To a casual viewer, the basic idea behind FemSex can seem to be spelled out pretty clearly in the name. Fem: related to womxn. Sex: well, that’s self-explanatory.
But to assume that that’s the whole story when it comes to this DeCal would be reductive. Though FemSex definitely wants to talk about womxn and sex, more importantly, it’s interested in discussing the systems of power and privilege that complicate issues framing both. On its website, it writes, “Topics in class are designed to raise consciousness about: anatomy and physiology, the influence of social hierarchies in all reproductive choices, solo sex, partner sex, orgasm, sex work, communication, consent, relationships, gender/sex-based violence, and empowerment.”
While the topics listed sound as if they could easily be found on a classroom syllabus, the FemSex facilitators use their platform to create a unique space where students are encouraged to share their personal accounts, an aspect of socio-political discussions that academic environments often lack. And through these conversations, FemSex validates and empowers students by bringing attention to the influence of social and political systems on individual life.
“We talk about academic things, but it’s a very personal take on them,” said facilitator Nidhi Patel. “And that’s something that’s not offered usually in other academic settings.”
“To be able to bring (theory) down to have personal narratives really contextualizes what’s going on,” said facilitator Karla Garcia. “And it makes things really real for people in a way that they can understand their own lives.”
Through the conversation fostered in FemSex sections, students and facilitators open lines of communication, together forging a community based on the discussion and support of each participant’s personal narratives.
“I really like to remind my classes: ‘You know what, even if you’ve talked about all of these topics a thousand times, you haven’t talked about it with these people. And you also don’t know what these people have to offer,’” Patel said.
“We also encourage our students to try really hard not to (have) people who are friends (take) a class together,” added facilitator Nakia Woods. “Because there’s something special about being in a space with no one that you know — and being able to open up and speak about certain things that you might not be comfortable talking about with your friends.”
The closeness of the environment fostered in FemSex makes for a striking, unique experience that varies from semester to semester, and in each incarnation, it strives to remain as inclusive and informative as possible. And the positivity generated in the environment guided the facilitators to their current work in leading FemSex, and led to FemSex to become one of the most popular DeCals on campus, attracting anywhere from 80 to 100 applicants each semester.
“The cool thing about FemSex is it’s so different every single time,” Patel said. “I’ve learned so much. and every single semester is so new.”
On her own experience with FemSex, Garcia emphasized how the DeCal precipitated personal growth from the more conservative background she came from to where she stands now.
“Everything was really new for me when I took FemSex for the first time,” Garcia said. “And through that building of community, I met a lot of amazing people that were able to support me really well. I learned a lot about myself and my sexuality and my gender identity, and I would not have been able to do that without FemSex. I think that’s why I’ve stayed for so long — it’s because I continue to learn more about myself and different things that I wouldn’t expect to learn in other places.”
“Karla was my student,” Woods added. “So seeing Karla from when she was a student until now, it’s just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ (That’s why) I like facilitating: being a part — a small part — of that big change for a lot of folks.”
Accordingly, each of the facilitators takes their work very seriously, investing much time and thought into the course of the discussion. From participating in a planning retreat in the beginning of the semester to holding office hours and constantly revising the teaching agenda, the FemSex facilitators go to great lengths to encourage the best possible learning experience and environment.
Ultimately, however, the facilitators agreed, their role in the class boils down to this:
“To just be aware of what could happen in a conversation that can be complicated, and to facilitate those conversations so people can learn and feel safe,” Garcia said.
And for the wider Berkeley community as well as future FemSex students, they hope to project an inclusive message.
“FemSex is not only about sex,” said Woods. “You do not have to be a lesbian to be in FemSex, you don’t have to be a woman, though it’s okay if you are. We accept all folks, all different types of identities.”
“I think it’s less about how you identify and more about how much you’re willing to learn,” Patel added. “There’s no particular identity we’re trying to shut out of FemSex — everyone is welcome to take it.”