We don’t ask our grantees to report back after funding their projects, but that doesn’t mean we’re not curious about what happened after they got the money.
Grantee Melina Gaze is a scholar and activist who teaches comprehensive, inclusive sexuality education. She received her Awesome Without Borders grant in 2015 to disseminate sex education presentations in Mexico City. Melina sat down with our very own Ondine Jean-Baptiste (over Zoom) to tell us what she’s up to now.
O: What inspired you to do this work in sexuality education? Did you start this work once you moved to Mexico, or was that prior?
M: I grew up in Miami, I’m Ecuadorian-American, sexuality was not discussed in my home, and I went to public schools and got the sex education most people got in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, which was abstinence & reproduction focused. Aside from that, I was also getting informal education through pornography, through music videos, MTV, my friends, you know, the boys in the back of the school bus…that’s how you get educated about sex, in the absence of comprehensive sexuality education.
All of that education certainly influenced my relationship with my body, my sexuality, my gender identity, usually from kind of a negative framework. “Oh there’s something wrong with me because I don’t present in a standard feminine way, or my sexuality should be directed towards heterosexual relationships, pleasing men…I don’t know that much about my own body or my own pleasure because there’s no information about it.” So I’ve found that a lot of my early sexual experiences were borderline grey area consent and often unsatisfactory, pleasure-wise. It was only in college that I started talking to other friends, and realized a lot of other people were having similar experiences, especially my friends who had been socialized as women. We started talking about it and said, what the f*ck? Here we are, we’ve had decent educational experiences, what’s going on? So we started organizing groups to talk specifically about pleasure for cis women, trans, and nonbinary people. They were safer space discussion groups where we talked about anatomy, dating, masturbation, communication during sex, consent, giving voice to our desires, fantasy, and it was through that collective organizing that we realized our personal trials and tribulations with our sexuality was actually part of a larger structural force.
Those are the inspirations, the lack of quality sexuality education, and realizing so many other people had these unsatisfactory, or violent, or voiceless sexual experiences. That was in 2012 that we started organizing groups, and since then I’ve worked with different feminist and queer collectives in the US and in Mexico, and now I co-run a sexuality education group with my BFF Sucia. We have a focus on pleasure and social justice, where we draw lots of different connections to how we run spaces, but also the content of our workshops and lesson plan.
O: Is that Vulgar? Why did you choose that name?
M: That’s Vulgar, yeah. I think so often information about our bodies is either intentionally omitted or hidden because it’s considered something that is dirty or wrong, so we’re reappropriating that repression and saying, “No we are going to be vulgar, we are going to be candid, we’re going to talk about the things that people want to know about!” I’ve done workshops about sexuality in the US, in Mexico, in parts of Europe, in parts of Central America, people generally have the same questions: What’s going on with my body? Is this normal? How do I have orgasms? How do I tell my partner to please me in this way? What’s up with anal sex? What’s up with vaginal sex? People are curious. So it’s about reappropriating what has traditionally been considered off-topic.
O: Can you tell me about how your vision for comprehensive, inclusive sex education has changed or transformed since we gave you your grant 5 years ago?
M: We applied with Colectiva Justicia Sexual, which is a feminist sex education collective. Our primary events were pleasure consciousness-raising groups, that were called Orgasm Forums, and drawing parties where we would call for participants, get together, and everyone was invited to take off as much clothing as they wanted to draw each other. There was a drawing session where everyone was naked, or near naked, and everyone takes turns drawing and posing. It was actually a really beautiful, celebratory space for different types of bodies and being able to [decide whether to] be in the spotlight or not be in the spotlight.
O: Was that restricted to femme-identifying people only?
M: All those spaces were for cis women, trans, and nonbinary people. So we were basically excluding cis men. And I think those spaces are super important, and I still host groups that exclude cis men. But with Vulgar, we have made it a part of our philosophy to specifically discuss these issues with cis men as well, and have mixed groups because we think we need allies. We do work that is specifically targeting groups that have received less information about their bodies, but we also think it is important to include cis men, because I think a lot of cis men also do not have a lot of information about their own pleasure. With Colectiva Justicia Sexual, it was more radical pedagogy; using unconventional approaches to sexuality education, and with Vulgar, we’ve been able to bridge more institutional spaces, which gives us access to different communities, reaching people we wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise.
O: How is the sex-positive or body-positive movement incorporated in your teaching?
M: I think we are trying to build upon these movements through a critical lens, taking the focus off the individual. A big thing we see in the body-positive or sex-positive movements are these instructions: Love your body, love yourself, take care of yourself, masturbate, yes you can! Fundamentally, these things are coming from a vertical positionality where someone with ostensibly more information than you is telling you to liberate yourself, where they’re assuming you’re not liberated, or that you need to liberate yourself through a certain path. We try to stay away from that kind of language and give tools to people so they can do that work on their own, if that’s what they decide to do and decide it’s important to them. We try to have a broader social justice lens, taking into account the social, economic, and cultural structures that prevent us from enjoying our body.
O: What do you see yourself doing next with Vulgar?
M: This last year, we were organizing a national conference for sexuality activists to specifically come together and think about social justice & pleasure. We had to cancel the event five days before because of COVID. We transitioned everything online with a series of online lectures, and it was fine, but I think we are exhausted honestly. We’re thinking about creating a 3-day workshop for activists and educators that touches upon historical elements of sexuality and tools for activism today for next summer, but mainly figuring out how to scale down and be sustainable.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.