In this episode of the Adult ISH podcast, co-hosts Nyge Turner and Dominique "Dom" French ask queer and trans certified sex therapist Dr. Damon Constantinides what we can all learn from queer identity and sexuality. Together they explore how queer pleasure suffers from sex-phobia and what it means to queer your own sex life.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media. Be sure to follow all our socials @YRAdultISH!
Dom: Welcome to Adult ISH, produced by Y-R Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I’m Dominique French.
Nyge: And I’m Nyge Turner.
Dom: And this week we’re having an unfortunately-rare conversation about queer sexual pleasure.
Nyge: This episode has been in the works for a long time now.
Dom: About a year
Nyge: And, why is that?
Dom: It's incredibly complicated to cover the topic of sex as a youth-centered organization. But you know me, I love pushing boundaries. And, I think this is an important conversation that everybody - and, especially our fellow LGBTQIA+ listeners - deserves to hear and have for themselves.
Dom: This episode is a little bit my brainchild and in the making of this episode, I've found that people seem to be really scared of the word pleasure and the idea of pleasure, especially in terms of queer contexts and youth contexts. Why do you think that is?
Dr. Constantinides: I suspect it’s the sexphobic culture we live in and the way we demonize young people. And where those two things connect. When you say pleasure for queer folks, the only thing that comes up for me, there’s this fear that you need to be a good queer and therefore not sexual, and like sexual queers are bad queers and you’re not — that’s how homophobia works.
A lot of times adults are really worried about young people experiencing pleasure. I don’t really get it, to be honest. (laughter) That is confusing to me. But maybe just the idea that if we experience pleasure we’re not going to be connected to our values, whereas for me, pleasure really grounds my values. That’s all I got for that one.
Dom: That was a lot. There is so much in that. And this process has made me think about the fact that cis-hetero pleasure is inherently rooted in our understanding of not only the world but “safe sex” and sex in general (Yeah) So when we think about queer pleasure, that seems like Woah: we never talk about pleasure, but we do talk about cis-hetero pleasure in a lot of ways.
Dr. Constantinides: Yeah. Absolutely. And it just makes me think about like, for as long as I’ve been alive, there have been people afraid of having leather community in the Pride parade, as if leather people don’t have children and you don’t have family values if you experience sexual pleasure as part of your life. And I feel like that’s part of this idea that cis-het pleasure from sex is totally fine and for queer folks, it’s scary and bad. Then it gets, like, also reinforced in our communities. And that’s how oppression works. But that’s what it makes me think of.
Nyge: How do you define pleasure for yourself?
Dr. Constantinides: For me, pleasure is really interconnected with joy - so it’s behaviors that bring joy, I guess. Or, experiences that bring joy. And, I think I’m going to leave it at that. There are a lot of different parts to pleasure and what pleasure can mean. I guess I won’t leave it at that.
The other thing I’ll say is, like, I often think that people separate out sexual pleasure from pleasure which I think is probably part of that sex-phobia and being scared. But like, I don’t think there’s like, a differentiation. Pleasure is pleasure. There’s no clearly defined “box” where each type of pleasure lives. That’s also how I think about it, and how I define it.
Nyge: Dom, you mentioned “pleasure” earlier and how, like, people are so afraid of the word pleasure just as it is.I think a lot of people just think about, when they are talking about safe sex, ‘why would I be talking about pleasure?’ But I think I just would ask people who think that way initially, is like: ‘Well, if there’s an absence of pleasure, then what is going on?’ That’s a pretty scary place and not a safe space to be in. So it’s therefore not safe sex.
Dr. Constantinides: Nyge, I so appreciate you saying that.
One of, like, one of my favorite workshops to run is actually not for youth, but when I do it for parents of little kids. And, I love to ask them: “What do you want your kids’ sex life to be like when they grow up? Because everything you do from now with your baby to then, is going to impact their capacity for presence, for pleasure, for knowing themselves, for knowing their boundaries, for being able to say what they want, being able to say what they don’t want. And, let’s start thinking about that now.” Right?
And like, nobody is going to say, “I don’t want my kid to have pleasure,” when you have a 2-year-old. Right? But, suddenly when you have a teenager, then people freak out. And that is not — that’s, like, rooted in all of these ideas that I don’t think are people’s best selves. So it’s a question that I like to ask and that I think is, yeah, I agree - safe sex without pleasure, that sounds nonconsensual and not good.
Dom: That makes me think about the way my sister who has her first child, who is now 4 years old, is now teaching her bodily autonomy and the way that she is going against a lot that was passed down to her about, you know: Hug your relative! and Do this and Do that and really centering what she wants to do with her own small, but autonomous body. And, that, I just find that so exciting. And, I think what you said about the fact that people freak out the closer in age you get to potentially acting on pleasure is really insightful.
Dr. Constantinides: Yeah.
Dom: Now changing gears a little bit - can you talk about trans-centered care? Especially in terms of pleasure and safety?
Dr. Constantinides: Sure. Yeah. I use the language around trans-centered when I talk about the kind of sex therapy that I offer because – even when people don’t mean to – most of the time when they’re working with trans folks there’s this underlying, it’s like built into our culture – idea that trans is different and bad and that cis is normal. Right? So if you start there, it just goes downhill.
Like, I’m thinking of the difference in being an ally and being in solidarity with somebody. Right? Being an ally is like, “I believe in you!” And, being in solidarity is like “Actually, we’re in this together.” Right? And, so trans-centered is this idea that trans gender-diversity has existed across time and across cultures. It’s not like some new phenomenon. Although we have some great new language, which is like, so exciting. But, the phenomenon is not new. And so, it is as much of the human experience as the cis-gender experience. If we start with it as normative, then it can only go up.
So now – a trans person’s pleasure doesn’t have to be mirrored by a cis person's pleasure. That’s not true. If you make it trans-centered, a trans person’s pleasure gets to be actually about their body and their experience and not needing a reflection of an oppressive culture really, to make it real.
Dom: I’m curious how people who are standing in solidarity, or at least doing their best to do so, can center and show up for trans pleasure.
Dr. Constantinides: Yeah, I think to me it really makes me think about listening and being present, which, I know those are unsatisfactory answers, right? They aren’t super action-oriented.
But actually, I think that’s where, when people are in solidarity, if you are not of that experience, right, then it’s really just listening to what the people in your life that have that experience need and want and meeting that. And you know, like, really trying not to have expectations or assumptions based on your own experiences. Because you only have your own and you don’t know what somebody else’s are.
Nyge: In what ways can young LGBTQ+ people foster healthy relationships with their own bodies and understanding of just pleasure as a whole?
Dr. Constantinides: Yeah, so I think back to Dom your nibbling around body autonomy. I really think it’s just a continuum of that, right? Like, how do we have body autonomy, right? So the thing that I talk to young people about and before I was a sex therapist – I was a sexuality educator and I worked in middle schools and high schools and in colleges, so I had a lot of these conversations. And you know, they would send me in to talk about STDs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) and I’m like, ‘people can memorize the STDs but that isn’t going to like, actually help them at all.’ Right? Like nobody cares if you know the symptoms of like syphilis versus gonorrhea, right?
What matters is – do you know your body, and is it different? Did something change, right? And, that’s different from knowing how to protect yourself. That part of the teaching I thought was really useful. But like, you know, when I talk to young people, I really encourage folks to figure out how they want to get to know their own body. And, for some people that includes masturbation, and for other people it doesn’t. And that’s totally fine, because it’s your body. Your bodily autonomy.
So the more we know our own bodies and feel empowered to set boundaries, I feel like the more pleasure we’re able to have when we’re sharing our bodies with other people. Because we can communicate. We can know what we already like, know what we don’t like and be able to communicate that to the other person. I think one of the things that is a little bit sad about cishet sex is that there are these scripts that we’re supposed to follow. And nobody talks about it and then it’s supposed to feel good. And like, it doesn’t, a lot, like a lot of the time. I sit with lots of folks who are like I don’t know why, I just can’t…It just isn’t like it was in the movies or in porn. It’s like well, because that’s not real.
One of the gifts of LGBTQ sexuality is really getting to center it in your own needs and wants and, like, not needing the script. Like getting to make up your own script. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of freedom.
Nyge: You are kinda, like, already right on that point, but what can cis-hetero people learn from queer sex ideology?
Dr. Constantinides: Oh, I mean, I think it’s just that people could have better sex. Right? Like, I’ve seen it happen on an individual level, right? Like the idea of queer sex centers pleasure, it doesn’t center performance. Right? Cishet sex and the field of human sexuality, the field of sex therapy was like, based on these dysfunctions, sexual dysfunction. For something to be a dysfunction, it means there has to be a right way for it to work and a wrong way for it to work. And there could be ways you want your body to work, but it’s not working and that can personally be distressing and that’s something you can figure out. But, this idea that - then that means it’s true for everybody I think is really a disservice.
So like, queering sex just allows for more possibilities and more possibilities. There’s like more opportunity for pleasure, for creativity, for playfulness. So I think there’s a lot that cishet folks can take from that and, maybe not take, but learn and be curious about. There’s a lot of potential there.
Dom: You used a word that I love so much that is queering something. And for anyone who is not familiar with using queer as a verb, could you speak on what that means?
Dr. Constantinides: Yeah I will give you my, the way I think about it and I will just name that it’s a deep dive into - if you dive into queer theory, it’s a dive. MJ Barker, Meg John Barker, has some amazing books about it including [“Queer: A Graphic History”] that’s a graphic novel that’s like really on point. But, I think about it as like the idea of disrupting the normative. So looking at something with a different perspective that disrupts the normative, almost always oppressive mainstream perspective. And trying to see it in a different way. That’s the act of queering something.
Dom: How would you - and I think this really plays into the idea of queering something - but how would you like to see conversations around sex shift?
Dr. Constantinides: Well, I wish there just were more, first of all. Right? Like I feel like so often the conversations we have about sex are either like they’re jokes or it’s silence. And so, like, the capacity to have an open and honest conversation about sex when you are sober with somebody else – I think is actually like a skill that people need to build.
And like, when I taught in the classroom, I would do this penis, vagina, elbow thing with like paper on the wall: What are all the slang words for penis? What are all the slang words for vagina? All the slang words for elbow? So one of the points there is we have a lot more slang words for vagina than elbow, right? Because we have a lot of discomfort in our culture. But, like, the secret agenda was actually to get people just talking to each other. Saying these words, saying penis and vagina over and over again. To like have that skill for it, feeling comfortable talking about sex. Because sex is not bad. It is part of our lives from birth until death. We’re sexual beings. And the more, I feel like the more open and honest conversations we can have about it, the more empowered people can be about their own experience.
One of the reasons why I think pleasure is so important is because I really think pleasure is also an act of resistance for people who experience oppression. Right? Like, whatever kind of oppression. It could be sexual oppression. It could be around race and ethnicity, right? It could be around disability. But the act of experiencing pleasure, it like, resists the messages that you get that you are not worthwhile. These dehumanizing messages.
So I think that there can be so much power in centering pleasure that then can like radiate out, right? And push on some of these really crushing messages that we get and things that are happening in the world right now. And so, I just want to like - I’ve said, “the longer I’ve been doing this, the more important I think it is.” Because, I think it really can be such a foil to some of the really negative shit out there. And can, like, yeah, can really be, like, resistance. I feel like that’s something I want to name in terms of how I think about pleasure.
Dom: For more resources and more information about the work of Dr. Damon Constantinides, you can go to his website DrDamonC.com.
Dom: I’m really glad I didn’t give up on this episode. I think a lot about all the messaging we’re all inundated at a very early age about sex. And how very little of it necessarily applies by the time we start having sex. I wish for everyone to be able to queer any and all of the pleasure in their lives. To not let any one person or script or movie or anything tell you how best to enjoy your body, and your world, and your relationship to other people.
There’s so much pleasure to be had, sexually and beyond and you are the only person who gets to say if something does or does not work for you. If something sounds good to you - and the other people involved consent - don’t worry about what anyone else thinks about it.
Nyge: I really just want to shout-out you, Dom, and also shaylyn martos who works on this show as well because y’all pushed really hard for this episode to even be a thing. And, I just love that dedication and I think that it’s something that definitely needed to be made and it’s something that is probably going to help a lot of people. And, that’s ultimately what y’all wanted and I love that commitment to that, so I just really wanted to highlight that, for one.
And also, yeah, I hope that people do find ways to experience pleasure, because a lot of people get a little bit frightened by that word. I mentioned it in the interview because, it’s like ‘Should we be talking about this especially in younger spaces?’ or anything like that. But I think the opposite of that is, if you’re not experiencing pleasure, then what are you experiencing, right? And, I think a lot of people need to think about that. And, that should be definitely the reason why more information like this is spread.
Dom: Yeah! Less silence! More pleasure!
Nyge: Less silence. Less silence.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. This show was produced by shaylyn martos, Dominique French, and by me, ya boy Nyge Turner.
Our engineer is James Riley and our audio engineer fellow is Christian Romo.
Dom: YR’s director of podcasting is Sam Choo.
Nyge: YR’s senior director of podcasting and partnerships is Rebecca Martin
Dom: Our interns are Menelik Ransom and Jalen Black.
Nyge: Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR:
Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza, and David Lawrence.
Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Dom: Art for this episode was produced by the youth co-led design team at YR Media. Creative Direction by Pedro Vega Jr. Design by Marjerrie Masicat and Brigido Bautista. Project management by Eli Arbreton.
Nyge: Special thanks to Jazmyn Burton, Shavonne Graham, Donielle Conley, and Kyra Kyles.
Dom: Adult ISH is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX — a network of independent, creator-owned, listener-supported podcasts. Discover audio with vision at Radiotopia.fm.
Nyge: And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much appreciated.
Dom: You can follow us on all the socials @yradultish and on that note - queer your lives!!
[Dom and Nyge laugh]
Nyge: (laughing) Nah, go ahead! Go for it! Go for it!
Dom: (laughing) Queer your lives! You get a queer life! You get a queer life! Everybody gets a queer life.
Nyge: Look under your chair!
Dom: Look under your chair! There’s queerness there! (laughing)
Nyge: Alright, y’all. Later!