Living With Polio

Getting “Creepy” on the Internet

Post-Polio Health, Volume 31, Number 4, Fall 2015

Dr. Rhoda Olkin is a Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco, as well as the Executive Director of the Institute on Disability and Health Psychology.

She is a polio survivor and single mother of two grown children.

QUESTION: I see people on Facebook and other online groups who have a made-up name (Bracing Bill, Polio Paul), who may be pretending to be survivors. And there are groups like “Women in Braces.” Some are way too interested in braces and other hardware, and it’s getting creepy. On Facebook, one person with a pseudonym posts lots of pictures of braces; no one knows if s/he is a polio survivor or not (and could lie if asked). Perhaps people trust that everyone on FB is a good person. Is there anything our group can or should do?

Response from Dr. Olkin: This is an excellent question but one that requires us to make some assumptions without being able to verify if our assumptions are correct. There are two possibilities here as I see it. Let’s start with the benign possibility: this is a person with polio who believes that s/he is contributing to the archives by posting pictures of braces. Perhaps s/he believes that someone is collecting these, or that persons with polio are a diminishing group, one that calls for documentation.

The second possibility is less benign. The man (and it will be a man) has a sexual fetish that is attached to braces. He finds them sexually stimulating, and by posting them on Facebook he is hoping to entice similar persons to post more pictures. Sexual fetishes by themselves are generally harmless, but can be harmful to others when a person masquerades as a person with polio and others are seduced into responding as if this is accurate when it is not. The responses may feed the fetish. And those who respond may feel used, or, as you said, creepy. The other aspect here is the masquerade as a polio survivor. One would like to be able to assume that Facebook “friends” are authentic, and that sharing the experience of polio is genuine. Obviously not friending someone with a pseudonym is one way to reduce the risk of including someone who is in it for the thrill.

Readers may be surprised to know that there is a very large group of “devs” – short for devotees, i.e., people who experience sexual attraction to very specific types of disabilities. For example, one person might be attracted to persons with a left leg amputation above the knee. Notice how specific that example is – the attraction often is that specific. Similarly, there are “wannabes” – i.e., persons who want to have a disability and who may behave and present themselves as if they do, when in fact they do not. There are hosts of internet sites related to devs and wannabes: Google “disability devs” and “disability wannabes” and you will find definitions, and many sites and listservs. Most of the sites are very upfront about what they are and who they cater to. That is very different than going to a specialized listserv (e.g., persons with polio) and masquerading.

Trust your instincts. If something feels creepy, stay away, unfriend, disengage. Any responses may only feed the person’s appetite.

Tags for this article:
Mental Health
Psychological Health