AASECT 2017: Conference Reflections

AASECT 2017: Conference Reflections June 26, 2017

Being a folklorist who’s also a sex educator presenting at a conference mainly geared toward sex therapists felt odd, but it was also wonderful.

Conference badge selfie! One ribbon says "Presenter" & the other reads "Sex Geek."
Conference badge selfie! One ribbon says “Presenter” & the other reads “Sex Geek.”

I’ve been involved with AASECT – the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists – since I attended their Winter Institute on trauma in early 2015. I’ve been to one annual meeting, where I completed a SAR (or Sexuality Attitude Reassessment), and attended a second Institute as well, on sexuality inside and outside committed relationships.

I like attending AASECT, though it’s definitely a different vibe than Woodhull, which has been a favorite conference of mine for two years running. There are fewer sex educators, bloggers, and activists at AASECT, so I feel a bit more in the minority there. I don’t know as many people attending AASECT, so I was a little worried about my shyness going in…but it turned out to be fine.

For one thing, my and Lucie Fielding’s workshop on hungers and hypersexuality (abstract here) generated a lot of buzz. We were blown away to see that our hour-long talk was standing room only! We got a really positive response, including people asking when we were going to publish a book on the topic!

Our presentation was a phenomenal professional win, and I’m still riding that high. It felt extremely validating to have one of my major research interests – how gender and sexuality in fairy tales connect to cultural context – so well received by a field of study and career track that I landed in less than a decade ago. Usually, when I’m at folklore conferences I want to talk about sex, and when I’m at sex conferences I want to talk about folklore, and in both cases I feel like a total weirdo…but here, it worked out just great!

Again, I feel off being an educator and researcher at a conference that’s mostly aimed at therapists, but everyone was really warm and welcoming. I did connect with some old friends and make new friends, and nobody was like “wtf are you doing here.” In fact I had a few moments of “dang, sex therapists are awesome, maybe I should look into becoming one.” Then I remembered that I don’t really have the bandwidth for a lot of one-on-one transformative emotional work, so I’ll stick with being an educator who can cover similar ground in a way that doesn’t drain me.

If you want to see all the tweets, check out #AASECT17. The hashtag was not as active as I’d’ve liked… in fact I was one of the chattiest people on it (surprise, right?). I’m not linking to folks in my list below because my sense is that everyone’s pretty easy to track down if you’d like to read their work, but feel free to reach out to me if you’d like more information.

Some highlights from talks and workshops I attended included:

  • Hearing Douglas Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito define their OCSB model, meant to address Out of Control Sexual Behaviors, which might be labeled as porn or sex addiction; but as they eloquently argue, those models don’t serve the populations they’re meant to help (e.g. pathologizing sexual actions isn’t useful, whereas encouraging people to develop their own sense of sexual health, ethics, and boundaries is)
  • Hearing sex educators Joleen Nevers, Heather Eastman-Mueller, and Sara Oswalt develop a model for ethical decision-making for sex educators, which was a complicated flow chart but gave a lot of good food for thought (like encouraging people to figure out their biases and blind spots, and reflect on how their decisions impact their personal boundaries as well as their workplace culture)
  • Seeing Braun-Harvey’s solo presentation on envisioning sexual health, which was truly inspiring! (he argues that the six main principles of sexual health are mutuality, honesty, consent, pleasure, refraining from exploitation, and protection from unwanted pregnancies and/or STIs…why aren’t these being taught in sex ed, from school sex ed to adult sex ed, everywhere?!)
  • Hearing Michael Aaron present on psychological edge play (a form of kink/BDSM that involves challenging taboos/boundaries in such a way that play feels risky, even if it’s emotionally so rather than physically so) and how as a therapist he interacts with clients around this topic (there were a lot of great insights about the nature of shame and how we can work through sexual shame)
  • Witnessing a fantastic panel on the ethics of sex therapists/counselors/educators dating and hooking up, featuring Reece Malone, Russel Stambaugh, Ruby Johnson, and Angie Gunn (I LOVED how all the presenters shared about their different life experiences and described how they approach ethical dilemmas such as dual relationships and interactions with certifying bodies that have “no physical contact” policies, which, yeah, should be a thing, but then where do poly/queer sexuality professionals draw a line if they’re active in the communities they serve?)

I didn’t list David Buss’s plenary talk under highlights because I have extremely mixed feelings about it. I loathe evolutionary psychology and this talk reminded me of why that is: it was totally hetero- and cis-centric, basically ignoring the existence of people who are queer, asesxual, trans and gender-non-conforming, and so on. And we know that people like us exist in every culture and have always existed, even as gender and sexual variance takes different forms over time and space. So I’m quite miffed on a personal level. Buss made the occasional nod to cultural variation, noting that mating strategies obviously differ across cultural contexts… but I believe he thoroughly neglected the influence of culture (ranging from cultural conditioning, to shame and rape culture) when describing various studies he’d participated in or found compelling. There’s more ranting I could do on this topic, but I’ll leave it be for now.

I liked seeing many presenters make use of the dual control model (which I wrote about in reference to sexual arousal here), and I also liked how many folks were intersectional and sex-positive with their presentations. I wasn’t expecting to see as strong a social justice angle as I would at Woodhull, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a fair bit of it. I didn’t manage to attend much on my favorite topic, trauma, but I did see insights from trauma studies weaving in and out of various presentations, so that was nice. We definitely need to inhabit a more trauma-informed society ASAP, hence I’m glad that our country’s sexuality professionals are getting on board even if they don’t specifically work on trauma.

Braun-Harvey also instigated a discussion on the absence of pleasure from our conference paper titles (and I noticed a lack of pleasure in Buss’s work too, which mostly pissed me off), so I guess you could say pleasure was also a running theme of the conference, in a roundabout way. It’s ironic because so much of sex is about pleasure, and yet it remains a taboo topic for professionals to dwell on and promote, thanks to the pervasive sex negativity of American culture among other things. I would like to do work on pleasure and embodiment, but lacking research resources I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon. Plus, pleasure is diverse and diffuse and hard to monetize so, at risk of sounding cynical, who the hell would fund that study?

Finally…yes, the conference was in Vegas, and no, I didn’t do anything particularly Vegas-y while there. The trip crept up on me timing-wise, and I was just too exhausted to plan much. But I did eat some good food, such as this prosciutto, mushroom, and sausage Neapolitan-style pizza from Settebello:

Otherwise, no shows or trips to the Vegas strip for me. I went to sit poolside, like, once. Looking extra gothy, of course:

So, that was AASECT 2017. I’m not sure if this’ll be an annual conference for me, or an every-other-year one… I think it depends in part on what my co-conspirator, er, colleague and I decide to work on next!

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