A few weeks ago, Smile Makers ran an online workshop and invited licensed sex therapist Casey Tanner to discuss gender, sexuality and expansiveness.
Casey (@queersextherapy) has worked in the field of sexuality for years, she has undertaken a fellowship working with trans and sexually expansive folks and now owns her own queer sex therapy business. She is currently clinic director of a Gender & Sex practice, based in Chicago, US. She also does consultation work around sex theory with companies, teaching them how to be inclusive in language around queerness and sexuality. A powerhouse really!
Firstly, what is sex therapy?
Just like regular therapy but with the added dimension the therapist has of an education on sexuality. Casey says, “good sex therapy is like good sex in that is it consensual, it moves at the pace of everyone involved, at times can awkward and funny, at times can be deep and meaningful”.
The workshop was broken down into three categories, language, intersectionality and expansiveness.
1. Language: understanding the reality of gender & sexual experiences
“Gender and body parts are not intrinsically tied to one and other …”
A lot of Casey’s consultation work is learning to be more inclusive and sex positive in our language. She gave the example of not gendering products when selling them, because “women can have penises, men can have vulvas”. For example, period products could be “for people who menstruate” instead of “for women”.
Language is ever evolving and what seemed progressive 10 years ago might actually be offensive if applied now. Like “preferred pronouns”, - we are now shifting away from the word “preferred” as it signifies that it might be optional, but gender is not always a choice, so now we simply ask” what are your pronouns” - it can be a lot more affirming for queer folks.
Allyship and what we can do.
Through language, we understand if someone is body positive or pleasure accepting. Casey explains that as an ally, the most important thing we can do is learn the correct language and terminologies.
Allies should practice the pronouns away from the person, move on for mistakes, use the correct name for someone that has transitioned, practice gender neutral language and accountability, for example apologizing instead of making excuses for our mistake.
Does gender neutral language only work in English…?
In some languages, it’s very difficult to be gender neutral - in French, for example, even a chair is gendered (“la chaise”)! Indeed, the use of language is key but it can be very challenging to translate this to other countries, as Casey explains “language is culture, and thinking of intersectionality, we don’t want to colonize language”.
What about language & anatomy?
Learning the correct anatomy is so important! We should all normalize the correct vocabulary for our bodies. There is a lot of value in saying “vulva owners”, it can be empowering having basic sex education, and that comes with relearning our body parts.
2. Intersectionality: understanding multilayered sexuality.
By definition, intersectionality is the theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person's social and political identities might intersect to create unique modes of discrimination and privilege.
A term coined by Professor Kimberly Crenshaw, intersectionality is so important when discussing gender and sexuality. Certain members of the LGBTQ community still don’t have basic human rights, like trans black women or genderqueer brown women.
Intersectionality acknowledges how these differences impact our access to pleasure and our health. The socio-economic difference plays a big part in intersectionality. Many of Casey’s clients come from different economic backgrounds and as Casey explains “recommending a 200 dollar vibrator to someone can be very alienating”.
Acknowledging these differences could be really rewarding and empowering, this is what Casey calls “empathy work”.
3. Expansiveness: a way to re-script our own experience.
Here it is! So, what is expansiveness?
Well, expansiveness is about “script breaking and script rewriting, it’s about learning and unlearning”. Casey explains how, growing up, we were socialized in a certain way, we were taught what we want and don’t want. We were told what to say and what not to question.
Expansiveness is about bursting out of the small mold we were given growing up and ask the questions we were not encouraged to ask growing up. Expansiveness is about exploration and it’s about rediscovery, of ourselves but also our values, our beliefs and especially our desires.
Casey explains beautifully “allowing ourselves to express dominance in a way that doesn’t have to be masculine is really huge part of expansiveness.”
We then asked, what are ways we can explore expansiveness? What tangible steps can we take to becoming our authentic self?
Casey explains it’s important to slowly try new things on a small scale first. These actions can sometimes be overwhelming so it’s important to acknowledge to work we are doing. “Check in with yourself, with friends, partners and a therapist and ask yourself, how did it feel to do something that I asked for, that I want?”. Sounds really empowering right?
Casey explains to her clients the importance of getting better acquainted with their bodies as part of expansiveness work. Depending on where they are at in their sexual journey, the steps can be from reading an erotic book or listening to an audio tape to normalize sexual language. Eventually, it can escalate to something visual and then tactical (like masturbation or sensual touch with a partner).