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June 27, 2010 / missmarymax

Sex and ED: Bridging Sexuality and Recovery Activism.

(This lesson in gap-bridging brought to you by Lifeism.)

Sometimes I think Twitter makes me look cracked. 

It’s not Twitter per se, so much as my use of Twitter, — specifically Twitter’s “retweet” function.  With the click of a button, I — like any Twitter user — can share tweets, links, and information from the folks I “follow” with the folks who “follow” me.  Stalker-rhetoric aside, it’s a pretty sweet feature. 

The problem becomes that the people I follow, and the people who follow me, fall (almost without exception) into one of two camps.  Either they’re sex-positive, queer-friendly activist-types or they’re eating disorder recovery/ body image advocate-types.  When you know me, this does not necessarily seem strange.  If only because you’ve spent several years watching me champion my university’s GSA one moment and run off to hang a Fat Talk Free Week banner in its alumni center the next, you’ve probably been trained to take this with a grain of salt.  Maybe you’ve made peace with it the same way you’ve somehow accepted that I can read Orwell during Degrassi’s commercial breaks.  Maybe you’ve chalked it up to that unique idiosyncrasy that makes me so… endearing. 

And maybe that is not entirely poor reasoning.  I’ll admit that I revel, a bit, in being a contradiction in terms.  But when it comes to my passion for these two specific types of advocacy — which are, of course, not the only causes I’m committed to, but which seem to get the most play, both in my research and my mini-feed — I firmly believe there’s an overlap, invisible or no.  And increasingly, it bothers me that each of these camps seems so disinterested in the existence of the other.

There are exceptions, obviously.  There are people who genuinely participate in both movements… as well as people who pay lip-service to the “other” cause without feeling any real passion to contribute.  And then there are people who actively do not understand how or why I’m involved in both. 

It’s mainly that last group to whom I’m responding here.  I’m responding, in large part, because it boggles my mind a bit that there are people who do not see the connection between recovery and sexuality activism.  These two forms of advocacy have so informed each other for me that I find it difficult to understand why, when I (re)tweet something sex-positive, it’s likely that only the pre-designated sex-positive peeps will respond to it.  Or why, when I tweet about recovery or body image, it’s equally unlikely that those outside that community will find it relevant enough to warrant a reply. 

The bridge places that exist between movements, between conversations, or between disciplines have always interested me.  But I find the common ground, in this case, particularly consequential because this bridge is not a “stretch.”  It’s not some sort of theoretical leap.  It does not require extensive mental acrobatics to see why the one conversation matters to the other.  And yet, we seem unwilling, often, to point out the intersection.  More disappointing still, on those rare occasions when that intersection is pointed out,  there’s rarely much follow-up.  Maybe we’ll pack sexuality and body image into the same health class unit on wellbeing… but — too often — we quit there. 

…But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I wanted to talk first about how I’ve come to the conclusion that the two do intersect — and strongly.  Since life is not exactly linear, it’s difficult to trace my interest in sexual health activism back to its root, but I think there are two pretty clear predecessors.  The first is — not surprisingly — my own experience of sexuality: that fire to engage politically, which was stoked by my identification as queer.  This is certainly the motivation others most often presume.  (It’s a common-sense explanation, after all, and an easy way to discredit the importance of allies:  Oh, the person of privilege can say.  She’s involved, but of course she’s involved.  This matters for her because she’s part of that minority.  There’s no reason I have to be involved.  I’m straight/ cisgender/ etcOnly queers are involved in queer rights.)

What makes this interesting is that my queerness, while the most obvious explanation for my sexual health activism, is not the most responsible.  At most, it has co-existed with an equally integral motivator, which gets significantly less of the credit.  And that other motivator? … is my experience of living with an eating disorder.

Sexual health activism started for me, mainly, with activism around reproductive health, specifically pro-choice activism.  Ironically, for someone who has never been pregnant and someone who — turkey basters aside — is unlikely to get pregnant without some rather expensive intervention, the idea of being forced to carry a pregnancy to term against my will is painfully personal, in a way that I cannot overlook.   I may never have sat through a pregnancy scare, but the idea of a forced pregnancy bothers me on a very personal level.  And it bothers me that way — I truly believe — because I’ve had an eating disorder.

Both recovery and sexual health activism have — in some sense — a focus on the body.  This is not exactly a groundbreaking deduction on my part.  Recovery activism — which is, (rightly or not), significantly tied to body image activism — spends a great deal of energy investigating our individual experiences of how our bodies look and the large- and small-scale forces that can make that experience better or worse.  Sexuality activism deals with the ways our bodies experience and communicate desire, the social restrictions on how that desire is expressed, and the safety and autonomy with which we can act on our desires, through our bodies and the bodies of other consenting folk. 

But while there’s a clear connection here, in terms of location, it’s not always one that seems relevant to people.  So these camps have the body in common, we say.  So what?  They are, ostensibly, focusing on the body in very different ways.

I mean, aren’t they?

Maybe they are.  Maybe I am an utter anomoly.  But here’s the connection I see, the connection that led me to feel equal passion about two apparently disconnected types of activism: When I was fighting an eating disorder, in the “every-day-of-my-life-is-overwhelmed-with-this-experience” sense, I felt fundamentally disconnected from my body.  Worse, I felt that my body was not my own.  My body existed — and existed in its specific, too-this, too-that, not-enough-of-the-other-thing manner — in spite of me.  In spite of me, in spite of what I wanted (or what my eating disorder wanted), my body stubbornly refused to follow directions, to drop the weight I insisted it drop, to stop feeling what I insisted it shouldn’t feel, to exist without the nourishment I did not want it to want.

And while it would be comforting to suggest that feeling powerless in my experience of my body was something I felt only at the height of my sickness, for me personally, that experience continued in recovery.  Recovery has — in spite of my best efforts — stubbornly maintained its own map and its own stopwatch.  The experience of being mentally ill, when I have tried like hell to be well; of suddenly struggling to eat years after it has been a struggle; of constantly having to question my motivation for going on (or avoiding) something as simple as a bike ride… all of this has felt like having something inside me that is not me.  For most of my life, my body has been something that I do not — and cannot — own. 

It’s common, in recovery, to personify your eating disorder, to try and externalize the thoughts that are not helpful and call them not-your-own.  This is my voice, we learn to say, and this is the voice of my eating disorder.  This distinction can be crucial in taking back our lives; it certainly has been for me.  But it has also not been as clear-cut as I wanted it to be, and it remains less clear now than I would like.  Part of what makes a mental illness so unsettling is that its fundamental location is inside you, and the overlap between self and sickness can screw with your senses more than a little.  How do I get rid of something inside me that I cannot extract, something that is built into my thoughts, my feelings, my perceptions? 

I have carried this disease around when I wanted, desperately, to be rid of it.  Recovery, for me, has been a way to make sense of the parts of it I will never be rid of, and the ongoing journey to live with (and in spite of) its influence.  Treatment has, increasingly, limited its role in my life and allowed me to be more myself, less my ED.  But I have not forgotten what it feels like for the most powerful inhabitant of my own body to be someone other than myself.

Looking at the awesome children I know, particularly the babies, it seems a bit unfair to compare them to a disease.  ED-as-parasite, maybe, but ED-as-pregnancy?  For me, the real issue is not in the notion of a pregnancy, but the notion of one I do not want, which I am powerless to end.  I know, in a very strange, intangible sense, what it is like to carry in my very body — in what is supposed to be most unequivocally, inarguably ME — something that is not myself.  And while I know women who have experienced the sharing of the body, through pregnancy, as a powerful and largely positive thing… it seems fundamental to me that the decision to do so needs to be a choice.  It is one thing to decide to blur where you stop and someone else begins.  It’s another to have that boundary blurred in spite of your agency.  In part, the externalizing process — this is me, this is ED — is powerful because it represents an active decision to re-mark your territory.  But forced pregnancy, like disease, does not allow that decision to be made beforehand.  And rather than asking women to reclaim themselves nine months afterward, I firmly believe in our right to make the call beforehand.

So, recovery pushed me into pro-choice activism, and pro-choice activism opened up the world of sex-positive feminism, which–  in turn — feeds my recovery.  The overlap that became visible to me, initially, because of what I do not want for my body — (e.g. unclear boundaries, influences that aren’t my own) — has extended to include the things I do.  The two spaces, I see now, have positive territory in common as well as the negative.  A  number of recovery and body image advocates work to expand our view of our bodies beyond appearance to how our bodies are experienced.  We work to teach people to focus (not only on how unbelievably, stunningly gorgeous they are, but also) on what their bodies can do, the sensations and activities that their bodies make possible.  But we focus, largely, on the physical strength required to dance on a climbing wall or the peace that comes with yoga.  The experience of sexuality, by and large, is not discussed in this community as a perk of the body.  When sexuality is discussed it is — almost exclusively — discussed in terms of dysfunction and abuse.

But sexual health activism can inform the recovery community in ways that go far beyond a shared discussion of sexual disorders or prevention and survival related to abuse.  At the core of the sex-positive community is an unconditional acceptance of the body — its needs, abilities, experiences, desires, and boundaries.  This kind of thinking is empowering beyond the bedroom.  When your body is not a bad thing, it’s empowering to feel that it belongs to you — or that it is you.  Not only is your ability to be physically active worth celebrating; so is your ability to be physically relational.  Not only are your boundaries around triggers acceptable; so are your boundaries around touch. 

Like the vast majority of the body image activists I follow, I’m spending today and tomorrow counting down the hours until the premiere of HUGE, a new ABC Family series featuring an entire cast of non-thin* youngsters.  This morning, I came across a Schmiddlebopper video in which ass-kickin’ HUGE star, Nikki Blonsky, advises enjoying one’s body “because it’s the one thing you really have that is yours.”

Now I’d like to believe we have some other things, additionally, that are ours and ours alone.  But Blonsky’s point does not fail to strike a chord with me.  It strikes a chord, most definitively, because I have based a good portion of my life on the presumption that this body is not mine.  A lot of us have.  And since body-image advocacy and sex-positive activism are both working to restore the radical notion that our bodies are ours — ours to decide about, ours to enjoy — I strongly contend we need some collaboration up in hrr.  After all, the more ways we have to actively take our bodies back? — the better.

__

*As a point of semantic social justice, I generally avoid “non-[insert dominant group]” rhetoric.  But I recently read this post, defending such speech as pointing out to the construction of the dominant group — a perspective I’m still chewin’ on.

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5 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. body disorder / Jun 28 2010 12:19 pm

    Hi Lifeism, very nice post. this article is very useful..Thanks for sharing….

  2. missmarymax / Jun 28 2010 2:47 pm

    Thank you so much! 🙂

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  1. Mental Disorders 101
  2. Presenting Blog-Posts-Past and Blog-Posts-Yet-to-Come. | Miss Mary Max

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