A Wheelchair Can’t be a Woman

A person in a wheelchair is often defined by the chair and therefore isn’t a woman either

Erin Clark
Jul 30, 2019 · 9 min read
Illustration by Kate Gavino

I’I’ve tossed my high heels by the hotel’s bedside table. I’m looking at my pile of clothes — unpacked, not put away — strewn across the couch, thinking of what I might change into when I take my dress off, wondering how to get from my wheelchair to his body now that we’re alone.

While I’m still thinking, he lifts me from my chair to the bed, kissing me along the way. My dress’s slit is deep and falls open across my hips.

He is still in his suit. Just like in the fantasy I’ve masturbated to for months: He comes home from work. He can’t help it, can’t wait, doesn’t take his suit off, not even his jacket. He leaves his tie on. Kneels in front of me. Pulls my hips toward him. Wordless. Spreads my legs around his shoulders and kisses up my the inside of my thigh.

Now it is happening. It is real. He is wearing a suit, jacket, and tie. I, this black thigh-slit dress.

He kisses me and pulls down my underwear with one slow finger. He sprawls on his stomach, his suit jacket bunching at his shoulders. He pulls my legs apart, ducks under my right knee, and kisses up the inside of my leg.

I can’t entirely feel my body from my waist down. In terms of paralysis, I am medically referred to as “incomplete.” So is my spine, which is missing chunks that never formed. Where my tailbone — my anchor — should be, there is hollow space. A tangle of unrooted nerves.

How much does being in this kind of body contribute to my sense of unreality when it comes to my pleasure ? I can name experiences — generic, impersonal rejections added up over time — that taught me how to psychologically disconnect. For example, going to any yoga class (yoga being notoriously, proudly trumpeted as inclusive, beneficial to every body) and being told to ground: To feel centered, safe, whole, focus on your tailbone, the point of your root chakra, plant your feet on the ground, feel your feet solid on the ground and send roots down to the center of the earth.

My feet on the ground send no feedback to my brain about the ground. My wheels mediate between me and my environment. But my wheels don’t feel the ground either. What I can feel is often muted and indirect. Sensations that are intact are hyper-intense. Even surreal. But I can only pretend to feel my feet.

Can I ground through my hands and knees? Sprout roots through my fingertips? Maybe my sacral chakra is actually the crossbar of my wheelchair frame. The metal was mined from solid rock. The ground is not just under me, I am encased in deep earth, alloyed with pure element. How disoriented would a yoga class be if people were asked to feel their connection to the earth — to feel rooted and centered and connected to all of creation — using metaphors of metallurgy and geology?

In my fantasy, his beard is electric, grazing me softly in very precise places, brushing my stomach, my right hip bone. His beard is where I can feel it on my legs with their particular trails of perfect sensation, some no wider than a fingertip.

Now that it is real, his beard is muted, smooth against the inside of my left thigh. Sensation there is slightly dull with trails where I can’t feel temperature or pressure or fingertips. My legs can squeeze his face but can’t pull away again.

Sometimes it feels as if I live in a disembodied dream, that I am floating above my body and looking back at it. My legs are dream legs doing dream things. I look down at them, but I am not in them. I construct ideas about how they might feel by what I can see them doing.

HHow much does imagination count for experience?

People construct their sense of possibility by watching people who look like them do things they might like to do. So, what if no one who is doing what you want to do looks anything like you at all? Then you must be your own evidence. Construct from what you can imagine, from your other senses reaching into the world and bringing its details back to you. Make the sensory detail, the imagery, vivid and thorough, but not delusional. Fantasy is different from reality.

Fantasy: Hot mouth. Wet mouth. His lips dip between my pubic bone and right leg, sucking my tendon into his mouth. His mouth where I can feel it.

It’s not just an issue of half of my body existing as an unfelt reality. My sexuality is also challenged and erased by how society treats me.

I experience myself primarily through my senses. I am aroused all the time. A breeze on that just-right part of my neck. The morning sun rising through my bedroom window, slowly creeping up my thigh. A shiver of pleasure when I roll across a carpet of pine needles, their scent wafting up from under my wheels. My muscles taught and my body slick with sweat as I force my chair across a rocky shore, or slick with mud as I crawl through a Norwegian forest after the rain, or slick with fear when I pull a paragliding wing above my head as someone pushes my wheelchair over the edge of a mountain. I am naturally hard-wired for sensual pleasure.

Society experiences me primarily through my wheelchair. Which has no senses at all. It’s made of metal.

Reality: Hot mouth. Wet mouth. His lips where I can’t feel them when he slips across the right outer lip of my vagina, my paralysis narrowly misses my clitoris. Then, his mouth where I can feel it when he opens me with it. Sucking me in. His tongue inside me.

TThe first time my genitals soaked in arousal was during medical treatments when I was too young for sex to have ever been mentioned, so no one explained that it was normal for your body to respond to stimulation, regardless of your brain or your heart’s opinion on the matter. It’s easier to experience if you put your heart away. No heart, no problem. Just a surge of meaningless heat from my genitals to the pulse in my neck. The trouble is when you forget how to make heart, and brain, and arousal mesh again.

Before anyone had talked to me about sex, I was medicalized. Or fetishized by people whose sexual preference is for a person with a disability: It’s the disability they want to fuck, not the person. If their sexual preference was for my wheelchair, and I had sex with them, did that make my disability my sexual identity? Some people just want to know what’s like to have sex with a girl in a wheelchair. Can you feel it? They ask. I wonder what answer they’re hoping for.

Fantasy: His hands where I feel them. Gripping mine. I press into them to leverage my hips. Push myself harder against his mouth. His hand where I can feel it, cradling my head so I can watch him.

Sexuality is internal, but it also interactive. If my wheelchair defines me to others, desexualizes me by default, how am I supposed to interact sexually and romantically in order to figure it out for myself? I must be my own point of reference. If society decides I can’t live up to it’s standards, I don’t have to be held by them either. Neither do my lovers.

Reality: His hands are where I can feel them. He is pulling my dress down to my stomach. His hands are pressing up my torso, brushing my nipples. His fingers interlock with mine. I grip his hands, press into them, leverage my hips so I can push myself harder against his mouth. His hand is where I can feel it, cradling my head so I can watch him.

AA wheelchair can’t be a woman. A person in a wheelchair is often defined by the chair and therefore isn’t a woman either. She is an eternal girl-child. Her body can’t grow into society’s vision of an ideal woman. Forget ideal, she can’t even meet the bare minimum, societally-imposed “standards” for womanhood. She cannot fulfill certain key womanly functions — she can’t mother, she can’t housekeep, she can’t sexually satisfy a man. As a girl, I understood this without skepticism. I had no housekeeping or mothering or wifely aspirations; I shrugged those limits off unperturbed.

But I very much wanted a lover. I wanted to be a lover. A young girl’s idea of what a lover was, which was someone to share the sensory world with, to show how it moved me, to let their body become part of my list of pleasures.

Reality: His eyes where I can feel them. Looking up at me.

He sees me. He found me. He knows.

His touch blinks off and on across my hips and thighs, like fireflies flashing for their mates in a spread of dark grass, my body a meadow, his touch is a million fireflies. Paralysis takes away feeling, but it doesn’t take away significance. When I can’t feel him touching me, I feel him with me. Atmospheric contact. An ether of want.

How did he know, this our first time? How did he know how to make me feel him through the numbness?

I told him how. A year with an ocean between us meant we could talk and flirt but not touch, not rush. Instead, I sent selfies, the same sexy imagery I was left out of, I recreated, each one in a coded message: This is how I want you to see me. This is where you should touch me. My neck, my shoulders, my cheeks, my legs surprisingly erogenous, if you can figure out that the stimulation isn’t the important part but rather the connection is. I wrote essays about my sexuality, my pleasure, my confusion, my shame. Stories about my pain and frustration. I would have been writing anyway because that’s what I do. But my desire for him, the chemistry between us, inspired me to write about those things. Send me a selfie of you in your suit. I teased.

How did he know? I told him.

When I came in my fantasy, it was on my hand in reality. I was alone, curled into my own arm, wondering what he was doing wherever he was. An ocean away from me and not yet my lover.

His mouth. His hands. His eyes.

Now that it is real, I come. Now I come. Now I come. His mouth. His hands. His eyes.

Now he laps softly. Tender kisses inside me. Now slow brushes of his lips “shhhhhing” right into my skin. Now he rises up to kiss me, I lick myself from his lips, his beard. I remove his tie, begin to unbutton his shirt. He presses his hand on mine to stop. I pant into his chest. Now he holds me tightly. He strokes me down, shoulders, neck, my back. Wordless. He soothes my orgasms into me. Now.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Erin Clark

Written by

Author of the NYTimes recommended memoir If You Really Love Me Throw Me Off the Mountain (EyeCorner Press). www.erinclarkwriter.com

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Erin Clark

Written by

Author of the NYTimes recommended memoir If You Really Love Me Throw Me Off the Mountain (EyeCorner Press). www.erinclarkwriter.com

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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