(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksSeptember 26, 2023

They sent kisses: An essay from Henrietta Bollinger’s Articulations

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

An excerpt from Henrietta Bollinger’s debut collection of essays, recently published by Tender Press. (A note that the moments where some words are represented by XXXXX are intentional.)

I am still learning how to consciously talk about seeing sex workers. I want to find a way to share it and enjoy it without feeling too vulnerable – to criticism; to concern. There are times I find I’ve shared too much with people and something shifts between us.

I often start with a joke – a familiar way of talking about my body anyway – about how it was my support worker who made the first inquiry. “Not me,” I laugh, “I was too scared.” This is true. I complained to them one morning about how sexually bored I was and then said quickly, “Sorry, that’s definitely TMI for this early in the morning.” They said it wasn’t. I tried to move the conversation on to breakfast or the work day, but then I came back to it.

They came in the next day and matter-of-factly read me a response from the agency. The text set the tone for our future exchanges: Hey honey, yes we see disabled clients and lots of our workers are part of the [queer] community. What do you need? xx

They seem nice, they sent kisses.

Fuck. Am I really doing this, then?

Well, are you?

Argh. Yes. I think so… If I dictate, will you write the email? I know I can type but… argh…

Okay, I’ll sit here: Hi… oh, you’d say, Kia ora–

Yeah, yeah I would.

Are you gonna hit send or me?

I should. Done! Yay! Fuck- fuck- fuck.

This neatly avoids the years of consideration I gave this idea before acting on it. I tell it in a way that brushes over my own active part in the decision.

Wide-eyed 15-year-old me in a movie theatre watching some new drama about the women of the 1950s having a bleak lack of autonomy despite sunny veneers. The couple on screen have each other pushed up frantically, brutally, consensually – I think – against kitchen cabinets. I comprehend the desire I’m seeing on a gut level but have no words for it. My former teacher aide and now older-sister-type friend Harriet leans over almost instinctively. When you do that, for God’s sake just promise me you’ll find a bed. I am thrilled by this. What it suggests. The temporal implications of when, rather than if… if I ever do that, which I’d had hanging over me unexamined.

It’ll just be so much more comfortable, you know? I squeeze her hand in the dark as thanks.

Sixteen-year-old me nervously asking my mum if it hurt and her taking me to another film called The Sessions, and even though the Helen Hunt character calls herself a sex surrogate and says in it, You don’t have to pay me up front, I’m not a prostitute, I wondered if I could ever… pay someone.

At 18 I make a covert trip to go sex toy shopping. I leave my uni hall at night without being specific to anyone about my plans. I give the cab driver an address that almost-but-not-quite gets me to where I want to be. I am trying to avoid having to hear someone else’s opinions.

During another moment of bravery at 15 I took a taxi home from Rainbow Youth. The taxi driver felt he would share his opinion that my friends, who’d just helped him pack my wheelchair into his car, were weird. What else could that be about other than a boy, gleeful, giddy, with an arm draped around another boy’s waist. I said nothing. I needed the driver to be on my side when we arrived home and I asked for his help through my front door.

Now, I roll the rest of the way to the shop in my wheelchair. The paving in this part of town is smooth and I get over the curbs easily enough. I feel smug and successful in my mission until I am confronted by the unconsidered and inevitable: a single step of thick concrete. It is too high for me to get over on my own. I lean into the doorway as far as I can, into the bright lights. I can make out a cardboard cut-out, a woman advertising I’m not sure what – edible g-strings? I think there’s a retail worker there too, clothed.

Hello? I say and it comes out meekly.

I’m not quite committed to being heard. I want to be noticed on one side of the door frame and not the other. My wheelchair is precariously balanced at the best of times. I have brief visions of face-planting in the street. Will people notice where we are? Usually in these situations I would run through some names of people who might be around to help but that would blow my cover.

Deflated, I think of heading home when I hear the question I both want desperately to hear and dread hearing.

Do you need a hand?

My unlikely assistants are two men on bicycles. Unlike me they have chosen their wheels and, as part of night time road safety, they are aiming to be as visible as possible. I hold my breath and let myself be lifted into the shop. My body tenses until I am on the ground again under the lights.

The next year I will have my first girlfriend. Falling gently into the way “everyone else does it” made me forget about other options. So for a while after that ended there was nothing much, not knowing how to present my disability on dating profiles.

When I actually book for the first time, the desk asks me about my disability and the response flows easily. I have XXXXX and so my muscles react like XXXXXX. I can do XXXX and XXXXXXXX is too painful. There will be a support worker there to help me get ready. The question that is harder to answer is what I want. I want… I want… I want…

I tell them I don’t really have a plan apart from these practical considerations and they ask if I can talk. If I can talk independently, I can figure out “the nitty-gritty” with her then and there, otherwise we need a plan in writing ahead of time.

It makes sense. They need to be clear about consent, and I feel glad that they‘ve considered non-verbal clients as people needing access to this service. As someone who strangers regularly assume needs to be spoken for, I am momentarily tempted to write back, I speak three languages, actually. I type this out but can’t get the tone right, so I backspace.

Recognising that this is a genuine and practical question rather than ignorance of my abilities, I just respond, Yes, verbal communication is fine. I am thinking, I just need someone who won’t let disability freak them out.

A few days out from my first booking, a friend with industry experience offers calming words. If you’re nervous, just make out lots, that’s all my professional advice. I am grateful that her first impulse is to make me laugh about it because I have already cried.

It’s my support worker who much later says, You’re allowed to have preferences, you know. But initially, that’s an uncomfortable idea. There is a strangeness as an AFAB person being invited to objectify femme bodies. To want them on the basis of physical descriptors rather than intellectual ones, it takes some temporary, situational undoing. Up to this point anything has emerged from friendship rather than lust.

I had told myself this was how I wanted it. Make friends first. You want people who will care about you, understand you, want to be in it for the long haul. Told myself this was a superior kind of care. But in the end it is all care.

My own misconception about how sexuality could or should be part of my life was compounded by years of being asked, Can you even…? I guess you just lie there, right? Years of people who can see beyond the “how does that work” question still somehow saying, Oh yeah, nah, but casual wouldn’t suit you. It has felt like my job in so many interactions to make other people comfortable with my body, my emotions about my body, and their emotions about my body. In conversations, both with others and in my own head, my potential future lovers are always cast as extraordinary people much more ‘good’ or ‘caring’ than regular people. They would have to be.

On the night, she is beautiful, soft and lovely. She is possibly nervous herself, but only in a hello, new person way. Seemingly nothing about my body scares her, although she tells me to let her know if anything hurts. This is no doubt standard safety and consent, but I also wonder if I ushered some level of concern into the room myself through the way I had introduced my body, limitations and not desires first.

She is prepared to compliment my body, and so the standard self-deprecating crip jokes I came armed with don’t land with her. So I stop. Instead, I say, Thank you, and XXXXXX XXXX.

Desire isn’t something I am good at answering or admitting to when it arrives in the form of a direct and generous question. My body takes its familiar position as something to be negotiated and worked around. Disability precedes anything else. In order to show up here I had to describe my body, what it can and can’t do, didn’t I?

In this way, sharing this delicious revelation is a complicated thing. On the one hand, I want to tell people, claim the fact it is happening, claim the pursuit and joy of sexuality, let people know pleasure is a dimension to my life. I want to tell friends, I want to sing about it, and I especially want to tell medical people when they ask me about sex-u-al partners, not knowing whether to stretch the question out slowly so I know they are open-minded, or to rush past it apologetically. I am a new and unanswerable question when I show up in doctors’ offices for smear tests and protection.

How can we do this? I ask, and the answer comes, a note of surprise in their voice that’s all too familiar. You know, I’ve never thought about that before. I have never thought about you before. I want to give them details just to prove a point, to say with emphasis, My. Lovers. Did you get that? Put that on file.

And then, in another way, I just want to smile at them and know something they don’t. In many ways, my body has never been a completely private thing. Depending on support, every day I get used to explaining my body or chatting about other things over the top of the morning routine. So, afterwards when my support worker returns and asks me about it, it is easy to say that it

And they celebrate with me by saying, XXXXXX and then saying XXXXX.

My support worker and I continue to talk about it. It’s easy, partly because they have already seen me half-asleep or undressed as part of their job, partly because who they are makes me comfortable, and partly because I am not very practised at keeping myself closed off. I am practised instead at explaining, allowing people in, because it is practical.

Doing this without questioning who I want to see which things.

I still am learning that this kiss, this look, this touch, this time in my body, can be just mine. And if she likes, then hers too, but nothing beyond that – this moment belonging only to the people who are part of it, the bodies under the covers and no one else.

Articulations by Henrietta Bollinger (Tender Press, $28) can be purchased directly from Tender Press, and from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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