This year at Burning Man, I taught my signature sex ed class, Girl Sex 101. I’ve taught it many times since I debuted it at the Burn in 2006, including NYC and San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture. This year, I brought it back and was thrilled with the results.
The first reason was because of my wonderful demo model. Demo models for adult sex-ed class are such wonderful gifts. It’s not easy to show your goods to a room full of strangers, but I believe it to be an essential part. For many women who don’t watch porn (and even those that do), they never get the message that women’s parts come in all different shapes and sizes. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see, in person, what another woman’s body looks like, it’s easy to fall into the trap that you’re not “right.” Body fascism isn’t just about weight- it comes in all forms (hence the despicable “labiaplasty” procedure).
Demo models are also irreplaceable because they can help demonstrate the true individuality of women’s pleasure. What may work on you, doesn’t necessarily work on your girlfriend. By asking simple yes or no questions, or by gently experimenting, we can learn a whole lot about women’s bodies.
My demo model was sweet and gracious and forthright. But best of all, my demo model for Girl Sex 101 was a man. Well, he was a man with a pussy, but he was most certainly a man.
That morning he explained to all of us that he used male pronouns, which made perfect sense to me, since he did indeed strike me as a man. But there were plenty of us camping with our camp that used variations on pronouns (there were a handful of “theys” but no “zies” as far as I remember), so I was sure to pay careful attention to how people identified themselves rather than jumping to conclusions.
When I started demoing with “Joe” however, I made a quick mistake of referring to “her vagina.” He corrected me, and I used the correct pronouns for the rest of the class. I got a huge private thrill from saying things like “his clitoris” and “his breasts” in front of a room of 75 people to be sure. Afterwords, we were both super jazzed – Joe had never been publicly identified as male while undressed in any way, and I was happy that I didn’t screw up verbally and together we were able to subvert the gender paradigm so awesomely in such a public forum.
In taking one on one questions after the class, one woman came up to me, visibly confused. She asked me why I was referring to my model as a man. Even though I was sure to address this at the beginning of the class, I assumed she was either late or that my unwillingness to belabor the point left her unsatisfied. I addressed her question, teaching her the word “transgender.” This didn’t satisfy her- her furrowed brow said as much. She asked what I meant by “gender.” I explained to her the difference between biological sex and gender identity, and how the latter is actually just a collection of socially determined rules- not anything “real.” The furrowed brow remained. I gave her some examples, but she continued to ask why anyone would not be happy with gender roles. Not wanting to teach Gender 101, I explained how it’s really just fun for a lot of people to try on genders like putting on new outfits, and how some of us work hard to make the outside look more like the inside. I explained that Joe was someone who was working to make the two look more alike, and his pronoun (along with his name and body hair and clothing) were part of that process. It’s “gender-bending” or even “gender-blending” for some of us, I explained. More question marks appeared in the space above her head.
“You know,” I said. “Like a drag king.”
“What’s a drag king?”
“Or a drag queen,” I offered.
“What’s a drag queen?” she asked.
“Like RuPaul?” I said, helplessly. “Do you know who she is?”
The woman nodded.
“So, RuPaul is both a woman and a man, right? She is two personas in the same body. RuPaul decides which side of her she’ll present to the world, and it has to do with the way she dresses, speaks, walks, etc.” I nodded, hoping it would get her to nod, too. She didn’t.
I was silent. So was she. We stared at each other, across a chasm of culture that I wasn’t even sure existed anymore.
In the end, one of us changed the subject, and I answered some of her more basic questions about female arousal and communication. She hugged me and left.
At Burning Man, of all places, I have certain expectations. Granted, there are plenty of troglodytes, chauvinists, and willfully naive people, just like in the rest of the world. But I took for granted a certain amount of exposure to new ideas. Somehow this woman had to have made a series of rather specific choices that got her to this experimental artistic community in the desert. Though there were nearly 60,000 people there this year, I expected that each of those people lives in the sane bubble, where it is both thrilling and relatively easy to talk about the awesomeness of transgender bodies and the ineffable qualities of gender identity. Or if not that, at least in a place where such questions exist. Yet this woman and I encountered one another, and shared a rather intimate experience through the class, and yet understood so little about each others’ individual paths that led us to that place.
I forget so easily sometimes. It’s easy to dismiss out of hand hatred, or a simple unwillingness to learn. Conversations about Prop 8 and Thomas Beaty reinforce such culture divides easily. But when confronted with someone who simply had no frame of reference for such important aspects of my world, I was left completely befuddled as to how to behave. Reference pop culture? Try and find common ground? These tactics work, but only take us so far.
It’s remarkable to me how large the divide can be between two kind, engaged people. I wonder what idea will blow her mind next. I wonder about that myself, too.