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It’s a sticky summer day in July and a heterosexual couple in their mid-40s, married for 22 years with two small children, is playing with tiny, colorful blocks at Rhizome in Takoma. Each creates independently for a few minutes, and then shares their work.
The woman displays a sheet of white paper covered in different colored blocks, each hue representing an action item: “picked up kids” in blue. Then, “vacuumed floors” in green. Above that, “mowed lawn” in orange. Represented in pink, atop all the tasks: “extremely hot sex.”
She titled the graph “Choreplay.”
“It’s mental for me,” the woman says. If her husband has done the chores, she feels “like he cares about me, and our house, and our relationship. Like he’s invested.”
Her husband considers this for a beat. “I had no idea.”
She practically shouts, “Oh my god, really?”
He smiles. “I’ve got to start making a chore list.”
Their task was part of creator Jennifer Beman’s Graphic Sex Project, which encourages participants to self-report “data” about their sex lives to create graphs—small art pieces, really—that can act as conversation starters or tools for self-reflection.
Beman is one of a handful of Washingtonians encouraging people to do something that so often can prove daunting: just talk about it. Now, when women in particular are speaking up about rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, these locals are fostering open dialogue about sex, sexuality, and relationships in an attempt to normalize and destigmatize talking about sex at all. If we can speak frankly about sex and partner relationships, we can better push back against abuse.
Katrina L. Pariera, assistant professor of communication and sociology at George Washington University, is going on her third semester teaching her self-created class, “Sexual Communication.” In this #MeToo moment, Pariera considers the consequences of no conversation: “When we don’t talk about sex, we create a space for shame, misinformation, stereotypes, and all of these things that can further perpetuate rape culture and abuse of all different kinds,” she says.
These local discussion groups aren’t at all formal therapy sessions, their hosts say, but the goal might be described as therapy-lite: Arm people with the ability, and the permission, to talk about their bodies and hearts.
Rebecca Hassell, a professional chef and entrepreneur, hosts a monthly discussion group called Women Uncorked at The Lemon Collective in Park View. Inspired (with permission) by Beman’s original Women Uncorked group gathering at Rhizome, which Beman still hosts, Hassell brings together small groups of anyone who identifies as female over homemade sangria, snacks, and a discussion topic. Staying on-message is hardly mandatory, but a recent starting point was pubic hair.
During the chat one attendee says, with some anxiety, that she just wants to know what other people do. Turns out, all manner of things; a myriad of styles of pubage are apparently en vogue. One point, though, seems clear: Many are preoccupied with what their partners or potential partners, mostly men, prefer.
With all Uncorked topics, Hassell’s mantra is, “You are OK,” and “Everything is normal.”
Each Uncorked begins with a proclamation that she’s not a professional, just a guide. Medical concerns, or issues a licensed therapist might take on, are outside her purview.
Uncorked is typically a group-led discussion of “What do I do?” type questions. The answers are like an advice cocktail of “here’s what I’ve done” and “maybe you should try/read/say this.”
Participants may ask one another how to handle mismatched libidos, or what dating app to use, or where to start when investing in sex toys. Most people are strangers, which Hassell says actually allows for more freedom than a typical debrief with pals. Many Uncorkers leave with a bond and a sigh of relief.
Hassell wants to expand the conversation among men, and is working on getting a second discussion group going. When it comes to an Uncorked-style kickback for guys (which she wants to call Men On Tap), she says, “I am confident that there is a need for this kind of group. I am not confident there is a demand.”
Pariera similarly sees a need for men to be involved in these conversations. The first time she taught her Sexual Communication class, it was all women; the second semester, it was about a third men. She says it was kind of surprising to have no men in the class at first. Conversations about sex, she says, can tend to be about women’s sexuality in an “embrace your sexuality, explore your fantasies” way.
“I think it stems from the idea that we see male sexuality as this unidimensional force, like men are just hypersexual all the time but women’s sexuality is this complicated thing, or [the perception is] that women are more repressed,” Pariera says. In her class, she says the male students seem just as eager to “look at how we talk about sex.”
If Hassell’s men’s group gets going, she muses the first topic might be, “What was your sex education like?” to ease into discussion with a not-so-deeply personal question. But, she says, she wants men to let themselves be vulnerable and have the courage to discuss and ask questions about sex, as the women in her groups do.
“I would love to create a place where people can take off the mask,” she says, “if only for a little bit.”
H. Alejaibra Badu and Ashley Stafford are bringing discussions of sex and relationships to Anacostia with their group “Black Love WDC.” Black love, Badu says, is unique.
“Going to work as a black person, to interacting in regular society as a black person, when you add those stressors and triggers to the dynamics of a black relationship … we’re in them trying to figure it out,” he says.
Part of what Badu calls decoding “some of the mysticism when it comes to black love, dating, and relationships” is gathering people at The Madison House in Anacostia, which he founded, to watch the Oprah Winfrey Network documentary series Black Love. He credits co-moderator Stafford with the idea. On Oct. 6, a group of about 20 singles and couples met for the first time to view and discuss the show, which premiered in late August. They continued to meet on subsequent Fridays.
The show’s first episode was OWN’s most-watched unscripted series debut in its history. It will return for a second season next year, featuring interviews with Tina Knowles Lawson, Rev. Run, and Sterling K. Brown.
Pride is a big point to consider in black relationships and love, Badu says. “Loving yourself as a black person, to actually want to fight and stand up for black love” is critical.
At Black Love WDC, co-moderators Badu and Stafford employ an “anonymous box” to allow attendees to field questions without any hangups. Some of the questions that came up on that first Friday tackled monogamy and polyamory. Someone asked plainly, “What constitutes a relationship?”
“We’re not always comfortable expressing things,” Badu says. In some black households, “the freedom to express oneself openly wasn’t always a factor. … We don’t talk, we hold things back.”
The first meeting, Badu says, seemed to offer people a chance to step toward understanding, or a platform to speak. It was, he says, “an entry point for clarity.”
When it comes to talking about sex, Pariera says there’s a reason people stay quiet. “If you think there are going to be repercussions—and that could include ‘Hey this guy I work with is doing something sexual,’ or maybe if someone’s joking with you about sex and you don’t want to—then you don’t do it,” she says.
In her classroom, she seeks to normalize not only talking about sex in general, but the dark side of sexuality. Our culture, she says, is pretty good at joking about sex, but not so great at talking about important and difficult things.
That’s changing, though. The Silence Breakers are on the cover of Time. Powerful abusers’ careers are punted into the garbage heap with each passing day. And while Pariera says talking about sex is, in general, good, we must remember that communication isn’t a cure-all. Talking about both the lighter and darker sides of sex and sexuality is crucial—and she stresses it being OK if a person doesn’t want to talk—but we have to go further.
“We have to also listen to people and, as a default, trust them when they say something is wrong,” she says. “And we have to minimize the repercussions for coming forward.”
Beman, for her part, repeatedly describes her colorful blocks project as “non-threatening.” She likens the experience to playing with toys. “If sex was more playful, if all of us were free to think about sex in a more playful way, that would be awesome,” she says.
Step one of the project: Consider your “typical sexual encounter.” Step two: Grab a handful of one-centimeter colorful blocks, and assign each color a part of your encounter, e.g., “foreplay,” “intercourse,” “cuddling.” Step three: Create a timeline of said encounter using blocks on a blank piece of paper. Step four (optional): Take a photograph, which would be added to Beman’s collection.
Some graphs are from her Women Uncorked events, many are from Beman’s run at Artomatic this spring, and some are from local raves. “Everyone interprets the instructions so differently, everyone’s idea of what a graph is is so different,” Beman says. It’s not exact “data,” but more an artful, personal reflection of our perceptions of sex.
Many graphs have “oral” or “fingering” blocks. Several include multiple orgasms. A blue block on one male graph, immediately following “talking/laughing/brain stimulation” represents “consent.” Some aren’t even “graphs” at all, just a pile of many colors. One is shaped like a dinosaur.
One of Beman’s takeaways since beginning the project is that people’s definition of a “sexual episode” is quite broad: “Some of them start right at groping, but some of them start with the morning coffee.”
But the real draw for folks is to think about their own sexuality or reveal surprises, as the “Choreplay” duo did. Some people realize that they’re not getting the right quantity of something they like, or they’re feeling something good, but would like it at a different place in the story arc.
Now that she’s seen the “therapeutic aspect” to making the graphs, she’s expanded into bringing them to couples’ workshops she’s run, and is working to make the website interactive so visitors can create graphs online. She says the graphs help people see the answers to “What do [other] people do?” And so she wants them to realize: “You are fine, you are good, you are right, and you are normal.”