Erin Clark is an unstoppable force. She is fierce in a way that forces people to notice, unapologetic in claiming her space in the world. She is a brilliant writer and a World Champion pole athlete. She’s paraglided in Spain and skied down mountains in Canada. She also happens to use a wheelchair.
When I started following the popular @erinunleashes account on Instagram a little over a year ago, I was blown away and a little jealous. Who was this woman who lived so boldly, in all the ways I was too scared to do? I think you’ll learn in this interview that Erin is a woman who doesn’t shy away from her disability, nor does she try to “overcome” it. Her introspection on her life and disability is a stunning vista of what our lives might be when, in her words, we turn our fear into curiosity.
Enjoy the inaugural post on the Disabili-tea page, as we spill the tea on advocacy, sex, and adventure with Erin Clark.
First, thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. I know your life as a globe trotting, international sex icon is a busy one! So let’s start there. I’ve seen you mention, both on Instagram and in your writing, the importance of being in control of your narrative. Did the sex icon moniker originate from that idea?
Thank you for inviting me to be part of Disibili-tea!
Actually, it was the other way around. I came to understand and engage with the importance of being in control of your narrative after sex icon started.
My friend and performance partner Laura Von Holt and I attended the same aerial silks class, twice a week in New York city. I lived about ten blocks away, enough distance that I would frequently show up in class with another story of someone who was so proud of me for being outside, crossing the street on my own. One day, I remember someone actually grabbing the frame of my chair and kneeling in front of me to have ‘a moment’ over how much I inspired them. I remember recounting that story and someone saying, ‘But they’re being nice. You are inspiring.” And me saying, “If someone you didn’t know, physically grabbed you and forced you to talk to them. Would you care what they wanted to tell you after that?” I was furious at how impossible it seemed to communicate how violating and assaulting it felt in the first place. And then how painful and alienating it was to find that the people around me, people I thought of as peers and friends, didn’t seem to think it mattered whether or not I was awarded the same basic level of respect and autonomy they expected for themselves.
One day, Laura and I were walking home from class when she said, “I have been thinking about it. And I’ve solved your life. The next time someone says, OH MY GOD! You are SO inspiring! Just look them dead in the eye and say, Yes, but do you think I’m sexy?”
It was genius. And liberating. And so dark.
When people were interrupting me to tell me how inspiring I was, they were objectifying me. I was experiencing what other women experience when they get cat-called and then told they should be flattered.
Being objectified sexually was a step up. At least I was being treated as a woman. At least I had peers.
Instead of using the line in real life, Laura and I used the concept in our shows. In place of ever referencing my disability or wheelchair I referred instead to my sex appeal. I was making the point, through the character of a Sex Icon, that my wheelchair is as superficial a defining quality of me as sex appeal is for other women.
It was also powerful to superimpose a wheelchair and sex appeal. A wheelchair is considered the universal symbol of powerlessness and confinement. Sex appeal is considered a form of power and liberation. To make them interchangeable opened up the realm of narrative possibilities. You don’t overcome sex appeal, you use it. I do the same with my wheelchair. I would do the same, as an artist, with my disability.
Over time, Sex Icon became more of a metaphor than a character, and the people reading me and coming along on my adventures started to use it to refer to moments of pleasure, moments of confidence and well-being, moments of solitude and self-awareness. It morphed into something rich and complex through the relationship and intimacy with my audience. Which to me is entirely the reason for being in control of your own narrative. Not to be rigidly in resistance, but to be in authentic relationship, to be changed and to influence change.
On the topic of sex, in your digital memoir, Love All the Way, you write in beautiful and graphic detail about a sexual encounter after a tense photo shoot. (It is seriously hot, people! Read it here.) You’re so self assured and present in that passionate moment. What advice would you give to other disabled women to allow that full presence, to focus on the pleasure our bodies are experiencing rather than the technical aspects of how we’re going to move, the physical limitations, etc.?
Being able bodied is not a prerequisite to passion. Attention and surrender is.
One of the elements I deliberately included in the story was how almost every encounter Mau and I had before we had sex involved a lot of working out the technical aspects of physical interaction, right from the first moment we met when he was carrying my around, then helping me catheterize in the mountains.
A certain amount of natural chemistry made the constant negotiation of our body mechanics pleasurable instead of clinical, but we weren’t shy about being explicit either. In one of the videos from the photo shoot that is included in the piece, you can see me spend, like, 2 minutes just describing precisely where he should place his leg before he picks me up. Then we practice the lift over and over again to work out what position will translate the best for the photo we’re trying to recreate. We spent hours and hours where he was just grasping and holding my legs in certain ways for us to grab a pose. So, when he was grasping and holding my legs to go down on me later, he was very practiced.
One of my goals in writing the story was to show how the technical aspects of my body were an essential part of the romance and connection. I don’t know for him, but for me certainly, the way he figured me out, fit me against him, handled my chair, the way he blurred lines between ‘helping’ me and expressing affection for me was part of my attraction to him.
I didn’t have to leave my disability to participate in our intimacy. And that really turned me on.
It’s not about separating the mechanics and keeping them out of your mind. It’s about including them the entire time. The whole relationship. In all kinds of contexts, sexual and non sexual. Building a physical vocabulary between you and your partner.
I find it sexy that we can’t rely on the standard expressions of desire, we have to find our own way to each other. It intensifies the intimacy in a unique way. Some of what we shared won’t translate to another lover. Not for him or for me.
At one point, we were posing for Casablanca and he said, in a low voice, just for me to hear, “I like how my hand is on you and your wheelchair at the same time.”
That’s one of the sexiest things anyone has ever said to me.
An important part to all of this is that, in order to be able to create new expressions and physical interactions with a lover, in order to be able to share the mechanical process with him, I had to have a pretty solid frame of reference for myself. I had to know how my body worked, what it’s limits were, how I liked to be carried, how to help me do certain things, where I liked to be touched.
Being able to stay present for me, happens entirely through my senses. I feed my body sensation. Without worrying about orgasm or sex. I touch myself, I move around, I dance, I sport, I feel. I know my own mechanics and what makes me feel good. Don’t wait for a partner. Make your body your own. Then, when you share it, you won’t lose it.
Don’t underestimate the mystery of chemistry. The part that made kissing him make my mind explode and kissing someone else just kind of nice, isn’t under our control. It’s not under anyone’s control. Often, when we have disabilities, we assume we will never make anyone’s mind explode. And in… retaliation?… we stop letting it matter to us if who we are kissing is making our mind explode. Maybe we’re trying to keep things fair. I had a LOT of casual sex with people who were very nice and very considerate but who didn’t make me gooey just by looking at me before I realized that that gooey feeling is a big part of what gives me pleasure. I, personally, need it.
I had to learn, retrain myself, to allow goo to happen at all. All those barriers I’d built to protect myself from rejection, to deal with the fact that I was considered undateable by my entire society. I was going to have to find a way to let myself cross those boundaries, risk it without a guarantee. Let myself participate in – not control – sexual intimacy – which is different than just sexual activity. It took me a very long time to work that all out for myself. But it was worth it.
Finally, and I say this because I know it’s important, not because I’m necessarily good at it, try and remember that it’s not all about you.
We carry this huge baggage of our disabled experiences with us into our relationships. The fear of rejection, the doubt of your partner’s sincerity, every single time we received the message that no one would ever want us – that all takes up so much space in our heads and hearts that it’s easy to forget that when you’re someone’s lover, you are there for them, too.
Even if they don’t have a disability, they have shit making them feel insecure, and doubtful and scared. They don’t have the have answers. They don’t have the magic words to save you and make you love yourself. They are just themselves trying to love and be loved despite every reason to just shut down or run away. You have what they need as much as they have what you need. Attention, acceptance, affection, connection, trust, presence, love. This is what makes relationships essential and excruciating. We can’t do it alone, but we will almost inevitably get hurt together. So, expect it to be imperfect and don’t let your self-consciousness keep you stingy, and tense. Play your way around it, let yourself be vulnerable so that you can grow and learn.
Ideally, get naked with people who stick around, so you have time for all of this to unfold and evolve and deepen.
You’ve lived in some unique and beautiful places. You seem to soak up each place you call home until you’re wringing out experiences like fat drops of water. You’ve paraglided, been a World Champion pole dancer, and climbed a mountain in Spain. Recently while at home in Canada, you participated in adaptive skiing. Now you’re in Namibia, and we’re all anxiously awaiting to see what adventures you have there. What has been your experience in advocating for yourself in places unfamiliar, and what advice would you give other wheelchair users about breaking out of our bubbles and trying things that scare us?
I’m actually writing about risk and my disability in the memoir I’m working on right now.
Anytime I leave a familiar routine, there is the possibility (near certainty) of encountering a big fat obstacle. Strangely, it’s not usually my body barring me from carrying on, but people in positions of authority who need to be talked into taking a ‘risk’ and letting me carry on.
Most of my life has been shaped by me talking people into making an exception for me so I can do what I want to do. Get on a plane, ride a horse, do a certain job. Basic activities and extreme ones all often start at the same place. With me begging to be allowed.
What’s interesting to me about that is that there often isn’t any actual physical risk involved. There is fear, based on an idea other people have about what I can and can’t do, based on how I look, which gets turned into a policy.
Sometimes, no matter how right you are about what you can do, you don’t win. You get left out. And it sucks. But, there is a lot of room to negotiate when you realize that most of what you’re scared of and what they’re scared of isn’t real.
Most things are just not dangerous. And, if they are, experience and knowledge can reduce quite a lot of the risk. Risk and fear are more mindsets than facts. They’re malleable.
Most of what I do in my life are things that scare me or things that please me. Either I know I can do it and that I will enjoy it. Or I don’t know if I can do it and I want to try and see what I learn. Fear makes me curious. And my experience talking people into letting me do things they think are risky has made me bold.
My advice is let your fear make you curious. Know your resources, your personality traits, physical capacities and limits. Use them. Use them right up. Let yourself see a bigger picture than anyone around you. Show others that vision. Keep showing it to people. You will meet others who think the ‘risk’ is fun, who will learn with you. Who will be overjoyed to be counted as your asset. Some of them will be total strangers you will never see again.
The adventure is in showing up. Venture out. Little by little, if you must. Each border you cross will make your bravery bigger. Earn your own trust and confidence and then use it to talk other people into letting you do what you want and joining in the fun if they are also brave.
One of the aspects I loved about Love All the Way was fawning over all of the gorgeous, old Hollywood themed photos. It seemed so natural, your poses in your wheelchair with your handsome leading man. But in our reality, disabled people are rarely represented in media as anything other than tragic or inspirational. What are your thoughts on tragedy/inspiration porn? Do you think we’re heading toward an era where a disabled person will be portrayed as a three dimensional character?
My thoughts on inspiration/tragedy porn are that it may go ahead and fade away. It’s just so unimaginative and pointless. I have moved solidly into being completely bored by it.
When the photo shoot was just an idea, I had no doubt that there was a way to capture the intensity of desire and romance without my wheelchair diminishing it. Both visually and narratively. Aside from it just being a super fun way to have an affair, the point of that photo shoot was to prove it could be done, that disability could be represented outside the inspiration/tragedy tropes.
I could go on for ages about my artistic intents with that project. And how they got all mixed up in my personal feelings for my lover. Which made the story so much richer than the wheelchair had anything to do with. And how that, in and of itself, makes the point about how a character with a disability can be represented in a multi-dimensional way beyond the narrative structure normally associated with disability.
There’s no excuse in my eyes for all this lazy storytelling or using disability as a lazy metaphor. So, yes. We’re headed in the direction of better and more nuanced storytelling – we have to keep telling our stories better than they are being told about us.
I love every moment I get to contribute to storytelling that pries open the dimensions in the way disability is represented in our cultures and our stories.
I would also like to add this. Recreating those images was entirely unnatural. It took a lot of choreography, posing and re-posing. Sitting uncomfortably. At one point, the photographer was like half upside down across the arm of the couch in order to get a wide enough shot so my chair showed. But that is also true of all the romance we see in mainstream media.
The end product comes after rehearsals and reshoots and lighting and the ability to tweak the elements endlessly and zoom in on specific parts, until they have captured exactly what they want to show.
We see this gorgeous, enviable, end result and compare ourselves to it. Able-bodied or disabled. And we don’t measure up. Because it’s literally staged. No romance is effortlessly cinematic in real life.
Mau and I wanted it to look and feel cinematic because that means something to us, but we had to work at it to make that actually happen. He literally hired a professional hairdresser and photographer. We were wearing costumes. Pretending to be other people. We weren’t just caught unaware in front of a modern-design fireplace and love ensued. I am both cautioned and inspired by that.
Don’t take the fantasy too seriously. And. Still. Make the love you want.
I think every wheelchair user has a trick or two up our sleeves, something we’ve learned to do a little differently to make our world a little less limited. What’s something you’ve learned that you would like to pass onto other wheelchair users?
Ha. Ok… If someone asks me how I do something, I can usually break it down… But otherwise, I never think of it… My wheelchair feels like a second skin to me. BUT! One thing I did do very deliberately after enough really awful experiences was start to order wheelchairs without push handles. So people can’t push me against my will. Changed my life and my sense of ease out in public drastically. Annoys the crap out of everyone else! 😉
Thank you again for answering my questions for the inaugural Disabili-tea post. Do you have any upcoming projects we should keep eye out for?
My pleasure! It was an honor to be asked and your questions are so great! Thank you.
I am currently working on a memoir about how taking risks and pursuing independence inspired me to learn how to paraglide, only to teach me more about intimacy, trust and interdependence than I would have imagined.
I’ll be updating my Instagram with my adventures and travels and selfies in the meantime, as usual :).