Glitter and jewels coat faces, arms, and cleavage. Outfits are perfectly paired to maximize Instagram appeal and reach. Alcohol and substances fuel the connections of strangers while rotating DJs ensure ample beats.
Despite the lineup of artists, the real show at Coachella Music Festival is the private party scene. I had the opportunity to participate in one such event, the Safe Space Party at Laguna Seca. As a licensed Talkspace sex therapist, I had the privilege of speaking and participating in this event to support the promotion of a new app, SAFE, designed to support stigma free sharing of STI test results with sexual partners. Other companies and organizations joined the event as sponsors and speakers, including Amber Rose; Julia Cheek, founder of EverlyWell, the Crave vibrator team; and Vera Papisova from Teen Vogue.
Creating a Safe Space at Coachella
The great folks at SAFE set up at the event that they called the “Safe Space,” a private tent that encouraged festival-goers to relax, get shade, drinks, and participate in self-care rituals. In this space they held a variety of presentations, including an amazing conversation with Amber Rose about her history and activism efforts, as well as her new slut box product and Lelo sex toys. Amber Rose is an important voice in the sexual health conversation, outspoken about her pride and joy in living her best life as a self proclaimed slut, feminist, mom, and star.
The party outside pulsed with energy and excitement, while despite the stellar line up and best efforts by the planning team, attendance of the panel was unfortunately low. When given the option, drugs, alcohol, and new experiences seemed to trump slowing down to have conversations about safety and well-being.
The contrast was startling, but perhaps not surprising: While not true for every individual, we have created a cultural framework where talking about sex is stigmatized, embarrassing, and shameful. Even more startling was the contrast between the secure environment provided at the Safe Space Party and the rampant sexual harassment women experienced elsewhere at Coachella.
Topics of the Sexual Health Panel
After her interview, Julia Cheek, Vera Papisova, and I had a panel presentation about sexual health and the related current challenges. I had the opportunity to discuss Talkspace, and the amazing work we’re doing to make therapy accessible to all. Sexual health topics are hard to talk about in general, but particularly face-to-face.
Talkspace provides a platform to receive regular support from trained and licensed therapists, a team of people who — with with ongoing education and training from myself and others — continue to increase their knowledge of sexual health, anatomy, and arousal, as well as the various iterations of sexual practices and identities. These therapists share their knowledge with clients who come to them with a wide range of challenges.
Ms. Papisova guided a profound conversation about the importance of fighting the stigma of sexual health, learning to integrate safety, pleasure and consent conversations into sexual interactions, and shifting our assumptions about bodies, genitals, and what sex looks like. I demonstrated the use of a safe sex kit and discussed the importance of educating yourselves, and finding a therapist who is knowledgeable and accepting of various types of sexual identities, genders, and expression. EverlyWell provided on site STI testing and continues to do meaningful work by making testing available by mail.
Difficult Conversations Around Sexual Health
When it comes to sexual health conversations, we are fighting an uphill battle. Some of the most difficult, but most important, conversations for individuals to have — not only with casual sex partners but also long term partners — include:
- STI testing status and results
- Recent partners’ testing status and results
- Typical use of barriers (condoms/ dental dams/ etc)
- Wants, needs and arousal patterns
- Boundaries related to specific sex acts and kinds of touch.
These conversations require a level of vulnerability. To feel comfortable fighting the stigma and shame associated with having the sex partners and kinds of sex you’d like to have, you need mental fortitude to navigate possible reactions (such as criticism or rejection).
One attendee I spoke to said he was afraid to offend people by asking about their testing status. The belief that gaining information about potential risks to your health and well-being would be offensive perpetuates avoidance and exponential risk exposure, mental health challenges, and harm in intimate relationships.
Disclosure and self knowledge is empowering, and helps you and your partners mitigate risk. The fear of a positive test or a negative reaction perpetuates avoidance of testing and communication therein. If you’re someone who has had a positive test in the past, depression, anxiety, and trauma-related symptoms can arise. This can impact sexual pleasure and connection in general. In particular, if an STI was transmitted during a sexual assault, the negative impact on psychological well-being and the difficulty engaging in pleasurable sex in the future can be exponential.
Resources for Sexual Health
I admit this topic is hard to sell, especially when there are distractions like glitter, music, and sexy people. But there are so many resources out there now to make taking control of your sexual and mental health possible, and accessible.
A few strategies that I recommend to clients include: getting mental health support for any history of sexual assault or positive STI tests, avoiding fluid exchange when you’re engaging with new partners in party spaces, having conversations before you’re in a sexual situation, and seeking community for support.
Non-fluid exchanging activities to try at parties include dancing, cuddling, sharing fantasies or ideas verbally, mutual masturbation or hand stimulation (as long as there are no cuts on your hands, if there are gloves are useful to have on hand). If you can plan ahead, talking through testing and desired barriers (condoms, dental dams etc) in advance can give you a lot of vital information about your partner’s ability to have the conversation, show concern for your safety and well-being, and respect boundaries you may set.
These strategies serve as preventative tools against sexual assault, while helping you find partners who are more psychologically and ethically compatible.
Looking Forward to Future Education
Long term, I am excited about the ways in which Talkspace and I will continue to provide supportive care and healing to individuals struggling with trauma, sexual assault, and the stigma of STI testing. To the Instagram influencers and others who have a captive audience, we can each do our part to change the language we use around testing, consent, boundaries, and slowing down to have the important conversations. It’s sexy to talk about it, and even sexier to show respect and care for a partner.
I wish you many opportunities to seek the pleasure, connection, and adventure you desire without shame or fear. Your health and safety, both physically and psychologically, is important.