Raising My Voice As Quietly As Possible

It’s taken me some time to sit down and write this and when considering why I realized that Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit hit me like a ton of bricks… in the best way possible. To understand this you need to know a bit about the road that led me there. First off, I’ve been trying to get a conference to let me talk about sex and depression since early 2014 and have generally been met with disinterest. So when I, along with my esteemed colleague Stephen Biggs, decided to pitch the topic to Woodhull (a conference I had no prior experience with) I wasn’t terribly hopeful. Well, the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance not only accepted our pitch but in July I had the pleasure of meeting Ricci Joy Levy, Woodhull’s founder and executive director and was met with actual enthusiasm – Woodhull was excited to talk about sex and depression! Secondly, if you’ve been following the adventures of JoEllen you know that the last year was kind of a mess. I went from depressive episode to injury to surgery to now. The upshot being, I’d been living something of a cloistered existence. Not entirely a bad thing- it gave me lots of space to work on the sex and depression survey and interviews- but definitely something that turned up the volume on all of my introvert/social anxiety ridden tendencies.

Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit represented a huge shift for me – springing back into action after nearly a year of seclusion. I was super excited and, frankly, slightly terrified. So, with the help of my good friends and sponsors at Doxy I set off for Woodhull, prepared to be gentle with myself and take it on in the most introvert-friendly way I could. I even made a video to help other introverts dealing with the big, scary conference thing¹.

What I found at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit was beyond what I had ever imagined. Now, I’m not going to lie to you- I went to almost no sessions. I had such good intentions, I really did but as any pictures of me taken before my session indicate, I was ridiculously tense and then after the session I was pretty mushy-brained for the rest of the weekend. This was, however, not entirely a bad thing. Here’s what happened:

This and all the other amazing conference photos were taken by Louis Shackleton whose work is pretty awesome.

On Friday afternoon Stephen, the wonderful Crista Anne and I presented our session “The Monster Under The Bed: Starting The Conversation on Sex and Depression” and the response was completely overwhelming (so overwhelming that it got its own post). The room was packed, the audience was engaged and people wanted to talk about it a ton afterwards. (I rounded up all the social media stuff so you can follow the whole thing here!) It was amazing. That said I went from “I’ll go to that great session on lube” (seriously, Sarah Mueller is doing some amazing work on lube) to “Which way to the bar?” really quickly and then was thwarted by the bar not opening until 5. Cue a nap.

That really set the stage for the rest of my weekend. I did a lot of talking to people about depression in hallways, bars, restaurants and elevators. I got to have dinner with the SheVibe crew and my blogger family, I had some great conversations in the Tantus lounge and got some much-appreciated love from Metis & Peyton, I napped because, napping, and I even got to, in my capacity as resident Doxy proselytizer, help get a Doxy Wand into the hands of a very excited member of the Lotus Blooms (a Superhero Sex Shop, btw) staff – that was really fun! Honestly I spent far less time with people than I expected/planned to. As my “conferences for introverts” video says, I learned a while back that to survive conferences I sometimes need to skip the evening events and I found that especially true this time around. My evenings were about holing up in a hotel room, cuddling up and recharging.

So, maybe I couldn’t hang. Maybe I’m coming away from this event with a lot less stories about cool stuff I did with people and a lot more honesty about my limitations²  but I don’t feel like I missed out because I’m so overwhelmed by what I did experience. Being around my people, the folks who care and think and talk and feel strongly about the same things I do and challenge me to go further. Seeing the folks who have become an extended family and who I have been away from for far too long. Just being in the same space with all these people brought me back to life after this last year of medical craziness. I kept being hit with these intense waves of appreciation for the people around me. I thought a lot about the concept of “casual love”³ because, seriously, Woodhull reminded me that there are a lot of folks who I genuinely love, NBD.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a bit about what makes Woodhull such a special event. The thing is, I’ve done sex conferences and they are almost always fun but this was something entirely different.  Often when events like this are discussed people speak of “preaching to the choir”. They say it’s all just the same people coming together to talk to each other over and over again. There may be some truth in that but here’s the thing that struck me about Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit – it demands more. It’s not enough to show up and talk about sex, Woodhull sessions must demonstrate that they, on some level, address the idea of sex as a human rights issue. Woodhull challenges their speakers to go a step further and ask “Why?”. The result being our session didn’t just talk about the fact that depression can impact one’s sex life and that’s hard (which, to be honest, is where I started over a year ago), we talked about how depression impacts sexuality and how that can go ignored due to society’s tendency to trivialize sex and desexualize anyone who is not able-bodied. Suddenly we have a robust discussion about the rights of all people to holistic health care that recognizes all facets of their personhood, sexuality included. That’s what Woodhull does. At Woodhull speakers may preach to the choir but, from what I saw they, in the process, make that choir better, louder, more effective. The choir, as it were, leaves Woodhull more able to effect change. I have never been at an event like this where people came out of sessions so excited about the things they had learned, so fired up to share their new knowledge. It should also be noted that the people behind this event are kind, genuine, enthusiastic and devoid of ego. It was incredible to watch them work. I have never been to an event that made me feel so appreciated (even though I kept not going to stuff- seriously folks, next time when I have more spoons!). I still get choked up whenever I think about the hug and kind words I received from Ricci before leaving.

A couple of quick thanks for this amazing experience:

Thank you to the folks at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance who not only created a fabulous event but are also just wonderful people. Over the weekend the same sentiment was repeated over and over and that was “They are being so nice to us!” which probably shouldn’t be surprising but for many of us was. Thank you for your kindness, your enthusiasm and most of all, thank you for giving all of us the inspiration and the space to teach, learn and encourage each other to be better.

Thank you to Crista Anne who agreed to join Stephen and I for The Monster Under the Bed and proceeded to generously and openly share her experiences and insights. Crista is one of my favorite friends and colleagues to talk sex and depression with (as well as the force behind #orgasmquest) and it meant a lot to have her with us.

FullSizeRender 2I can’t say enough about my partner in sex and depression arms Stephen Biggs. Throughout the weekend people would approach me to talk about the project, the research, the panel etc and whenever the conversation turned to Stephen’s involvement the same sentence came out of my mouth: “That man has been such a gift”. He has lent his knowledge and expertise to this project with absolutely no ego, he has tirelessly championed me and my work and he has handled my constant neurotic JoEllen-ness without batting an eye. Stephen Biggs is a rockstar.

Finally, thank you so much to my sponsor Doxy for making this trip possible. Doxy’s got some very cool products on the horizon and you should keep an eye out for them – I know I’ll be reviewing their Die Cast Doxy Wand as soon as humanly possible!


¹I tried to embed the video but it kept displaying HUGE which made me uncomfortable, so here’s the link: 5 Tips For Rocking Conferences When You’re an Introvert 

²At least this time around- I think I put the fear of god into people about approaching me lest I be “introverting” and that wasn’t my intention, I just came into this particular event a bit low on spoons

³Check out Carsie Blanton’s fabulous piece on the concept. It makes me very happy.

Get my book The Monster Under The Bed: Sex, Depression, and the Conversations we Aren't Having!

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