By Caitlyn Caruso
Sexual health education. Biologically essentialist with a side of shame, and a large, ice cold heteronormative focus. Sound easy to swallow?
If you are like the majority of students, you were lucky to receive any sex ed, let alone sex ed that taught about contraceptives and HIV/STI prevention and care. Fast forward to present day. You’re in college and/or a young adult, and you’re wondering what it might have been like for you if you had received that education.
Now imagine a sexual health curriculum that embraced the possibility of pleasure. Imagine a space that gave you the knowledge and practical tools and tips to engage in activity you feel pleasurable. Envision a space that allows you to reclaim the queer body and sexuality that was torn away, that was stifled, that was never yours to own, until this exact moment. Do you have it in your head? Can you see it?
Great. Here’s how we’re going to do it.
Pleasure-based and pleasure positive sex ed spaces are far and few between. “People” are often too afraid to touch the idea of masturbation with a ten-foot pole – or dildo, in this circumstance. Thus, it’s time to stop waiting for “People” to take action. Queer folks have always been the bearers of knowledge, care, and compassion for each other. We have always provided. We provide now.
Providing these spaces isn’t something you have to do on your own. Reinventing the wheel is never necessary! Our people built it in the first place. Look around you at existing organizations, groups of people, friends, campus departments, or health providers that are down for you and your people. Got a few in mind? Good. Because we’re going to contact them and make some asks.
In order to build out our pleasure-based sex ed, we know we have to make space for these conversations – physical space. See if there is an organization that can provide you with that, and ensure that it is safe to engage in these kinds of conversations in a secured location on site with as little fear of violence, retaliation, or bigotry as possible. If there is no organizational space, consider using someone’s living space if they are able to offer it for a small get-together. Make sure to accommodate folk as needed, ensuring ADA access if possible and translators if able.
Moving beyond the physical space, ensuring that the space is as comfortable as possible is essential. Make sure to set clear community guidelines that allow for growth and discomfort, but that center the voices of the most historically marginalized or left out of these spaces (victims/survivors, people of color, queer and trans folk).
Like I’ve said before, you don’t have to perform a research study, scour textbooks, or build out curriculum. Look to your community for support. If you are unable to do that, there are numerous online resources with great content around pleasure and sexual health.
Tea Time and Sex Chats at the University of Chicago does a wonderful job of creating this space, cultivating content, and leading discussions and educational workshops. Here is a video of them talking more about their program. For the technical and sexual health side, look to Advocates for Youth for comprehensive lesson plans surrounding all things Sex Ed. Not Your Average Sex Talk is another great resource for finding inclusive and comprehensive materials.
Expect Push Back
Like I’ve mentioned, the world is not ready to talk about sexual health. Bringing pleasure into the equation makes it a little messy. Don’t let that deter you. Expect the push back and be ready for it. If that means organizing a small workshop “under the table” to ensure safety, or if that means pushing back and declaring that our sexual health and pleasure is a human right, then do what you need to do. If you are organizing on campus, try to make sure you find at least one faculty member or professor that will align themselves with you. This institutional support can be of great assistance if the university is upset.
Engage Honestly and Genuinely
If you are facilitating a session surrounding pleasure and sexual health, be ready to be honest and vulnerable. This emotional labor can be exhausting, and it will also allow for more in the space to engage authentically. By sharing your stories, blunders, likes and dislikes (as you feel comfortable), you are opening the space for others to share. Share that story of the time you couldn’t get the condom on in the dark and the mood was lost (and then connect it to condom application). Share that story of the time you really wanted to go bareback and it was messy and silly (and then connect it to regular testing and services like PrEP and PEP). These stories make you feel real and build a connection with your audience. Before you know it, they will be laughing with you and sharing their own stories, questions, or concerns.
Ouch and Oops
Be ready for things to be said that might complicate the space. If you’re discussing kinks, BDSM, and first times/sexual experiences, people can become triggered or upset. Be incredibly mindful of these situations. If your campus or community has hotlines for survivors, provide them to the attendees. Provide a verbal acknowledgment of the content that will be discussed and inform the attendees that they can remove themselves from the conversation as needed. Center survivors in your discussion, and ensure that you are prepared to mitigate tense conversations. When an “ouch” happens, acknowledge it, meet the needs of those who were hurt, apologize without excuses, and move on.
Organizing, facilitating, and participating in these discussions and spaces can be difficult – I will not lie. It is emotional, physical, cultural, and spiritual labor at times. However, it is fulfilling. It gives our communities a space to heal, to explore, to learn, and to grow. Pleasure-based sexual health conversations are undervalued. The importance of the reclamation of your pleasure and sexuality is undervalued. Our bodies and our experiences are undervalued. By building out a space like this in your community or campus, you are making room for the unconditional appreciation and exploration of all that we are. In doing that, you are building a safer campus, and a safer community. It seems a little easier to swallow that way, huh?
Caitlyn Caruso is a queer femme who currently attends University of Nevada Las Vegas. When she isn’t working, you can catch her in crop tops and high waisted shorts causing trouble with their radical queer family. Follow them on social media: @mylovelycaitlyn. Pronouns: she/they
Campus Pride is the leading national educational organization for LGBTQ and ally college students and campus groups building future leaders and safer, more LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities. The organization provides resources and services to thousands of college students and nearly 1400 campuses annually. Learn more online at CampusPride.org.