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.
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:
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.