Politics of Pleasure: O.school Workshop Teaches Sex & Intersectionality

Inside the O.School exhibition during last week’s sex carnival, intimacy and relationships educator Kate McCombs discusses the anatomy of the clitoris with students. (Adela Pfaff • The Student Life) 

“What is pleasure to you? What would it mean to use your pleasure to resist all the ways that society tries to further marginalize you, further oppress you, the ways that other people try to cause you harm? What keeps you from your pleasure?”

That's what Latishia James, one of two sex educators who came to Claremont on Thursday, asked a group of students on Thursday, Oct. 26, during an interactive workshop on the politics of pleasure.

James works with O.school, an online school intent on revolutionizing sex through daily live online streams and workshops by sex professionals. The site aims to be a safe space for all identities, and its live stream and workshop topics cover everything from “How to get the most out of your hookup” to “Sex after giving birth.”

For this in-person, interactive workshop, James was here with fellow O.school sex educator Kate McCombs to talk about identity, resilience, and pleasure as resistance. 

“When thinking about this workshop, we were curious about the ways in which our intersecting marginalized identities can potentially cut us off from experiencing pleasure in the world,” James said. “This can be isolating and infuriating. But we also wanted to explore how those identities can bring us power and joy, and allow us to exercise resistance.” 

Participants were invited to say the names of people from whom they draw the power to be resilient. Amongst others, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, and mothers and grandmothers were invoked.

The focus was on the multiplicity of identity, and how intersecting aspects cannot be ignored.

“I can never talk about sex without talking about race, about ability, about my other identities, because I don’t live a single-issue life,” said James. “If we’re going to talk about accessing the fullness of our pleasure, we’re going to have to talk about all of the things that block us from that pleasure.”

The facilitators divided participants into two caucuses – people of color and non-POCs – to confidentially speak about their own pleasure. The members in each group were given two minutes to speak freely about any frustrations regarding their intersecting identities or things that may be blocking them from their pleasure. Participants found it challenging, but meaningful, to speak in such an intimate environment about topics so rarely discussed.

“I wanted to hold and acknowledge the ways that identities intersect, because the ways that trauma shows up racially can be very unique,” explained James. “Even if we hold the same gender or sexual identity, race really complicates how we show up in the world.”

James and McCombs also explored the ways people can redefine themselves and unconventionally resist.

“As queer people, trans people, people with disabilities, we often get told how our bodies are supposed to function,” said James. “We get told how, and when, and with whom they’re supposed to function, and this erodes our sense of autonomy and agency.”

However, O.school wants to change this. They’re starting by redefining pleasure and reclaiming self care.

“Self care often gets reduced by the media to a spa day,” McCombs said. “But I think that self care, as a form of resistance, including forms of pleasure, is a real skill set, and is so critically individual. And it’s not something we’re taught how to do.”

O.school is creating a “Re-learn” Campaign, where they take traditional phrases and terms and define them for themselves. “Pleasure,” for example, was given a new definition: “a sensation in the body, mind, and/or soul that makes you go mmm, ahh, or yum.”

“We’re interested in things outside of the box of what is prescribed as pleasurable,” said James. “Often times when people think of pleasure, it’s automatically associated with sex. But pleasure doesn’t have to mean sex. And as folks with multiple identities, we get to determine what this means. Because society has already put us in the box of the ‘other,’ you get to exploit that a little bit. You get to say, ‘If you’re going to “other” me, and tell me that my relationships aren’t real, then I’m going to use that to my advantage.'”

McCombs echoed this sentiment. “You have to define yourself for yourself. You get to define what is pleasurable to yourself. You get to build resilience in what could be seen as mundane ways, but in ways that are really helping you to go out and face the world.”

These ways, the educators encouraged, do not have to be heroic feats of protest. Even the act of being oneself is political.

“As we tap into this innate resiliency, I want to think about how being unapologetic in who we are in and of itself is a form of resistance and can be a way that brings pleasure into our lives,” said James. “The mere act of existing can be resistance.”