Catalyzing & Inspiring at CatalystCon

The wonderful sex-positive conference CatalystCon, held twice a year, draws a variety of people: sex educators and community activists, academics, students, writers, sexuality professionals across a range of experiences, from sex workers to therapists. It’s all pulled together by the indefatigable Dee Dennis and her friends in the Evil Slut Clique, held (in the spring) at a cute Marriott in Crystal City, VA (just across the river from Washington DC), and that was where I headed after my weekend at South By Southwest. First, of course, I had to high-tail it out of Austin, and that was almost a problem because my dang iPhone likes, when I travel, to move all the times on my calendar. It somehow thinks it’s helpful for my appointments to shift when I cross time zones, to which I say: Apple, really? Because this was almost the second flight I missed because of that helpful feature.

But I made the plane! And I almost missed the next one because I was sunk so deeply in email at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, where I had a layover, that I didn’t hear my flight get called. But I squeaked onto the plane nevertheless! And soon I’d landed in DC.

If I don’t hide in my room at these conferences, sucking up hotel WiFi and getting things accomplished, it becomes a schmoozefest of grand proportions. And so it was at Catalyst! I had the same table for meals each evening, and it allowed me to see and be seen, joining one fantastic conversation after another. This is, of course, one important reason to attend — seeing colleagues, catching up with them, hatching new plans for sex-ed world domination, and meeting the people they know. Networking like crazy! In this field, of course, our friends are so frequently our colleagues, and vice versa, that you can maintain connections with far-flung pals just by attending cons and, for the adult industry folks among us, trade shows. One purveyor of fine playthings, though, told me she got as much from coming to these as to industry shows, and indeed, almost all of the alt-sex-store crowd was there — owners came or sent their representatives, since this sort of networking and learning is a great way to provide educational contacts and, in fact, continuing ed to store staff. Good Vibrations was a sponsor, and many of our “sister stores” were in the mix as well.

The opening plenary panel is always terrific at CatalystCon; this one was no exception! Moderated by Tristan Taormino (who was all over the place, teaching a pre-conference intensive, promoting the excellent Feminist Porn Book of which she’s a co-editor, and actually taping her radio show, Sex Out Loud, right there at the conference), it also featured Ducky Doolittle (who used to go by the moniker of Crackpot Sexologist, but let me tell you, this gal is no kind of crackpot — she brings fierce charm to any conversation); Dr. Hernando Chavez, fabulous sex-positive therapist from LA; passionate and articulate porn star jessica drake; and damn what a brain academic, and also Feminist Porn Book editor, Dr. Mireille Miller-Young. Sex educators from many points in the spectrum — the thing about sex education today, partly due to the truly terrible and disappointing sex ed most young people in the US get, is that outside of high schools, it’s as diverse as can be, and that includes diversely delivered. These panelists might speak primarily in different contexts and to different sorts of people, but their synergy was amazing.

And — even if you weren’t there, you can follow along on Twitter! The panel hashtag is #cconOK — and the basic conference hashtag is #ccon. Each panel and presentation had its own, so you can explore all the great content at your leisure. (We may not have our flying cars and robot girlfriends yet, but with Twitter, the future is definitely here.)

I worked in my room for part of Saturday but emerged to appear on a super-thought-provoking panel, Slut Shaming in Sex-Positive Communities, with co-panelists Serpent LibertineFemcar, Crysta Heart, and jessica drake. #cconshaming

Here’s the description: “Does ‘sex positive’ always mean acceptance of the sexual appetites of others or other communities we’re not involved in? Why is it acceptable for sex-positive individuals to bash or criticize the sexual proclivities of others while claiming to be supportive allies? Based on our collective experiences within the sex worker, BDSM, swinger, poly, and queer communities, our panel will lead a discussion that examines some of the ways we’ve witnessed slut-shaming from those we’ve expected it least. Additionally, we’ll discuss why initiating conversations about these incidents can be even more challenging than speaking with folks in the vanilla world. By confronting this issue, we hope to find better ways to stimulate conversations among sex-positive individuals and learn how our words and actions can have an impact on others who lack understanding of our communities.”

I bet you can guess what I said! In a word, if a community slut-shames, it is NOT sex-positive! Period, end of story! The kinds of shaming discussed ranged from “We’re sex positive, you’re a ho (or porno slut)” to “There is no place for slutty sex in BDSM.” And I also consider it a variant of slut shaming when women (especially) in sex community are treated as though they have no boundaries. But that’s the thing: sex community, even wildly-sex-drenched community, is not the same thing as sex-positive community. And it’s not uncommon for sex community to include many people who are not sex-positive, since “sex-positive” doesn’t mean, “Woooo! Sex is awesome!” (although, if you feel that way, good for you!) — it means that we acknowledge everyone’s right to consensual sexual expression of the kind that’s right for them. Hence: no room for saying that another’s (consensual) eroticism is inappropriate. That’s NOT, I repeat, sex-positive.

After that, I spent an hour doing Tristan’s radio show — she even had a teeny studio audience, and it was in a glass-walled room, so people in the hall could see us. I’m not sure when this will air, but I’ll try to let you know — and in any case you should know about Sex Out Loud, since Tristan knows pretty much everyone in the sex-related universe — that makes for fabulous and multi-faceted sex conversations.

Rachel Kramer Bussel usually runs her In the Flesh reading series (#cconITF) in New York, but she brought the show to Catalyst and curated a great group of readers and performance poets/storytellers. “From erotic poetry to down and dirty smut, these authors get naked on the page and will make you lust after them and their words,” promised Rachel, and so it was! Performers read truth and fiction, came from varying places on the sex and life-experience scale — I wish you could have been there to hear everyone! Regie CabicoCunning MinxEmeraldReid MihalkoJoan PriceKristina WrightRachel Kramer Bussel, Mo Beasley, Robin Sampson, Susana Mayer, Cameryn MooreElle LadyCheeky Chase, and I all shared our sexy stuff.

And just in case that got anyone swooning to be a writer too, we got up early the next day for a panel: How to Become a Successful Erotic Writer. 

Rachel Kramer Bussel had put Emerald, me, and Kristina Wright  on this one (hashtag #cconwriter), but I’d been approached by Bethany from Blushing Books at the opening panel; she joined us too. Having an actual publisher on the panel — that seemed logical!

“Hear authors who’ve written and sold hundreds of erotic stories dish on what you need to make your work stand out. Topics will include: getting started, where to find calls for submissions, how much money you can expect to make how to market your work, rights, self-publishing and e-books, and more.” That was the official description, and we covered the waterfront, also telling the stories of how we got into erotic writing.

And then, because no sex conference can go on these days without a panel or presentation about 50 Shades of Grey — it’s, like, a law — I joined convener (and Ccon sponsor) Tom Stewart from Sportsheets, Kristen Tribby of the Pleasure Chest, and Rachel Kramer Bussell (we practically spent the weekend together!) on The Fifty Shades Phenomenon and Its Effect on Our Social Sexual Behavior (#ccon50).

“This panel will look at the consuming psychology inspired by the Fifty Shades trilogy phenomenon and discuss new Fifty Shades-motivated shoppers coming into an adult store for the first time, as well as return customers,” the panel blurbage promised. “More than a decade ago, The Sex and The City episode ‘The Turtle And The Hare’ introduced viewers to the Rabbit vibrator. Shoppers responded with demand and sex toy manufacturers responded with supply. While consumers’ bedrooms buzzed night and day, so did the factories, knocking off and churning out new variations of the Rabbit. The panel will discuss why the Fifty Shades phenomenon is more than just a flash in the pan and look at it from the points of view of a sex toy manufacturer, retailer, sex educator and writer of erotica. People of all ages that have never been into an adult boutique, are now walking in, having conversations with complete strangers and purchasing sex toys. How are Fifty Shades readers responding to the sex scenes in the trilogy and what could this mean for greater acceptability of BDSM/sexual practices in North America and beyond? Is the Fifty Shades phenomenon reaching only soccer moms in the suburbs and how has this demographic being inspired by the Fifty Shades wave and to what degree? Are college-age students the next consumer? What are they doing? What are they buying? How are they shopping? What guidance might they need from educators, social media sources and bloggers as they become the next major consumers of sex toys?”

Sportsheets had just repackaged and further developed their line of frisky BDSM gear (or, as they like to put it, Sex & Mischief — so clever, Tom!) when the books hit. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! But all of us, from toy developers to retailers to writers, have seen the effects on our business of this amazing phenomenon. Some people like to do a critical view of 50 Shades, but we were all either boosterish or interested analysts (that’s me, because I really like teasing apart the cultural elements of this “perfect storm” publishing phenomenon: increasing comfort with sex and BDSM in pop culture and romance; e-reader ascendance; fan-fic that appealed to Twilight lovers; the somewhat-unfortunate moniker of “Mommy porn” that, nevertheless, made the media go nutso; and the increased visibility that this wrought. I even saw billboards for the series at the airport).

Plus — Tom brought a video of the Sex & the City Rabbit episode! Can you believe I’d never seen it? I didn’t feel like I had to, after I sold my 17-jillionth Rabbit Pearl vibe.

Then it was finally time for the piece de resistance: I’d been honored with an invitation to give the CatalystCon Closing Keynote Plenary Address with my partner Robert. “Afternoon Tea with Carol Queen and Robert Morgan Lawrence (#cconCK) was intended to give the Ccon attendees a taste of history — many of them are young-ish, some new to the whole world of sex education and sex-positive activism — and it was important to us to convey as part of our remarks how long this alt-ed world has been generating important people whose names they may never have heard before, people like Cynthia Slater, David Lourea, Maggi Rubenstein and Steven Brown. Without the already-established examples of Pat (now Patrick) Califia and Susie Bright, too, I’m not sure how I might have imagined the career I’ve had, and there have been many other important influences along the way, too — now, of course, my longevity in the scene and varying roles mean that sometimes people think that way about me.

Here’s how Catalyst described the talk: “Drs. Carol Queen and Robert Lawrence wear many hats: They are one of sexology’s long-term couples, polyamorous life partners and founding directors of San Francisco’s Center for Sex & Culture. Before they made a home at CSC, they roamed the country teaching alt-sex skills at any venue that would host them and once taught a fisting workshop on a tarp-covered pool table. They’re the founders of the live, public Masturbate-a-Thon and the stars of Bend Over Boyfriend. In 2009 the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Sainted them for their work in the community. Robert is a disabled veteran with a lot to say about sex and disability (and everything else) who’s working on a book about sexual anatomy (he’s been lecturing on these topics since 1973), and Carol is Staff Sexologist at Good Vibrations, an award-winning author, and a two-time Grand Marshal at San Francisco Pride who debated ‘Promiscuity: Virtue or Vice?’ at Oxford. Join them for tea and conversation as they host the CatalystCon East closing keynote and share a lifetime of sex-ed renegade fun and a special call to action for a new generation that wants to make their own life’s work on the path of sex education and pleasure activism.”

So we did tell many tales, including some from the dawn of Good Vibrations; recited the dirty limerick from the first day of our relationship; and, I hope, gave the massed Catalyst attendees some love. There sometimes seems to be very little center to our sex education world, which is part of the secret to its diversity today, but the fact is, if anyone made it in the door of this conference, they are some type of sex educator, professional or not, trained or not, and we all have a role to play. We also looked at some of the opportunities and challenges we see for those who want to make their way as a sex educator: for one thing, that just about everyone out there needs some kind of education or support. It’s a potentially vast, and certainly largely inchoate, field. Just as the opening panel showed us a variety of ways it can be done, I hoped our closing panel would also inspire attendees to think about the opportunities as well as the ways the path sometimes takes a steep turn uphill. “Don’t forget to fund your retirement!” I reminded them. (I did this because discussions of money and sustainability had been buzzing around the conference — and rightly, valuably so.)

The closing keynote was sponsored by Sportsheets International — thanks, Tom and Julie! Also big thanks to Metis of the fantastic toy company Tantus — another Catalyst sponsor that will be familiar to Good Vibrations shoppers, along with our friends at Aneros — whose idea this plenary presentation was, and HUGE gratitude to Dee Dennis (and her evil slut gal-pals) for working so very hard to put on a tremendous, and tremendously important, conference. They are already taking suggestions for presentations for September’s CatalystWest! Clearly, no rest for the wicked, especially not the wicked-fierce activists that they are.

There was a whole evening of schmoozing ahead, quality time with Dr. Constance Penley (another of the Feminist Porn Book editorial posse), Metis, Susana Mayer, Tom from Sportsheets, and bunches of other conference friends. There were Reid Mihalko, Charlie Glickman, Aislinn Emirzian, Greg from nJoy, sexual empowerment coach Amy Jo Goddard, Dylan Ryan, Sinnamon Love, and Tristan Taormino sightings, and there were even fabulous people listed in the Catalyst speakers’ list that I didn’t even glimpse in the hall. But there’s always next time!


Photo: Tyler Keegan Grigsby (tylergrigsby.comfacebooktwittertumblr)

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at

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4 Responses

  1. Epiphora says:

    It was so great to meet you briefly at Catalyst! I had to catch my flight before your closing keynote, and I deeply regret it as it sounds like it was one of the highlights of the weekend. Never again!

  2. I have been unable to stop talking about how life-changing Catalyst in general and the closing keynote in particular was for me. Thank you so much for all that you and Robert do, all you have done and all that you are to this community.

    So much love…

  3. says:

    Wish that a similar kind of event can be held in Asia where people can openly talk about sex in an atmosphere that fosters open discussion!

  4. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful and amazing and (insert other happy words here) the closing keynote was. You and Robert really should start to do podcasts (and then have them available for sale to benefit your Center!) along the same lines as the closing. It was inspirational, educational and empowering. I say podcast because these things need Robert’s voice.
    saying “scrotum”.

    I wish I had had the ability to speak to you in person, but alas my social anxieties took over and I had to retreat. Perhaps next year I will have more courage.

    Thank you both, for everything.