It started, as so many things do, with a tweet. Well, a direct group message to be exact, from Andy at Ruffled Sheets to myself and a few others. This morning, Andy alerted us to some deplorable tweets full of fat shaming and body negativity from sexmachines.co.uk.
When will this stop? When will fat people stop being used as a punchline for sex toy companies, retailers, and manufacturers? When will companies across the board in any industry stop making us the butt of the joke? When will we be seen as fully human? When will we stop having to assert our inherent worth at every turn? When will we see ourselves represented in marketing strategies in a positive light? When can we just fucking live?
The blogger response was swiftandmighty. Upon further investigation, some bloggers discovered that this company also posted a tweet making light of Trump’s sexual assault comments and fat-shamed a YouTuber they worked with.
After a few hours, sexmachines.co.uk’s tweets were removed and the company made an apology. Okay, so? Is that enough? Not for me.
The problem is that those tweets were published in the first place. The problem is that someone who works for a sex toy company wrote those tweets and thought they were a good idea to send. The problem is that the tweets were left up, unchecked by any company management for almost a month, until Andy alerted us to them. The problem is that this kind of behavior replicates the oppressive power structures the sexual freedom movement aims to fight against.
The reality is that this isn’t just about sexmachines.co.uk. This is about the pervasive, persistent narrative that fat people are unworthy, undesirable, and that our bodies are bad; a narrative that’s told in many industries, by countless companies, even by folks who are supposed to be progressive.
Sexual freedom is revolutionary. It is radical. It is transformative. It affirms, among many other things, that all bodies are good bodies, that all bodies are deserving of pleasure, that all bodies have inherent worth. Fat shaming and negativity have no place in the sexual freedom movement, but still, here we are, with yet another company shaming fat folks to market their products.
Fat folks are usually “represented” in marketing in one of two ways. We’re either 1) devoid of any sexuality and just used as props in ads or 2) depicted in an awful, “lesser-than” light if we are sexualized, as if we should be bowing down to whoever takes on the oh-so-arduous task of fucking us. (sexmachines.co.uk managed to employ both of these marketing strategies, one in each of their tweets that Lilly linked to.)
Fat people don’t need sex toy companies to reinforce the false narrative that we are undesirable and bad. We need them to center us in their marketing and actually depict us as the whole humans we are. Even though fat people live fulfilling sexual lives, it is exceedingly rare to find any positive depictions of fat people enjoying themselves or experiencing pleasure on sex toy companies’ websites or social media feeds.
Fat people deserve more than this. We need a seat at every table, not a once-every-now-and-then dinner invitation that ends with us being mocked and ridiculed. We aren’t your goddamn punchline. We’re human beings.
I was making my way home from a long weekend in Philadelphia last Sunday when I heard the news about Elena Ferrante, a brilliant and engaging Italian author best known for her novels about women’s lives and friendships. My mother, a fellow devoted Ferrante fan, texted me that she had horrible news: Ferrante had been doxxed. My heart sank as I read the article exposing her legal name, written by a man who claims that Ferrante has “relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown” simply because Ferrante admitted to sometimes lying to protect her identity.
As I continued reading, I grew angrier and angrier. This was a deeply misogynist act: a man believed he deserved access to Elena Ferrante, so he outed her because she would not willingly grant him access herself. As my rage swelled within me, I also began to feel viscerally connected to Ferrante. Her books mean a great deal to me, but this tie to her was on a completely different level: as an anonymous (or semi-anonymous) woman writer.
I do not share my legal name, where I live, or information about my career here. Most of my friends and family do not know I am a blogger. I do share pictures of myself, attend conferences, and book speaking engagements. I travel to spend time with friends I have met here and enjoy the rich depths of my relationships with them. It is not that I am half-in and half-out of the sex blogging closet: I simply choose to share some things and not others with the internet at large.
When I chose to show my face on Twitter for the first time, it was a deliberate, autonomous decision. When I submitted a proposal to speak at next year’s Eroticon, it was a deliberate, autonomous decision. When I trust other bloggers, my friends, with details about myself, but do not share that information with the public at large, it is a deliberate, autonomous decision. When Elena Ferrante decided to write anonymously, it was a deliberate, autonomous decision.
These are my choices. That was Elena Ferrante’s choice. Anonymous women and nonbinary writers have control over our own choices. We set our own boundaries, and we deserve for others to respect those boundaries. When Claudio Gatti doxxed Ferrante, he violently invaded her life, broke all of the boundaries she set, and declared his desire to consume her identity more important than her autonomy.
What happened to Elena Ferrante is a real threat for bloggers. Some people do believe we owe them information, like our legal names, where we live, or what we look like. Some men believe they’re entitled to access any part of any woman, and if they don’t know the woman’s “true identity,” they may begin to closely surveil us, as Claudio Gatti surveilled Ferrante. (Note: notions of “true identity” are bullshit. If Elena Ferrante tells you her name is Elena Ferrante, her name is Elena Ferrante. If I tell you my name is Sarah Brynn Holliday, my name is Sarah Brynn Holliday.)
Anonymous writers have a right to privacy, period. We have a right to privacy even if parts of our lives are public. More specifically, sex bloggers have a right to privacy, even if parts of our lives are public. Some of us share pictures of ourselves, talk about whether we have jobs outside of sex blogging and education work, and mention where we live, and some of us don’t. Some of us attend conferences, present workshops, and host podcasts, and some us don’t. No matter what we decide to share or what we do, no one is entitled to any extra information about who we are.
Today is the first day of fall, my favorite season. Name one thing about it, and I’ll almost certainly light up with joy – apple and pumpkin picking, watching leaves change and flutter to my feet, Scorpio season, the feeling of being held when I put on my favorite sweater, anticipation of the winter holidays right around the corner – it’s all magic to me.
However, for the past four years, my fall seasons have been fraught with distressing memories and emotional pain. In fall 2012, my abuser died.
The weeks and months following his death were excruciating. I can remember that time only in flashes and bursts, like a broken movie reel in front of my face: The funeral. The procession to the cemetery. Placing my hand on the casket before it lowered into the ground. His friends and family, telling me he still asked about me even just one week before he died, that I was the first person they thought to call, even though our relationship had ended over a year ago. Pictures, letters, gifts from our four-year relationship, returned to me and left to sit in my home. Suffering.
Throughout those weeks and months, I could feel something massive bubbling to the surface. I knew our relationship was very unhealthy, but I never had the tools to actually call it abuse until he died, after learning more about consent, feminism, and autonomy in my first year of college. I didn’t know what to say to these people, his family and friends who loved him, who told me repeatedly he still cared about me. I wanted to shout something, anything: “You don’t know the truth,” “don’t believe what he told you,” and even “he was a bad man” all sat at the bottom of my throat, desperately needing to jump out. But we’re not allowed to speak ill of the dead, so I was silent, and stayed silent until I could no longer handle the pain anymore.
Right now, I feel like my body is filled with heavy rocks. Instead of flesh, blood, and guts, I am made up of stones and boulders, rendering me unmovable with their collective weight, each rock a reminder of the sexual trauma and emotional scars I carry with me wherever I go. Each fall brings a different sharp edge, a heavier feeling of fullness, but the rocks never go away. As a survivor and a depressed person, they live with me.
Those rocks are why I write about sex.
I write about sex because talking about pleasure is revolutionary. I also write about sex because my own sexual autonomy was taken away from me, and I am working to boldly and unapologetically reclaim it every day.
Each fall since my abuser’s death brings up something new for me. One fall, it was that the relationship was abusive. Another, I discovered it was very difficult for me to have sex at all, or even masturbate, in the weeks surrounding the anniversary of my abuser’s death. This fall, I’ve been thinking about how my blog has been absolutely crucial in my continual healing process, especially healing from my sexual trauma.
Until I started using sex toys, all of the sex I had and the way I viewed myself and my pleasure were through the lens of what my abuser did to my body and what he told me about my body. Even though I had sex with other people in the time between his death and when I started using toys, I never masturbated, I didn’t feel connected to my body, and I certainly did not have a grasp on what pleasure meant for me as an individual.
When I bought my first sex toys, that started to change. I felt in control of my pleasure for the first time; finally able to begin my journey towards reclaiming my own sexual narrative and my own autonomy. I had my first orgasm and felt more powerful than ever before. I felt good about my body for the first time in years. I felt desirable because I desired myself. It was revolutionary.
I don’t know what this fall will bring, but I do know this: sex toys help me heal, and writing about sex and having a supportive community of bloggers by my side help soothe the weight of those rocks tumbling around inside me. The stones never disappear, and they may grow heavier still, but I am still here. I am here, and I am healing.
If you are a survivor, you are not alone. Please know that you are loved and supported. You matter because you are here in this world, and you matter to me.
I can’t believe it’s been over a month since I returned home from Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit. It seems like just yesterday I was anxiously trying to bide my time at the airport because, as usual, I had arrived way too early. I had been bubbling over with excitement and anticipation for months, and finally the day had come – I was about to fly to Washington, D.C. to meet my blogger friends, the people I had known for over a year but had yet to meet in person.
It is overwhelming to try to put my experience with the Blogsquad into words. It feels almost impossible to describe what it was like to spend time with this brilliant and talented group of people, and I will inevitably leave things out, but here goes!
I arrived in Alexandria on Wednesday evening after a quick flight from North Carolina. I lived in Virginia for 21 years before moving to my current city last year, and seeing familiar landmarks on my way in felt a bit like coming home. After wandering around the airport for a bit waiting for Polly and Lilith to pick me up, I heard a tiny chorus of voices behind me shouting my name: they were here! My friends! Actually in front of me, where I can hug them, and not in my computer screen! (I had this reaction countless times throughout the conference. It’s a cool feeling.)
On our way back up to our rooms, we ran into Epiphora in the lobby. When I introduced myself, she said, “Oh, I know who you are – I recognize you from your lipstick!” (Which is the ultimate #FemmeGoal, let’s be real.) A bit later, we made our way to Mary and Harry‘s room for my first big group blogger hang, complete with wine, tons of laughs, and hilarious stories. I thrive best in one-on-one or small group interactions, so I was a bit nervous about how the night would go in a larger group, but I had no need to worry: I quickly felt at ease with my blogger friends. I think this tweet from Piph sums up the evening excellently:
Favorite moment of last night: @FemmeReviews' story of a very upset tattooed man at the airport who yelled "I JUST WANT MY SKIN BACK" #SFS16
I woke up early on Thursday for a very exciting reason: to welcome my dear friend Kate to our Room-o-Femmes! We instantly bonded as we showed other our potential outfits for the weekend ahead. I knew I was in for a fantastic roommate situation with this femme by my side. As Kate settled in for a nap, I made my way downstairs to pick up my name badge and check out Tantus’s Blogger Lounge.
The next few hours were filled with exciting introductions, a plethora of hugs, and an abundance of good feels all around. As bloggers arrived, they slowly started to trickle into the Blogger Lounge to greet those of us who had flown or drove in on Wednesday. I was thrilled to meet everyone in person: Lilly with her Jar of Horrors in tow, Lunabelle with her suitcase full of fantastic dildos, Sarah with a bag full of candy curated specially for the Blogger Lounge… it was surreal to be in the same room as my blogger pals for the first time ever. And, of course, I almost exploded with anticipation waiting to greet my best friend Sugarcunt.
Later in the day, a group of us visited Lunabelle’s room to check out her magnificent dildo garden. The rumors are true: it was a glorious sight to behold. In the evening, we hung out with Tina Horn (!) in the Room-o-Femmes (and our third rooomate, Artemisia, arrived), went to Bedpost Confessions, and had our first anxiety group parking lot rendezvous, where I felt like a Very Cool Grrrl Gang member.
After a day and a half spent talking, laughing, and hanging out with my blogger friends, it was time for the educational sessions to begin! In addition to spending time with the Blogsquad, I was also delighted to spend a weekend learning from some of the greatest minds in the sexuality field. Woodhull was filled with brilliant educators, activists, and writers, and I couldn’t wait to soak up as much information as possible like the little sex geek sponge I am. Before I jumped into a full day of sessions, I snagged a selfie with Sugarcunt, my sweet and smart blogger bestie.
Then, during our lunch break, we convened in the Blogger Lounge and did what bloggers do best. Yep, I was definitely with my people.
What happens when bloggers get a 2 hour lunch break at #SFS16: heated discussion about gendered sex toy marketing in the Blogger Lounge.
After Friday’s sessions, Lunabelle told us she had brought a large box of misfit dildos for the Blogsquad to pick through and select what they’d like to take home. These toys were free to good homes, but Luna did accept donations to support Woodull if people were able to give, which was a fantastic idea. While we ooh-ed and ahh-ed over Luna’s collection, she broke out her rolling bar and offered us all drinks. Luna was kind enough to add Midori and pineapple juice to the rolling bar this year so I could make my signature Melon Balls! This small gesture meant so much to me – the Blogsquad is caring, accommodating, and generous at every turn. A large group of us spent the next couple of hours chatting, drinking, and selecting new dildos to welcome into our homes.
On Friday night, we all made our way to SheVibe’s Blogger Pajama Party. Clad in our PJ finery, bloggers were greeted with snacks, drinks, and extravagant swag bags courtesy of SheVibe, an ethical, feminist company that believes in bloggers and does all they can to support us. Part of the PJ Party was a poetry slam, where we were blessed with the poetic stylings of a number of talented bloggers, and where Girl On The Net performed this unbelievably hilarious and brilliant piece. I’m pretty sure that even if hotel guests were on the top floor, they could hear our uproarious laughter.
Saturday promised even more educational sessions and blogger hangouts, but it also brought an overwhelming feeling of sadness. The next morning, I would be on my way back home. While some of us were making plans to see each other again soon, I also knew I wouldn’t see the majority of these folks again until next August’s conference. I knew I wanted to make the most of my last day with the Blogsquad.
Saturday evening was the perfect end to an amazing Woodhull experience. After the day’s sessions finished, Kate, Artemisia, Caitlin, Suz, Sarah, and I convened in the Room-o-Femmes to order room service and prepare for the evening’s gala, where we were later joined by Luna (and happily gifted her crème brûlée). Thrilled with the roll selection we were given with dinner, I professed my deep love for bread and asked the room what would happen if I changed the name of my blog to “Bread” and started reviewing bread instead of sex toys. Then, this happened:
A blog that reviews both dildos and bread: DILDOUGH
Now, if you ever see bloggers respond to each other on Twitter with a bread emoji, you’ll know why. It’s kind of a thing. Thanks, Room-o-Femmes.
After spending a bit of time at the gala, most of us made our way to the Retreat area of the conference hotel, where the rest of the bloggers were hanging out. We spent hours talking, drinking, and just simply enjoying each other’s company – we knew we were all going our separate ways very soon, and wanted to spend as much time together as possible before starting our long journeys home the next day. We also took a big Blogsquad group picture (minus a couple of people who were still at the gala) thanks to my selfie stick, which is a photo I’ll always treasure. Whenever I’m feeling down or lonely, I look at that picture and am reminded of Woodhull and the incredible people I have in my life.
Sunday morning was filled with emotional goodbyes and a few inside jokes. It was excruciatingly hard to walk away from my friends and get on the shuttle to the airport, but I did it knowing that I could already start counting down to next year’s Sexual Freedom Summit, as well as plan other meet-ups throughout the coming year.
As I was winding down for bed on Sunday evening, I scrolled through my Twitter feed and put an episode of Frasier on for some background noise. Nothing really out of the ordinary here – this is my typical nighttime routine. But something was out of the ordinary: I had just returned from a conference where I felt really, truly seen for the first time in a long, long time. I have never felt so comfortable with a group of people as I do with the Blogsquad. Bloggers support each other unconditionally when we’re together in person and when we’re apart and only able to communicate virtually. It’s a beautiful community that I am thankful to be a part of.
Woodhull provides attendees with a revolutionary space for us affirm sexual freedom as a human right. The Blogsquad provides me with a revolutionary space for me to truly be myself. Thank you for four days of joy.
If you want to support my future travels to conferences like Woodull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, email me! I am currently raising money to get to Eroticon in London in March, where I’ll be speaking about Sex Blogging as Feminism and Social Justice.
Lately, I’ve been ruminating on the concept of sex blogging and writing as feminism and social justice in practice. Bloggers advocate for ethical business standards, educate consumers about body-safe sex toys and lubricants, promote pleasure-and-consent-based sex education for all, and write without shame or stigma about our own bodies, pleasure, and desires, among so many other things. We write to make a difference, and the writing we do is feminist. The work we are doing is revolutionary justice work, and part of that work is health justice.
According to Health Justice Connecticut and the Office of Minority Health, “health justice is a term used to describe health equity: an attainment of the highest level of health for all people.” Part of achieving justice in any arena includes making sure that is is comprehensive and includes stigmatized things or topics – like sex toys, masturbation, or just talking openly about sex in general.
For me, health justice as it relates to sex toys means that comprehensive, non-biased sex education exists, that people are able to access that education no matter who they are or where they live, and that they can use that education to make informed decisions about their bodies. Without knowledge of the materials that are going on or inside of our bodies, we are unable to make informed, educated decisions about the toys and lubricants we use. We are unable to live healthy lives if we fear infections from toxic toys that contain phthalates and other unsafe materials, or worse, if we don’t know that those sex toy materials are toxic in the first place.
This is why writing about body-safe toys and lubricants and exposing unsafe, unethical companies is so important. The sex toy industry is unregulated, and outside of the blogosphere, a handful of ethical companies and retailers, and education-centric feminist sex shops, very little consumer education exists on sex toy materials and how unsafe materials could affect our bodies.
While individual bloggers’ writing about sex toy safety is vital, a main component of health justice for all is access. This means comprehensive education needs to be accessible to everyone: easy to find and available in a number of mediums. While the internet can be incredibly educational if you find the right blogs and websites, there’s also a huge amount of misinformation on the web. (Case in point: the “sexual health coach” who argues that women who need to use lube are unable to self-lubricate because they aren’t emotionally connected to their partner.) Furthermore, not everyone has access to a computer or other devices with internet connection.
I had no idea that some sex toys are made out of toxic materials until my senior year of college, when a feminist sex educator gave a presentation about toy materials and safe lubricants to my university’s queer student group. Her presentation changed the way I view sex toys, but it was also an optional, extracurricular event for a student organization: very different from a classroom setting, textbook, or required lecture. In order to truly attain health justice, sex toy safety needs to be an integral component of any sexual education curriculum in high schools and universities. Talking about pleasure and masturbation in sex ed classes is a radical idea for some, but it shouldn’t be: young people are having sex, masturbating, and exploring their bodies, and will continue to do so whether they’re given safety information or not.
For more opinions on where to shop for safe sex toys and which shops to avoid, check out the blogs I recommend in my blogroll. You are welcome to ask bloggers for clarification and advice if you have questions about a certain material, retailer, or company: I am always willing to advise my readers about toy safety and ethical companies, and the bloggers I trust are happy to do the same.
Blogger disclosure: sponsors on Formidable Femme are simply paid advertisers and do not necessarily represent companies I would personally endorse, recommend, or work with past the terms of an advertising contract.