Online safety: Amputee Devotees - Part Two
In the second part of her series on amputee devotees, EDRIC's Director & Internet Safety Officer, Charlotte Fielder MBE, goes into detail about what a devotee is and how to spot them in your 'friends' list.
Part one can be found here.
To comment on this topic, please visit our RareConnect safe, moderated forum. This article contains strong language.
EDRIC is a network of networks and we aim to bring together limb difference organisations from Europe and beyond. We seek to connect people within a specific interest group, encouraging dialogue in a safe and open environment where sharing of information is a principle objective.
But in such an environment, others can exploit the openness and access to individuals to meet their own objectives that may cause harm, distress or danger to EDRIC members and DysNet users.
Our position is clear: we need an effective online safety policy and we also need to draw our users' attention to the threats. They can take action to protect themselves and be aware of devotees, those associated with devotees and others who pose a threat to safe networking. That is at the heart of our online safety policy. Your safety is important to us so it's important that you know about amputee devotees and others who pose a threat to your safe networking.
Those who pose a threat fall into the following categories;
- Amputee devotees who target limb deficient individuals for personal sexual gratification
- Recruiters who facilitate 'Amputee Devotees'
- Fakers who create false identities to access limb deficient individuals
- Trolls who target people with disabilities with hate messages
What is a 'devotee'?
As I stated earlier on in this series of articles, devotees are individuals who express a strong sexual interest in congenital or traumatic amputees. We know that amputee devotees increasingly use the internet and social media to make contact with people with limb difference and limb deficiency, so need to be considered as a significant threat to the EDRIC/DysNet community and all limb difference charities and groups.
Most of the amputee devotee websites are based in the US and range from hard core pornography to admiration and devotion sites, hence general use of the term 'devotee'.
Amputee devotees are mostly men who are sexually attracted to women with missing limbs and will seemingly do anything to establish relationships with women with missing or malformed limbs. There may well be a subset of men attracted to other men and women attracted to women but male amputee devotees certainly appear to dominate.
Most devotees target adult women although there is growing anecdotal evidence that some devotees are trying to befriend the parents of limb deficient children via Facebook.
Many devotees use social media because their chances of bumping in to a limb deficient woman in their own locality are unlikely. For many, it is portrayed as unrequited love i.e. they find it hard to meet their 'soul mate'.
Many believe that their lives will be complete if they find a woman with a missing hand, arm, legs, etc. Their fixations can be very specific and they will specify that they are looking for example, 'a woman with right arm missing below the elbow' or 'woman with two missing legs'.
It is this level of objectification that indicates the obsessive nature of their quest as personality or other physical features are rarely mentioned. The missing limb takes on paramount importance in the potential relationship. Their need to establish contact is so great that some resort to adopting fake profiles on Facebook such as pretending that they are also a woman with a limb deficiency.
Their purpose is to network with limb deficient women and when accepted as a Facebook friend they may seek to engage an online dialogue, but more often the purpose has been to gain access to the women's Facebook photo albums to download them without permission for unauthorised use. Often they post the photos acquired via this deception on 'appreciation' websites and online notice boards. This behaviour appears to be a form of trophy hunting and display.
Devotees are also known to physically stalk women with limb deficiency and there have been cases in the US and across Europe where they have waited in the car parks and waiting rooms of limb fitting centres and attempted to take covert photos. Women who have been stalked and targeted in this way often report how violated they feel.
However some limb deficient women are perfectly aware of the risk and are happy to pose for photos for devotees sites because it represents an income stream or some other personal need is being met. Equally some women are happy to form relationships with devotees because they enjoy the erotic desire.
Amputee devotees and others who seek to contact or exploit those with limb difference online or elsewhere are a diverse group. As much as we might like to pigeon hole them, they are a socially widespread group that, as Dr. Elena Martellozzo, criminologist, states (when describing paedophiles), they 'cannot be accurately characterised with one dimensional labels'.
There have been similarities drawn between paedophiles and amputee devotees and particularly where an element of grooming has been deployed. Grooming techniques and characteristics, described by Dr. Elena Martellozzo, assists us in describing some grooming techniques employed by paedophiles that are in fact very similar to those used by amputee devotees and others seeking to gain their trust.
In her four year study, she identified some common and alarming features across child sex offenders which can be mapped across to devotees and I have found her work useful in describing devotee contact and grooming techniques;
- They see people with limb deficiency as depicted in images as tradeable objects and not as real people
- Actions are justified by neutralising guilt through claims that they are helping people with limb difference have sexual relationships and that is for the good of the limb different person
- Intrusions and unwanted contact are justified by making excuses or minimising the impact the abuse might have had on them.
- Once identified, online groomers deny their offence and involvement with the online offences, claiming that their behaviour was pure fantasy
- The web is seen as a veil for anonymity many believe they will not be caught
- It is a belief that 'everything is accepted' on the web, including fetishes and paraphilic behaviours
Dr Martellozzo said: "Whilst there is no such thing as a typical online child groomer, it is nevertheless both possible and instructive to identify a range of distinctive child grooming behaviours. The majority of online predators see the internet as safe environment where all forms of behaviour are allowed, including child abuse, but police are increasingly aware of this."
The same is true for amputee devotees, only there is no international or national law protecting limb deficient or people with disabilities from predatory devotees, although laws on harassment and anti stalking measures might be applicable.
One victim of amputee devotee reported that:
'I've been to the police about this and the policeman I saw was telling me that these devotees must have such a collection of photos in their computers that it would probably put a child paedophile to shame.'
The grooming techniques can be very sophisticated and take place over many months.
Grooming examples are as follows:
- One devotee used Facebook messaging to talk to a limb deficient woman. For many months the conversation was lightweight and friendly but once he gained her trust changed tack and suddenly asked very intimate, intrusive questions. It is important to note that this particular devotee was pretending to be limb deficient
- Others portray themselves as 'Prince Charming' in search of their princess. One wrote to a limb different woman and said,
- "It is my goal to meet and marry such a woman and to spend the rest of my life on this earth ensuring that she feels like the most loved and luckiest lady on earth. I hope this is the case for you, and for anyone else who has enjoined in a lifelong partnership."
Other methods and techniques used by devotees
Devotees apply a range of methods and techniques to gain access to their target including:
- Hiding identity by continually change their online names but their contact email addresses always remains the same. They bombard women with messages in an attempt to meet. One such devotee has used, to date, about six variations of his name and surname, altering the spelling
- Some use infiltration to legitimise themselves i.e. they join groups or ask for invitations to closed groups by lying about their intent. For example a UK based charity had its Facebook official group infiltrated by a man claiming to be a doctor. Checks revealed this was untrue and among his Facebook friends were a number of known devotees.
Some devotees are social activists/militants as they feel that their sexual preference is the last to be accepted and often draw parallels between themselves and the gay rights movement of the 1970s. When challenged, they justify their behaviours with statements such as previously mentioned: 'but for men like us, disabled women wouldn't get dates'.
However in their attempts to convince interest parties that their sexual preferences should be treated as mainstream, they overlook that the majority of women they target are appalled and are not willing participants who have often been tricked into allowing photographs to be used.
Research highlights a surprising level of self-justification within the devotee community as the following quote from the devotee website OverGround demonstrates:
'One last word: Even those devotees who tend to the extremes of paraphilia do not present any danger or harm to disabled people, or to anyone else. It is not the pain, suffering or hardships of disability that attract us. We have no wish to cause pain or injury to others.'
So in summary, amputee devotees use social media in a variety of ways but their prime motivation is to:
- Meet and form relationships with women with limb deficiency/difference
- Gain unapproved access to photographic images of individuals where their affected limbs are visible
- Network with other devotees to share images and maintain a social group
- Normalise their behaviours through advocacy and arguing for the social acceptability of devotees
Recruiters, agents & groupies
Beyond devotees themselves, are those who facilitate and enable their activities by enticing or contacting limb deficient women on behalf of devotees.
Another subset is the groupie or willing accomplice. They are often limb deficient women who are in some way involved with devotees. They try to help devotees normalise their activities by dismissing the claims of women who have been tricked by devotees or by claiming that limb deficient women who don't want sexual relationships are sexually repressed.
Fakers can include amputee devotees who go to great lengths to make friends online by creating fake profiles and identities to facilitate online contact. The profiles are characterised by the following:
- Majority of their Facebook friends appear to be limb deficient.
- Their friends list does not include family members i.e. sharing same surname
- They only interact on issues relating to limb deficiency.
- They publish very few photos of themselves generally and barely any in social situations.
- They disclose very little personal information, their focus being more on those they are in contact with.
Others in this category include those that seek attention and sympathy by portraying themselves or their children as limb deficient or disabled. Sometimes the aim is to fraudulently raising money for non-existent surgery or medical interventions by tugging on the heartstrings of those with real limb deficiency or disability.
Examples are as follows:
A male based in the US who claimed to be a wheelchair user. He only ever posted one photo of a male in a wheelchair (most likely not him). He then proceeded to target a member of a dysmelia group on Facebook asking her for photos and asking her lots of intrusive questions about her life. Her suspicions were aroused and she was able to get an official police check on him and found out that he wasn't a wheelchair user at all.
Some fakers work hard to create a pseudo image, usually a photo of them which they have substantially altered with image manipulation software by erasing a limb(s) so that they appear to be amputees, or by swapping heads/faces of a photo of a real amputee. They then use these images to gain the trust of real limb deficient people.
Fake groups/pages on Facebook have been set up supposedly protect limb different women from devotees. However it has been set up by a suspected devotee.
Trolls who target people with disability
In internet slang, a 'troll' is someone who posts inflammatory, off-topic or hate messages in an online community such as an online discussion or social networking page. The name emanates from the 'wicked troll' creatures in children's tales.
Trolling is purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism or misogyny to cause upset, distress and anxiety. Their gratification comes from those who reply and achieving notoriety.
Hate messages from trolls can have devastating effects on the lives of individuals and have led to suicide (outside the limb deficient arena). By targeting those that may already be vulnerable, the risk of harm is greater i.e. targeting of limb deficient people who may already have self esteem issues and sending messages suggesting worthlessness.
Trolls themselves tend to be emotionally immature users who thrive in any environment where they are allowed to make shocking comments in public domains such as blog sites, news sites, discussion forums etc. For example,
- Trolls will often seek disability sites and post comments for effect such as 'You're all a bunch of freaks' or 'I like the f*cking circus'.
- Trolls also target parents of disabled children with comments such as 'You should have had a termination' suggesting allowing disabled children to be born in some way damages society.
Now you know all about devotees and others who you may wish to avoid online, in my next article, I will tell you what can you do to protect yourself.
Ref: Online Child Sexual Abuse: Grooming, Policing and Child Protection in a Multi-Media World. Elena Martellozzo
Routledge, April 2012.
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