Sex Scribbled On My Skin: Body Politics and Sexuality

by Johanna Qualmann

As featured in Wom*news #7: The Body Issue!

Whether it’s in the way we dress, the gender we perform or the shape we are, our bodies shape the way we think about ourselves and the way that society thinks about us. Our bodies are texts to be read, with meanings and values and rules scribbled onto our skin. Some are personal, and some are political. Some are our own choice, while others are dictated by outside influences.

When it comes to sexuality, they way our bodies are read play a central role in what is seen as appropriate. Who is allowed to be sexual, or even required to be? Who is not allowed to show their sexuality? In what contexts are our bodies acceptable?

Despite sex being so naturalised in our society, there are still a multitude of rules imposed on different kinds of bodies, allowing them sexuality or denying it. Simple acts like kissing a partner in public are problematised as soon as the bodies of the people kissing don’t fall into certain categories such as heterosexuality. Queer bodies still represent a challenge to mainstream opinion and media- among other issues, gay men are often chastised for “flaunting” their sexuality, and lesbian or bisexual women are put on display for the eyes of male heterosexual viewers. Our bodies seem to be subjected to an absurd double standard of compulsory, but immoral, sexuality.

So who is allowed to be sexual, and own their sexuality in public? In many spaces, this is reserved for heterosexual bodies only. But there’s more to this designation than sexual orientation alone – all sorts of marginalised bodies are denied sexuality. Fat bodies are among the most frequent to be portrayed as non-sexual, because the underlying idea is that fat cannot be attractive. Fat people who are openly sexual threaten this belief, and as such, and when fat women do represent themselves as sexual (or are represented as sexual in the media), they’re cast as hypersexual or vilified as ‘sluts’.

Likewise, disabled bodies are denied ownership of sexuality by also being portrayed as non-sexual entities in both public representation (such as in the media) and in private (such as by carers). Self-described body revolutionary and disability activist Jax writes:

I am invisible as a lesbian in the queer community because my disability renders me a-sexual, and I feel invisible as a lesbian in the disability community due to dominant heterosexual discourses. My disability negates my sexuality; my sexual identity becomes ‘unintelligible’ to the gaze of others (Personal communication, 9th September 2012).

In general discourse, disabled bodies are perceived as non-normative and even defective or incomplete, and sexuality is the first casualty.

The list continues: ageing bodies, non-white bodies, non-heterosexual bodies and non-gender-conforming bodies are all limited in the extent to which they are permitted to be sexual. Attractive bodies, then, are allowed to be sexual and express their sexual identity however they wish, while bodies classed as ‘undesirable’ or ‘defective’ – indeed, any bodies that are not valued and upheld as ideal – are not.

At the same time as bodies are being denied sexuality, however, the bodies of those who are generally allowed to be sexual (young, attractive, gender-conforming bodies) are required to be sexual – often for someone else’s gaze or benefit. Being sexual becomes a requirement rather than an option. For people who actually identify as asexual, this poses a whole new set of issues, because their bodies are expected to conform to sexuality, to act sexually, to be sexually available. Indeed, when sexuality becomes compulsory, it often just as many negative effects as being denied sexuality.

It seems to all come down to value: whose bodies are valued, and whose bodies are marginalised. Those that are valued are required to express sexuality – albeit in a narrow range of ways, and whether they want to or not. Those that are not valued – disabled bodies, fat bodies, queer bodies, old bodies, non-white bodies, non-gender-conforming bodies and many more – are limited or denied access and expression. The scribblings on our skin are never fully our own – not unless we make a conscious effort to understand them and reclaim them.

~ Johanna Qualmann

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