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Incompatible Desires

by J.

Whenever I see a woman who has lost a limb I feel a blast of tenderness and longing: I yearn to be with her, to be intimate with her, to cherish her. There is an element of erotic desire in my feelings, but that is only one element in the desire to offer what I have come to think of as 'loving friendship', not common friendship amplified, but friendship transcended and transmuted. This is quite a different feeling from the love I feel for my wife: it doesn't detract from it, if anything it is complementary to it. It is almost as if such women belonged to a third sex, breathtakingly attractive to me in a qualitatively different way from other women. I wish that I could find someone to share this consuming emotion with, who would welcome this devotion . The kind of relationship implied by my desire brings into sharp focus incompatibilities that can underly many kinds of relationship, so a discussion of the incompatibilities obstructing the forming of relationships between women who have lost limbs and those who desire them is relevant to related types of sexual relationships where one partner is attracted strongly by the other's physical features.

I was very surprised when I found that my feelings are not unique. Since then I have read everything that I could find about this sort of attraction and I soon discovered that my feelings are shared to a greater or lesser extent by a number of other men. While the existence of the attraction has been recognized, no-one seems to have thought of a plausible explanation for its origin. Why do so many men find the maimed female body attractive? It could be argued that men who hate women might desire the mutilation of their bodies. This suggestion seems not to be borne out by the facts: for example, Louise Baker writing of her own experience as a one-legged woman states of a friend:

He was also, I am personally convinced, the most thoroughly kind and gentle man who ever lived. Moreover, he and his equally lovable wife - strange as it seemed at the time - were minor collectors of one-legged girls. I say 'minor' because I have since encountered several curators of much vaster collections of such curiosa. This collecting may sound like a form of madness - but if it is, the quite harmless syndrome invariably afflicts exceedingly nice people.

Such academic studies as have been carried out suggest that the men with this preference tend to be nurturing, rather than aggressive; and perhaps this is suggestive: perhaps such men, feeling that the stereotyped masculine role limits their opportunities to express caring feelings and behaviour to able-bodied women may feel that such expressions might be more acceptable to women who are less able than average to cope with the physical requirements of everyday life. Were this the case, this feeling ought then to be expressed towards all disabled women rather than as it predominantly appears to be, towards women who have lost limbs. Furthermore there is something more than tender concern expressed: there is usually a sense of passionate even obsessive physical desire, one reason for the attraction having been classified as a fetish by psychologists. For the fetishist there must be something about the one-legged female body that acts as an overwhelmingly potent erotic stimulus.

It has been claimed that the amputation scar may be interpreted as a symbol of a vulva: this seems to me to be implausible because I am sure that the number of individuals who have had the opportunity to observe an amputation stump in sufficient detail to see exactly what it looks like will be relatively limited for a variety of reasons: What opportunities in the normal course of events would there be for such detailed scrutiny? What could be the motive for wanting to observe the stump in such detail without some pre-existing motivation? How likely is it that someone would flaunt her stump so that the potential admirer might observe it closely by chance? On the contrary, women who have lost limbs usually take considerable pains to disguise the fact. In any case there must be many men who find one-legged women very attractive but who have never known one so intimately as to have been allowed to look closely at her stump. I certainly did. In my limited experience the scar of the amputation had faded to a fine white line that looked nothing like a vulva. So that theory has a number of serious difficulties.

One aspect of the desire that has not received a great deal of notice is related to the possibility that the amputation stump may be perceived as mimic for the phallus. There are obvious similarities: the penis is basically cylindrical in shape and arises at the groin. Without foot, or in many cases, knee, the stump of a leg also arises at the groin and is basically cylindrical in shape. Perhaps this lends sexual ambiguity to the one-legged woman and makes her attractive to men who have bisexual inclinations, inclinations that are either suppressed or perhaps not even recognized by their possessors. Certainly, as a mimic for a phallus, the amputation stump, by its size, could be classed as a super-stimulus of the kind discussed below.

This idea is derived from Tinbergen's theory of releasers.

Tinbergen, an ethologist, suggested that the behaviour of animals was usually elicited not by the totality of the sensory input available in particular circumstances, but by certain selected features of the environment that stimulated individuals to behave in particular ways. Herring gulls prefer to sit on large eggs rather than on small ones. You can explain this preference in evolutionary terms if you want to: large healthy chicks come out of large eggs, so gulls have evolved to prefer large eggs. If you present a broody gull with normal eggs, and at the same time with very large cubes painted the same colour as gulls' eggs, khaki green with black spotches, the gulls prefer to sit on the cubes.

Such behaviour occurs because it is elicited, released, by only some features of the stimulus, the egg, in particular its size and its colouration, but not its shape, and big eggs, eggs so large, and so unusually shaped that they could not possibly have been laid by the gulls, are preferred to real eggs. The preference of many men for women whose breasts are abnormally large has been explained by identifying the possession of breasts as a releaser of sexual behaviour in the human male, and extra-large breasts as super-stimuli that release the behaviour. A feature of this behaviour is that the individuals who are most sexually desirable may in fact be physically less fit than other less desirable individuals, equally fewer chicks are hatched from painted cardboard cubes than from the smaller real eggs. This theory has been offered as an explanation of fetishism associated with body surfaces, sexual arousal induced by the wearing of rubber or leather being explained as the substitution for real skin of a super-stimulus that represents in enhanced form its sexually stimulating properties. So perhaps the desire that men feel for women who have lost limbs has something to do with the one-legged female body being a super-releaser for erotic feelings. This does not on the face of it seem to be very likely; but there may be some circumstantial evidence for this view.

Evidence for such an explanation is provided by a common feature of the reports of the origin of the attraction which is that its initiation is often associated with the sight, when a small child, of an individual with one leg walking with crutches. It may be that in infancy there is a switch that sets sexual preference, and this switch,is released by physical difference: perhaps the child identifies members of the opposite sex not by the possession by members of that sex of particular physical attributes, but rather by the physical difference between himself or herself and the other people, sexual preference being formed for the most different. A feature of such rule is that it is equally appropriate for both sexes; but certain individuals, those who are physically aberrant, may cause the switch to be thrown in unusual and unexpected ways. So the sight of a one-legged person may throw the switch in favour of one-legged people, in exactly the same way as the large cubical eggs were preferred by the gulls. There are difficulties with this view. There are many patterns of departure from the average of physical normality, and not all of them have the same transforming effect. What is it about amputation that is so special?

One feature of the development of physical preference seems to be a preference for symmetry. Ugliness is often associated with assymmetry, beauty with symmetry. The one-legged woman, wearing a skirt, walking with crutches can give an impression of striking difference and of symmetry rather than of asymmetry, the gait, in some cases, even possessing grace and elegance: Louise Baker op. cit. on learning as a child to walk with crutches: 'Before Mrs. Ferris [her teacher] graduated me from her kindergarten, she had me walking with a full cup of water in my hand and two books on my head.' Certainly one of the continuing themes in the material published by admirers of such women is the pleasure taken in watching one-legged women walking with crutches. The physical symmetry obtained by wearing a prosthesis ought then to make the women more desirable; but in general it does not seem to and for two reasons: first it disguises the marked physical difference that released the attraction in the first place, and second, the gait of the person walking with a prosthesis is always to a greater or lesser extent asymmetrical. (One wonders how many prostheses could allow their wearers to achieve Louise Baker's feat of balancing the books on her head while walking.)

If this explanation of the attraction is correct it implies that the number of men who are attracted to one-legged women is likely to be strongly correlated to the number of one-legged women who use crutches, and the hypothesis could be tested statistically by surveying the prevalence of desire for one-legged women in men of different ages, and relating this to the number and proportion of one-legged women in the population who wore realistic prostheses in the periods corresponding to the childhoods of the men. It is my impression that with the development of prosthetic technology an increasing proportion of one-legged women use prostheses. I would therefore expect that the proportion of men who found one-legged women attractive would be smaller in the younger age groups. I would also expect that the proportion of men in all age groups who found women who lack an arm attractive would be smaller than the proportion who were attracted to one-legged women, even taking account of the smaller number of one-armed women in the population, one-armed women being obviously more assymmetrical than one-legged women. (Someone has probably done all this research, but I haven't the inclination to search out the results, anyway, this isn't meant to be an academic paper; it's meant to be a personal perspective.)

The psychological background to the development of the attraction to one-legged women forms one half of the whole story. The other half is to do with the psychological consequences of suffering amputation and their likely effects on a person's ability to form relationships. These are bound to vary and are likely to be more complex for a variety of reasons: perhaps the most important is that the accident of amputation can happen to a person at any age and through a huge variety of causes. The time and the cause will play an enormous part in determining the individual's response to this misfortune. A crude classification might be to separate individuals into two age classes, childhood and adolescence, and sexual maturity and old age, and to separate the causes of the amputation into accident and disease, though perhaps the causes are not very important for the current analysis.

On first consideration it might be thought that amputation in childhood and adolescence is likely to have the profoundest influence on personality. This may not be the case because what happens to you when you are young seems to be the natural sort of thing to happen, and you have not learned attitudes that have become habitual in the adult, consequently you may be less devastated by the sense of loss, and because you have less firmly fixed expectations about the fixity of yourself, and of the responses of other people to your loss. It could be argued that the impact of the loss of a limb may be of lesser importance to individuals who have already formed relationships based on other sources of attraction, and in this case it can be perceived solely as a misfortune to be circumvented in the most convenient way; but the adult will be much more aware of the changes that the loss will have made not only to his or her physical capabilities, but to relationships with other people. Perhaps the most unfortunate of all is the adolescent.

For the adolescent, the effects on the formation of relationships from the start are likely to be severe and it may be that there will be some element of fetishism involved such sexual relationships as develop. If the partners are lucky the fetishism in the one will have been triggered by the other's amputation and if they are lucky they may escape the problems of forming relationships that are discussed below; but it is likely that the one-legged girl will have difficulty in forming friendships that contain a sexual component with boys. Louise Baker op. cit. notes that the period when her amputation caused her most unhappiness was her teens.

Common features of the response at any age are likely to be to the stigma of physical deformity, but this is likely to be made worse by the persecution children visit on the abnormal; and the natural desire to conform as closely as possible to some perceived physical norm is likely to be associated with an exaggerated awareness of the degree of failure that is inevitable in the pursuit of that goal. The emotional response to the loss is bound to be a more or less lasting regret and a desire to compensate as far as possible for the physical inconveniences of having restricted mobility. The consciousness of stigma is likely to play a part in limiting the confidence of the individual in forming sexual liaisons, and the deformity itself may reduce the number of candidates available for this activity. The natural desire of the one-legged person is to be as normal in appearance and abilities as possible. It is in the perception of what this entails that leads to the most fundamental incompatibilities between one-legged women and those who find them attractive.

For the admirer, perhaps, symmetry of gait has more symbolic importance than the physical mechanism by which this is obtained, so walking with crutches is interpreted, on an intuitive emotional level, as allowing a more symmetrical and and therefore more natural gait than walking with a prosthesis, while the obvious physical difference of having only one leg has its attractive resonance of super-femininity. In contrast, the appearance of normality, of having two legs, the maximization of mobility and function even at the cost of a limping gait, obtained through the use of a prosthesis, are what the one-legged woman will probably perceive as the most acceptable compen sations for the disability caused by her impairment.

Superficial analysis would suggest that the obvious partners in a loving relationship would appear to be the fetishist and the amputee; but of course this is wrong because of the profound incompatibility that could lie at the very centre of the relationship. The one-legged woman would like to be desired for her normality, for the minimization she has achieved of the inconveniences of having one leg. The fetishist as well, perhaps, as valuing the one-legged woman for her normal attributes, will value her for the very thing that she is trying to disguise, and in valuing her for that, will be perpetually emphasising to her her failure to disguise it effectively. While the fetishist sees her at her best, at her most desirable and beautiful, unmistakably one-legged walking with crutches, she will usually prefer the alternative symmetry of the prosthesis, and will almost certainly find the preferences of her admirer distasteful to some degree. A parallel example might be the distaste many women who possess large breasts have for the kind of men who desire women with large breasts.

There is some reason for this distaste: it would be unreasonable to expect to sustain a relationship based only on the sexual excitement provoked in one partner by some particular physical attribute of the other. Such a relationship might be accepted by the woman as the best she could hope for, her amputation seeming to her to disqualify her from other more desirable relationships, but there are other contributing factors that make the formation of such liaisons very difficult. It seems that there are many more fetishists than there are one-legged women to go round. A consequence of this is that on the rare occasions that a fetishist encounters a one-legged woman he has to act decisively if he has any chance of relating to the sort of woman who releases his sexual desire to the fullest extent. The fetishist is starving for the relationship. The woman is seen, in the street or some other public place, the probability of encountering her as part of his normal social circle being vanishingly remote, and all he can hope for is to try to pick her up. This requires boldness, will almost certainly be lacking in finesse, and is bound to fail: not surprisingly, most women don't want to be picked up, and would find the attempt offensive. One of the recurrent complaints made by one-legged women is the unwelcome attention they receive from strange men. A friend of mine has been approached by unknown men in the street on a number of occasions, and she hates it. An added difficulty may have to do with the admission to himself of the source of the fetishist's desire. He may rationalise it into the offering of a sexual favour to someone who has little opportunity to express herself sexually and who might therefore be expected to be undiscriminating in her acceptance of sexual propositions. Such a rationalisation is extremely crass, and it is not surprising this make matters even worse. Recognising this a sensitive person would not make the attempt. So the opportunity to make friends is lost.

There is the possibility of advertising in contact magazines, or lonely hearts columns, but that is likely to be unsuccessful because for the reasons given above the one-legged woman is unlikely to find attractive the kind of man who is attracted to one-legged women.

Is there a way out? Not really, unless both parties recognize the kinds of accidents that have befallen them. The accident of being a fetishist is less visible than the accident of losing a leg; but it too has its emotional toll, a compound to unresolvable longing, combined in many cases with a feeling of guilt or shame. For the fetishist there is the need to offer love, tenderness, emotional commitment, and erotic passion, all of it triggered, at first, by the one thing the other person wishes most strongly to forget. As a relationship develops, if it is to develop at all and continue, there will develop the other ties of shared interests and affections that bind any continuing relationship together. For the one-legged woman, therefore, the transient period of the initiation of the relationship, the period that emphasises sexually arousing aspects of her impairment, is the period during which she would find the attentions of the fetishist most distasteful: though it may be a passing phase its avoidance is likely to cut her off from the sort of relationship that for both partners is perhaps the most certain source of continuing affection and tenderness.

I have thought a lot about all this for obvious reasons; and I am becoming resigned to the fact that it is now almost certain that I am never going to enjoy the most fulfilling kind of relationship I can imagine. It's sad; but life is often sad. I have thought about seeking therapy; but I don't want to be changed. I love the gasp of desire as I turn a corner and see a one-legged woman, even if she is wearing a cosmetic prosthesis. I can accept the sense of vain regret that I feel as I walk by not speaking, wanting to, but not knowing what to say that is not crass, or fatuous. 'If only things had been different ...' we could both say that, with some feeling. So there's not much hope for me; but these thoughts might go some way to helping other people understand the complicated feelings the bind together yet separate one-legged women from the men who admire them.

To a woman who has had the misfortune of losing a limb, the normal relationship she might expect to enter into would be with someone who would have preferred that the loss not to have occurred, and the partners would share a common attitude to her disability. At the centre of the physical relationship there would be the sense of regret, that if only the misfortune had not occurred things would be even better. Such a woman might be interested in exploring what it felt like to share a relationship with someone who, despite the incompatibilities I have described, and while regretting the misfortune that had befallen her, found her infinitely more attractive than her two-legged sisters, where she was found attractive not despite her amputation and disability but for that as well.

Of course she would have no difficulty in finding potential partners even if she could not find them among her immediate circle of acquaintances: she could advertise in a lonely hearts column and be certain of receiving a host of replies. If only I could be so lucky ...


Out on a Limb
Louise Baker (1946)
McGraw Hill Publishing Company, New York, USA.
Curious naturalists (rev. ed.)
Nico Tinbergen (1974)
Penguin, Harmondsworth, London.
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