Note: Please scroll to the bottom for some clarifications about our use of terminology in this article.
Greetings! We’ve heard that many of you do not know we exist. Allow us to introduce ourselves: we are WOCSHN (Women of Color Sexual Health Network), founded in 2009. We are women of Color (WOC) in the field of sexuality and sexology in the United States. WOCSHN was created at the 41st Annual American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) Conference in Phoenix, AZ when a handful of us noticed we were the only people present who were not racially White.
Since our creation, we have worked hard to collectively fundraise so several WOCSHN members could present their original research at AASECT. We succeeded in 2013 when 5 of us were able to join 5 other WOCSHN members at the 45th annual conference. It was the first time so many WOC presented and key topics addressing race were tackled, such as an overview of the LatiNegrxs Sex Survey focusing on the sexuality needs and concerns of racially Black Latinxs living in the U.S. and abroad. Notably, there was also a panel of Black women sexologists, all WOCSHN members, discussing what they need from those in the field to thrive, and how White people can begin to do work on their own to eliminate and destroy White supremacy in the field. Then, we fought hard and won so a People of Color (POC) Special Interest Group at AASECT could re-emerge. These are powerful beginnings, but by no means the end of the story.
Currently, we are working to:
A Response to Color-Free Roster of “Secrets of the Sex Masters” & White Supremacy In the Field of Sexuality
We share the above history because you (Carl Frankel and many contributors in the book) mentioned you were not aware of our existence, and we do not want that excuse to ever be used again, by you or anyone. In this day and age, ignorance about POC is more willful than accidental. We must all work to create a societal shift toward the intentional, positive inclusion of POC in this field, and that means White people cannot just be passive receptors of information, or wait until mistakes are made to address them. As one of our members—Aida Manduley, who originally called out this issue publicly on Twitter—noted in her personal post addressing this issue: “We will all make imperfect decisions; we just can’t be surprised when we get called out for them or expect that it excuses us from fixing our mistakes ‘because nobody’s perfect.’”
Your initial response about the lack of POC in your book was deeply problematic, as you now understand. We are heartened that, through your conversations with colleagues—namely the WOC who stepped up around this issue—you, your partner Sheri Winston, and some of the contributors (Charlie Glickman, Megan Andelloux, Jon Pressnick) have now made a public commitment toward increasing POC representation in your work and in the spaces where you have authority. We urge the rest of the contributors to do the same.
It is important for us to note, though, that your initial rationale is the classic White supremacy we battle everyday in our public, private, and professional lives. And that is the key: this is a blueprint that transcends, but very much involves, the field of sexuality. Many of us read your initial response as dismissive, as an unapologetic approach to our exclusion, which is reminiscent of the same tired patterns of behavior and neglect that are standard protocol in the field. This exclusion, whether intentional or not, carries a strong message. This is painful, both professionally and personally, because this is our livelihood and these are also our colleagues and friends.
Long story short: when your friends don’t fight for you or think with further depth about issues of racial justice, even when they have little or nothing to lose in doing so, it feels like shit. It feels like maybe you can’t trust the people you thought you could. It feels like maybe your struggles aren’t seen as real or “important enough” for people to get involved in if they’re not part of the same group. It feels like people only care about race when it gets them recognition and not when it’s out of the spotlight. – Aida Manduley
While a core group of the book’s contributors have stepped up to own their own mistakes in handling this, by not suggesting POC or even inquiring about it, or replying with mere “oops, didn’t think about it” statements, there are still many more who remain silent. This silence speaks louder than words, and we know that even within that list of contributors, some STILL do not understand why this entire situation is a problem. Some still think that “their work transcends race” or don’t understand “why race needs to be discussed in a book about sexuality at all.” Some think that having friends or partners of color makes them exempt from this critique, as if misogynists didn’t have sex with women regularly.
WOCSHN knows that you and your colleagues can and MUST do better. It is your responsibility as authors, editors, and contributors to this book to ensure that ALL the people involved understand what happened and continues to happen in this field. To foster ignorance and accept their point of view without challenge it is to be further complicit in White supremacy. We acknowledge you may not be able to change everyone’s minds, but you must at least try and begin those conversations, not just ignore them because they’re long or difficult.
In her Open Letter to White People in the Sexuality/Sexology Field, Bianca Laureano—author and co-founder of WOCSHN—states (in response to being silenced with comments of “the field is what it is” when bringing up white supremacy): “The field ‘is what it is’ because of the lives, bodies, and sacrifice of people of Color. From the life of Saartjie Baartman, to the enslaved African women experimented on by ‘doctors’ such as James Marion Sims, Henrietta Lacks, Black families in the Tuskegee Experiment, the forcibly sterilized Puerto Rican, Native and people with disabilities in the US; Rosie Jimenez, and the nurses, healers, doulas, midwives, and educators of Color save the lives of people every day make the field.” Bianca wrote and published this letter in 2012 and it is just as relevant today, years later.
Yes, for many of us, our bodies of Color do experience sex and pleasure differently. Our bodies are not solely genes and biology, but also the histories written on them and the myriad ways we have to navigate the world differently than White people, particularly for those of us who are racially Black and marked immediately as “Other.” Let us first remind you and everyone reading we still fight to this day to be seen as human beings. From the historical misuse and abuse of the bodies of women of Color in this country and abroad; to the current murders of trans women of Color because of how their gender, assigned sex at birth, and race intersect; the numerous Black men murdered by law enforcement; and the vast number of Native women who disappear and are murdered each year with no national outcry.
Some of us never even get the opportunity to really experience sex or sexual pleasure becausewe do not live long enough. Some of us carry shame about our bodies just by virtue of their color or the racialized traits they carry, which impacts how much pleasure we think we are even worthy of. That’s why any conversation about sexuality is also about race. That’s why the case of Mike Brown in Ferguson is not just about police brutality, but also about reproductive justice and White supremacy.
Why We Need POC-Specific Perspectives in Sexuality
Many people of Color in the field stop explicitly speaking about White supremacy and privilege altogether due to fears (and realities) of being pigeonholed into just discussing race and teaching White people. This tokenism must stop. Some downplay their cultures and ethnicities, like light-skinned Latinxs who could pass as White and choose to do so. We must make it so that POC do not feel shame over their heritage and do not feel the need to downplay their identities to be able to find speaking gigs and projects to work on. White people must acknowledge and act upon the fact that, collectively, POC can speak to every issue in the spectrum of sexuality and beyond. The beauty of what many of us POC do is that we weave all these stories together and acknowledge they are actually inseparable.
Had you reached out to a person of Color in the kink community, like Mollena Williams, you would have learned of colorism and race play, and the complicated intersections when POC kinksters are actively engaged in play that may feel contradictory to their values and historical narratives. Or you would’ve heard about how colorism can impact the lives of darker-skinned people who are believed to have to experience more violence so that a bruise or bump may be visible, or who have a hard time finding “kink guides” that don’t just show how different impact-play tools work on light skin. Or you would’ve heard of the varied experiences of POC in BDSM/kink circles being excluded, fetishized, and tokenized, and how this pattern is echoed outside the bedroom, how Black youth are often seen as older and less innocent than Whites. You would have heard of event-organizing principles to avoid incidents like #geishagate, when one of the most visible alternative sexuality/BDSM conferences (The Floating World) used a faux “Asian” font and the image of a white woman in a geisha outfit to promote their conference and then made a mess of themselves in addressing the issue when it got called out.
Had you reached out to a person of Color regarding genital anatomy, a conversation around the healing many survivors of female genital cutting and circumcision experience could emerge, or how intersex people of Color move through the world, or how our bodies are seen as being able to experience pain differently because of our race and ethnicity.
Had you talked with a person of Color on energy sex you would have learned of the trauma we carry with us through the work we do, how we still are trying to figure out how to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks whose body was medically abused in a way that has allowed many of us to live and survive today. You would learn how we manage those energies and pull from those legacies of our ancestral power to create an amazing experience. You would also learn how some folks may see this practice as a form of appropriation of many cultures and communities of which some of us are a part.
Had you reached out to someone of Color who does work in communications you would have heard so much about code-switching and how alive language is for many of us who may be children of immigrants or those of us forced to have U.S. citizenship because our homelands are colonies of the U.S. You would have heard about how colonization and oppression can directly impact our verbal and nonverbal communication, down to the words we use for our bodies and our sexual acts. The list of our expertise goes on.
Yet you did not do that. Instead, you chose to create a book that we’ve already read before: one that includes the usual suspects and voices. There is a reason why, if White people are asked for the “top names” in the field, all the names they mention are of White individuals. Whether intentional or not, you have perpetuated the stereotypes that: 1. We do not exist and/or 2. We are presumed incompetent and thus not considered “masters”. You acknowledged this in your revised letter, and we are glad that you have given this thought and named the impact of your actions openly. We are happy that you are now, with WOCSHN representatives, working to right this wrong. We must still make it clear to everyone, though, that when people recreate White supremacist approaches to knowledge production, they reinforce the same White supremacy.
What Should Be Done (And NOT Done) Now
We demand that folks to do the important work on their own of unlearning the White supremacy that impacts their daily lives and makes it more comfortable, livable, and peaceful. Remember that not all of us get to enjoy such basic needs and luxuries, and that while race and class are different systems, they are deeply intertwined. Do some readings on this topic. Attend conferences like Facing Race. Regularly check out sites like Racialicious. Watch Race: The Power of an Illusion (you can find it online). Read through the links on this post. Put all this in your calendars—we know we are all busy people, but you must make time for it as you make time to go to professional development events, spend time with friends, and do your own projects.
We hope that you, Carl Frankel and the contributors who participated in this book, realize the gift you have received, and that you honor and appreciated the WOC who have reached out to you and shared some of their most valuable commodities (time, knowledge, patience). It is a gift when we choose to build with you in a way that will hopefully result in the ending of the exclusion, erasure, and isolation of our entire lives and communities. It is a gift to have someone acknowledge you, speak to you in a respectful way, and from a space of compassion and empathy. We often do not get that privilege, and instead have to deal with derailing, harassment, and outright violence when we speak up and speak out.We ask that you and those reading, view this approach as a gift and example for future work. Remember that, regardless of tone, this is an important message and you must listen. See us as mentors and leaders and not just impolite, unprofessional, and angry women of Color as is the stereotypical caricature about us collectively. After all, we are fighting for our lives and survival.
And for all the White folks who are giving virtual and 3D “high-5s” to the White contributors in the book who are realizing their own error in not asking essential questions of themselves or others: what will you do differently? Instead of patting one another on the back for acknowledging you messed up, make a plan of action one that holds you each accountable, check in with one another, and do the difficult work that is needed to deconstruct and destroy White supremacy in our field. Be transparent and public with your steps. Then do this in your life in every other aspect. It is NOT enough to acknowledge one mistake and then leave it at that. It is NOT enough to be a baseline decent human being and expect praise.
Now that everyone’s watching, who will be the first to publish our amazing book of testimonios, recipes, healing strategies, community building, and pleasure many of us may seek? Will it be an academic publisher: NYU Press, Duke University? Or will it be a radical independent publisher? Or shall we publish independently? Will you buy the book and then read it and share with your colleagues? Include it in your curricula? Your practice? When we launch a crowdfunding initiative to get more of our knowledge out there in ways that are sustainable and fairly compensate people for their work, will you signal-boost it and contribute your money? How many of you will look through our WOCSHN directory and the list of resources spearheaded by Aida Manduley (aided by interns and volunteers of Color) for The CSPH’s page on POC and Sexuality? How many of you will explicitly add an anti-racism commitment to your and/or your organization’s philosophy statement, like the one Aida drafted for The CSPH? How many of you will ask event organizers about the representation of POC and the outreach done to our communities? How many of you will call out your colleagues when they forget us?
To be clear: we are not asking for equality. Instead, we wish to move towards equity: a livable wage for the work we create, a recognition of our existence, a recognition we are human beings to be treated with respect and integrity, funding for our projects about our own communities (not just those “to teach White people”), to be a part of the solutions versus constantly being seen as a problem.
We know how hard you must swim to keep your head above water. Many of us swim 90x harder, stronger, and still are not where you are because of the White supremacy we keep running into; situations and people like this continue to hold onto it, build upon it, and erase us. We know how hard it can be to find well-paying sexuality jobs, particularly for those of us doing adult education, because we live that as well, with the added impact of White supremacy.
Want to be considered someone who stands in solidarity with us? Show us! Show us better than you can tell us. Proactively, not reactively. Standing in solidarity is not a title you give to yourself; it is something earned through ongoing work to stand in solidarity with communities you are not a part of. Let these necessary conversations continue, far beyond this point in time. It is up to all of you reading. This is not just a blip in social media for us, a moment in time with hopes of exposure and recognition. This is an ongoing battle of countless efforts to “show” we matter, of having to prove ourselves, even to ourselves, to counteract the White supremacy that is so deeply ingrained in the system.
We Are Here!
For those reading and who would like to learn more about WOCSHN we encourage you to find us online:
Website (with a fantastic member directory that’s getting updated often!)
Public Facebook page
Closed Facebook group for WOC in sexuality/sexology & select allies
Notes on Terminology
With Revolutionary Love,
Women of Color Sexual Health Network