The 15th Annual Jeanne Clery Lecture Series on April 6 brought sex educators Bianca Laureano and Francisco Ramirez together for a conversation about sex, dating, and intimacy during the pandemic.
CW: sexual violence, death.
The sudden and brutal arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic caused many forms of loss and many forms of change. Amid the new landscape of pandemic life, the sphere of relationships, dating, sex, and intimacy has been, for many, difficult to navigate. The restrictions placed on physical proximity and touch have meant that the already confusing rules of romantic socialization have been further distorted. Whether you fell in love, broke up with a partner, stayed single, or dated around in the past year, your emotional experiences were almost certainly shaped by the isolation of the pandemic.
This topic, relevant to almost everyone, was the focus of the 15th Annual Jeanne Clery Lecture Series, which took place on April 6. The Jeanne Clery Lecture Series was established by Constance Clery BC ‘53 and Howard Clery, Jr., in memory of their daughter, Jeanne, who was a victim of sexual violence. Each year, the lecture series centers around the topic of sexual violence prevention and safe, ethical sexuality. This year’s lecture consisted of a conversation between Francesco Ramirez and Bianca Laureano, two sex educators, who discussed how to navigate safe and ethical relationships and sex during the pandemic.
Bianca Laureano is an educator and sexologist whose projects include co-founding the Women of Color Sexual Health Network and the LatiNegrxs Project, hosting LatinoSexuality.com, and writing curricula for sexual and reproductive justice programs, including for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Francisco Ramirez, a graduate of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, is perhaps best known for his #FreeSexAdvice initiative, where he sits in public parks in NYC and offers free sex advice to passersby. His other efforts include leading training and research efforts for organizations like the United Nations and Planned Parenthood, co-founding the sexual education app OkaySo, and serving as a host and producer for MTV.
The conversation was moderated by Mary Bence BC ‘22, a peer educator with SVR, and Elizabeth Scott-Francis, the Director of Nondiscrimination and Title IX at Barnard. Bence kicked off the conversation by pointing out that Barnard had hosted a conversation with Laureano and Ramirez almost exactly a year ago, right as the Covid-19 pandemic had disrupted daily life and sent everyone into the virtual sphere. Bence pointed out that the return of these two educators signified a kind of full circle, and asked them how they felt their work had changed in the past year, and what had surprised them about these changes.
Laureano replied by expressing her appreciation for the fact that, thanks to the pandemic, people have learned how to make things more accessible to people who have disabilities or chronic illnesses. Many events are now being held in virtual spaces, which makes it easier for her as an educator to attend and reach more people without having to commit to the difficulties and expenses of physical travel. She expressed trepidation about the fact that, as people begin to look ahead to a post-pandemic future, some of these advances towards accessibility will be forgotten.
Ramirez started by acknowledging that everyone has performed a lot of labor and emotional strength in order to pull them through the past difficult year, and invited the audience to breathe with him in recognition and affirmation of that fact. Speaking more personally, he said that he was surprised by his capacity to go a full year without physical touch, humorously adding that his most intimate encounter in the past year was with his dentist. He appreciated the power of memory, as it allows us to relive past experiences of intimacy even when we don’t have access to it in the present, and noted that it is important for us to be able to self-regulate our experiences of comfort and discomfort as we utilize the tool of our memory. Speaking of his profession, he noted that most of his work in the past year has involved playing the role of witness and listener, striving to uplift and amplify the voices of people fighting for equity at the same time as allowing them to be vulnerable and feel cared for.
Laureano then spoke about how her relationship with her partner was impacted by the pandemic, as each of them reacted differently to the stresses of self-isolation. As she put it, “surviving the apocalypse does not make me want to have sex,” whereas her partner’s desire to “feel alive” manifests in a want for sexual activity. Additionally, the process of aging has not been paused by the pandemic, and Laureano spoke of navigating a changing body amid a changing world.
Scott-Francis then asked the panelists how they thought technology had changed the way that people navigate conversations with partners and potential partners in the past year. Laureano cited the phrase “left on read” as something whose meaning has transformed over the pandemic, as now the failure to immediately respond to someone else’s text no longer communicates hostility, but rather the understandable exhaustion that everyone is experiencing. She described a heightened need for authenticity, saying that the unspoken rules that governed the way people interacted through the internet have shifted now that the internet has taken center stage in the mediation of people’s relationships.
At the same time, a problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic has been the unequal access to technology experienced by people across the globe. The expectation that everybody has high-quality WiFi and high-speed Internet and the ability to call or text whoever they want is a problematic one, as many people, in and outside of America, have been further limited during the pandemic by their inability to access digital spaces and resources. Laureano emphasized that it is important that we keep this in mind, and strive to make ensuring equitable access to technology a priority.
Ramirez seconded this, citing his experience working in a global context, providing sex and health education to people from countries across the globe, where access to technology is certainly not a guarantee. He also pointed out that people living on reservations within the United States very often experience inequity when it comes to accessing technology, which includes things like running water. Ramirez noted that the pandemic imperative to “wash your hands!” is easier said than done in a place like that.
However, Ramirez also praised the connective possibilities of social media, specifically pointing to the app he helped develop, OkaySo, which is a space for young people to ask questions about sex and find accurate and meaningful answers. The capacity of technology to provide safe spaces for people seeking resources and information regarding sexual activity is vital.
Laureano then spoke about the ways in which our cultural ideas of intimacy have expanded with the help of online technology. For one, mutual aid networks have been created with the aid of the internet; Laureano stressed that we need to consider this a kind of intimacy, even though it’s non-sexual. She spoke of the importance of expanding the definition of intimacy to contain non-romantic and non-sexual experiences, especially during the pandemic. For example, when we experience physical touch from our friends, that counts as intimacy.
Ramirez agreed, saying that he feared that society wouldn’t pay close enough attention to the valuable lessons that can be gleaned from the transformative experience of isolation. The experience of quarantine is a good way to build self-knowledge, and to be able to come to better understand what one wants and desires. It also allows one to become more in tune with what excites and intrigues them, even on a smaller scale. He described a recent personal experience of having a brief conversation with a crush on a street corner, and being emotionally affected by that ten-minute encounter in a way he never would have been before the pandemic. There’s no need to label such experiences as sexual or romantic; instead, it’s enough to understand them for what they are, as little capsules of intimacy.
Next, Bence turned the conversation to the subject of boundaries, asking the panelists what they thought their biggest takeaways from the past year were in terms of how we think about communications and consent and boundary settings.
Ramirez pointed out that the pandemic has brought with it a whole host of conversations around boundaries that did not previously occur, such as the conversation of whether two people feel comfortable taking their masks off around each other or eating inside or outside a restaurant together. He stressed that the only way for relationships to preserve themselves and strengthen during this moment is for there to be a true and authentic lack of judgment surrounding the enforcement of these boundaries; we have to be able to respect each other’s comfort levels, and not ask people to violate them for our own comfort and convenience. Talking about pandemic boundaries has reinforced the importance of having consent from all parties, even in nonsexual situations. We need to be careful that we are asking people for their boundaries, instead of making assumptions that could end with the person feeling violated or unsafe.
Laureano spoke of the need to “listen with our whole bodies and not just our ears,” saying that this is a lesson that she had learned from working closely with Deaf community members. She described the way that conversations taking place through online platforms such as Zoom have changed the way in which people communicate; things that once would have seemed natural, such as saying “mmhm” and “yeah” when someone else is talking, now seem forced and superfluous when done over Zoom.
Returning to Ramirez’s discussion of pandemic boundaries, she emphasized that people needed to learn how to see themselves as capable of causing harm instead of only as capable of being victims; she asked us to see moments of critique as opportunities for radical growth and as chances to show up and approach the situation with intentionality. She spoke of the need to set clear boundaries with oneself, so that one doesn’t end up in situations where it is possible to harm another person. If we are able to set boundaries with ourselves and with others, we will live in a culture of consent, where everyone’s needs will be able to be met.
Agreeing with this, Ramirez referenced a session he had recently given on how to apologize online, saying that it was one of the most well-attended events he’d ever hosted, clearly demonstrating that there is a widespread interest in learning how to navigate conflict on the internet.
Scott-Francis next asked the panelists to talk about how we can hope to rebuild society after the pandemic with the goal of balancing public health and equity. Laureano said that the “normal” world that we lived in before the pandemic was actually quite xenophobic and ableist, and that rebuilding towards a better normal will have to be a communal effort, ideally led by those who are most impacted by the issues currently facing society. Ramirez seconded this, expressing hope that people of marginalized experience will be centered as we rebuild. He remembered HIV/AIDS activists’ focus on combating stigma, hoping that a similar focus would emerge as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Right now in the United States, millions of adults are being and have been vaccinated; Ramirez urged us to remember that this experience is not shared globally, as many disadvantaged populations across the world don’t expect to have access to the vaccine for a few more years.
Finally, the pair answered a few questions from the audience. One audience member wanted to know how people can discover more of themselves and learn what forms of intimacy they enjoy. Laureano emphasized the need to stay curious and be willing to try things, but also knowing how to set internal and external boundaries around negative experiences. If we are able to ask ourselves after an experience, “What did I expect? What did I experience? Do I want to do it again? What do I need to change in order to achieve a better outcome?”, then we’ll be able to navigate setting these boundaries. If we are able to understand what being empowered feels like, then we’ll be able to seek out and choose experiences that allow us to access power and pleasure.
Bianca Laureano can be found at biancalaureano.com.
Francisco Ramirez can be found at franciscoramirez.com.
Image via Bwog Archives.