A couple weeks ago, I committed to posting longer, more well-thought-out answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation. Here’s my answer for day five!
5. What inspired the workshops?
For this week, I’ve got another (longish!) excerpt from an as-yet unpublished work (my book about transformative erotic writing, which I wrote for my MA degree) – there’s a bit of explicit discussion of sexual trauma in here, so just be easy with yourselves, ok?
My friend K and I were always talking about sex. Both of us survivors of sexual abuse as well as women who had been known to enjoy an erotic interlude or two (to put it mildly), I think we each reveled in sex talk with a friend who viscerally understood some of the complicating factors of our sexuality and erotics.
We’d discuss sex toys, orgasm, sex with men versus sex with women, noise, and technique. We talked about triggers and how to get through them, and how deeply frustrating it was to have triggers to get through at all: that is, how aggravating it was to be both a survivor and sexual.
We talked about how sad it was that we didn’t have more of these kinds of conversations with other women. Both of us believed that we would feel less lonely, isolated, crazy and abnormal if we could hear what other women thought and felt about sex. We also figured more women’s sex would be better–more relaxed, playful, satisfying on any number of levels–if they had access to safe, friendly, spirited and non-judgmental sexual and erotic conversation. We bemoaned the fact that sexual information was so restricted, regulated to particular conversational settings, despite the fact that every type of media is hyper-(hetero-)sexualized.
It was during these early “how do we create a better sexual landscape for ourselves and others?” conversations with K. that I began developing the idea of a writing group for women where the writing exercises would focus on sex and sexuality. Women would have the chance to write about sexuality and desire, have the experience of being heard by other women, and get to be exposed to rarely-discussed aspects of other women’s sexual lives and desires. We would learn that we weren’t so crazy after all, or so alone–that, in fact, many others shared our unspoken fears, concerns, fantasies. We would speak aloud all the things we’d been trained from infancy never to say–and find ourselves more fully alive due to our being less afraid. We would publicly and more fully inhabit our erotic intricacies.
Two or three things I know, but this is the one I am not supposed to talk about, how it comes together–sex and violence, love and hatred. I’m not ever supposed to put together the two halves of my life–the man who walked across my childhood and the life I have made for myself. I am not supposed to talk about hating that man when I grew up to be a lesbian, a dyke, stubborn, competitive and purposely lustful (Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure).
… and the blossoming of the erotic writing practice
K. loved the idea for the group and was always encouraging me to get one going so she could be a part of it. I regret not moving on the idea until she had moved out of the everyday cosmology of my life. Before I could get to them, before I could work up the courage to start something so massive, I believed I had to get myself fixed. How could someone as fucked-up as I was around sex and sexuality lead anyone else around the articulation of sex and desire? It didn’t take me long (only a few years) to realize that I’d never be “normal” when it came to sex, as well as begin to question the very idea of “normal” when it related to something as vast (and culturally-constructed) as sexuality.
I initially imagined a writing group that would be open to women of all sexual orientations who wanted to explore issues related to sexuality as we live it and struggle with it, wanted to create something different from a survivor’s support group, something more along the lines of the sex-writing workshops I had attended at OutWrite, the queer writer’s conference that used to be held in Boston every February: “Come and spend an hour writing dyke smut,” the copy in the conference program would entice. I always went and wrote, and simultaneously sat uneasily in the ever-present conflict of gender, sexual desire, language, and history. No one in the room wanted to talk about the difficulties some of us had with sex. Didn’t we hear about sexual problems enough? Couldn’t we just please come together and spend an hour writing hot queer sex?
I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a room with other gender-transgressive women and writing, then listening to and sharing my own, explicit sex scenes. Yet, I knew I couldn’t be the only one in the room who was having trouble abandoning all qualms, and struggled with the belief that I would be judged negatively by the facilitators if I didn’t participate enthusiastically and unreservedly. I understand that the facilitators wanted to create a “sex-positive” space, and didn’t want to say anything that would bring anybody down. But how could we create room for a complexity of emotions around sexual expression?
I think it’s possible to be sex-positive while acknowledging the sex-negative stuff that the vast, vast, majority of all of us have had to put up with in our lives. It had come to the point where it was easier (not easy, but easier) for me to talk about my stepfather orally raping me in my adolescent, afternoon bedroom than to describe what I fantasize when I masturbate. As women, we tend to be more allowed to talk about the bad things sex can do, and has done. We’re not supposed to acknowledge the pleasure we want or have taken. And thus the positive becomes scarier to talk about–more dangerous, more transgressive.
Thus, in 2002, I offered here in SF a writing space in which I and other women created the writing we all needed to read. We gave ourselves the liberating experience of sitting with other survivors, engaging in an erotic writing practice, speaking (of) our erotic selves–and being heard. This is how I came to develop the erotic writing group project for queer women survivors of sexual abuse.
Now a bit of an addendum: When I was trained/certified by Pat Schneider as an AWA workshop facilitator, I knew I’d found the structure and containment for a non-clinical and non-therapy-based writing place for survivors. And after I’d been doing the work with survivors and women-identified folks only for awhile, I started an erotic writing workshop that was not survivor-focused and was open to everyone – folks who identify across all those gender and sexuality spectrums. What an opportunity, to write with folks very different from you about erotic longing, and get to experience all the similarities where you’d thought for sure there’d be differences, get to hear the differences where you were sure there’d be similarities, get to have assumptions about the correlation of desire with identity dismantled, all while getting, too, to do some fun and hot writing.
And it was after that workshop was up and running that I finally found the courage to begin a writing workshop, not erotic writing focused, for women survivors of sexual trauma.
So, this is where the workshops sparked from… so powerful to get to return to that story now and then, to get back into the core impulse and import of doing this work, at least for me.