Woodhull & Whiteness

As you probably know, I recently attended Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit – usually referred to as Woodhull or SFS, for short – and overall, it was a phenomenal experience. Exhausting and overwhelming, yes, but wonderful. On the plane journey home, I began mentally composing a blog post about my time there and quickly realized I had more to say than I first thought. So I plan to do a mini-series of sorts, and while I originally intended to begin with a general recap, the recent events in Charlottesville have necessitated a change in plans.

First of all, FUCK NAZIS. Fuck white supremacists, fuck fascists, and fuck anyone who doesn’t unequivocally condemn them. What happened in Charlottesville was disgusting, and the person who drove that car into the crowd is a murderer and a domestic terrorist.

So what does a Nazi rally have to do with a conference of sex bloggers, activists, educators, and other members of the sex positive community? Whiteness.

*** Before I continue, let me say this: I am white. I have white privilege. I benefit from white supremacy. I am speaking to my fellow white people with this post. The obligation to change, to be better, to relinquish the stranglehold that whiteness has on people of color is on us. If you’re a person of color, especially if you’re black, and you think I’m out of my lane here, please call me out. I have just as much work to do as everyone else. ***

Woodhull, and the sex positive community in general, is overwhelmingly white. I know efforts have been made by conference organizers to bring in more non-white presenters and attendees alike – and I’d say, at least from what I saw, that they were more successful with the former than the latter – but there is clearly so much work to still be done.

One of the sessions I attended threw this into particularly sharp relief. It was a workshop called “Beyond Tuskegee: Exploring Anti-Blackness in Human Sexuality,” led by Tracie Q. Gilbert. She was fantastic and incredibly engaging, and she made me think a lot about things that I already knew but don’t mentally confront nearly often enough. (If you’re interested in reading tweets from the workshop, check out #AntiBlackSexEd.) It was also the only time during the entire conference where I was in a room that wasn’t majority white.

At one point during the workshop, she had us divide into small groups and come up with a list of the top ten most influential figures in sex in America in the last century. We read our list aloud to the rest of the room, and then once every group had shared, Tracie showed a slide of Playboy’s selections, according to a list they published in 2008. There were a few overlaps from some of our lists, but not many. Most were men, and all were white. (The Rolling Stones but not Prince? Seriously?!)

Playboy’s utter foolishness aside, there were two quotes from the session that have stuck with me most clearly, ones that have shaped how I plan to move forward in my writing, my activism, and my everyday life:

“There is no better way to impugn the character and humanity of a people than by maligning their sexuality.” – Kelly Brown Douglas, quoting Foucault in her book Sexuality and the Black Church

“What would black sexuality be without white supremacy?” – Tracie Q. Gilbert herself

So with the lessons of this workshop swirling in my mind, I was especially introspective re: the racial politics of the rest of the conference and the sex positive community at large, and at the final session on Saturday, I hit my breaking point.

Now, before I rant: to be fair, I will note that many of these sessions, even if they were panels rather than workshops, were designed to be more of a conversation rather than a lecture. Input from the “audience” was often welcomed rather than seen as an interruption. HOWEVER, I started to get really uncomfortable when (white) attendees kept adding their two cents when a session was being led by a person of color, especially a black woman.

This final session, entitled “Reproductive Justice, Sexual Citizenship and the Politics of White Supremacy in the Age of Trump,” was led by Loretta J. Ross. I was really excited about it, despite being exhausted. I pushed myself to attend, and then I would up leaving after about 20 minutes.

(EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that Ross said some appallingly ableist things regarding sterilization at the conference’s final roundtable. I did not attend this event, and I remember seeing tweets about it, but I did not realize that she was the one who made the comments. This is not okay, regardless of Ross’ accomplishments, and while the things I discuss later in the post still stand, it’s important to note that she is problematic in her own way. Thank you to @PillowPrincessR for calling me out on this.)

Looking back on it, there wasn’t one particular egregious instance that made me walk out. It was a culmination of little things, a pile of microaggressions from not just that session but the entire conference. Dialogue-based or not, I didn’t attend the session to listen to other white folks give their opinions. I wanted to hear Loretta Ross speak on one of the many subjects about which she is an expert. The points she did make during the brief time I was there were very good; I wrote down many of them. I had never really thought about the concept of sexual citizenship before and what that meant. I was keen to learn more, to hear her analysis. I wanted to scream at the other attendees to just shut up and let her fucking talk.

And there’s the crux of it. We as white people don’t let people of color, black women especially, just fucking talk. We don’t listen – even when they’re experts, even when we paid money to hear them. We just cannot resist getting our opinions in, because that is what we’re taught by white supremacy. Our thoughts and opinions are always relevant, always welcomed.

This is a problem.

At Woodhull, in other sex positive spaces, and in other activist spaces, there is too much white talking and not nearly enough white listening. We like to think that we are better than this, that we are “woke” and some of the “good ones.” But we’re not immune. I’m not immune. As Tracie Gilbert reiterated for me earlier that same day, sexuality is a field riddled with just as much racism as any other, sometimes more. Whiteness reigns in sex positivity, and that needs to change. It has to change. And it starts with us, fellow white people. It starts with #blogsquad, activists, and educators alike confronting whiteness, calling out other white folk when they fuck up, and most importantly, shutting the fuck up when people of color are speaking and actually listen to them. Support them. Center their voices.

Otherwise, Woodhull will continue to be a sea of white, and sex positivity will always be an agent of white supremacy.

We have so much work to do, y’all. So let’s get to work.

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