I read Untouched with dread, and could not put it down. I didn’t get enough sleep last night because I couldn’t put it down.
You know right from the prologue that Celia is intensely pushing past her boundaries around touch, because her relationship is on the line. That is the frame from the start, and it is one that inherently filled me with dread. How can a book like that turn out in a way I could be okay with? It seemed impossible. It felt inevitable that the end of the book, the resolution to this conflict, would gut me. In all honesty, the only reason I attempted to read it was because I have trust in Annabeth Leong as a writer. But that trust didn’t stop the dread as I zoomed through, needing to know. Not able to put it down, anticipating betrayal from this story.
As a stone butch, I know the kind of pressure, judgment, assumptions, pathologization, and betrayal that can be part of doing sex and relationships with clear and well-defined boundaries around touch, especially ones that don’t relax around intimacy and love. I have lived with this reality ever since I came to accept myself as stone. Lived with the reality that many folks in my communities (including potential partners) understand my sexuality as a problem, a lack, a pathology, something to pity or cure. Lived with the understanding that my sense of my own stone sexuality as a positive force in my life is hard-won, and something that I may not find in many of my stone peers, that stone folks as a group (including myself) struggle with shame and internalized anti-stone prejudice. Lived with the knowledge that some people may say that they are okay with my boundaries around touch, may even say that they want to be with a stone lover, and still be holding a deep desire to melt my stone, or an assumption that it would be different with them, or different if I really trusted or loved them.
The truth is, many people have a fantasy that your sexual boundaries are not firm, that with enough trust, love, desire, caring for them, whatever the magic ingredient, you will turn into what they think of as “normal” and relax those boundaries just for them. I know I am not alone in this stone experience, that many people frame stone sexuality as something that needs healing, can be fixed by the love of a partner. I have taught classes on stone and had innumerable conversations about stone sexuality with stone identified and questioning folks, and this experience of pressure from lovers to change/relax boundaries is so common that it often is the center of the conversation.
We struggle, as stone-identified folks, with acceptance of our stoneness as real and right for us. We struggle with community pathologization, with internal self acceptance, and, in some ways most painfully, with acceptance from lovers.
It is very difficult for me to trust that someone actually desires my stone sexuality, and that is not because I believe it is wrong or not enough or not okay. I firmly believe that stone sexuality can be incredibly hot and intense and complete in and of itself, that there can be lovely and important intimacy and trust and love and desire between stone lovers. I know that deeply, on so many levels. It is not my internalized shame or judgment speaking when I say that I have a hard time trusting that a potential lover really wants, is up for, being in a relationship with me as a stone butch. It’s in direct response to my experience. Because even if folks begin by saying that they are up for that, in the end, like Eli in Untouched, they often are holding hope that my boundaries will change, that my sexuality will change…for them.
The arc of Celia’s story is familiar. So familiar that it ached when I read it. I knew from the prologue that Eli was going to ask to touch her, pressure her to let him, even though her boundaries are clear from the start, even though they have careful negotiation, even though he seems really into and satisfied by the sex that they are having. And in all honesty, I’m glad it’s out on the table from the start for me as a reader, so I never tried to imagine a different pathway for Celia and Eli. If that was where the story was going, I’m glad I had fair warning.
It was hard to read, and not just because I dreaded the outcome of this conflict. Because reading about Celia’s struggle with her own internalized shame and judgment around her sexual needs, boundaries and desires should be hard. When internalized shame and judgment is written right, it hurts me to read it, hurts to witness it, not just because it resonates with my own personal experience, but because I care about Celia, and her pain. I ached for her as she acted from that internalized shame, as she accepted and expected abusive and other kinds of fucked up behavior from lovers, exes, and others in her life. Because she felt she deserved it. Because she thought she was made of wrongness and that was all she could expect. Because she hadn’t ever experienced another response from the world. It hurt to witness her taking in that poison, even as I adored and cheered the ways she fought against it, did what she needed to do to survive it, worked to twist it and use it for her own pleasure. Witnessing Celia fighting for ownership over her own desires, her own boundaries, was both sharply painful and deliciously joyous, and one of the most intense reading experiences I have had in recent years.
ETA: One of the things I love about Celia’s resistance to pathologization is the way that she refuses to explore the cause of her preferences around touch, despite the continued inquiry of others. (The book description implies otherwise, but that is not my read of the book itself.) This refusal feels so critically important to me, and resonates strongly with my stone experience of being frequently asked to consider and discuss the origins of my stoneness. I firmly believe that exploring the why behind a boundary can be a very fraught path, and one that is rooted in deligitimizing the boundary. As I discuss in an earlier post about one of my boundaries, we do not need to say why in order to say no. It made me very glad that Leong (along with Celia) refused to go down this path.
There are a few moments in the book where Celia is clearly free of most of her internalized shame and judgment, and is reveling in what feels like full glorious acceptance and celebration of her desires and boundaries. I found those moments to be extremely hot, and also a wondrous and needed respite from the hard stuff in the novel. I very much needed those scenes, and they are dispersed throughout the novel in a way that really worked for me. They are amazingly lovely, in an aching heart-in-my-throat kind of way. In so many ways, this interspersal of moments of revelatory sexual expression amidst the muck of judgment and pressure and pathologization feel so akin to my stone experience. The way it’s possible to grasp hold of sexual expression that feels so fucking right in so many ways and revel in it, have these pockets of deep self acceptance and the celebration of others. And that they are rare and so precious, because of all the rest of the muck attached to the way people respond to stoneness.
Watching Celia build up hope inside that she could find partners that she desired that would want her as she is, want to do the kind of sex she wants, would respect her boundaries without question…it was so intense to witness, the shards of that terrifying hope piercing the center of my chest so it hurt to breathe around them. Because I knew that slowly building trust would be betrayed, because I wanted better for her, because I fantasized about a different outcome. I ache to read books about folks with boundaries around touch, where they do find people that deep down want to respect those boundaries and aren’t holding out hope that they will change. That is not this book. This book is about those first slivers of hold-your-breath hope, those first moments of self acceptance, including the backlash that happens in response. That is also a beautiful project, an important and painfully real one, that I’m glad Leong has crafted.
While Celia’s trust is betrayed and she is pressured by Eli to relax her boundaries in ways that were very difficult to read, Leong did not betray my trust in her resolution of this conflict. I am left holding a story that feels real and close to my heart, and imagines possibilities that I would not have expected from erotic romance as a genre. It did not end the way that I feared (and expected), and I am so fucking grateful for that.