Spiritual Birth and Swami Taboos with Jasper Lotti

SA
Jasper, how are you doing this morning?

J
I’m good! I was nocturnal ever since quarantine started but I’ve gotten back to waking up early. It feels so good. How about you?

SA
My sleep pattern has also kind of been all over the place lately but this week I’ve tried to be a little more strict with myself. I’m good, a little achey and still slowly waking up but so excited to be talking to you!!! What’ve you been up to during quarantine, how have you been keeping grounded?

J
Very excited to talk to u toooo. Hmm, I’ve been really turning inward and seeing how my energy is unbalanced. Just trying to fix myself and face my demons. And just getting more comfortable with myself overall. Fixing my energy has really helped me stay grounded and feel at home in my body. I think maintaining your homeostasis when the external world is so chaotic is so crucial right now. 

SA
I so agree that it’s necessary to have some sort of internal equilibrium in order to deal with the constant crises around us. When/how did you come to realize that your energy was unbalanced? Was it a particular moment or a culmination of varying things? 

J
My life was going at such a crazy pace. Once I was locked down and was able to sit with myself, I was able to see how I was reacting and acting in a more subjective way. I’m a very chill person around my friends, and being in lockdown with my family was a lot and definitely showed me sides of myself I didn’t like. They were treating me like I was in high school and it made me realize I had to go back to my past and do a lot of healing on my younger self. Even though I’m a different version now, seeing how I reacted to their comments made me realize the work I had to do in order to heal my younger self. It’s really weird but it helped me a lot with my current self.

SA
Wow, I so relate and hear you. I think one thing that came up for so many of us was the need to reparent ourselves. I can’t imagine what being in quarantine with my family would be like, so big ups to you for navigating that. I want to hear more about your upbringing in terms of navigating culture and spirituality and how you understand it now. You incorporate so much of it into your art and I think it’s really beautiful to hear how you are on this journey to better yourself while rethinking cultural/spiritual values. What has that been like for you?

J
Up until like mid-elementary school, my grandparents lived with us. And they are super super religious and are devotees of Swami Sivananda. So growing up I was always playing with my grandma and she would teach me mantras and I would play in our pooja room. Every night before I would sleep she would tell me stories, the mythology of different gods and stuff from the Mahabharata. I kind of developed this fantastical idea of gods and spirituality. I would draw different gods and write my own stories, really into the idea of this other universe. My mom introduced me to spirituality very early on in my life, like pre-school. Broad topics about the universe and how energy works. On top of that, I was singing in a gospel choir and classical Hindustani music. I was really submerged in this magical bubble. But I didn’t consider and still don’t see myself as “religious,” but spiritual. I do appreciate all religions, especially the mythological side. It can be so powerful and inspiring because it makes us feel linked to these fantastical worlds. I have so much appreciation for my upbringing. I got pressured as I went through schooling to become a doctor/study harder but I was never good at school, especially math. And so my ideas of the world as this magical place started to fade as the modern education system killed my spirit lol….but I found it again as I went through really dark times in high school and college as I started creating music and coming into my art. I was brainwashed into thinking life is a constant struggle and suffering, money is all that matters etc. like NO. I was right when I was a kid. The world is this magical place with energy moving around, humans are so magical, we have magical powers, everything is so insanely beautiful. 

SA
This reminds me of something I grew up around which was this notion of having faith and a spirituality that is ‘child like’, and really coming back to the purity and innocence of a radical curiosity, hunger + thirst to know both the world + yourself. So many of us get jaded and then can’t see beyond the darkness.. 

OK so, I want to ask you about what you and I have been sporadically chatting about in terms of sexuality and spirituality. I hit you up when I saw you posted a screenshot of a pornsite that had a Swami category… I was SOOO infatuated because for me, I’m really working through how my sexuality and spirituality are connected considering there have been many attempts to squash my sexuality through spiritual practices, thus the connection I have to my higher self has also been hindered. How did you stumble upon the Swami fetish?? 

J
Yes to all of this. I guess going back a bit, being born into a very religious family, I was never really seen as a “girl,” and any sexual desire or urges I had growing up under my family’s roof was way off the table in terms of discussion. I was scared to show this side of myself to my parents because I did have such strong feelings but was ashamed/embarrassed. So until college where I had freedom to live on my own I literally felt like a blob of nothingness LOL. As I lost touch with my younger child, I lost touch with what it meant to be spiritual. The moment I had my sexual awakening, I had this spiritual rebirth as well. That was a pivotal moment where I was able to connect back with my younger child and start this new journey of rebuilding and spiritual growth. Once I experienced my sexual power, I was like wtf this is so magical…how are humans able to do this. When you orgasm and feel sexual, it’s such a direct feeling of your own godly energy. Like damn….what? So for me, having that firsthand experience of this crazy power within me was like ignition to my spiritual path. The energy is so TANGIBLE, you don’t have to go looking for it. Ever since that point I’ve always really thought about spirituality and sexuality as extremely linked. 

In terms of the Swami fetish, growing up in a family with a Swami being so central to notions of spirituality, I started to think how people relate to these figures. Like, my grandma LOVES swami sivananda. And ever since my grandpa passed she has really been devoting herself completely to her worship. I just became curious and started googling things… I think the line of devotion and attraction is soooo fine. I don’t think attraction has to be “sexualized.” Devotion is sincere love, love doesn’t have to be sexualized. I came to this conclusion that sexualization doesn’t have to be “sexualized.” It just is. And just looking back at hindu mythology, if you look at the story of shiva and parvati: she was born as a human and was in love with Shiva, a god, and prayed to him everyday in hopes that she would marry him. Like that’s devotion being sexualized. She literally wanted him sexually! And krishna with his gopis. He would lure them with the sound of his flute (lol) and kiss them, and some sources say even have sex with them, because they were so devoted to him. There is this weird line between devotion and attraction and desire…I feel like energy is energy. Channeling it through sexuality is just another medium. But because we have all these taboos and ideas around sexuality, it’s seen as so separate from these notions of spirituality when in reality it truly is not. There is a lot of repression involved in these dynamics. So ya…that’s where the Swami fetish came from! haha

SA
It’s so interesting to me how we come from a culture that explores sexuality so fluidly and organically and yet, now, we look at South Asian culture as one of the most sexually repressed ones. Like, I hate that when I saw the screenshot of the Swami, my mind immediately went to thinking about all the predatory stories I have heard about Swami’s instead of thinking about it as something more divinatory.. I really want to go into a deeper dive with you about all of this… but, because I am running out of time, to end, can you talk me through some things that are helping you stay grounded right now? 

J
I’ve been watching wayyy much more anime than I usually do. It feels like an escape and I think it’s been helping me mentally just to live vicariously thru these characters. In particular, Inuyasha, Rurouni Kenshin, Fushugi Yugi. Anything with medieval Japan. I think I have some past life connection to that era because I resonate so strongly. I’ve been working on my next EP called Priestess, which is pretty much a culmination of a lot of spiritual work, my obsession with cosmology and my exploration into divine feminine culminating. I think honestly just following your curiosity right now is so important, like learning about new topics or new skills, just challenging yourself in new ways is so crucial to staying grounded. Bare feet on grass ! That really aligns me and makes me feel literally rooted. I started this routine at the start of the year of doing a yoga flow + meditation first thing when I wake up. It’s literally changed my life, getting my into a good headspace to start the day. Like taking time for yourself when you wake up, to feel aware and intentional before you start is so important.I think overall taking care of my body too…I was so busy before I didn’t stop to ask my body how it was feeling, like give it enough love. Thanking it for being my vessel in this weird experience. It’s corny but these things have overall made me feel more gratitude in my life overall and love for humanity and the universe. It’s the only way to stay positive and keep building! Time off social media, off Instagram. Being in the present. I know this situation has forced us to be on social media even more, but I’ve been really seeing the matrix of it all and am just TIRED of the cycles and algorithm lol…so only going on when I need to/using it for messaging. I’ve started journaling as well, it’s been helping me keep track of my life and goals, just being more active and present.

Humanizing Sex Work

SA
Harry, how are you feeling today, can you describe your energy in 5 words?

H
Frustrated, hopeful, stressed, confident, and excited

SA
A whirlwind of emotions, I’m hoping you’re not too stressed and frustrated and that your energy of excitement might release any of the tension you’re feeling. What does a typical week look like for you?

H
I’m only so frustrated because I spent my morning unpacking a therapy session I had with my Mum yesterday, but it’s all easing off now! My weeks are always planned out on a whiteboard ahead of time – but it’s usually 2-3 days of work at the brothel, part of a day for content creation, and about an hour of admin, gym some days, and hopefully meditation to fit in between it all. The rest of my spare time is spent with friends or reading. 

SA
Mmm, sounds like a packed schedule and it also sounds like you have found space to prioritise grounding in between. 

What’s it like navigating friendships and family dynamics with the work that you do?

H
I find making my schedule is also part of my grounding process too, so it’s hectic but good for me. Luckily, the majority of my friends are also sex workers, so I find my friendships such a safe and supportive space around work and they represent more of an ideal family dynamic to me. Like I said, I’m in therapy with my Mum, and it mostly surrounds unpacking her issues with sex work, so it’s pretty difficult, but also a rewarding process despite how exhausting it is right now. 

SA
Wow, yeah – such brave yet uncomfortable work to be in such a vulnerable space with your own mother. Wishing you a lot of healing and gentleness.

I think, even knowing that you prioritise moving through sticky and prickly dynamics adds to the level of integrity I’ve always gauged from you and your work. I started following you a few years ago and since, have learned so much about the challenges of sex workers in Australia, but also, you’ve really taught me about resilience and community and alternate space making. What you’re doing is high integrity shit and I’m really grateful for your generous offerings, even in making space for this conversation.

How do you navigate the constant policing and surveillance of your body and your work while doing all the personal healing at the same time?

H
Thank you so much for saying that! It’s really nice to know my reach is making an impact in the way I hope it does when I’m sharing these things online. 

I’m really lucky that I work in states with decriminalisation, so this policing and surveillance comes less from the state and more from sex work exclusionary feminists, social media platforms, within personal relationships, and general society. I find community grounding, and sharing stories or anxieties in spaces where we can be vulnerable and honest, which gets harder with every legislation and TOS update that encompass the social media platforms we use. Despite all manual labour involving the body, the bodies of sex workers are constantly in question, which is funny because I find sex work more mental than physical. Self-care is so important to me when we have to deal with these kinds of things. My personal healing is integrated in my overall input into community or education online, because I have to feel well to fight these stigmas with confidence and articulation, and to show up for my community with the amount of energy they deserve.

SA
Right, I can’t imagine what the level of mental and emotional labor is like for you, and, you’re right, it’s like — to truly resist we need to make sure our minds and our spirits are in a good place and strong enough to push back in a holistic way. What type of stigmas, be it the ones that are projected by ‘feminists,’ within personal relationships and general society, do you feel are the most dangerous?

H
I think that the most dangerous stigma of all is that sex work is not real work. When we deny sex work as real labour and label it as whatever else feminists or legislators want to call it, we deny the hugely varied community of rights. We all have such different needs and circumstances, but at the root of it all, rights are essential. Acknowledging something as a real job also legitimises us in such a way we are no longer victims, stereotypes, etc. – we become people with a manual labour occupation. That’s one step towards humanising that is so basic, and seems so hard to achieve sometimes, but is SO important. 

SA
It’s so wild to me that there is such a disconnect still between folks who consider themselves ‘progressives’ and their lack of humanising sex workers. And I guess, it’s just a symptom of living in a hyper capitalist, misogynstic, white supremacist modern world. I recently have begun meditating on my queer South Asian ancestors as a way to funnel my frustration around the hyper degradation of women in South Asia, and it’s so clear that sex work has and will always exist throughout history. There is so much room to make safer societies for sex workers and sexual expression in general and yet, we’re just not there yet as a ‘modern’ society. But, it sounds like you truly have created a community where you can thrive in this work, and that makes my heart really happy and hopeful. How can folks outside of the sex work industry show up for sex worker friends and family?

H
I am constantly plugging the book, ‘Revolting Prostitutes’ by Juno Mac and Molly Smith – I wish everyone in the world would read it. But I think also investing in intersectionality; the liberation of sex workers can not be achieved without anti-capitalism, abolition of borders, trans rights, drug decriminalisation and so on. The book covers all of these things, and a podcast I listened to recently called ‘Whoretopia’ is a great one. I always say argue with your families, back us offline as well as online – so it’s good to come to these conversations with ammunition and facts. It’s also so important for allies to make it their responsibility to seek out the varied voices of sex workers, and not just follow binary tropes of what a sex worker looks like. 

SA
Yes, love that. It’s not liberation if it doesn’t include us all. 

Most of our community is based in New York — for Americans interested in learning more about how the sex work industry might differ in Australia, could you shed some insight on those nuances?

H
There’s a TED Talk on YouTube that covers the basics of all the different models for sex work laws across the world, it’s called ‘The Laws Sex Workers Really Want’ and is also by Juno Mac. That’s a great place to start to just see how these laws differ and affect people in different countries. 

Within Australia, only NSW and Northern Territory have achieved decriminalisation. A lot of the rest of the country is “legal”, which isn’t as amazing as it sounds and often means the government can still create legal hoops to jump through, that are often more difficult for vulnerable groups, and never make us safer. Just one example, in the ACT, more than two sex workers sharing a room is classified as “brothel keeping,” which means we are acting illegally, so sex workers must work alone. It’s pretty clear why that isn’t ideal. I think anyone well-versed in American sex work laws would be familiar with these totally unreasonable rules. 

We hope that decriminalisation here can be the blueprint for the rest of the world to look to when creating new laws around sex work. Still though, without anti-discrimination bills and workplace standards, we aren’t guaranteed the same level of rights as other less discriminated against industries, and don’t have the power to push for better workplace conditions. Which reminds me, a good way to be an allie is also to watch for the Anti-Discrimination Bill the Greens are about to table to government here in Australia! 

SA
Will definitely keep an eye out for and encourage our Australian community to be following that, thank you for sharing. Again, I’m always so encouraged by your brave outspokenness and truly stand beside you — thank you for teaching and guiding so many of us who might often struggle to understand without adequate resources.

To end, what are a couple of things you are practicing or engaging in that are helping you stay grounded lately? Be it a song you keep coming back to, a meal you’re cooking, a type of meditation…

H
For my mind, my whiteboard calendar is my recent saviour — so nerdy but so essential for a stressed out Gemini. For my body, things that bring me home to it, like baths, meditation, working out, journaling. 

You can follow Harry’s work on Instagram @hole_money and Twitter @pole_money

Pleasure Seeking and Sexual Healing with Myisha Battle

SA
Hi Myisha. How are you feeling today? If you could describe the way your spirit feels using your five senses, what would they be?

M
This is a great question! Today I am feeling grounded. For me that means that I see clearly, my breath feels sweet, my taste buds are activated, my hearing is sharp and I am present in each moment that my body feels.

SA
Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to launch Sex for Life?

M
About five years ago I received my certification as a sex and dating coach. I knew that I wanted to bring my feminist perspective to my coaching. This wasn’t being done at the time and I felt that I could help people explore the issues they were experiencing in sex and dating more deeply by applying a gendered framework. So much of what we experience in our sex lives that we take for granted is based on harmful gender expectations that don’t really serve us. I believe that by highlighting these cultural constructs to my clients, I can help them make different choices that feel more empowering. I truly believe that better sex leads to a better life, which is why I named my company Sex for Life, but I also believe that sex is something that evolves and changes with us throughout our lives. We are all sexual beings, no matter how we choose to express it.

SA
adrienne maree brown speaks to the necessity of incorporating pleasure in activism which stems from the idea of centering the erotic as a form of power by Audre Lorde. How do we begin to learn and name our erotic needs intentionally for ourselves and also in order to sustain our work with in community? 

M
Another great question. I love adrienne maree brown’s work as well as Audre Lorde’s. They both speak to the inherent qualities of being human: it is human nature to seek pleasure and we all have access to pleasure in its many forms no matter who we are. Systems of oppression work because they rob people of the belief that they are worthy of pleasure and their own humanity. It is therefore a radical act of oppressed communities to find ways to replenish themselves, to revel in the lives they were given and to not deny that pleasure-seeking nature. 

I work on this everyday for myself but also with my clients who are typically female-identified. Female oppression looks like the belief that our own pleasure is secondary to our partner’s and can only be doled out if/when an obligation has been fulfilled. A lot of my female clients feel more like sex is being done to them rather than them being a full participant. They come to me because this out-dated model no longer works for them, but they need help finding ways to access their own true pleasure.

SA
One of the systems of domination we are confronting is the imposition of sexual binaries. For those of us healing from sexual abuse and navigating a fluid sexual identity, do you have any advice on how to not be frustrated about deep internalizations?

M
Working with internalized binaries is a lifelong journey. It takes mindfulness, and usually the help of a good mental health practitioner to guide us towards a more holistic view of ourselves, one that includes the many facets of who we are. I mentioned before that as human beings we grow and change, as does our sexuality. To me, that’s a truly remarkable part of being human! I find that giving ourselves a bit of grace is often helpful. We are products of a binary culture and that takes work to undo.

SA
Can healing and casual dating/sex exist at the same time? Is it irresponsible to be dating while healing from trauma or can the two occur simultaneously?  

M
I actually interviewed adrienne maree brown about this on my podcast, Down for Whatever! We discussed how, whether it’s responsible or not, a lot of healing can and does occur in casual relationships. We don’t always know what we need, and that’s okay. People make mistakes in dating. That’s okay too. As long as we are all committed to repair when repair is needed, and getting mental health support along the way, it can all be a part of the healing process. Problems occur when someone’s pain or trauma causes them to harm others and there is no concern for how damaging their behaviors are. I wish there was a filter for this on dating apps, but alas… there is not.

SA
COVID quarantine measures have meant rates of domestic and intimate partner violence have gone up. Children are being forced to share space with their abusers and while we won’t know the drastic consequences of this period of time now, we must be mindful about the development of this generation of children. How can we better protect the sexual development of the next generation, and what can folks who are triggered by this reality do to ground themselves? 

M
Thank you for sharing that and for opening a dialogue for such a challenging topic. One of the biggest pieces of advice for making the world a safer place for children and other survivors of sexual abuse is that we all start talking about sex. I’m an advocate for talking about sex every day, which may shock some people, but the reality is that we live in a culture of silence around sex. Silence perpetuates violence. If we are not even talking about what makes sex good, then how do we empower people to disclose and feel supported when sex is coerced, manipulative or violent? Creating more of a discourse about sex in our culture, one that is nuanced and acknowledges that everyone has the right to feel safe and protected when it comes to sex, is once of the biggest ways to reduce incidence of sexual assualt. No one says this better than Cindy Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn in my conversation with her, but I did my best.

Myisha Battle is a certified sex & dating coach, syndicated author, popular podcaster & feminist. Her message is simple and sex-positive.

Storytelling and Survivorship with Amita Swadhin

SA
Hi Amita! How are you? 

A
Thanks for inviting me to be here with you today, Fariha! I’m doing well today, enjoying mostly not working today. A bit sleepy because my dog was up for a chunk of the night yelling at the bears who got into our trash can LOL.

SA
Bears! Wow. Where are you in the world?

A
My partner Patricio and I live in Los Angeles County, in a suburb in the San Gabriel Valley called Duarte. 

SA
I was just in California actually. I was in Los Angeles and in the North sitting with medicine… and it’s such an interesting time to be just anywhere that isn’t home. I feel very spoiled.

A
California is my adopted home of 9 years now, but I’m from Bergen County NJ, by way of Queens by way of Ohio. So I’ve spent a good chunk of the COVID-19 pandemic trying to figure out how to go home to NJ to see my family (and NYC where most of my closest friends still live). It’s hard to figure out with everything that we’ve all had to navigate over the last 15 months!

SA
Yes. I keep thinking about how strange this time is and how nostalgic I’ve become. I’ve been processing and reprocessing a lot of grief and it’s been a really interesting cycle to keep moving through things in this really intense motion. I feel extra grateful that I get to have conversations like this, with people like you, because it’s all I seem to want to do these days. It’s made me hungry for depth and for healing in a very urgent way and there are all these feelings wrapped around one another.

A
I hear that! I think many trauma survivors, and let’s be honest, that’s everyone who’s a BIPOC queer and/or trans person, are having that experience of the fresh grief of the past 15 months forcing us to rehash old grief that has new angles to be examined and integrated/alchemized (and I think this is part of what “healing” actually is). It’s been a really exhausting and painful time, but with surprising moments of sweetness and joy, too, and just in general I can feel so much growth from all that is happening and has happened. I’m so grateful that the work of Mirror Memoirs over the last 5 years, and before that the work of Secret Survivors (which started 11 years ago), has really made nearly all of my time engaged in conversations that include this kind of depth and intimacy. It feels like such a gift and a privilege.

SA
Can you talk to me about what led to the genesis of Mirror Memoirs? 

A
Sure. Do you want the long answer or the short answer? Do you mean the entire path leading up to the idea, or just what led to the idea in a shorter timeline?

SA
I don’t mind — if it feels right to say the long answer, I’d say go for that and maybe that will also bring in Secret Survivors…

A
Okay no problem. I like to ask because these days I often feel like I’ve told the story publicly so much that I might bore people to death (LOL). 

SA
I feel like it’s so intimate and I’m so grateful… as long as you have capacity. 

A
Oh, I’m a Leo moon and a Leo mercury, I could talk to you about this all day long. And I’m pretty much an open book, so just ask whatever you want to ask. 

So okay, how did I come to create Mirror Memoirs…well, I think you know some of my story from writing and other storytelling work I’ve published, but to rehash some of the basics: I grew up in a very violent home, which included a pretty textbook abusive marriage in which my dad brutalized my mom for 16 years. Within that dynamic, my younger sister (she’s 4 years younger than me) and I were also abused, I’d say by both of my parents but in very different ways. And honestly though my mom has plenty to atone for when it comes to me and my sister, I’m also increasingly compassionate about her own suffering within that marriage. I was raped and sexually assaulted and otherwise emotionally, verbally, physically and sexually abused by my father throughout my childhood. The sexual violence started when I was four and ended when I was twelve. 

I disclosed the very first instance of rape to my mom when I was four, although I didn’t use the word “rape” because I didn’t know that word. My mom confronted my dad about something like “inappropriate touching,” and then nothing really changed except that I forgot ever telling her about the violence. I never spoke about it again until I was thirteen. By then, it had been a while (under a year but more than a few months) since my father raped or sexually assaulted me, and I had reason to fear for my sister’s safety from that particular violence from him (which I had to some extent been able to protect her from when it was happening to me). That’s what led me to disclose to my mom — for what I thought was the first time. 

The disclosure when I was 13 triggered mandated reporting, which neither my mom nor I knew existed. The therapist, social workers, police officers and prosecutors who then descended on my family (something like 48 hours after my mom called a therapist to try to find help/support for me) were all white and very racist and otherwise problematic in so many ways. They threatened to prosecute my mom for being “complicit” in what had happened to me. They told me I could trust them and talk to them, because they understood “this happens more in your culture.” [insert vomit and angry emoji here] So I didn’t comply with the prosecution, and my dad admitted to the bare minimum and received five years probation and no jail time. This was all my 9th grade year, by the way. 

My mom didn’t have enough community support to leave my dad at that point. And she was really worried about what our tight-knit South Asian (mostly Indian) American community would do or say if she got divorced. I think she was really ashamed and scared, too. And she was right to be afraid of my father. So she stayed with him until the summer after my 10th grade year. After that it’s a bit of a long tale about him continuing abuse because my sister wanted weekly visits with him, and the state allowed my mom to be the “supervisor” instead of sending a social worker on visits as was supposed to happen. 

This is all relevant to Mirror Memoirs, I promise — it really informs why we have always been an abolitionist project, with a broad understanding of various state systems, including child welfare and psychiatric institutions, as part of carcerality. 

Right before my 12th grade year, my mother’s divorce became finalized, and my then-12-year-old sister finally began understanding the gravity of what had happened in our family, and decided she was ready to disown my dad (I’d been hoping for that for a year at that point). So with him finally out of the house, I found the words to tell my mom the full extent of what I’d survived, and she was horrified and supportive and said she’d help me prosecute my dad (at that time I definitely was not a prison abolitionist, and was really hungry for my father’s punishment and suffering). We weren’t able to move forward with prosecution because of double jeopardy. But I did receive 100 free sessions of therapy from the state of NJ, and my mom and sister each received 50 sessions. My mom was ordered into therapy, too, and we had to go to mother-daughter therapy, plus we each had to attend support groups. My support group was with about five other assigned-female teenage incest survivors who had had state involvement in their lives, and my mom attending a corresponding support group with the caretakers of each of these other girls. 

At 13, the youngest girl, Pauline, was also South Asian American (Indo-Guyanese). I was a 16 year old high school senior. We had a rather sibling-ish bond and I was really protective of her. Her story also deeply impacted me, because it made me realize how lucky I was. Until meeting Pauline, I hadn’t realized I could have had it worse than I did. Pauline was a foster care youth who was raped by her dad and brother for years, after her mom died when she was about 2. She was then put into foster care, where she was sexually abused again by her foster father. After that she bounced around to a few more homes, and by the time she got to our group, she was living with a lesbian couple because she found it so hard to be around men. Mind you, this was New Jersey in 1994: not exactly a time when states were supportive of lesbian and gay people becoming foster parents. In the early months of 1995, Pauline was institutionalized in the County psychiatric hospital, and a few months later, she hung herself and ended her life. I didn’t really have the capacity to feel much at the time, I was so very flooded in my own trauma. But after I went through a really devastating and abusive end to a long relationship I’d been in (actually, with the person for whom I originally moved to California), in 2014, out of nowhere memories of Pauline came flooding back to me. I had never forgotten her, but with the grief I was experiencing through the breakup, I was able to finally somatically and emotionally feel and integrate the grief and horror I’d felt when Pauline died. Sitting in my nonprofit office in 2014, I googled a bit about the case and learned there were two back-to-back investigations into the Bergen County mental health hospital in the spring or summer of 1995, both immediately after young wards had completed suicide. One of those kids was Pauline. 

So literally three months or so after Pauline’s death, I found myself living in Washington, DC as a freshman at Georgetown University. That’s another long story that I’ll skip for now, but suffice it to say I had emotional whiplash from the contrast in these events. I ended up processing my trauma verbally a LOT with friends on campus, and often learned they were survivors of some kind of sexual violence too (a few of them were child sexual abuse survivors, but mostly I became the friend on campus that everyone disclosed campus rape to). I met two people during that time who were gay men of color who were also child sexual abuse survivors. I’m still very close friends with them today, and one of them is a Mirror Memoirs storyteller in our initial audio archive. 

I interned at the US Department of Justice Violence Against Women Office between sophomore and junior year, and that experience helped me understand my own life as a microcosm of an entire global pandemic of child sexual abuse. It also really struck me that most of the women whose calls and letters I would answer that summer were white women who were married to or newly divorced from military or police officers who had abused them and sexually abused their children but who were essentially immune to prosecution due to the “blue wall” of protection from their colleagues. 

I ended up working at our campus women’s center and co-leading Take Back the Night, which led me to work at a national “feminist” legal advocacy nonprofit after graduation. It was possibly the worst job I’ve ever had. The amount of racism and ageism from the white female attorneys who led the organization was astounding and, for idealistic young me who had just spent three years feeling so empowered by my own voice and the voices of so many other survivors sharing their stories with me, it was really heartbreaking. 

I left nonprofits overtly involved in anti-sexual violence work after that, for a long, long time. I spent over a decade as a youth organizer in nonprofits working in NYC public high schools, specifically with low-income Black, Latinx and Asian American youth. But of course, where there is an adult who’s gained the trust of young people, there are countless disclosures of child sexual abuse. I was still pretty young then, too, 22 when I first started that work. So it still felt like slightly younger peers telling me their stories, and me then disclosing back to them (not asking them to hold any details of my story, but rather letting them know they were not alone in survivorship and there was no shame in talking about it). Insert lots of stories and witnessing, too, so many events of police violence against these young people, especially against those who were Black. We leaned into art as a transformative medium, together. I had the great privilege of supporting so many amazing and brilliant young people to lead arts-based campaigns to end military recruitment and policing in their schools, to end the curfew on the Christopher Street pier, to pass the DREAM Act, to end abstinence-only education, to end gentrification in their neighborhoods and hold slumlord landlords accountable…obviously, the campaigns were not always successful in terms of policy change, but many of the youth in these programs went on to be full-time organizers and cultural change workers. And sometimes after experiencing their first campaign or social action project, youth would approach me and those of my colleagues who were also publicly out survivors, and would suggest creating actions or art about survivorship and ending sexual and domestic violence. When I worked at Make the Road NY with Tanais, actually, they coordinated a performance of “For Colored Girls” by Ntozake Shange with several of the girls in our community center, and I coordinated a march, vigil and speakout against domestic and sexual violence with several of these youth, in Bushwick (Brooklyn). This was somewhere between 2005-2007. 

I went to grad school in 2008, and thought I was going for education policy. But when I got to NYU, I started to have writers block again. This had happened during undergrad, too — it’s how I got diagnosed with PTSD (later Complex PTSD) in 1998. Honestly after years of talk therapy (which I’ve pretty consistently been in since 1998), I was surprised and dismayed that this could still happen. I had written a lot of my undergrad papers about child sexual abuse, and first started learning about things like the neurobiology of trauma in 1997 (someone gave me a copy of the book Trauma and Recovery, and it really planted the seeds for so much of the awareness I have now about trauma, disability, neuroplasticity and just in general my thoughts on what we can and can’t change after experiencing violence). But I hadn’t kept up with any of the research at all since leaving my “feminist” nonprofit job. So I shifted my focus in grad school to policy work as pertains to ending child sexual abuse. And obviously I had to address the writer’s block, or I wouldn’t have been able to write any of my papers. I had a theory that finding another medium through which to tell my story would help. And I had another theory that finally telling my survivorship story very, very publicly would end the dynamic in my life of some people knowing and some people not (which, for a lot of reasons, caused a lot of unhealthy behavior on my part). I also understood what the “1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is a child sexual abuse survivor” statistic really feels like viscerally, because I was “out” as a survivor to all of my friends, lovers and political comrades — which usually meant I knew all of their stories of survivorship, too. But mostly, they didn’t know each other’s stories. It got to a point where every protest, house party, club night I went to, I’d look around the room and think, “Wow. All of these people were raped or sexually assaulted as children, and I can see the gifts and the obstacles that they have in common, but they can’t. What a missed opportunity for access intimacy [a term I learned from Mia Mingus], interdependence, and more empathy when navigating conflict.”

So all of that led me to conceive of Secret Survivors. I knew the work of off-off-Broadway company Ping Chong + Co. because they’d worked with Global Kids, where I was a Senior Trainer for four years. PCC has a storytelling theatrical format where they interview five or six people whose lives intersect around a shared identity or experience. The interviews are done one-on-one, and usually the interviewees don’t know one another. Then the Director weaves their stories together chronologically into a script, and the storytellers themselves become the performers in the play. I loved the model, and I asked them if we could use the experience of being an adult survivor of child sexual abuse who was also a prison abolitionist as the common thread. They said yes, and hired me as the Project Coordinator and also a cast member. I got to cast the rest of the show, given the sensitive nature of the work, we agreed it was important for everyone in the show to know me, even if they didn’t already know each other (though a lot of them did). That was May 2009. 

Mirror Memoirs was informed by all of that. Secret Survivors got a lot of national attention, thanks to support from the NoVo Foundation and the Ms. Foundation, and a lot of individual survivors nationwide who invested in the show (funds to produce the play and to film the performance and create an educational documentary and toolkit). But as we were wrapping the toolkit up in 2011, I was also wrapping up my master’s degree. I came across a newly published statistic from the American Academy of Pediatrics. They’d found gender non-conformity to be a risk factor for child sexual abuse, with assigned-male children being most at risk (up to six times likelier than gender conforming children). I was stunned. I really felt like I’d gotten the work all wrong. We had been so deliberate in casting a racially and gender diverse cast in Secret Survivors, but we didn’t have any transgender women or even non-binary assigned-male survivors in the show, yet here was a study from a really reputable source telling me those were the most vulnerable people in terms of being targets of childhood sexual violence.

In 2015, I got a call from the newly created Just Beginnings Collaborative, one of the first-ever philanthropic entities solely funding work to end child sexual abuse. They were creating a fellowship to specifically support the work and leadership of BIPOC survivors, and wanted me to be in the inaugural cohort. At first, the funding was scoped to be two years at $100,000 per year. Due to a lot of harm (white supremacy and pathologizing survivors) done by the founding director of the foundation (a white woman who was not a child sexual abuse survivor), the fellowship was extended to a four-year-fellowship in total. 

Thanks to all of the experiences I described above, I was crystal clear what my focus needed to be. In January 2016 I started the fellowship and created Mirror Memoirs. We’re now in our sixth year, and since February 2019 have been fiscally sponsored by the nonprofit Community Partners. We’re a national storytelling and organizing project intervening in rape culture by uplifting the narratives, healing and leadership of Two Spirit, transgender, intersex, non-binary and/or queer BIPOC child sexual abuse survivors. Within that umbrella, we prioritize the leadership of Black and/or Indigenous Two Spirit, transgender, non-binary and intersex survivors. Our audio archive is the backbone of our work, with 60 stories across 15 states in the US due to finally be released this year (one or two stories a week from April through November). Our approach is intersectional and intergenerational. We are an abolitionist organization rooted in the praxis of healing justice, disability justice and transformative justice. And I feel so tired but so damn lucky to be doing this work every day. 

SA
Your story has pierced something deep inside of me, which is why I reached out to you in the first place. There are so many layers and elements to it that have helped me understand parts of my own story, which is why the legacy of your work and what you do with Mirror Memoirs is so particularly important—it provides reflection. I think a lot of us know things that we can’t articulate (or maybe sometimes don’t want tto) and seeing and witnessing becomes an act of survival. So, thank you. Thank you for sharing your own story, but also for going into such vast detail about your life and what necessitated the creation of your work.

I’m particularly stunned by the story of Pauline. It broke my heart to read that. To read the layers. I have long felt, because of the shame of South Asian cultures, and the silencing (on top of the shaming) that occurs, that there must be so many stories like ours. It pains me a lot, to think that as I also hold the story of my mother — and the complexity that I am a incest survivor from the hands of my mother — while also holding onto her own brutal reality of being gang raped as a teenager. It’s so cyclical, and yet so hidden, so mercurial, so unknown in so many ways. 

A
It truly is. And thank you for sharing your own survivorship with me. I’m so sorry you and your mother have suffered in this way. My father is a survivor, too, and when the state intervened in our lives, that’s when he called a private family meeting and disclosed it to my mom, me and my sister for the first time. I had zero empathy for him then, but I have some empathy now, and really just a lot of pity. My mom is a survivor as well, and in fact, to my knowledge, so are all of the women, both young and old, in my family (to different extents). So I see my work as creating so much room for their healing and rewiring too, and there is and has certainly been a collective healing nature to my practice (even when it has caused immense conflict between me and my relatives). At this point, I am very glad to enjoy support and at times what feels like reverence from the women in my family, especially on my mother’s side. But wow, it’s been a journey. That seven generations backward and forward shit is so real (ha). 

SA
It’s so real, and that’s why this work is so pertinent and so potent, we are healing in real time and hopefully helping our families heal… I am an abolitionist too, and I work with sacred medicines, in particular ayahuasca, with that work I’ve met so many survivors and it’s through witnessing their stories — the way they forgive and can hold multitudes of complex ecosystems, just as we are acknowledging the pain of our respective parents and their pasts — that’s helped me understand how deeply life changing this work is for everyone involved. Like even for folks within the peripheries. Does that make sense? Like this work has a ricochet effect.

A
It totally makes sense! 

SA
I was in a lot of denial about my sexual abuse for most of my life. Mainly because I remember blocking the memories out as a kid and then over the years whenever I’d hear the term “repressed memories” I’d shudder… like I knew I’d have to confront something one day. Then when I was 29, these memories just returned out of nowhere on my childhood bed in Australia. It was just… so painful and yet also spiritual, as if I knew I was ready. I had just come out of my last long term relationship, and I had so many confusing questions about my gender, my body, my sexuality, so it opened up my entire process (and was also my Saturn Returns) that year I started trauma therapy and ayahuasca almost weeks apart from one another. They both had earth shattering effects on my life, mainly because so much of my experience has been a fear to utter what I am, and what I know to be true about my life. My mother is severely abusive — in all the ways — has tried to kill me twice. It’s pretty intense. So I think that everyday fear of survival was so present that the sexual abuse just felt like too much. Like why bother when everyday I have to just stay alive. It felt too heavy and it’s almost like I knew, as a kid, that when the time came I’d have to not only heal myself but begin to look at her own abuse as well. Somehow miraculously, not knowing why I started writing my novel Like A Bird at 12. My therapist thinks it’s a living testimony of what I couldn’t say out loud. Writing makes me feel safer. 

A
Thank you for sharing more of your story with me, I’m honored to witness while sharing. I am wondering if you’ve ever read Hema Sarang-Sieminski’s essay in Good Girls Marry Doctors? Hema is an old and dear friend and also a Mirror Memoirs storyteller and also a non-binary femme whose perpetrator was their mother. 

SA
No I haven’t. Wow. 

A
There’s another South Asian (specifically Muslim, I believe Pakistani by way of Burma) non-binary person in Mirror Memoirs whose perpetrator was also their mother, but their story is anonymous in the archive. Perhaps with their permission I could introduce you though, if you were interested. We talk as a group in Mirror Memoirs a lot about the different ways to group our stories and foster connections. It’s such a rich community in the myriad ways our stories and identities and politics and visions for our world intersect. 

I would love to read your writing, too. That is one way we can keep the conversation going – I actually have never gotten to be friends or collaborators or co-conspirators with another South Asian American incest survivor who is a published writer and who uses an alchemical practice of writing. So that would be fun 🙂

SA
It would be so healing to do this. I would be honored. 

I find storytelling has become the main way I’ve begun to synthesize and process my own trauma. Being able to write and connect with folks, as we’re doing now, has really, really made me understand that this is a movement, this is an act of service to connect with other survivors. I believe we are the best dream-makers because when we sublimate what we’ve gone through to arrive at the possibility of a true abolitionist future, it’s truly a remarkable journey track. We’ve been harmed in inconceivable ways, by people who were supposed to protect us, yet we’re working towards healing. I want to ask if this is how it feels for you, and also how you began to heal and sublimate your own life?

A
No small question! Hmm well you wrote so much that has me thinking, let me try to pull apart the questions because I think they are all interesting. So, in terms of sublimation, for me I’m not sure I would use that word, because my own process of using art to share my story with people around me or the public in general has not always garnered social acceptance. There have been so many consequences to my choices, including getting disowned from my father’s entire family when I was 16 (because I not only decided to move towards prosecution, but also decided with my sister to cut our father out of our lives). Once I also came into consciousness that I’m queer, and later (within my self, maybe 20 years ago, and in terms of language maybe 10 years, ago, and in terms of being publicly “out,” maybe within the last 5 years) that I’m genderqueer (which sadly to me is now in the dominant lexicon as “non-binary,” ugh, it just feels so sterile of a word), that also had consequences in terms of inviting…well, I suppose bigotry in the broadest sense. 

That said, I have always been a storyteller. I know I was a storyteller from the very beginning, before I was ever a survivor. Storytelling helped me in two big ways: when I was surviving the violence of my childhood (like you, survival was on the line for me most of the time, the rape and sexual assault was just one aspect of the violence in my home), I told myself powerful stories to be able to make it through. Sometimes it felt like Pan’s Labyrinth in my brain, imagining horrors that made the horror of reality seem tamer. Sometimes it was pure fantastical escapism. At some point, I learned how to build powerful mental walls that allowed me to dam up the trauma during the school day and social time with my friends (ie after school and extracurricular activity time) — I didn’t have Dissociative Identity Disorder, but something on the spectrum of that experience, like an alternate world in which I got to pretend any time I was away from my family, that I was just a “normal kid” (it really helped that I was so academically inclined, and incredibly extroverted and performative). (Side note: I have for many years hypothesized that most of the most talented actors and entertainers are child sexual abuse survivors, because we are the best actors – especially those of us who survived violence in our home for years. The violence went on for years because at some point early on, we all learned how to pretend it wasn’t happening.) So, my gifts as a storyteller helped me survive my childhood. But then they became an obstacle. I was an alcoholic from freshman year of college (1995) until 2011 and that largely stemmed from this dissociative or dual reality quality in my life. Not that I wasn’t chipping away at that wall with every disclosure, but it truly was the process of incredibly public storytelling (with Secret Survivors, and then the published essays in various anthologies, and of course, ultimately, testifying against Jeff Sessions at his confirmation hearing in the Senate on behalf of sexual violence survivors and LGBTQ+ Americans (LOL what is life?!) that really created an avenue for complete psychic integration internally. So the alchemy of storytelling ended up being necessary for my own healing, but a very different kind of storytelling than the very practice that helped me survive my childhood. Does that make sense? 

SA
It makes so much sense. We are the best actors, the most ardent ones. I have so many perfectionist tendencies because of my abuse, and actually a lot of the things I like most about myself (my compassion, my ability to love, my ability to forgive, my endearing-ness lol) it makes abuse such a nuanced thing. I was a great actor also because I was pretending to be fine, right? I mean — I’ve suffered from substance abuse as well and suicidal ideation since I was ten, and I think being able to be at so many different ends of the spectrum, seeing so much and understanding humans in such a fundamental way… I don’t to vilify my mother but there’s something about her that’s so depraved. And I love her anyway. I don’t talk to her anymore, and maybe that was the first time—putting up a boundary—when I realized I didn’t have to act anymore. I could be hurt. I could be defiant. I could stand up for myself and say this was wrong! Which I never allowed myself to say. Now my dad doesn’t talk to her either. It’s so many things at once, when I started trauma therapy I was asked how it felt to have both parents betray me which… blew my mind. Like, wow. I didn’t have to do it all? I didn’t have to do that whole performance? I see it in my high functioning-ness too… like how ambitious I am. How hardworking I am. It’s all connected. 

Thank you for sharing all that you are, it’s making me do the same. 

I get you, also, on the difficulties you faced. I just want to tell you I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done in your life, all the things you’ve encountered, that’s brought us here. I feel so lucky to be sharing this space with you. 

A
I’m so glad we are sharing more than this being an “interview” only, it feels much more aligned with the praxis we (all the key players in Mirror Memoirs, because it’s not just me anymore, and hasn’t been for a few years now, yay) are developing about the storytelling be a relational exchange. Lately I’ve been thinking of mycelium as such a symbol for the technologies we are crafting. 

And in the meantime, there’s a Mirror Memoirs member meeting Feb 13, it’s open to any QTIBIPOC CSA survivors. You’re welcome to come! You’ll find the registration link within the minutes from our Jan 9 meeting (which was our first monthly meeting).

Amita Swadhin is an educator, storyteller, activist and consultant dedicated to fighting interpersonal and institutional violence against young people.

Sexual Self Consent with Aaron Michael of Kama

SA
Where are you in the world are you, Aaron? 

A
In London.

SA
How are you feeling?

A
A little bit tired, I guess. But I did have a nice meal. I had some Indian food, I ate some palak paneer with a spicy dal dish, and tandoori chicken. And then my favorite was a fresh mango, with some red grapes, red currant grapes at the end. And then several glasses of water.

Where are you at?

SA
I’m in Sydney right now.

A
Oh, nice.

SA
So, how did you get involved with Kama?

A
Well, I was recommended by one of the experts who work with Kama. I was working on a section in a book I was writing, and I found her to be a defining expert in this particular chapter. So I contacted her. From there, she told me Kama was looking for, basically, a male sex coach or someone to focus on pleasure for penises.

SA
And how has it been so far? What has your experience been like working with Kama?

A
Working in sexual wellness can be a bit of a lonely field in that everyone knows each other, but everyone’s also doing their own thing. So to finally be part of an organization that, you know, has a variety of experts, business advisors, and then also a team of passionate people who are dedicated to both sharing information as well as producing content in this area… I mean I pretty much talk about sex and relationships all day, so it’s not only a dream for me, but frankly for my wife, too. She doesn’t have to hear me talk about it all the time.

SA
How did you become a sex coach? What was that journey?

A
I guess a lot of people in this field will say that they started off as a kid, but yeah, in some ways, as a child. I remember having little get-togethers with friends, and always talking about sex and relationships. I even got in trouble once with my parents, and the next-door neighbor’s parents. They walked in, and one of the kids was talking about body parts. We’d done these ‘workshops’ in early childhood, but back then we were just trying to figure out what this was or what that was. I think one of the kids told their parents, not thinking anything about it. After the parents came in and sort of shamed everyone – on our attitudes as kids, around our bodies and around talking openly about sex. I was fortunate enough that my parents didn’t do that. I think there was a mild punishment, maybe I got grounded for a day or something. But they didn’t make this huge ordeal out of it. 

I came from a very conservative Christian family with parents who were missionaries. Coming from this background, I didn’t masturbate until I was 19. I had a different initial take on sex, thinking I was going to wait until I was married. At the same time, I didn’t get why people were weird about sex and sexuality. I didn’t really know how comfortable I was with this stuff until some friends from high school told me they weren’t surprised I had become a sex coach. Apparently, I was the person they could talk about sexuality with, although I never really thought of myself that way, since I was never the one who was actually having sex. But I was the one who people thought was having sex. So that always struck me as funny. 

Later in life, when my mother burned herself while cooking, causing some nerve damage, I actually learned how to massage and support my mom’s neck and back. I never really thought of it as massage then. Then I did the same for myself and for other athletes on my sports teams. Then I read books on massage. I ended up doing a decent amount of casual massage work because that’s just where my interests wound up.

Once I developed my techniques with touch and my hands, it allowed me to learn more about the body. Working with touch, or through physical contact, has given me a better tendency to perceive. I feel that I get to know a person much more through their voice and hug than I would by looking at them visually. I also have a background in martial arts. There was a particular teacher that was big on connecting with one’s breath and balance. Through my time with him and practicing massage, I noticed that certain types of comforting touch could also be used to create a lot of hurt and pain. But once I became aware of those areas and shifted my intention away from pain, I realized that actually these are the same places that can bring the most amount of healing and pleasure as well, once given the gentle care and attention it requires. When I got deeper into my journey to become a sex coach, I applied these same philosophies I learned from therapeutic massage.

SA
There’s so much there that just sent light bulbs popping off in my head. But first, can you talk a bit more about this concept of healing from pain and turning it into pleasure?

A
Before I married my wife, we had quite an amazing sex life together for about four and a half years. After our marriage, literally the day after we got married, her body started to shut down. She reached a point where she wasn’t feeling sexual sensation and was even starting to feel pain in her vagina. I was very well read on everything around sex, but this was something I didn’t know enough about. So my wife went to go see a midwife who worked with a certain touch technique that focused on removing pain from the vagina, using both the body and mind. That midwife and I started to work together. I reached out to nurses, doctors, psychologists – anybody I could find who could take care of this. Vaginal pain was a common medical issue, but I couldn’t find any professionals who also believed there to be a healing or meditative perspective to it. So over the period of a year, this midwife and I worked with over 100 different people and started to note a pattern of behavior emerging. During this time, we believe we figured the quickest way to get out of pain, then the quickest way to find pleasure, and then how to work with the body. We then also found that people were usually doing things the opposite way. Because of how sex gets depicted in pop culture and in porn, which is as hot, heavy, friction-based sex, we follow along. But over time, this way of sex can actually incur different types of pain. So working with these individuals and couples to relieve pain was the basis by which I pursued my work.

SA
I want to go back to what you were talking about in terms of your upbringing. Can I ask how old you were when you were gathering your friends around to do these sex ed sessions? Do you remember?

A
We were probably about ten or so, playing all these different types of games around sex and sexuality.

SA
It’s interesting. I grew up in a very conservative Christian household as well. I think as I started to move away from it, is when I really started to take my sexuality seriously. As someone who grew up as with sexual abuse as a child, I lived with vaginismus for most of my adult life. I only just healed from it a couple of months ago.

A
Oh, congratulations!

SA
Thanks – the parallels with me healing from it and moving away from my conservative Christian upbringing, were right next to each other. So I wonder, do you often think about how your own sexuality and your own interest in sexuality has been marked by your religious upbringing, if at all? Can you find the link between maybe your spirituality and your sexuality or your interest in sexuality?

A
I can definitely find a link. As a child, there was a part of me that saw people in church and thought that they were very awkward in their own bodies. I’m someone who reads a lot out of body language and has the ability to gain context from tactile touch, so I had always thought that there was a bit of oddness around their movements. Because they didn’t seem confident to speak about sexuality – which, if it’s so sacred, then why is it that there’s no teachings on how to do it properly? Aside from maybe the book of King Solomon. So because of this growing up, I never paid too much credence to sex as a teen.

For me now, the connection between one’s spirituality is very much that the mind is an embodied mind. I don’t see a separation between mind-body-spirit. It’s actually one whole, and these things complement each other in a way that becomes something more. To deny my sexuality was always going to mean that I would be denying my spirituality, as well as just my general person. That is intimately tied to the way that I have experienced spirit, and also the way that I look at how to generate energy. It’s not just about working out to get stronger, or reading books to become more knowledgeable, sex has an energy that can both charge another person as well as charge oneself, and discharge as well. When I finally started to have sex, I found that there was no other more intimate way to really get to know someone and to see them from every perspective, while at the same time revealing oneself. We’re oftentimes stuck to words, so when we get the chance to express ourselves in sex and sexuality, I feel that so much more is transmitted, more than than one could ever put into a single conversation.

SA
Can you speak a little bit more to this idea of energetic bonding through coming together sexually? I’m only really understanding that recently and am trying to wrap my head around it. What do you think about that?

A
It’s your fingerprint. It’s your palate, it’s using all of your senses. We talk about this at Kama, what it is to sensualize life, or to experience life fully with all of your senses. Not just your sight, but also with touch, taste, and smell. To allow yourself to be stimulated through your ears and then to bring that into a sexual experience. This way of living in and of itself has a certain energy or flavor or frequency – whatever metaphor you want to use.

In terms of the electromagnetic frequency that one’s body puts out, when we bring ourselves and express ourselves fully in a sexual exchange, the interaction starts with words, then goes to touch, and continues to escalate. We show more and more layers of ourselves, we bear our naked soul, our spirit, our body. When we do that with somebody else, we create a link. When we allow our voice to be free to express the things we truly like, we encourage that inside of others to create their full expression of sex. It’s like singing with someone else, or sharing any other type of art – it is beauty and it is exchange. That’s what I mean by this energetic exchange. When I help people work through relieving pain, we give a voice to that which has no words. We use movement. You have to actually move your body and focus on the way you breathe if you want to expand who and how you are, because it really does change the way you feel. I know that these things sound like cheesy metaphors, but the beauty of life is that it comes from these simple things.

SA
Totally, and as someone who only really learned how to diaphragmatically breathe over the past year and a half, I’ve noticed my sexual interactions have been far more satisfying since being able to do that. That only really came as I started to work on myself and heal myself. What do you think is the effect on the psyche for folks who are having a lot of hot and heavy, fast, casual sex, and are also very broken or traumatized or wounded?

A
That’s an excellent question. There was a moment in culture where we were really promoting the rebellion against traditions by going out and being sexual with unfamiliar people as a new method of self-discovery. And to some extent, I think it works. But if we look at attachment behaviors, which is what I wrote my master’s thesis on, you notice differences in what the mind versus body interpret as love. Love has several definitions – it has different neurocircuitry depending on brain chemistry, whether it’s a long-term romantic relationship or a one-night stand. Part of the mind-body philosophy of inactivism really shows that, as you continue to move forward, you’re making your own history by having experiences that are molding who you are as a person. If you are engaging in a lot of one-night stands but you aren’t actually connecting to a person – or maybe you’re using them as distraction or self-validation – then this can start to define you in a way that feels like you’re always needing to fall in love.

However, if you bring variety and sincerity into your relationships, you don’t have to sacrifice the intimacy or connection for hot, steamy sex. There are so many ways you can use this energy between two people to inspire creativity to carry into your work life or, whatever it may be that you’re wanting to achieve: your goals, your endeavors, your dreams. In this way, sex becomes a meditation. I think this is a very powerful way of viewing sex between two people, especially nowadays where we are very compressed in locked down spaces. We need to do something with the energy that’s created both between and within us. The more we can come together and actually hone in on our individual intentions and drives, the more we can support each other – psychologically, relationally, and sexually. For those in lockdown together, real intimacy will help you transform mere coexistence into a co-creative force. I think that’s something that’s quite interesting for this age today, where it’s not just about making children anymore or passing on bloodlines.

SA
I want to come to the topic of self-consent, which is what we initially wanted to discuss. What is self-consent? How can we build a sexual practice that centers and pays attention to self-consent and how can we build towards that?

A
Well, I think there is a large history of sexual non consent. The interesting part requires actually drawing out, what is healthy consent and what does it look like in a way that is online (being present)? And what I mean is that we typically think of consent as a yes/no mental answer that we make. Someone asks you for something, you think about it, you weigh the options, and then you choose. That can work to a certain extent, but we tend to do it by overriding our bodies.

One of the things that we start off with at Kama, which is essential, is this idea of asking your own body for permission and having your body answer to you, consensually. And this isn’t something that anyone else is really talking about. Because consent is normally a talking exercise, typically with another person. The act of sex is supposed to be our most communicative and social act that we do as people. But it’s also our most information-poor act, because it’s during sex that we tend to shut ourselves off – we don’t speak, or we feel the need to perform one way or another. Sometimes we don’t even make eye contact. In the case of one-night stands, the act of facing each other and making eye contact very often just goes away. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this vision of sex, but if you are not truly communicating, then it can become very difficult to determine consent, especially beforehand. Consent has to be a decision that’s made before something happens, to define what you want out of a future act. And that’s a pretty scary decision to make. So it’s good to ask yourself, “What is my consent, really? What does it look like? How does my body look when it goes into a yes? How does my body look when it goes into a no?”

SA
Can you walk us through an exercise that can help us visualize our body’s consent?

A
Sure. So let’s take it from a very basic standpoint, like when an infant wants to protect itself, it goes into a fetal position, right? It means covering up the vital organs, our most important parts of our body. This is really no different than what we do when someone is approaching to touch us. And if we’re not ready to be touched, we start to cover our front or throat, chest, or groin, these areas. Whereas when we want somewhere to be touched, we start to literally open up. It’s in our English language – we say we are closed off to something or open to something. So the more we can answer from a position of what my body wants or feels like, the more quickly we get down to our true yes or no.

We can even start to change our own languages to remind us to focus on feeling more. There are so many clues to our true yes and no in the words we choose to say. “I think” versus “I feel.” If someone asked you, “Is it okay if I kiss you?” and you said “I think so.” What is it that you genuinely feel? Do you feel your body opening outwards or are you curling in towards yourself? And if you don’t go in or freeze or push, that’s your strongest no. Your biggest yes would probably be to eagerly grab the person and pull them in. So if you’re not opening out, if you’re not feeling like pulling that person in, or if you simply have no body reaction at all, then you likely need to reexamine your body’s answer.

If, for instance, you’ve faced a traumatic experience, your body may still be locked into the trauma. The more that you can become aware of how your body wants to react, or the more that your partner can become aware of that, then you can get closer to an authentic yes. And as opposed to signing a contract, it’s important to remember that consent is something we should continue to watch and do throughout all sexual experiences. Sometimes, we change our minds halfway through, and this is extremely important. 

SA
What are some cultural miscommunications that have made dialogue and consent during sex so difficult and complicated? 

A
Essentially, it comes down to being in a very information poor experience where, if we’re following the porn example of sex, one person is sort of lying still, while the other person is banging into them. There really isn’t much communication that’s happening there. But we can learn to communicate in time with our physical selves, to actually open or close our bodies off. There’s this whole space of ‘maybe’ during sex, where you’re still feeling into the moment, deciding where you want it to go. Maybe you think, “Alright that was fun, but okay no, that doesn’t feel good anymore.” But when it comes to sex, it’s not just a mental decision upstairs, which is what we try to always do with words. Embodied consent asks, what does your body have to say? What is the direction or intention behind each touch? Just that switch in a relationship dynamic can be very refreshing, and it can also create more balance. The Wheel of Consent is something I think couples should take a look at, to help create a space for openness and determine who each touch is really for.

Society has an unfairly gendered script, that men typically are “touching for their desires,” so when they perform a sexual action, it’s really for them. Then you have the other side which says that women allow touch to be done to them, or in other words, the woman’s pleasure exists for the other. Now you can have scenarios where that can be a highly erotic type of interaction, where one person just wants to surrender and have their partner take them and they’re going to allow, but if that’s the only interaction happening, that’s usually not going to lead towards a nurturing connection. Aside from the problems of it being a dangerously gendered script and that there are now and have always been so many unrepresented dynamics in-between, we still need to reverse that script for “givers” and “receivers,” which is the language we prefer to use at Kama. For instance, we’re hosting a number of workshops for couples this month to look at how we can all flip that script. We’re going to ask the person who’s most frequently the active “giver” – or person doing the giving – to give for the entire sake of their partner’s pleasure. In other words, it means having the giver ask the receiver, “Hey, how would you like me to touch you?” or even the other way around, which is having the person who’s typically receiving become the person that’s taking, in which case, the giver would ask you, “How would you like to touch me?

Once you understand consent within each individual touch, there is so much pleasure afterwards in connecting with breath, movement, voice, and all these other different body mechanisms. This month with Kama, we’re focusing on this theme of “Fuck in February,” like if people can’t be productive, let’s encourage everyone to fuck correctly. And what we mean by it is to actually learn to become expressive with one’s body, in whichever way you choose for it to come out. It’s about rawness – not about going to war with one another. In fact, our bodies complement one another and this synergy can result in something greater than the traditional turn-taking.

SA
Right, it’s like a collaboration. And I love that because it’s coming back to this idea of a sacred reciprocity, where your flourishing is my flourishing and all flourishing is mutual. 

How can people with somatic complications, who are in new partnerships, begin to process and articulate what they’re feeling in their bodies? Is it more an act that they should try and center with themselves before they come to the partnership sexually? Or can they make space for that when it’s starting to get into the groove, the first few times with their partners? How do we make space for that?

A
I mean, I would say the standard answer is that one starts off with themselves. However, once one has mastered the self, and then and then you go into relation, everything in some ways, has to be learned and new. And then for other people, they’ve learned a little bit more in relation. And then at some point, they need to visit things back inside themselves. But the biggest thing I would say, is to start to really create some somatic (bodily) awareness. And the things that we focus on at Kama is having an interoceptive ability, which is the ability to feel yourself sensationally from the inside. Simple things like feeling and holding your hand on your heartbeat helps with body dysmorphia. That’s pretty incredible. Something that simple can have that amount of impact. What happens when we then put our hands on the hearts of our partners? What happens when we bring that presence to the genitals with touch, whether we’re doing that with ourselves or with our partner. Giving our body the freedom to actually move, and movement is freedom. When we can move through experiences, we are free to actually experience them in all these different positions, of which we’ll find some feel very good, some feel very compromising. But by moving, we start to become unstuck. At the essence, as much as you explore in, also be exploring out. Doing these types of exercises where one is really becoming aware of your own breath or movement, then taking that same level of awareness with another person can really bring a lot of synchronicity between the two of you. When you build that type of bodily rapport, a lot of the stuff from the past gets eliminated.

I think we can fall into a narrow path sometimes with trauma work where we spend all our time revisiting the past and acknowledging its existence. Although to truly become alive again, you have to reconnect back to life – reconnect back to the erotic and creative life force. This type of reconnection isn’t something we can do just through talk therapy, but instead by coming into touch with these places where we carry either psychological or even physical scarring. You have to remember the mind and body are really the same. When we bring our own love and attention to both, there is a huge shift that happens. And then when we share that love and attention with another person, the body can rediscover pleasure to its fullest extent. Trauma especially can be triggered spontaneously out of nowhere, but if you find that container of love and support, you’d be surprised how fast you can regain your confidence. I mean, it can seem quite miraculous, but I think that just speaks to how our bodies can adapt to both the good, as well as the bad.

SA
Incredible. Thank you Aaron. What are the couple of things that are helping you stay grounded during this time? 

A
Hm, I’ve been big on juicing for quite some time. I think juicing has probably been the single largest factor for myself not getting sick when the seasons shift. The other thing is remaining physically active in one way or another. I always try to have a healthy sexual practice, but I’m currently working away from my wife, so it is much more of a solo, meditative practice at this time. 

Author, bodyworker, and sex coach, Aaron Michael teaches individuals and couples how to optimize their sex lives. With a speciality in cognitive science, he brings together neuroscience, psychology, and cutting edge practices to create simple, daily practices to optimise your sex life. Aaron is a trained instructor in breathwork, bodywork, dearmoring, and embodied sexual pleasure. He is passionate about providing an avant-garde sex education and solutions that go beyond traditional talk therapy. Aaron is now working together with new sexual wellness company Kama as their in-house sex coach and educator, bringing his knowledge of sexual healing into the cultural spotlight of pleasure. See a list of Kama’s upcoming workshops here.

At the Ruptures of Intersectional, Liberational and Decolonization with Birth Worker Eri Guajardo Johnson

SA
What strikes me about your work is this devotion to survivors and I feel similarly. Yesterday, I woke up feeling so heavy… I just wanted to sleep, which is very unlike me. Then when I saw the news, I already knew on some level. To contend with the reality that our bodies, and I speak as a femme person, our bodies are not safe. Something like a mass shooting that targets women (even if there are other casualties) has such a nefarious component. So your work is ever important today and that’s why we are here. Also, it’s why we have to keep going.

E
Thank you, first and foremost, for inviting me. The previous conversation we had before this recording made me so pumped to meet you. It feels like we have already worked together and I really look forward to this relationship blossoming. 

My name is Eri Guajardo Johnson and my pronouns are she/they. I am biracial. My dad is white, predominantly of German descent and my mom is of Mexican descent. I am queer. I am located in the mid- west, the Detroit metro area which is located on Anishinabe and Native American lands. And I am a birth worker, a rape crisis peer counsellor with San Francisco Women Against Rape. I also provide, in terms of my own individual practice, holistic peer counselling utilizing a foundation of indigenous healing modalities. In terms of my own practice of two different kinds of indigenous healing modalities, I use that foundation to support folks connecting to their ancestry and connection to their mind, body, spirit connection – however that means for them – and I work with survivors and their significant others. I guess, two other things..

Sometimes I think I wear too many hats…I also specialize in supporting survivors of sexual violence through the birth experience. I provide birth consultations which allows folks in four to six sessions. We go in depth in preparing folks for birthing – whether it be a home birth or a hospital. Helping folks brainstorm strategies and connect to their resilient practices. To minimize the chance of being re-traumatized through the intensity of birth and reproductive care. Helping folks connect to the tools can be really helpful in having an empowering experience. The last thing is, I am also the founder of Birth Bruja which is an online educational platform devoted to intersectional liberational de-colonial approaches to birth work, healing and life.

SA
So many hats and I am so glad you wear all of those hats because we need all this work and I am so grateful to you for doing it. I am curious to what – and only talk about what feels comfortable and what feels safe for you to do so. But was there a moment for you that clarified this work that is the trajectory of your life. Because there is a theme.

E
I wouldn’t say a moment but a time period… I am a mixed-race person and my parents divorced when I was two. So I have had very two different worlds all my life: ethnically, socio-economically, culturally. I also am queer and for a long time it was me being in two worlds at the same time. I wasn’t queer enough to be counted as queer but I wasn’t straight enough to be with folks calling me straight. Just like how I wasn’t brown enough. I wasn’t comfortable in white spaces. So that in betweenness in a lot of realms. Gloria Anzaldua, an activist and an author, talks a lot about that in her work being mixista, a mixed person belonging, connecting to everywhere but belonging to none and nowhere. So I mention that because flash forward to my young twenties. When I started to do work in the rape crisis movement I also started to rally engage my own healing journey. A healing journey as a survivor of sexual violence of multiple assaults in college. Also as someone who has on both sides of my lineage, sexual violence is everywhere. Like murder, incest, domestic violence – all the nasty horrible things – all those threads tie into my lifetime here and now. So therefore, spirituality was a really important part of my political education and vice versa. Then flash forward a little bit more, I studied Ayurveda which is from India – an indigenous modality. I also studied folk Mexican healing traditions. Ayurveda was the first indigenous modality that I was invited to learn. I want to pause and acknowledge this lineage specifically because I studied for four years at a school called Vedica Global under Archarya Surya and that healing and spaces allowed me to unpack the complexity of Catholicism and how I wrote off so much of my Mexican heritage because of the toxicity of Catholicism, that I thought it was one and the same. Also the complexity around gender based violence and gender oppression with the machismo culture. It was tied up together and through the study of Ayurveda and learning how to honor ancestry and lineage in the blood and spiritual realm gave me that spaciousness to unpack that. Also, towards the end of that study — that program was four years -– at the end of it, I realized I cannot authentically show up in this practice without doing the work of acknowledging my own ancestry and uncovering all of those practices as well. 

My own identity exploration and my own journey around healing is very much wrapped into decolonizing work. So years after that I studied at California Institute of Integral Studies in their Women’s Spirituality program. I was lucky and privileged enough to get my masters in Women’s Gender and Spirituality and Social Justice. A lot of my writings were on the intersections of identity, reclamation work, decolonial strategies and specifically spiritual and political strategies for ending rape. I feel like my whole life is a trajectory of weaving a lot of threads into these intersections. I feel like my identity forces me to continue to do this work. I am continuing to understand myself and my context in society and my positionality. So, I can’t get comfortable. It’s constantly changing and so I have this opportunity to revisit again and again what it means to be doing this work.

SA
My parents are Bangladeshi but were also mixed but that’s also confusing because of Partition. I never wanted to think about it and I have always had a lot of shame about not having answers and feeling really blurred as a person. Then understanding, coming to the earth, coming to the land…all these things that I have never understood has suddenly opened something immense in me. I am so grateful that you have named all of these things. Because I think not having all this awareness allows all this unconsciousness and more unconscious relationship in connection. I think what we need now more than ever – even though I hate that statement – we really need connection. The work that you do in a way is creating that connection. A connection where people don’t normally find that in birth work. I mean, I am sure people find it in birth work, but the people you are working with – survivors.

E
The concept of connection is, honestly, the backbone of spiritual  (and I say spiritual specifically instead of religious) relationship, as well as political work. “Reproductive care” is a professionalized realm. So when we are talking about professionalized anything, we’re talking about something that is most commonly positioned within the colonial perspective of professionalism, right? Which is mind based. It’s spoken in English. You need a lot of letters and acronyms after your name. You need a full page of trainings. It’s very capitalistic, exploitative, competitive, blah, blah, blah, blah. Similarly when people are talking about (in a professionalized context) when they are talking about a decolonial work, what I find is a lot of folks in a totally well intended and it totally makes sense… but a lot of times especially folks of privilege approach this like it’s a linear process. Like decolonial work or intersectional work like it’s a list of checkboxes that we can do. What happens is, again, Westernized thinking, colonized thinking, has us thinking very narrowly, very linearly. So, we miss that everything is about connection and relationship, right?  So, first and foremost, it’s about us knowing ourselves. Just like how you mentioned the complexity of your ancestry, one of the things that came up for me was that I identify as a person of color with white privilege. Everything is in comparison to whiteness in the United States. Even for someone like you and I, for us to be talking about decolonial work or intersectional work has to begin with you and I understanding who we are and our lineages of marginalization. As well as our lineages of privilege.  Only from there can we know what integrity looks like, what accountability looks like.

SA
We were just talking about this earlier. When you have people who are good hearted—dedicated and devoted to justice—but are unwilling to look at themselves to see how they might be perpetuating harm… I am constantly humbled by how much I don’t know, on an individual level. I’m not a perfect person, I’ve made mistakes but I also vow to keep getting better and whole so I don’t cause harm but that also means I’ve had to get stronger boundaries. Lots of people project shit so it’s a constant path that requires diligence. What happens is that people are willing to criticize others but not themselves, so people lose themselves in ego. But this kinda work requires a really healthy ego.

E
Yeah but I think that culture though, that mainstream culture of not engaging in this work I think speaks to the toxicity of A) colonialism, but B) That this country was founded upon trauma. Then on top of that, the complexity of how folks got here—whether it was a chosen immigration or not—so it makes sense that mainstream culture is based on survivorship. Which is scarcity, disassociation and these legit trauma responses that have become implemented into our family dynamics, our cultural expressions, and so we can talk until we are blue in the face describing the power of meditative practice, the power of slowing down and building connection with yourself and others. But that’s not going to mean anything to someone who has this built-in fear that everything will be taken away from them at any given moment. And that’s not even talking about those who have experienced acute violence in this lifetime—not even ancestral shit.

SA
And the layers in this. When you are a survivor, a child sexual abuse survivor as I am, nobody takes you seriously because sure they’re like “Oh that sucks” but they won’t really understand what it feels like in your bones, because how would they know how deep that wound is? They can only go by their own metric of what they understand about their own lives. I think people look at survivors and go “shut up” or they want what you have without understanding or wanting to carry all that you’ve carried to get to this point. Nobody has any kind of framework for understanding what it feels like to be betrayed by your parent on that level. You know? And to live with that your entire life. And then, inevitably what happens is that in these situations, according to my therapist, when one parent betrays you the glorification of the other parent becomes normal. So you create narratives in your homelife to create this binary that you can survive. So, of course what happened yesterday—the murder of eight people in a massage parlor in Atlanta, six of them being East Asian women, and sex workers. There are so many layers that as a society we are unwilling to hold at all times. We have our own limitations. But I think this time is necessitating the value and importance of hearing everyone’s story. It goes back to what you were saying about that means you have to engage with yourself and your privileges. You have to actually see yourself wholly and complexly and all the things that you hold. Then you can actually hold someone else’s full self as well. 

What does intersectional liberation and decolonization work look like to you?

E
Thank you for asking that question. It’s something that I have had feedback in the past but it’s been awhile so I like to clarify why I say…it’s part of my business tagline: intersectional liberational and decolonization. First and foremost, yes, they can all be interchangeable in a lot of ways but they are also very different. So intersectional, for example is when one acknowledges the full realm of possibility. In the realm of reproductive care, it’s not enough to specialize in one dynamic. It’s important to educate ourselves on the full spectrum of what reproductive journeys can look like. Right? As a birth worker, it’s not enough for me to read books or read or listen to podcasts that center around people who have chosen pregnancy. Right? Like they intentionally wanted to get pregnant and have maintained their pregnancy and have beautiful birth experiences and are shiny and blah blah blah. Yes, that can happen and that’s very powerful. And, I would be doing a disservice and harming so many people if I stopped there. I needed to learn and listen to stories where this pregnancy was intended, unexpected or it’s really complex where they got pregnant and perhaps they found out their partner has been cheating on them, now they don’t know. Now this pregnancy is just a reminder of that pain. Of that infidelity. Folks who were raped and were pregnant and decided to keep it. Or they didn’t feel they had any options but to keep the pregnancy.  Or folks, like myself, where the infertility journey has been around for so long. For me personally, we actually decided to stop trying to have kids. But I have worked with so many folks where that grief of the infertility journey carries over into the pregnancy. Even though they have their goal of conception, it’s just a living example of all the miscarriages that came before. It’s super complex. That’s just one example of what intersectionality can mean. And also intersectionality is led by understanding the connection between identity and experiences. So understanding a birthing person in a Black body is way more likely to have experiences of microaggressions in the doctor’s office/OB care. They are way more likely to be not taken seriously in the birthing room during their labor when they are talking about their pain levels. They are way more likely to be perceived as problematic and confrontational if they are (during a contraction) getting pissed because a nurse is talking to them. Meanwhile someone white and light skinned will be written off as, oh that’s just a person in labor being normal. That’s the thing about intersectionality is there’s not just the full spectrum of what’s possible, but tying and correlating experiences with identities and vice versa. 

The next word is liberational. 

I was really frustrated with being in a lot of activist-y where folks come together with others in connection with our pain and our wounding, that’s where we can put words to the struggles we have been feeling inside, what happens is sometimes folks are hyper-fixated on liberation that specifically impacts them, the way they have been suffering that what happens is when they talk about their own liberation they end up envisioning the same cycle of hierarchy, but with a different person on top. So, for example, Feminism. A lot of women, specifically in the sexual violence movement, rightfully speak about patriarchy, toxic masculinity and offer a lot of legit critiques that often involve male identified people. But what ends up happening is people just start to talk shit, saying stuff like, men are trash, masculinity is trash. And while the anger is legit, I get it, but that does not speak to liberation. That doesn’t acknowledge how one in six people who were socialized as male will have experienced sexual violence by the time they are eighteen. This doesn’t talk to the full spectrum of gender.  How there are a lot of masculine identified – whether be trans or non-binary folks who just — masculinity is part of their experience and part of their identity so where does this leave them? So what ends up happening is just a regurgitation of a hierarchy but this time putting women (white women, particularly white cis women) at the top. 

What is now known as US and Canada is founded upon the exploitation of land and peoples and specifically the exploitation of Black and indigenous peoples. Knowing that it all goes back to that point, we can see how anti-Blackness and anti-indigenousness contributes to so many societal systems of oppression that we have now. So by focusing and prioritizing on Black and indigenous liberation we are able to focus on liberation for everyone. We can’t talk about Black Liberation without talking about prison abolition. We can’t talk about indigenous liberation and indigenous sovereignty without talking about environmental justice and sustainability. And we can’t talk about either of those communities without talking about access to healthcare in this country. Or, access to food, right? Knowing food deserts and food swamps are something that are really big issues within urban and rural areas as well so …yeah, by centering that it gives us a strong foundation for the intersectional approach and the liberational approach I previously mentioned.

SA
There’s a lot that you’re focusing on, that you’re thinking about, that you’re clarifying, that you are working towards. And I thank you for all of your explanations. And I think of this in my own life when I use words such as liberation I often wonder if I even know what I am talking about. So it’s always useful and helpful to talk to somebody about what does this word mean? – can we deconstruct together and communally and not for individual gain, which is the way of capitalism. But people don’t want to necessarily think too deeply. I see that a lot right now, this over saturation of the “right language” but it’s still within these toxic dynamics and behaviors. True liberation cant be supremacy over another person or another people. However, anger is an important thing to talk about in these spaces as well. You know, the righteous anger. To go back to working with survivors’ narratives and the complexities of narratives of pregnancy. For me, I am thirty-one, and I’ve always wanted children but after my abuse clarified a little bit more for me, I realized I didn’t actually know if I could carry children. So your work has created this reality that I didn’t know existed. That people are thinking of people like me and thinking about my body and what would happen to my body if I were to get pregnant.

E
Oh my gosh. Thank you for sharing all that. I know there are a lot of folks who are going to hear your words, and be like, oh shit, I never thought about that. Or folks who are (and I am sure you are aware) there are a lot of folks who are survivors but because of memory repression and also how normalized sexual violence is in our society – that a lot of folks are survivors and have that trauma encoded in their bodies or haven’t identified as survivors or they haven’t recognized that experience as violence. There are a lot of folks who are survivors who have given birth and it was intense and confusing and all these things and then years later unpacking that experience for the first time and drawing those connections together.

SA
Oh my God, wow,  to do that in reverse?

E
Going back to one of the powerful things about indigenous medicines that I appreciate is how it acknowledges that time and space is not a linear thing. That we can be grown ass people and actively be healing our child selves. We can be in this lifetime and in this body and be contributing simultaneously to the healing of those who came before us and the healing of those who come after. And yes, I am talking about blood lineage, however, we are not just blood and bone, right? Spiritual lineage as well, whether that be queer communities or spiritual communities, or even the community of residing on a certain land. Therefore, it’s never too late and there isn’t a step one and a step two.

Eri Guajardo Johnson (She/Her, They/Them) is a queer, bi-racial, trauma-informed birth worker, rape crisis peer counselor, holistic wellness coach, community organizer, and host of the Birth Bruja Podcast.

For over 13 years, Eri has been dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault (with an emphasis on serving marginalized populations); has studied indigenous Mexican and Indian healing modalities to learn about mind, body, spirit, & communal wellness, herbalism, and food as medicine; and has taught and organized countless classes and community events centered around the healing and empowerment of those most marginalized in our society.

Eri’s emergence into birthwork became a natural extension of her passion for intersectional, liberational & decolonial work. They believe that the immense power of birth and reproductive care can be harnessed as a mechanism for individual and collective liberation. Eri’s services include birth support, birth consultations for trauma survivors, holistic peer counseling for sexual violence survivors, & community education.

The Birth Bruja platform is a manifestation of Eri’s passion for building community & cultivating intersectional, liberational & decolonial approaches to birthwork, healing & life. Join us for monthly gatherings & recorded workshops that span the full range of this transformative work.

Sexual Healing and Social Equity through Canadian Cannabis with Antuanette Gomez

SA
Hey Antuanette, how’s your day?

A
My day has been really really good, it’s been super sunny, I meditated and did a study class. I still have a few more meetings.

SA
Lovely. I found your work just through digging through women who were working at the intersections of cannabis and sexual healing and stumbled upon Pleasure Peaks. It’s such an amazing initiative, how did you arrive there?

A
I was a holistic nutritionist back in 2015 working at a chronic pain clinic. I was so fascinated by being a holistic nutritionist because I learned that there were so many different forms of alternative healing and using foods to heal different ailments, naturally. When I saw cannabis it just made sense that it is one of the biggest super foods on this planet. Natural alternatives are very fascinating to me so it wasn’t till later that I got involved with tantra and learned sacred sexuality. When I was learning tantra there were a lot of ancient sages that used cannabis in tantric practices for sexual healing. I thought that was very fascinating because I was also a ganja yoga teacher at the time and I loved using cannabis consciously in meditation practices. 

When I was working at the chronic pain clinic, I was shocked that there were so many people that had so many different barriers to fulfilling sex lives. As a person who never thought such a thing, I just had so much compassion for them. I heard stories like, I havent had sex in five years, me and my husband havent had sex since we got married. And all these things are very common in a chronic pain clinic. That’s how I really learned how cannabis can give people quality of life. When it came to sexual health, I always found that these people were dealing with other things as well. People don’t prioritize their sexual health because they don’t think it’s that important, but everything is interconnected. When I find that people aren’t having a healthy sex life, they’re not having a healthy life, period. And so many of my patients at the clinic were saying that cannabis helps them with their endometriosis, that cannabis helps them with their fibroids, that cannabis helps them with their polycystic syndrome, that cannabis helps them with their insomnia, pain through sexual intercourse, the list goes on and on. I just thought it was worth doing the research on. 

It wasn’t until I came across Katy who has endometriosis and was in her early twenties being told that she would never bear children, that’s when I really learned what endometriosis is. And it affects 1 in 10 women. If you think of that statistic, 1 out of 10 people on this planet know what cancer is, that’s a huge population but nobody knows what endometriosis is. I thought it was shocking, and wanted to raise awareness because no one should be suffering in silence. It’s such a taboo topic to talk about, there’s too much guilt or shame. There were so many different types of barriers that had to be broken down. Obviously it doesn’t work for everyone and that’s the most fascinating part, because we have to do our own research, which is why we have our own Pleasure Labs. I just find sex so fascinating, which is why I’ve been doing it for the past 8 years.

SA
I like to think about how we return to the plant, consciously. I was using it for years as a teenager and young adult, not consciously but living with vaginismus. Only after I began using it consciously did I find all these sexual health benefits. I also had to work through a lot of shame around using the plant. 

Do you see that with women who are sexual assault survivors who are already carrying this burden of shame and then coming to the plant, there might be a little shame there as well?

A
Shame and trauma are so complex. Something as small as what somebody has told you, don’t touch yourself there you are dirty, when you’re between the ages of 5 – 11, is enough to traumatize you for your whole life. This is why those developmental ages are so important, around those ages and at adolescence we’re learning about sexual health and drugs. And it’s mostly, don’t do drugs, it’s bad for you, and abstinence is the best form of birth control. Now we can have an educated conversation around it. What I love about being a teacher and educator is knowing that we all come from different walks of life so it’s important for us as a brand and a company to educate people on all of the different ways they can heal. One does not fit all, especially with sexuality and cannabis.

We now know that all humans have an endocannabinoid system, just as we have a central nervous system and digestive system. We have a system specifically for processing and using cannabinoids, aka, using weed. We have these systems in place, so we have a lot more connection to the plant than we think. On top of that, our endocannabinoid systems are as unique as your fingerprint. Your endocannabinoid looks nothing like mine. So it doesn’t matter if we all use the same product, cos we’re not going to find the same benefit. 

I hate to compare it to alcohol but it does make sense. You have different experiences when you’re on tequila as you do gin, on vodka as you do rum. I find that when I drink vodka I turn into a complete 18 year old mess, and when I drink rum, I will cry and make sure you are the fault of all of my problems. I have these different personalities, emotions and experiences that it brings out of me based on my biology and makeup. Different cannabinoid profiles will do the exact same thing, so it’s important to learn about cannabis as we have with alcohol as adult users. It is very much personalized so that’s a very good opportunity to keep strain journals. 

I find that we can be a little bit more responsible with conscious cannabis responses. With that being said, I want to take it a step further. Even if it is the same product, we need to bring out a range of variants. Some people want to be in the sexual health space and bring out a lube. Not everybody wants that, not every sexual experience needs that. It means that you’re not speaking to the proper demographic. You’re just selling a product. Sexual health is mental as much as it is physical. So using tinctures are great for that, for a cerebral effect. But for some people, it’s pain. A large portion of survivors suffer from pain, so using a lubricant may not be for those people. And when it comes to the high stress lawyer or maybe anxiety ridden creative who has a really hard time connecting with their body, bath salts can be incredibly effective for moving energy around the body and becoming more open. That’s why we have various products. We even have massages, because a lot of people need touch.

Cannabis has been such an amazing opportunity to rip open the sex industry to what it could be.

SA
What is it like being a woman of color in the Canadian cannabis industry?

A
It’s really exciting to be part of an industry that has so much potential and to be in these decision making positions that are really crucial in how this industry will move forward. There’s great power and with great power comes great responsibility. I’m always fighting for what’s right in this industry. Having access to patients, having great quality products, having products with integrity, uplifting minorities and helping social equity grow in this industry. Demanding justice for all of the injustice that has happened before us. To be a woman of color in this space, you already know our communities have been impacted by the War on Drugs and systemic racism and oppression. So to know that you’re an inspiration to others, you have to be here for the right reasons.

It’s very difficult and overwhelming but it’s also an incredible opportunity to have this experience to finally change the narrative. It wasn’t always this way. People of color have always been attached to drugs in a negative way. To see people of color part of a legal regime is empowering to minority communities. 

I am now the Director of Canada for M4MM. Creating chapters across the country to address education, funding, training and social equity in Canada. Today the legal Canadian cannabis industry makes up of  1% Black, 1% indigenous, and 1% Latino. We have a “grass-ceiling here in Canada that’s often not talked about. Our first partnership is with Vivian Wilson, from Green Port the first black women to own a dispensary. And Superette, foundered by Mimi Lam. Together we’re creating sponsorships and education for retail in Canada and addressing the need for black Asian allyship in today’s climate. 

In my Green Rush Program, I launched 12 black businesses last year. It’s a cannabis incubator that provides resources and support on how to build a compliant legal cannabis business globally. With access to mentors and licensee holders internationally. 

I also founded the Cannabis Built By Blacks Expo.

SA
What are your hopes for the future of social equity?

A
To be impactful in not only the business economy but also creating an education for people of color and equal services and wrap around services for communities that have been impacted. It’s not enough to say that this amount of licenses will be granted. There have been generations of families that have been ripped apart because of the Wars of Drugs. Let’s talk about what went wrong to get it right. Let’s understand the history, to fully look at what has been done so we don’t have to make the same choices in terms of strategic and racist oppression. 

Antuanette Gomez is the Founder and CEO of Pleasure Peaks, the leading Canadian cannabis brand for improving women’s sexual health. Antuanette is also a full time cannabis consultant and a proud public speaker on cannabis and its cross-section with sexual, women and minority issues. Antuanette has been involved in and engaged with the Canadian cannabis community for over 8 years. She is endlessly passionate about inspiring women in entrepreneurship and helping them to navigate the cannabis industry. Antuanette actively engages in grassroots business planning with women inspired to work in cannabis, helping them to develop their business plans, find investors, and understand compliance in Canada.