“I wish I could just refer people to sex workers,” Kira Manser explains, bursting into the room; green hair, flannel pushed up at the sleeves, and a measured, earnest passion that informs her every move. Manser, director of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health (CSPH) since 2014, talks to me while making coffee and placing files on shelves that hold fishbowls of condoms and candy-colored kegel balls. “When you have back problems, you go to a masseuse. Sex workers are trained professionals. You’d know ahead of time that it’d be safe and consensual. It’d help relieve so much anxiety and depression, you have no idea.”
On Main Street, across from Plouffe’s Cup N Saucer diner in Pawtucket, RI, there is a window with a white curtain pulled shut. Multicolored tin letters above the window spell out: The CSPH.org. The exterior is nondescript, but behind it is a sex-positive parallel universe complete with a wall of dildos, the East Coast’s largest collection of sexuality books, and a cat named Biscuit. Picture the lovechild of a cupcake shop and BDSM chateau: teal walls, retro vibrators in their original packaging, and cake trays topped with stainless steel butt plugs.
Nearly a decade ago, in the Wickenden shopfront now occupied by Mister Sister, there was a feminist sex shop called Miko. It was here that Manser met Megan Andelloux, sexologist, founder of the CSPH, and Manser’s long-term mentor. Manser recalls her time working at Miko as a Brown undergrad: “People would come in and we’d end up having these conversations that were half an hour long, an hour long, sometimes two hours long. When people would leave, they’d ask, ‘Is it okay if I hug you? I’ve never had someone who I could talk to about this stuff.’ That space felt so important and like a huge honor.” When Miko closed in 2009, Andelloux decided to create a place where these conversations could happen outside of a retail setting.
Since the Center’s inception, they have launched programs for educating healthcare providers about sexuality, helping people break into the field of sexuality, and developed a curriculum to help sex shops become more inclusive and helpful to their communities. And as of this year, the CSPH is an official National Coalition for Sexual Freedom kink-aware sex therapy site. As far as the name goes, the naming of “health” and “pleasure” side-by-side is crucial. “Visibility is super powerful,” Manser says. “Because we don’t live in a sex-positive culture, it is powerful to have a physical place that makes tangible the value that sex is normal and healthy, that a variety of behaviors and desires and experiences are normal and healthy.”
My first vibrator sucked. It was $15, the size of my thumb, cryptically labelled a “personal massager,” and bought at a CVS self-checkout machine. I held it behind a bag of barbeque chips standing in line, looking over my shoulder. The chips crunched; I shifted endlessly from one foot to another.
I was 18, a year out of an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship, and desperate for control over my anxiety. Throughout the slow, hazy year the relationship spanned, I was dissociated. I learned to break away from my body so that no matter what happened to it, I could salvage a part of myself. But now, I couldn’t figure out how to reverse that process, I was stuck. I didn’t feel connected to my own skin, let alone my sensuality. I was exhausted, terrified, and unable to maintain authentic relationships the way I wanted to. It felt like even on the other side of the relationship, my perpetrator was there, over my shoulder and calling the shots.
I sat in the CVS parking lot, furiously tearing apart the packaging. The vibrator was tiny and pink, weighing barely anything, circled with rhinestones, which hadn’t struck me as a bad idea at the time. But holding it, none of that mattered. I began to cry. It was the first time since I’d gotten out of that relationship that my body felt like it belonged to me again. It was the ultimate love letter to myself, a validation of my right to joy.
In her essay “Uses of the Erotic as Power,” from the revolutionary book, Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde writes, “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.” That is what that day at CVS meant to me: a parameter for love that I didn’t want to give up striving towards.
As the CSPH’s kink-aware sex therapist, Manser works with clients dealing with everything from sensuality post-transition, to body negativity, to lack of communication in relationships. And regardless of the client, she emphasizes the connection between sex and mental well-being. “We all have the right to pleasure, we all have the right to self-determination and sexual autonomy, and when those rights are really hindered by the dominant cultural narrative about what sex should be and how people should be sexual, there’s a message that there’s something wrong with you. Then comes the depression, the anxiety, the shame.”
Even now, there are mornings where I wake up, terrified, sure that I didn’t actually escape the relationship—trauma lingers at a bodily level. And trauma is imparted not only by other people, but by society at large. Manser explains, “For people in dominant cultural narratives who have always been the objects or been marginalized, pleasure is especially radical. Pleasure is like an embodied version of self-care.” In that sense, the Center is a site of resistance—resistance that begins with love at the deepest level.
Manser explains kink-aware therapy as a kind of sex therapy where the practitioner has knowledge of a plethora of lifestyles and practices, noting, “you’d be shocked how many therapists that are open-minded, talented people, are confined by lack of knowledge about kink and BDSM.” She describes the scenario of clients who have worked with therapists who have been with them “every step of the way, until they admit ‘I really want to have someone flog me until I’m just in bliss’.” There are subtleties in this work: the slight differences in marks made from consensual and abusive impact, the power play negotiation strategies that ensures that the person giving up their agency does it entirely on their own terms. These are the fine lines the CSPH hopes to educate people about, championing the phrase, “You can never assume abuse, but you should always assess for it.”
Lorde writes, “For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with…the numbness which so often seems like [our] only alternative in our society.” For me, that’s the work that the erotic does. It shows me my body’s ability to be present, attentive, and whole. I visited the CSPH for the first time last October and was mesmerized. The toys were organized on shelves like museum artifacts, only here, there was no glass stopping us from touching, investigating, and interrogating our own misconceptions about sex toys.
When I call this place an alternate universe, I mean it. Everything in the space—a cake tray, a couch, a bookshelf, is something familiar—something tied to domesticity, a sphere where talking about masturbation, flogging marks, or asexuality isn’t welcome. This space shifts that narrative in small ways: a pillow in the shape of the herpes virus, bottles of lube lined up like perfume bottles. This space says: you and your body are welcome. There is no need for numbness.
The CSPH staff, which also includes Erin Basler, Kayla Wingert, and Lilian Rogers, recently returned from the 2016 Sexual Health Expo in New York. Kira Manser explains, “Everyone would stop by assuming we’re based in New York, and we would say, ‘nope! We’re in Rhode Island’.” A huge smile breaks across her face, “Most of the radical, sex-positive businesses, organizations, and collaborative are in major cities. Pawtucket, Rhode Island: not a major city. A lot of our work is accessible remotely and online, and our educators also travel, but the importance of having resources outside of major metropolitan areas is one of the main reasons I’m so glad we’re here.”
She looks around the Center, “Part of my goal here is to make this tiny bubble that treats sex differently, and I want it to grow until all of this is mainstream and the Center doesn’t have to exist anymore. Schools could teach the right to pleasure. Consent could be the given in any sexual encounter, not something that we have to teach because people don’t assume it.”
“In Rhode Island,” she laughs, “you can have a very huge impact, so what a cool place to start a revolution if you’re going to start one.”
JULIA HORWITZ B’19 thinks you should contact The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health for more information at:
250 Main St #1 Pawtucket, RI 02860
Tuesday-Friday: 12 to 6pm and by appointment