On Visibility, Community, and Healing: My Sex Down South Experience

view of downtown Atlanta from the 11th floor of a hotel room.
The view from my hotel room at the Hilton Atlanta.

I feel like I don’t attend many events that truly live up to the hype surrounding them, or the hype I’ve drummed up in my head. Luckily for me, Sex Down South, the biggest sex conference of the region, proved to be an exception to the rule.

When I bought my ticket early in the year, my imagination ran wild. I pictured a racially diverse space where I could exchange ideas and information with other sex nerds. Of course, that’s exactly what awaited me. But beyond that, this conference centered the experiences of queer and trans BIPOC, presently and historically, in the mission and programming.

This group is, and has always been, most vehemently denied bodily autonomy and self-determination under American white supremacy. But in this setting, unlike most others, we were seen and we were celebrated. I had never experienced that in a purportedly sex-positive space before. It felt like a homecoming.

I was reminded of how absurd it is when companies in this industry claim that they lack diversity because they “couldn’t find any people of color.” For the record, there are lots of us, and anyone who says otherwise is willfully ignorant. We are more visible than ever before.

The Perfect Setting

purple model of the anatomical clitoris on a multi-colored pattern.
How cute is my clit?! A souvenir.

Sex Down South, now four years strong, takes place in my adopted home of Atlanta, Georgia. I moved here just under a year ago, after leaving my home state to follow family that had migrated south. In that regard, my presence here is entirely incidental. But also, seemingly cosmic.

I’m a Black queer who grew up completely in denial about my sexuality. I also wasn’t socialized in Black spaces outside of my family. Moving to such a Black and gay-friendly city just after beginning to embrace these identities was pretty perfect.

There’s a reason Sex Down South happens here: Atlanta is among the more sex-positive cities in the South. Sex shops, clubs, and therapists are pretty easy to find. Atlanta is also home to myriad activist groups that campaign for gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and expanded access to contraceptives and abortion. It’s a pretty great place to be a sexuality professional. 

It was clear that the conference founders (educators, activists, and creators Marla Renee Stewart and Tia Marie) wanted attendees to think about how pleasure is political. The speakers whose words felt most potent elucidated this concept beautifully. One month later, their messages haven’t left my mind for a minute.

Memorable Moments

One of my first workshops was “Investigating the Sexual Development & Sexual Attitudes of African-American Women.” Hosted by Chanel Jaali Marshall of Jaali Co., it was a useful way to explore some of the social themes that underlaid the event. Connecting modern stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality to their roots in our enslavement was eye-opening. Suffice it to say that not a whole lot has changed in 400 years. Understanding that fact is essential to liberation from it.

One way to pursue this liberation is to elevate eroticism in our daily lives. In “Uses of the Erotic in the Time of Resistance,” healer, mystic, and educator M’Kali-Hashiki explored the ideas behind Audre Lorde’s 1978 essay, The Uses of the Erotic. In Lorde’s view, systems of oppression depend on the suppression of eroticism. Access to power, pleasure, and joy within the body can’t be removed from the outside.

As such, we can harness these energies to foster unity and wrestle back control over external forces that thrive on our subjugation. In the workshop, we discussed the overlapping principles of the erotic, the sensual, and the sexual, while practicing breathwork to help circulate all of this energy. But what are the limits of pleasure as a healing tool?

A Compelling Keynote

That complex question was tackled in the very first keynote speech of the conference. Ericka Hart, a sexuality educator and breast cancer survivor, had a commanding presence and a powerful message. Their assertion that true sexual liberation must coincide with the end of all systems of oppression was so spot on. It reflects the same dichotomy that Audre Lorde speaks to in her essay on the erotic.

But, as Hart reminded us, pleasure is also what ends up sacrificed in order to do the work of restorative social justice. It is well known that the lives of highly engaged civil rights activists can be short and brutal. Constantly begging for the acknowledgment of one’s own humanity (while organizing or simply moving through the world) takes a tremendous toll. Survival, in both a personal and a collective sense, is an activist’s sole focus much of the time.

If this is true, can pleasure alone bring us to the promised land of “liberation”? Is it even possible to experience true pleasure before we get there? It’s a lot to consider, but one thing is clear. The path to liberation begins with restorative justice for the BIPOC who are hurt first and worst by the status quo. Of all the major messages to take home from Sex Down South, this one felt most urgent.

It would be impossible to list every moment I felt inspired, enlightened, or empowered during this conference. There are just too many. I went through each day agonizing over which of the two or three overlapping workshops I’d attend in any given hour. I took so many notes I felt like a student again. It was the most intellectual stimulation I’d received in a long, long time.

Absorbing It All

three smiling Black femmes, including the author.
Me with two lovely new friends, poet and speaker FreeQuency (left) and blogger Alex of Sexology Bae (right).

Throughout this entire process, there were many little details that made me feel cared for. The code of conduct that explicitly prioritized the “voices, feelings, and experiences of people of color.” The healing space one floor up where you could access services from counselors, massage therapists, herbalists, and energy workers. The evening support groups and meet-ups. It was implicitly acknowledged that participating in this event could be draining. I really appreciated all of the space and tools attendees were given to recover from that.

By the end of the third day, I was ready to head home to withdraw and reflect. But it was so hard to say goodbye to my many new friends. We’d gone through this accelerated bonding process and now had to abruptly part ways. My last moments at the con were spent in a quiet hotel room with two of the Black femmes I’d particularly connected with, discussing the experience.

At some point, one remarked, “Can you imagine having access to something like this once a month? How restorative would that be?” The group fell silent for a moment, imagining this. A monthly respite from endlessly toiling under the oppressive social structures that constantly threaten our existence. A monthly celebration of the beauty, resilience, love, and power that we share as queer and trans people of color. It was a beautiful fantasy, seemingly out of reach. But I was grateful to at least be able to share it.

Returning to Reality

I know that “con drop” is a common phenomenon after a conference of this nature, and it makes perfect sense. When you create quick and close bonds with other attendees, and then leave not knowing when you’ll see them again, it’s rough. But it was especially difficult to leave a community through which I could move with complete freedom, unafraid of feeling “othered” by anyone for any aspect of my identity. I could just be me, without having to defend or translate my experience to anyone. I’d never experienced anything like that before.

When you live in a body that’s marginalized by the state (I loved this phrase from M’Kali-Hashiki, as there is nothing inherently marginalizing about any body), the world seems to go out of its way to make you feel broken, unworthy, and forgotten. It’s incredible how normal this can start to feel. But once you find community that lets you shed this burden, a new life path appears. The journey to wholeness begins, and Sex Down South was an incredible place to stop and recharge.