Really Long Intro (Feel free to skip this part)
I went to the conference last year, and it was partly a great experience, and partly a super uncomfortable experience. I didn’t know very many people there, and the people I did know were all with their close friends and colleagues, so in lieu of tagging along with other people’s friend groups, I ended up spending a lot of time alone. This would probably have been minimally uncomfortable for me, except for the fact that I didn’t have anywhere private to be alone.
I hadn’t rented a hotel room because it was expensive, and I was planning to sleep in my car. But the car-sleeping thing turned out to be way, way too hot (like I was afraid I might potentially pass out in my sleep because it just seemed to be getting hotter). During the day I was often hanging out alone in crowded places, which I found very lonely. At night I was switching between mooching off friendly acquaintances’ hotel rooms and trying to find a place to sleep in the hotel common areas where no one would notice me.
On top of the lack of alone space (and sleep), the conference was a much more traditional academic environment than I had been in in a long time. The whole thing took place in the hotel, and mostly consisted of lectures in conference rooms with rows of seating. I am more on the ADD end of the spectrum (if there is an ADD spectrum; I just made it up), so this conventional academic environment was daunting for me. I had a hard time focusing on the back-to-back lecture-style workshops (even though I was really interested in a lot of the content!), so I bowed out partway through many of them to wander around aimlessly.
Another thing that I found uncomfortable during the conference was the culture of sex ed celebrities. I hadn’t heard of any of them, but people kept oohing and ahhing over them in conversation with me. I had gone into the conference loosely expecting that we would all be there as peers with a shared passion for sexual freedom, so I was thrown off when I picked up on this distinct feeling of hierarchy among us. Also, I had become friendly with a prominent sex educator, Reid Mihalko, a couple of months prior to the conference (not knowing about his fame). Reid kept introducing me to his friends, who I would later find out were big names, and I kept having that feeling of “Dammit, I would have put more thought into that interaction if I realized that I should have been star-struck.”
I was torn about the celebrity culture thing. My initial reaction was to see it as a frustrating imbalance of power and recognition between people with fame and people without fame. On the other hand, it seemed like people valued the celebs largely for good reasons. They had done work that people found truly meaningful (i.e. written books, made statements, made significant contributions to the sex positive movement, etc.). It wasn’t solely (or maybe even predominantly) based on them being beautiful or suave.
At the same time, the celebs did seem to mostly be white, middle class, age 40+ (which may be because younger sex educators are appreciating the foundation that their predecessors have laid out for them, which is generally a good thing), conventionally attractive, able-bodied, etc. There may (?) have even been an over-representation of men and straight people, since the sexuality field is largely made up of women, non-binary, queer, and trans people.
Meaningful contributions or not, I definitely felt that the conference had room for more diversity, inclusion, and recognition of the important work lesser-known people are doing.
But even with all of these discomforts, there was a lot that was great for me at the conference. I got a lot out of the workshops. There was a Sex and Shame workshop by Charlie Glickman that especially hit home for me. Also, I led a Sex Positive Zine Making Workshop, and people made amazing things! I recently published a finalized draft of a zine that my now-friend (we met at the conference) Casey Pegg made during that workshop. Someone else made a zine about the strange and confusing legal situation of obtaining a same-sex marriage in Mexico, which is something I previously knew nothing about, and their zine was so concise and easy to digest.
Also, The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health let me use some of their table space (for which I am eternally grateful) to sell my zines, and I sold a ton of zines to extremely enthusiastic and supportive conference attendees (which is such a good feeling). Plus, the experience of being among hundreds of people who are passionate and informed about (often varying aspects of) healthy sexuality was very cool and rich and inspiring!
…Which is why this year, though I decided not to make the financial, intellectual, emotional, and time investments to attend the conference, I am longingly watching as my friends and fellow sex educators post about it on social media. And when I saw that the Woman of Color Sexual Health Network posted a video of their speech, I figured it would be worthwhile to take an hour out of my day (a short amount of time in comparison to the four or so days I could be spending at the conference) to really focus on hearing what they have to say. Plus, I knew that WoCSHN and Woodhull had started a partnership this year, and I was curious to learn what that looked like, and hopeful about how it might shape the conference in the future.
So without further adieu…
My 8 Favorite Take-Aways from WoCSHN’s Speech
1. Collaborating with an organization or individual doesn’t mean you endorse everything that they do.
2. Not all WoCSHN members share the same social justice politics.
3. If you have an issue with something someone (or an organization) does, call them “in” first.
4. If people seem to be complicit in a problematic situation, make sure they know that there’s a problem.
“Because maybe there was a disconnect. There were POC [at the ceremony], there were other people who [we thought wouldn’t support this exclusionary book].”
- Cindy Lee, WoCSHN
5. Invite people of color and people of other underrepresented groups “to the table” AND make it hospitable for them to be there.
But the invitation isn’t enough if you aren’t creating a space that they are likely to feel comfortable being in. Be welcoming. Be accessible. Don’t use “insider” language or abbreviations. Don’t expect them to represent a whole group of people that they belong to. Don’t pry them to talk about their marginalized identities when they want to talk about another topic that they’re passionate about.
6. Share resources with others who have similar missions as you.
7. Take up space where you are underrepresented.
8. There are ways to compensate people for their contributions even if you don’t have funding.
Steps I Can Take to Make Pleasure Pie More Inclusive
I don’t want to beg people of color to come to things, because I don’t want them to be doing a service to the community by showing up – I want to create a community that serves them. I want my events (and all my projects) to offer value that people of color want.
I don’t want there to be a couple of people of color in a sea of white people (because that is often uncomfortable for the POC and puts pressure on them to represent “the POC experience” – which is a very varied and diverse experience, not something that one person could represent).
So my question is: How can I make my sexuality activism valuable to people of color?
I think it would be helpful for me to work toward having my events be less shaped by this culturally white background, so that people of color don’t feel like they are entering a white-oriented space. Some things that I think would help with this goal are:
- Partnering with people of color (and organizations run by people of color) for my events and discussions (and other projects). This can be challenging because I often don’t partner with anyone, because it is sometimes simpler to do things alone. Especially for my monthly discussion group, Sex Positive Boston, since it is every month, that means a lot of (unpaid – we don’t have funding – but maybe I should consider some of the compensation options above!) work that I’m asking for from partners.
It’s also a lot of coordinating. If I lead a discussion by myself, all I have to do is write a discussion outline, publicize the discussion info (so people come), show up, and facilitate.
However, having other people shape the content of the discussions is richer and more inclusive of various experiences than me leading all the discussions myself. And if I establish ongoing partnerships, the coordinating for each month is lessened by the fact that we already know each other and know how we work together.
- Attending more events led by people of color, and getting to know more people of color in general. Listening to people of color when they talk about their experiences! These things can help me to become more aware of all of the ways that I do (and think about) things that are informed by my white upbringing. When I see other approaches, I can consider when it would make sense to incorporate them into my events.
- Making sure that lots of people of color with various backgrounds know about my events, and feel invited to them. Yes, there are lots of people of color present in all parts of Boston throughout the day (not just the historically POC neighborhoods). But there are also lots of POC who mostly hang out in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, etc. – especially (but not only) working class POC. I tend not to put up many flyers for my events, mostly because I feel very shy when trying to post flyers, but I think that relying on internet promotion tends to be more insular. People who are already engaged in the predominantly white circles that promote sex positivity, feminism, LGBTQA organizing, etc. are likely to be the people in the corners of the internet where I post about my events. Which makes sense because I don’t want to spam pages that have nothing to do with my events. But in public, anyone can see a flyer! That is kind of an amazingly inclusive option, and I should take better advantage of it.
A couple of other things I can’t not say about the video: It’s important to check what pronouns people use if you’re going to introduce them. Also check how they pronounce the name of their organization. And finally, that “woke-shun” moment was so good :)