I just returned from being a Guest in Residence at Unit One at Allen Hall at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Here’s how they describe the program:
The In-Residence Program at Unit One consists of a series of visiting guests who have a diverse range of professions and interests. Many guests have chosen paths which are unusual, are passionate about their work and lives, and are fun, interesting people. Guests live in Allen Hall for 1-2 weeks, interacting with residents in a variety of non-academic programs, workshops, and informal discussions.
When I first read about it, I was intrigued. Usually, I visit a college campus, give a lecture, go out to dinner with a small group of students and/or faculty, then go home. This could be a unique opportunity to have a different experience. The day I traveled to campus was truly hellacious: cancelled flights, lost luggage, a delayed bus, and some freezing rain thrown in for good measure. My arrival wasn’t exactly auspicious: I had less than 60 minutes to check into the guest apartment, eat dinner, prepare for my lecture, and change my clothes. Somehow, I actually managed to do it. The lecture hall was full for my first one, where I basically introduced myself to students, talked about what I’d be doing all week, and took questions. Along with the program director, I’d come up with a schedule that included drop-in hours where students could meet with me one-on-one, lectures, a workshop, and evening teas (social events at my guest apartment where we had informal discussions). Oh and one more thing. I got this idea that I wanted to set up a Feminist Porn Lending Library. Basically, I brought a selection of DVDs from feminist pornographers (including Shine Louise Houston, Candida Royalle, Maria Beatty, Erika Lust, Petra Joy, Madison Young, Carlos Batts, Trannywood Pictures, Buck Angel, and Tobi Hill-Meyer). During my week there, students could borrow them, watch them alone, with a partner or friends, then return them to me. I have never done anything like this before, and I wasn’t sure how it would go. Would students feel too shy or inhibited to ask me for a personal recommendation or browse through the selection? The answer, that first night, was a resounding NO. After my lecture, a small mob followed me back to my guest apartment (which is in the dorm where they all live, but manages to be spacious and welcoming and not feel too dormy-y) to borrow from the library. I asked folks directly: Do you want heterosexual, lesbian, transgender? Scripted features or all sex? Hip, urban, artsy, avant garde? How about kinky, by/for people of color, or instructional? They answered with their tastes and preferences, we made a sign out sheet, and before I had even unpacked, the majority of the DVDs were gone.
The next morning, I woke up and headed to the dining hall, where I’d be having all my meals while on campus. Breakfast actually became my favorite meal. Then, at 10 am, I had my first drop-in hour, where students were encouraged to come by and knock on my door. I called this “The Sexpert Is In” to let them know they could come to me with explicit sex questions and issues. Just like the lending library, I had no idea if I’d be sitting around for an hour or there’d be a line outside my door. It turned out to be the latter. In fact, by the next day, I’d added more drop-in hours to the schedule to accommodate the demand. On Tuesday, I saw students from 10 am to 5 pm with one break for lunch. They arrived one by one or sometimes in couples and we talked about a range of topics: first-time sex, friends with benefits, long distance relationships, orgasms, oral sex techniques, anal sex information, sex toys, breaking up, enemas, pubic hair grooming, the dating and hook up scene on campus, masturbation, period sex, lube, threesomes, peer pressure, open relationships, premature ejaculation, porn, sexual assault, painful intercourse, jealousy, birth control, kinky fantasies, virginity, the G-spot, gender roles, queer sex, sexual empowerment, promiscuity, safe sex, cock rings, sexual identity, and more. Those are just the topics I remember. In all, I think I met with about 50 students individually, and these were some of the most rewarding experiences (and that doesn’t even count the students I talked to in small groups, in the dining hall, or elsewhere). If you’re a student who came to see me, I want to thank you. Thank you for having the courage to knock on my door, share your stories with me so openly, and listen to my thoughts.
On Monday night, I gave my presentation on The Path to Sexual Empowerment, and had a big audience. There was a lively question and answer period, followed by our first tea. I told everyone they had to come to tea in their pajamas, and I got in mine. The teas were a nice way to wind down, and students could talk about whatever they wanted.
By Tuesday, I had developed a system. On my door, signs would inform students if I was available: do not disturb, just knock, or I’m meeting with someone, please come back at [time written on a post-it]. There was a steady stream. I woke up each morning convinced I could get some other work done or squeeze in a nap, but neither really happened. Beth, a local sex educator came to my talk the night before, so we decided to meet the next day. We exchanged stories, networked, and she mentioned there was a sex toy store in town. What?!?! I had no idea. It was called Illini Arcade. Light bulb moment: why not do a “field trip” with students to the local sex shop? I fired an email off to the program director, then continued to see students. Tuesday evening was the talk students seemed most interested in: My Life As a Feminist Pornographer. The audience was very engaged, and there were some great questions.
Wednesday morning I received a wonderful email from Professor Lena Hann, who’d attended my talk the night before. She asked if I had time to come speak to her Human Sexuality class. We chatted on the phone and made a plan for Thursday. After lunch, I met up with the program director to head into town to scout the Illini Arcade. We arrived and were greeted by two women behind the counter. The place was clean, well lit, and not creepy at all. They had a large selection of toys (nothing super high end, more like Doc Johnson and Pipedream, although they did carry a few silicone toys and the We-Vibe II), and were friendly and welcoming. It was no Good Vibrations, but it was a start. I told them I’d like to bring a group of students back to the store with me that night, and the manager decided she’d add another staff person in case the group was big. She also told me that the store was owned by a woman. So, we’d be supporting a local, woman-owned business, and that made me feel good. That night, I gave my Female Orgasms workshop. We decided to make it more intimate, so it was moved to a different room, and we advertised that attendance would be limited to female Allen Hall residents only and we’d cap it at 30 women. I wanted it to be more intimate. At the same time, a sex workshop for men was held upstairs. As it turned out, 61 women showed up, and I wanted to let them all in, so I did. I had the students fill out a one-question quiz anonymously, which asked:
Circle the statement that best describes you:
(a) I’ve never had an orgasm.
(b) I can give myself an orgasm when I masturbate, although it’s difficult and/or infrequent. I rarely or never have an orgasm with a partner.
(c) I can reliably give myself an orgasm when I masturbate, but I rarely or never have an orgasm with a partner.
(d) I can reliably give myself an orgasm when I masturbate, and I can have an orgasm with a partner, although it’s difficult and/or not as frequent as I’d like.
(e) I can reliably have an orgasm with a partner, and I do not masturbate.
(f) Orgasms come easy to me by myself and with a partner.
(g) Other [write in]
I wanted to get a sense of who was in the room, and tailor my workshop accordingly. We went through anatomy, erogenous zones, arousal, different ways to achieve orgasm, and my “troubleshooting” where I talk about common problems and strategies to address them. Beth (the local sex educator) had loaned me a stash of different kinds of vibrators, and I passed them around so each person could check them out. We headed back to my apartment for a tea. Just before 10 pm, everyone who wanted to go on the Sex Toy Field Trip gathered in the main area of the dorm. We all headed out—about 40 students total, an fairly even mix of women and men—in the freezing rain to catch a local bus. When we arrived at Illini Arcade, I gave them all a tour of the store, going section by section and briefly discussing what was there. Then, students were free to ask questions and get personal recommendations. It seemed like everyone bought something, and the line at the register was super long! By my estimation, probably thirty female students walked out of the store with their very first vibrator. Mission accomplished! I admit I was pretty giddy about the whole experience, and had trouble falling asleep that night.
The next morning, I had breakfast, drop-in hours, then headed to Professor Hann’s Human Sexuality class. It was a big lecture, about 250 students. Before I spoke, the professor did a survey of the room with i-Clicker, an ingenious little system where students have clickers, you ask a multiple choice question, and you can get instant results on a big screen. According to the folks who answered, 50% had never seen pornography before. I did an abbreviated version of My Life As a Feminist Pornographer, then took questions. Then, Professor Hann took me to Red Herring, a vegetarian restaurant on campus. The tofu sandwich was fantastic! I rushed back to my apartment, where I had a conference call meeting, then more drop-in hours.
On my final night, I gave a presentation on Open Relationships. Interestingly, I had the most contentious audience (usually that happens in the porn lecture), and people were really fired up about non-monogamy. I was slightly caught off guard by some of the intense feelings in the room, but I tried to roll with it. Afterwards was my final tea, a Queer Tea for LGBTQ students. We talked about what queer means to me and why I identify that way, my theory of the queer heterosexual, open relationships, and more. I was pretty exhausted and had to get up early in the morning, so I tried to shoo them out at a reasonable hour. But there were a few guys who arrived at the end, and really wanted to talk to me. Here’s the thing: the students who came to my drop in hours were primarily women, a few couples, and gay men. The straight guys weren’t showing up. I’m sure I could throw out a few theories about why that was, but here were two in front of me. So I agreed to talk to them one at a time.
This was such a unique, revelatory, fascinating experience for me. One thing that struck me was the urgency with which the students wanted to talk one on one, which reflects just how few resources there are for open, honest, explicit sex ed. Another observation: because the majority of residents are freshmen, these folks are at the beginning of their sexual lives. I don’t know that I’ve ever met that many 18 year olds all at once, and it was eye opening. Many have not yet had sex, others are just starting out. Yet, everyone was convinced that the folks around them were more sexually experienced, knowledgeable, talented, and orgasmic. One thing that felt especially rewarding was that I could tell them things I didn’t know when I was 18, information that can change their sex lives going forward. There’s something satisfying about being able to educate the next generation, arm them with information and confidence that I didn’t have. I want to thank Program Director Laura Haber, all the RAs and PAs (especially Andy, Tezeru, Shannon, Rebecca, and Emily), the Allen Hall residents, and everyone else who came to my events. It was an unbelievable experience, one I will never forget.