Feature image by Marlo Gayle.
“As Wilhelm Reich believed, if a state can control peoples’ sexuality, it can control them — politically, culturally. This is a huge challenge for organizers, theorists, justice advocates,” Dr. Carol Queen, founder of the sexual justice movement (and my queer fairy godmother since I interned for her at the Center for Sex and Culture), tells me.
As a pivotal figure of the sexual justice — formerly sex positivity — world, Dr. Queen is no stranger to that challenge. “The deeper definition of sex positivity — way more than just enthusiasm about sex, which was never intended to be the definition of that phrase — is about social justice: access to information, resources, freedom from shame, a focus on consent, diversity and more,” she says.
Dr. Queen has decades of experience uniting social justice and sexuality through advocacy, education, and community development. She has written extensively on topics ranging from bisexuality to queer kink; co-developed sex education resources to combat the AIDS crisis; and mentored up-and-coming activists, artists and educators. One of her key accomplishments is founding the Center for Sex and Culture along with her partner Robert Morgan Lawrence in 1994 after they noticed the lack of spaces for sexuality workshops in the Bay Area. The center has become especially important for subcultures and marginalized communities in the world of sexuality and gender: queers, leather and kink communities, sex educators, sex workers, erotic artists and more. “[The Center] tries to make space for multiple needs: giving diverse people a space to gather, collecting cultural materials in the library and archive and making them available to researchers, etc., [and] presenting creative work about sex/gender, which is the way more people develop their understandings about sex more than any sex ed class,” says Dr. Queen. In other words: the centre gives people the chance to learn from and build connections with each other, pointing us towards the future.
“I want more conversations that help us connect and unite across identity barriers.”
“I want more conversations that help us connect and unite across identity barriers. This is an era when we must, must revive alliances. I came out in Eugene, Oregon, in the 1970s, and the importance of alliances was one of the first lessons I learned. It has never seemed so relevant to me as it does now,” says Dr. Queen.
She would know. Key to her work in sexual justice is understanding the diversity of identities and “sexual possibilities” through education and advocacy, especially in “respect[ing] each person where they are and helping them appreciate their own point in the diversity mix.” “This is important because too many people have been taught there is only one way to be, and honestly don’t understand they may have their own unique sexuality,” she explains.
As a bisexual woman and longterm LGBTQ rights activist, Dr. Queen believes that sexual justice is especially important for queer women, and that queer women are in turn a key part of sexual justice movements. “Queer women have the gift given to all queers: we must wrestle with cultural notions of normativity to be able to live our lives, find our people, create our alternative relationship variants. Sure, we can marry now, but many queer women don’t want to and wish to connect in different ways. This intersection makes us really important stakeholders in sexual justice and sex positivity,” she says.
Bisexual women, for instance, were key to work changing sexual attitudes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a 2000 paper co-written with Lawrence for the Journal of Bisexuality, Dr. Queen documents the importance of bisexual people in the fight against AIDS via their contributions to the Sexual Health Attitude Restructuring Process (SHARP), a safer-sex-oriented program that exposed participants to accurate sexual health information and the possibility of diverse sexual experiences that Dr. Queen worked on directly for several years starting in 1987. SHARP’s active and hands-on education was part of the acclaimed “San Francisco model”: “community-based effort to educate, prevent infection, and provide services that does not primarily rely on governmental or medical direction and intervention” that inspired other work around HIV/AIDS across the United States and worldwide in the 1980s.
Dr. Queen has observed significant shifts in the discussions around sexual justice and sexual diversity since SHARP. “I don’t see the basic underlying activism or kinds of sex as fundamentally different, mostly, but discourse about sex is out of the box and so many issues have been more or less mainstreamed that it’s striking,” she says. “It means more and more people potentially are exposed to the idea that sex, relationship and gender possibilities are many and varied; communities exist; normative ideas can be oppressive and sex/gender/relationship are not ‘one size fits all’ constructs. This is mildly interesting for some people and a matter of life and death for others.”
“[Sexual justice] has to adapt. The alternative is awful.”
“I think many people in the world of sexual justice activism believed that the path forward would only grow more progressive,” she explains. “The reality is way more fraught, and more entwined with tons of other issues: electoral politics, civility and respect on the internet, reactionary responses to identity politics, educational policy, racial justice, feminist issues, so much. And [sexual justice] has to adapt. The alternative is awful,” she says.
To look forward, for Dr. Queen, the long arc of sexual justice requires more deeply examining the healthcare matrix for reproductive rights and gender confirmation; reexamining consent and its intersections with the criminal justice system; more comprehensive sex education that incorporates consent, pleasure, and media literacy especially around pornography; the removal of laws that penalize sex workers as well as certain consensual sexual behavior and relationships; and more respect and understanding around diversity and intersectionality. It also requires looking backward. “I’m sick of all discussions that revolve around the notion that people who came before didn’t know as much as people who are setting the terms of the discourse now. That is, to me, so disrespectful. And it’s my belief that the internet age has made understanding our history, ironically enough, more difficult,” she explains.
Looking backwards to look forwards, what’s her best advice for following in her footsteps? “To do something like I’ve done, one would have to be entrepreneurial, have help from other people who want the project/s to find their audience or community and who help broaden perspective, get as much education as you can manage, realize your own experience is significant but not the marker of everyone else’s, be an ally for other peoples’ genius and identities, and consider it a gift whenever you learn more about other peoples’ perspective and struggle,” she says. The work has never been more urgent.