A body by any other name

There are certain times in life when we are confronted with something unfamiliar and new – those new things that test our comfort zone and challenge us to leap outside of the box into a realm of thinking we have never experienced before. Normally, we are encouraged to seek out such things, saying “Expand your horizons” or “You only live once.” But there is one area where venturing outside the box is everything from mildly frowned upon to outright dangerous. Yes, I am talking about sex.

Bear with me, because your immediate reaction might be to scoff at the thought of a reason to step outside of your comfort zone with the one thing humans “know” how to do. Why mess with a good thing? You know what feels right, so why change it? Well, just because we are comfortable doing something doesn’t mean that it is the best option for the people around us or even ourselves. But I am not actually just talking about a new position; I am not saying one night you should switch from missionary to something more daring and ultimately sore-muscle-inducing. I am talking about the bodies we interact with and our fundamental ideas about sex.

I think an appropriate place to start is a body type that we find mundane yet repulsive. I want to start with the fat and generally bigger bodies of the world. Oftentimes, we make people with these bodies into jokes. We laugh at them for their size. But not only that – we also laugh at their own sexual desires. We even fetishize them, only seeing their bodies and not their personhood. In short, in our eyes, they are beings without personality, intelligence, beauty or desire. However, these are human beings, so of course they are not the stereotypes that we see. The first idea about sex we must change is the idea that there is a body size that is acceptable and one that is not.

This prejudice is often disguised by other “concerns” that people who are not fat have. “What if my partner crushes me?” “What if I suffocate under their skin?” “I just want to be with someone who cares about their health.” “I do not want a partner who just lazes around the house all day.” We disguise these excuses as concerns because they make us feel better. Most of us use them because we don’t want to be “mean” and admit that we’re fat phobic. But none of these are true concerns. Being fat is not indicative of a lazy lifestyle, and plenty of people in bigger bodies work out, dance or play sports. Most people in our health-obsessed society obsess over health, and fat people are not exempt from that. They may have even done a lot of unhealthy things like starving themselves and extreme dieting in an attempt to reach what we call “health.” And finally, worrying about not being able to handle weight on top of you does not mean that you cannot have sex with a fat person. I am certain that in the countless guides, magazines and websites there are at least a few positions you and a partner could try that would assuage that fear. The truth is that we are perfectly capable of having sex with bigger bodies – we have just so stigmatized it that we pretend it is out of the question.

The next area to delve into is people with bodies that are different from what is expected. Trans men who have vaginas, intersex people assigned female in appearance but who might have testicles as well as a vagina, trans women who have penises, non-binary people who have no breasts but a vagina or breasts and a penis, people assigned female who grow facial hair – the list goes on and on. These are the people and bodies who we do our best to ignore. They are freaks, and we render them as outcasts because they question our ideas about gender and sex. When their ambiguity does appear in pop culture, we base the whole arc around determining “what” they are or we make them the butt of a joke centered around our disgust. The second idea about sex that we must change is that there is a certain list of body parts on a person that dictate our attraction and parts that dictate repulsion.

The most mainstream example of this is asking a trans person if they have had the big “operation.” This is, of course, basically asking what they have in their pants, which is mind boggling to ask to anyone. Most people write this questioning off as “curiosity,” but the obsession can get dangerous (a warning: I am about to discuss serious violence.) Islan Nettles was 21 when she died from head injuries inflicted upon her by a man who had initially been flirting with her (as reported by the New York Times.) His reason? He “didn’t want to be fooled.” After one of her friends teased him for flirting with a transgender woman, he viciously beat Nettles, who was rushed to the hospital only to die five days later. This idea of “not wanting to be fooled” is a covert way of saying that he was repulsed and threatened by the idea of being attracted to and having sex with a “man.” It is really of no importance whether or not Nettles still had the penis that she was born with – the fact that the thought of it could get her savagely beaten to death is heartbreaking and inexcusable.

A woman with a penis does not make you gay for having sex with them. Just like having a non-binary partner does not make you pansexual. Orientation is up to the person individually to define and does not hinge on their partner. If you love someone, sex can be a great way to feel good with your partner and have a connection, though it is not necessary for either of those things. There are hundreds of combinations of different things that can do that and all sorts of different stimuli you can try. For example, a lesbian who identifies as a woman having sex with her partner who has a penis does not have to be penetrated just because those parts “fit” together. She can use a strap-on on her partner or her partner can perform oral on her or they can reduce dysphoria by having her stroke a toy vagina and her partner’s penis at the same time. If your partner’s body fails to fit what you expect or what you believe you desire, there are so many ways for both of you to enjoy your sexualities and sex together while validating both of your identities and desires.

I suppose there is no real conclusion to this, and this has not concluded all that I have to say on the matter. What I will say is that we all need to be talking about this far more than we currently do, which seems to be a commonality of the topics I choose. This sexual rigidity and discomfort is costing people their lives, because Islan Nettles is not the only murdered individual who was killed because their body didn’t “fit” what we thought they “should” look like. At its least threatened, with fat bodies, or at its most, with “unnatural” ones, prejudices surrounding sex and sexual attraction damage minds and bodies alike. Part of the reason that I decided to write about this is because I still have a lot of hang ups and problems with these exact issues. I often fail to step outside of my comfort zone when it comes to who I date and love.

What would it take for you, the reader, to step outside of your comfort zone? I personally strive for it every day. Because I know that there are people who deserve love and compassion and to have their desires acknowledged and validated who are being hidden away and spat upon by society. And I also know that acceptance is more than just tolerance, because until we can say that we are comfortable with being attracted to and falling in love “unacceptable people,” we cannot say that we have truly accepted them.