(Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
Aida Manduley wears many hats. They are an award-winning activist, clinician, sex educator and writer. They sat down for an interview with Unicorn to talk about the importance of queer sex education and how they’re working towards making it an inclusive experience for everyone.
U: To start, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
A: Some labels that feel pretty important to me in terms of work: I’m an activist, I’m an educator, and I’m a therapist. I’m also trained as a social worker, but activism is really the bread and butter of everything I do.
But as someone who doesn’t just want to define myself through work, I’m a queer person, I’m Puerto Rican and I’m giving myself permission to call myself an artist. I’m currently living in Boston, Massachusetts and New York.
U: What made you want to pursue sex education?
A: The reason I got into sex education is because I realised that LGBTQ+ people (myself included) were not getting appropriate sex education. But it all started in college where I was really interested in community building, and helping upkeep queer spaces for socialising and for support around issues of race.
So what I was doing was basically pulling in educators trying to connect people to resources, and eventually becoming one of those resources myself. In college, the more ‘formal’ sex education that I did was starting with high schoolers and peers, and then moving into adult sex education.
U: And looking at the way sex education is treated nowadays, what are some things that you think need immediate change?
A: Oh wow, there’s so many (laughs). So one of the main things to me is having trauma-informed sex education. Too often the conversations about trauma are just looking at sexual assault, which we don’t talk about very well anyway. But we don’t talk about how, for example, food insecurity can affect your access to resources.
Like, what does it mean to have reproductive choice when you’re in the middle of hurricane season and you have no power? I would like to see more integration of trauma and mental health that is not just focused on explicit sexualised harm.
If we’re thinking about youth sex ed then- greater access to comprehensive education.
A lot of people have the assumption that sex education is just for youth, but it’s actually a lifelong process.
So we tend to forget about older adults and their sexual needs that may come up in managed care facilities. So greater access and more responsive education to different demographics across the age spectrum is definitely needed.
U: Could you walk me through how your sessions work?
A: It varies depending on the crowd but I’ll give you a few examples. I’ve worked in schools and in school systems as a teacher doing a sex ed class, but for adult education, it’s usually been more one off workshops, either independently or through an organisation or a conference. I have also worked with colleges who will bring me in specifically for lectures or workshops.
My main goal is to make these sessions interactive. I also try to make sure I am not put on a pedestal or seen as someone who knows everything and the crowd doesn’t, and I’m here to pour knowledge into their empty vessel brains (laughs).
And, depending on the setting, we may have things to hand out and touch if it’s a smaller workshop. Let’s say that we’re talking about sex toys or anatomy, there will probably be things to touch, smell or look at.
U: A lot of the conversation around queer sex ed has also been about using more inclusive language. So what do you do to make your sessions more inclusive?
A: Oh, so, so many things. One of the things is I pay a lot of attention to, not just the language but also what images and resources I’m recommending. So, I will look at my materials and check if I’m only showing one body type, or one skin tone, or recommending resources from only one kind of author.
Another thing I try to do is to avoid speaking on behalf of identities I don’t hold. So, I’ll instead present resources from activists or educators who do hold those identities so people have that information coming from the right source. There are also workshops that I don’t do by myself and ensure I have collaborators for.
Professional environments tend to hire queer or trans people who are lighter skinned, present more masculine, and are queer and trans in a “less confrontational” way. So I may adjust my own gender presentation depending on the audience and make that a talking point, as well as leveraging my access to spaces to bring in more voices.
I also take care to bring in resources for groups that often get left out of these conversations like bisexual, trans, intersex and asexual people. Even things like making sure I am being clear when talking about genitalia and certain sex acts instead of gendering them needlessly, and including the impact of gender affirming interventions into conversations about safe sex can make a huge difference.
U: What piece of information tends to surprise people the most at your sessions?
A: Gosh, it depends so much on the topic and audience for me. But most of all,
people are often surprised by how normal their desires and fantasies are!
Also, when talking about different erogenous zones, for example, for people who have testicles, there are ways to stimulate the inguinal canals, and you can kind of shove your finger in there (laughs), and some people just don’t even know that that’s something you can do. It’s called muffing!
In terms of kink sex education, a lot of people find themselves way more interested in various kink behaviours than they expect. So, a lot of people will leave like, “Oh, I thought that was creepy but now that you explained it, it sounds interesting”.
U: They’re just like “I’ll be googling this in my spare time”.
A: (laughs) Exactly! And another common thing that surprises people is the unbundling of the terms ‘top’ and ‘dominant’, and ‘ bottom’ and ‘submissive’. And so, when we talk about a bottom that is dominant, or a top that is submissive, especially for people who are not in the kink scene and may not have had access to that conversation further, there’s a surprise at possibilities that they just didn’t know existed.
U: Now apart from being an educator, you’re also a writer. I read a paper you published about the way social media can be used for providing access to resources to marginalised communities. Could you talk a little about what you found?
A: Absolutely! One of the things that we make a note of is that just saying social media is helpful is not true, because there is a lot of harm that these platforms can cause. But when talking about social media and education, one of the things that I was really excited about was the ability to democratise information.
Research takes a long time to be published so social media being able to somewhat fill a gap there, of sharing and spreading information that may not be in books yet or that may not be getting taught in schools yet, is really powerful. There is also the ability to connect people that otherwise would not be able to connect or even know that others like them existed.
But on the flip side, algorithms are made by people. And they decide what you see and can’t see, and what is censored. So in a way, social media also quashes rebellion and access to appropriate information.
U: The term intersectionality seems to come up a lot in your work. Could you talk about the impact it has on queer sex ed?
A: So the biggest thing about intersectionality is knowing that you can’t separate race, gender and sexuality. There is no simple way to have these conversations because the hierarchy is messy. And it is always going to be messy because power is perpetually evolving.
Our experiences in the world are deeply related to how much power we are seen to have. And it is really important in understanding things like consent in sex, because it’s not always an enthusiatic ‘yes’. Intersectionality really just asks us to talk about the power in any situation, and talk about the messiness of the power, and be thoughtful about how that changes over time rather than assuming it’s just stuck in one way forever.
U: You mentioned that you also work as a therapist. Is there any overlap between your work as a sex educator and as a clinician?
A: Oh my god, yes absolutely! So, how this relates, and this is the funniest way I think, is that people that come to me specifically for sex therapy, end up talking about a lot of things that are not about sex, and the people that don’t come to talk about sex, end up talking about sex.
The overlap is strong because we’re talking about our bodies. Our bodies have a lot of different needs, and go through a lot of different transformations. So, we have to look at people in their environment and in their context to provide effective education and do effective therapy.
It’s also about asking people the question – who gave you the story that this is how sex is supposed to be for you? Who gave you the story that this is how you’re supposed to interact with other people? To me, it’s also inherently politicised because people’s values are often tied to how they have sex and interact with the world.
Some resources that Aida recommends:
- Bianca Laureano does incredible work with marginalised identities.
- Flamingo Rampant Press: Publishes children’s books focusing on positive queer sex ed and family building.
- If you’re looking for who to follow, then look at the grantees of the Third Wave Fund, there are so many great activists and cool sex workers who are amazing.
- Interact is an organisation that focuses on Intersex advocacy and education.
Aida was interviewed by Nithila