my litany of pleasure for a body in pain

Marissa Spear
Content Warnings
Sexual content
"As a scientist, a lapsed Catholic, and a writer I know I inhabit a multitude of contradictions..."
Dec 28, 2020 9:51 PM

As a scientist, a lapsed Catholic, and a writer I know I inhabit a multitude of contradictions. The state of my chronically ill body and the work I do in community health relies on the consistency of science and its room for possibility. As the famed X-Files heroine Dana Scully says: “Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it. And that’s a place to start. That’s where the hope is.”[1] The writer and lapsed Catholic in me is drawn to the history and metaphors religion lives inside. As poet and writer Molly McCully Brown describes, “I’m attracted to ritual.” It seems fitting then that I found solace in the X-Files, a show which places Scully (played by the incomparable Gillian Anderson) at its center. She is a pathologist, an investigator, a Catholic, a survivor of cancer and medical maltreatment, and the queen of rolling her eyes at the idiocy of men. The internet has even donned her Our Lady of Skepticism, complete with accompanying prayer candles. My discovery of the X-Files coincided with the peak of my chronic pain and it’s what I relied on in all the uncertainty.

At the time, I was so immersed in my pain, so uncomfortable in my body and even more confused about what my pain would mean for my sexuality. Watching the X-Files through days and nights of excruciating pain gave me something to cling to. It felt comforting to know that someone was out there (even metaphorically), searching for the truth.

Our Lady of Skepticism, pray for me.

It sounds quite far-fetched, but the X-Files is the reason I finally received a diagnosis for my endometriosis. Following Anderson on Twitter led me to a book she reviewed by Abby Norman, Ask Me About My Uterus. Norman like me, found the perpetual nighttime feeling of the X-Files intimate and soothing while in pain. She writes, “My body was not an X-File,”[2] echoing my own need for whatever was living inside of me to not be unexplainable. I longed for a time when the intricacies of my body would not be relegated to a dark, musty basement file cabinet, a day when I could spread images of my organs out on a desk, proving my theories with every bit of evidence. Although the plausibility of endometriosis hovered over much of my childhood, not until I read Norman’s book was I able to name my symptoms as such. Her resources and advocacy gave me the push I needed to pursue a diagnosis from the appropriate medical professionals.

With that diagnosis, though, came grief. Not only was I grieving the diagnosis, but the particular symptoms my body manifested, among others, painful sex. I was grieving the life that could have been, grieving my inability to have pleasurable sex, and left wondering what this would mean for intimacy in my life.

Our Lady of Skepticism, hold my sorrows.

The sin of sex and masturbation, in particular, felt like a guiding tenant of my Catholic upbringing. Catholic sex education obscured the reality of masturbation for women in service of procreation. Years later, I still could not separate masturbation, the forbidden fruit, from the fact that my pain felt like retribution for my previous sexual experiences. I was Eve, whose temptation and sin were punished by the pain of childbirth, more aptly the pain of menstruation. I could not make sense of this interplay between pain and pleasure, that the two lived inside of me, encapsulated in these small organs, that it seemed like I could not have one without the other. I wondered if I could ever reconcile the fact that the source of my body’s pleasure was also the source of my body’s pain. As Brown writes, how could I “adhere to a religion [in this case, sex] whose most central rituals my body won’t even let me perform?”

Our Lady of Skepticism, make sense of this contradiction.

As I neared closer and closer to the end of my X-Files binge, I started to discover the world of X-Files fanfiction. I wanted to hold onto those characters because entering their world allowed me to leave my own, even for small snippets of time. I would search Tumblr and Archive of Our Own for hours, finding the most popular stories and writers, bookmarking them for later. Similar to the perpetual nighttime of watching the X-Files, reading hours of stories became a ritual, the first time in 12 hours I did not think about my pain.

Reading X-Files fanfiction is how I learned what pleasure could look like in my sick body. In much of my grief around painful sex I wondered if I was demisexual. I struggled to feel okay about intimacy in any sense. Even witnessing friends in relationships left me angry and frustrated. Explaining the limits of my body to the people closest to me felt terrifying, so how could I even begin to explain it to possible sexual partners?

Our Lady of Skepticism, be my guide.

Reading about Mulder and Scully and their emotional intimacy made everything okay. Their relationship felt like the first honest portrayal of what I imagined for myself. Their quiet intimacy made me feel safe. The exchange of a look, a placement of Mulder’s hand on Scully’s back, a gentle kiss on the forehead, the grasping of their hands in moments of sadness, the steadfast presence of the other at their respective hospital bedsides. Maybe this is what intimacy would amount to for me? It did not have to look like overt displays of romantic affection or sexual attraction. It could be this profound chemistry that ebbed and flowed from partnership to friendship to flirtation but was not solely predicated on a sexual relationship.

Our Lady of Skepticism, be my security.

Feeling safe in these characters and this complete and utter trust they had for each other made it possible for me to experiment with what pleasure looked like for myself. I began to masturbate to X-Files fanfiction. There was never a doubt in MSR (Mulder/Scully relationship) fanfiction as it’s called that these two characters respected each other. With that safety net, I felt able to experiment beyond what I previously thought I liked about sex. Femme writers dominate MSR fanfiction and Scully is headstrong, so women’s pleasure always seemed to take center stage.

I identified with specific stories that explored the arc of Scully’s desires amidst cancer treatments. Her longing for her body to not to be defined solely by illness mirrored my own. With each story, I began to learn about all the ways sex could be good, of all the ways bodies could be good. So much of that time was dominated by a desperation to dissociate, to remove myself from a body that had betrayed me. Story by story, my body began to feel mine again. X-Files fanfiction let me see my sick body as worthy of desire.

Our Lady of Skepticism and Pleasure, give me hope.

Masturbation then, became a new kind of ritual. It was not a ritual of obscurity, but rather of reclamation, of ownership, of possibility. Don’t get me wrong, masturbation often still caused pain. While I knew penetration was painful, even any kind of external stimulation or orgasm left me aching and in agony for hours, even days afterwards. But there was a power in being able to choose pleasure and by extension, how and why I was in pain. Even those fleeting moments of pleasure felt sacred, for this intimacy too, was a kind of veneration.

Almost two years have passed since my diagnosis. In December of 2018 I received laparoscopic excision for my endometriosis, a costly and inequitable treatment for the disease. It has greatly reduced my daily pain, but it is by no means a cure. Excision brought a slew of other chronic diagnoses, born of years of inflammation and doctors who passed me along for ten years. Masturbation now does not always cause the intense aching that I felt prior to surgery. Penetrative sex is still painful and must be mitigated by lots of tools and communication. I feel much more confident in my body now. I am able to speak to what sex and pleasure look like for me very openly, but sexual encounters with others are few and far between mostly due to the exhausting amount of work and trust it takes for me to feel emotionally safe enough to broach the physical aspect.

The irony here is that today Anderson graces our screens as sex therapist Dr. Jean Milburn on the Netflix hit Sex Education in which she empowers all of us to explore our sexualities and know our bodies intimately. In season 2 of the series, a young woman seeks out Milburn’s advice because the teenager does not share her peers’ desire for sex. Milburn responds: “Sex doesn’t make us whole, and so, how could you ever be broken? [emphasis added]”[3] Anderson articulated the very thing that X-Files fanfiction had taught me in the midst of my pain: that my inability to experience sex and pleasure in a specific way because of my condition did not make me or my body broken.

Our Lady of Skepticism and Pleasure, I honor you.

This union of masturbation and fanfiction became my ritual, a blessing to a body longing for something other than pain. Fanfiction gave me the space to explore the ways in which I could be capable of both giving and receiving pleasure. My ability or inability to experience pleasure did not make me any less worthy or deserving of the kind of intimacy I longed for. This union reminds me that I too am one body, made up of many parts. I am deeply and utterly alive, and I am allowed to hold all of these contradictions together: the pleasure tangled up with all of the pain.

[1] Quoted in Abby Norman, Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain (New York: Bold Type Books, 2008), 42.

[2] Norman, Ask Me About My Uterus, 42.

[3] Sex Education, “Episode 2.4.” Directed by Alice Seabright. Written by Laurie Nunn and Rosie Jones. Netflix, January 17, 2020.