Although they rarely take center stage when many people think about sex, legs and feet often play a notable role in the way many people actually get down to it. They help us balance in, hold, and move between positions—even many that do not involve standing involve using the legs as a counterbalance, bracing force, or grappling tool. Tensing muscles within the legs can affect wider sexual sensations throughout the body. For some partners, legs and feet may even be, or become, key erotic foci and stimuli. So, lower limb differences—the absence or atypical formation of part or all of one or both legs or feet—can have notable effects on people’s sex lives.
The nature and extent of these effects depends on the exact nature of a given difference—both the part(s) of a person’s legs or feet that vary from the able-bodied norm, and whether a person was born with that difference or acquired it later in life. It also depends on whether an individual uses prosthetics, whether they keep prosthetics on during sex, and how secure and comfortable the prosthetics are.
In a recent study of one group of people with lower limb differences, over half reported experiencing varied but notable sexual issues; others have reported trouble with getting into, staying in, or moving between specific sexual positions. (In some cases, though, people mentioned that a few acts are easier with limb difference, like deep penetration or oral sex.) People with limb differences also say that their awareness of stigmas often leads to image issues, which can lower their sex drive or confidence. The fact that able-bodied people often fetishize limb differences makes some feel empowered, but leaves many people with differences feeling dehumanized and wary of others’ sexual motives.
Activists and educators say that it often helps, when navigating the intersection of sex and lower limb differences, to get guidance through medical and peer support. Unfortunately, researchers have found that health care providers don’t pay enough attention to or offer enough nuts-and-bolts education about sex. Many people with lower limb differences also say it’s still hard to raise the topic of sex with many mentors and support groups. Advocacy groups—and disability-focused sex toy makers and retailers—have started to fill this gap with some basic guides for exploring sex with lower limb differences, but these materials are in many cases fairly broad and impersonal. In order to help fill this gap, VICE spoke to Kristi, a woman who has lived with a lower limb difference all her life, about her experiences with sex, in detail.
Kristi’s last name has been omitted to protect her privacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Can you tell me a little about the details of your limb difference?
Kristi: I was born without a fibula and I also have a short femur, in my right leg. Basically, my right leg was shorter than my left. Also, my knee grew a bit out to the side. When I was six, I had a surgery to keep my knee from growing out farther to the side during growth spurts when I hit puberty, which would make wearing a prosthetic difficult. They took off my foot and put it back on backwards, so that I could use it as my knee.
I got my first prosthetic when I was nine to make up for my legs’ height difference. At 12, I had a leg-lengthening operation on my femur. I got about six new inches, so while my right femur is still a little shorter than my left, it’s close. Once that was done, they amputated my right foot. Now I use a below-the-knee prosthetic.
Were you aware of your leg difference in social situations as you grew up?
For sure. When you’re growing up, you’re very aware of anything that makes you seem odd or different to other kids. I’m also queer, so that was a thing, too.
People were always kind to me—I wasn’t bullied. But I always worried that they were only kind because they felt sorry for me. I often felt like I wasn’t included or thought of as a normal person.
When did you first start thinking about how your limb difference might affect your sex life?
Going to parties in my formative years where people didn’t all know me, I’d think that if I wore pants, I could pass as able-bodied. I’d meet people I was interested in and not disclose information about my leg before having a party makeout session. During those sessions, I made a real attempt to keep their hands away from my leg. I had this almost pathological desire to pass in those situations. I was trying to live my own fantasy of being a two-legged person.
How did that play out in what you’d consider your first full sexual experiences?
I started having sex when I was 18. By then, I was a little more out—both in terms of my queerness and as an openly disabled person. Usually, I was having sex with people who knew me as a disabled person already, and who I was generally comfortable with. So, the conversation was already done and off the table before we hooked up, and they were mostly respectful. I never really felt strange in those situations. Although, I only let the most intimate of those partners touch my right leg. I also only took off my prosthetic around really intimate partners. The only time I take it off in my everyday life is when I’m bathing or sleeping. And it’s not like a natural part of taking off clothes before sex to remove it. So, the default for me is just keeping it on.
As a default-on person, when and why did you first consider taking it off in sex?
I think it was when I took a bath with a partner for the first time. Allowing myself to be seen that way by a partner was a serious step of intimacy in my first serious relationship. In my head, it was like: This is a part of intimacy, removing layers. It’s become part of a love language now that I use to communicate intimacy to my partner.
Did your early partners ever comment or focus on your leg, or your prosthetic? Or, did those things just sort of melt into the background of the larger sexual experience?
They usually melted into the background. I mean, certainly some people said, “You can take your prosthetic off if you want.” So, obviously they were aware. But that was it.
As you explored sex, did you find that your prosthetic made certain positions or acts less viable for you because of discomfort, balance, or any other issues?
My prosthetic has always been pretty stable and comfortable. But it can be cumbersome in some positions. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned through experience that it is easier to move in certain ways with it off, because it’s easier to navigate my own body than the prosthetic. So, there’s more possibility with it off. For example, it’s easier when I’m on top of someone to have it off, so that I can take more control of depth; the prosthetic forces me to squat up fairly high.
Have you ever met people who seem like they have a fetishistic interest in your leg?
[Laughs] I remember being at a party with someone I knew a bit, who was intoxicated. They came up to me and said, in a lewd tone, “So, do you fuck with your leg on or off?” I’d heard about devotees, [people with fetishes focused on others’ disabilities]. I was like, Oh, this is strange. Is this person one of them?
I am a big supporter of sex work and workers, so there was a point in my life where I looked at devotee content online to consider what it would be like to let someone, say, watch me put on and take off my leg—and what it was that people with that fetish were interested in about people with limb differences or other disabilities. I am fascinated by what’s behind any fetish. I think there’s often a caregiver instinct at play there. I considered whether that would feel empowering to me. Ultimately, I didn’t feel interested in pursuing it, so I never did anything with it.
When you looked into the fetish, was your reaction more like, Oh, this doesn’t make me feel anything or, Oh, this makes me feel uncomfortable—or something else?
It did make me wonder whether these people would still see the human within the sexual interaction—about whether I’d feel further dehumanization in that sort of situation.
You said you were exploring your queerness at the same time you were exploring the intersection of sex and your disability. Did those explorations feed into each other?
I’ve always felt more comfortable with women or femme folks when talking about my disability, in all aspects of my life. Cis men have always felt more difficult to discuss that with, and explore that with during sex. A big part of exploring my queerness was the comfort I felt talking to women and femmes about my disability. My early queer experiences helped me to feel sexier and more comfortable in my own skin overall, too.
There’s a lot in common between crip and queer culture; the idea and process of queering and cripping a space are very similar, in terms of moving away from the norm. My cripness definitely helped to lead me to my queerness.
Can you tell me a little bit about your current relationship?
Oddly enough, he is a cis, straight man. He was always a very good friend to me for a long time before we became romantic partners. By the time we became romantically interested in each other, we were already comfortable together. He’d actually already seen me with my prosthetic off, because we were sometimes in positions where I had to change it around him.
He did clock something I didn’t: The first time we had a sexual experience with my prosthetic off was also the first time that we told each other that we love each other. We are now legally married and … navigating lockdown together. [Laughs.]
Since you’re in a relationship with that sort of intimacy, and you’ve learned that you have more control without your prosthetic on, do you take off your prosthetic more often than you keep it on during sex with him?
It honestly depends on where I am during my day when sex starts—in terms of mundane logistics—more than anything else. If I’m waking up in the morning, for example, I’ll likely keep it off. I don’t think: We’re going to have sex soon. I’m going to take off my prosthetic. I mean, if I specifically think, I’d like to explore such-and-such position, I might consciously think to take it off. Usually, that’s not a thing I think about. If I really want to explore a position or an angle during sex when I have my prosthetic on, I also certainly feel comfortable enough with my partner that I could just kick it off at this point in the middle of the experience.
Is there anything else about your experience of sex and disability that you’ve been thinking about as we’ve been talking?
Just that, as I become more comfortable with my intersecting identities and started taking pride in my identity as a disabled person—which has been a gradual process of reading disabled authors and getting on disability Twitter—I have increasingly recognized my right to pleasure, and to continue finding what works for me in sex. (My partner, and our intimacy, is important for me in that.) I feel sexier now than I ever have in my life, thanks to getting to explore disability pride. I’m just looking forward to getting older and finding out more about what feels good to me—to celebrating myself sexually as a human being through sex with my disabled body.