These Educators and Activists Can Help You Navigate Intimacy Now

They’ve taught people how to be close through H.I.V., S.T.I.s and now the coronavirus.

By Julia Carmel

This year, physical distance and safety became part of a suddenly urgent conversation for everyone. But for educators focused on intimacy and consent, questions about bodies and boundaries are a constant focus. Here’s how a number of experts are teaching people how to treat themselves and others well — and where they can teach you.

Who Has Time to Think About Pleasure Now? You Do.

Robyn Dalzen has facilitated consent workshops around the world for the last four years, often coaching individuals and couples through the complexities of physical intimacy. This work has now indefinitely shifted to the virtual realm.

“We all have desires and we all have barriers that keep us from speaking up and asking for what we want,” Ms. Dalzen said. “At a very fundamental level, just the process of naming our desire and asking for what we want is incredibly vulnerable.”

Ms. Dalzen became a consent educator after learning about the tool called the Wheel of Consent from its creator, Betty Martin. Ms. Martin invented the wheel based on two factors that are always at play when people touch each other: who is doing, and whom it’s for.

The wheel introduces nuanced ideas about “giving” and “receiving,” topics that are fraught for many people — and that some may have never thought to ask about.

“To have a lot more fun, consent needs to be expanded to mean ‘What’s our agreement?’” Ms. Martin said. “‘What is it that we both want? What is it that we both don’t want? What are some options?’”

“We arrive at consent together,” Ms. Martin continued, “instead of somebody giving consent or getting consent.”

There are silver linings to moving these workshops online; people who weren’t previously comfortable attending them, or who didn’t have the time or means to show up in person, are now able to participate. These conversations can also bear new weight in a year where perceptions of personal autonomy and privilege have changed for many people.

“When we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and major disruptions politically in this country and racial injustices coming to light — what place does pleasure have in this current reality?” Ms. Dalzen asked. “Is it something frivolous? Is it taking away from where we should be putting our focus and attention?”

Her decision remains that pleasure is necessary in the worst of times.

“The more connected we are — to ourselves, to our desires — and the more we express that in the world,” Ms. Dalzen said. “It’s not taking away from or diverting from these major social and health issues, but it’s actually focusing in on who we are as individuals and what kind of world we want to live in.”

Setting Boundaries at the Store

Nenna Joiner, who runs the Feelmore sex shops in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., kept their stores open throughout the pandemic.

In the store, Mx. Joiner, who uses nongendered pronouns, tries to show customers how to mindfully ask intimate questions and assert the boundaries of their comfort zones.

“The ‘no’ is powerful in the workplace, where there’s no sex happening,” Mx. Joiner said. “It’s powerful in relationships, and it’s also empowering in general. There’s always room for it.”

“We make sure we’re talking about exactly what the customer wants, regardless of what our personal beliefs are,” Mx. Joiner said. “The benefit of owning, operating and working at a sex shop is that you are really there for the needs of the community.”

Pleasure activists, and Mx. Joiner is one, believe that personal pleasure is important politically and that healthy sexuality gives strength and power to people — particularly those who’ve been ignored in these conversations.

“If you read a lot of the sex books that have been written out there, most of them were definitely not written with women of color in mind,” Mx. Joiner said. “When you’re thinking about pleasure, or you’re thinking about activism, you’re thinking last about brown women.”

Keeping It Spicy (and Educational) on YouTube

“Sex education is bad sex. It’s dry, it’s faceless, it’s monotonous, it’s boring, it’s systematic,” said Shan Boodram, who’s known as Shan Boody on YouTube. “So I wanted to utilize the education that I had gotten, which was interesting people, and salacious stories and story lines that you wanted to follow, and I wanted to merge those two together.”

Social media allows her to reach more people, including those who may not have the time, money or resources to attend an in-person workshop. Her videos, starting with their titles and image covers, are spicy — and straight to the point.

But once inside, she teaches people that the way they think about sex and, particularly, consent isn’t the same for everyone. “In the kink community, everything is a ‘no’ until you get a ‘yes,’” she said. “In the vanilla community, everything is a ‘yes’ until you get a ‘no.’”

“When you start saying to somebody ‘Oh, your lips are so sexy, do you mind if I kiss them?’ or ‘Your skin feels so good, can I run my tongue along it?’ consent becomes a part of the foreplay and a part of the dialogue,” she said. “Everybody benefits when there is sexy, enthusiastic yes-focused dialogue.”

Opening the Dialogue on Instagram

After Amalie Have was sexually assaulted in 2014, she wrote a blog post detailing her process trying to report the incident. She had a surveillance tape that showed a man approaching her tent repeatedly; two witnesses, who heard her saying “no”; and she completed a rape kit — yet her assailant was still acquitted.

Ms. Have, who lives in Copenhagen, said Danish women reached out to her about the post to share similar experiences. She took to Instagram to continue the conversation.

The platform allowed her to quickly and effectively mobilize people. But the backlash she encountered was also jarring.

“People were like, ‘Yeah, but you were traveling alone; you looked like you did; you had a few beers prior; you were sleeping in a tent; and you were wearing the dress you wore,’” Ms. Have said. “And especially the last thing — I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is interesting. Let me use that as a visual conversation starter.’”

She continued to wear the dress from the night of the incident, creating a project called “The Green Dress.” Her work has also taken her offline; earlier this year she campaigned for consent-based legislature at the Danish parliament and worked on Amnesty International’s “Let’s Talk About Yes” campaign.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, Ms. Have has watched it shape her life in both physical and digital realms. “You’re so aware of other people now, and whether they’re in your space or five inches from you,” she said.

“This has highlighted that we have a problem when other people set boundaries and they’re different from our own,” she said. “We feel like it’s somehow criticizing what we’re doing ourselves or limiting our way of navigating freely.”

She has also worked to keep the conversations about consent sex-positive: “Because I was like, OK, I also need to survive in this.”

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