Most people rely on their hands to get through the day. This can make it hard for them to understand how people with upper-limb differences—the partial or total absence, or atypical development, of one or both arms or hands—move through their own lives. That confusion sometimes translates into unwanted pity and tactless questions about how people with limb differences manage everyday activities. These questions often quickly turn to sex, because the askers find it hard to imagine how people with upper-limb differences can hold, caress, or stimulate a partner, all acts they see as exceptionally important within physical intimacy.
Limb differences vary, whether in their extents, whether they're congenital or acquired later in life, or with respect to the potential ancillary effects of the specific condition that caused it. As such, there is no single experience of sex with an upper-limb difference. But most people with limb differences often find it relatively easy to work around occasional physical limitations. The biggest damper on their sex lives often has nothing to do with their bodies, and everything to do with how weird people can get about their limbs, or lack thereof. People with upper-limb differences often talk about potential romantic or sexual partners who get hung up on their bodies, and about the fear of ending up with someone who is with them solely because of their limb differences, either out of misplaced pity, curiosity, or fetishistic interest.
In recent years, people with limb differences started to publicly share stories of their experiences with sex. Advocacy groups have built up peer support communities, and circulated guides on how to build strong relationships and have good sex while living with, or after acquiring, a limb difference.
To learn more about what that's like, VICE recently spoke to Ali Lapper, an artist born with no arms and shortened legs, and her partner Si Clift about the realities of sex as and with a person with limb differences.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ali: I was placed in a full-time care facility from the time I was six years old, where I grew up hearing that disabled people don’t have sex because it’s disgusting. Some teachers and staffers told me things like, "You’re not beautiful. You’re not sexy. No one’s ever going to fancy you." Unfortunately, if you get brainwashed enough, you start to believe it. So, I didn’t grow up thinking I was ever going to have sex—even as I became sexually aware and started to have feelings like, OK, I do want to have relationships. I never thought that I’d meet anybody who would have sex with me.
I moved to London when I was 19 and realized that there are men and women in the world who are basically just interested in my difference, not me as a human being. This is their sexual kink. They’d find me and contact me out of the blue, saying, "Please, I want to see you. Can I touch your shoulders?"
Some men would be interested in me, then, three weeks later, they’d go, "I don’t want to see you anymore. I’ve got my fill." People can be really devious and pretend they like you, then drop a whammy: "I was just curious."
I didn’t know who was sincere and who wasn’t. I began to think I wasn’t going to have a proper relationship, because all I was being used for was a curiosity. That was really hard to get my head around, particularly when I’d been told, "You’re not sexy." On the one hand, it was flattering, and I'm happy with my own body, my own sexuality. On the other hand… I want you to be interested in me as a human, and not just in what I’m missing. The fetishizing could be good if it could ever happen on my own terms. I don’t think it ever was in reality, though.
Eventually I had a relationship where it felt right. We’d had time to get to know each other. I didn’t think of myself as his fetish. It wasn’t that difficult to figure out how it’d work when we had sex. I just went with the flow. I was more concerned about the fact that I was a virgin than that I was disabled. And it was fine. I remember thinking, Bloody hell, that hurt. Is it always going to be like that? Fantastic. But sex got better, and I got more into it.
Si: I was brought up around disabilities. My sister has spina bifida. I had friends at school who had disabilities. I never saw them as any different. I don’t think I was aware of the way other people thought about disabilities, either. It never occurred to me they would be seen differently.
Ali: I met Si when my friend was going out with him over a period of five years. They’d come to parties, or I’d invite them over. I never imagined that he might like me. Then they split up and he started to get in touch over Instagram. I asked, "Do you fancy me?" He was like, "Of course I do."
Si: It was a decent number of months after that breakup before we got together.
Ali: It was not. Don’t lie. It so wasn’t.
Si: It was at least eight weeks.
Ali: Uh, Si. The first date. What happened?
Si: Oh, yeah. She invited me to her place. I thought it was just going to be a chat and a cup of tea.
Ali: He’s so old-fashioned. I invited him to bed. It felt like I’d known him a long time because he’d been in and out of my life for years, so I didn’t think he thought of me as just a curiosity. But I thought if I didn’t tell him to do anything, he’d just go home. I got ahold of his hand, put it under my chin, and said, "Come on, let’s go." I just bossed him around a lot.
Si: Of course, I was willing.
Ali: I said, "I need help to undress. You’ll need to take my clothes off." To me, things like that, inside and outside of sex, are part of having a relationship. How’d it feel for you, Si?
Si: It was really good. But. to some extent. if she hadn’t told me what to do, I wouldn’t have known what to do. I didn’t want to upset her, or to do anything she wouldn’t find acceptable.
Ali: I’ve learned that I have to take things forward. Some people can’t even figure out how to say hello to me. So I tend to take control and make jokes about having no arms. It probably isn’t up to me, but I want them to feel comfortable that they’re not going to hurt me or offend me. Because people are really frightened of offending you. I don’t know why. Why were you, Si
Si: Do you know what? I don’t know. I don’t think it was about your limb differences. I think it was because you didn’t know me and I didn’t want to do anything to make you think bad of me.
Ali: I’ve never felt like people expected me to be able to do things in sex that usually involve hands. That’s probably because I’m so used to taking control that it doesn’t register. Also, you know that I haven’t got arms, so if you’re going to sleep with me, you don’t expect those things.
People are probably more curious about how I’m going to compensate—I hate that term—and make it good for them without any hands. I never thought much about learning how to use the rest of my body in sexual ways—I just adapted as I went. Sex seemed intuitive. I’m a confident person. I’ve always been able to recognize and vocalize when I do or don’t like something. I eventually learned that I’ve got perfectly good feet and an amazing mouth.
Si: I can vouch for that. I did at first think, This is interesting. But I didn’t think much about what her differences would mean for sex. It is what it is, and you just do it and figure it out.
Ali: With positions, we’ve had to work things out. I can’t get into doggy style, or whatever. But there are always ways around things. You just use pillows or get onto the edge of the bed. If you’re comfortable with somebody, then working that stuff out becomes part of sex.
Obviously, I can’t hold him. So, I gave him a get-out clause: "Look, if this isn’t comfortable for you, or isn’t what you want because I can’t hold you, you can go." Thankfully, he didn’t want to.
Si: I love holding Ali, so it worked perfectly for me.
Ali: I’ve had relationships where guys started to resent having to help me with everyday things, like just scratching my head for me. One guy was helping me shower and go to the bathroom, and then he was just like, "Oh, I can’t do this." Well, then, what the fuck are you doing with me? But I learned quickly that Si was perfectly fine with those caregiver activities.
Si: It doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of our relationship, even though I do most of the intimate stuff for you. It’s almost like… doing my own hair, doing things for myself.
Ali: But you’re unusual in that. You've been around disability your whole life. That probably has a bearing on it.
Si: The thing that bothers me is when people come up to me and say, "Oh, you’re really brave."
Ali: For taking me on… My mother is a prime example. We have a bad relationship. Whenever I’ve gone out with somebody and she’s met them, she’s asked them, in front of me, "What is it about Ali that you find sexy? Why would you even find her attractive?" And that’s my mother. Bloody hell.
Si: Ali’s got a lovely face and great tits. That’s my answer.
Ali: Thank you. I have got great tits.
I also hear people go up to Si and ask, “So, how do you have sex?”
Si: I say, "Well, what you do is, you get an erection. You pull down your trousers. You make sure your partner’s wet…" And they run away. It’s like, "You asked!"
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.