Scottish Conference 2015: Highlights & Reflections

“But who doesn’t know about sex?” This is what a university friend of mine recently asked me when we were talking about Sexpression’s work. Well. You can assume that by university age, you know what sex is, and you may have had some. To be honest, in a sex-saturated culture (which still somehow manages to stigmatise sex, but that’s another issue), we all know sex at least exists. But what does sex mean? Sex isn’t just the act itself – it’s emotional, it’s physical, it’s psychological. That’s what Sexpression is all about – providing good-quality education about sex (and relationships, because all too often that word gets forgotten in discussions about this) from every angle, because few of us know as much about sex and relationships as we think we do.

Good-quality sex and relationship education is also needed because we’re in a world where changes in technology, medicine, legislation and attitudes are ever accelerating, and it’s vital that we stay on top of these changes and what they mean for sex and relationships, both as educators and as well-rounded people. This is where Sexpression’s conferences come in. These are weekends run by Sexpression branches where other branches are invited to come together, attend talks and workshops, share ideas and get better informed about the work we are doing from other professionals, campaigners, sex workers and so on.

The most recent Scottish Conference was held in St Andrew’s on January 31st and February 1st. The whole weekend was packed with talks and workshops (as well as a competition to win sex toys, which I’m gutted I didn’t win) and it was great to meet and talk with so many like-minded people. Below are some highlights from the talks and workshops I attended.

The first talk of the weekend was delivered by Mistress Megara Furie, a Glasgow-based Dominatrix who spoke on the topic of pleasure from a kink and BDSM perspective. She’s actually written a great blog about her presentation, which I would encourage you to read here. As part of her work, Megara is passionate about breaking down the stigma and myths surrounding kink and BDSM culture, and that’s what she was doing here. As well as speaking about the general principles and ideas of BDSM and kink – most importantly, that it is ‘Safe, Sane and Consensual’ – she also spoke about her own work and gave case studies of some of her clientele. I like to think I know a fair bit about kink and BDSM culture, but this talk was very enlightening and I do feel much better equipped to talk about it now than I did before.

Particularly fascinating was a case study Megara brought up of an elderly trans woman who was essentially looking for help with transitioning. Megara explained that the trans woman felt guilty about transitioning, so Megara worked in her Dominant role to help her go shopping for women’s clothing and told her what to do so as to remove the decision-making process from the trans woman, which helped to alleviate her guilt. Megara also built up her confidence about presenting as a woman in public, for example, by meeting up with her for coffee and reassuring her throughout that it was okay that she was out in public as a woman for the first time.

One of the key things to learn from this, and some of Megara’s other case studies, is that kink and BDSM is not just about sex and whips and chains: it doesn’t have to be about that at all. People come to Dominatrixes not necessarily to be spanked, but to be submissive, or to get something which they are lacking in other parts of their lives, emotionally and/or physically. Often, these submissives are people who have a large amount of control and dominance in other parts of their lives – the home, the workplace and so on. These may also be people who want to explore their interests in an environment which supports them rather than stigmatises them. They may thus come to the Dominatrix for a release from these pressures and stigmas, and that can involve anything from a man dressing up as a woman maid and doing household chores to being tickled non-stop for a few hours. Kink and BDSM have a very significant psychological side, one that I wish I had the space to write about fully here – the power dynamics are as important as any sexual side, or indeed are more important in a lot of scenarios.

Our second talk of the weekend. Publisher Jill Hollis spoke to us about the radical sex education book aimed at teenagers, “Sex and Lovers”. The book, by the way, looks amazing; it focuses on learning about your own body and enjoying yourself rather than just on biology and STI prevention, and it has some beautiful photos of real people having real sex to boot. It has some interesting statistics as well, including:

  • Porn vs reality: one to three positions are commonly used during sex in real life, while five to eight positions are likely to be seen in pornography
  • UK opinion polls in 2013 found that the public were overestimating the occurrence of teenage pregnancies by twenty-six times (twenty-six! Way to go, guys)

Jill spoke about translating the book from the original German and the media storm it received around its publication in the UK last September. Coverage focused mainly on the apparently ‘scandalous’ nature of the photos of ‘real sex’ in the book (they aren’t scandalous, by the way), although there was some positive reception in some publications nonetheless. It is strange to note, however, that these positive features were often dropped from Scottish editions of those publications. Jill had no idea why, and nor do I – any takers?

Jill also discussed the 1918 book “Married Love”, written by British academic and women’s rights campaigner Dr. Marie Stopes as an earlier example of sex education literature. What Jill quoted from it, I think, sums up the need for sex and relationship education quite well:

“Is not instinct enough? The answer is No. Instinct is not enough. In every other human activity it has been realised that training, the handing on of tradition are essential.”

In other words: while sexual arousal is inborn, the ability to enjoy sex needs to be learnt. That’s why we need to talk about it.

She also brought up another choice quote from Matt Groening on the subject of taboo the stigma around sex:

“When authorities warn you of the sinfulness of sex, there is an important lesson to be learned. Do not have sex with the authorities.”

The third and final talk of the day came from Sophie Holloway, head of Ladies Come First, a campaign for social sexual responsibility aimed at students. Sophie’s business is pleasure, particularly from a woman’s perspective, and the campaign focuses on four principles: Territory, Pleasure, Boundaries and Communication. Now, this was honestly one of the most empowering things I have ever witnessed. Like the previous talk, the focus was on sex education based on enjoying sex rather than just the basic ins and outs; hence the emphasis on sex and love, though not just being in love but the mutual respect and love of another human, as well as the emphasis on the mutual exchange of pleasure.

Sophie’s talk included discussions of the ‘hymen myth’, the fact that female arousal is more complex than just ‘being wet’, the outdated notion that sex is just about penis-in-vagina penetration (it’s really not) when in fact it’s about the whole experience, and communication as key to the foundation of a good sex life. This was my favourite talk of the Saturday and one of the most empowering things I have witnessed in my entire life.

Fast forward to the Sunday and the final talk of the weekend, which was from Shea Wong, an activist, writer and media mental health consultant who focused on the relationship between sex and mental health, particularly from her own perspective of being a married woman with bipolar disorder. The talk then turned into a close to ninety minute-long discussion on mental health in general. Among many important points, Shea stressed the vital message that mental health issues do not have to get in the way of a successful relationship, something that you’d think was obvious but is actually quite hard to put into practice without communication, understanding and openness. She also highlighted in a discussion of the stigmatisation of mental health issues that self-stigma is one of the most harmful parts of this, and, in her words, ‘If you fear your mental health issue it will take away your agency’. On the subject of the portrayal of mental health in the media, she also brought up that tiresome trope of ‘head-clutching’. All too often do we see photos and videos of people clutching their heads as if that is the most accurate portrayal of someone suffering from a mental health issue, and that is something Shea rails against as it’s a part of the unhelpful attitude mainstream media encourages towards mental health issues. Aside from this talk’s relevance to me as a SRE educator, a great amount of it rang far too true and relevant to me and my life. Shea is a powerful, well-informed and inspiring speaker and I urge you to look up her work. It’s a shame she hasn’t done a TED talk yet, but she really should.

The conference ended here, on a hugely uplifting note. I had the two hour coach journey from St Andrews to Edinburgh to digest the weekend, and, to be honest, I don’t think I’m done yet, but writing this blog has been a start. I urge you to attend a Sexpression conference at some point if you can as they really are very useful and very, very fun.