On Resistance in Sex and Body
by Kaleigh Trace
SEX & IDENTITY
Do I conform to such a predictable, feminine presentation because I am visibly disabled and I don’t want to stand out anymore than I already do?
Would my desires be so damn gay if my body was not already queer in and of itself? Are many disabled folks queer-identified?
Am I wearing these jeggings because they somehow signal my queerness to the outside world, or is it just because they are comfortable? And will wearing such tight pants make my junk smell weird? Is that a thing? DOES AIRFLOW MATTER?!
This is a completely standard look at the inner workings of my mind. I consider the intersecting points of my identity so often that I’ve grown concerned about the possibility of my having narcissistic personality disorder. And of course, when that consideration flits through my imagination, I run with it and wonder how “narcissist” would interact with my other descriptive monikers—disabled, queer, feminist, femme, cisgender, white, woman. It’s an endless navel-gazing loop.
I am mostly kidding. Maybe one would call me a narcissist, but what choice do I have but to consider my identities when I feel their reverberations course through my body every day? With each step I take my wobbling sway reminds me—disabled. The dresses I slink into whisper—femme. My ever-present and always-bent desires shout out—QUEER. How could I not constantly consider and be aware of these things? How does anyone do that, when our identities are such a strongly filtered lens informing our lived reality?
The identities encoded in our physical selves affect our politics, our viewpoints, and the ways that we interact with the world. And subsequently, I believe that the things that we do with our bodies—the clothes we put on, the labour we perform, the sex we have—are also affected by and affect those identities in a winding, symbiotic relationship. Personally, I think it’s damn fascinating. Perhaps predictably, I think sex is the very most fascinating act we can examine when considering our bodies and identities in action (isn’t sex always the most interesting?). Sex is just such a loaded act already, without considering individual identities and their experiences of it. It’s caught up with societally-induced shame and fear, and completely unrealistic expectations. It’s shrouded in secrecy and falsities and there is a real absence of honest and inclusive conversations about it. Sex is this big, weird, fucked up thing that we have come to revere and disdain in the North American culture that I am (and maybe you are?) living in. And so, coming to understand our own embodied identities and then throwing those bodies into the sticky act of sex can be a pretty complicated and potentially powerful thing to do.
I believe that choosing what works for you sexually—be that the decision to never have sex, to have consensual sex with many people simultaneously, to masturbate, to engage in 24/7 dom/sub relationships, to have sex with one monogamous partner forever—is a political decision in and of itself. And I mean really choosing. To not just follow a path and do what is expected, but to consider what you really, really want and act on those desires safely and consensually. It is an impressive choice to make when considering all the strange and damaging misinformation and experiences one may have to process and wade through. Redefining the sexuality of our bodies in a way that feels right for us is a radical act of self-love and defiance.
LEARNING SEX & THE BODY
In the year 2000, I kissed a boy for the first time. I was thirteen and he was twelve, and we kissed in the town park. Of the kiss, I mostly remember that it felt wet and lifeless, like an oversized slug had somehow found its way into my mouth. The tongue sat limp between my teeth and with the weight of two tongues filling my mouth, I struggled to breath through my nose. This embrace, if you could call it that, did not last for long. Ten seconds at most, maybe even less. I made sure the kiss endured long enough for it to “count” before I fled, returning to the comfort of my best friend’s basement full of giggling girls, pop music, and our soft youthful carelessness. I was significantly more at home in the bubble-gum pink silliness of our childhood than I was navigating the outside world of boys, sex, and puberty.
That first kiss, while clearly unpleasant, was important. The saliva exchange represented my first trepidatious steps toward a longed-for “womanhood.” I was only just beginning to dip my toes into the murky waters of boy/girl relations (alternative gender combinations were not really an option in small town Ontario circa-2000), and I was late to the game. Many of my girlfriends had already rounded each base on their respective tours around the baseball diamond of sexual acts. They had breasts, low-slung bell-bottoms, and older boyfriends. I had a training bra and my virginity. It was a deep source of shame: my inexperience an absence that I was keenly aware of. My first kiss was one small step that I could take to rectify the situation.
To be fair, I was late to the game with justifiable cause (not that anyone should ever need to justify their sexual evolution).
Five years earlier, my life and body were both forcibly restructured. A car accident on a sunny afternoon shattered my spine. Or maybe it would be more accurate to write that my spinal cord was compressed, held too tightly. No matter how I describe it, the results are still the same: paralysis, neurogenic bladder, altered sensation, muscle spasticity. In that split-second where metal met metal and our minivan rolled, I acquired attributes that I won’t ever shed. My body was redefined as disabled.
Today I hold that identity with pride, but as a child, I had to become acquainted with this part of my identity and the uncomfortable new set of priorities that came with it. While my peers were playing dodge ball and building their literacy, I was learning how to walk anew. I was examining my anatomy, using my small fingers to insert catheters and suppositories. I was spending my after-school hours with doctors and therapists, achieving what they called “progress” as my body moved more and more towards being what was deemed “normal” or “able.”
This was what my life looked like for years, what it still sometimes looks like. So letting my mouth be invaded by that slug-tongue when I was thirteen on the playground behind the French school felt like another important marker in my progression towards normal. As I stood there locked in embrace, one hand around the neck of a young boy and the other gripped firmly around the handle of my cane, I felt like I was doing the right thing. Despite everything, I was doing my best at “normal.”
My teen years and early twenties were all defined by this personal project of seeking normalcy. I mean, I think that must be true for most of us, isn’t it? My outlier qualities—a dragging right foot, a leaky bladder—felt highly palpable, but I imagine we all have our share of so-called oddities that we try to bury. I spent years in physiotherapy attempting to outmaneuver my physical differences. I worked out of a wheelchair, away from quad canes, and eventually found myself with no walking aid. I took multiple medications in an attempt to control my bladder. And of course, as an ultimate act of fitting in and passing as normal, I pursued desirability. I wanted to be wanted, and I thought the surest sign of that being true was to have sex.
I chased sex with the same resigned doggedness that I had applied to my rehabilitation. And maybe because sex was something that I wanted to tick off my to-do list rather than something I was truly interested in, my sexual accomplishments followed in much the same vein as my first kiss. Everything felt sluggish, and I mean both slow but also lifeless and slimy. Imagine slugs in other orifices. Ew, right? But really, it’s an apt comparison. Without knowing my body, my desires, or having any sense of what sex could even look like, I found myself entering into years of consensual but uncomfortable sexual experiences.
Having sex was important to me because I thought that by virtue of having it I was just like everyone else; desirable, young, carefree, fun. I was feigning at normal, pretending at able-bodiedness and sexual prowess. I had no models that showed me I could be both disabled and sexually competent, so I denied the former in hopes of achieving the latter. I entered into sexual rendez-vous where no one involved remarked on my physical differences. We simply dimmed the lights and averted our eyes, pretending I did not stumble on my way into bed, did not take multiple pee breaks, and did not maneuver my body differently around the four corners of the mattress. This is a privilege that I embody, to be sure. To be able to pass as nondisabled (at least enough to have had multiple sexual encounters that did not acknowledge my disability) speaks to the truth that I can walk, can dress and undress myself, can self-catheterize. I used to play this privilege to my advantage (or disadvantage, depending how you look at it) by working very, very hard at being “normal” and having “normal” sex. I denied those aspects of my identity that seemed to make me more of an outsider (my disability, my queerness), and subsequently denied myself pleasure, confidence, and honesty.
RELEARNING SEX & THE BODY // RESISTANCE
Is it universal that age makes our skin fit better? That years rub soft the edges that cut deep against our egos until we find ourselves suddenly comfortable in our bodies? Few things are ever really universal, so it must not be. And I am not very old anyway, so who am I to say? In truth, I am probably oversimplifying things. It is far more likely that our sense of self does not become progressively more certain or secure, but instead careens through peaks and valleys, feeling good then bad then good again. In my experience though, feeling good has grown easier. Finding politics, a sense of shared experience with others, and a community has made a difference. As I got older I learned about radical disability politics and feminism, I met other people who both identified as disabled and were total babes, and I came out as queer. Pretending to be something I was not just eventually grew too difficult and I had to face my truths and let go of my own constructed facades.
There was not really an “Aha!” moment where everything that was once hard suddenly felt good and just like that I became an unwavering, confident, disabled, queer femme. The shift was gradual, like tectonic plates moving slowly inside of me (and in truth, I sometimes still waver). But in retrospect there are some moments that stand out, experiences that were different and made me second guess the way that I had been conducting myself. When I watched Mia Gimp saunter across the screen in her porn Krutch looking so damn good and moving just like me; when someone I was having sex with first asked me what I liked in bed; when I finally came to understand that sex does not need to follow a trajectory that concludes in penetration, but can instead look like any number of bodily equations. Repeatedly having encounters like these which directly contradicted supposed societal “truths” (that disabled people aren’t sexy, that “sex” involves insertion) forced my hand. I could not carry all of these disjointed pieces of information and so I had to let some go. I chose to discard those beliefs which are widely held but which are certainly the most rotten: ideas of hierarchical value based on physical abilities; rigid concepts of sex and sexuality; narrow constraints of beauty and desirability. Those things are not worth holding.
This past summer, I was gifted two canes. One a deep mahogany wood, classic and simple; the other a marble topped black iron stick, marked with a ring of rhinestones around the head. I spent literally over a decade trying not to use a cane, and then one day I found myself considering it once more. Having a cane now does not feel like a regression, it just makes the most sense. With my cane I fall down less and feel more balanced. Plus, it looks good. My reasons for not wanting one feel so old and tired now, uncritical thoughts stemming from a fucked up internalized ableist idea of what it means to be normal.
Of course, those sentiments sometimes still creep in on me. That first moment when I held the beautiful mahogany wood in my fist, I felt my shoulders slump. Those old, familiar concerns over my appearance (“does this cane clash with my shoes?”) and my public perception (“do I look more visibly disabled now?”) quickly infiltrated my mind. But only in passing. I can’t entertain these worries for very long now that I know they hold no truth or value. I feel more comfortable here in my disabled body. What comes from this comfort is so much—an ease of being alone, a confidence in my strut, and a whole new way to feel desirable. Where I once had sex in search of validation from others, I now have sex because the pleasure of it ripples through me, shakes me into aliveness. I now have sex in a way that not only includes but recognizes the eroticism of my disability, which denies predictable norms, and that I do solely to satisfy myself and not the expectations of others.
In this sexualized world, what our desires ought to look like are carved into our soft psyches at a young age. When we choose to defy this premeditated messaging and deconstruct and rebuild our sexual identities in our own name, we are performing a wild act of reclamation. We are progressing, not on a path towards normal but on a path towards bodily self-governance. To choose the sex that we truly want; to learn how to treat our bodies and the bodies of others safely and with consent; to apply to ourselves and others a gentleness that demands nothing but respect: what a radically defiant life project. ♦
“Wild Acts” is from our Sex Issue (winter 2014/2015)