In a bright, beige conference room at Los Angeles’s Westin Airport hotel, Reid Mihalko, who describes himself as “the golden retriever of sex educators,” leans over to me and takes stock of what’s in front of us. “There’s just so much good brain sex here,” he says, gesturing at the crowd. “Look who’s here.” I follow the direction of his gaze. He’s right. We’re completely surrounded by people and organizations whose writings, teachings and research have placed them on the bleeding edge of sex activism and education. To my left I see Joan Price, the unstoppable 73-year-old powerhouse spearheading the sexy aging movement. To my right, goddess and activist Jessica Drake. Over there stands Dirty Lola, the founder of New York’s sex-focused revue Sex Ed A Go Go. Between them, a small ocean of sex-toy store owners, kink educators, sex therapists, queer and trans activists, sex workers and international experts who flew here from as far as Russia and Australia. There are also mini muffins. So many mini muffins.
We’re at CatalystCon, a sex convention that’s anything but conventional. Whereas most sex conventions cater to niche groups that exist under the larger umbrella of sexuality, CatalystCon’s broader vision sets them apart: Pull together everyone—and I mean everyone—from the worlds of sex and sex education, feed them pastries and see if the workshops, meet-ups and conversations that take place there are, ahem, catalysts for positive change.
Let me spoil it for you: They are. When you bring together a hugely diverse group of sexperts including sex workers, the inventor of the world’s first rim job butt plug, a black sex therapist who specializes in trauma, a disabled, polyamorous ex-librarian and a 73-year-old whose late-life sexual renaissance inspired three books, you get results. The sheer range of CatalystCon speakers and attendees means that the widest possible spectrum of experience and expertise is represented. Each person’s own erotic prowess cross-pollinates to create some eye-opening moments of transformation, activism and growth.
Experts from every well lubed corner of the sex cosmos lectures and learns here. Topics include how cyberbullying affects women of color in porn, the surprising connections between disability and polyamory and the myriad ways that feminist sex-toy stores have changed the business of pleasure. In one workshop, “Queer & Trans Sexual Health,” I see nurses, mental health professionals and trans people brainstorm solutions to the medical system’s failure to address the needs of non-binary people. I witness people like Erin the Dating Advice Girl and Cathy Vartuli of the Intimacy Dojo redefine what it means to be beautiful in ways that have nothing to do with outward appearance. And perhaps most impactful, an ex-prostitute and an ex-priest engaged in an open relationship teach me how to communicate with people whose beliefs differ from your own.
The more you know about the people you want to fuck, the better you’ll be at it.
On the surface, these lessons may seem like they have nothing to do with actual, physical, “Did you just come on my pillow?” sex. Certainly, their direct impact on our genitals is more abstract than what happens at the Exxxotica Expo or Toronto’s Everything to Do With Sex show, where sex performers live-cam while nestled in cornucopias of sex toys (an X-rated version of The Last Supper if you will).
But race, trauma, bullying, disabilities and non-monogamy have everything to do with sex, including how to make it better. “The more you know about the people you want to fuck, the better you’ll be at it,” says Dirty Lola.
Considering the number of factors that influence sexual expression, and how those factors shape the individual who’s letting you inside them, is key. It helps us learn about individual experiences so we can develop an informed vision of how sex can change from relationship to relationship (or one-night stand to one-night stand). In turn, that helps us have safer, more skillful, more positive, more pleasurable and more boundary-pushing experiences. CatalystCon founder Dee Dennis tells me that that’s the cornerstone of “intersectional sex,” aka why we’re here at this convention.
Intersectional sex is not an official term, but it is colloquially used, including in this story, as a way to refer to sex that takes place between people who’ve considered each other’s identities before bumping. More specifically, intersectionality, per Oxford Dictionaries is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” In other words, how does one’s demographic and social qualities intersect with systemic privilege or oppression? And how can we use that information to dismantle those systems?
That’s not the sort of pillow talk most are used to, but how this pertains to sex—and making it better—isn’t as complicated as it may seem. Intersectional sex can lead to greater intimacy and pleasure because it pushes you to acknowledge and understand the parts of your partner you can’t necessarily see. That includes how race interacts with gender roles and sexual fantasy, how economic background influences what they know (or don’t know) about sex, how the shape and physical ability of their body either encourages or inhibits sexual expression and what it’s like to exist as multiple categorizations of ethnicity or gender.
Trust and comfort are just as valid as the orgasm and physical touch.
As demonstrated by the lectures at CatalystCon, this is important for you, you and yes, even you because making intersectional connections contributes to a culture of sex positivity. To view the erotic as more than just an incident of the physical and to recognize it as a result of broader cultural influence acknowledges that every single person is an amalgamation of sociocultural factors that either inhibit or allow them to have the kind of sex they truly desire. Exploring those questions of yourself with a partner helps to de-marginalize, validate and honor both of you.
“As a cisgendered white guy, I can authoritatively say that knowing how to navigate intersectional spaces will get you laid,” Mihalko tells me. After a pensive gaze, he picks up again. “As a man in a world where there is a lot of sloppy, sloppy men, I have to say that if you can be the guy who has a little more court awareness around cultural things and what your partners have to deal with on a daily basis, it will get you hella laid.”
Dirty Lola tells me that three recent male lovers of hers from New York’s variety show Sex Ed a Go Go have been men she’s met at sex-positive events like CatalystCon. Ordinarily, that might not seem newsworthy, but when you consider Lola is a queer, kinky woman of color, it is. Simply having a penis doesn’t qualify as as an all-access pass for her; her partners have to have a demonstrable sense of how the different parts of her identity interact.
“If you want to get into my pants, I need you to understand all of those parts of me,” she explains. “My current lovers are those who get the intersections of my identity. I know that may not sound hot or sexy, but knowing the person you’re fucking really gets you and isn’t going to inadvertently say something insulting or demeaning during sex takes things to a whole new level of trust and comfort.”
That’s not to say you have to know your partner particularly well, but, let’s always remember that trust and comfort are just as valid as the orgasm and physical touch. Pleasure doesn’t have to just be a physical bestowal; it can be a cognitive. psychic sensation as well, one we feel from people who understand us. It’s okay to do like Dirty Lola and ask for—even demand—that sort of gratification from your partners, regardless of whether they’re one-night-stands or one-hundred-night stands.
Zoe Ligon, a sex educator, visual artist and the owner of sex-positive adult-toy store Spectrum Boutique, is of the same mindset, explaining over email that “intersectionality has everything to do with how we give and receive pleasure.”
“Sexuality and the way we are intimate with each other is all on a spectrum,” she writes. “Gender, kink, sexual orientation, even sexual attraction itself is on a spectrum. Being mindful of the way our partner’s or partners’ experiences affect the way they move through the world helps us be more understanding and empathetic partners, and who doesn’t want a partner like that? In general, this all boils down to working to be a better communicator and listener. How can you understand someone’s needs without having a discussion about them first?”
Mihalko has some suggestions. “Getting into intersectional sex just means becoming more court-aware,” he explains. “Go to conferences like Catalyst or hang out with people who do. Sit in on workshops and lectures to learn. Consume information. Read blogs and articles. Listen to podcasts. Storytelling podcasts are actually a huge tool for exposing yourself to new perspectives. Be hungry to learn this stuff, and the information will come to you.”
Simply having a penis doesn’t qualify as as an all-access pass.
For him, being hungry and “court-aware” has meant examining his own identity as a cisgendered white man and what that privilege means. As he’s gone down that path of self-exploration, he’s educated himself on sexism, rape culture and consent as well as cultivated a more nuanced understanding of racism, beautyism and sizeism in order to understand the factors that may inhibit the way women experience pleasure. This, he tells me, has opened up a whole world of partners to him—the more informed and understanding he became, the more people who felt safe opening up to him.
Another way in is to simply ask your partner, or partners, about the intersections of their identity. Have a conversation. It feels good when people are interested in the parts of you they can’t readily see. “People always asks what makes a great lover. I always say if you’re a great communicator and listener you can be an amazing lover to anyone,” says Dirty Lola. “We all need something different and if you can’t communicate your desires or listen to mine, you’re probably not going to give me what I need to really enjoy sex.“
As I wander between a workshop about sexy aging and another on how to reframe the sexual narrative in cinematic storytelling, I think of my not-so-secret imaginary husband, aging cinema legend Bill Murray, and know that that’s true.