Panel contribution on sex and stigma

Presented by Sarah Lawrance at the Anderson Gender Resource Center of Idaho State University’s seventh annual conference, The Art of Gender in Everyday Life, in February 2010, as part of the panel presentation “Witnessing the Gender of Art in Everyday Life: A Trans-Canada Whistlestop Journey”.

I’m going to speak briefly about a movement within the field of art-for-health by discussing projects undertaken, or soon-to-be-undertaken, by one of our Whistlestop participants as well as by one of my former students.

Amber, a participant in the Montreal Whistlestop, spoke about her pansexual, sex-positive smut zine, Lickety Split, of which I have a couple of copies you can peruse at your leisure. This zine is particularly interesting because one of its goals is to represent a wide range of bodies and sexualities all in one place, unlike the more common forms of pornography that tend to target one particular kind of body or sexual orientation, and which tend to privilege hegemonic definitions of beauty. Lickety Split’s models include straight, queer, and genderqueer people, abled and differently-abled people, people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds and expressions, and people of various shapes and sizes. The models engage in various forms of solo, partnered and group sexual activities, ranging from very vanilla to more hardcore themes. They all come together in this project to experiment with forms of sexual representation that intend to liberate rather than oppress the participants and audience members.

Inspired by her own mother’s illness several years ago, Amber has also extended her nude photography work to photographing women with breast cancer pre- and post-surgery, to help them document their bodies and their sexualities throughout this process of physical transformation. In our contemporary media context where illness is consistently stigmatized and desexualized, and where sexuality is understood as fixed rather than always changing, this project gives women with breast cancer the opportunity to explore and define their own changing sexuality as their bodies change.

The third project has not yet been put into practice, but one of my former students, Kari, has been dreaming about it for years and someday hopes to have the resources to actually do it. She has type-1 diabetes and needs to wear a continuous glucose monitoring system at all times which delivers insulin when she needs it. As a result of this very visible medical condition she tends to feel desexualized and stigmatized by the very machine that allows her to live more freely. Kari’s dream is to put together a swimsuit calendar featuring real diabetic people of all shapes and sizes. Since the insulin pump is a crucial part of the diabetic person’s life, she intends to incorporate it in playful and sexy ways throughout the calendar. The goals of the project include destigmatizing and demystifying diabetes, as well as reclaiming and redefining what beauty means. Kari says this is part of a rebellious subcultural movement within the wider diabetic community that refers to itself as “diabadass” and consists of people who refuse to let the mainstream society relegate them to passive object status by defining them according to a medical condition.

All three of these projects are important because they serve to defiantly reclaim beauty and sexuality from a wider society that is continuously desexualizing people with so-called deviant bodies and dictating what is and isn’t beautiful. These projects document a process of people redefining beauty on their own terms, where the people inhabiting queer, genderqueer, differently abled, cancered, surgically altered, diabetic or otherwise visibly deviant and stigmatized bodies seize artistic space to assert their own self-definitions.

I’m sure this is not the first time that this general topic has been discussed in academia, but I see a lot of value in continuously bringing these projects to light, to make them known, to bear witness, “spread the word” and remind people that there are so many ways to fight back on the level of representation. As the feminist sex radicals of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and today remind us, the way to combat the representations we don’t like or agree with is to keep producing our own alternative representations.

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~ by artpoped on July 6, 2010.

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