By Nicole Mazzeo
Really long intro (Feel free to skip this part)
One of the first things I saw upon waking up this morning was a video of a keynote speech by the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WoCSHN). They are currently at a conference that I am longingly following on social media called The Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit
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
In no particular order & paraphrased!
1. Collaborating with a person or organization doesn't mean you endorse everything they do.
If you do partnerships, publicly explain that you’re not fully endorsing them. That way, if someone has a criticism of them, they don’t feel like you are necessarily going to defend your partnering organization/person (and they will feel more comfortable voicing their criticism). I also find that it’s helpful to explain this to friends in regard to people I’m having sex with (in other words, enjoying sex with someone ≠ endorsing them).
2. Not all WoCSHN members share the same social justice politics.
Including members who have different ideologies is a way to support all women of color who are working to promote sexual health.
3. If you have an issue with something someone (or an org) does, call them "in" first.
As in, ask them to have a private conversation where you respectfully explain your issue with what they’ve done. If working with them in that capacity doesn’t have the full effect you’re looking for, then consider calling them out publicly (as in, demand change, use the power of public accountability).
4. If people are complicit in a problematic situation, make sure they know there's a problem.
When the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counsellors & Therapists (AASECT) gave an award to the book Secrets of the Sex Masters, which included only white “Sex Masters,” WoCSHN wrote a statement about the lack of inclusion of sex educators of color in the book. They sent this statement to AASECT. They also printed it out and passed it out to the people at the book awards ceremony. They also tweeted about it, to reach people who weren’t there.
“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].”
To make sure that this becomes long-term change (as opposed to AASECT just apologizing for this one mistake), WoCSHN encouraged AASECT to make guidelines for how they evaluate the books that they give awards to, which they are currently in the process of creating.
5. Invite POC and people of other underrepresented groups "to the table" AND make it hospitable for them to be there.
This means inviting them to events and conferences, including their work in your book/magazine/article/etc., having them speak on your panel, etc. etc. etc.
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 a similar mission as you.
For instance, WoCSHN’s new annual partnership with Woodhull is set up so that each year Woodhull partners with a different underrepresented organization, not WoCSHN every year. Because other organizations have so much else to offer! Plus, this partnership will be more far-reaching by getting more organizations involved.
7. Take up space where you're underrepresented.
Your voice matters! Your experience matters! Even if the people in charge haven’t made it a welcoming space for you, if you are able to give the emotional and mental energy, and you feel safe doing so, make your perspective heard.
8. There are ways to compensate people for their contributions even if you don't have funding.
You can offer several options! It could be advertising space on your website, newsletter, blog, or social media. You could offer a free workshop, consultation, scholarship, etc. (”valued at $____”). You could let them use your space if you have an office, event space, or other physical location. You can offer some amount of money/stipend, if possible. Be creative about what you have to offer that is valuable to them!
Steps I can take to make Pleasure Pie more inclusive
One thing that I’ve been thinking of lately when I think of racial diversity and inclusion in my sex ed work is: Why is it hard to get a racially diverse group of people to show up to my events?
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?
As someone that was raised by white people and grew up surrounded by mostly white people, I have a lot of ways of doing things and thinking about things that are shaped by white American (United Statesian) middle class culture. While white people, like people of color, vary a lot, and there are tons of subcultures as well, I do think there are also a lot of commonly shared behaviors, values, and norms that go unnoticed among most (?) white middle class Americans.
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:
Thank you to WoCSHN for continually bringing attention to the lack of diversity in the sexuality field, and for working toward real, long-term change. I know it is helpful to me (and others, I’m sure) to have these reminders.
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 :)