Let’s talk about (non-normative) sex: NU Sex Week emphasizes inclusion, community in this year’s programming

Daisy Conant, Assistant Campus Editor

Sex Week, sponsored by Northwestern University College Feminists, offers a series of “courses” — think MSTRBATION 101-6 or SEX_WRK 101-4 — designed to increase awareness of issues related to sexuality. Often held mid-Spring Quarter, the week marks a period for students to come together across campus to deeply learn about sex: not just the act, but the humanization and normalization of sexuality, intimacy and body acceptance.

But in early April, Sex Week went into limbo when the University announced the quarter would be held remotely. The week’s co-presidents, SESP junior Eliza Gonring and Weinberg senior Jiyul Kim, decided to adapt the events to digital formats, working to forge a space for community during a week of social isolation.

“I wanted Sex Week to happen because I needed something just completely joyful and generative, something that is working towards building futures where pandemics wouldn’t have as bad of an effect as we’re seeing right now,” Gonring said. “That’s what happened last week. It’s the happiest week I’ve had since the pandemic started.”

The five days of programming, featuring workshops, guest speakers and a concert, covered a breadth of topics related to non-normative sex. All 11 events were conducted over Zoom or Facebook Live last week, including a workshop on asexuality and aromanticism taught by Illinois State University professor Ela Przybylo and an interactive keynote on masturbation and self-love by pleasure activist Coriama. Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago board member Liz Velek gave an introduction to sex work and allyship, and artist Cunty MeMe facilitated a discussion on the use of the erotic as a means of personal and collective liberation.

While the remote format of the week was new, it wasn’t the only unique element. Kim noted that in past years, the week heavily focused its programming on sexual health — an important topic, but one that often only marginally touched on non-conventional lifestyles or sexual practices.

Although she had never been involved in the week before, Kim decided to partner with Gonring this year to emphasize the variety in people’s sex lives, developing programming that highlighted themes of queerness and queer sex, disability, anti-colonialism and asexuality.

“Those themes weren’t really present to that level of depth in events before,” Kim said. “Sex Week means bringing diverse perspectives that don’t just cater to a hegemonic standard.”

One element of that programming was “NOODZ-THRY 101-7: Ying’s Nudes Skillshare,” led by Weinberg fourth-year Ying Dai. Framed as a self-reflection and exploration — and driven by the mantra that “no nudes are bad nudes” — Dai guided attendees through a lecture and discussion on establishing a relationship with their bodies.

Infused with concepts from performance and gender studies, Dai shared technical tips on utilizing lighting, props and outfits to capture moods and increase confidence. In fitting with the week’s broader themes of inclusion and analyzing power and privilege in different groups, Dai said she chose to center people of color’s bodies as well as fat and disabled bodies in the presentation. Dai focused on how to reject desirability politics and oppressive gender roles when taking nudes.

“I really tried to pay attention to the fact that this is not about taking naked pictures — it’s about establishing a better relationship with your own body for folks existing of all gender identities, of all sexual orientations,” Dai said.

Gonring and Kim said they were driven by two steadfast commitments when choosing to continue hosting Sex Week this quarter. The first was ensuring their invited speakers — many of whom are rarely welcomed to college campuses and are losing income in the current economy — were given a compensated platform. The second was providing a safe space for students, especially those of marginalized identities, to connect on topics other than the COVID-19 pandemic.

In reflecting on this year’s Sex Week, Dai said she felt Gongring accomplished that goal, adding it was “the most free and transformative event” she’s ever attended at Northwestern.

“As a fat, POC queer person, I just feel very validated because I know I am centered in this event — which is very rare, even at Northwestern,” Dai said. “Especially this year’s Sex Week, with the situation of the quarantine, this really provided an amazing community for folks to connect and to talk about very vulnerable, intimate, very body-related things that you tend to forget, especially when you’re staying at home on your own and you don’t really feel the sense of connection. It’s been very, very uplifting for me.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @daisy_conant

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