Disclaimer: I realize that not all sex therapists, sex educators, sex workers, or sex professionals want to be inclusive and accepting. If that is you, I honor your path and encourage you to stop reading. This article isn’t for you.
I’ll admit that I struggle to use inclusive language sometimes. Being deliberate in my word choices can feel like a chore because I’m such a passionate, off-the-cuff, energetic person. Thinking about my words requires self-awareness, examining my motivations, and shining a light on my privilege and assumptions. It also means being as plugged in as I can with communities that may not be my own.
Honestly, until a few months ago, I considered myself a really open and accepting sex professional.
In my heart of hearts, I didn’t have any restrictions or judgments about people who were different from me, and it seemed like too much work to labor to change my words all the damn time to be super inclusive.
My heart was in the right place, my love and acceptance was limitless, so it was just me being a little careless with my words from time to time. No big deal, right?
That all changed when I attended the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit in August 2014.
First came the panel on sex worker’s rights. Holy shit, I thought. I’ve been using so many phases that shame sex workers and sex work.
I took copious notes and circled all the words and phrases I wanted to let go of.
Then, came a panel of sexperts including Nina Hartley, Buck Angel, and S. Bear Bergman. Bear started talking about how so many sex educators stress the importance of being in your body for a really powerful sexual experience.
As a trans man, he said, often the last place he wants to be is in his body. Being in his head, focusing on the other person – that’s where release was for him, escape. He also pointed out that masturbation for a lot of trans people isn’t an enjoyable experience the way it can be for cis folks. I scribbled more in my notebook and made a mental note to chew on that a lot more.
But it was during Cory Silverberg’s keynote speech that it all came crashing down around me.
He read his book, “What Makes a Baby,” and then talked about how much thought and effort he put into a story that would include all genders, all family units, all lifestyles and races and bodies, so that children from all backgrounds would feel like the story was there’s.
Cory talked about the power of words to change lives, to create powerful shifts, and to stimulate change – not just out in the world, but within ourselves. His speech was beautiful and moving.
To quote Cory,
“Language matters. If I use language that gets in the way, it doesn’t work.”
As an educator and coach, that struck a chord. I couldn’t let it go.
Admittedly, I spent the first half of his speech feeling angry and ashamed of my own resistance to change. The anger came from a place of discomfort. I was hearing an undeniable truth, and my excuses just didn’t hold up in the face of his eloquence and logic.
My ego was screaming, “But I don’t want to change! Change is scary!”
And then, I heard myself. I heard what a privileged asshole I was being.
There I was, enjoying the luxury of sitting at this conference with some of the greatest minds in the sex industry, with access to incredible resources and knowledge, and while I do suffer injustice and discrimination as a fat, cisgendered woman and someone who is queer, I was using DISCOMFORT as my excuse for not changing?
That was my a-ha moment.
Cory kept talking and I kept my head down, scribbling notes about his speech, but I was actually hiding the tears running down my cheeks. The wall of fear, the resistance to change crumbled, and suddenly, I understood.
I understood how my words shape the world around me. Not just the ones I say to clients, but the ones I say to myself and to colleagues.
I understood that my heart might be open to people who are different from myself, but my actions weren’t demonstrating that same acceptance.
I understood that as a sex coach, sex podcaster, and a sex writer, I hold tremendous influence to stimulate change, and I wasn’t using that power very responsibly.
I understood that inclusion isn’t about losing something of mine but gaining something of theirs – trust. Instead of being an island to myself I could become a part of a much larger world, and all it would take was being a little more deliberate in my word choice.
My journey is far from over.
The words I use and the way I frame the world are changing, but I still catch myself using language that might exclude or shame others. The awareness, though, is a part of me, and I hold myself accountable as often as possible. Ignorance is no longer an option.
It isn’t easy, but then, being an expert isn’t supposed to be easy. It takes work and constant growth and continual learning.
I’m up for the task. (I hope.)
You might be wondering why I’m writing this. The truth is I have seen some troubling trends from fellow sexperts in recent months, including a challenging conversation I had a few nights ago with someone who was using misogynistic language but claiming to be a feminist. And even after I called him out in a loving way, he refused to listen.
So, I’m putting my foot down. I’m drawing my line in the sand.
—————————– <– line in the sand
This is my plea that we, as an industry, push ourselves to up the ante on inclusion and intention. Many of us are already doing this, so let’s keep that going.
Personality and flair can be a huge part of our success in this field, so I’m certainly not asking anyone to temper their sass or mute their persona.
Rather, I’m challenging all of us to be more creative by keeping our volume and passion the same while making a few small tweaks to the way we use our words.
After all, how many people will hear what we have to say and internalize those words and lessons and use them to influence others (their friends or children, for example)? Talk about a butterfly effect!
If one word might shame someone and leave them carrying a wound while another word might empower someone and give them a sense of acceptance and freedom, as professionals, why wouldn’t we opt for the more inclusive and healing word?
At first, opening myself up to receive feedback and to listen to voices that were different from my own felt exhausting. When I saw stories about white privilege or cis privilege or ableism, it felt like a personal attack.
Was I so wrong all of the time?
But, learning new skills doesn’t happen over night. As professionals, we all know that the path to success and wholeness isn’t a linear, straight progression, but a bumpy, twisty, wild ride.
I started listening and absorbing. I set my ego aside as much as I could and tried to listen. The more I listened, the more people were willing to open up and share.
My list of words and phrases to avoid grew, but in their place I learned new phrases and new frameworks that were more inclusive of different types of bodies, different relationship models, and I became more sensitive to race and culture issues, ableism, classism, transmisogyny… The list goes on.
Instead of shrinking my world, though, this awareness allowed it to expand.
Despite being in lesbian/queer relationships for 11 years, I’m in relationships with cis men right now. I still default to heteronormative language when I talk about sex because that’s where I am – if I’m sharing a personal story, that’s not a problem. But if I use my personal experience and then broadcast that to the world as the way things are for everyone, that’s problematic.
Another example is that sometimes I forget that not all women have vulvas and not all men have penises. Or forgetting to ask someone’s preferred pronoun because mine has always been such a given.
I still have to remind myself (sometimes after making a gaff) that not everyone wants or is capable of a genital orgasm. Not everyone who looks feminine uses female pronouns. And like Bear said, that not everyone wants to be in their body for the ultimate ecstatic experience.
I want this industry to be at the forefront of social change and radical acceptance, and often we are. The people I met at Woodhull are a shining example of that. I hope to be so inclusive and inspiring someday.
As professionals, we certainly can’t serve or appeal to everyone (nor do we really want to), but we can still make an effort to examine our language to find ways to eliminate words and phrases that scream judgment, exclusion, and otherness.
We are setting an example for every client, every reader, every viewer who interacts with us.
Becoming aware of my blindspots and privilege hasn’t been easy, but it’s been necessary. It’s also been a road filled with mistakes and missed opportunities.
Let’s forgive ourselves for our missteps and be patient when we’re struggling, but let’s also push each other to do better, to think bigger, to create a sex-positive environment that embraces all of our beautiful diversity. If anyone is skilled in tough conversations, we are.
So let’s not be afraid to call each other out – lovingly and respectfully – to make sure we’re all doing the best we can.
As we’ve seen with the deaths in Paris this week, words wield tremendous power.
To follow Cory’s lead, I don’t want my language to get in the way, to shut someone down, to make them feel like they don’t belong.
I want my words to create space and to reach across the divide.
What words or phrases do you struggle with? What have you heard that’s been cringe-worthy, so that we can educate each other on stuff that might be ouchie?
If you’re not a sex educator or sex professional, what words have you heard that made you feel excluded or uncertain or left out?