THE SETUP: A photographer friend (who has asked to remain anonymous) has asked me to model for sexual consent certification material for autistic people. He was commissioned by an autism educational outreach center (who also wish to remain anonymous) to provide images for their sexual education curriculum; these images include everything from examples of dirty and soiled pads and tampons to detailed shots of adult genitalia. I will be providing the latter. As sexual consent laws vary from state to state, it is important that autistic individuals know their rights; in some states, having sex with an autistic person is punishable as statutory rape (the reason being that an autistic person’s mental age may not be commensurate with their physical age). The guide that my friend is working on will allow autistic individuals to learn and become certified for consent so that they may enjoy healthy adult sex lives as they choose. I will be posing nude to demonstrate a female body, including vulva and vagina. I will be compensated for my cooperation. I think this is a great cause, and I am honored that the photographer asked for my help. On the other hand, I am somewhat terrified. What’s it like to have a camera pointed directly at your genitals? This is my account of the day my vagina became an educational resource.
8:00 AM: The photographer and I will be meeting at a rehearsal space in Midtown Manhattan at 10 am. I’m going to take a really good shower. Should I shave…for clarity? Will my bush obscure the business? If I shave, am I contributing to unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies? This isn’t porn. I’m just supposed to be an Average Vajoe! But my labia might form someone’s entire opinion on labia! My labia should speak for all labia! No, no it shouldn’t. Labia are unique, like fleshy snowflakes. I don’t want razor burn. I settle for a neat trim. I apply scented lotion on my legs. I smell fresh, like flowers and pineapples and baby powder.
8:30 AM: I opt for “natural”-looking makeup (on my face, not my vulva) in lieu of my usual winged eyeliner and red lipstick. My “no makeup” look consists of tinted moisturizer, concealer, powder, eyebrow pencil, eyebrow gel, eye shadow, a little bit of eyeliner, mascara, and lip balm. I was not, as they say, born with it.
8:45 AM: What to wear? Again, I’m supposed to be just a “regular gal.” Actually, he didn’t tell me to look any sort of way, so why am I assuming I should? I put on a pair of simple cotton underwear and a bra. I consider a pair of black lace panties. I pack them in my purse, along with another bra. I wear jeans, sneakers, and a black t-shirt. My chest tattoo peeks over the top of the shirt. I wonder I I should cover it up. I decide that if the photographer asked me to model knowing that I’m tattooed, it must be okay. I feel like a jerk.
9 AM: Nail polish! I have chipped red polish on my nails and decide I should remove it.
9:05 AM: Oh god, my feet are so horrible. They’re like gnarled wooden troll feet. I clip my toenails. I put my sneakers back on (Author’s note: At no point in the photo shoot did the photographer capture my bare feet).
9:05-9:30 AM: Debate whether or not I want to share what I’m doing today with my Facebook friends. Type out a status that reads “Getting paid to show my vagina today!” Delete exclamation point. Delete entire thing.
9:35 AM: Leave the house. Text photographer to let him know that I anticipate train trouble and may be running late. In reality, I anticipate needing to stop for coffee, but sure enough, the train gets stuck in the tunnel. I look around the crowded subway car at everyone, on their way to work. Usually I wonder where they work or what they’re doing if they’re not working, where they’re headed. This morning I wonder about their sex lives.
9:50: I arrive in the neighborhood where the shoot is taking place. I stop for coffee and a bagel so that I will be (more)pleasant. I arrive at the studio a mere five minutes late. The room we’re shooting in has huge windows facing a barbed wire fence. The photographer lets me eat as he sets up. I explain my panty situation to him and he laughs.
10:?? AM: The shoot begins. He has me start off fully clothed, making different facial expressions to convey different emotions. He takes a couple shots with my jacket on, then off, hair up, hair down, sipping coffee, eating a bagel, sitting in a chair, looking out the window, reading a book, talking on my cell phone. Then he says, “Okay. You ready?” and without wasting a moment to think about it, I pull my shirt off. We take a few shots in my underwear; I change panties and bras. Then he has me get completely undressed. I am less nervous than I anticipated. I look down at my soft nipples and will them to harden. Is that inappropriate? I ask him to tell me about the project he’s shooting for. He tells me about the educational center that commissioned him and what their mission is with this project. I’ve always been interested in doing sex work for disabled people, but as I listen to him talk, I realize that I actually know very little about it. I think about when I was going through puberty, how desperate I was for information about sex despite my fear of acting on my urges. I sit in a borrowed chair and express my concern for the next person who will use it. I make a conscious effort not to look sexy or porny. I start to suck in my stomach, then let it out. The photographer turns the lights up to an almost-antiseptic brightness and has me sit on the ground with my legs spread. I wonder if he can smell my vagina. I wonder what it smells like. I wonder how many other vulvas he has photographed and how my vulva compares. I think my private parts are probably average, then remind myself that there is no “average vagina.” I smile. He tells me I don’t have to smile. “I think that they should know I’m smiling even if they can’t see my face,” I respond. I used to work at a fast food drive-thru and my boss would say that the customers could hear if we were smiling through the speakers. He takes some shots from behind. I look straight ahead at the wall. He asks me to bend over slightly. I did not account for how much more awkward this would be.
After what seems like hours but is actually minutes, he puts the lens cap on the camera and declares that he’s got what he needs. He shows me his new fisheye lens camera and asks if I’d be comfortable shooting some “fun nudes.” “You can be yourself. It’s okay,” he assures me. I explain that I had wanted to be a “good role model” for sexuality and he laughs and tells me that he knew from the first time he took my picture (a photo in which I wore pasties and fellated a glitter-spackled chainsaw) that I was a fine sexual role model. I put on my leather jacket and tease my hair a little. I pout and push my ass out. I feel like an idiot. Around 12:30, he folds 5 crisp $20 bills in my hands and thanks me.
2:30 PM: At home later, I remember putting my naked butt on a random chair, and begin to gently hyperventilate. I take another shower. Back in my room, I place a small mirror between my legs and examine myself. I remember the first time I ever saw my own genitals- I thought they looked exactly like Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation and I was pretty certain that I was some sort of unfuckable freak. I would go on to think that sort of thing many times, for various reasons, not always having to do with my wrinkled labia. I’ve come a long way from that. I feel good about what I see. I’m still working on liking my face, but I now appreciate my vagina for what it can do and feel rather than worry about what it looks like. At 5’4 and with an inability to smile with my eyes (or really, my mouth), I may not be America’s Next Top Model material, but I did alright today.
AFTERWORD: I’m not having any fleeting or crippling bouts of regret about the shoot (well, except for when I thought about that chair). I did the right thing. I can’t always say that. I think about spending the $100 I made on some fancy new lingerie, to reward my body for a job well done, but decide instead to save it. I have the autism center’s name written on a napkin, and I save that too. I think that someday I’d like to visit them, meet some of the students, make a donation—and buy a copy of their sexual consent handbook to show my grandkids someday.