NOTE: First time reader? Skip the text between the two horizontal lines below. Already read it? Most recent updates are summarized at the top but you can also see their expanded form within the text. Barring any huge developments, there will be no more updates to this post.
12/3/14: Further updates, in summary form: Reid [a contributor] wrote publicly about this (video is still forthcoming). His partner, Allison Moon (of Girl Sex 101 and Tales of the Pack) has written a post as well. Carl Frankel has once again revised his statements. Sadly, the process has still not been transparent. For the curious, here are the various iterations of it (and note the comment section): version 1, version 2, version 3, and the currently live page. Finally, for a variety of reasons, neither I nor WOCSHN as a collective are engaging with advising or collaborating on the Secrets of the Sex Masters revisions process any further.
12/2/14: Key updates in a new section have been added. Click here.
On first glance, 95% of people can’t tell I’m Latina, or that I’m bilingual—born and raised in Puerto Rico until I turned 18 and came to the continental U.S. for my undergraduate degree. My face adds exactly zero racial diversity points to pictures because I’m pale as heck, and due to my knack for languages, I don’t have an identifiably non-Anglo accent. However, I identify as a person of color (POC), and more importantly, a woman of color (WOC) due to my ethnic and cultural background, as well as my political leanings and activism around these identities. That means a lot of things, particularly because even in POC spaces, colorism and anti-blackness still exist, and being Latina in the continental U.S. is very different than being one in PR.
So when I saw a recently-published book that highlighted 16 “sex masters” and noticed everyone was White (with no one bringing it up publicly), I figured I needed to do something as both a WOC and sexuality professional. (I didn’t focus on other oppressions because I hadn’t read the book and didn’t know more about the personal IDs of the contributors around axes like gender ID, ability level, etc. but maintain that inclusivity along these axes is also critical).
If you know me, you know I’m an activist, but also pretty damn diplomatic, so regardless of whatever I was feeling, my first step was to publicly ask the author and some of the contributors (including some I consider friends as well as professional colleagues) what the deal was. This set off a chain of events that continues to be in motion right now, and I want to share with you. [If you’re looking for the official, collective WOCSHN response which I worked on with some fierce ladies, peep it here instead.]
What This Post Is & Isn’t About
We at the Women of Color Sexual Health Network have been talking about this since the book came out. Recently, we prepared an official response, but have been waiting to post it because I was engaged in private conversations with some of the contributors and the editor (Carl) himself; we wanted to see how things went. Thus I’m not going to focus on deconstructing Carl’s initial response and discuss the problems with colorblindness or institutional racism in sexology (it has been said before over and over and over again). It has ALL been said before. [And it has now been addressed by the public WOCSHN statement]
What I DO want to talk about is appropriate allyship and standing up for what’s right through the lens of this situation and my own personal stakes in it. My hope is that by presenting this account, folks will better understand the personal impact of colorblindness and lack of intentional inclusivity framed in the broader sets of impacts. This is for my White audience, the White sexuality professionals, because I need you to understand what this FEELS like. I want you to stand up for sexuality professionals of color because you have both a personal and professional investment and know it’s the right thing to do.
Why Public Accountability Is Key
Oppression thrives of making itself seem normal or unintentional, like “the way things are.” By airing out the unspoken or invisible, we can better work to dismantle these systems and point out how they have been built throughout history to SPECIFICALLY keep power in certain people’s hands, even if some people in the current day don’t realize it. A non-sexuality example? Practices of “redlining” in the housing market (video in the link!) that disproportionately disadvantaged and targeted Black and Latin@ families, practices that further tied race and class in the United States. This is why I speak publicly about -isms, and why I bring up issues to people beyond backroom conversations:
I believe accountability needs to be a transparent and public process, not something that comes in through the back door and gets hushed so people don’t notice there was a boo-boo in the first place. I believe kindness throughout the process is ideal, but do not agree with silencing valid opinions because of their tone. These things need to be seen, tracked, and remembered. There needs to be institutional memory and an acknowledgement of where we’ve come from as a society and a field so we can keep moving forward without erasing what we’ve done.
I’m also business-minded and know these things can have financial repercussions; that’s part of the point. These are issues that should not be ignored, and I have seen way too many of these discussions buried in people’s overflowing Inboxes because they “didn’t have time for them” or they “forgot.” Whatever the angle, my mission is to be heard. My goal is rarely to shame people into responding, but I would be lying if I said shame did not incentivize people to address their issues.
After I made my public tweets and engaged in further conversations about this book, I learned some discussions about the book and Whiteness were happening offline. Which is is awesome because the conversations were necessary, but their private nature made it so no one knew what was happening. From the outside, it looked like no one cared. From the outside, when the first meaty public response to this issue came from one of the White contributors, it looked like they decided to be public about it out of the goodness of their hearts rather than extensive conversations and urging from other sources.
From the outside, unless people are transparent about their process, give credit to the influences on their actions, and show how their thinking has evolved and how it will be different moving forward, it erases way too much and paves the way for undeserved accolades. Private conversations are tools, but they cannot be the only tools because they further serve to minimize accountability. When White folks call out racism privately in situations like this, it minimizes the impact of their actions and implies that they are not willing to fully stand up for those beliefs, only share them with a particular bubble of people who may already agree.
Voicing an opinion in a room where everyone agrees is not a courageous act. People in power should NOT get “allyship cookies” for standing up for marginalized people, because it’s basic human decency to do so. “But Aida, not everyone is able to do this in the same ways! We have intersecting identities and sometimes it’s not safe for someone to call out these issues!” — I hear you. Read on.
Addressing White Supremacy With Colleagues & Friends
This field is small enough that many people know each other. This field is small enough that when a “sex-positive icon” does something wrong, it won’t be too many degrees removed from the community’s individual participants, like myself. This is a double-edged sword: while it makes it easier to make a noticeable impact in some ways, it also makes calling out problematic behaviors in the FIRST place way harder and more dangerous for POC’s professional survival. A POC in this situation needs to think about their ethics and values, but also how making a move will affect their career.
Many POC are already underemployed, flat-out not recognized as experts, and/or not paid for their valuable work, so being loud about these issues is not exactly the “most business-savvy” move if you want to stay afloat. WOC who get “angry” (which is often code for “in any way challenging white supremacy”) and do so publicly get seen as a stereotype, especially if those women are Black. They get ignored, cast as “problematic,” and even criticized for their tone.
As a young Latina and sexuality professional in this field who has been accruing titles and recognition, that means there’s a lot to think about and a lot to possibly lose when even CONSIDERING bringing these issues up. In a world where objectivity and empiricism are valued, I will not be seen as “neutral” or “objective” when I call out racism, and some will use that to discredit the critique.
It’s one thing to call a Ke$ha or Katy Perry video culturally appropriative, or to talk about how Victoria’s Secret put out a racist “Asian” line of underwear. It’s a very different thing to critique an alternative sexuality conference like Floating World, or in this case, a book where my supervisor is a contributor, where I’ve had dinner with the editor, and where people I consider friends are part of the roster. Ke$ha and Katy Perry can’t fire me or cut me off from gigs. Victoria’s Secret has no impact on my emotional and financial well-being. I won’t lose important friendships or put relationships on the rocks because I thought a music video was racist.
Beyond these very practical considerations, this work can be damn tiring. Fighting to be seen and included can be exhausting, especially if you feel like you’re fighting the same battles over and over again. There’s research about racial microaggressions and how, even when things seem “small” or “not really racist,” they can have deep impacts for POC in multiple arenas, including health. White supremacy is not just Klansmen burning crosses; it’s a system of explicit and implicit actions.
And in this community? In the microcosm of sexuality? The same dynamics play out, and with more personal repercussions because the people excluding you (often unintentionally, but the impact is still there) are your friends and close colleagues. That’s why I felt terrible at first, because when I asked if anyone had suggested POC or advocated for their inclusion, most people said they didn’t think about it (or went off on strange tangents and didn’t respond) and left it at that for a while.
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.
How do you appropriately convey your feelings to your friends and colleagues? How do you, out of necessity, mediate your frustration and sadness out of fear of being cast as a troublemaker? How do you remain ethical and true to your values while balancing your career aspirations? How do you make change?
In this scenario, I grappled with these and tried a variety of methods to engage with people. I’m happy to report that people have begun to publicly reply. A few of the contributors (Charlie Glickman, Megan Andelloux, Jon Pressick, and Sheri Winston—partners with Carl) as well as the editor himself (here and here) have responded at length now, and all but Jon and Sheri have spoken with me privately as well. I have helped some of these folks refine their posts and gone over their use of language, as well as next steps. We are engaging in a process of reflection and change, and I am happy that what at one point seemed like a frustrating, sad situation is turning into a great opportunity for POC visibility and wider community dialogue. It was not simple or “convenient,” but it is happening.
It is also worthwhile to mention that not all situations turn out like this. Still, I am thankful for people working through their difficult feelings and working to avoid (or address) their own defensiveness. No one really loves being called out, particularly those who feel and are social-justice-minded and for whom confronting their mistakes around White-washing can feel like a big deal.
Personally, I HATE being wrong or messing up, but I’m certainly not perfect, and there are many ways in which I need to be better about social justice issues (especially around ableism). I continuously strive to reframe my pride and defensive reactions in my own head so I can handle call-outs and mistakes in a way that is graceful, honest, and with an eye towards improvement. I appreciate those who can do the same.
More importantly, I want to thank some of the other WOC who have been supportive and instrumental to this work and our upcoming WOSHN response: Bianca Laureano, Mariotta Gary-Smith, Tamara Williams Van-Horn, Dulce García, Cindy Lee Alves, and De L Bee John. These women have been a pillar of intellect and strength, and they, along with folks like Trina Scott (whose badassery I cannot even begin to describe), are doing amazing work in the field. It’s our collective mission to be seen; no one should ever say they didn’t know WOC were working in this field and doing amazing stuff.
Anti-Racism Is Not Just A POC Project
So now that people are paying attention, what do I want them to realize? That anti-racism and work around diversity broadly defined is not just a project for those marginalized by it. In this case, this is not even about if POC “can do it alone” or not; it’s that we shouldn’t HAVE to. The work of dismantling oppressive systems should never be just the task of the oppressed. How convenient and completely irresponsible, to tell someone being marginalized that not only do they have to deal with their marginalization, but they also have to educate their oppressors about it AND bear the complete burden of changing the system.
We all have to work on this, and the people in power need to uplift and amplify (not replace) the voices of those at the margins. Sometimes that means giving up a coveted spot on a project and ensuring that someone else gets it. It may mean turning down a speaking gig. It may mean speaking up in a crowd that doesn’t agree. I know that’s complicated stuff, especially for those who are starting out and those who are not in an economic position to easily turn down work due to ethical considerations.
Most of us are neither huge oppressive jerks or magical selfless creatures of social justice light; we’re somewhere in the gray middle along the continuum of action and our positions may change depending on our environment. The key is to keep moving ourselves and our organizations toward liberation, toward becoming groups of dismantling oppression.
Beyond that, the people in power need to understand why they are thus excluded from certain spaces of healing and congregation. People in power need to understand the rage and pain that they may see and may get directed at them, and stop invalidating important arguments because “someone said them in a way that was mean.” (This goes for all axes of power and oppression, by the way. I’m choosing to focus on racism because of this situation, but we all need to think about the things we have access to that others don’t and build cross-movement allyship.)
All that said, I’m a realist! I do know that most White people have circles of primarily (or ONLY) White people. I do know that it can be easier to listen to someone’s critique if they look like you. (That’s also one of the big reasons I do anti-racism work, because my skin color puts me at an advantage, and I usually have the emotional points to deal with these situations so others don’t have to.) This is why interpersonal relationships matter in movement-building. This is why White folks have to help bring up the issue of racism in their circles, ESPECIALLY if they’re in all-White circles.
We will all inevitably mess up. We will all shove our foot in our mouths. We will all perpetuate oppression at some point. We will all remain silent at some point where we should have spoken up. The goal is to FIX our mistakes, DO BETTER, and work toward world of equity and joy. The only way to do that is through self-awareness, concrete action, and community work. 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.“
Clarification Of The Term “White Supremacy”
I decide my terminology depending on the context, need, and audience (for example, I used “Whitewashing” in the title of this post). Other WOC consistently use White supremacy and nothing else. Some folks with a Jewish background prefer “White dominance” because it carries the general idea across in a way that feels less viscerally tied to The Holocaust. We all have different beliefs and approaches to this terminology, but it’s important that people understand why.
Since I know from personal and professional experience that saying “White supremacy” can shut some people down, why do I use it here? Because it’s the root of the problem we’re discussing, and it’s important in making a strong call to action to the whole sexuality field. As I said, that term can definitely be hard to take in. It can come as a shock to the system. It can conjure up images of Klansmen, Nazis, lynchings and other big, painful moments in our history and our present. But that’s not all it is, and it’s not something that was invented in the 20th Century; its roots stretch far back. Here’s a great PDF that explains the concept clearly and thoroughly.
As a society, we must speak it and know it; we cannot be like scared witches and wizards terrified of uttering Voldermort’s name. Furthermore, it is critical that we see and acknowledge the history of White supremacy and connect it to its present iterations (to see those with a snarky spin, check out the “Diet Racism” video). We must acknowledge, for example, the intersections of anti-semitism and White supremacy without erasing how light-skinned Jewish folks have been assimilated into Whiteness and benefit from this privilege in the States. We also can’t erase racially Black Jews, or Jews of Color as a whole, and how they do not have the backing of Whiteness, but do bear the burden of anti-semitism.
To hear “White supremacy” and stop listening entirely and/or to equate White supremacy solely with the aforementioned images is to look at it like an iceberg…and pretend that only the top is what’s there or what’s real. Y’all: that’s not how icebergs OR systems of power work.
Disappointing Statements & Text Edits
Unfortunately, not only have bizarre parodies/mockeries of our post and deeply misguided responses come out, but also communication between myself and Carl Frankel has been strained since the official WOCSHN statement was published. To make a long story short, though, for various reasons I have made the decision to stop engaging with advising or collaborating on the book’s revisions process. WOCSHN as a collective is also no longer affiliated with that endeavor. Regardless, I am glad Carl has committed to publishing a revised version of the book and hope he is able to find what he needs!
I don’t want to take this space to talk about the full timeline of events post-publication of the WOCSHN statement or how I was honest with Carl from the start about the statement’s expected tone and content. I feel I have expended enough energy explaining why this is difficult and how much scrutiny and blame already get placed on WOC for “dividing the field” when we call out White supremacy. I already noted this post was about allyship and standing up, rather than breaking down what was said. I do, however, want to talk about the importance of transparency and feel it would be inappropriate for me to not share those details.
A few days after the WOCSHN response came out, Carl and his partner Sheri Winston issued a new statement on their website (image included below). The text said the WOCSHN response had an “offensive” tone, that we were calling both of them racists/White supremacists, that our charges were “inflammatory, counter-productive, deeply hurtful, and absurd,” and that this was all an “[unabated attack] on [their] good name and integrity.” And this accompanied by a “stop bullying” graphic. Intense, right?
However, if you go to the website now, what you’ll see is a very different statement (I’m linking to a “frozen” version of it for archival purposes). In fact, the current statement has been revised a few times. In the first edited version, the bullying graphic was removed and the language considerably changed (e.g. “WOCSHN has raised important issues: we would welcome a respectful dialogue about them” got added, our tone was now “regrettable” instead of “offensive,” and large chunks from the original were removed). The day after, it changed again, to this—even further removed from the first one. The “live” page is currently accessible here.
However, there’s no note or “update” saying any of these edits happened (in stark contrast to Carl’s previous posts about this, where he clearly laid out the updates and changes after we talked about them). In the most recent version, all comments have also seemingly been scrubbed. No one at WOCSHN (as far as I know) was reached out to by Carl or Sheri about the changes and updates either of the times they happened. None of us were even really told the statement was published in the first place (I found it accidentally, when previously Carl and I had notified each other when anything was going public).
Not only is this all bad web etiquette, but it’s also misleading to the public, and particularly so given how previous iterations of the statement were spread online and the kind of assertions that were made in it. Given how well Carl and I were able to work before so he could put out an updated initial statement and a self-described “mea culpa” just a few days prior, this is a huge backslide.
I bring this up because it’s an issue of transparency and accountability, as well as an issue of professional image and reputation. As a colleague noted:
“I just keep coming back to the idea: how can you be trusted to teach on things like consent and respect when your response to being called out is to change your post, removing the parts that make you look most shady, and [to post ‘I am open to learning and dialogue within the bounds of respect. I stand by my earlier & current posts’ when reposting the statement all over Facebook]?”
This is further concerning because, after writing a thoughtful apology indicating a better understanding of the impact of marginalization on POC, WOCSHN’s collective statement got a reactionary stamp of things like “offensive” and “absurd” from Carl and Sheri. The framing was spun to center individuals feeling upset about their implications in patterns of white privilege instead of centering their actions, and even the current note of apology still somewhat falls into this trap. (Jay Smooth talks about this kind of issue in this video). Regardless of the fact that those things have been pseudo-recanted now, they were still published, spread, and changed with zero transparency from the authors.
Fortunately, people have already spoken eloquently about this transparency issue and the problem with non-apologies so I don’t have to enumerate what’s up with it. Elizabeth Wood has written a marvelous article on this whole situation and its intersections with what’s going on in Ferguson. Bethany Stevens (from Crip Confessions) published a statement on the Crip Confessions Facebook page. Jon Pressick (of Sex in Words) who is also a contributor and has made statements about the book itself already wrote a new post given the recent developments. Barbara Carrellas publicly commented in support of WOCSHN‘s words. Allison Moon (of Girl Sex 101 and Tales of the Pack, partners with contributor Reid Mihalko) has written a fantastic post as well from the point of view of an anthology curator (with great tips for White folks). The list goes on.
Allies are stepping up to the plate, and I thank them so so much for doing so. As I said above and wrote in the WOCSHN statement—this is a collective endeavor. It can’t and shouldn’t just be POC noting these issues. Because so many people have shared this post as well as the WOCSHN statement, it would take me forever to name them all. I know some folks are visibly and actively doing the work to create plans for inclusion in their practice, and I commend them. I see you, and WOCSHN sees you too.
More Contributors Issuing Statements Regarding Book Composition
Eve Minax, one of the contributors, has made a public statement on the issue as well and taken ownership of her role in this. Jaeleen Bennis has replied to the collective WOCSHN letter as posted on Facebook apologizing for not thinking of POC inclusion. Reid Mihalko is in the process of crafting a video reply with help from Mollena Williams (a kick-butt WOC), but in the meantime has publicly commented on the issue.
Ernest Greene has made a public comment as well, but taking a more moderate position (readable here in the comments section). Personally, I don’t agree with all the points Ernest is making, but I believe I’ve already said everything that needs to be said on the topic. [Update: I previously linked to Ernest’s comment in another source, but that was someone else reposting it on their own blog, so I have since taken that link down and replaced it with the original source—Carl’s blog).
Other contributors (beyond those named above) are still, to my knowledge, publicly silent on the issue. I do know some are supportive behind the scenes, and while I strongly encourage public action, I understand it is not always possible or appropriate for every individual (particularly those on total social media hiatus, those going through family troubles or mental health issues and so on).
Broadening The Conversation Without Forgetting It
Once again, because some folks seem to be accusing us (personally and as a collective entity) of focusing too much on this book: we already said it’s bigger than the book and that we are just taking this as a case-study of sorts to explain and focus on a larger problem. We are hopefully moving forward without erasing or forgetting where we’ve been, so stay tuned to see what’s next for WOCSHN. For me? Right now I just need to get through graduate school finals!