Unpacking the Insidious Irony of the Sexual Wellness Industry's Whitewashing Problem
words by Portia Brown (she/her)
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It’s no secret that online interest in sex positivity has skyrocketed over the last several years. Accounts are popping up daily on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, created by folks hoping to normalize conversations about sex. Businesses and sexual re-education programs are launching left and right to feed the growing demand for accurate sex-ed, coaching and therapy services, and a plethora of pleasure products for full mind-body wellness.
This development is revolutionary, and has the potential to change lives. I mean, who doesn’t benefit from more accessible sex education and sexual wellness products? People now have more information at their fingertips than ever before! However, we have to acknowledge that with all this rapid growth, there are still many people routinely left out of brand campaigns or conference panels, and never receive the recognition — financial and otherwise — they deserve.
It's a conversation that’s been had over and over again, yet the same question keeps being asked: why is the sex positvity movement so white?
The sexual wellness space is a subcategory of the greater wellness movement sweeping the nation and, true to its hypercapitalist, ablelist, and culturally appropriated form, the sex industry, has been whitewashed to only appear accessible.
Whitewashing is insidious, and verging on ironic in a space that claims to celebrate things that we should all have access to — accurate information about how our bodies function, how to take preventative care of our physical and mental health, and yes, the right to pleasure. But there are multiple ways that white supremacy rears its head in the sexual wellness movement that have been brushed over for far too long. And when we don’t name the issues, we give them power. So what are some of these insidious ways whitewashing shows up in the sexual wellness movement?
BIPOC are brought on for diversity, but still face pay discrimination.
The wellness industry is worth $4.2 trillion, and the sexual wellness industry is estimated to be worth $11.1 billion. Yet BIPOC sexuality professionals often struggle to be paid our worth and secure well-paying opportunities. Many sexuality professionals of color have reportedly been asked to work for “experience,” “publicity” or in exchange for a product rather than monetary compensation. The worst of it is that these exchanges are often done in DM’s or emails that the public will never see, and lesser known BIPOC sexuality professionals likely won’t take the “risk” of outing large media conglomerates that do this type of harm for fear of retaliation.
Passive allyship does more harm than help.
It’s not enough to just buy a book and keep it on your shelf. It's not enough to just follow Black and brown sexuality professionals on social media, and it's not enough to just add images Black and brown people to your website claiming “inclusivity.” This tokenizing of Black people in ad campaigns and passive allyship is more harmful than helpful because it fails to spark any conversation about how to actually address these inequalities. We have to move away from performative allyship and begin to support and center the work of BIPOC sexuality professionals with our voices, and our dollars.
Stealing work suppresses BIPOC voices.
In the digital space, it can be extremely difficult to protect your work and prevent people from stealing your ideas. Time and time again, we see BIPOC sexuality professionals have their work stolen, only to be dismissed and told that their work “inspired” someone else. These types of offenses only exacerbate cultural appropriation, and further suppress BIPOC voices.
None of these issues are new, and if they come as a surprise, it only means that, as a collective, we have a lot of work to do — learning, unlearning, and educating ourselves how best to support BIPOC. It’s no longer enough to seek sexual liberation, wellness, and pleasure for ourselves. These concepts only become concrete when we, as a collective, have access to them. We are not free until everyone is free.
How Can We Support & Uplift BIPOC Voices in the Sexual Wellness Movement?
This life has blessed me with the opportunity to spend most of my days talking to other womxn and femmes about their sexuality. I have cultivated a nourishing space for myself and those I work with filled with creativity, pleasure, and joy, and I want nothing more than to share these with all I come in contact with.
As a sex educator and sex coach, I am blessed to work with other Black womxn and folks of color who share my desire to build a world of sexual freedom and liberation attainable to all people. It is only when I finally step outside of my bubble that I recognize how isolated I am from the mainstream sex positive movement, and how much work still needs to be done within the wellness industry as a whole.
I’ve spent a lot of time lamenting this truth and feeling like I need to convince people to embrace and include me, a Black woman working in the sexual wellness space. I’ll admit, the first draft of this article was a gentle begging for folks to see the value in Black and brown sexuality professionals. I struggled to wrap my words around what I truly wanted to say here, mostly because I, like many people of color, am tired of having these same conversations.
It seems absurd that I still need to write about the lack of inclusivity in the sexual wellness space, especially after a year of calling-out systemic racism and holding brands accountable mid-2020. It feels ludicrous that we still need to ask Black and brown people to take it upon themselves to facilitate these conversations.
On the other hand, I understand that my words and experiences become a gift when shared, and I believe those reading will accept and apply them to make changes accordingly and actively fight for equality in a systemically racist society.
We all play a role in upholding this current system, which means our individual choices can create change. So how can we move forward and fight whitewashing in the sexual wellness movement?
Don’t just follow BIPOC — engage mindfully.
Every time there is a call to action for people to support to Black and brown people, the easiest route is following them on social media. But did you know that following someone without engaging (liking, commenting, sharing posts, watching stories) actually harms their platforms?
Social media algorithms are complex, and this is one of the ways that shows up. So do the work of finding people you actually want to engage with, learn from, and converse with. Never passively follow out of sympathy or obligation.
Don’t just engage with BIPOC — hire BIPOC sexuality professionals.
The primary way Black and brown sexuality professionals are impacted by whitewashing is economically. To offset those harms, we need people to support us with their dollars when they can. Prioritize getting your services from BIPOC the next time you are looking to book someone or buy something.
Whatever service you are looking for, any topic you want to read, or online course you want to take can be sourced from a BIPOC sexuality professional. We just have to put in the effort to find them.
The most important takeaway: sexual liberation is a collective concept.
The most important change we can make is to be more truthful and more authentic with where we are in this process. This isn’t an invitation to be involved and supportive if you don’t truly feel moved to, but it is an invitation to remember that sexual liberation is a collective concept. One of us cannot have it, unless we all do. And as long as Black, brown, and indegenous stories are not centered, we will never be truly liberated.
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Meet the Author
Portia Brown (she/her)
Portia Brown is the founder of FroeticSexology.com, a blog and social media platform that helps womxn and femmes identify who they are as sexual beings. She primarily works as a sex educator and sex coach. Portia believes we are all divine and deserving of pleasure, and spends her days exposing her own truths and troubles as a means to help others. When she is not talking about sex, she is indulging in her own pleasure practices, cooking, or watching Survivor with her boyfriend.
Momotaro Apotheca and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. All material on Momotaro Apotheca is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition.