A little after 3 p.m. on a nippy Sunday in January, six women gathered in a small wooden house in Washington D.C. Light streamed in through the large front-room window, gently touching the black plastic folding chairs, the weathered wooden floors, and equally weathered ornate rugs covering them. A sound system stood guard in the corner. Mugs of tea, wine glasses, and tiny snack bowls also stood guard by the women's feet. Two of those feet were my own, fidgeting in my Doc Martens creepers. Over the next two hours at the Women Uncorked sex-positivity workshop, we would end up discussing our deepest concerns about our sex lives with five strangers. And while that level of vulnerability might sound terrifying, I found the process of sharing my sexual hopes and fears healing.
Although my fellow workshop participants had decades of life and love experience on my own, we actually had a lot of in common. I was also relieved to know that no matter how old I get, I'll still be figuring it out when it comes to sex and relationships — and that's absolutely OK.
I found myself at the house in question — a nonprofit arts venue called Rhizome D.C. — because of Twitter. Three weeks prior to attending the workshop, I had drawn up a list of my favorite sex-positive Instagram accounts on Elite Daily. That article caught the attention of Jennifer Beman, facilitator of Women Uncorked and creator of Graphic Sex Project. She DM'd me about the article and, noticing I was also based in Washington D.C., invited me out to one of her workshops. The event description read, "Connect with other womyn in a confidential, non-judgmental space to discover techniques for talking about our desires, to discuss what's on our minds and in our hearts, to work on new ways to open up communication."
That's all it took. Apart being a journalist on the sex and dating beat, I was lit about this event for personal reasons. Having attended a school like Syracuse University was a blessing, because sex-positivity does play a key part in most students' feminism. SU has a healthy women's and gender studies program and prominent student orgs like Students Advocating Sexual Safety & Empowerment.
Still, I can count on one hand the friends I can be ultra candid with about sex. A lot of my peers are just more comfortable talking about sex and sexuality in the abstract, as a concept — instead of practice that they themselves engage in. So, as nerve-wracking as it seemed to put myself out there for strangers, I still jumped at the chance to have candid conversations about sex with women and femme-aligned people.
By day, Beman is a TV documentary editor and writer. She started Women Uncorked three years ago as a research project in that vein. "I was thinking of doing a documentary about women’s relationship with their orgasms," Beman tells Elite Daily. "So, I started Women Uncorked to explore that idea, talk to women about their feelings about that." Beman is sure to emphasize that she is not a sex therapist, but "an artist who’s in sex and starting conversations about sex."
Initially, Beman's focus was on generating discussion around clitorises, vaginas, and women's relationship with sexual pleasure in that context. Over time, she made a shift toward being more inclusive, which can be seen in her use of "womyn" (akin to "womxn") in Women Uncorked's event description. "I start it as just ‘Women Uncorked,’ w-o-m-e-n. I’ve certainly been learning a lot along the way and educating myself about issues around that. I’ve started using a ‘y’ in that to be more inclusive," Beman says. Finding a lack of safe space in her own life, Beman's goal overall is to create one where people who aren't cisgender men can speak plainly about sex without fear of judgment. Taboo topics that are welcomed include everything from sex-related anxiety, physical and mental responses in bed, and body image issues — concerns that can often be gendered.
"When people are talking in a group with other women, without cis men around? The conversation about sex is really different," Beman says. "I wanted to make it a safe place for women to talk about sex without the influence of cisgender male presence."
Women Uncorked sessions are typically set up as roundtables. Women come, write the subjects piquing their interest on index cards, and the conversations flow from there. Before I showed up on Sunday, Beman had told me that this Women Uncorked was going to be experimental. The workshop's activities would be based on games from the Authentic-Relating Movement. In short, to quote Beman, it's about "moving past small talk."
When I walked into Rhizome, I happened to come in on the tail-end of a brief discussion about marriage. My fellow workshop attendees were in agreement: (Monogamous) marriages and long-term partnerships come with a distinct set of challenges, they said. Having sex with the same person for years can be excellent. You're super in tune with your partner and you know exactly what they like in bed by now. On the other hand, having sex with same person for years can also mean you want something (or someone different). So, how do you navigate the process of getting out of that rut? Unintentionally, this set the tone for the afternoon's discussions.
This trickled into our first exercise, which was an active listening one. In pairs, Person A asked Person B what they hoped to get out of the day's workshop. They'd respond. Person A would recap what was said, ask a follow-up question, and so on. From this emerged an intense conversation about sex and satisfaction between me and my exercise partner. I've only been in my current relationship for two and a half years, whereas she had been married for 17 and has kids. But we had common ground when it came to our triumphs and challenges of being in long-term monogamous relationships.
For the second exercise, we switched partners. In this one, Person A asked Person B whether they were comfortable talking about a specific sex-related subject. Person B would either answer "yes" or "no," and Person A would move onto asking about their comfort level about a different sex-related subject. After the minute of questioning up, Person A could ask Person B one of the questions for real. For example, my partner asked, "Would you like to talk about masturbation?", "Would you like to talk about love and intimacy?" and "Would you like to talk about affairs?", to name a few.
Most pairs answered a mix of "yes" and "no," but I found myself to truly be an open book — answering a genuine "yes" to anything she threw at me. At this point, I was quite at ease, too. It wasn't just because I was sipping on a beautiful glass of red wine. Even though it was a small group, I was soaking up everyone's good energy and intentions behind their candor.
During both of our turns in the hot seat, my exercise partner and I ended up talking about desire and its tricky place in relationships. We talked about the ebb and flow of desire for our SO, for other people, and for anyone at all over the course of a relationship. Again, I've been with my SO for a little under three years. I'm embarking on the early years of a (foreseeably) long-term relationship with my girlfriend and a (foreseeably) long career in journalism. My exercise partner, on the other hand, retired from a corporate job and is currently working on a 30-year-long marriage with couples therapy as support.
But a lot of what we divulged about where we were coming from resonated with the other. She was proud of me for having such honest and frank conversations about desire with my girlfriend — it's something she wished she would have done decades earlier. On my end, it was encouraging to see that it was never too late to resolve deep-seated relationship issues, even if the prospects seem bleak.
One of the last big activities we did was contribute to Beman's Graphic Sex Project. The easiest way to describe GSP is that it's a pleasure data visualization project. Using cubes and paper, participants map out their ideal sexual experience. (Beman actually just launched a feature on GSP's website where you can make your own pleasure graph, digitally!) This developed from Beman's own musings about what she wanted out of sex. Sexual preferences, Beman points out, aren't always about gender or kinks. It's things like whether you want to spend five minutes on sex or an hour. "It’s interesting to think about what order you want things to happen in. What proportions you want things to happen in," Beman explains. "Do you want to spend 90 percent of your time kissing and 10 percent of the time with genital contact?"
For graph-making, we moved to a little dining room where the tables were covered with different funky embroidered tablecloths. Around the edges of the table were places set with a sort of "canvas" for everyone's graph and bowls filled with little cubes. Beman explained that she uses cubes because they're "tactile," "playful," and "look like toys." By using items that are inherently non-sexual, it takes the gravity off of a sometimes serious conversation. "And also, they don’t roll around," Beman says. "So, I couldn’t use balls." As we worked on our graphs, Beman hit play on "Beautiful Liar" by Beyoncé and Shakira to fill the silence.
When it came time to review our graphs, my biggest takeaway was that no one's sex life is perfect — not even if you're having fantastic sex with your partner or partners, and not even if you're truly satisfied with your bedroom encounters. It's natural to live through periods where your sexual needs aren't being consistently met. And that's OK. Not "OK" as in just fine and not worth addressing, but "OK" as in it's perfectly normal and common and a part of life. Apart from being a reflection of where we aren't satisfied with our sex lives, our graphs can now be a springboard for conversations with our partners for what we want more or less of in the bedroom.
It was reassuring to find that no, not even when I'm 60 will I have everything figured out. If anything, I was reminded that low-key, relationships don't get easier either: Enter kids stage right and a whole career from stage left. In the second exercise, my partner reiterated this to me, to which I simply responded, "Dammit!" and she cracked right up.
Yes, apart from the level of vulnerability it takes to participate in a sex-positivity workshop like Beman's, the idea of perpetual uncertainty can be unnerving. But to be honest, that concept comforted me. I saw that people who were grown and successful and functional are still figuring it out and actually? They've turned out just fine. I was reminded that even if I grow up to be a mess and my relationship(s) don't work out perfectly decades from now, I'll probably turn out just fine, too.