There’s A Reason Why Sex Education is Radical

April 28, 2010  |  essays

Most of the time, I exist in a pretty happy little liberal sex-positive bubble, and I don’t quite understand what the big deal is. “You’re brave,” people tell me. Yeah, sure, it takes some guts and shamelessness to put my sex life out in public, and more so to put my emotional life out in (password-protected) public, but generally, I don’t feel the wall I’m coming up against.

Sometimes, though, I feel it hard.

If you run in the same blog circles that I do, or if you follow me on Twitter, or if you’ve been following my Google Reader shared items, you probably know about the accusations made by Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks against the KinkForAll conferences in general and maymay in particular. I’ve shared many of maymay’s posts, re-tweeted many of his links and comments, and have generally just been sitting here staring at my screen with my jaw dropped, feeling like a bowling ball got dropped into my stomach.

Oh. Right. Standing up for sex education, sexuality rights, and sexual freedom can be fucking scary. There’s a reason why we have to stand up for it, and work for it: because it doesn’t exist en mass, because it only exists in small pockets, and because there is an entire system out there trying to keep it shame-based and repressed.

It’s not like this is the first time I’ve had this revelation. It keeps happening, over and over, yet somehow it surprises me every time.

This past March, for example, I attended KinkForAll Providence in Rhode Island at Brown University, and I heard the entire story of how Megan Andelloux’s Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health was barred from opening and kept in bureaucratic red tape for nearly a year. Megan told the entire story of how she fought and what happened, and how she finally did open the Center (which is beautiful and so much fun, by the way, I highly highly encourage you to stop by if you’re ever in the area), which again gave me that bowling-ball-in-my-stomach feeling.

I won’t recount the story here, I couldn’t tell it like she can anyway. Go watch the video, it’s worth it, seriously.

I’m so glad she opened the Center. I’m thrilled to hear the stories of how it’s working, who she’s been helping, how she’s been an open and honest resource for sexuality education. It made me so nervous to hear her story, to witness the amount of power someone in opposition of sexuality education could possibly wield, and to see, yet again, that it is a radical thing to promote happy, healthy sexuality.

God, that just makes me so angry.

I have no idea what an adequate response on my part could be. I feel a little paralyzed, to be honest. I know I should feel the fear and do it anyway but I can’t help but thinking, I was at KinkForAll Providence. In fact, I just had a workshop at Brown University last week! I could be targeted, too. And that is fucking frightening.

Maymay has been writing amazingly beautiful, transparent posts about this topic, and I highly encourage you to read them if you haven’t already. Or re-read them, if you have. I am incredibly inspired by his transparency, and his ability to summarize something clearly and consistently. Did you see the ways he broke down Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks’ concerns over the KinkForAll unconferences?

He’s been encouraging everyone to stand against stigma and others, like Essin’ Em, have written lovely pieces in response. I’ve had a piece of my own brewing for weeks now, but sometimes I can’t quite get past the fear involved in putting Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks’ names on my own site—it seems like an invitation to be on their hit list, doesn’t it? What if they come after me next?

I’m trying to be honest there, but I know it sounds pretty selfish. And to take it one step farther, to attack Megan and maymay—and Aida, who chairs The Sexuality Health Education and Empowerment Council (SHEEC) at Brown and is doing fantastic work up there!—and our beautiful, important community of educators and healers, is to attack me. I have already been attacked. Is there more they could do? Probably. Is that scary? Absolutely.

But will I let it stop me? No.

(Gulp.)

I guess my point is just, this work is hard. There are real consequences, in this conservative culture that can incite sex panic at any given moment, and what used to be a happy little PG project suddenly is misconstrued as the equivalent of child pornography and abuse. I want this work to be safer. I want it to be totally acceptable for sexuality educators to open a center, or for educators to host and (un)organize conferences around sexuality and the intersection with the rest of life. I want everyone to know how their bodies and parts and pleasure works. I want us all to have access to the kind of information we are curious to know about. Seems like a pie-in-the-sky dream sometimes, but instances like these attacks and accusations solidify my goals and purposes all the more. It continues to prove that we need this, this culture needs this, these people need this, and it can be transformative in beautiful, blossoming ways.

Fast forward to this week, and I now hear that Aida has invited Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks to come to a panel at Brown University on Sex Panic! When Educators Are Censors. Here’s the information about the panel below. If you’re anywhere near Rhode Island, I highly encourage the travel, it’s going to be worth it. (I really want to be there, I’m trying to move some things around, I already have an obligation that day.)

Sex Panic!: When Educators Are Censors
a panel and Q&A session moderated by Brown Professor of History and Brazilian Studies Jim N. Green, author of Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil

Free and open to the public!
Tuesday, May 4th @ 6:00 pm
in Smith-Buonanno Hall, Room 106
95 Cushing Street, Providence, RI 02906
This event is co-sponsored by: SHEEC and QCC

Panelists:
Aida Manduley: SHEEC Chairperson
Megan Andelloux: Certified sexologist and sex educator
Reid Mihalko: Brown alum and presenter on sex and relationships
Meitar Moscovitz: Community organizer and technology professional
Ricky Gresh: Senior director for Student Engagement at Brown University

What would you do if your organization were criticized for following through with its mission statement? What if you were publicly denigrated, misrepresented, and harassed for your work? What if educators themselves were trying to hamper your attempts at education? Finally, who should have a say in a college student’s sex education?

Read Aida’s direct letter to Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks, inviting them to the panel, and take a look at maymay’s mention of the upcoming panel, too.

I feel like this is so important. I don’t really know what my own path of sexuality education or sex writing looks like, I don’t know where this Sugarbutch job will take me, but I do plan to keep doing it. When panic like this comes up, when accusations and attacks are made, I want to be part of a community that can rally around each other, stand strong, and fight back if necessary. I want to be a part of that protection, to continue to protect my own work and the important work of those around me.

Because I know just how badly we need this work, and this is just further sign of how much work there is, still, to do.

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10 Comments


  1. Wow.

    I guess now I feel guilty. I understand that this wasnt your intention, but I do, all the same.

    I pride myself on being sex-positive, non-judgemental, things like that. But this is just opening me up to the idea that there still remains so much to be done regarding it. In all honesty, I should have realized this: Just because I self-identify as a feminist, it doesnt mean that misogyny has magically disappeared.

    I need to take a more active role. And I need someone to walk me through the steps, as I dont think there's any sexual education group in my area.

    Anything I can do, I will.

  2. Sinclair, thank you for writing about this (ongoing) issue with such wonderfully emotive clarity.

    <blockquote cite="#comment-11606">I guess now I feel guilty. […] I need to take a more active role. And I need someone to walk me through the steps…

    Erudite Hayseed, guilt is a sibling of shame. You almost never need it, and it is certainly not necessary here. I'd say get rid of any "I'm not doing enough" guilt first, because that's only going to be an obstacle to doing more if you choose to, or to enjoying what you do if you choose not to become "more active."

    That said, you offered support. Here's what I'd suggest.

    First, follow Sinclair's example and write down your thoughts. Do it honestly. Do it without shame. Do it thoughtfully. Then, share it.

    That last step is the big one: one of the major problems sex-positivity faces is that there really isn't a lot of it. What that means is sharing whatever amount of sex-positivity you can helps. A lot. In fact, the paltry amount of sex-positive resources out there in comparison to the sex-negative resources means that your acts of encouraging honest communication about sexuality and self-empowered sexual agency has a dramatically larger impact than you might think because of its rarity.

    See also my talk, Freeing Sexuality Information: How to change the world by talking about yourself, for more information about this.

    Second, seek out those who are like-minded like you, but do so skeptically. Question everyone, even (and perhaps especially) your heroes. Question them, because questions are the only way you will find your path. No one will walk you through the steps because your steps are yours to walk, not ours to push you through.

    That mindset is the one fundamentally frightening to people who would impose their sexual morality onto you. The idea that each and every person has the right to choose which steps to take to reach a place of sexual self-empowerment is what religions, governments, and anti-sex ideology (including sex-negative feminism, I might add) are so staunchly opposed to. They contend that they know what is best for you, and they use systems of oppressions including gender inequality, ageism, adultism, racism, xenophobia, and classism to pressure you into believing that they know more about your inner world than you do.

    I CALL BULLSHIT on that, and I think the best thing to do in response is help others see through that impositional bullshit. In other words, ask questions.

    Good luck. And, of course, reach out to others. We are not, in fact, alone.

  3. Sinclair, you are badass. The work you do makes opens up a space for the rest of us to be honest about who we are. Thank you for that.

  4. First, to Sinclair, let me say how much I love your writing – it has helped me discover different parts of myself and been a part of my journey of understanding my sexual and gender identity.

    This is my first time commenting (I'm usually just a lurker!)

    I'm wondering if now and in the future conversations like this can be steered away from using the phrase "sex-positivity" (or references to "panic!" and "morality!") to describe what one thinks are the best approaches to thinking about sexuality. Unfortunately (and sadly, sometimes, I think deliberately), the phrase "sex-positive" is used because it (at least implicitly and sometimes explicitly) has the companion concept of phrase: "sex-negative." And THAT is a problem, for me, implying that ANYONE is "sex-negative" because it relates so deeply to how women who, throughout history, have raised power-based (NOT morals-based) concerns some sexual practices have been characterized as "prudes" or "frigid" or, and of course "dykes." (And I do mean ANYONE: my cousins are evangelical Christians who didn't have and don't believe in sex outside of marriage and I would never characterize them as "sex-negative:" I just think they are women who have coped with the world in different ways than I have). I also think this phrasing has the effect of conflating the beliefs of radical feminists (with power-based concerns) with evangelical Christians (who have morals-based concerns – concerns that I, as a dyke, reject). Those concerns come from two very different places.

    This has been my experience.

    I think it is alienating to many women to insinuate that good-faith questions that we raise about the relationship of different kinds of sexual practices to misogyny, racism, and violence are not "sex-positive."

    I'm very positive about sex (with women :)!

    Again, love this website, love your writing, and many of the commenters. But characterizations like this…as a radical feminist dyke…frustrate me.

  5. I had actually wanted to comment on your previous post, but felt too embarassed and self conscious to actually submit any comment. I just wanted to say THANKS, really, for all you've done. I know I'm your weird gushy commenter, but I just want you to know that your blog has done so much for people. I'm from a secular but conservative country where sex is bad, and technically anal and oral sex is illegal. Finding your incredibly honest and open discussions of sex – not just for smut, but for power and feminism and pleasure and self-discovery and education and contribution to the queer community – honestly changed the way I look at sex. I've discovered the crazily wonderful feminist and reflexive blogs of Bren Ryder and Jiz lee (sex websites of straight and most gay male pornstars are TOTALLY different!) which makes me pretty proud to be a gay woman.

    It's avenues and wonderfully honest online writings like yours which help make the difference, as the internet reaches everyone, everywhere, anytime. And if you've helped just me, you've helped thousands of people around the world you've reached with your online projects. So thank you.

  6. LN80: I see where you're coming from, but I disagree. Sort of. I think the phrase sex-positive SHOULD continue to be used. Sex positivity is not tied to any set of behaviors one engages in or accepts, but rather the WAY in which they are approached (IMHO). Abstinence can be sex-positive, not believing in sex outside of marriage can be sex-positive, all these "stereotypically prudish" concepts can be sex-positive, because, like I said, it's about approach and attitude, not…"final behavior," if that makes sense.

    Also, could you elaborate more about what you consider power-based concerns about sexual practices? I'm not sure if I totally get what you're saying, and I wanna make sure I do. :)

    Finally, to respond to: "I think it is alienating to many women to insinuate that good-faith questions that we raise about the relationship of different kinds of sexual practices to misogyny, racism, and violence are not “sex-positive.”"

    Who…is…insinuating that, though? O.o

  7. I want us all to have access to the kind of information we are curious to know about.

    Thank you for this encouraging and heartfelt article, Sinclair.

    I’m looking forward to reading about the discussion at Brown University.

    And Maymay, this is a lovely comment. I could not agree more with ‘question everyone’ and no one knows ‘more about your inner world than you do’.

    I too have doubts about the term ‘sex-positive’. It sounds so defensive.

    Honestly, this is how the word ‘sex-positive’ sounds to me: ‘I can’t just talk about sex and sexuality. I have to underline that I’m sex-positive. Because otherwise people will automatically assume that if someone talks about sex, it is to put down sex.’

    Yes, people putting down sex education, or any sex that doesn’t conform to their own prescriptions, exist and are loud, and can act very ruthlessly. And I understand that the status quo you’re seeing now is sex education in a minority position in a majority culture of fear and repression. I think using a defensive word as a core definition inadvertently gives fear more power.

    Maybe it is in part because of my perception as a foreigner, though repression against sexual diversity, and fear of sex education aren’t strange to me at all. Is the word ‘sex-positive’ in general use outside of North America?

    Is it helpful to the goal of freeing sex education from repression to load oneself with a defensive assumption from the start? Is it helpful to turn defence against negative assumptions into a core word?

  8. Or in other words: When what someone does is speak about sexuality and participate in sex education, it’s possible to call it ‘sexuality’ and ‘sex education’ without a defensive qualifier.

  9. Hi Aida,

    If that is what sex-positivity means, I'm all for it! :) However, I think that using a phrase like "positivity" implies that there is "negativity," which I see has really linked to linguistic history of framing women as not being "positive" about sex, if there are certain kinds of sexual practices that we don't want to engage in. I guess maybe I am unclear as what attitudes or behaviors are "sex-negative?" Or, what's the opposite of "sex-positive?"

    As for "power-based" concerns, many radical feminists have concerns about the ways in which BDSM may replicate misogynistic, gender-based hierarchies. This is an argument with a long history and, I think, very little possibility for resolution. In "A Burst of Light," Audre Lorde has an insightful meditation on the subject, which mostly reflects my position. The essay in that single-author anthology is called: "Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation." – I will resist quoting it at length! :) I think that Donna Hughes and Margaret Brooks are coming from that perspective in raising concerns about the kink for all unconference happening at Brown's campus.

    Those are the kind of concerns that I hope we can resist labeling as "sex-negative." I don't "sex-negative feminism," exists – perhaps maymay could elaborate more on what he means by that? (That's what felt "insinuated" to me…)

  10. Let me start off by saying that I apologize for interfering in the conversation at this blog — I strongly suspect that a person like me simply does not belong in "radical sex" circles, and in general I tend to stay away from them anyway. However, I came across this post, and made an effort to read some of the accompanying threads and some of the content on the rest of the blog, and I couldn't resist throwing in a few comments, though I doubt they will sit well either with the author of the blog or with its regular audience.

    I don't necessarily support the approach taken by Donna Hughes and Margaret Brooks, as it sounds like they may have jumped to conclusions and raised an unnecessary moral panic. But it should be acknowledged that many of us DO identify as liberal (though not libertine — there is a HUGE difference), feminist, anti-racist, pro-gay-marriage, etc., while having serious problems with the sort of philosophy that I'm assuming "Kink for All" espouses. The very title of the conference bothers me: it seems like it is proselytizing kink to the general population, without taking into account the fact that a very large amount of people, having scrutinized kink philosophy (and the culture of sexual hedonism in general), categorically reject it (both religious conservatives and secular liberals). For many of us, this rejection is not an emotional one based on shame or guilt, but an intellectual one based on an honest examination of human psychology, ethical philosophy, feminist theory, and personal introspection.

    I'm a lesbian myself, by the way (of South Asian ethnicity), and while I've got no issues with what people do in the privacy of their own homes or on private property, you have to understand that there is a difference between the public sphere and the private sphere, and that there are good reasons why people would want to maintain the boundary between them.

    If you think this makes us prudes or sex-negative, I honestly couldn't care less — as long as those labels make our existence clear as day, I'm okay with them. People like myself are quite tired of this sex-saturated culture that everyone is expected to participate in. We don't want our sexuality regulated by the pornography industry or by kink culture. That is a choice we've made, and we believe it's a sound one. Unfortunately, it's hard to not feel that our sexuality is being regulated by these things, because they're becoming increasingly mainstream and ubiquitous. Despite your claims to victim status, at least within Western civilization, sexual hedonism has long been the secular substitute for religion.

    I would like to request the folks at this forum to at least consider that there are people who have thought about these issues from many angles and have concluded that they are simply not interested in a "radical sex life" or in being "ruthlessly sexual" (phrases I've seen thrown about on this blog). Some of us just have other things that we prioritize far, far more than sex (philosophy, art, spirituality, social work, athletics, martial arts, etc.), and we genuinely find excessive hedonism materialistic, immoral, shallow, and mostly a waste of time, energy and money.

    You don't have to agree with us. But you do have to realize that you share the public sphere with us, and you do have to negotiate what you are going to exhibit in the public sphere with us, as well as deal with our criticisms of the choices you exhibit publicly (just as we have to do the same with you — I for one am not in favor of moral panics or sex panics despite my genuine moral opposition to hedonistic lifestyles). This is especially true when it comes to the needs of children: most people, liberal or conservative (even quite a lot of kinksters, in fact), do feel that sexual adventurism is at odds with responsible parenting. For this and many other reasons, we care about limiting the amount of sexual exposure in public spaces.

    I think it is at least worth acknowledging at your end that there are two sides to this story, and you cannot impose your ideas of sexual freedom on the rest of us any more than we can impose our belief in the value of sexual self-restraint onto you. In any culture war, there are multiple stories and points of view and all of them deserve serious consideration.

    If anyone wants to get into an e-mail conversation on the above topics with me, I'd be happy to respond ( stumblingmystic (at) gmail (dot) com ).

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