Making Your Sunday School Teacher Queasy
femsex, msex, and the brown experience
article by Ana Alvarez
As far as universities go, Brown seems to be as uniquely open as a college can get. While some schools feature basketball games or football tailgates as can’t-miss-this-before-you-graduate events, Brown infamously celebrates more uncommon activities in its array of campus traditions.
Take, for example, The Female Sexuality Workshop. More commonly known as FemSex, this workshop has grown into one of the integral ingredients of the Brown experience. Held every semester for the past eight years, the workshop brings together a small group of men and women, some Brown students and some not, twice a week to discuss issues dealing with—you guessed it—female sexuality. One look at the workshop’s syllabus is sure to make your Sunday school teacher queasy—discussion topics include female anatomy, masturbation and orgasm, porn and erotica, and sex toys . MSex, Brown’s other sexuality workshop, addresses similar racy topics.
Due to the sensitive subject matter of the workshops, people who don’t know much about their curricula might have misguided notions of the workshops and of their participants. For example, after FemSex disseminated table slip ads in 2007 that showed a picture of three exposed vulvas, the workshop made quick enemies of some conservative-minded members of the Brown community (though, when MSex had previously made a table slip depicting a penis, no such controversy was raised). One offended student, Joshua Unseth ’08, wrote in The Brown Spectator that FemSex is a “good excuse to masturbate (and for guys, I have heard, it is a place to find a horny hookup).”
Yet if you talk to any of the students who are actually involved in the workshop (who lovingly refer to each other as “femsexies”), you will more often than not hear that this positive experience changed their lives. In fact, without fail, FemSex gets over 100 applicants every semester for a coveted spot in one of its three or four 15-person sections and the chance to say that they have partaken in of one of Brown’s most notorious experiences.
But what about MSex, FemSex’s lesser-known cousin? It is commonly thought that MSex is the “male version” of FemSex, but although they are related, the workshops started up separately, and run independently of each other and of Brown. Although the facilitators from both workshops know and are friends with one another, they have no official bond.
Moreover, although FemSex joins the ranks of Spring Weekend and SexPowerGod as hallmarks of the Brown experience, it is in fact MSex, and not FemSex, that originated at Brown. Yet FemSex continually overshadowes its male counterpart.
One possible reason is the fact that FemSex is MSex’s predecessor. FemSex was originally developed at UC Berkley in 1993. There, FemSex is not an extracurricular workshop, but a student-run and -developed course. In 2003, FemSex came to Brown. Since the workshop is not static by nature, but instead a dynamic concept that can be adapted and instituted in many different communities, facilitators adjusted it to work for Brown.
MSex was created later, once FemSex had taken roots at Brown. Chase Huneke and Lieva Whitbeck ’06 met at a seminar on the Anthropology of Masculinity in 2004. A FemSex participant at the time, Whitbeck approached Huneke about organizing an equivalent function for men at Brown. They originally called the workshop Mansex, but later changed it to MSex because, as Huneke writes, the old name “implies gay porn.” The next semester, Whitbeck and Huneke devoted themselves to developing the workshop by creating a “Mini Man-Sex” with a small group of men who, along with Huneke and Whitbeck, took resources from the existing Berkley and Brown FemSex syllabi and crafted what would become the MSex syllabus. The next semester, MSex officially began and has since thrived, though under FemSex’s shadow.
It is hard to compare the two workshops because each participant’s experience is different. But, since one workshop is a derivative of the other, the class structures of the two are strikingly similar. Sections consist of two facilitators who have previously taken the workshop and about 15 participants. FemSex sections are generally larger (because of the higher demand) and are overwhelmingly female. In a typical section of FemSex, there are only one or two men if any. Also, facilitators have always been female, though no rule forbids men from facilitating. MSex sections, on the other hand, are generally smaller by a couple of participants and are split evenly between the sexes. Although originally only men were to facilitate MSex (as FemSex is facilitated only by women), it currently has two female facilitators.
Both workshops follow the same basic syllabus, which focuses on topics like body image, violation of boundaries, communication and consent, relationship models, and reproduction (FemSex focuses on abortion, contraceptive methods, and child birth, while MSex focuses on fatherhood). And of course there are the x-rated topics too.
Language is another key element of the workshops’ success. For example, both workshops use gender neutral language. So, instead of using he/she, mother/father, sister/brother, or girlfriend/boyfriend, participants and facilitators use the pronoun “phe” and words like parent, sibling, and partner.
Even though both workshops use similar structure and language, MSex facilitator Sara David ’11 and participant Justin Pflughaupt, who have taken both FemSex and MSex, attest to the fact that FemSex felt like a more “intense” experience. For one, FemSex sections more strongly enforce proper gender-neutral language—although the enforcement in either workshop is in no way negative. This added demand to use proper language makes it seem like there is more at stake in each section. Also, FemSex’s reputation as a life-altering event can make the experience more daunting. Pflughaupt mentions that he wouldn’t have felt prepared for the emotional question-raising aspect of FemSex if he hadn’t first taken MSex. But he stresses that the experience in either workshop is highly dependent on the facilitators and the participants in each section, so every section has a different feel.
In fact, as MSex facilitator Dawson Dohlen ’13 verifies, the variety of people involved, and the exposure to wide-ranging opinions and sensibilities, make the workshops what they are. For example, even though MSex began as a space primarily for gay men, Dohlen’s male facilitator was heterosexual. Indeed, one of the merits of the workshops is that participants often learn more about themselves from listening to the experiences of others. For Dohlen, this means that he continues to learn more about himself and his sexuality with each new section even after facilitating for the past year.
“It impresses me every time,” he adds, “how you can get a random group of people all from different social groups and put them in an intimate situation. It never gets redundant.”
And that’s perhaps the most valuable thing about these workshops, the reason why Brown students are urged to experience at least one of them; they both encourage introspection and exploration by asking participants to engage in honest conversation with one another about their sexuality, validate their own sexual experiences, and promote respect for the opinions of others. Yet these workshops aren’t classes—there is no set agenda or objective. They strive for personal growth.
Even though the workshops are popular among the student body, their subject matter raises plenty of questions—why do females feel comfortable participating in MSex while few males do so in FemSex? And why are heterosexual men largely absent? Yet if the workshops teach anything, it is that using gender and sexuality to generalize people’s behavior is dangerous. Each participant’s sexual preferences and experiences are as variable as their reasons for taking part in the workshop. Perhaps one of the most important things the workshops can provide is self-awareness and exposure to the perspectives of others. This experience is part of Brown’s liberal promise, a promise that allows to pursue any topic, no matter how unconventional; along with our Open Curriculum, our naked parties, and our boisterous concerts, we are one of the few schools to boast sexuality workshops for all genders.