And now for something completely different. I’d like to welcome my friend and colleague, Vivian Slaughter, who has some interesting things to say about becoming the brilliant young sexologist she is today.
Becoming a feminist was a big deal for me; in high school I was very anti-feminist, I was the Cool Girl, I didn’t like doing my hair and felt giddy when people told me I “wasn’t like other girls” (the today me would have snapped back: “What’s wrong with other girls? Who are these mythic other girls you speak of?”) I would smile cruelly at people when they used the term, laugh a wide-open mouthed, high-pitched laugh. “No,” I’d correct them. “I don’t hate men!” Then, I’d usually follow with something like, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe (in something that literally fits the definition of being a feminist).”
When I packed up and moved further South for college I found myself drawn to a sexual health education group that presented interactive workshops on sexual assault, dating violence and enthusiastic consent. This was a sex positivity group. This was a feminist group. It was a hard transition, and my first term with my new colleagues left a bitter taste in my mouth. What was happening to me? I’d come home from our meetings and rant to my roommate. “Ugh, it’s like…I agree with everything they say but do we have to call ourselves feminists? No one is going to take us seriously!”
I hate to say that I had an epiphany – because besides sounding cliché, it also mitigates the months of mental anguish and cultural upheaval I went through – but one night while I was walking home from a workshop late at night someone who had sat in the audience approached me.
“Uh, hey,” he said, running up behind and motioning with his arm that he wanted me to stop. “Can I tell you something?” I nodded, looking around to see if any of my group mates were around, I was used to being approached after workshops and asked disgusting, personal questions. Back up from my mates would have helped me feel safe. “I’m not a bad person,” the guy continued, “but I’ve done a lot of bad things. But I never knew they were bad. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with everything that I was doing, the way I acted. Thank you for coming tonight. Thank you for making me realize that I was wrong, and that I was behaving like a turd, and that feminist isn’t a dirty word.”
Me! He thought I was a feminist? I wanted to correct him – “I’m not a feminist, but I could see how you think that! I just believe that men and women should be treated equally, and that we have in place long standing and deeply rooted infrastructure that puts women at a systematic disadvantage – but! Whoa? Feminist?”
I realized then that I was a feminist, that I had been duped into believing falsehoods about the word, the movement, the people who identified as such. I realized in the dark, smiling up at this stranger whose name I never knew but who had credited me with changing his mind, that I was a feminist and it felt good and I was going to help people realize they were too. We changed each other’s mind.
Almost immediately after that night I started working at an adult store. I was a sex positive feminist! I annoyed all my co-workers by asking all our guests their preferred personal pronouns; I put cards up on our counter with the information for a local crisis line; a local doctor who specialized in working with survivors of sexual assault. Couples would shyly slink into my shop and I would joyously greet them, stretch my arms to embrace them, help them pick out a pair of pink handcuffs, a soft whip made of braided silk, crotchless panties. “I love helping people love sex!” I would think to myself, naively thinking that all the world’s problems would be solved if only we used the word sex more openly.
Then one day a woman came into my shop, her face red from tears and her bangs matted to her temple from sweat. “What can I help you with?” I inquired.
“I don’t like having sex,” she began, her words coming out in short gasps. “I don’t like having sex,” she repeated, looking at everything around her, taking it all in. “My boyfriend says there’s something wrong with me because I hate it and can’t orgasm, and that you need to fix me.” She fixated on me, her eyes angry but her bottom lip trembling. “Can you fix me, please?”
I didn’t know what to do, didn’t even know how to begin. Telling her that sex was natural and fun wasn’t what she needed to hear, because I knew that’s what she had always been told. “What do you mean you don’t like sex?” so many people had gasped at her. “You must be prude. You must not have been fucked properly. You must be weird. You must not know what you’re talking about.” I found myself getting angry imaging all the horrible things this woman had been told, I found myself angry because I thought I was open minded and didn’t know what to do.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” I spat out, sounding angrier than I wished. “Please, I’m so sorry… there is nothing wrong with you, but there is something wrong with your boyfriend. You don’t deserve what he dished out, you don’t have to like anything you don’t want to like. I’m so sorry.”
A few days later a pimply faced young man approached me in the shop, pointed to a book on the shelf. “Will that tell me where the clit is? I don’t know where it is, I’m afraid my girlfriend will laugh at me if I ask her where it is, but how should I know? Like, what, I’m supposed to know everything about fucking?”
“I hate giving blow jobs,” an older man confided in me, a stack of DVDs in his hand and an empty shopping basket sitting at his feet. “I hate having to swallow, but if I spit they all think I’m being a baby. Can you give me something that makes it bearable? I don’t know, that would numb my throat or make it taste okay? Just something to make it less awful.”
Learning what it meant to be sex positive was even harder than learning to embrace the word feminist.
I had been lead to believe it meant just liking sex, liking sex a lot, and not being shamed of it. Sex positivity was a young, pretty face flashing small, white teeth and nodding enthusiastically at whatever you suggested: “Sure!”
I learned while crying with a stranger telling me she hated sex, sitting on the floor explaining to a red faced 18 year old what a vagina looked like, and holding a man’s hand in front of a movie that featured Jesse Jane in her first girl on girl scene that sex positivity meant more than liking sex; it meant not liking sex, it meant having boundaries, being able to say “no,” not being coerced into trying things (“You have to try it just once, come on!”), being respected. Sex positivity meant having a kink. Trying a new kink. Saying no to a kink. Saying yes! Saying no – don’t stop, our safe word is barnacle! Saying no.
I realized that as an educator I had failed.
I began asking around at workshops; asking my co-workers, classmates, hallmates, wondering earnestly what “sex positivity” meant to them. Some were confused: “Uhh, being positive… about sex?” Others were excited to share with me what sex positivity meant for them, how it fit into their lives. I found everyone’s answers – so varied and all across the board – interesting, but in the end what stuck with me the most were the people who were “sex positivity” critical. “What does it mean?” one person sneered to me. “It means people feel better about sexualizing my body; it means people call me a slut when I’m at the bars and they look at me like I should be empowered by it.”
When I left school, I knew I wanted to stay in the field of sexual health education, but I didn’t know what that meant for me. Continue working on crisis lines? Go back to school? Explore a degree more centralized to education? Throughout my last term I pensively reflected on my four years and wondered what I should do next.
I remembered vividly all the people I helped in my shop, all the questions asked during workshops. I realized I wanted to continue reaching out to people on a personal basis and learn more from them. Feminism, sex positivity, kink positivity and LGBTQIA+ rights have been trending topics in the last few years, and I’m interested in exploring the aftermath of what some are calling our new sex positive culture.
And so it is: I come home from work and in the few hours before I leave the house again to pick up my partner (we both go to work at noon, he gets home close to 13 hours later, so it’s safe to say that we have both become the human equivalent of an owl) I sit at my desk and I write. I write about the experiences I’ve had over the last few years, the stories shared with me and how they’ve helped me grow. I conduct interviews, via phone or e-mail, with a wide array of personalities, all with the intention of sharing the unique perspectives passed on to me.
We all have our mark left on us from the culture we grew up in. What I want to know is: what impact has this life had on you? I reach out to you all and ask that you share your story with me, the story of what feminism and sex positivity (or: sex negativity) means to you, the impact it has had on your life and the mark it has left.
I would appreciate hearing from you. We all have stories to share, and my favorite thing to do is listen. Below is a link to my website, which explains more about my background in education, my goals in reaching out to community members, as well as outside links to my personal blog.