Him before me: my thoughts on ‘Me Before You’

*contains spoilers*

It could be a coincidence. It could be merely fluke that three weeks ago I walked into a cinema showing Me Before You relatively relaxed, calm and at ease with myself and left it shattered and tearful; descending within days into a depression so sudden and severe I’m still struggling to drag myself out of bed in the morning; my desire to live completely sapped.

I should clarify: I don’t blame Jojo Moyes’ now world-famous story for my recent mental health crisis. I do blame it for forcing me to confront hard truths about how I see disability and love, in a way that I’m not wholly comfortable with a book about disability written by an able-bodied author doing.

When I spoke at Eroticon back in May, I said that I didn’t think writing disability should be the preserve of the disabled, and I think I still agree with that. I also read out this quote, from Susie Day: “If yours is the first time a reader has met a fictional someone “like them”, it’s almost inevitable that you will disappoint.” And oh my, how Me Before You  has disappointed the disabled community.

The conversation around the book has been too lengthy and too nuanced for me to replicate all of the arguments here. At the risk of massively oversimplifying, most of the backlash has come from the fact that Will, the book’s protagonist, tells his carer, Lou, to ‘Live Boldly,’ just before he travels to Dignitas to end his own life. The implication? That ‘living boldly’ is something only the able-bodied are entitled to. If you are interested in the various commentary from the disabled community, Kim Sauder has an excellent round-up post here.

I recognise why the book is problematic based on the above, and yet, at my lowest, I fall very much into the ‘some people actually feel that way,’ camp, which, you know what? Makes me feel guilty as fuck.

I’m a firm believer that the relationship between how you feel about your body and your level of (dis)ability is not linear. That is to say: there will be some people who are para- or quadriplegic and feel every day that life is worth living, just as there will be some of us who, in comparison, look essentially ablebodied, but struggle hugely to accept our bodies the way they are.

So going in to Me Before You, knowing in advance how it ended (thanks, mum!), I thought I’d be able to handle it. I thought I was personally far more able to deal with the reaction to disability that I share than I would be with a plot line that essentially saw a man whose condition left him suicidal saved by the love of a good woman.

Oh, how wrong was I?

Books are funny things. Stories are strange. In real life, we want to believe we’re rational, sophisticated creatures who won’t be satisfied with a trite, neat little ending that goes against how we see things play out in the real world (or I do, anyway). And yet, when it comes down to it, a book which doesn’t follow the conventions laid down over centuries of literature can be strangely unsettling. When I said I was planning on ending my own novel, which is about a relationship between two people who are clearly terrible for each other, with the woman leaving and realising that she’s just fine on her own, someone in my writing group warned (rightly, I think): ‘People are going to be disappointed, you know. They’re going to expect a happily ever after.’

I scorn the happily ever after. Or, more accurately, it makes me uneasy. Do I think #liveboldly should be confined to the ablebodied? No, but that’s easy for me to say, when I’m fundamentally independent despite my disability: I live alone, I travel, I drive, I work. Do I think #happilyeverafter, in a romantic sense, is the preserve of the able? I’m afraid I do, yes. I don’t expect to find someone who’ll love me in spite of the disability.

So I needed Me Before You to tell me otherwise. I needed it, there in that popcorn-scented, slightly grubby Vue, to promise that I could find love, and not only that I could find it, but that it would be enough for me to forgive myself, to find peace. And it let me down.

Will finds love. He falls in love with Lou. Lou falls in love with him. But for Will, it’s not quite enough: it’s not the powerful, executive, highly-sexed, action-sport-heavy life he led before the accident that caused his quadriplegia, and he picks the assisted-suicide route anyway. It broke my heart.

What did I want Me Before You to be, on a personal level? Did I want it to represent me, and the way I see the world? I don’t know. Maybe. But I think more than that, I wanted it to lie to me. I wanted it to tell me that love could save me. Because unless he’s out there, and he can love me first, how the hell am I supposed to do the same?

 

On human suits (or let’s just leave it out, shall we?)

‘The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose. Behind him walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely.’

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

When you have a sex blog, even a sort of sex blog, there are some things you should probably never write about. Politics is one of them. And yet, somehow, here I am writing about Michael Gove, and it’s not even the first time.

Ever since last Thursday’s referendum, and more so since yesterday when he announced he was planning to run for leader of the Conservative party, Twitter is, mainly rightly, I think, out to ridicule him.

And that’s fine. Ridicule him for having no charisma. Ridicule him twice as hard for *admitting* that he has no charisma. Wonder why the fuck someone who has repeatedly said that he has no desire, and none of the necessary qualities, to be Prime Minister, has now entered the contest to be just that. Hate what he did when he was Secretary of State for Education. Hate what he did in Justice. Laugh at the fact his wife implied that sex with him was no less of a chore than putting out the bins.

But poking fun at the way he claps or the way he drinks a glass of water? Can we just not?

The joke, most often, is that his ‘human suit is slipping.’

So far, so not so terrible. This man is awful, it says, this man is not a person, he’s an animal, or a monster, or something else entirely. But you know what? I think that maybe, just maybe, liberal Twitter is just looking for a socially acceptable way of saying ‘Doesn’t he look, y’know, a bit … special?’

Because personally, I think that when you mock the way a person does something physical – the way they walk, clap, drink, sit – you’re straying dangerously close to ableist territory. I don’t know why Michael Gove claps the way he does, and I’ll agree that yes, it looks pretty silly, but it also looks like the kind of thing I’d do either in a desperate attempt to stay awake, if I was drifting off in a boring meeting, or because I couldn’t clap like a ‘normal’ person (I can’t, as it happens).

The women among us especially hate when the media does this to female politicians. When their looks, dress sense etc. etc. are criticised. Not fair, we say, not fucking relevant. Because it’s not.

In Of Mice and Men, the book Gove tried to have removed from the GCSE English syllabus during his time as education secretary, Steinbeck paints his characters in a way that allows you to make judgements about them as people based on their physical characteristics. But it’s a story. In real life, not everyone good is gorgeous, and not everyone bad is physically unattractive with odd mannerisms.

Most of us are appalled at the surge in attacks on vulnerable people following last Thursday’s vote, a surge which seems at least partly the fault of narcissistic idiots like Mr Gove himself. But as a disabled person, the mockery around the video above made me supremely uncomfortable.

Tear into his policies, his beliefs all you like. It’s fair game. But let the weird physical stuff go. Because believe me, it’s probably the least of your worries.

An Open Letter to Cosmo

Dear Cosmo,

I’m writing to tell you that I watched Channel 4’s Sex in Class last night, and I kind of hoped that the teenage boys who said the kinds of things in the tweets below would grow up as they, well, grow up.

Having read your article, I’m not so sure. I haven’t bought you for a while, to be honest. I read you in the hairdresser, if it’s a choice between you and Hello, but if Red or Marie Claire, or even Good Housekeeping, are available instead, then that’s what I’ll pick up.

But let’s be honest, The Last Sexual Taboo (…or is it?) is a good strapline. I’ve been walking past you a lot this month wondering what *is* the last sexual taboo. I still wouldn’t have bought you, but I probably would’ve flicked through you in M&S to find out the answer. And then, as luck would have it, you turned up in the seat pocket of the flight I was on last night.

And I thought ‘Surely it’s not anal?’

Spoiler alert: It’s anal.

I could start by saying, Cosmo, that I don’t think anal is the last taboo. I seem to remember years ago reading that 1 in 3 couples had tried it. I like it. I fantasise about it probably more than I fantasise about anything else. The first time I tried it was fucking amazing. It still scares me a bit, sometimes it hurts, and I worry about it being messy/dirty. But I *do* like it, and although it was a guy who proposed it the first time I tried it, it’s been my suggestion nearly every other time since.

Anyway, let’s talk about the article. Shall we start with the subheadings? Here we go:

  1. Pressure to perform
  2. ‘Dick slips’
  3. Remember the vagina?
  4. Why does he want it?
  5. An erogenous zone?

Two things strike me about these subheads, Cosmo. They’re very negative, and they’re very male-focused. And the problem with the article is evident from the very start:

“I was never interested,” says Jill. “I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t want to talk about it. But during sex, he would say “Can I put it in your bum?” every time. It seemed really important to this guy, so Jill finally agreed. […]

“It was not enjoyable at all,” she says. “We used lube and a condom and we tried foreplay. But I could hold on for only two or three minutes before I said “I can’t do it!'”

Prince Charming finished up with some vaginal sex that night, and Jill spoke loudly and often about how awful it had been for her. “But he kept on asking.” Eventually he cheated on her, citing her unwillingness to have anal as one of the reasons. Would it shock you to know they broke up?

I wonder why you included this cautionary tale? You could have done a lot with it. You could have pointed out that if you’re switching from anal to vaginal, you need to use a new condom. You could’ve pointed out explicitly that the guy behaved like a dick, rather than just sarcastically referring to him as ‘Prince Charming.’ I’d even have been on board with you pointing out that it’s not ideal to go from ‘I didn’t want to talk about it’ to ‘[I] spoke loudly and often about how awful it had been.’ At least, I think that’s what you mean. When your sentence is ‘Prince Charming finished up with some vaginal sex that night, and Jill spoke loudly and often about how awful it had been for her,’ it’s not clear which was awful: the anal or the vaginal.

OK, so in the next paragraph you are explicit about the guys who have ‘dick slips’ being ‘true assholes.’ This paragraph is a bit better, tbh – it actually begins to tackle the issue of consent responsibly. Still not what I was expecting from what you put on the cover, though. And then you really go and ruin it again.

So when did the vagina stop being the holy grail? When I was growing up it was a treasure to be saved for special occasions with special people.

Honestly, you make a mockery of the newsagent in the town where I went to school, who wanted proof of age before he’d sell you, Cosmo. You had such an opportunity here to inform women about something that can be really hot. Instead, you slipped the tale of the woman who genuinely likes it under the subheading Why does he want it? You picked a married women who said ‘We love it,’ and you phrased her reasoning thus: ‘Rachel likes it because she likes to please her husband, but also because it feels good to her.’ Because god forbid you pick a woman who does it *just* because it feels good to her.

Finally, two paragraphs from the end, you get to the point I think you should have been making all along (although you could’ve dropped the ‘in relationships’ bit):

Women in relationships who mutually decided with their partner to have anal sex talked about a profound experience.

I see what you did here. You commissioned the article from someone who’s thinking about trying anal for the first time because you thought that would make for a more approachable, less intimidating article, right? I disagree. I think the author’s attitude to anal is fearful enough here to actually be off-putting. And maybe I’m a humourless bitch, but I don’t find the ‘thinking of taking a trip to Brownton Abbey‘ line funny, either, especially in the context of an article that seems to suggest that anal goes hand in hand with problematic, immature communication.

You’re getting a new editor next month. And god, I hope for your sake that she brings a fresh approach to mainstream sex writing.

The Fallen Woman

‘I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling head first into the office.

Double crap – me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me helping me stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow – he’s so young.’

– E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey

I didn’t get that worked up when Ana fell at the start of FSoG. According to a friend, that was as it should be.

‘Bella is clumsy in Twilight. That’s the whole point.’

Maybe it is the whole point of Twilight. I don’t know. I haven’t read/seen it. What I do know, though, is that Ana’s clumsiness is completely fucking irrelevant to Fifty Shades.

I’m not sure that E L James thinks it is, however. I think E L James thinks it might be how Christian spots that Ana would make a good sub. After all, there’s lots about BDSM that confuses E L James – the fact that it’s not born out of a disturbed childhood, the fact that the love of a good woman can’t ‘cure’ somebody of it, and the way no fucking helicopter can make up for the fact that nowhere in the book does Ana suggest she might have submissive leanings.

Anyway. I wasn’t that bothered at the time because it was just a book. Not a book that had sold millions of copies. Not a book that had changed the landscape of erotica. Just a book. And then this happened:

He sank into an elegant crouch in front of me. Hit with all that exquisite masculinity at eye level, I could only stare. Stunned.

Then something shifted in the air between us.

As he stared back, he altered … as if a shield slid away from his eye, revealing a scorching force of will that sucked the air from my lungs. The intense magnetism he exuded grew in strength, becoming a near-tangible impression of vibrant and unrelenting power.

Reacting purely on instinct, I shifted backward. And sprawled flat on my ass.

– Sylvia Day, Bared to You

I’m a big believer in the power of chemistry. But I can honestly say I’ve never sprawled on my ass due to a guy’s ‘elegant crouch.’

I did a bit of Google research earlier this year, when I first started thinking about this. Surely, I reasoned, women falling must be an established trope in romantic literature. I couldn’t find anything. And then it occurred to me that maybe falling/injury is a modern update of this:

“MY DEAREST LIZZY,—

“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”

“Well, my dear,” said Mr. Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the note aloud, “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness—if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Romance relies on a weak heroine almost as much as it does an alpha hero. In the past, illness was enough to create a situation in which the hero and heroine are thrown together. These days, it’s harder to convince the average reader that a woman ‘needs’ a man, and so romance does everything in its power to recreate that situation of old. There are various approaches – the heroine can be pregnant, sick, young, poor or just plain clumsy. Because if she doesn’t need rescuing, the author is (ostensibly) breaking the pact they have with the reader.

I’m a cynic, but I was a sucker for Mills & Boon in the past. I loved these women who needed saving so much, I didn’t just read them; I made some shoddy attempts at writing them, too:

He knelt beside her and kissed her gently. She opened her eyes and gave him a sleepy smile. “Bedtime?” he asked.

She nodded, but made no attempt to move. He stood up and gathered her into his arms. She kicked off her stilettos and snuggled up against his chest. He handed her the warm mug, and headed for the stairs.

In their bedroom, he sat down on the edge of the bed and set about undressing her. He slid the straps of her satin dress down and placed her briefly on her feet so that she could step out of it. He unsnapped her suspender belt, removed her stockings and unclipped her bra. As he pulled her white cotton nightdress over her head, she gave a contented sigh, still half asleep. He pulled back the duvet and laid her down.

I think I excelled myself with that particular piece (in my defence, I was eighteen when I wrote it). The FMC has a minor case of being a bit tired, but it affects her so badly that she gets carried upstairs by the hero, undressed by him, and even ‘laid down.’ She couldn’t be more passive if she tried.

Looking back, it wasn’t the passivity that attracted me to writing these kind of women. It was the bodies that they’d need for these kind of scenes even to work. Women who get carried up to bed must naturally be willowy and feather-like. Not only that, I think I thought they were also easy women – if you could simply scoop a woman up and literally put her exactly where you wanted her to be, she wasn’t exactly going to cause you many other problems. And god, I wanted to be that kind of girl.

Luckily, I’ve grown out of that. A bit, anyway. But I’m still writing women who fall.

Falling is seriously grim. I know that not only from my own extensive experience, but also because I’m hyper-alert to other people falling. When I did the Moonwalk back in May, I witnessed a horrific one – an elderly lady tripped over a tree root and gained momentum as she attempted to right herself. Just as I thought she’d regained her balance, she went absolutely flying. And the smack of body hitting concrete, of other people’s gasps, they bring back every fall I’ve ever suffered. I hate seeing it almost as much as I hate doing it.

So we have to stop writing falls as though they’re romantic. They’re not. They’re painful, humiliating, scary. But those things can all be sexy. There’s one particular scene that’s stuck with me from Unfaithful with Richard Gere and Diane Lane, where she falls and we see the aftermath as a series of vignettes designed to foreshadow the risks and pain inherent in the affair she’s embarking on. She eases her tights away from an oozing graze. There’s a flashback to a boiling kettle hissing as she does. It’s all a bit predictable, perhaps, but it turned me on.

I’m fascinated by cuts, grazes, bruises. And not just the ones caused by kink, either. Watching skin knit back together, or blood bead, waiting to spill. The stickiness of it as it clots. The metallic, iron-rich taste of it. I completely accept that these things won’t work for everyone, though. They’re fairly dark, I guess.

Essentially I feel much the same about falling as I do about disability. We need to write it, to see it in the media, to acknowledge that it’s part of many people’s reality. It’s not kooky, or adorable, or cute. What it could be though, if we wrote it well, is really, really fucking hot.

On what my home can (and can’t) tell you about me

In my house, I have the following things:

  • a Le Creuset 20cm teal-coloured cast iron saucepan
  • a hand-crocheted (not by me) throw on my sofa
  • bath oil that cost more than I’m willing to pay for a meal in a restaurant
  • a full set of wine glasses, champagne flutes and martini glasses
  • a Jamie Oliver wooden ‘plank’ for serving antipasti
  • a matching set of towels
  • a large, white ceramic jug for holding cut flowers (which I also have most of the time)
  • a set of plates that I use for ‘best’ (but that I eat off alone if they happen to be top of the pile in the cupboard)

According to Red magazine, the above list would put me well on the way to having the ‘8 Things Every Woman Over 30 Should Have In Her Home.’ And yet, instead of feeling like for once I meet the status quo, I wonder why the hell every woman over 30 would want a set of items that in no way differentiate her from every other woman on the planet.

The article above is actually a ‘grown up’ form of clickbait, I get that. I read Red fairly often, and I think, as women’s magazines go, it’s actually not bad. But god, that post above irritated me.

What you might take from my list above is that I’m undeniably middle class. You might also (correctly) assume that I enjoy cooking and entertaining people at home, and that I’m willing to spend a decent chunk of my disposable income on those things. It might tell you about my love of hot baths and buying myself flowers. What I don’t think it should say is anything about either my age or my gender.

Through my teens and much of my twenties, I didn’t feel like I ‘fitted in.’ To be fair, I didn’t make much of an effort to, but I did worry a lot about feeling on the outside of the things. As my thirty-first year draws to a close, I’m still anxious and I still often feel lonely, but the fear of fitting in is all but gone. Until my twenties, everyone I knew did things at pretty much the same age – learned to drive at seventeen, left school at eighteen, left uni at twenty-one/twenty-two. After uni, that all changed – some people went straight into their perfect career while others were in long-term relationships and thinking about marriage and babies long before myself and other friends wanted, or were in a position, to.

It’s for that reason, I think, that you see relatively few of these ‘What you should be/say/do/want/have achieved at 30’ posts. At that age, the majority of doors are still open to women, whether those doors lead to further education, marriage, babies or switching into a radically different field of work. We still have plenty of time to decide who we are, or who we want to be.

There are words in that article that bother me, too – display-worthy, show-off worthy, neutral – words that suggest you’d own these things for one of two reasons: either because you were trying to impress other people or because they’re inoffensive and go with everything. I’ll admit it, some items I do use for a form of showing off, but if I make you a casserole in my Le Creuset, or serve you on my best plates, what I’m trying to do is reflect what matters to me: food, comfort, nurturing. These things are my personal values and passions: they’re not a sign that I’m in any way a successful woman for my age.

The stuff in my home could tell you other stories too, things you wouldn’t know just from reading my list above. That one of the reasons why I’ve spent a lot on stuff for my home is that for a long time I hated my body, and shopping for homeware was preferable to shopping for clothes. That I prefer entertaining at home because my dining table only has four places and I don’t cope well with socialising in big groups.

It’s an uncomfortable idea for me, the idea that I should be aspiring to own a certain set of items that represent a certain set of values and interests. Not all women of thirty are ready for a committed relationship, or children (or want those things at all), so why would we all need the same eight items in our home? I have no issue with the magazine choosing to showcase homeware (although, let’s face it, lots of us in the UK don’t own our own places or still live with housemates), what I have an issue with is that if you don’t own these things, because you have different tastes, or interests, or ways of spending your cash, you’re somehow lagging behind those of us who do.

Because the closest the article comes to the truth, I think, is here: ‘A stylish addition to your sofa to mask any not-so-pretty stains that have appeared.’ At thirty, I don’t feel much closer to being a fully-fledged, sorted grown-up than I did at twenty-five. I might buy nice stuff for my kitchen, but it doesn’t mean I don’t fuck up, that I have a life plan, or that I even cope particularly well most days. Unless I tell you otherwise, it means I like buying nice stuff for my kitchen, that’s all.

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The Questions We’re Actually Embarrassed to Ask

A week or so ago, I got an email from Marie Claire. One of the articles it linked to was 15 Questions About Sex You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask.

There’s not much about sex I’m embarrassed to ask, and when I canvassed my Twitter followers, it seemed that the same was true for them. The questions we were actually avoiding were about beauty or personal grooming – things that society tells us we’re inherently supposed to know. How to get a genuinely smooth shave. Whether it’s normal for hair removal to be something you have to do to your arse, as well as your cunt. What exactly we’re supposed to do with products recommended by magazines and/or other women.

I’ll hazard a guess it’s not just beauty that we’re ashamed to talk openly about. For me personally, it’s less about grooming and more about health. Why do I occasionally bleed after sex? The muscles down my left side don’t work properly: does that mean if I squeeze my cunt around his cock when we’re fucking he feels it more on one side than the other? And, the one that really bothers me: will I ever be able to have children?

This isn’t just a paranoid fear born out of the anxieties that seem to plague a lot of my generation. Many of us have at least one friend who’s struggled to get pregnant. We share stories of not knowing when the hell our periods are due, not only because we have more important things in life to keep track of, but also because the pill, diet and stress all have a massive impact on our cycles. And to me, it always seems weird to rock up at the doctor’s just because something’s niggling at you at bit: I guess I feel a bit like this. Plus, I’d rather worry about stuff than have my fears confirmed. I know, I know…

It was my beautician who first caused those niggling worries to turn into something more concrete. My hair is dark, and if I don’t get it waxed, you can see it on my top lip. That’s normal, I figure, and so that, and my eyebrows, are just one of those things I regularly have to get sorted, in order to feel like a proper girl.

But as she spread hot wax onto my lip a year or so ago, the beautician said ‘Oh. You’ve got a few hairs on your chin, too. That’s often a sign of PCOS.’

She’s right. It is. Along with growing hairs around your nipples, weight gain (which did happen all of a sudden in my late twenties), and that weight sitting low and all up front, making you look like you’re in the early stages of pregnancy. In the last couple of years, three complete strangers have asked me, out of the blue, when I’m due. Ugh.

It’s not just that I prefer to bury my head in the sand, although there’s an element of that. It’s also that admitting to the above makes me feel less feminine, less attractive, things which are already exacerbated by my disability. PCOS can be controlled, with diet, drugs or surgery. It would make sense to find out for sure if that’s what’s really going on. Instead, I changed my beautician.

‘The Theory of Everything’ or ‘Writing Disability’

‘Yeah, she liked it. She thought maybe it glossed over his disease a bit, but yeah, good.’

So said a friend about a friend of hers who’d already seen The Theory of Everything, the film about Stephen Hawking and his first marriage, when I told her I was going to see it at the weekend.

And you know what? I thought it was bloody good.

I think you’d be hard pressed not to like it, if Rom Coms are your thing (although, admittedly, there’s not that much Com). Eddie Redmayne is amazing as Hawking, Felicity Jones is perhaps even better as his wife, and well, it’s set in Cambridge, and when is Cambridge not beautiful? Certainly not when a huge budget has clearly been spent on giving it extra soft lighting and sparkle.

But the motor neurone disease needs that soft lighting and sparkle, right? To make it watchable?

Well, no, I don’t think it does, actually. And that’s exactly where the film triumphs.

If it glosses over the grim reality of the disease, and certainly my friend’s friend was not the only one to think it does, it glosses only over the physical side, not the psychological. Personally, I’m ok with that. I don’t want this post to become a debate about whether the primary purpose of showing more disability in books, films and the media in general is to ensure people with disabilities are sufficiently represented in those areas or to educate the wider population (although I’m happy to discuss this in the comments), but I do know that I don’t think the representation of physical pain/distress tells us much. What it’s important to show is the psychological damage that disability causes – the shame, the frustration, the anger – and without a doubt, The Theory of Everything doesn’t hold back here. It’s in the inability to match finger to thumb (I’ve been there), the inability to eat unassisted, the gradual triumph of the flight of stairs over the able-bodied man.

I don’t have motor neurone disease, or anything remotely that severe. I’ve never been told that my disability will cut my life short. I’m not in permanent, irreversible decline. But I do know what it’s like to watch your body let you down – for years mine steadily overcame its own issues – I was told I might not walk, and then I did, my limp became less pronounced, my left hand ceased to want to ball into a fist at all times – and then all of a sudden, it didn’t. I had hip pain, knee pain – neither of which I’d had before – and I was back in the MRI scanner for the first time in eighteen years. A day at a craft fair bizarrely threw my hips so out of sync I could barely walk. I had frequent neck ache, back ache and indigestion – caused, the physio said, by the fact that my rib cage was likely twisted because my right side was pulling too hard when compensating for my left. But I care less that people understand the physical issues than that they understand how I feel – why I’m scared, why I’m angry, why I’m ashamed. If I’d started life able-bodied? Yeah, I can’t even imagine…

But this isn’t the first thing I’ve watched about Stephen Hawking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s not that nice a guy. Sure, the film is based on his wife’s autobiography, and he left her for his nurse, so she was never going to paint him as a saint, but it’s such a relief to finally see something that shows you that someone can be hellish in spite of their disability, and that the physical difficulties just exacerbate the problems of excess pride, stubbornness and selfishness. I’m so, so tired of seeing disabled people described as role models, ‘inspirational,’ or worst of all ‘cute’ (yes, Channel 4, I’m looking at you) – they’re *people*, and as such they come with a full range of emotions, hopes, dreams, fears and faults.

It’s why, in a way, I think erotica is an interesting genre in which to write disability. i’ve touched briefly before on my belief that the best erotica delves into the psychology of its characters and I think the psychology of disability is fascinating – how do you develop sex positivity, body positivity, healthy relationships, when living in an ableist world that does its best to remind you, often, that you’re not *normal?* Too much focus, at the moment, is put on disability as difference, when really, it’s not – it’s often  just a magnifying glass on the physical insecurities that everyone suffers. As such, it deserves to be written not just for the sake of fair representation but because it highlights universal fears and concerns.

I have two concerns though, when it comes to writing disability, and the first is personal. I’m revising the first draft of my novel at the moment, and there’s no doubt the FMC is pretty much a carbon copy of me. I don’t regret that, because it’s important to me to see physical disability depicted in sex writing for all the reasons I’ve given above, and doubtless she’ll stay disabled right up the final draft, but ultimately I think as you mature as a writer you hope to move away from writing your own issues and insecurities, and I think this is an issue I’ll always be too close to to view it impartially. Nor do I think you have to have experienced disability to write it well. I have no issues with able-bodied people writing disability, provided they do their research properly, just as I hope that ‘cripping up’ (ugh) will never be widely seen as equivalent to ‘blacking up.’

My final concern, and my final point, for that matter, links back to disability as ‘cute.’ It’s not cute. It’s equally not sexy (which isn’t to say disabled people can’t be hot, just that that hotness is about the person, not their disability,) but judging by the way erotic romance is currently portraying mental health issues, you’d never know that. Take Sylvia Day’s Captivated by You as an example (and a longer post on this is coming soon.) The MMC (there’s no way I’m calling him the hero), Gideon Cross, has a history of being abused, and as such, some pretty severe MH problems. Can he be sexy nonetheless? Of course. Is he sexy because he’s ‘damaged?’ No, FFS.

Writing disability isn’t something that needs doing because it’s ‘cool.’ Physical disability and mental health issues aren’t having their fifteen minutes of fame, they’re the reality of the world we live in. We need to stop writing disability as a quirk that makes characters interesting and start writing interesting characters who also have a disability. And please, if you do, spare me the cute…

How to write a book review

I don’t review books often, so if I do, it’s pretty safe to say I either loved them or had a huge issue with them. More on books with which I’ve had huge issues in a couple of weeks.

So here’s the thing. Increasingly, I feel like reviewing erotica honestly and fairly is becoming harder and harder to do. Erotica is a relatively small genre. Many erotica authors follow each other on social networks and interact with each other regularly. Many of us who read erotica are privileged enough to be able to interact with our favourite authors too, something which I think would be harder with many other genres. In short, erotica authors have the potential to be one of the most supportive, friendly and inclusive groups of authors out there.

But. As a reader, just because I interact with an author, just because we get on, doesn’t mean I feel obliged to review their book, or their writing, in a way that doesn’t dare to mention anything negative at all. If I like their writing, it’s almost certainly because it’s nuanced, intelligent and hot. If it’s an anthology they’ve edited, I think it’s fair to say that I’ll find some of the stories hot, others well written but not my kink or fantasy, and a few which don’t do it for me either in terms of hotness or prose. If I *really* like two or three stories in an anthology, I think I’ve got a pretty good deal – after all, those are the stories I’ll revisit time and again, and how many books on your bookshelf, even those which you enjoyed a lot, do you really go back to multiple times? I guess what I’m saying is that, if you’re intelligent enough to write beautiful and nuanced prose, you’re intelligent enough to recognise that a positive review with a handful of ‘not quite my things’ is not a negative review of your work. Not everybody will love everything you’ve written and that’s fine – good reviewing, that says what does/doesn’t work for the reviewer will ultimately make sure your book reaches the audience it was intended for all along.

And so you won’t find me writing uncritical reviews. It’s not my style. When I blog, I expect people to come back to me and be honest about what they do/don’t like and when I edit, in RL, I expect my authors to listen to my opinions, take on board the bits they agree with and to challenge the rest. I’m not going to start writing super critical reviews, not least because I think to write a fair book review you have to finish the book in question and if I really hate something it’s unlikely I will.

But I don’t think it’s unfair, either, to admit that you recognise that something is well written, but that it doesn’t turn you on. I don’t think it’s wrong to say ‘Femdom is not my kink, so x story didn’t work for me but hey, it was superbly written, so if that’s your thing, you’ll love this!’ Nor, if you really don’t like something, is it wrong to write a constructive review saying so – you’d do it for a restaurant, so why not an erotica anthology?

In short, whether we’re friends or not, I (or anyone else) am not obliged to shower your writing with praise. I’m allowed to be objective. After all, it’s your book, not your baby.

Sweet little mystery*

I don’t watch porn. Really. I mean, I watched the odd soft core movie, rented from Blockbuster and accompanied by cheap wine from the college bar, when I was at uni, a lot more on Channel 5 when I was babysitting as a teen for the crap families who didn’t have Sky, a few hardcore clips the boys on my corridor downloaded onto my laptop, and a full length hardcore film three weeks ago in a hotel in Paris, out of sheer curiosity. And because it was free. That’s honestly the full extent of my porn watching. I’ve wanked to porn perhaps once. Because I discovered good erotica pretty young and because I’ve only ever seen porn with terrible and distracting plot lines, I’ve never really felt the need to seek it out.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not bothered by the new UK porn regulations. I’m very much with Myles Jackman, the obscenity lawyer quoted in this wonderful post by Girlonthenet, who said “Pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die. If this assault on liberty is allowed to go unchallenged, other freedoms will fall as a consequence.”

Plus, even the Independent is citing the anti-feminist argument (“More worryingly, the amendment seems to take issue with acts from which women more traditionally derive pleasure than men,”) so I think it’s safe to say that being pretty fucked off at this is not overreacting.

Lots of people will write about a lot of the acts on the banned list a lot more knowledgeably than I possibly could, so I’m not going to go there, much as my initial dismay was caused by the fact that bruising is no longer allowed. Instead I’m going to write again about something I’ve written on before: female ejaculation.

I stand by my original take on it. Personally, I don’t like it. That’s if I’ve even ever done it properly. I’ve certainly got very, very wet during penetrative sex, wet enough to soak my clothes and the bed underneath me. For me, that counts. For others, it may not. Either way, I don’t the sloshing noises my cunt makes when he fucks me that way, even though he seems to. I don’t like the feeling of being uncontrollably wet, I don’t feel *lady-like.* And therein lies my problem with banning squirting in porn. It’s not that squirting *isn’t* lady-like, that’s just my perception of it. Which might be partly down to personal preference, but also, I think, has a whole lot to do with the way society polices women’s bodies and the fluids they produce.

Lets go way, way back to when I was eleven. I got pretty good sex-ed at school. My parents had been open and honest about puberty. I was staying with a kind-of friend, the daughter of one of my mum’s mates. I was on a thin mattress on the floor and aside from anything else, I remember being unable to sleep because I was fucking freezing. And then I woke up properly in the early hours of the morning, soaked. In blood.

From there on in, it got worse. I was pretty scared of my mum’s friend, who wasn’t exactly warm and approachable. In fact, based on a later incident where my sister got drunk on cooking wine on a camping holiday and vomited everywhere, I’d say she’s a judgemental bitch. Anyway. My clothes for the next day involved cream jodhpurs (don’t ask). I didn’t dare tell her my periods had started, so I wore the cream jodhpurs and did my best to fashion an impromptu sanitary towel from loo roll. You can imagine the state of me, and the state I was in, by the time I got home.

And so it continued. Later the same year, someone in my class had the famous swimming party at the local pool, complete with massive inflatable for climbing on. Yep, you’ve guessed it, I had my period. My mum gave me a tampon, explained how they worked, and left me to get on with it. The swimming party lasted an hour. Nobody told me you need to change a tampon immediately after you swim. By the time I did change it, an hour or so after the party, it had leaked, staining the beautifully 90s body-with-poppers-between-the-legs (also in cream) that I was wearing. For the second time in less than a year, I was mortified by my body. I’d also learnt a lot about not wearing pale colours during my period.

At 30, I’m obviously much less bothered by my menstrual cycle, except it’s more irregular than ever, and in some ways, more disruptive. The problems of being a woman on her period don’t go away: I keep tampons in my desk drawer at work, but do I then slip one into my handbag and take that with me or do I clutch one in my fist and hope that no one stops me on the way to the toilets? If I sleep with someone who’s happy to fuck me while I’m on my period, I still hate that moment when you have to slip away to take your tampon out. Even if the guy in question *is* happy to fuck me at that point in the month, it’s undeniably less messy to avoid blood during sex, which means I back-to-back packets of the pill way more often than I intend to.

We’re no more open-minded about urination and I don’t mean in a watersports sense. Or UTIs for that matter. I don’t get cystitis often, thank god, but every time I do, it’s a battle to get the doctor to accept that I’ve tried the over-the-counter salts and they haven’t worked, and I need antibiotics. On one particularly memorable (for all the wrong reasons) occasion, I paced the floor of the emergency GP surgery to try to distract my bladder as he wrote me a prescription, on another I thought my entire birthday trip to Latitude festival was ruined because I was bleeding every time I peed and couldn’t get more than a metre from the toilet block before the stinging desperation forced me back again. For some reason, you can order antibiotics for cystitis online via Lloyds pharmacy, but can you do the same in a physical store? Of course not.

Likewise, when I looked briefly at Mumsnet earlier, to see what they had to say about squirting, there were lots of *hilarious* gags about how they could pass off urination caused by a weak post-partum pelvic floor as ejaculation. Very few women seemed to have anything positive to say about female ejaculation in its own right. How did we get like this as a society, and why can’t we be more like the French, who offer pelvic re-education as standard after having a baby? I could go on, because there are still more things about women and their need to piss going unrecognised that bug me, including the fact that city centres often now have pop up urinals for men who’ve been drinking. Is anything similar supplied for women? No, love, we don’t want to think about the fact you piss, so go and crouch behind a wall somewhere where we can’t see you.

And lastly, there’s the stuff that *never* gets talked about, or certainly never did when I was younger – like the fact that vaginal discharge is acidic and can therefore bleach the crotch of your black knickers to a garish shade of orange over time. It took me years to figure out that that wasn’t just me.

I have no idea why female ejaculation has been banned in UK poem – this post is an educated guess, at best. When I read the Independent article, it made me think of this passage, from Kristina Lloyd’s Thrill Seeker:

‘You’ve got to really work it.’ Liam slammed his middle fingers into the pad of my G, his elbow shunting as if he were trying to tug something from me. ‘It can look quite violent.’

‘Ach, I dinnae mind that,’ said Baxter.

I wailed as the pressure swelled within me. All too soon, my walls loosened and I was slushy around Liam’s pounding fingers. I slumped in Baxter’s supporting arms, crying out as liquid rushed from me in a hot, unstoppable fountain.

If squirting’s been banned because the censors associate it with fisting, something which they, insanely, consider to be ‘life-endangering,’ I can almost see the twisted logic behind the decision, much as I still disagree with it. If it’s been banned because someone objected to women’s bodies behaving in that way – well, angry doesn’t begin to cover it.

*The title of this post is a music-related riddle. I think Girlonthenet once used to send her readers a Twix as a small prize for getting questions like this right, and I liked that, so if you’re the first person to guess the link between the title and the post topic, I’ll send you something chocolatey.

Hell is other people

Another day, another helpful article on the top 10 things you can do to be happier. First things first: I don’t begrudge people sharing this stuff. If it helps you, great – and often there are one or two things in any such list that have worked for me personally. Clinical depression is unlikely to be solved by healthy eating, sunshine and exercise alone, but those things are all beneficial.

There’s actually only one point on the list that I didn’t think was universally true:

2. Connect with people

Our relationships with other people are the most important thing for our happiness. People with strong relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. Our close relationships with family and friends provide love, meaning, support and increase our feelings of self-worth. Our broader social networks bring a sense of belonging. So it’s vital that we take action to strengthen our relationships and make new connections.

Again, if I’d written this a while back, I’d have taken a much harder line. But I’m trying to be less defensive in general. Essentially, I don’t think that when I’m low other people are always beneficial – often I hit rock bottom precisely because I’ve over socialised and I’ve burnt myself out. When I’m in the full grip of constant panic attacks I have nothing to offer socially: socialising isn’t a distraction because I can’t focus on what the other person/people are saying: I need time to re-centre myself, steady my breathing and be present in the moment again. I can’t do that when there are people demanding my attention. But what was interesting was that when I voiced concern about the above on Twitter, a decent number of people replied saying ‘Me too.’

So, here are five points summarising my take on depression/anxiety and social interaction:

1. Not everyone finds socialising easy

Presumably the above means that on average ‘people with strong relationships are happier, healthier and live longer.’ Or perhaps they all are. How do you measure strong relationships anyway? Isn’t that pretty subjective? Either way, this isn’t quite as simple as it looks. Some people live miles from their family, others have problems making friends. I think all of us sit somewhere on the autism spectrum, and for those of us who are worried about that, or worried that they don’t have enough friends, or a partner, or are just plain lonely, being told to spend more time in other people’s company is yet another trigger. Introverts like me, who’ve spent months in therapy battling an inner belief that somehow it’s better to be extrovert, don’t respond well to the prescriptive ‘It’s always best to be around people’ tone of the above: sometimes it is; sometimes you do need space. If you can, try and learn which of the two you need more at any given time.

2. It’s normal that people want you to socialise

It’s hard to recognise it when you’re in the depths of despair, but the people who care about you just want you to get better. They also worry that you’re a risk to yourself, especially if their understanding of depression is limited. It’s natural then that they want you to be around other people: those people can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re not drinking too much/self harming/a danger to yourself. What they don’t always understand is that introverted depressives need that space for proper recovery: being around other people might be a distraction, but it’s an exhausting one and it doesn’t leave me with any resource to care for myself on a more basic level. If you’re worried about someone who’s depressed, check in with them, but respect their boundaries. If you’re depressed, check in with the people who care about you when you can – it means a lot to them.

3. Socialising in the age of social media is fucking hard work

One of the things that puts me off socialising is how flaky people are. The numbers for my thirtieth halved in the weeks running up to it – the only comfort is that I see it happening to other people too, so I guess it’s normal these days. Increasingly I only make plans with friends who I know are reliable – yes, it means the pool of people in my life has shrunk, but the others were contributing more to my anxiety than they were to anything positive. On a similar note, learn if you can to be honest with people about where you’re at: I have friends who I don’t want to cut out of my life completely, but who I just can’t cope with when I’m at my lowest ebb. I still need to learn to be honest with them about that ‘I can’t see you right now, but it’s nothing you’ve done, it’s just where my head’s at,’ rather than the cowardly and upsetting option that I tend to plump for at the moment: ceasing contact for large chunks of time with zero explanation.

4. The social interaction you want won’t necessarily be the social interaction you get

I know what kind of socialising boosts my mood – tea or a glass of wine with a trusted friend; creative activities like baking, writing or craft – more so with strangers than with my friends. I know what kind of socialising kills my mood – big groups of people in the pub, socialising that’s centred entirely around alcohol, house parties where I don’t know many people. Small talk…

The problem is that, in the UK at least, most people’s social lives are dominated by the latter, whether it be drinks with colleagues, weddings, or just a Saturday night out in town. There are many reasons for this, ranging from expense to geography to plain old following the status quo. Probably the most useful thing I’ve learnt in recent years is that it’s ok to turn that stuff down if it’s really not working for you – just make sure you arrange stuff that does work for you with people who make you feel safe, instead.

5. Try not to cut yourself off completely

Linked to the last point, chances are that even if you’re a fully-fledged introvert, you need some level of interaction to function healthily. I know now that I like to be around people, even if I’m not interacting with them – so it’s better for me to go and read in my local Starbuck’s than it is to sit and do it at home. Likewise, last time I had a bad break up, I went home to my parents and returned pretty much to my teenage state for a couple of days: they were around, providing background noise, someone to talk to if I wanted it and most importantly of all, affection, but they didn’t expect anything of me, and if I wanted to sit in my bedroom, listen to music and cry, they let me. I felt better so much quicker than I have done on occasions where I’ve withdrawn completely.

The flip side of this is that I still believe it’s a great idea to learn to be at ease with your own company: at home, in bars, in restaurants, overseas. I’ve lost that, temporarily, and it’s gutting to me, because it’s such a large chunk of what I recognise as me. There’s nothing wrong with doing things alone: last year I travelled alone to New York, where I was meeting friends. In the immigration queue at JFK I started chatting to a woman who was on her own. She’d flown to New York to celebrate her 40th on her own and you know what? I didn’t know why she was alone, whether by choice or circumstance, but I honestly didn’t feel sorry for her. I thought she was brave and admirable for doing what she wanted to do and not needing another person there to do it with her.

Relationships with other people are great, complete isolation is bad. Of those two things I am pretty certain. But dear media, if you’re reading, let’s see a bit of balance around the way we talk about happiness and social interaction. It’s a game of quality, not quantity, and all that really matters is that you work out what works best for you.