Embracing awkward topics
It’s a Wednesday evening in February, and time for the weekly meeting of Pleasure@MIT, an acronym for “peers leading education about sexuality and speaking up for relationship empowerment.” The Pleducators are a wonderful group of people committed to changing the culture at MIT to reduce sexual misconduct by encouraging healthy communication and relationships. We work with the VPR (Violence Prevention and Response) office to make their work obsolete, but really, Pleasure is a group that changes the lives of its own members the most. We are a tight community with diverse perspectives working toward the same goal. I’ve often heard my peers say that being in Pleasure improved their relationships, and I feel the same way.
Our meeting focuses on the upcoming Pleasure Week, a wide-ranging event series on such topics as religion and relationships, erotica, and types of relationships. We try to accommodate people of all backgrounds and beliefs in our workshops. In fact, one thing I like most about Pleasure is our definition of sex positivity—it’s all about your personal choice, provided there is mutual respect, communication, and safety for all parties involved. We support peers in all sorts of relationships, not just sexual ones, offering regular workshops on universal topics like communication, identity, values, and culture. In our living groups, we are resources on anything from first-time sex to mending a relationship with a friend.
The meeting goes well. We’ve been asked to lead a module on hacking culture for a campus student group. We brainstorm future events and discuss the previous week’s well-attended “Pleasure in the Dark” Q&A session that produced some great—and frank—discussions because we made it clear that whatever is discussed at a Pleasure event stays there.
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From there, I hurry to a rehearsal with my other feminist group, The F Word. Every year for the past 15 years, it has put on an MIT production of The Vagina Monologues. As the name suggests, the play is a collection of individual and group stories about experiences with womanhood and women’s bodies. Originally performed in 1996, The Vagina Monologues—or VagMo, as the cast calls it—remains the only play of its kind.
Before rehearsal, each cast member answers an icebreaker question: why did you audition for VagMo? Several confess that they had never even said the word “vagina” in public, and now they plan to say it in front of hundreds of people! We talk about the stigma that surrounds topics such as gender and sexuality. All of us are there to break these barriers. And it’s not easy—try telling your friends and parents that you’re in a show titled The Vagina Monologues! Then again, it’s because it’s not easy that VagMo is so important. Most cast members auditioned after seeing the show themselves, an experience that left them feeling more empowered. We get to help more and more students feel comfortable speaking out about sex and sexuality, gender, and women’s issues.
With every such event I participate in, I take one step further out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone. If you had asked me four years ago if I’d ever join projects with a focus on advancing feminism and reducing sexual violence, I’d have been shocked. I would have imagined feeling awkward and out of place talking about controversial topics, and besides, I went to MIT to study math. But this place is not just for science and technology. There are so many people here who care about empowering others, and as I reflect on my four years at the Institute, I feel incredibly privileged to have met them.
Serving as a Pleducator and being part of the VagMo cast have made me believe that change is possible, and that I can be a part of it. And I know now that I can always go back to the learning zone. After all, if I could join two completely unexpected and totally awkward groups, what can’t I do?