I’ll Just Go Next Year!

I’m seeing a lot of really great events wither and dry up, and it pains me.

People on the Internet are often taken to pining for real-world experiences. It’s all good and fine to write and chat and read Wikipedia, but actually meeting meaty people and singing, laughing, dancing, and sharing fellowship together is something you absolutely cannot get via the Internet. However, you can’t really convince netizens of this, until you can drag them away from their flickering screens and sit them down in front of a campfire.

This also wanders into my frustration with Pagans who think/expect that anything a shaman/spirit worker can do, they should be able to do remotely and for free. I can’t count how many emails I’ve received from potential pastoral care clients who absolutely refuse to even meet via Skype, much less meet me in person. There are some things I cannot teach, or do, unless the person is right in front of me.

It sticks in my craw because I paid my dues by spending money and traveling. I am not well off; I don’t even come close to the poverty line. I have a ton of physical issues that make traveling difficult. But I do it, and I don’t complain about it. Sure, there are some events I can’t afford: if I feel very strongly that I want to attend, I will contact the organizer and see if we can’t come to an agreement. That’s the secret reason I started teaching classes at events – I would never, ever be able to afford to go to the events I do if I didn’t get a work exchange. And this negotiation doesn’t have only be with the event staff – if an event can’t offer you a comp in exchange for volunteering, ask the people attending if someone might need a service person who will pay your way in exchange for your help. (As a note from someone who hires these sorts of people: It’s good to know what you’re good at and what you’re able to do, and be honest up front about what you can and can’t do. And once you’re at the event, you better live up to your end of the bargain if you ever want this sort of arrangement again!) You might be able to do a quick fundraiser: “I want to go to LokiCon, so for the next two weeks I’m offering [skill or craft] for [wacky reduced price].” Heck, I’ve had organizations pay my way to events in exchange for me placing fliers on tables for the organization and talking up what the org does to the attendees!

Travel can be tricky, but I frequently take on carpoolers on longer trips and ask them to pay a portion of my gas. Sometimes, everyone in my car will pay for the gas, and my contribution is the miles I’m putting on my car. When I’m riding with someone else, the fact I have a handicap parking placard has been a bargaining chit.

Obviously, there are ways you can make the trip more affordable, too. You can share a hotel room, or check out a couch surfing site and see if you can’t find a couch to crash on within walking or driving distance of the event. You can sleep in your car. You can bring all your own food, which is usually cheaper than relying on fast food all weekend. You can ask other attendees if someone is willing to rent floor space in their accommodations for either money or service. (I know someone who got free floor space in a hotel if they made sure coffee was ready for their roomies every morning!) See if you have any friends or relatives who live nearby you can crash with – or even friends-of-friends. Heck, I’ve seen gamers at big gaming cons bring a sleeping bag and find a secluded spot and rock the homeless experience.

Anyway, my point is that there are billions of ways to attend an event if you really want to – too many people only see the obvious – “I can’t afford a hotel room to myself and the entry fee, so therefore I can’t go”.

The other refrain I hear a lot is “I really want to go to that event. I will go next year!”

This makes an erroneous assumption: people tend to assume that, unless otherwise blatantly stated, all events are annual. The truth is, I’ve seen many events die because they couldn’t get enough attendance in their first year. As much as it might seem to make sense to stay home and hear stories about how it went before deciding to go, people like owners of campgrounds/convention centers, staff, presenters, etc are willing to take a risk on a first-time event. However, if the first year tanks, few of them will listen to the cries of “Oh, but 8,000 people on the Internet said they’d come next year!”

The biggest wound of the first-year flop goes to the organizer. They’ve taken a dream from raw thought to fruition, likely with a ton of support from Internet people who really want to see the thought become a real thing. They ride on the enthusiasm and spend a ton of money on things you’d never notice unless they weren’t there – nametags, copies of the program, a moving van to get all the decorations/furniture, etc – and they sign a bunch of contracts. Many take out bank loans. They stress all of their close friends and lovers, usually conscripting them into non-consensual service when they realize the job is too big for one person.

And the biggest secret of all: Very few, if any, come into the black when the day is done. Most count themselves lucky if they break even. If they wanted to make a profit, they’d have to raise the ticket price; thus, less people would come and they’d still be in the weeds.

The other song and dance about events that I’m pretty tired of? I wish someone would come to East Bumblefuck and do something like this there! It makes me shake my head for many reasons:

1. Do you know for certain that if such an event came to the Bumblefuckians, the attendee list would have more than one name (you)? Do you have a grasp on whether or not the other Bumblefuckians (From South Bumblefuck) would find out Honeycomb Hideout (wherever you’d want to host the event) and beat us up, burn us, bring the media, tell the hotel we’re hosting secret gay bdsm orgies?

2. Have you thought about asking the person who is running the event in a well-considered, centrally located, metropolitan location with access to worldwide transport, to come to East Bumblefuck and run the event there? Since it was your idea, you do understand that means the organizer will likely have tapped out all of their funds running the first one, so the implication is that you will foot at least part of the bill?

3. Because it is very unlikely that the organizer lives within a reasonable distance of Bumblefuck, do you know someone who is able to find and secure a venue, and take care of the bigger picture logistics?

Now, I could go on, but there’s really a summation coming, so I’m jumping ahead.

8,264. Or you could just ask the organizer if it is cool with them if you organize a similar event in Bumblefuck, and whether it would be officially recognized as connected to the first con or a rogue event with an understated agreement?

Here’s the thing: In the communities I inhabit, I am seeing a trend. Many of the gung-ho event organizers are reaching their mid-40s or early 50s, which, according to Merriam Webster, is “too fucking old for this shit.” Lacking serious, committed younger members who seem not only interested but capable of taking the mantel, the events make the only other choice available to them – to stop.

Here’s a micro-example of what I’m seeing:

Etinmoot is a small gathering at Cauldron Farm. It is an ritual event for person who worship and work for the Jotun-blooded Gods of the Northern Tradition. It has been running since 2007. Part of the reason the event is in limbo is because the people who planned and executed most of the rituals, were also in charge of running the event logistics. After this year’s event, the gythia (Priestess) stepped down so she could work on other projects. If no one steps up in the next few weeks, the event dies.

Part of the reason the event dies is because it is an awful lot of work to plan and execute, and the people who have run it in the past don’t have the energy or drive to keep going. One thing that will kill an organizer’s enthusiasm needed to push through all the stress and work to get an event off the ground is apathy. People aren’t excited enough to tell their friends about it. They make FB posts that say, “I don’t really know if I want to go CockCon this year…” People don’t get involved in the pre-event chit chat or planning. They may not even look at the online schedule to see what awesome classes there were and when (so they could make a mini Google calender to remind you where you want to be…or is that only me?) And of course, the big honker, is a) they just don’t come at all, or b) they cancel at the last minute and demand a refund.

So now that I’ve gotten my bitchiness off of my chest, let’s talk about positives – ways you can encourage event organizers to start or keep running events that matter to you, how you can support events even if you can’t attend, and stuff like that:

1. Just effing go. Even if you pick one event every year, instead of going to the same one all the time, try going to a fledgling event instead. Don’t let strange people or uncomfortable circumstances get in the way. Remember, your life is made up of stories you leave behind, and “They stayed at home and watched “My Strange Addiction” all weekend.”

2. Be creative about the money. Some events have scholarship funds, and few advertise them so they don’t get every cheap-o asking for handouts. Come up with a brief, honest paragraph on why you want or need to attend this event; follow it with what you are willing to offer in exchange for entry. It should be noted that sometimes the event can’t scholarship someone, but an attendee might out of the goodness of their heart. Ask the attendees if they would like a service person/assistant, luggage lugger, personal chaffeur, companion/date, gopher, or whatever other service you have to barter. (Currently, I could really use the services of a graphic artist…) And if you really can’t go, maybe you can toss $20 to someone who needs help- and ask them to write up a report/make a presentation when they get home.

3. Don’t assume all events are annual. Especially these days; the market is a little glutted with adult retreats in general (at least on the Eastern Seaboard of the US), so it takes a lot for a first-time event to stand out and get the kind of attendance that will make it abundantly clear that the event needs to be repeated. It’s actually a better bet to assume all events are one-time-only; that way, you’re sure to have the experience you want. If it turns out to repeat itself, then you can decide leisurely if you want to go a second time.

4.The least you can do is tell your friends. It doesn’t cost you a thing to make some posts on social media talking about how cool the event is. You may even find a gaggle of friends/chosen family to get together and donate towards a ticket or two, and then have a blind drawing to see who gets them. But at the very least, if you support the event, there’s a better chance it will be back next year.

Catalyst Con East: An Event Review (Of Sorts)

This past weekend, I attended Catalyst Con East, a sex and sexuality event in Northern Virginia. I was very excited, having been recruited to speak on a panel about Transgender Sex and Sexuality, a topic I don’t ordinarily present on (except as a side topic when teaching other things).

I was flabbergasted (in a good way) at the quality of the sessions offered; I opted out of the pre-conference workshops because a) One less night at the hotel and b) they were an additional charge. But there were nationally known presenters and educators – Tristan Taormino, Charlie Glickman, Carol Queen, Cunning Minx, and more – teaching on some incredibly important and interesting subjects. I was very disappointed that the session I was speaking in conflicted with both the panel on Body Size/Fat and Sexuality, and the one on Sex and Disability. But it’s common, when attending events, to find several scheduled for the same time slot and being forced to choose.

Rave and I arrived early Saturday morning, to register and be on time to attend Rev. Rebecca Turner’s session, “Spiritual Sexuality: Ending the War Between Religion And Sex”. Long time readers of Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars will obviously know why I was so keen to attend. I share with you her session’s description, quoted from the website:

Opposition to same-sex relationships, sex without marriage, contraception, and abortion all fuel the so-called “Values Votes” in national elections. Research shows that the most religious people in America are the least likely to engage in “non-coital” sex. Do religion and sex have to be at war? Which faith teachings support fulfilling sexual lives? Can sex be a spiritual exercise? Can religious faith support women during an abortion? We will address the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality in American culture. Participants will be encouraged to construct their own spiritual understanding of healthy sexuality and to create sex-positive spiritual messages to use in activism.

So there were undertones that she might be speaking more about Christianity’s views on sex and religion, but it was never stated outright. In fact, I (and others, as I later learned) was expecting her to speak to the fact that not all religions see sex as unholy thing. But unfortunately, Rev. Turner’s point of view was squarely from her own experiences as a Southern Baptist, and then United Church of Christ, minister. I almost sorta wished Galina were there, as it might have been at least more entertaining, knowing Galina’s thoughts on how monotheism has destroyed our culture (not that I agree with her entirely, but it would have been fun to watch.) I made sure, in the beginning, when she asked why were attending, to point out that I often represent minority religions (not just Paganism, either) in places where “spirituality” was discussed. I could write tomes about how this session ended up being both problematic and inaccurate, but lets just leave it as I was sorely disappointed. Luckily, I had high hopes that the other sessions I planned to attend would be more inclusive and interesting.

And I was right. I attended Darcy Allder and Quetzal Francois’s session called “Making Comprehensive Sex Education into Inclusive Sex Education”. Although it was definitely focused on sex education for school-aged children and teenagers, since I am starting to branch out into teaching teenagers about LGBTQI stuff, I found stuff that was both applicable for that as well as in my work teaching adults about kinky sex. They were incredibly engaging and interesting speakers, and I ended up having lunch with them on Sunday to try to come up with information they could use when addressing disabled and overweight kids in regards to their sexuality. (I hope I helped in some way, although I felt like I was floundering a lot.) The very best thing I heard from them was a way to discuss trans-ness without using the word “trans”, like “If your penis is pole-shaped, you can use a condom, if your penis is more flat or closer to your body, you can use a dental dam or saran wrap.” That way, if a FAAB child thinks of their clitoris as a penis, they are still getting safer sex education without having to think of themselves as transgender, or without having to name as such in order to get it. I think, in general, that was the eye opener for me, and something I will definitely try to use more – language that is inclusive of trans* experience/anatomy, without necessarily calling it such. I may even come up with a class on that all on its own for future events. The other thing they talked about that I wanted to share was how to avoid personal disclosure when teaching about sex – like when someone asks “Are you a boy or a girl” or “Well, do *you* do it that way?” – by coming up with a pat answer that drives them back to the subject at hand. Also, the use of the terms “Some”, “Many” and “Most” when describing sexual stuff that is common or uncommon – that way, you avoid saying “Nobody does it that way” or “Everyone enjoys sexual stimulation”, which can distance people who do or don’t feel the same. I love it when someone sparks that sort of thinking in me. Much redemption after the disappointing first session.

After that, I attended Charlie Glickman’s session, “How to Be a Top Presenter”. And he specifically used the word “Top”, as in “one who runs the scene”, because he sees teaching sexuality to a group of adults as “topping them” – providing a safe space for them to go from point A to point B. It gave me some reminders of educational tools I used to use more often, that have fallen by the wayside; mostly, making sure to create a “container” for the class – setting group agreements, talking about confidentiality, and articulating goals for the class. And he even called me on my excuse – that it takes time away from the actual subject matter – but he reminded me that if people are too nervous to learn/share/experiment, then more material won’t help them any. After years of fighting the idea of using Power Point in my classes, he finally won me over; so I’m going to start experimenting with it in some of my upcoming gigs. I took copious notes, and am finally excited to revisit some of my more popular classes and see how I can revamp them to make them even better.

I took a break for most of the rest of the afternoon, having gotten up very early and not having a lot of sleep the night before. I did catch lunch with my friend Mako, and got to meet some of the other people who have been on his podcast, which was a lot of fun. (Also, seeing Rave try tapas for the first time. She is so sheltered when it comes to food!)

That night, we attempted to attend the “Sexy Soiree”, but it was in a very small room and we couldn’t maneuver around at all. I am very unused to being a wallflower at parties, but it was really the only place where the chair would fit without being in everyone’s way. So we opted to go down to Sexy Bingo, which was not at all what I expected – I assumed it would be yet another awkward ice breaker where you had to walk up to people in order to fill out your card. No Siree! This was a raucous, actual Bingo Game with cards and beans and prizes! It was hosted by Ducky Doolittle, who was just the right mix of sexy, silly, and engaging; and the rep from Sportsheets kept coming in with more and more prizes. I came away with a lovely purple silicone cock ring. Now I just need to find someone to use it with!

Sunday was full of great stuff, too. I was late to Reid Mihalko‘s talk about how to make money as a sex educator and presenter, but I was still able to get some stellar ideas. I also had a huge revelation in his class – the way to make money as a presenter does not lie in asking events to pay more money for your classes! Reid’s mantra throughout the class was “The information I am giving away is priceless!” Instead, he filled my head with a million ideas on how to monetize my work, both as a shaman and as a sex educator. You’ll very likely see a lot of these ideas manifest here on Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars in the future, so I won’t ruin the surprise! He even gave me really good advice personally, on how to stand out in a glutted field; I have frequently bemoaned that although many people see me as an expert on Needle and Blood Play, I am never, ever asked to teach these subjects; there are just too many people doing so, and I have so many other classes to choose from, events tend to choose people who have less diversity to teach them. But that shouldn’t be the reason you choose someone to teach something as dangerous and complicated as blood play; you should be choosing people based on their ability. So I have some work to do to make sure more event organizers and programming director understand this and start booking me for those classes as much as any other.

The next session I attended, I wasn’t so sure about. I almost chose it just because nothing else in the slot looked interesting or applied directly to what I do, but in the end I’m really glad I went. It was called, “What’s So Special About Sex?”, led by Ava Mir-Ausziehen. Her thesis was basically that if we, as sex educators, make sex out to be a “special” thing, and not a mundane, human activity, it has some harmful consequences. I thought it was a daring tack to take at such an event, and it turns out that’s why she wrote it. We talked about how treating sex as “special” affects obscenity laws, sex workers, and even just the perception of those who have fulfilling sex lives. I added some comments about how sex is listed on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a “physiological need” – something as important as clothing, shelter, and food; but many homeless shelters and other resources for the poor and disadvantaged see sex as something nice to have – many shelters ban sexual activity altogether, and homeless and other street residents rarely have private places to engage in sexual activity, and anything done in public is subject to decency laws. The session also discussed how if we see sexual proclivities (such as homosexuality and non-monogamy) as biological, we’re saying that they are less than human, but animalistic drives we cannot ignore, which may work against us, and not for us, in legal and moral acceptance. (It makes things like monogamy seem like a civilized way of being, and homosexuality as something that can be overcome, similar to other bestial behavior, such as murder). It was like a palate refresher, to be having this discussion at a sexuality event.

Finally, it was time for the panel of which I was a part. Moderated by Harper Jean Tobin, and featuring Yosenio Lewis (who I’ve meant to meet for a while), Avory Faucette, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and myself. I was happy to see a good distribution of trans*masculine and trans*feminine people, as well as third-gendered and non-op trans* people. I think a lot of good things were said and shared, and it met the mark of not being a “This is Trans* 101” class. I quoted my friend Aiden’s now-infamous pick up line, “Whatever you’ve got, I’ll suck it”, which went viral on Twitter as soon as I said it, as well as my terminology “factory installed” vs. “after market”. I also declared myself the Trans* Pope, as I now have a habit of declaring myself the Pope of things to make declarations. It was a fun panel that spoke to a myriad of topics including medical professionals, women’s and men’s only spaces, terminology, and even a short demonstration by Tobi on how to make a “cape” – a barrier for people for whom condoms are too large/long, but dental dams are too unwieldy. I will be spreading this far and wide, as well.

It was finally time to go home; there was a closing plenary and “afternoon tea”, but I was pretty beat (as was Rave) so we opted to have lunch with some new friends and then tottle towards Hagerstown. Overall, I was very enthused and excited by much that happened at Catalyst Con, both in the sessions and outside of them. I had a talk with a psychiatrist from CA about setting up Skype classes to teach mental health professionals about how to treat transgender patients without pathologizing (or focusing on) their transgender status; I also spoke with more than a few people about future teaching gigs; and I got more than one come-on. Overall, a splendid way to spend a weekend.

The one last thing I wanted to comment on: it was really nice to go to a sex and sexuality event that was not focused on “how to” or instructional classes. I really feel that our local area is glutted with events that focus on that sort of thing, and sorely in need of more educational conferences that talk about sex and sexuality related topics from an academic or intellectual place. Not only did it give a much needed range of new and interesting topics to choose from, but the atmosphere was much less sexually-charged (although it had its moments), and was much less threatening from a standpoint of feeling overwhelmed by the sexual energy and possible expectations from other attendees. I mean, this was held in a hotel at the same time as some sort of Muslim event, and nary a problem was had (that I’m aware of, at least). It was nice to have programming end before midnight, with no pressure to appear or perform in a public play space that evening. I wonder if some of the local sex events that are lagging in attendance might not try adding some of these sorts of sessions and reducing the amount of instructional and hands-on workshops, and see if they can’t pull in a different set of attendees. I would also suggest that events who are trying to cater to newbies, think about the same thing.

I would highly, highly recommend future Catalyst Cons (which happen on both the East and West Coasts) to fellow sex and kink educators, sex geeks, and academics who are studying sex or sexuality in all its forms. It might be a little too “thinky thinky” for your average kinkster, but if you like geeking out about sex and things related, you would love this event.