“Sexual freedom is a fundamental human right” – this mantra was the theme of Woodhull Alliance’s 2013 Sexual Freedom Summit, held this past September just outside of Washington DC. The Alliance is an organization that unites disparate groups and people who fight for greater sexual freedom, whether their fights are in courts or classrooms, in churches or on the streets. The Sexual Freedom Summit gives these groups an opportunity to come together to teach and learn, to network, and to re-frame what we do – whether it is education, legal advocacy, or street outreach – as a fight for fundamental human rights.
For me of course, Woodhull sits at the intersection of professional interests, sex law & sex education, and my personal enthusiasm for sexual freedom. The summit featured presentations on everything from sex work, trafficking and criminalization, to teaching about consent, to sexuality we encounter it in the bible. Despite the universal acceptance of a common goal – sexual freedom as a fundamental human right – some meetings sparked heated discussion and disagreement among participants, both before and after the presentations. The keynotes and panels were universally outstanding. What follows here is a brief description of some of the panels – the high points. A great deal of the summit, including the keynotes, was recorded (video and audio). When they become available, I will either update this article, or post their whereabouts in the comments below.
Of the many programs I attended, the most important was the “End Demand” presentation done by Kate D’Adamo of the New York Sex Worker Outreach Project. “End Demand” is the umbrella term given to laws that drastically increase criminal penalties for Johns who hire sex workers. They are often passed as part of broader trafficking legislation. There is some great, current writing about the momentum of the misguided End Demand movement – from a recent blog post at SWOP-NY, to a 2013 article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. But the quick summary is: these laws do nothing to affect the actual victimization that exists in sex work – instead, they cast all sex workers as victims and all johns as abusive deviants. The net effect is that the lives of sex workers become even more dangerous, leading frequently to tragedy. I say that this was the most important program I went to because despite the demonstrable ineffectiveness of “End Demand” programs, these misguided laws are proliferating among states. And there are now bills that would create federal “End Demand” laws. So do this: take a moment before you move on to the next paragraph and call your congresspeople (Who are they? Find them at http://www.whoismyrepresentative.com/) and tell them to oppose the End Demand legislation slithering its way through congress, House Bill 2805 and Senate Bill 1534.
The most relevant professionally (well, to the sex educator in me) was Beyond Yes Means Yes (named in part after the great book by Jaclyn Friedman) The first part of this program was taught by two people who teach a class on consent at Colgate University. It included an activity where we had to explain to another person how a selected picture related to our ideas of consent – which they, in turn, had to explain to a third person. The point: It is important to be able to articulate what we think consent means and how it relates to a particular situation, but it is equally important to express these ideas so clearly to another person that they can explain it themselves. We got “beyond yes means yes,” into “Consent 301” in the second half of the presentation. Consent is not a simple “yes or no” proposition, and the act of giving consent is not a single act, rather it’s a ongoing process, a feedback loop requiring awareness of ourselves and others involved. In this part, we did an activity where we had to respond to a simple request for consent with yes, and…; yes, but…; no, and…; or no, but… The idea is that if you incorporate the idea of a subsequent event into giving “mere consent,” the thing that you’re consenting to becomes more real – consent becomes (as our most dashing facilitator put it) a more “haptic experience.”
The most inspiring presentation of the weekend came from Carmen Vazquez. Born in Puerto Rico, raise in New York, she is currently the coordinator of the LGBT Health and Human Services Unit for the New York AIDS institute. Her accomplishments in working for sexual freedom, immigrant’s rights, and sexual health (among other things) are legion; there are many biographies online, including this one on the Woodhull site. In her address she talked about not leaving our sex behind when we talk about sexual freedom, when we talk about sexual health and sex worker advocacy. Fundamentally, when we talk about harm reduction, about racism and classism or about equal rights, we are talking about our right to desire who we want, our right to experience sexual pleasure – whatever that might look like – with whoever we choose. If we leave our sex out of the fight, we’re compromising the very thing we’re fighting for. She talks about giving a presentation on harm reduction from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church, where she chose to address sexuality:
I asked: Do I get to bring my sex with me? Do I get to tell you how sick and tired I am of the condoms and the dental dams and the saran wraps and all the other things that keep my skin, my cock, my cunt, my cum, my juice separate from the person I want? Do I get to tell you that I’m out of control here? Do I get to tell you that I want my lover and somebody else’s lover and a stranger in a bathhouse? Do I get to tell you that I want pain and power in my sex? Do I get to tell you that my sex is very vanilla and I really like it like that? Do I get to tell you that I’m queer and never have sex except for what I desire? Do I get to tell you that I’m a female to male transsexual and a gay man? Do I get to tell you that I’m a male to female transsexual and a lesbian? Do I get to tell you that I’m a transsexual who is a heterosexual? Do I get to tell you I am a bisexual slut? Do I get to be in your community? Do I really?
There was stunned silence. They expected me to talk about race or class or harm reduction, not sex. What they didn’t realize is that in one paragraph I had, in fact, talked about all three.
There is no way I could write about everything I saw, all that I learned, or everything I was inspired by in this short article. But in writing this, I realize: I came away from the summit energized and inspired to work with people I met there – to do my part to realize my vision of sexual freedom. And now I have a notebook full of names and ideas which, I confess, I looked at in the days following the conference but have since put aside. So here is my suggestion: go back to those names, to those ideas, and contact just one of the people you promised you would reach out with, or you wanted to connect with. I’ll do the same. I spend time with a lot of great people, and I’m often inspired – but too often I let that inspiration dissipate without taking any kind of action. So here is my resolution: to channel this positive energy into some kind of movement.