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How Romance Fiction Helped Me Thrive while living with a Chronic Illness

Writing by Jade May // photograph by Del.

In the eyes of the patriarchy, my body has been stripped of its allure. The intricate dance of sensuality, so often celebrated in movies and magazines, has become a foreign concept to me. Now, my body is inarguably ‘unsexy’, burdened with the challenges of living with chronic illness. In a world where an unwell woman is often painted as helpless, languishing, and sad, finding my way back to my womanhood seemed like an uphill battle. Little did I know that the pages of romance fiction would be the guiding light to help me reclaim my femininity and embrace my desires once again.

Living with Crohn’s Disease, a condition that affects over 100,000 Australians, has been an invisible struggle. It has woven its way into every facet of my life, from my social interactions to my work commitments, and even more poignantly, my personal relationships. For women like me, this condition can have a profound impact on self-esteem, body image, and sex drive. The toll it takes on the body, with its abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and urgent bathroom dashes, leaves little room for feeling sensual or attractive. The weight gain from medications and the scars from surgeries create a battlefield within us, amplifying the challenge of accepting our changed bodies.

In a world where the conversation around body positivity and self-love is gaining momentum, living with chronic illness can feel like a cruel contradiction. The path to self-acceptance is strewn with the remnants of a past self, a body that once danced through life with more ease. And yet, I discovered that it’s precisely through adversity that we can forge an even more intimate connection with ourselves.

Navigating the complexities of maintaining intimacy and a fulfilling sex life with a partner while battling chronic illness is far from simple. Fears of unforeseen bathroom emergencies and the gnawing worry of being physically incapable of meeting one’s partner’s needs often cloud the desire for intimacy. Yet, as human beings, we crave connection – emotional and physical. It’s a universal need that transcends ability or health status.

Society, however, tends to place people with disabilities or chronic illnesses in a box marked ‘asexual’. Our sexual feelings and desires are often invalidated, relegated to the shadows. This is an unfortunate misconception that isolates us further, making the journey towards intimacy even more challenging. This phenomenon isn’t confined to just chronic illness; it’s reminiscent of the shift that occurs when a woman becomes a mother – her identity suddenly reduced to a caregiver, often at the expense of her own sensuality.

As someone who has grappled with Crohn’s Disease since my early teenage years, finding ways to embrace my sexuality during moments of reprieve has been an empowering journey. Understanding the triggers that could lead to a flare-up and recognising the signs of impending distress allowed me to adapt my sexual rhythms accordingly. However, there were times when physical intimacy simply wasn’t feasible due to my condition’s severity.

During those dark days when illness held me captive, books became my refuge, particularly erotic romances. The pages of these stories offered a safe haven where I could explore my desires and sexuality through the eyes of the heroines. In this realm, I discovered the power of reading as a tool for self-discovery and acceptance. Erotic fantasies, vividly illustrated on the pages, allowed me to rediscover my femininity, granting me the courage to embrace my newfound desires. This literary escapade wasn’t merely personal; it inspired me to become a romance author, carving out a space where others could also explore their passions within the confines of a safe narrative.

Romance novels often find themselves at the center of debates surrounding feminism, yet they’ve become a beacon of empowerment for countless women. These stories, overwhelmingly consumed by women, have been unfairly dismissed as less intellectually substantial. However, the surge in romance novel sales – a staggering 77 percent increase in Australia between 2021 and 2022, according to Neilsen BookScan – speaks volumes about their impact. Romance fiction, in my perspective, democratises the exploration of sexual desires, offering a platform where women can experience pleasure on par with men, without judgment or restriction. Erotic romances, in particular, have played a pivotal role in helping women fully grasp and embrace their sexuality.

A woman recently reached out to me, sharing how “smutty” books became her lifeline, saving her from an oppressive religious upbringing and purity culture. This heartfelt account further solidified my belief in the power of erotic fiction to liberate, empower, and heal.

Contrary to the notion that chronic illness and femininity are at odds, my journey has revealed a profound connection between the two. Being unwell allowed me to see through the façade of female stereotypes, understanding them for the limitations they impose. The diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease prompted me to rediscover my strength within femininity, reaffirming that I could experience desire in ways that resonated with me.

In a world that often tries to strip women of their agency and desires, romance fiction stands as a testament to our right to explore and revel in our own sexuality. Through the pages of these novels, I found the means to reclaim my womanhood, not in spite of my chronic illness, but because of it. It’s a journey of self-discovery, one that is deeply personal and, in its own unique way, incredibly empowering.

Jade May

Jade May is an Australian romance author and chronic disease advocate. Her debut novel Tempted by Eden will be released on October 10 and is available online. You can follow her on Instagram @authorjademay

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