Where I stand (On disability in the Smut Marathon)

I was nervous about Round 3 of the Smut Marathon. In fact, scrap that – I’ve been nervous about every round. But this was different. In previous rounds, I’ve been nervous about the voting. This time? It was reading what everyone else had written that had me anxious.

Character flaws are fascinating to me. I’d be the first to tell you that I don’t like ‘body beautiful’ erotica, and that extends to personalities, too – I prefer characters who struggle with anger, self-confidence, conforming to social norms. Characters who battle with mental health issues. The fact that the word ‘flaw’ is so subjective, because after all, aren’t we all flawed in some way?  This should have been a round that suited me down to the ground.

Except – as I said to someone very shortly after receiving the assignment – it didn’t.

I didn’t want to read about disability.

For the benefit of Smut Marathon participants who may not usually read this blog or who don’t follow me on Twitter, I identify as disabled. I have left-sided hemiplegia, which is a type of cerebral palsy, caused, in my case, by brain damage at birth. My left leg is an inch shorter than my right, so I walk with a limp. I trip over a fair amount. I struggle with my balance. I lack dexterity in my left hand. My mental health is also compromised – maybe because of the brain damage, maybe not.

It’s not difficult to live with, in the grand scheme of things. And yet, it can be fucking impossible to live with nonetheless.

And so I didn’t want to see, in the competition, any character whose flaw was disability. The world tells disabled people that they’re undesirable every single day. We don’t need to see it reinforced in fiction, too.

What I really didn’t expect, though, was to see a disability that could be mine. A character with ‘a heavy black lift in his shoe,’ a lift which was, nonetheless unable to ‘hide the limp’. I blanched. I freaked out a bit. I had, as is typical for me, a bit of a rant on Twitter.

I had said, on more than one occasion, that if this happened, I would withdraw from the competition. I feel that strongly about it. And yet, I haven’t. I’m uncomfortable with it, absolutely, but the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realised that part of the reason why I’m uncomfortable is because I don’t quite know where I stand on this issue.

My main problem with the piece is that it doesn’t reframe disability as desirable. It tells the reader two things – that a) one person is capable of seeing past the disability, but this is the exception, not the rule (‘They saw disqualifying weakness’) and b) that the woman sees past the disability (‘What their pitying stares missed, she always saw. They missed the way his hazel eyes changed like quicksilver as his lips took control of hers, kissing her with careful command when he reached her. They missed his piano playing fingers, long and warm, brushing higher and higher up her thigh…’) The disabled man is desirable in spite of his disability, not because of it. And it’s writing that shows someone as desirable because of their disability that would really push the boundaries.

And yet. I’m not sure it’s possible. I’ve certainly never managed it.

There is good writing out there about disabled people making their peace with their bodies (one of the things that saddened me in Round 3 of the Smut Marathon is that the pieces about characters with physical flaws were not generally written from the viewpoint of that character). This wonderful piece by Keah Brown is excellent on that topic. But even there, Keah acknowledges that it’s difficult: ‘Admitting that there is comfort in pain is a strange but necessary truth. Happiness and acceptance still take more work for me, and that is also a necessary truth.’

Last year, I wrote an erotic short story about a character who also shares my disability, which can be found in the anthology Goodbye Moderation: Lust. It confronts the issue of disability head on, I hope – I really wanted to write something that didn’t shy away from my true fears:

“‘Tell me again,’ he says, ‘which words you wanted me to say.’

My voice is barely even a whisper. ‘Spastic,’ I say.

‘Say please.’

Jesus, really? There’s an uncomfortable pause.

‘I’m not doing anything until you ask nicely.’

‘Fuck. Okay. Please.’”

The problem is, I felt obliged to close that story in a more optimistic and palatable way, not just for the reader, but for myself, too. I couldn’t envisage a world in which disability, or disabled slurs, could be repositioned as sexy. I could only conjure up a world in which an ablebodied character helps the disabled character to make their peace with their disability:

“On my back, the words are different. Down my spine, they read:

Beautiful

Hot

Incredible

Strong

Mine

The tears start all over again as he gathers me in his arms and rains kisses all over my face, my neck, my hair.

‘That,’ he says. ‘That is what I see. None of the bullshit you made me write. When will you start to see that? It doesn’t matter what other people see. All that matters is what you see.'”

My male character sees past the disability. He wants the disabled character to see past the disability. Neither of them can envisage a world in which someone is actually able to see disability itself as hot.

It doesn’t stop me really wanting to read a story where someone does.

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21 thoughts on “Where I stand (On disability in the Smut Marathon)

  1. This is fascinating, not least because you struggle with it yourself. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I don’t generally write fiction, so I struggle with the most rudimentary things, much less the difficult things, but one of the things that struck me in the fiction I’m writing now is that I can barely manage to write about *what I know*.

    I’m aware that, hey, it’s fiction: I CAN add characters who are ‘not like me’ (as a hetero, cis, white, middle class woman), but I’m *terrified* to even attempt it because I know (*know* 100%) that I will get it wrong and create all sorts of badness. So I do the easy thing and just… don’t.

    If I’m going to offend people, I’d much rather offend them because I’m a shitty writer or don’t have any original thoughts or I’m a narrow minded small thinker than because I tried to write about experiences that aren’t mine and I royally fucked it up. And I don’t think asking the few people I know with those experiences (people with disabilities, trans folks, women of colour, queer people etc) will cut it because the entirety of their life experience from the big things to the tiny ones, can’t be gleaned from those few pieces of input.

    All that to say: I’m very aware how important representation is, and how important different kinds of representation is, and I think supporting people writing their own experiences is a step. But as a person suddenly having a go at writing fiction, I’m not brave enough to tackle any of it.

    Ferns

    • “(as a hetero, cis, white, middle class, able-bodied, neurotypical woman)”

      See even in a short comment *specifically about writing about people with disabilities* AND where you mention mental health, I forgot to include both of those descriptors. Sorry about that.

      Ferns

    • I think you *are* brave enough. But it takes time, and as writers of both fiction and non-fiction, our muses and creative brains are so super vulnerable to criticism that I totally understand why people are wary of going places they haven’t experienced, especially when they’re aware of how important representation is. It’s certainly caused me to back away from a few ideas I’ve had. But maybe we all need to be brave enough to take those risks and then try to take on board any feedback we get, whether it’s positive or negative. Or maybe that does count as cultural appropriation. I don’t know. It’s a subject I could go back and forth on forever.

  2. I can only imagine this was a hard piece to write, all shifting and sorting because you admitted you don’t even quite know where you stand. And I love your honesty, and the vulnerability, and the confusion of this – it’s beautifully written. Thank you

  3. I love that you are exploring this so introspectively. You may not ever come to any conclusion, but your openness to question norms and stereotypes is something we all must do as writers. I could have written this piece you speak of, and I likely would have done the same thing…it would have been something to look past. Maybe it would be a good challenge to write the story you wish you could read. I know I would like to see it.

    • Thank you! I’ve been trying to write something, as you suggest, tonight, but it’s really, really hard. I’ll keep playing with it – as you’ve probably gathered, this is a topic that fascinates me, so I don’t imagine I’ll be moving away from it any time soon!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. You have made me think about my own writing and my own thought processes and made me realise I go through life without thinking deeply enough. I am not a shallow person(I hope) but I really should plunge more into the depths and explore my thoughts more.

    • Thank you – this is a really kind comment. And while I agree to an extent – plunging into the depths and exploring thoughts deeply is always interesting – I think there’s also a place for fantasy and escapism, certainly in erotica

  5. This is a really interesting post. I imagine many people would shy away from writing that story for fear of being seen to objectify or fetishise the disability – the received wisdom is that “seeing past” the disability is the right thing to do. Did you see the Emily Yates documentary on devoteeism? If not, have a watch (I’ve just checked iplayer and it’s on for another 12 days) because it’s really well done. You might not find it an easy watch in places but Emily is as great as ever and I think did a really good job of exploring if from different perspectives – devotees, disabled people and medical professionals. She interviewed people who hide their devoteeism but also interviewed Ruth Madison who wrote (W)hole.

    • The one thing I find odd about ‘seeing past’ the disability is that, as far as I understand it, that isn’t the preferred way to respond to race or sexuality – it’s preferable to understand that those things shape a person and that we should be careful not to erase them. It’s not a criticism of you, because I think you’re absolutely right, it *is* the received wisdom when it comes to disability, I’m just not sure why it still differs from other things in that way.

      I think I saw the Emily Yates documentary when it first came out a couple of years back, but my memory of it is vague, so I’ve downloaded it to watch again Thanks for pointing out that it’s currently available, and for taking the time to comment.

      • I saw a fat black woman speak at a Scarlett Ladies event and she talked about the problem of both of those things being fetishised. She talked about people calling her their ‘chocolate milkshake’ and using phrases like BBW and how offensive it was that she was approached *because* she was black and *because* she was fat. She didn’t want those things to be noted as points of difference and said “I’m nobody’s fetish”. It was remembering her experiences that prompted my original train of thought here. I get that disability should be understood as part of the whole person, but it was the specific point about writing disability as the point of attraction that made me ponder how that could be done. A woman in the documentary made a similar point to the SL panellist and said she felt her disability was objectified when people were attracted to her because of it. Anyway, it’s very interesting and thought-provoking and it’s made me realise it’s a gap in my knowledge with this side of my work.

      • It’s very thought-provoking, I agree. I don’t think we’re there as a society yet though (or if we’ll ever get there). I know I’d be awful at writing disability as a point of attraction because I’ve internalised so much ableism (although it might be a healthy thing for me to try), but I love exploring the questions around it. I’m also really delighted with the way people have engaged with this post.

  6. I am sorry this round has been so upsetting for you.

    That said, I love that you have written this post, love seeing your thought process. As I read towards the end and got to this “Neither of them can envisage a world in which someone is actually able to see disability itself as hot.” it made me think of a movie of James Spader: Crash. It basically is a movie where he gets excited seeing how someone has been scarred or deformed because of an accident. It made me feel uncomfortable and I had problems watching the movie through to the end. I had to take breaks. It also made me search and find the term ‘devoteeism’ that Exposing40 mentioned.

    As you know, Master T is disabled, and I actually asked myself if I would still think he’s the best man alive if he wasn’t disabled. Yes, I would, because I love him for who he is, despite his disability and not because of it. It’s just something that is part of him, like his grey eyes and quirky humor. Does that even make a bit of sense?

    Rebel xox

    • I really wish you wouldn’t apologise for this – I meant it when I said that I like the aspects of the SM that challenge me, even if that challenge is emotional. I said to someone tonight that I am in some ways grateful for the way I overthink everything, because I enjoy the endless self-analysis, even if it is sometimes upsetting and my life might be easier if I just learnt to think about things less.

      Your point about Master T absolutely does make sense, and I think in reality it probably is far more normal to love someone despite their disability rather than because of it. And I would be much more uncomfortable if someone desired me because they were a devotee than because they could see past the disability – the latter is much less confronting. I think maybe my issue in this round was that there was nothing from the disabled person’s point of view – it’s hard for us to see past our disability, even though we would like to, and I would have loved to have seen that represented. I hope that makes sense.

      Anyway, as I said, please do *not* feel bad about this assignment, because I really like things that force me to ask myself difficult questions xxx

  7. I think it’s wonderful that you have used this opportunity to speak out about this and I know it is something I will consider more in my own writing. I worry if erotica was written as someone finding the disability hot, it would cone across as fetishising disability, which I feel is no better. What I’d like to see, personally, is erotica including disability but does not focus on it.
    I’m really glad you have chosen to stay in the marathon and look forward to reading your future entries.
    Aurora x

    • You’re absolutely right, it is no better, and it’s such a fine line. I guess one way around it is to have stuff from the disabled character’s point of view, but if you’re able-bodied and you do that, some disabled writers will inevitably feel that kind of writing should be left to people who are disabled. Personally, I’m happy for able-bodied people to try writing disability, as long as they do their research – I think anything that increase positive representation of disabled people can only be a good thing. Thank you for taking the time to comment x

  8. Pingback: Flawed | Sex blog (of sorts)

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your inner thoughts. As a blogger without disabilities (at least, if you leave out my bluntness and arrogance) I have written about sex and disabilities and it is striking how much misunderstandings there are. It is great that you give some ‘inside’ knowledge.
    But it wouldn’t be half as interesting, if it wasn’t for your writing skills. You have a way with words. They come naturally and the conversations are realistic.

    Can’t wait to read more from you.

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