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.