What is vulnerability?
Is vulnerability, like a limb, a tail or an organ, something that’s part of the make-up of a person? A biological, chemical, pharmaceutical proposition with matching offerings? An easy-to-skip portion of a chapter in a text book, much like anatomical drawings of the human reproductive system? Teach it or don’t, study it or don’t, name the part or not, brush it away, lose it, abuse it, don’t tell the children, hide the flaccidity that they call dysfunction, feel the shame, flee the pain, and never speak of unspeakables? It is rare to find vulnerability discussed in a text book, certainly not a school-level text book, though the description of the human reproductive system has been there for decades, bored, boring, always ready to be skipped over. Yet sexuality is a core aspect of being. The human reproductive system is really just one, in-your-face component of the large picture puzzle of sexuality. It is often the only component allowed onstage. In text books or out, in family conversations or in community and public spaces. The rest of the components have to struggle to reclaim their roles in the script. And what of vulnerability? That does not even have an accepted anatomy to sketch, print and ignore. The component parts are hiding in the blank white space of a drawing sheet.
Of vulnerability and sexuality, the dog that bites
Vulnerability as a concept may feel more tangled than sexuality when approaches to both concepts are compared, but it is when the two are brought together that the power of both expands beyond the edges we see. To chase down our own vulnerabilities around sexuality is a short run around the corner, five minutes ago, last night sleeping alone, with a lover, a partner who lost interest, the Insta post that leaves you feeling you’re not good enough for the hug, the kiss, the cuddle and are you perhaps the A of LGBTQIA+? It is possible that most people don’t chase after their vulnerabilities around sexuality though. Would that not be like running after the dog that bites? Hear the advice self gives to self, let it go, leash it in the backyard of mind, heart, transactions, negotiations and conversation.
One finds, if one looks, that the complex nature of vulnerability is increasingly informing our understanding of the concept across thematic areas of concern, study and intervention. So for example, this article on reducing disaster risk points out: “Vulnerability can be a challenging concept to understand because it tends to mean different things to different people and because it is often described using a variety of terms including ‘predisposition’, ‘fragility’, ‘weakness’, ‘deficiency’ or ‘lack of capacity’.”
A quick search online throws up many connections between vulnerability and a wide variety of themes of study, research and practice. For example, in disaster management, from the same article referred to earlier: “Vulnerability is the human dimension of disasters and is the result of the range of economic, social, cultural, institutional, political and psychological factors that shape people’s lives and the environment that they live in.” There’s healthcare: “Patients suffer from diseases, which constitutes physical vulnerability, they experience emotional distress, and their situation often comprises cognitive uncertainty. To address vulnerability, its forms, and its ethical significance, then, is to address one of the most central characteristics of providing and receiving care in healthcare. Given this observation, it must come as a surprise that the concept of vulnerability does not play a major role in medical ethics.” This surprise at the absence or bit part given to vulnerability may not be limited to healthcare alone. There’s vulnerability and philosophy: “In philosophy, vulnerability describes the ways in which people are less self-sufficient than they think. It explains how factors beyond our control – like other people, events, and circumstances – can impact our ability to live our best lives.” The concept of vulnerability as applied to family: “The term “vulnerable families” refers to familial living situations that are considered problematic, with a particular need for socially responsible, professionally provided support. This means of categorising families is extremely ambivalent, indicating not only a need for society to support forms of family life and family achievements, but also a particular need to protect children growing up within the family.”
So one finds that the word vulnerable, is most often used to describe a sense of weakness or a perception of threat, ‘being vulnerable to’ a force stronger than the one who is vulnerable. This leads to understanding vulnerability in a muscle, strength and health way, an approach that places a negative value upon vulnerability. There is talk of emotional vulnerability more recently, and of the role of this in relationships: “It is only through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable that we can understand, feel empathy, forgive each other, and know that we are worthy of love and belonging”, and further, a gender lens carefully used to look at men and women, “Generally speaking, emotional vulnerability is different for men than it is for women. More accurately, it differs for those who identify as male or female, largely due to social and cultural expectations of these genders.” So, is vulnerability an experience resulting from the interaction of multiple factors, the way one approaches disability? Money, education, family background, social capital, intellectual ability, age, gender identity, health status, religion, caste, class, occupation, marital status, emotional state of being, all these factors, and the list is not exhaustive, influence the degree of vulnerability of a person. Yet, most people return to an easy formulaic understanding that reduces the concept of vulnerability to having and not having, being one thing rather than another, male-female, young-old, rich-poor. So, for example, popular usage of the word vulnerability would be in the context of insurance policies, ageing or a woman walking home late in the night, a much favoured setting for many a crime show. Not having insurance makes you vulnerable to the cost of illness, ageing makes you vulnerable to everything anyone decides you are vulnerable to and the woman walking home late in the night doesn’t need anything descriptive after the word ‘woman’, for a woman is perceived by many, to be vulnerable, anywhere and to everything. So perhaps there are myths and misunderstood aspects attached to vulnerability.
At this well-known TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, the much-loved, much-quoted Brené Brown (self-described at the same talk as a researcher-storyteller) said, “I sent something out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, “How would you define vulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?” And within an hour and a half, I had 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what’s out there. Having to ask my husband for help because I’m sick, and we’re newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people. This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.”
Safety, an oft-used lens passed around for viewing and managing vulnerability. Also for managing sexuality
What happens if we take a step back to look at the component pieces of this vast expanse? One of the key pieces is this: safety.
Brené Brown takes the conversation into spaces that must be lit. She says: “The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage. When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome?’ When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?’”
Safety is often so erected as to become an overwhelming, insurmountable barrier to experiencing, exploring and living out a positive, self-affirming sexuality.
Are we ever fully seen, clothed or naked, shaven or hairy, barefoot, fears and ribcage showing, hungry for the unknown, invisible desires and dreams that hide in the territory of sexuality?
Seen by anyone?
Seen even by ourselves?
We who need to be taught to use a mirror between parted legs and see what our genitals look like?
Does that thought make a reader uncomfortable?
Could it be vulnerability?
Where is this vulnerability located? Between our ears or between those legs?
Safety is a very satisfying concept to explore. Oddly responsible for being extremely restrictive, as opposed to the feeling that being safe should free you up to do and be. This is a sort of a false promise in the ways in which we have translated safety in our lives, doings and beings. Safety is presented as the reason why you may not do far more than you may do. It isn’t safe to show your body, show your breasts, mention that you have them, express your feelings, voice your thoughts, walk hand in hand with your lover or your best friend in case they think she is your lover, (that would not be safe would it?), read erotica, write erotica, talk to children about sexuality, discuss masturbation or menstruation, be a woman or a transgender person out in public where they think you should not be, date, marry or have children if you are a person, specifically a woman or a transwoman, with a disability, be in a relationship that transgresses the rules and norms of caste and class, say yes to sex before marriage, say no to sex if your husband wants some, wear make-up and female attire if you are assigned male at birth and expected to adhere to prescriptions of maleness. Safety in this context attempts to protect what is perceived to be vulnerability centred around the person seen as vulnerable. Some people have been asking for a while now why safety and vulnerability are not correctly understood as being aligned to the environment that creates threat and refuses support to the individual. This questioning, and questioning loudly, needs to become a movement. Vulnerability is the product of many cross-cutting issues, it is not centred in the body and being of the individual. A person with a disability is an expression of human diversity and the environment needs to change to accommodate this diversity. For example the environment of dating, dating apps, supportive family and friendships, spaces and locations, these amongst other factors influence the vulnerability of an individual exploring the romantic aspects of life.
A quick last word on popular communication on vulnerability and sexuality today
Social media offers far greater insights on the subject than perhaps the classroom thesis ever did. #vulnerability on an Instagram search reveals the presence of almost every creature of thought, feeling and negotiation that has evolved in the sea of human interaction. Words and visuals pour out wisdom, angst, prescription and poetry. It would require extremely complex processing were one to attempt coherence and connection between love, communication, boundaries, peace, pelvic exams, sexual assault, controlling behaviours, fear, guilt, power, inner child, inner peace, shame, grief, gratitude, sex, abandonment, needing help, rape and the consumption of alcohol, black lives, denial, suppression, rejection, a yoga puppy pose, (Yes! This too!), burnout, anxiety, fitness, emotional resilience, self-advocacy, adrenalin, cortisol, the limbic system and breaking up with your lover. On Facebook, there are men being told to ‘man up’, the book The Gifts of Imperfection available for sale, discussions on post-partum depression, addiction, sobriety, make-up, and making music too. This listing, paused here, is just the surface being scratched, just a bit! It does not even look at different audiences and user-driven user-created content in different languages flooding cell phone social media apps. All of this and more with just the hashtag vulnerability, so it seems many people are living experiences of vulnerability that net trawling can convert into a research thesis.
The Internet tells me Virginia Woolf said, “… for unless I am myself, I am nobody.” Is that what we are when we do not see, do not be, from that place of vulnerability that inks in the details making each one of us, a person? Uniquely that person, within a relationship, a family, a community, at the crossroads of faith, caste, religion, ability, age, gender, sexual orientation? Spelunking through these caves to understand who you are, who that person is, what identity and relationships are driving us and in which direction, is more than fascinating or enriching. It is at the heart of intentionality, of belief, being, doing and change.
This article was part of our April 2021 issue, Vulnerability and Sexuality, and was originally published here.
Cover Image: Unsplash