It’s 2 a.m. in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Geneva Pegasus is logging onto Skype for a late-night date with “Harry,” a disabled man she met on Snapchat a few weeks prior. She’s properly blazed and sitting pretty in the sweet spot between a couple milligrams of Xanax and a strain of hash called OG Tears — just how she likes to be when she talks to her “men.”
Harry is one of her favorites. He has athetoid cerebral palsy, the type that causes erratic movement in his arms, face and legs. She loves the way his jaw hangs open, drool pooling out into ever-darkening spots on his shirt. She also loves the sounds he makes when he tries to say her name; how he groans with effort as he tries to please her. She starts to rub herself, entranced by the way his dyskinesis makes him spasm in his wheelchair, then angles the webcam down, down, down so he can see how wet he’s making her. As a rule, she always keeps her face out of the frame, but her voice comes in loud and clear as she dictates her instructions: “Keep twitching, you are so sexy like that. Say my name, baby. Say it.”
The call is over when she cums, and she doesn’t stick around afterward to chit-chat. As Harry has come to understand over the weeks they’ve been “chatting,” Geneva’s the one in control here, and their dates take place on her terms. They have to: She’s an unmarried, 21-year-old virgin who lives in a country governed by Sharia law. If anyone found out about this, life as she knows it would end.
In Western cultures like ours, it’s a common misconception that an unmarried woman living in a country like Saudi Arabia would be lashed or killed for acts like this. However, since neither Sharia or the Qu’ran have precedents for online sex and there’s no consensus in Islam whether or not masturbation counts as a sin, it’s unclear what would happen to her if she were caught. Previous cases involving masturbation in Saudi Arabia might provide a clue, though — in 2004, a Saudi court sentenced a teacher to three years in prison and 300 lashes for declaring that masturbation was permissible under Islam. A young woman masturbating in the privacy of her own home may garner a different result, but in any case, she tells me, “It would be bad.” (If, that is, she’s telling the truth. Because Geneva is so good at covering her tracks, I have no way of verifying that she’s not just trolling me from a trailer park in Appalachia. Other than her Middle Eastern accent and her Arabic name — which she shared with me in confidence — my only proof that she’s a young virgin in Saudi Arabia having risky fetish-based sex online is her word.)
According to Ani Zonneveld of the nonprofit Muslims for Progressive Values that would be especially true socially. A woman who is found to be having online sex may face harsh social repercussions like ridicule and neglect, often at levels that are more intense, socially damaging and long-lasting than they would be in the West. Worse, Geneva tells me, she’d be considered unmarriable. This is a fate she has a hard time swallowing as it interferes with her plan to “marry rich,” “never work” and live out the next few decades as what she affectionately calls a “Middle Eastern princess.”
Nevertheless, you can find her holed up under the covers, glued to her laptop and risking it all to satisfy her desire for disabled men an average of three to four nights a week. She does this between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. when she’s certain her family is asleep (that’s how she’s gotten away with it so far). She likes the way they sound, the shakiness with which some of them move and watching them rely on caretakers and mobility aids to get around — the problematic nature of her fetishistic desires unexamined and irrelevant to her. And while amputations, deafness, birth defects and spinal injuries have always gotten her going, palsies are her real kryptonite — the “more disabled” someone is, she tells me, the better. Meanwhile, she couldn’t care less about able-bodied men — they do nothing for her. “Yuck,” she tells me over Skype.
Though she doesn’t know it, Geneva’s sexual interests fall under the category of what’s called devoteeism, a sexual fetish for disabilities and bodily impairments like cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and amputations. She’s been attracted to these conditions for as she can remember; basically, ever since she was a child, she’s been aroused by people who move, talk and navigate the world in a way that makes them seem like they “need help.” When she was five, she remembers seeing someone pass by in a wheelchair and feeling an inexplicable physiological “tug” toward him as he guided it up the hill in her direction. She was mesmerized by the furrow in his brow and the way his face screwed up with effort as he pulled himself forward, an image she tells me is permanently emblazoned in her mind.
She thought about him often after that. When she began masturbating as a young girl, he’s who came to mind. Eventually, that attraction blossomed into a full-blown fetish during her late teens when she discovered she could find and seduce disabled men online. Geneva isn’t sure why she feels this way — no one in her family is disabled, nor were there any significant disabled people in her life growing up — but like many people with sexual fetishes, the “why” of it is beyond the point. It’s the “what” that matters.
According to AASECT-certified sex therapist, disability researcher, author and host of the podcast Gender Stories Alex Iantaffi (they/them), most devotees like Geneva are able-bodied themselves, but beyond that, they share no real trend in gender, sexual orientation, age or any other demographic factor. There’s also not a ton of up-to-date research on devotees or disabled sexuality in general, which makes it difficult to know just how common this fetish actually is. However, people are talking about disabled sexuality and devoteeism in more places than ever before thanks to outspoken disabled journalists like VICE’s Spencer Williams, documentaries like the BBC’s Meet the Devotees, social media movements like Instagram’s #disabledpeoplearehot hashtag and visual campaigns such as “American Able.” Awareness around this once-taboo topic is finally becoming more welcoming, educated and normalized, a positive change that’s allowing for real conversations around disabled sexuality.
Like most fetishes that involve a vulnerable population, devoteeism is classified as a paraphilia, or an “abnormal sexual desire,” though that classification is heavily disputed amongst disability activists, disabled people and devotees themselves. While people like disabled erotica author Ruth Madison argue that devoteeism is a normal sexual preference that acknowledges and encourages the very real sexual needs of disabled people, others see it a distasteful objectification of a group that’s already faced marginalization, discrimination, abuse and oppression. In either case, the question often boils down to this: Is devoteeism empowering to disabled people, or is it just another way to exploit them?
For disabled people, answering that isn’t always easy. Though some people like Williams have cut-and-dry opinions on the fetish (it’s not for him), others, like Greg, a 33-year-old artist, paraplegic and friend of mine who corresponds frequently with Geneva, have more mixed feelings (he’s actually the one who put me in touch with her — and no, that’s not his real name). “I think it’s less about the fetish and more about the person who has it,” he says. “Some devotees are genuinely respectful and loving. Others? Not so much.”
Geneva, he tells me, would definitely qualify as the latter. She’s what’s called a “bad dev,” or someone who cares more about a person’s disability than the person themselves. Truth be told, Geneva scoffs when I ask her whether she gets to know her “men” first, or if she cares about them as people. “We’re all just horny,” she says. “Of course I care, but I cannot marry all of these men in other countries, can I? I’m just trying to get off.”
For anybody who’s fetishized for such an incomplete picture of who they are, that approach can lead to feelings of invisibility, unworthiness and objectification, especially considering that bad devs tend to be primarily interested in watching them struggle. That’s the difficult part for Greg — he doesn’t actually have a lot of difficulties with his paraplegia, so he’s frequently perplexed by Geneva’s frequent requests to “struggle for her.”
“I have a spinal injury that makes certain things harder for me, but like most disabled people, I’m perfectly functional in my own way,” he says. “In fact, there are plenty of things I can do much better than able-bodied folks, so it’s always interesting to hear her ask for me to pretend I’m less able than I am.”
At the same time, he says, the sexual attention can be validating. Regardless if it’s coming from good devs or bad ones, it’s nice to feel seen, and even nicer to be adored. “She really does like the disabled part of me,” he says. “A little consensual objectification can be hot — when I’m in the mood for it.” That’s the beauty of his Skype dates with Geneva, actually: When he wants attention and sexual release, she’s there for him (or he can get in line behind Harry). When he’d rather give his energy to people who are more concerned with him as a person regardless of his wheelchair, he can find that elsewhere. In that way, his Skype dates with Geneva can be empowering — it’s a way to meet a specific need at a specific time, and be accepted for doing so.
Other disabled people seem to relate to Greg’s acceptance of Geneva’s narrow-minded interested in him. In a 2016 BBC News article about devoteeism, BBC Three presenter and Meet the Devotees documentarian Emily Yates wrote, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by the idea that there are people out there who would happily love and accept every little bit of me. Especially the bits that I’ve always considered flawed.”
Neither myself nor Greg is sure Geneva is the type of person to dole out that kind of “love,” but there are plenty of devotees that are. Martin, a 21-year-old Orange County devotee I meet on FetLife, tells me they try their best to carry out their fetish responsibly and with as much love — be it platonic or romantic — as they can. (Martin uses they/them pronouns as well and that’s not their real name, either.)
“As a queer trans person of color, I struggled with my devness for so long — and still do — because I can relate to the feeling of being fetishized and I know how damaging it can be,” they tell me. “I actively try to combat those feelings by getting to know the person behind the disability before we do anything sexual together online.” (They’re also a virgin, and like Geneva, have never had physical contact with disabled person in real life.)
First and foremost, they make sure to ask what their partners are comfortable with. Martin’s thing is spinal cord injuries, so they’ll often ask if it’s okay to talk about and fantasize things like transferring (moving from the wheelchair to another surface), tremors or a person’s sexual functioning. They also ask what language they prefer them to use about their bodies, what their ability level is, what their relationship with their body and disability is, and what they’re hoping to get out of their interaction. “I try to make it as consensual as possible, because I know what it’s like to feel like an object to someone,” they say.
Even with the best of intentions, Iantaffi says devoteeism can often still be a difficult terrain to navigate. “Whether devotees act with care does matter, but only to a point,” they say. “Disabled people already face harmful tropes, stereotypes and oppression, and can be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation because of these systemic factors.” What that means, they say isn’t that devoteeism shouldn’t happen, just that the people involved should try to be as sensitive and educated about their partner’s situation as possible. Still, there’s also potential for abuse to go the other way, too — as Yates discovered, disabled people occasionally exploit the desires of devotees as well.
So, then, what would propel someone like Geneva, who already has so much at stake herself, to take that kind of risk? To be honest, she’s not entirely sure. This is just how she is — at odds with how Muslim girls are “supposed” to be. “You know these kids who have these love stories they dream about?” she asks. “They want to fall in love, or be a doctor or go to space. Something like that. I wanted to be stripper in Las Vegas. I wanted to be watched. I want to tease. We Muslim girls are nothing like they teach us to be. We’re like cheetahs. We’re wild. We just don’t talk about it. But I can seduce men. I have a superpower.”
Geneva’s superpower, of course, is finding disabled men to have sex with online. Usually, she does this through apps like Snapchat and Instagram, and video chat websites like Emerald Chat; safe and easily anonymized digital venues her conservative parents would never think to look at should they decide to investigate her goings-on. “I can find them anywhere,” she tells me. “It’s so easy. I can smell their pheromones from countries away.”
Other devotees like Martin use the forum Paradevo, FetLife and even Pornhub to meet disabled people, but Geneva tells me she likes American social media because that’s where all the “famous ones” are. Allegedly, some of the disabled men she’s been with are household names. She claims to have Skype-masturbated with a well-known deaf male model and a notorious disabled artist, neither of whom I’m at liberty to name. Famous or not though, her process is always the same: meet, negotiate, move to Skype, masturbate, pray she doesn’t get caught, repeat. Keeping it regulated like this lets her stay in control, and control is something Geneva likes very much. “I’m not a subservient girl like they taught me to be,” she says. “I’m a goddess, a lion. They worship me, and I love it.”
Skype sex with disabled men gives Geneva the chance to have agency over her own body, a currency it doesn’t necessarily have outside the world of late-night webcam sex. Online, she gets be in the driver’s seat. She makes the rules. She has the power, and the power is intoxicating. In a country where her sexuality is tightly regulated through a variety of legal, social, cultural and political methods, it’s understandable that that power would be part of what’s satisfying.
To some, that might make it exploitative, but to others like Greg, it is what it is. “To be fair, I get as much out of her being in control as she does,” he says. “I mean, she’s a young female virgin doing something risky in another country, and she takes the lead. It’s pretty hot when it’s consensual.”
According to Iantaffi, that’s really the key. “The difference between responsible and harmful devoteeism is just consent,” they say. “Fetishizing can be conflated with objectifying. If you stop considering someone a person, that’s harmful. However, if the interaction is truly consensual, it can feel liberating, powerful and pleasurable for all parties involved.” And for both disabled people and Muslim women — two groups of people whose bodies and sexualities have historically been underestimated, misunderstood, policed and left out of the conversation — a little liberation and power on both sides can be a really good thing. “That’s why it’s so sexy,” Geneva says. “We understand each other well.”
Someday soon, Geneva’s parents will marry her off to a man she’s never seen before. He’ll buy her a car and a driver and a maid, and she’ll never have to work for the rest of her life. When that time comes, she’ll use her husband’s money to travel to where the disabled men are. She’ll find the internationally renowned deaf male model she tells me she’s been chatting with, and she’ll have sex with him in real life. And the artist she’s been talking to (I’m not allowed to name him or the model, she says.) And probably Greg. That’s something she could be killed for, but she promises me she’ll be fine. “I’m really good at hiding now,” she says. “I will be a cheetah, and no one has to know.”
Whatever happens after that is all part of the fantasy.