Sex and the Sick Girl

How I learned that having a chronic illness and feeling sexy are not mutually exclusive.

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"Want to see my cyborg parts?"

This is a thing I asked a friend the first time we hooked up. At the time, I'd been working on a poetry manuscript about my strange, mechanical body for about two years, and while I'd gotten used to thinking of my body as a cyborg, I had almost given up on the book. It had some good poems, but mostly it felt heavy, painful, laden with the embarrassment of an illness I'd concealed from most of my acquaintances for many years. It was, to be honest, a bummer.

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If having machines in your bed turns you off, I probably shouldn't be in it.

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When I asked my friend this question, I knew he'd know what I meant. That is, he knew I'd had diabetes since I was 12, and that managing it requires me to be a veritable human-machine hybrid. I wear an insulin pump, a small, pink medical device about the size of an Altoids box that's attached to my hip with a plastic tube.

My body doesn't make insulin on its own, so the pump feeds the hormone to me through a catheter that sticks under the skin of my abdomen. I also wear a glucose sensor, a little gray piece of plastic with a needle that sticks into my leg and measures the amount of sugar in my blood every five minutes, then sends the data to an app on my phone. This is what my book was about, and what I'd struggled to frame as anything other than (at best) a sci-fi trope or (at worst) a source of pain and shame that I had to overcome.

Since most people wonder, and many ask: yes, these devices stay on me all the time, in sickness, in health, and in sex. So my question about my cyborg parts wasn't so much a question as an ultimatum I'd been too shy to pose before: if having machines in your bed turns you off, I probably shouldn't be in it.

I felt exciting in my oddness. I was a hot cyborg.

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My friend smirked and eagerly said yes. I didn't quite believe him, of course, because I never quite could believe anyone would be attracted to me with all my medical appendages, rather than just despite them. But then, because I'd asked that question, instead of making some awkward explanatory excuse for my body, something happened that had rarely happened in my sex life before: I stopped thinking about it. Rather than being acutely aware of how different my nakedness was from anyone else my partner had ever been with, I felt exciting in my oddness. Instead of just mildly hating my body the whole time, I could let it go. I was a hot cyborg. I have to write about this, I thought afterward.

All at once, my book had a new angle: What if I treat my sick body and my sexual body as the same body? What if sickness can be sexy? This might seem obvious; of course I only have one body, a body that has both sickness and sex. But at the same time, I grew up in America, where illness is about as close a synonym for asexuality as you can imagine. Sick people are seen as undesirable and undesiring, burdensome, needy, unpredictable—you never know when we might need to be cared for. If you don't ask us, you might not know what kinds of touches can hurt us; you might find it safer just not to touch us at all.

I saw my sick body as something the sexual body had to compensate for. But what would it mean just to be a sexual body that—like any other—has weirdnesses that are sometimes visible and is always at some kind of risk? What does it mean to desire and be desired, to negotiate consent, in that kind of vulnerable space? What does it take to be dirty when you live in a body with mechanical parts, when medical devices are only ever thought of as sanitary and sterile?

Being scared is not always something to be scared of.

These are the questions that got me to finish my first book, Sugarblood. And while I'm sure I haven't found all the answers, I'm also confident I've found some. In the book, I'm still an anxious and trembling body, a body unable to exist apart from the objects it carries with it:

you know i was so scared to show my body

with its tubes and beeping boxes i am still so scared

and always—i wish i could feel 'fully naked' but

i do feel something close to it when you look at me

But if the book can be said to have a "point," it's that being scared is not always something to be scared of. Nervousness and bodily difference can be truly sexy things—things that always, I think, play some part in desire. Rewriting my book from a place where I knew that helped me come to terms with what I was warning my partner about that night before he took my clothes off.

Toward the end of the book, I am able, even proud, to say: "it is never only me you will get / but the flesh of me." Flesh, it turns out, comes in many forms.

Sugarblood by Liz Bowen (Metatron), $15, onmetatron.org.

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