I have 67 dresses. 28 blouses. And, oh my lord 34 cardigans. But if I look at my app allowing me to log my wardrobe, my kind of shoes are possibly the most surprising thing in there. Why? Because I don’t walk. I’m a wheelchair user and have been since the age of 14.
I was ill as a kid, with dodgy bones and when that happens doctors tend to tell you stuff like you must wear flat brown school shoes for your own good. Let me tell you, I never wore those flat brown uglies. Black patent leather with a huge silver buckle was my kind of thing – at 10 years old.
I also have a small collection of bed f**k me shoes. My partner loves them, as did my previous two husbands. Husbands which, incidentally, were not meant to be a feature of my life as a disabled woman.
In fact, neither were the stilettos, the kitten heels, the leather bondage dress, the punky eyeliner. Or the sex. Definitely not the sex.
Those around me from medics to social workers, to the occasional embarrassed family member, treated it as the thing which has no name. Definitely not encouraged in any conversation and talked around only in rebuking euphemisms. So my adolescence was full of jabbing, halting conversations about my ‘down there’, my ‘unmentionables’ and the all-encompassing ‘female area’.
My lovely mum tried. We talked about ‘fanny’ and ‘hairy Mary’. But she had no idea about how I would fare in the big bad world. A world with its obscene obsession with judging those labelled different, measuring us against a reality of perfection that doesn’t exist.
But along with those shoes of my late childhood – and the cutest pink chequered mini-skirt – I collected books. And then more books on top of books. I went into a world unlike my own that offered a glimpse of who I could be.
I was an unhappy teenager stuck in a difficult family environment – for a while, we lived in a house that still had an outside toilet.
Change was inevitable once I asked a friend I’d made in hospital what ‘fornication’ meant. Many years later I put this moment into a poem:
Fornication what did it mean? Linda who was seventeen told me stuff they called obscene…. Linda tugged me by my shabby jumble sale skirt, told me to read a women’s mag and to learn how to masturbate. Revolution! She told me the ways and the hows. That it’s not just boys that wank. Girls do it. Disabled girls do it – even if they need to work out ways to reach, and even if the world says you don’t.
Books took me into feminism. I read Fear of Flying by Erica Jong and became obsessed with the ‘zipless fuck’ – that no strings interlude of sudden casual passion. I read the Women’s Room by Marilyn French – lots of women having lots of orgasms. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. I learned about C**t Power. And at least I now knew I had one and it was rather fun to play with.
I yearned for playmates. I yearned for boys, occasionally girls as ideas of bohemian life and freedom seeped into my blood. But the world insisted I stay where I am. The invalid at home with mother. Useless. In valid. No prospects. No space for desire and love.
I knew I would have sex. I’d find a way. Someone would help me, some punky guy whose politics of equality, of anarchism and freedom meant he would not be fazed that I didn’t walk, that bits of me didn’t move much. And I knew that it had to be in London, that somehow I would get there.
Meanwhile, at college I was made to train as a secretary, I was the only disabled girl and often the target of jokes. The one girl other girls used to tease boys about: that handicapped girl, she’s your girlfriend, she loves you haha. She’s your spastic lover.
My pen pal Tamsin managed to visit me in my rural outback in Buckinghamshire. All my friends existed within letters alone. And the constant writing, line by line, saw my world change. Letters went to everybody. David Bowie. Morrissey - who wrote back. Even the Pope. I found boys I fancied, writing to win them over to my bohemian ways before I dared tell them ‘the horror’ of my disability.
Through letters, Tamsin and I plotted our escape. We would live near her parents in East London. Together we were a whirlwind of mutual support, a wilful and fearless package of rebellion. We devoured those books upon books – still no access to the anything in the outside world – no transport, no toilets! We wrote together, talked on the phone for hours.
Discussed the latest Anais Nin diary, and frequently licked our lips over her amazing erotica for women. I read about politics and looked for disabled people who felt as renegade and angry as me. So the letters kept going, demanding action from social workers and charities that were meant to help us. Young disabled women did not live alone, what were we thinking? But after a long battle and help from surprising quarters, Tamsin and I moved to London.
I decided to lose my virginity. I’d read my wimmin books. Virginity was a construct of the patriarchy. I wanted nothing to do with it as a seeming commodity.
Besides, I wanted to take the plunge and have a really good f**k.
Alan and I worked it out. And I was lucky. I liked him but I didn’t want to be his girlfriend forever and ever in a fluffy clouds, picket fence, grow old together way. I loved Alan’s sense of humour – and this helped when we did it.
Humour is the key, and keeping in yourself somewhere that you are perfectly fine as a human being and you have an absolute right to enjoy sex however you choose to express it.
I wasn’t exactly thinking that when Alan tried to get on top of me. It hurt but we worked out with a laugh that I was too small and he was too much a great big lump to go banging away in your average missionary position.
It’s such a cliché but it’s all communication. Sex really does start in the head. Spooning was good, and variations involving me sitting on his lap, not to mention the use of a cushion or two.
The first time wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful. It was really funny.
I’d had to face a lot of prejudice to get to that point from those old fretting medics, and was aware that society at large was – still is – squeamish about disabled people having sex. About us needing contraception.
About the fact we want to have sex, whether we can feel – down there – and who on earth would want to have sex with us after all?
I’m a bit of a veteran at all this now and I can say with some authority, of hard-lived experience that those who express this uncomfortableness with disability and sex, often have a very limited view of sexual intimacy in all its marvellous and myriad forms.
I was interviewed by Boy George once about my erotica short story collection Desires. I suggested that sex should never merely be about two-minute vanilla copulation, and this perpetual view was at the root of the shock and confusion as to why, and very much as to the how disabled people had sex.
Darling George looked at me with his gorgeous eyes and voiced complete agreement: "Penny, you’re absolutely right."
I went on to write a sex guide for young disabled people and I’ve done a lot of what you might call 'sex stuff'. For me, it links back to those patent leather shoes of childhood and the mini-skirts of adolescence.
It was all about how I felt inside my skin, and often out of fear within ourselves, it seems a common and cruel past time for human beings to judge other human beings. We all do it at one time or another. But a person is a person. It’s in our brain, our blood, our heart to get sexy and maybe to get loving.
I love my body even on the days I proclaim I hate it for a second or two.
It’s been a long journey but I’m proud of making it this far – of having a fair bit of sex along the way - and a lot of love. I wish I could tell my teenage self to hang on, to keep on track with listening to you - not them out there.
You’re OK, whoever you want to be. Keep your dreams. And wear whatever kind of shoes you want! I love my quirky little feet, most especially when I’m squeezing them into a pair of cute Jimmy Choos.
This story originally appeared on The Debrief.