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Sexuality Conference Next Week in Crystal City

The three-day conference CatalystCon East begins March 15.

Almost everybody has sex. So why can it be so hard to talk about it?

Enter CatalystCon East, a three-day conference coming to Crystal City designed to "inspire exceptional conversations about sexuality."

Forty panels will cover a wide-range of topics, including self image, so-called reparative therapy, feminist porn, sex education in the United States and abroad, changing relationship models, how to be an ally to sex workers and how California's Measure B — which requires consenting adults to wear condoms in the production of pornographic films — can lead to an encroachment on personal freedoms.

"I call it the melting pot of sexuality," said organizer Dee Dennis, a New Yorker who blogs about sex and all of the various facets of life entangled with that.

"So, the common thread of all these sessions are sexuality, acceptance and activism. And my personal thought in creating this conference is knowledge is power. And when we educate people, they are more apt to understand what is going on."

Dennis talked about the various discussion threads planned for CatalystCon East, which will be March 15 through 18 at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway. Saturday-Sunday tickets are still available for $125.

Looking Good, Feeling Bad

She talked about the stigma of sex in this country, where images of perfect bodies abound in news and other media — about its implications for a person's self-esteem and own sexual fulfillment, and about this country's dysfunctional food system, where the easiest food to obtain is the least healthy, and obesity is an epidemic.

But even people who are just a few pounds overweight can have crushing feelings about their appearance. And that can affect sex, as a person is most vulnerable when their clothes are off, Dennis said.

Other topics will focus on the impact of certain religions and social constructs that dissuade even talking about sex outside of the bounds of a traditional patriarchal relationship; how the lack of sex education teaches children that sex is something that shouldn't be talked about, leading to confusion over such things as birth control or even consent; about the continuing shunning of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and about the increased importance of talking about seniors and sex.

"It's one of my hottest topics," Dennis said, noting that in the 1950s, the typical Baby Boomer's biggest fear about sex was getting (or getting someone else) pregnant. She pointed to a 2010 study that showed adults over 40 have the strongest aversion to practicing safe sex because such a practice didn't really blossom in this country until the 1980s and the rise of the AIDS epidemic.

She also mentioned the Rutgers University student who is believed to have killed himself in 2010 after a roommate put a video online of the student having a sexual encounter with another man. Dennis wondered aloud if the same thing would have happened had the encounter been with a woman.

"No," she said, answering her own question. "He probably would've been given high fives."

She continued: "We've got to stop doing that to our youth. We've got to make it acceptable for them to express their sexuality. There are kids dying because of this."

CatalystCon's inaugural event was last fall in Long Beach, Calif. Dennis has hosted past conferences in the Washington area on feminism.

And feminism, she said, plays into the larger conversation about sex. Feminism has two different sides, she said: One that believes pornography or sex work exploits women and another that supports a woman's right to choose what line of work she enters into.

Empowering People

"There's a lot of people who live in the South, in the Bible Belt, who are not against having sex education or having same-sex marriage, but they kind of don't have a voice, and they feel they don't matter," Dennis said. "So when they come to a conference like this, and spend a weekend with more than 300 people who are more or less on the same page … It's energizing, it's inspiring, it rejuvenates their passion."

It also creates a support system — every CatalystCon panel is live tweeted with its own hashtag, which is later collected via Storify — for the so-called "sex positive" when they confront politicians who promote forced transvaginal ultrasounds or a (now former) congressman who believes a woman's body can "shut down" to avoid becoming pregnant in the case of a "legitimate rape."

Most CatalystCon attendees are connected somehow in the realm of sexuality — either in sex education, sex work, therapy, selling products. Dennis said the event can be called a success afterward, when people leave and use their new connections to become more active.

"It happens after the conference, when people write blog posts, and I see them interacting on social media with new friends," she said. "It's a success to me ... when I hear people say, 'I'm inspired, I'm going to create this.' That's the success. If I can change one person's mind, or if one person at the conference can go and change one person's mind, then that's a success. And that's what it's all about."

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