Earlier this summer I received a letter that I wrote to myself after a training I took last year. The training was a SAR (Sexual Attitudes Reassessment) at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) annual conference. When this (love) letter arrived I had several memories that were triggered; not all of them were positive.
When I attended my first AASECT conference it was with the goal of becoming a certified sexuality educator in the US. I spent over $1000 to travel to Arizona, get a hotel room, pay for conference registration and pay for the SAR I had to participate in to complete the application process to become certified. Let me be clear, this all came out of pocket and I’m still paying off most of this that was put on a credit card. After my experience at the SAR, which occurred before the conference, I knew this was not an organization that had a space for me.
Not only was the conference overwhelmingly White, but it was extremely elitist. As a working class person of Color I immediately felt out of place. It did not help that the registration desk didn’t have my information or packet when I had spent well over $700 to attend. I wrote about my experience there in a three part series, my triptych. But I want to focus more on my experience in the SAR more than anything else. I’m not against having to attend the SAR, I was looking forward to the experience and to being challenged and affirmed in the work I am doing.
Unfortunately, that was not what occurred. I’m in support of encouraging those who wish to enter or work in the sexuality field to attend a SAR. What I’m concerned about is the content of the SARs. A SAR is supposed to help participants examine and interrogate their level of comfort and awareness around multiple issues and topics that are a part of our sexuality. The exercise takes place in a group setting, where people do individual, paired, or group activities of discussion/sharing and/or education over a period of about 10-15 hours. The SAR is also an opportunity to understand what our limitations may be as providers and to recognize them and when to provide referrals for clients and for ourselves. My SAR was a two-day experience, and left me upset at having to pay so much for the less than exceptional experience.
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I wonder what goes into creating a SAR for some people who provide them. Not only was the data and information introduced and provided to us over two decades old, yes data from 1990 was used, it was also extremely isolating and othering. The topics covered included: sexual health, culture and sexuality, positive sexuality (which focused on sexuality over the lifespan), body image, human sexual response, and challenges/ranges of sexual behaviors. The images that were presented were primarily of racially White able-bodied heterosexual people. Only when sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability were presented did we see different representations. There were a handful, literally less than 8 images out of over 50 and some videos, which had people of Color. Of those images of people of Color they were specifically introduced when discussing culture. The bodies of the people, even the people with disabilities and their partners, did not range in size, to be clear: there was only one image of a “body of size” or a “fat body.”
The discussion of culture and sexuality was ridiculous. All of the “culture” that was presented was outside US borders and society. We saw images of Pygmy communities, berdache/two-spirit communities (the same foto that is used in every discussion was used in our slideshow), and all the other images and representations I’m almost positive I blocked out to save my sanity over the two days. Let me be clear: when it came to “culture” in sexuality, we were taken outside the US, as if there is not any difference or culture that people must understand and interact with in the US or even in the group we formed!
As a person of Color, a fat woman, and someone who paid out of pocket for the SAR, I did not get the opportunity to explore my professional challenges or see myself as a sexuality educator presented. The conversations I was a part of were extremely superficial and many of the older White people I shared my space and time with were condescending (one woman told me I had a “baby face” when I said I love the idea of aging to not be questioned by older sexuality professionals), and dismissive (when one man spoke of his experience in the kink community as being racially inclusive, I mentioned how race play is one area in the kink community where I don’t see too much support for the people who consent to such experiences, he rolled his eyes and sighed heavily as I spoke).
I quickly realized the SAR is not about sexual or reproductive justice, it’s not about social justice, it’s not about examining our –isms or how our –isms may make others lose respect for us as professionals. I shared this and more on my feedback form at the end of each session. I left the SAR wondering: what would this look like if it centered justice and transformation? How would my experiences and those of my peers be different? I’ve realized there is a need, a very real need for SARs that are inclusive in ways that many sexuality professionals have yet to even consider.
I know this may not have been anything near the same experience for the 40 plus participants that attended the same SAR I did. For those of you who have attended a SAR or who are planning to create one, what have been your experiences?