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Devotees: Are They Necessarily Sexual Harrassers?

by J.

One of the things which makes devotees extremely unpopular with members of the disabled community is the harassment inflicted on women by insensitively indefatigable devotees who refuse to take 'No' for an answer. Women report that they have been harassed by men persistently sending unwanted e-mail, letters or making unwanted telephone calls; and some women have this inflicted upon them time after time. A consequence of the activities of the harassers is that often we are all condemned as a result of the activities of the few, and the term devotee comes to be taken as a synonym for sexual harasser.

This is evidence, I think, of a failure of logic on the part of our critics, and I believe that it is in our interest to analyse the phenomenon of harassment in detail. For the sake of the following argument I am prepared to accept that those who complain feel harassed, and that the harassers are devotees.

If I were prejudiced against devotees in general, my first conclusion would probably be that those who harassed the complainants were harassers because they were devotees, and that harassers could be avoided by avoiding all contacts with devotees. I should be sorry, for personal reasons, if disabled people chose this solution because I believe that the relationship between the devotee and the person who elicits his feelings has the potentiality to be very rewarding for everybody involved, and I believe that it is pity that this potentiality should be limited by the activities of those few who harass disabled people.

In purely set theoretical terms we can divide men into two sets of two classes. The first set is made up of the class of men who do not harass women; the other is the class of those that do. The second set is the class of men who are devotees and the class of men who are not. Both sets of classes are exhaustive because any man is either a member of the class of harassing men or of the class of non-harassing men, and is either a devotee or not a devotee. There are other alternatives.

The classes are independent because there exist harassers who are not devotees, a cursory reading of the newspapers provides ample evidence that some men harass women who are not disabled, evidence that not all harassers are devotees. Also there are devotees who are not harassers: I am a member of the latter class myself. So if the goal is to prevent harassment, if you avoid devotees you will avoid only some of the harassers, those who belong both to the class of devotees and the class of harassers: you won't exclude the class of harassing non-devotees.

It is possible to argue that the class of non-harassing devotees is a null class, one containing no members, but it contains at least one member, and as members of this class don't harass others, there is no way of determining how many more of us there are, except by asking, and if admitting to being a devotee causes you to be avoided whether or not you harass others, people are going to keep quiet and will therefore be undetectable.

It ought to be obvious that the only way to avoid the harassers is to make public the identities of the harassers. No reasonable person would argue that all the men who find women attractive should be avoided even though those who were also harassers of women would be avoided. It wouldn't achieve the goal, and it would penalize a lot of innocent people.

Notice that I am not defending the harassers: harassing other people is wrong. It is always wrong not because the victim of harassment is a woman who is physically impaired, nor because she is a woman, but because she is a person.

It might be argued that the presence of devotees among, for a example, a group of amputees would cause unnecessary mental anguish to the amputees, and that the attempts of devotees to engage in social intercourse of any kind with amputees is a form of harassment. It seems that some people with physical impairments cannot contemplate their physical alteration without anger or despair, and many seem disgusted by the alteration that has befallen them.

What is the presence of devotees going to do in such a group? Sickos and weirdos appear and say, 'Look, it's not as bad as all that. We know we're unusual, but your physical alteration doesn't disgust us. So you have a stump - -Or should we be politically correct and say "residual limb"? - -but we don't find it disgusting, we think it adds to your attractiveness. This isn't to say that we are glad that you have had the pain and the loss and the damage to self that you have had to live through - (f course we regret that - but it hasn't deprived you of your human desirability or your sexiness: you don't have to feel driven to hide it from us, or from yourselves, or to over-achieve physically to impress us with your value as people. Of all the people you meet we are the ones who will never ever say "Apart from that she's very attractive ... " Is that such a disgusting attitude?'

Of course there are destructive, selfish and downright nasty devotees; but there are equally appalling disabled people, bigots who will condemn all devotees for the misdeeds of the few. The activities of the harassers are detested by most members of the devotee community and the harassers are usually vilified and condemned. While this is understandable, this is not a constructive response. We should try to understand the motivations of those who harass and explore the possibility of helping these people to express the over-powering feelings that lead them be behave very anti-socially, in ways that are not harmful and upsetting to other people and to themselves.

It is important first to consider the causes of harassment. What makes an apparently civilized person inflict himself on somebody else in this way? There seem to be a few separate reasons: one is the desire for a partner, perhaps only a transient partner, who can be physically dominated with ease, another is the desire of the jaded to try something a little different, a third is the physical infatuation that overtakes certain men and makes them stalkers of women. I have little sympathy with the first two reasons, but even these people, if they are honest about their motivations and desires, might be able to find accomplices in their desires. I can sympathise with unrequited desire rather more because I have been in love at a distance and know what it feels like.

When I was about 14 a girl moved into a house across the street where I lived. She was slim and beautiful, with curly brown hair and she wore glasses with green frames. I was an inhibited schoolboy educated at a boys-only day school. She went to the girls' school next door to mine. I couldn't bring myself to speak to her, but I made sure that I walked to the bus at the same that she did, and in the afternoon, I would walk home along the other side of the road yearning. Of course she had a boyfriend, an oaf from the local comprehensive school who wore ice-blue jeans and winkle-picker shoes and was so cool. I only spoke to her once, and tongue-tied and nervous made a fool of myself, but it didn't stop me longing.

I am not defending the harassers: what I am confessing is that if I were a harasser this would be the source of my harassing behaviour. How then should such a man cope with his desires? If his desire is to form a partnership with somebody who has a particular body-type, he has to admit to himself that he has this preference, and if, when he meets someone close to his physical ideal, she rebuffs him, he ought to recognize that that is nothing more than her right. He should also recognize that he ought not to persist unreasonably (although there is a vast tradition of romance about the courting of the at first hard-hearted heroine who is won round by the hero in the end; and there is a fine line between ardent courtship and harrasment). He should remember, if he is rebuffed, there are other people who have the desired physical conformation, and that perhaps he may yet find the partner he is seeking from among these others, one of whom, approached sensitively, and with respect to her feelings, might be happy to form a relationship with him. Time and again though, we have to repeat that physical attraction alone is not a sufficient foundation for a longterm loving relationship.

I believe that if we are open and tolerant and sensitive to one another's needs we can be happier as friends than as enemies, not as classes of people: classes of people do not become friends; but individuals belonging to the classes can become friends and be happier together, perhaps, than they were apart.

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