Recently a Canadian press asked me to write about what I would tell my teenage self about sexuality for an anthology for radical teens. I expanded what I wrote here to avoid copy-write issues and explain more lessons I wish I could tell my teenage self. Enjoy…
As a disabled sexologist, looking back on my teenage years I, like many folks undoubtedly, wish I had the chance to go say a few things to myself. Perhaps had I had the chance to read this or hear this story, I could have many avoided years of self-hatred and emotional turmoil from feeling lack of desirability and the belief that would never change.
I was born with a congenital disability that makes my bones brittle. In my 31 years of living, I’ve had over 60 fractures and 16 surgeries. With all the fractures and surgeries, I spent much of my young life isolated in bed healing from injuries, amounting to at the very least 7-10 years of life alone in bed healing. That created a huge gap in my socialization process and my educational experience. When I was 15 years old, I had a surgery that took me well over six months to heal from. I was incredibly depressed, even when my friends would come visit me. They told me stories of going to parties and out on dates. I didn’t get to experience any of that until my late teens, due to healing from injuries, an overprotective mother and friends who really didn’t want their disabled friend tagging along to “cool” parties.
Naturally, I had to find something to do with my time, so I escaped into the land of fiction – in books, television and movies. For years, I considered those images to reflect reality – and none of those images included people like me. I knew all the stories about the guy getting the girl in the end, even the supposed ugly duckling (who I thought I would be) would end up happily with a man. I had my heart set on living that fiction, yet wondered how I could possibly do so in the body I am in. I would often ask my mother would I ever fall in love and would I ever sex. She assured me some wonderful man would, at some point in the far off future, be able to see past my disability and see me as attractive and brilliant. I didn’t know then that it is absolutely ridiculous and ableist (oppression of disabled people and the production of normalcy) to suggest someone would see past what would become a core part of me.
If I could go back and counter the dialog my mothers and all the fiction I consumed taught me, I would tell me a few sexual truths. The truths that media conceals with its over-sexualization of everything and its overemphasis on a body beautiful standard that most people cannot live up to. I would explain that sexuality is not just sexual activity, and it certainly is not just heterosexual penetrative sex. Sexuality is intertwined in our whole personhood, it is an experience we have for a lifetime (or as sexologists often like to say “sexuality is a womb to tomb experience”) and something that can be celebrated. To feel sexual urges and want to explore your body at a young or old age is perfectly typical. Sexual expression is a spectrum: we all do not express it the same – so we may have different tastes, those tastes may change over time, and some of us may never want to have sex.
From an early age, I had a strong fascination with sex. I was mocked by my step-father for staring with wonder at sexual scenes in movies. He suggested I was perverted to want to see what sex entailed at the age of 10. Despite the shame I felt because of his comments and religious teachings I learned regarding sexuality, I thankfully discovered the delight of masturbation at 11 years old. It was a great outlet for my bent up sexual energy that had no other outlet. At that age I tried to express interest in boys and girls and it remained unrequited. If I could tell my young masturbating self a few things, it would be to breathe more (to enhance pleasure and elongate the experience of climax), that I was not going against God by pleasing myself, and I was actually teaching myself a lot about my body. I now teach my students – of all abilities – that exploring your body is one of the best ways to know what you want when/if you decide you want to engage in sexual activities with others or yourself.
Another big lesson I would tell myself is that sexuality is a human right that EVRERYONE is worthy of and EVERYONE can find someone to be interested in them. This may sound like a lie, I would have thought it was a lie, but it really is true. Developing or enhancing sexual self-esteem can be enabled through many means; radicalizing disability really helped me. I found disabled friends, learned that disability was not my fault – or my tragedy – it is political. I was supported by my father, who arguably pushed me very hard to develop my personhood and sexuality. There were moments in my mid-to-late teens that we would go to concerts and he would encourage me to hit on people. It was terrifying to try but those moments proved to be excellent learning experiences (and stories to tell later in life).
I would also explain to my teen self, that all the sexual attraction can be real. When I came home from middle school and junior high talking about crushes on boys and girls, my mother explained the feelings for the boys were real but I really just wanted to be like those girls. I believed her for years not knowing her rationale was ableist and relied on my internalized ableist notions of wanting to nondisabled that made me believe that crap. When my father told me that I was gay when I was 16 years old, I was baffled yet felt like something finally fell into place. All of those crushes and attendant feelings finally were unveiled as real.
Because I didn’t know that sexuality was a spectrum, I bounced between what I thought to be the only sexual categories – heterosexual and gay. Through the bouncing, I experienced different folks with many types of strokes. Growing up with an OB-GYN nurse as a mom kept me safe(r), as I used condoms, lube and gloves throughout my sexual life. Though I tried many types of people, sometimes sex just was not hot or even satisfying (and yes I faked an orgasm or two). Sounds terrible but if you try different types of people through the years, some fit better than others.
I would also let me know that the sometimes scary and saddening sexual trajectory I hit hit when I moved to college would help me figure out more about myself. Even with my father and new college peers coaching me, I was a terrible wreck at trying to date or arouse attraction. Despite really emphatic efforts to be like my nondisabled peers, I couldn’t do it. I tried my damndest to drink as much and bring home guys from bars. Most often I would leave clubs alone and upset because I wasn’t even getting looked at. I had a few really rough semesters when I moved away. In the spring of my first year in college, my roommates and I hosted a party in which I was, again, sexually ignored. I got so frustrated that I took several pills, chased them with liquor and hoped I wouldn’t wake up. I didn’t want to be invisible anymore.
Looking back, I realize how grateful I am that I was not successful in not waking up. It would have been a truly sad waste of life; because I grew from the experience and only months later I knew I would never, ever want to sleep with anyone at the party. I’m grateful I made it through the pain alive because it has allowed me to see how important it is to talk about sexuality. I know feelings of shame and suicidal ideations regarding lack of desirability are not unique to me, and that we can work to change these social structures.
My closing sexual lesson is that experiencing love and sex are on-going processes. I’m still learning who I am, how to give and receive pleasure, and how to love myself and others. After gaining some sexual self-esteem through many fumbles, I started to understand what I really wanted and I began hunting for it. Certainly, this method does not work for some and many find it off-putting, but it worked often for me. More subtle approaches that are recommended by my less aggressive friends include meeting people with similar interests and building friendships into something more. Additionally, online dating websites are increasingly wonderful ways to meet people and their minds, not just their bodies. I found that to be an awesome modality through the years. After years of searching for someone who fit me, it turned out that it was me that needed to get to the stage of wanting to settle down. When I realized that I was ready for love, I spent awhile asking the universe for exactly what I wanted in a partner: intellectual and physical stimulation, the ability to make me giggle (and be ok with my giggling) and a true love for ranting. This happened only three years ago, when a friend helped me write a Craig’s-List (a free online source for various activities, including dating and casual hook-ups) explaining what I wanted in a partner. My now wife’s best friend found the ad and pushed her to respond to me. We consider our first date our anniversary. I knew within weeks, she was the one I wanted and I’m terribly grateful to the universe for allowing our friends and the internet to bring us together.
Even though I’m now with someone I truly adore, the internalized ableism I struggled with during my teen years remain. There are still days when I wonder – and ask – why she would want me and not a nondisabled person. Those moments of my depressed teenage life have not left, the feelings exist in my marrow (to borrow from Eli Clare), but there are now more and more moments that I can look at myself and see how sexy I am. I can often see why she loves me and may even think I’m a catch. That lesson would blow my teenage brain apart and even though I can’t tell young Bethany this, my eyes welled up with tears as I typed knowing that I made it through, I have faith others will too and I hope more of us share our stories with people that need to read and hear them.