For the past 11 years, I’ve been touring the country and the continents with my sex workshop, Desire Mapping. Invariably, when I share the core questions of the workshop—whether with sex educators, activists, or therapists—the reaction is the same. Everyone responds with some form of: Huh. Really? What’s the big deal? These questions are so simple.
And they are. Here’s one, for example:
What encounters or relationships stand out as most significant over the course of my sexual life?
What’s ground-breaking or transformative about a simple question like this? How does it help people get somewhere new on their path, help them learn something they don’t already know?
One of the most persistent and astonishing things I’ve found after running the workshop for people living in about 100 countries and somewhere between 40 and 50 U.S. states is this: Everyone thinks they are “doing it wrong,” whatever “it” is—whatever “it” they have defined as personally and sexually meaningful.
Am I a pacifist lesbian feminist? How can I be fantasizing about military gang-bang scenes with men?
Am I a gay male leader who uses a hook-up app? Why is anal sex not a core part of my sex life?
Am I a Black transgender revolutionary? Why do I lust after white cisgender people?
Am I a survivor of sexual violence? What’s up with these rape fantasies?
Over and over again, I observe people entering the workshop with one agenda:
- Reconnect with my girlfriend of a decade.
- Find the gay man of my dreams.
- Stop hooking up.
- Figure out how to have more sex!
Only to have them leave on an entirely different path:
- Leaving an abusive girlfriend of a decade.
- Coming out as straight.
- Continuing to hook up and pursuing more intimacy when I do.
- Claiming my asexual identity; I don’t need to have more sex!
All of these things have actually happened in a workshop. How?
Years ago, I worked on a leadership program for the Ford Foundation, which recognized grassroots leaders who were often working in low- to no-budget organizations, yet taking on giant issues like the death penalty or corporate polluters—and winning. And when we looked at what these leaders were doing right, they were all doing two things.
They were drawing on their own and their mentees’ personal history to help uncover and appreciate the power and genius embedded in their survival stories.
And they were digging up ancestral and community histories—to help them connect their individual experiences to a larger narrative. This work helped them grow hope from the arc of their community’s resistance, resilience, and love.
This is how Desire Mapping works, through simple questions that seem inconsequential, even banal, but help each Mapper uncover the contours of desire in their story:
What sexual experiences or experiences of my desire made me feel most true to myself? Why?
In the workshop, after scrabbling our way through these short prompts, we share. We turn to the person next to us, most often a stranger, but sometimes a colleague or trusted friend, and we say the thing we have been heretofore unable to tell even ourselves: We love the “wrong” people, we pursue the “wrong” things, we desire the “wrong” kind of sexual acts.
We want, we want, we want—and none of it lines up very neatly with how we talk about ourselves, or how we present in either polite society or in our complex, constructed queer worlds.
Telling our stories in a room full of peers—be they classmates, BFFs, movement comrades, or random strangers—loosens the hold that shame has on us and breaks the overwhelming silences that capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy collectively enforce, every day, in order to isolate us.
Last month, on my Just Sex: Mapping Your Desire podcast, I was joined by two incredible Mappers (assigned male at birth) who identify as nonbinary Black queer femmes. Through their stories, Julian Kevon Glover and Bishop Howard defined a new term and a set of sexual practices for our listeners: Julian and Bishop identify as blouses.
What is a blouse? A femme top! These two great friends explained: A great femme top is silky, eye-catching, provides warmth, feels great on your body. They outlined an ethos of care and connection, of sensation plus feeling, as a counter to racist and sexist demands that they perform various indifferent masculinist scripts with their hook-ups and lovers. As Julian said: Not cute.
As we laughed and cried our way through our hour together, all I could think about was the Black gay men we’d lost to AIDS decades ago—Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, and Joseph Beam—whose collective work was a call to arms at the height of the AIDS crisis. In his groundbreaking anthology, In the Life, Beam wrote at the time: “Black gay men loving Black gay men is the revolutionary act of the ’80s.” Riggs’ film, Tongues Untied, which features Hemphill’s explosive poetry—was a love song grounded in Beam’s battle cry. Together, these three men lit the match that Julian and Bishop are burning in gorgeous and powerful ways today. Their stories are entirely their own, but the space for the new tradition they are forging is one that has been collectively carved out. Part of the strength, joy, and creative force of their blouse identity and practices is that they are both firmly rooted in that history.
Despite everything the self-help books throw at us, the truth is that “self-actualization” is a limited and paltry thing. History shapes us, whether we realize it or not. Our desires are forged by our personal history, in our families, among our peers, and with our sex partners of all kinds. So, too, are we shaped by our communal history, among our ancestral freedom fighters or collaborators—those who broke out, and those who were broken by the multilayered systems of violence we are struggling against.
Which brings me to an important aspect of Mapping that I love watching unfold:
Because we grow our sexualities and our sexual stories inside such a violent system, we often discover things that are not wonderful. The process of coming upon our sexual truths in a roomful of peers and strangers can be devastating, electrifying, numbing, or destabilizing. Accordingly, we make room for each other, we receive, we help each other begin to recognize ourselves, to start to accept. In some cases, Desire Mapping is a first step in identifying desires that have been formed in abusive contexts, desires we hate, and together we can (as we wish) start to imagine a process of deconstructing, transforming, or discarding them.
For me, the most stunning thing about doing this work is bearing witness in that room. So many of us—who only an hour ago did not know each other and could not imagine anything remotely like this—break open and reach across the table to each other. We offer love. We cry. We breathe. We imagine. We re-imagine our lives and our world full of such moments as these—where shame and isolation fall way, and laughter and beauty emerge. Where hope springs from our lust and our wantonness and our refusal to capitulate. We work through the simplicity of these questions and the complexities of our truths individually, and then we step into new territories side by side.
This is what revolution is—I’ve seen it during street actions among people I love, with violence and death haunting our every move; I’ve seen it in recovery rooms among fellow addicts, talking and crying and praying our way back to life; I’ve seen it during tremendously hard moments in my queer chosen family as we attempt to heal and repair harms we’ve done to each other—this breaking out; this offering of a simple, shattering truth; this making room for unimagined possibilities, this groping forward. Together.