Imagining Disabled Characters in Erotica

About two years ago, Sharon Wachsler asked Sinclair Sexsmith this question, as part of an interview about Best Lesbian Erotica 2012:

“what would it add for you to find more disabled characters in erotica?”

I thought it was a really useful question, and I wanted to contemplate it, and perhaps blog about it. It’s taken me a while to work my way around to it, but that’s the question I want to engage with for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014.

One of my primary goals in making the big changes I have in the past couple years (including a move to the Bay Area) was to create the lifestyle I wanted, and needed, as a disabled person. Ableism is intensely toxic, and my life was steeped in it, inside and out, built on a foundation of an investment in passing as non-disabled. Housing, employment, daily living, community involvement, all of my life was built on that foundation. I had internalized the idea that I needed to pass to survive, to be in community, to have a job, to have partners, to be a top. And likely I did…to have thatjob, those partners, that kind of community involvement, to be that kind of top.

Sure, I struggled against this internalized and external structural ableism, but it was like fighting a sea I was immersed in. One of the core problems was that I could not fathom, in a practical everyday way, what else was possible, how else I could do my life, what that might actually be like, the daily aspect of it, the survival in it. I wanted to embrace my disabilities, to lean in to them, and live a daily life that wasn’t so damn invested in pretending they were not there or were smaller and less important. But I couldn’t imagine it, had few models for that. I was hungry for models.

I still remember learning the joys of lying down, from the first disabled partner I had who was deeply politicized around disability. The ways that letting myself rest and just be made things so much easier. Lying down was a way of being, of accepting that I was exhausted, out of spoons, in pain, that I needed to stop moving so constantly and so fast. I discovered that I could be with someone I cared about and not always be DOING. Witnessing her repeated insistence on the pleasures and necessities of rest made it seem possible for me to lie down too. Permission, comfort, inspiration, practice. All that from modeling a way of being that I literally could not imagine by myself.

That’s what I think about when I try to imagine an abundance of disabled characters in erotica. All the modeling that is possible, that could show me ways of being in sex and kink and relationships and queerness and community that I cannot imagine right now, cannot fathom in the sea of ableism that I’ve been steeping in for years. There are possibilities I cannot conceive of, ways of navigating the world that I could learn only from erotica that centered disabled characters in the fullness of their lives and struggles and fantasies. Futures that are possible, that could be moved towards and tried out and organized around our hope and yearning for that kind of erotic reality.

Just as erotica offers dozens of models for flirting or a romantic D/s dynamic or navigating gendered power dynamics, or picking up a stranger for public sex, I want it to offer dozens of models for so many things that are deliciously specific to disabled sexuality. I would love to see multiple models for:

  • Dressing up your mobility device as you plan for a date
  • Navigating S/M while in pain (from the top and the bottom, please!)
  • Public sex spaces that actually feel accessible to disabled folks playing in them
  • Dealing with triggers and trauma flares during sex
  • Negotiating service and dependency in the context of disability (from the top and the bottom, please!)
  • Building trust quickly enough to feel ok doing pick up play
  • Doing group sex with a bunch of disabled folks
  • Demonstrating that you are hot for someone who is disabled in a way that doesn’t feel non-consensually fetishizing
  • Finding ways to access public play (and not just in public sex spaces)
  • Managing mental health flares in the context of a D/s relationship (from the top and the bottom, please!)
  • Assessing whether a potential date is being fucked up and ableist
  • Doing bondage in a wheelchair (from the top and the bottom, please!)
  • Creating crip erotic community
  • Dealing with the impact of flares in the middle of sex or play
  • Naming non-apparent disabilities in sexual negotiation

And I’m just getting started with this list. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments, if you want to share. What do you want models for in erotica?

I am serious about multiple models, because otherwise I fear we’ll get stuck in the trap of needing to do “good” representation, whereas if there is an abundance, then we can create flawed compelling characters that have complex realities. Plus, more models to choose from seems like a damn good idea to me.

I’ve been thinking about this question of what it might add to have erotica with disabled characters over the past couple years. As I lean into my disabilities, I have been leaning into a deeper practice of centering disabled characters in my own erotica.

I’ve written elsewhere about representation of mental health issues in erotica, including in my own erotica. I’ve spent a lot of time crafting stories that center trauma survivors, including stories where multiple characters are trauma survivors. So in this post I wanted to write a bit about representing other kinds of disabilities in my erotic fiction, particularly the new stuff I’ve been writing, all of which is still unpublished, as well, it’s new, and has not found publishers. Some of it is not even finished. (I have hopes for a couple stories I recently finished and sent off for consideration, though.)

On the wall in front of my desk, I have an index card on which I wrote to inspire my novel in progress: “What would a story about genderqueers  that is intended for an audience of genderqueers be like?” I am taking a similar approach to the representation of disability in my current work: writing it as a disabled person about disabled people for disabled people. That is the overarching frame I try to use as I consider what I’m going to write, how I’m going to write disabled folks into my erotica.

One of the things I’ve done is include multiple disabled characters in the story. This makes a number of things possible: discussion of access clusterfucks, a deepening of trust sooner based on internal cues and shorthand (which makes sex between relative strangers a bit more believable in short story form), imagining a wider disability community that the characters are involved in or could access together, and more possibility of discussing a shared disability politic.

I also decided to start writing in the third person, much of the time (though my novel in progress is in first person). I find it makes it more possible for me to overtly mark identities in a way that doesn’t feel exoticizing or primarily sexualized. I think this is partly because I can write multiple perspectives in the same story, not be stuck in one person’s head. I’ve shied away some from overtly marking identities in the past partly, because I struggled with the short story form and the constraints of erotica as a genre of short fiction, having enough room to do the kind of complex character development that would make it possible to overtly mark identities without them being too reductive and still deliver the level of eroticism and personal transformation needed for an erotica story in under 5,000 words. I have found that writing in the third person makes this work out better for me.

I also decided to move my characters more deeply into community, and into a politic, and integrate those things deeply into the text. This creates more possibilities in so many ways, and pushes me in my own imaginings of what the kind of sex-positive queer disability communities I want might look like.

I also decided to more overtly include superfat experiences of disability. Many of my characters in the past have been fat, but I have not clearly marked them as superfat. And being superfat and disabled is a very particular experience of both fatness and disability that feels very important to include, as a longtime fat activist involved in fat queer community, one who makes community and partners with superfat disabled folks.

I’m going to share a few excerpts, with the caveat that these are from unpublished works and thus are not in final form. I will give content warning as best I can, before specific excerpts, as seems needed. I want to note that in general my work features BDSM, so all the excerpts are in that context.

In “The Tale of Tam and Jan”, a retelling of the story of Janet and Tamlin where both characters are genderqueer, one of the things I imagine is a public dungeon that the characters experience as accessible, including accessible for superfat folks. Here are a few snippets that bring that home:

“Jan slipped away to the bathroom to gather their thoughts and be sure, away from the pull of this place and the crowd and the mesmerizing presence of Tam. Even the bathroom lived up to their hopes. Large, single stall, no gender markers, wide, with handrails. Cold water on their face helped confirm the truth: they wanted this. What better night than Halloween for transformative play, for going after what they wanted, for engaging in the kind of scene that bridged the skills they knew from topping with a claiming of their desire for pain. It seemed that Tam could bring that, could top from a place that saw them as capable and strong and skilled. Jan needed that.

 

“Tam set up at hir favorite place in the dungeon: a large circular padded bench, big enough that ze didn’t have to worry during rough body play. It was a luxurious piece of equipment, and familiar enough that just being there was grounding. There was enough light, and the music wasn’t too loud in this room. No driving beats or flickering lights to trigger hir migraines.”

I loved the dungeon I had fantasized, so I decided to set another story in it. “The Tender Sweet Young Thing” is organized around a group scene within the context of kinky queer disability community. I describe the dungeon in this way in that story:

“They claimed their space. Jericho wanted to use the scene to get the party started, raise the kind of energy they knew would inspire an electric night for everyone. They wanted to do their part to keep Carter Hall solvent, and a hot group scene can make a party. Having an accessible space was so damn rare even in the Bay, and this was a dream of a space, complete with a full size sling that was actually rated for supersize folks like Teo. That’s exactly where Dax wanted to put the boy…if he ever showed up.

Xóchi’s girl Lina set up the space around the sling, with banquet chairs ready for folks who wanted to get off their scooters and rest or play while sitting, snacks and glucose tablets for the diabetics who needed a food break, and water, gloves and lube for everyone. Dax took out the tools ze wanted to use and set them on the chair next to the one ze was sitting on. Ze kept it simple: the claws that an ex had made for hir out of metal guitar picks, and a wicked pair of scissors to muss up the boys dress with. Ze was ready.”

In my latest work, I have tried to integrate disability in a way that was not about a detailed description of impairments and chronic illnesses, but was just part of the reality. For example, I envision Tam as diabetic, who needs to take a break mid-scene and have a snack, so I included a model of that where you see the break and the snack and it’s just there without drawing much attention to it. (As a heads up, this excerpt discusses caning but does not show it explicitly.)

“Water had never tasted so good. When Tam handed them the cane case and told them to lay out the canes on the bench and sit next to them, it took Jan a minute to process the demand, before their hands started moving. Tam sat there in a chair, eating an energy bar, as Jan tried to get the canes lined up with fingers that seemed like they weren’t really attached. The more they handled the canes, the more they came back into their body, the bites throbbing. They were lined up pretty neatly, they thought, and then it registered that Tam was going to use the canes. Oh fuck. Jan had never been caned before. What would it feel like?

In “The Tender Sweet Young Thing”, which centers a fantasy scene about a band of tigers mussing up a femme trans guy, I integrated descriptions of disability into my general description of how folks dressed up for the scene. Here is an excerpt:

“What a band of tigers Dax had found. Lee honored the event in her turquoise tiger-print top, resplendent with matching glasses and cane. She was gleaming with top energy, regally driving her scooter around the party, grey curls streaming. Xóchi kept it simple in black jeans and her favorite boots. She planned to sit most of the time, so it was actually possible to wear them, and nothing made her feel more powerful than those boots. Jericho’s bald head gleamed, and they were a gorgeous genderfuck mix of cues from dark lipstick to white button down shirt and leather bowtie, over a neon orange slip. The look was finished by knee high lineman boots, a bootlicker’s dream, reserved solely for their boy as a reward for his silent service tonight. Their boy Rusty was clean and crisp in an A line shirt and leather pants that showed off what he was packing. He looked delicious and untouchable all at the same time, a clear indicator of stone butchness if Dax ever saw one. Rebecca had laced a white boa around the handlebars of her scooter, and slid her midsized curves into the tightest shortest thing in her closet, complete with fishnets, dramatic purple eyes that matched her glasses, and flats because her fibro had been flaring all week and heels were not fucking possible. Mikey wore a classic shirt and tie, her favorite top gear that she used to draw on a bit of Daddy magic for the scene ahead.“

In “Falling for Essex”, two queer black men, one cis and one trans, fall for the poet Essex Hemphill as part of the way they get together. It’s about college students, so they are full of angst and definitiveness, deeply sex-focused, with a heavy dollop of awkward and earnest. They are also both disabled. One of the things I particularly tried to do in this story was to make the disability part of their lives and perspectives in a way that felt real, and could illustrate how their desire for each other was not rooted in fetishization. Here is an excerpt from early in the story:

Samuel picked up Greek food on the way over. The restaurant was right around the corner anyway and he always felt better knowing there was food. Besides, the pita had smelled so fucking good. Sometimes he dreamed about bread that smelled like that. Since he got mesmerized by the smell walking by, he figured: blood sugar drop. Yeah, food would help everything.

“I brought food,” he said when Leroy opened the door. “I guessed what you’d like.”

“Smells like Vasili’s,” Leroy smiled at him and turned his chair around to lead him to his room.

“Yeah, I’ve got diabetes, so…” He trailed off, distracted by Leroy’s shoulders as he wheeled into the back of the house.

“So?”

“So I gotta eat,” he said, trying to stay with the conversation.

“So…” Leroy drawled, “I thought we’d watch the films in my room. I’ve got a decent set up in here and my housemates are watching porn in the living room tonight.”

Samuel blinked. “Okay. Umm. I need to do my shot.” He sat down and took out his insulin as Leroy transferred from his chair to the couch, concentrating hard on drawing the insulin slowly so he wouldn’t look at Leroy’s arms again. He lifted his shirt, clenching his teeth as he steadied the needle. His hands were trembling, damnit. Was that Leroy’s gaze he could feel on his stomach? He had to relax. He closed his eyes and breathed.

Leroy was mesmerized by Samuel’s stomach, round and sweaty, with a bit of fur. Damn, he loved men with meat on their bones. Especially ones with fat cheeks he itched to slap. He needed to do something with his hands. So he used his cane to draw the tv tray closer and started setting out the food, pulling a soda out of the cooler next to him. Okay good. Samuel was done. 

These are just a few moments in these stories that illustrate the ways I’ve been working on including disabled characters in my own erotica. I am excited about this new path in my writing, and looking forward to continuing to imagine queer kink disabled erotic life.

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60 thoughts on “Imagining Disabled Characters in Erotica

  1. THIS IS EXCELLENT! i don’t usually capitalize either, just so delighted by this whole post. very glad to connect more w/your blog recently. down to talk more over tea if you want to. regards and thanks, a fellow crip wanting to expand our collective erotic imagination…

    Like

    • Seeley, Thanks so much for your comment. So glad you enjoyed my post. I would like to talk more over tea. You can email me at praxisproductions at gmail dot com.

      Like

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  30. Joelle Casteel pointed me in your direction after a conversation we had on her blog about disability and erotica. I’m so very glad she did. This is awesome. Though I have disabilities myself and am a writer – I don’t consider mine erotica because it rarely has sex, rather I call it sweet domestic discipline romance – I rarely if ever write characters with disabilities. I love it when other people do and regularly encourage other people to do it. I just have an incredibly hard time doing it. It’s too close to home I guess. Because I have such trouble with it, I really admire it when other people do it well. You, in my opinion, do it extremely well.

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    • Thanks so much for your kind words about my work. If you are interested in my published work that includes characters with disabilities, I would point you to my story “Ready”, which was published in Biker Boys, and also in Coming Together: In Flux. It’s not from this latest set of work that I described in this post, however.

      I would also point you to my post on mental health and erotica for a list of my work that includes characters with psych disabilities.

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  40. Thank you for this. I was just searching for resources, ideas and hope regarding writing smut, living my sex in a newly disabled body and negotiating my engagement with my own kink as a single person after the end of a 12 year relationship with less visible but always present disabilities that were a known quantity for the us that is now just the me. I’ve felt such sorrow and a sort of blank what the fuck now depression- and this writing asks such good questions, shows so many possibilities and leaves me with a less floundering sense of who I might become just as I am. Grateful.
    Renee

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  41. @Renee
    Thanks so much for your comment. It made my day to read it, to know it helped you feel a little less floundering.

    Losing a long term relationship where you have access intimacy can make you feel so bereft and alone, even with other relationships that can support you. That on top of new disabilities is a lot. That’s a hard place to be; it makes sense that it would contribute to depression.

    I know for me, change like that can throw off many of the little systems I’ve built to make my life more accessible and doable. It’s hard to face rebuilding those daily-life kinds of systems on top of those kinds of changes. It can make me feel stuck in a what the fuck now overwhelm.

    I’m glad to know that this post offered questions and possibilities that were useful to you; what a lovely compliment.

    If you are interested in talking erotica writing and disability, I’d love that. Feel free to reach out.

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  57. I’m so glad I stumbled across this post! Yesterday my partner and I got into a discussion about the need for representation of people with disabilities in erotica, but not in a way that would fetishize the person, but rather as a character aspect and/or a way to show the expansive nature of sexuality, beyond what is “typical” (whatever that means). I think it’s important to create space for sexuality and disability to exist simultaneously. I was so pleased to see this line in your list: “Demonstrating that you are hot for someone who is disabled in a way that doesn’t feel non-consensually fetishizing” and I have been turning over in my mind how to begin writing these kinds of story lines.

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