I’m an identical twin. My sister is my very best friend. We talk on the phone a few times a day, sometimes just a quick call to check in to see if we’re both awake. I touch base with her via call, text, tweet, or Facebook like probably 8 to 10 times a day, every single day. Sometimes one of us is busy or out of town, and it’s no big deal, but I’m not going to lie: I feel most myself when she’s in my time zone and texting me pictures of her cat.
I’m also a person with a history of sexual relationships, and not all of them have been on board with the twin thing. I think there’s this assumption that one’s sexual partner will be one’s primary relationship, and all other relationships must be subsumed underneath it. That was the opinion of my first long term girlfriend, at least. Frustrated that I always seemed to be inviting my sister along or interrupting dates to call her back she finally set down an ultimatum: me, or her. That was a no brainer. I hung up the phone, and aside from fucking her one last time for good measure, we never spoke again. The twin sister will always win, no matter what.
And I think that’s fine. I’d argue that our fetishization of the sexual relationship does most of us more harm than good, and it keeps us from acknowledging that the desire for one relationship to meet all our needs is a terrible fantasy that sets us all up for massive disappointment. I’d like to see us spend more time talking about the great benefits of close relationships with siblings, friends, and ourselves not as signs we aren’t in the “right” kinds of relationships, but as ways to expand what counts as relating in the first place. Friendship, sisterhood, love outside the bonds of the romantic couple—these are affective ties that can’t be easily ordered and made sense of by the state. This is love outside institutions, and institutions don’t like that. Perhaps that’s why they try to convince us that to be “just friends” is a sad state of affairs.
This doesn’t mean I don’t care about sex, though. I was a late bloomer, not unrelated to the twin thing. When you’re a twin everyone is always staring at you, searching your face and body for signs that you are yourself and not the other one. And they make pronouncements—I was the one with chubby cheeks, the size of my body always the thing that gave me away. I understand now that people were just trying to tell us apart, but young me, before a lot of therapy, figured I must look like something of a monster, what with all those eyes on me all the time. And my monstrousness was coded in the excess of my flesh. Or, to put it less dramatically, I was the fat one, and we were both probably pretty ugly. This doesn’t quite set the stage for seeing oneself as desirable, for me a necessary precondition for sex in the first place.
But then I went to college and became a lesbian, and everything changed. I don’t want to act like lesbian cultures are all rah rah body positive, because surely they are not. I’ve never been in a straight woman’s world, though, and that just looks so terrible I have to believe we’ve got it better over here. In college I turned myself and others on because I was smart, because I was funny, and with some practice I started feeling more and more at home in my body—and nothing’s hotter than that.
There’s been a lot of necessary talk lately about enthusiastic consent, and while I don’t have anything significant to add to that robust conversation, I did want to take this column to say we can’t give enthusiastic consent until we do the work to get comfortable in our bodies and with ourselves. And sometimes that means stumbling through sexual experiences that upon reflection we aren’t sure we’d do again. For me it has meant learning what I want, learning how to articulate that, and learning how to test and set boundaries. It’s not easy work, but it’s work worth doing.
And it’s never really done. I am right now in my life profoundly uncomfortable in my body. I have cancer, and I’m in active treatment right now. Chemotherapy is not at all like what I was expecting given what I saw in the movies. I am lucky that I haven’t spent the last month with my head in a bucket, puking my guts out, but that doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near at home with my body.
Here’s what it actually feels like, for me: On the first couple days of the cycle I’m hopped up on steroids, my skin almost literally crawling as I race around in search of something to take the energy away. And then the steroids are out of my system and the chemo’s doing its work—killing all the cells in my body. My mouth tastes like a chemical plant, and nothing can make that go away. They give me a drug that forces my bone marrow to overproduce white blood cells, so by day four my bones ache—if you don’t know what that feels like, consider yourself lucky. The chemo kills the linings of my mouth, esophagus, and stomach so I start to feel like an old leather bag full of bones. I get a rash, the beginnings of thrush in my mouth; my eyelids twitch nonstop, my hair is gone, and I’m so tired. Guess what? I don’t want to have sex. This is not my body even as it is mine all the same.
Cancer is changing my relationship to my body, but because I know that feeling at home is work no matter what, I know that I can work on this relationship, too. And not so that I can feel sexy with my partner, but so I can know what I want, so that I can enthusiastically consent to whatever it is I want now. This particular body is a temporary situation, but making my own relationship to it? That’s forever.