status as an amputee because it undermines the full humanity and agency of disabled individuals. The idea that amputees are either deemed unattractive or the only thing that is attractive creates this binary where amputees feel they can’t be seen and their existence is subject to judgements. In this sense, devoteeism as a site of desire works to keep disabled women subordinate to the desires of devotees as a result of their emotional manipulation. Instead of viewing devoteeism as a site of desire that prioritizes love and affection for disabled women, the reality is that devoteeism works to subjugate women and reinforce the patriarchal norms that disable amputees rather than challenge them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, devoteeism is a form of benevolent sexism that masks devotee’s toxic behaviors of stalking and harassment under the guise of love and protection. By creating dangerous environments for disabled women, devoteeism serves as a site of disgust that disempowers and limits women's agency. The validation and objectification of disabled women by devotees serves as a site of desire that’s supposed to help women gain self-worth, but in reality just reinforces patriarchal and ableist assumptions. Ultimately, devoteeism is a double edged sword that has negative impacts on marginalized disabled women.


Works Cited

Mastari, Laora, et al. “Benevolent and Hostile Sexism in Social Spheres: The Impact of Parents, School and Romance on Belgian Adolescents' Sexist Attitudes.” Frontiers in Sociology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 31 May 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8022570/#:~:text=Benevolent%20sexism%20is%20a%20subtler,compliance%20to%20 traditional%20 gender%20 roles.

Kafer, Alison. “Desire and Disgust: My Ambivalent Adventures in Devoteeism.” Sex and Disability, 2012, pp. 331–354., https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11smzjb.20.

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