Malfunction: Your Body Is an Empty Room

I’ve gone out on a few dates with someone. We both like each other, but I’m afraid of being intimate with this person because our body types are so incompatible. I would like to keep this person around, so how do I bring up sex in a way that doesn’t make either of us really self-conscious about our bodies?

My first idea was to start this off with a wonderful, totally bang-on Judith Butler quote. Judith Butler, certifiable genius; her writing on bodies and agency is revolutionary. Her texts can help you—they can save you. And of course, as we learned in high school, the easiest way to set the tone for an essay is with a poignant quote from a smart person.

Then I mulled it over for all of like, a minute, and realized that I should start by saying, with the volume in my heart turned up loud enough that the neighbors might call the cops:

THERE ARE NO INCOMPATIBLE BODY TYPES. THAT IS NOT A REAL THING. BODIES DON’T WORK THAT WAY.

We are living in a world ruled by industries that capitalize on making you resent a body you couldn’t possibly have planned for.

People with all different types of bodies are boning 24-7. They’re doing all sorts of kooky, slippery things they wouldn’t want their mothers or pastors or congressional districts to find out about; they’re also having tender, vaseline-lensed vanilla extract sex to the Death Cab back catalog.

People are engaging in casual encounters, building lasting partnerships, experiencing the actualization of long-secret fetishes for the first time, making babies, making bank, and everything in between, all over the world, all the time—and those people have every sort of body imaginable. There are as many ways to have sex as there are people in the world, because every body is totally different. The fact that every body is different is largely what makes sex good and interesting and important.

And you know this already.

I am going to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut and posit that “our body types are incompatible” really means that one or both of you is insecure about your appearance.

Here’s Judith:

“If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact that I am constituted by a social world I never chose. That my agency is riven with paradox does not mean it is impossible. It means only that paradox is the condition of its possibility.”

This is hard to do, but try thinking of bodies devoid of cultural context, reduced to their biological value. They’re meat ships, fueled by snacks, that we race toward the great inevitable finish line. You mostly use them for sleeping and pooping and getting around and making more humans.

The body can defy gravity, escape from straightjackets, be dressed up in gorgeous clothes, be shattered in horrific accidents. The body gets wet when it rains. Someday, we will die and become a quiet urn full of human confetti, or turn to mush in a pine box underground, while goth teenagers make out and drink 40s on top of us. It’s awfully simple.

But the physical truth of the body is a lot different, and very separate, from the social understanding of the body. There are powerful interlocking systems of oppression built upon the belief that some bodies are better than others for completely arbitrary reasons: your race, ability, weight and body type, the gender you were assigned at birth and how you’ve interpreted that since, the relationship between your appearance and the standard of beauty where you live, all factor in to the way you are treated by society at large—as well as the way you treat yourself.

The physical truth of the body is a lot different, and very separate, from the social understanding of the body.

We are living in a world ruled by industries that capitalize on making you resent a body you couldn’t possibly have planned for, in a world where your body might determine everything from how much money you make yearly to your success on dating apps to how you feel about taking the stairs to your ability to survive day-to-day without threats to your life.

You may experience an exponentially higher risk of being murdered every day because of your gender. You are also expected to wear lipstick and shave and do other things to your body that help you present as feminine, and you are expected to not complain about doing that, because apparently that’s what people with that sort of body are supposed to like.

You are, in Judith’s words, constituted by a social world you never chose. This makes it easy to be self-conscious about anything that involves sharing your body with other people. Grieve for this if you need to—take a break and punch the ever-loving shit out of something if you want, because it sucks and it hurts and it will rip your insides to shreds if you think about it too long. But try to remember that, as she says, if you have any agency, it is opened up by this fact.

It is impossible to be un-self-conscious about sex in a world that penalizes all bodies from all sides, even those bodies deemed to be generally “good” by society’s standards. We are bombarded with (mostly negative) messages about our body and the bodies of others from birth. We internalize these messages about what’s good and bad, what we can change and what we’re stuck with. Some things we take to heart, and it screws us up royally, maybe for the rest of our lives. But sometimes, we hear something and it’s so ridiculous that we can’t bring ourselves to go along with it—or we spend years and years doing the hard work of actively unlearning what we’ve been taught. Paradox is the condition of your having agency.

It is impossible to be un-self-conscious about sex in a world that penalizes all bodies from all sides.

In this way—and Butler says this when she writes about Foucault, but I feel like this is actually pretty basic stuff that we can all more or less intuit as people who are alive and have bodies—the body is a site of resistance. Which is to say that, yeah, the body as an object exists independent of this sort of social abuse (that’s the meat ship, stripped of context), but it’s mostly a spot where events take place, and a surface upon which things happen. Your body is a location. This means that in some way, always, you have agency.

If the body is a site, an empty room that you own and maintain, you can choose to have a birthday party, or let a bunch of bands in and throw a show, or open it up to your community as a safe place, or lock everyone out, draw the blinds, and sit in solitude listening to the Grateful Dead. The possibilities are limitless. And by these rules, “compatibility” of bodies can be understood thusly as a total garbage lie. The birthday party and the funeral and the rave and the protest and the movie screening are all “compatible” with the empty room.

Here, in the empty room, the conversation about sex begins. You can not truly have the liberating conversation about sex until you have these conversations about the body—with your partner, with other people in your social circle, but most importantly, with yourself (ideally in discourse with literature and other media that makes you feel seen, validated and represented).

92858032 7da56f6e9d b Malfunction: Your Body Is an Empty Room

(Photo: Tinou Bao)

Sex is affected by every aspect of the overarching kyriarchal power structure, so the best way to ensure that neither of you feels horrifically self-conscious is to start by dissecting the power structures that have set you up to be self-conscious in the first place.

Realistically these conversations should happen when sex isn’t even a blip on the radar—that way, there’s no risk of “killing the mood” (though I would be seriously worried about you sleeping with anyone for whom meaningful conversations about sex and power are a mood killer). Talking about the body and power—about why we are oppressed by certain power structures, about what we believe and why we believe it, what we’ve been taught versus what we intrinsically know to be true—involves talking about sex.

And in case no one has said this to you yet: You are allowed to be self-conscious about your body, especially as it relates to getting naked with other bodies. You are allowed to be hurt and have weird feelings and be vulnerable. This is really hard stuff, and being emotionally naked leaves you feeling just as, if not more, exposed than being physically naked.

Discussing the ways culture has failed us and made us feel like anything less than holy are some of the most intimate conversations we can have. And realistically, you should only be having sex with people who understand that. If they don’t, then you have no reason to want to keep that person around. Do not have sex with people who don’t respect your feelings, even the weird shitty ones.

No one can avoid feelings of sex-related shame and self-consciousness. You’ve been set up to have those feelings for a very, very long time. The revolutionary act of really listening to one another during these (occasionally difficult and painful) conversations about why you’re self-conscious in the first place is a huge step toward undoing some of the system’s power in your life.

A healthy mind and soul are as important to your sex life as your sweet bod.

A healthy mind and soul are as important to your sex life as your sweet bod. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable about what colonialism and capitalism and gendered violence have meant to your body will help your partner better understand the person they’re lucky enough to be with. Whether you love your body or not, it’s anxiety inducing to have to claim something that’s undoubtedly yours—but there’s no virtue in suffering in silence. When you allow another person or people in, working together to establish boundaries and scheming up new and exciting ways to use your bodies and minds together, you’re asserting your ownership over your body, something you might not get to feel in many other areas of your life.

Remember: the paradox is the condition of possibility. In a world that wants you to be self-conscious and ashamed and stay quiet, having these possible conversations, even when they’re hard, is a revolutionary act. Opening yourself up to someone, listening and sharing and actively trying to understand the person in the body, is as important as sex when it comes to developing an intimate relationship.

The best part: your bravery will ideally be rewarded with mutual respect and understanding, both veritable cures for self-consciousness, which can lead to exponentially better sex. The weight will be lifted off your shoulders, leaving a convenient space for their thighs. That empty room, the site of what has happened to you and what will happen to you, is yours alone to share as you so desire. You own that shit, for better or for worse, ‘til death do you part. It’s your party. You choose who gets in the door.

Malfunction is a monthly advice column from Meredith Graves, lead singer of Brooklyn’s Perfect Pussy, and creator of Honor Press records. You can send any questions, problems and concerns to Meredith Graves at meredith@honor.press. Your information will, of course, be kept completely anonymous. 

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Malfunction No. 1 – Confessions of a Serial Cheater

Malfunction No. 2 – How the Fuck Do I Survive in New York City?