(Health)

Sonalee Rashatwar Practices A Different Kind Of Sex Therapy

It’s all-inclusive.

By Kasandra Brabaw
Courtesy of Sonalee Rashatwar
Sonalee Rashatwar

In 2018, sex therapist Sonalee Rashatwar spoke at the University of Vermont’s Body Liberation Week. Posters promoting the event advertised Rashatwar’s seminar, called Examining Race and Body Image, with a quote from the expert and activist: “Thinness is a white supremacist beauty ideal.” Far-right news source Breitbart News seemingly took issue with Rashatwar’s teachings and within days put up an article subtly blasting Rashatwar and their work, adding quotation marks around terms like “fat acceptance,” calling many of Rashatwar’s teachings “unusual,” and heading the event summary with a photo of an open mouth taking a bite of a mostly-eaten burger.

Rather than hurt Rashatwar, as the article probably intended, the coverage on Breitbart was encouraging to the mental health professional. “I remember realizing ‘Ow, I’m really making an impact’ [when I was featured on Breitbart], because white supremacists don’t like what I’m saying. To this day, maybe once a year I say something that makes [white supremacists] mad,” Rashatwar tells TZR.

Much of Rashatwar’s sex therapy work intertwines the idea that white supremacy drives society’s understanding of pleasure, whether that pleasure be from sex or food or rest or relationships. “[Traditional] sex education supports the nuclear family and a restrictive, non-pleasure centered, cis-sexist understanding of how intercourse even happens,” Rashatwar says. “What most of us learned about sex growing up was really limited to support the [white supremacist] status quo, and anyone outside of that had to make their own way.”

Now, Rashatwar is part of a growing movement to point out the ways traditional sex education has kept down people of color, fat people, people with disabilities, transgender and non-binary people, and anyone else who isn’t cisgender, heterosexual, or white.

Ahead, Rashatwar speaks about their journey into sex therapy and advocacy as well as how sex education has failed society and where they hope it’s going in the future.

How did you get into sex therapy?

Totally by accident. It was around 2011 or 2012. At the time, I was volunteering with a local domestic violence and sexual assault response team in New Jersey. Crisis work felt aligned with my personal values: advocating for the person who is marginalized, helping them have more power and control. I was trained on how to sit with someone and what not to say, but I found that what I was saying and doing came naturally to me. I felt like a grounding energy in crisis. I had no idea what social work meant, other than a stereotypical view of what they do. My friend [from college] was on the sex therapy track. Sex therapy was an interesting look into the the world I wanted to be part of: helping survivors, marginalized people, fat people.

What does your version of sex therapy look like?

The way I’ve been taught sex therapy is from a really white supremacist framework — how a functional body should work in a really medical-biological context. People often go to sex therapy for short-term problems, when experiencing a specific sexual dysfunction. Sex therapists are really trained to treat things like vaginal drying, mixed sex drives in relationships, infidelity, arousal issues, pre-mature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and so on.

What I do is use a more broad definition of pleasure dysfunction, focusing on queer and trans people of color, people who are fat or disabled or at intersections of marginalized identities. Often, how we’ve been conditioned to think about pleasure is dysfunctional. And I’m talking about all types of pleasure, including food, drugs, rest, relationships with friends and family. If we have a really restrictive conditioning around pleasure we might have a really dysfunctional relationship with pleasure and not know it. I try to understand and help others understand how our relationships with pleasure could impact our relationships with our bodies. For instance, pleasure dysfunction may show up as vaginismus, which is when muscles trap so much tension in the pelvic floor that it can be painful just sitting, walking, not to mention having sex. Sometimes the connection to painful sex can be fat-phobia. If you’ve been taught to hold in your stomach, that can result in tension and pain.

Fat people have a really interesting relationship to pleasure. I’ve been fat since I was a kid, and socialized feminine. I was always told that my body was too big, didn’t deserve to exist, wasn’t allowed to have pleasure the way I wanted (with food or rest or sexual pleasure). I was radicalized by an abusive relationship I was in, wanting to find ways to understand what I went through. Most of the people I work with are also survivors — we’re often called to that work to understand what we went through, what happened to us. We offer ourselves as mirrors.

How do you feel being present on social media has helped you talk about sex therapy and fat politics?

I started being politicized by the internet when Facebook was big in 2010 to 2015. I found some really interesting discussions on politics on Facebook and started building large communities [through Facebook groups and followers] because of similar interests in fatphobia, racial equality, and more. Eventually, I gained a pretty large reach through reading other people’s work and following racial justice and fat radical activists teaching through things like memes. When I started posting on Instagram, I built an audience through a lot of my existing connections.

After I finished grad school in 2016, I started to teach workshops on fatphobia, white supremacy, undoing diet culture, how internalized fatphobia connected to marginalized sex work, drug users, and trans folks. I’d connect liberation to other liberation struggles, trying to transfer that knowledge into something people could understand more easily.

Do you remember what sex education was like for you growing up? How do you feel it missed the mark for you, personally?

I grew up in New Jersey and went to public school in a rich town — not the richest, but well-funded. I had my first sex education starting in elementary school, around age 10. This class was mostly around biological reproduction and menstruation and a little about hygiene. It was gender segregated. I remember being a young girl at 10 sitting on the floor of the nurse’s office when a TV was rolled into the room, and being given really thick pads. My high school sex education class was also biological and fear-based. We talked about pregnancy prevention and STIs. It was a pretty basic sex education class, but wildly progressive in that it even existed.

Have you seen sex education for young people evolve at all?

I’m part of that evolution! I’m so grateful to have been in a sex ed cohort in 2013 through 2016 that was centered around Black radical feminism. I remember having energetic conversations in schools in 2013, seeing the rise of Black Lives Matter, existing in these sex ed learning spaces, and imaging how to infuse deep loyalty to racial justice into every part of my sex therapy practice.

Sex education is a human right, everyone should have access to their bodies. Keeping that access away from people is a way to hold power over them. It’s like that Mormon documentary that recently came out on Netflix [Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey] — education is intentionally withheld to maintain power. Information about sex and pleasure is so inconsistently enforced and protected in the U.S., and it’s all about who wants you to be allowed to have that information.

How do you feel about the state of sex education now?

Sex ed now has really deviated from what I grew up with in the ‘90s. I’m grateful. The sex educators I know [who are teaching now] are responsible for integrating information like how queer youth have pleasurable sex and avoid STIs, teaching about the clitoris, including vibrators in sex, not leaving out anal sex. It sounds really simple when you say it out loud, but sometimes these small ways are how we expand our understanding of sex away from white supremacy.

It’s a shift away from fear-based to pleasure-based sex education, including teaching about masturbation and solo sex as a way to engage in abstinence. Expanding our understanding of what our reproductive organs are, including intersex folks, explaining the gender binary and how it shows up, not gendering body parts — overall having a broader definition of gender and sexuality, and just talking about how sexual pleasure can come from any hole or body part, because everything is an erogenous zone if you enjoy it.

Teaching about consent, body autonomy, the correct names of our body parts (sometimes as young as five or six). It’s so important actually to teach kids about how family structures and friendships look different, to teach them a healthy way to talk about our feelings, rudimentary consent (like that everyone can say no to being touched), bullying, teasing, standing up for ourselves and our peers. Even teaching them that everything reproduces.

Not that [sex education has] shifted too much for everyone. It’s really different from state to state. Unless you’re in a place where [sex education is] well-integrated in school, it really depends on who raises you. I grew up in a Hindi family. Now, my family is just one type of Hindi family and was not as strict and sex negative as some others might be. So I felt comfortable talking to my mom about it. I had a conversation with her and my sister. We talked about menstruation and even a little about pre-marital sex, trying to wait until we were ready. But I don’t remember a really strong prohibition around sex.

It’s really important for us as adults to be honest. I tell all my cousins who have kids, ‘when it’s time for the sex talk call me. If you get uncomfortable, call me. I’m a resource.’ Social work is important to me not just as a job but as part of a family as well.