CatalystCon: A Report from the Field
Your Peripatetic Sexologist, Like Where’s Waldo, Pops Up Here & There!
This time it was at CatalystCon East, held in the Hilton in Crystal City, VA—right across the bridge from Washington, DC. Catalyst, the project and brainchild of Dee Dennis and her crew of merry cohorts, is a twice-yearly sex conference that attracts several hundred people to engage in a range of interesting conversations with sex educators and sex workers, academics, activists, bloggers, interested students, and folks from the sex communities and adult industry. It’s a wonderfully mixed group of people, many presenting from their particular points of view. It’s not the only window into contemporary sexuality culture—to actually achieve such a focused view gets more challenging all the time, as sex culture becomes ever more complex—but it’s a very good one, and it’s full of thought-provoking moments and delightful connections to be made.
I often travel to gigs alone, but my partner Robert has been coming to Catalyst with me since last spring, when we were the closing keynote speakers, talking about two-plus decades of sexuality education and activism. While not all attendees at CatalystCon seem to appreciate the opportunity to get sex community history, most do, and it is a particular interest of mine to make history an important element of understanding. Having been in this world for three of four decades (depending on how you do the math and where you start counting), this is particularly striking to me: When people don’t know history, not only are they more likely doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes—they can miss important elements that could give depth to newer theories and initiatives. And sex people have to really keep an ear to the ground to learn history. Where is it taught? Not in enough venues, that’s for sure.
All Over the Con
So I was all over the place! Might as well keep busy, eh? Besides catching up on the ongoing conference-running drama with Dee (and at this one, there were doozies), here’s how I spent my time, and hopefully was of service, at CatalystCon:
Thursday night, before the conference began, Dee was kind enough to give us a room with a little stage, and we put on a show on behalf of the Center for Sex & Culture. The wonderful Ducky Doolittle came along to help me entertain the crowd, and each of us told stories about peep shows, east and west. The peep show (in my case, the late, lamented Lusty Lady in San Francisco) was a hugely significant part of my sex education, a space where I could talk to all kinds of people about their experiences and fantasies—sort of like I can at Catalyst! It was a huge treat to swap stories with Ducky, one of the most thought-provoking and interesting sex teachers out there.
I tweeted a bit from, but mostly sat and enjoyed (and thought about), the opening keynote plenary on Friday night; Tristan Taormino moderated a most interesting panel, with writer and teacher Mo Beasley; kink educator and Pagan priest Del Tashlin; blogger-turned-publisher Queerie Bradshaw (aka Lauren Marie Fleming), who’s launching Frisky Feminist Press; and journalist and sex worker activist Melissa Gira Grant, whose new book Playing the Whore has just been released. The next morning was my first big presentation: a look at sex movies, particularly porn, with jessica drake, whose porn experiences and sex education chops made her a terrific co-presenter as we unpacked the way porn is sometimes used as sex education inappropriately, or at the very least influences by its pacing and editing, how people understand sexual response and norms; we also talked about the ways porn can be a positive influence and how it’s influenced by the culture. Later that day I sat in on Lori Darling’s presentation challenging sex-positive thought as relevant to sex workers (some contemporary sex workers have singled out a not-well-fleshed-out statement I made about 20 years ago to criticize—I’ll be writing a more complete essay about that for sure, because I’m not at all pleased about being at odds with one of my core groups of activist comrades–but to Lori’s credit, she gave me some time to clarify my position, for which I thank her. I got to go in great depth later about my thoughts on exhibitionism with the smart and delightful Tina Horn, whose new podcast is Why Are People Into That?! Big fun and a great chat. Finally, I’d convened some terrific writer and storyteller friends for Saturday night entertainment; Annie Sprinkle joined in, as did Robert Lawrence, Gram Ponante, “America’s beloved porn journalist,” Veronica Vera, Twanna Hines—and a second time around with Tina Horn. Fiction, rants, memoir, tales—we had it all.
And that was Saturday! Whew!
On Sunday Robert and I battled hellacious jet lag to open the day with a talk about consent—workshopping thoughts and ideas for a later day-long class we’re working on in collaboration with the new San Francisco organization Consent-Matters. Clearly a far greater topic than anyone could nail down into a 70-minute presentation, we were still glad to hear many perspectives from the many attendees, and continued to think and talk about it all the way home. (In fact, see below for one result of that.) Next I had a solo gig that allowed me to revisit my Oxford Union debate of several years ago, “This House believes that promiscuity is a virtue, not a vice.” I shared some thoughts about sexual freedom and multiple partners, particularly the ideas that people utilize multiple sex partners to learn more about sex and diverse responses and preferences, and that promiscuity conducted in a positive and aware way can help people develop more fellow-feeling for other people. (Does that mean you ought to be promiscuous? No, certainly not, unless that’s how you roll. But if you haven’t noticed we live in a slut-shamey age, check it out— that’s really why I wanted to bring this topic back out of my mental storage unit.)
Finally, it was my distinct pleasure to introduce Betty Dodson to the Catalyst crowd. I interviewed the history-making, irascibly funny Mother of Masturbation for CatCon’s closing keynote, and she amazed us in all kinds of ways–and told tales of mostly unknown history to help contextualize for (almost) everyone present what the path was like from there to here: from Kansas in the 1930s, New York City in the 1950s, from the dawn of Second Wave feminism and the introduction of the electric vibrator to 2nd Wavers and everybody else who was looking for a damned good sex toy. (Toy reviewers, just think: without her, we might have no jobs!)
I’m going to write separately about Betty so you can get to know her better too, but meanwhile: the Catalyst audience began using the hashtag #WWBDD? Too funny! She’d tell you exactly what she thinks about any issue—that’s what.
Aftermath: Announcing Summer of Consent
After our passionate and interesting discussions with all sorts of people at and after Catalyst, Robert and I have decided to launch a project: #SummerOfConsent. He thought of it, I named it and embellished the idea with him, and I’m happy to say that Good Vibrations wants to pitch in as well! We’ll elaborate further very soon, but for now: Teachers and speakers, address consent this summer! Work up your thoughts, organize panels, keep notes. Bloggers, blog! We’ll cook up topics and make blog rings about various elements of consent. Tweeters, tweet! Sex conferences—make consent a significant part of your programming! Sex/kink clubs and parties: Let’s make sure the places where people negotiate for sex and play are right there in the middle of the equation!
Let’s get everyone talking about consent this year. Let’s get it into sex ed curricula in places where it’s absent. Let’s help people understand what it is and how it works. We’ve already had a Summer of Love—now let’s have a Summer of Consent.
Then, we can make like a Beach Boys song and seek to make summer last forever.
See you at Catalyst West!
PS–Melissa Gira Grant appears at the Center for Sex & Culture tomorrow afternoon (3/21/14) at 4pm for a live-audience Whorecast with Siouxsie Q–she was at CatCon as well! C’mon down and meet the stunningly smart Melissa and learn about sex worker theory and issues.