'Sexual play can be infinite': 

A Conversation with Ruby Stevenson

Interview by Georgia Mitchell

'Sexual play can be infinite’: A Conversation with Ruby Stevenson

 

Ruby is a sex educator who works for sexual health charity Brook, runs pleasure and sex toy workshops, and Body Love Sketch Club with Rosy Pendlebaby. Georgia Mitchell spoke to Ruby about her mission to refocus pleasure in conversations about sex.

 

Georgia: So, to start, I wanted to ask about the workshops you do in schools: what do you do with Brook, and what is your personal focus when you work with young people?

Ruby: So, at Brook we do consent and contraception and STIs, but the things I enjoy talking about the most are ones that centre on healthy relationships, porn and pleasure. Schools aren’t really comfortable with someone coming in just talking about pleasure, so pleasure I incorporate into all of my sessions. Something I think is really really important is not assuming sexuality or gender; I’ve learned over a couple of years in my job to talk in a non-gendered, non-assumptive way and that’s filtered out into how I talk outside of my job. It’s so important, as you never know where people are fucking coming from. Your confidence is knocked constantly when you’re assumed to be something: I found that with coming out too. As a femme, cis woman, I’m always assumed to be straight. Its super positive as I haven’t experienced much homophobia in my life, but when I look back on my younger self, I wasn’t given the language or the tools to connect the dots; to know that I was completely fucking bisexual. So the earlier you can not assume, and plant those seeds in younger people, the better you can help someone figure out who they are.

"It’s not about putting my values on someone else, it’s about giving education to build confidence."

G: So, the workshops are about instilling people with sexual confidence?

R: I hope so, that is the aim definitely. I don’t tend to talk about confidence explicitly in my job very much, but actually, the core of everything we’re doing is equipping young people with the 

Photography by Briony Mitchell @bmitchy

confidence they need to make informed decisions. It’s not about putting my values on someone else, it’s about giving education to build confidence. When I’m working with young people, I think confidence is really important, as we’re coming at it from a sexual angle, but sex is such a huge part of our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not, and sex plays a huge part in how confident we are internally and also the confidence that we show externally. People aren’t able to be vulnerable. I like teaching people the confidence to be vulnerable, and that vulnerability as a form of intimacy, and having that before you open up to other people. If you haven’t had vulnerable sexual moments on your own, it’s difficult to have them with another person. The way this is often talked about is that you navigate sex and sexuality with partners, and I firmly believe we should be doing as much of that on our own as possible. People’s sexualities are too often formulated from learnt behaviour from other people.

 

G: This might be an assumption: do you consider yourself to be more sexually open (whatever that may mean) than the average person, as part of your job is opening people up to be more comfortable talking about sex?

R: (Laughs) I’d say yes, it is true. It’s true now, but it hasn’t always been true.

"There’s this idea particularly of teenage boys that they are just game for anything, that they want to do anything sexual. This is really unhelpful and damaging"

G: Ok.

R: It’s probably true because it’s something that I think about every day, and I make active choices towards; but in the same way I’m crap at exercising, for example, because it’s not part of my job, and I don’t have to be good at it. So there’s a bit of that, it’s a handy part of the job, but over the last five years, sex has really become such an important part of my life. As a teenager, sex was really something that was done for and with other people. I had penetrative sex for the first time quite young, and I think I did that because I thought it was a way to show my maturity. It was really important to me to have sex, and that was an OK decision to make. But I would have loved for someone, probably outside of my family, to have told me the reasons that people have sex, and why some are better reasons than others. For the first five years of me having sex, my pleasure was not an important thing to the partners I was sleeping with, which were all male, and to myself. I think it’s a really common experience that because I watched porn, I had an idea of how I should fit into sex.

G: Was that as a woman?

R: As a woman, as someone that is there to facilitate sex for someone else.

G: Yep. 

R: And on the expected passivity of women during sex, of woman-as-facilitator, do you come across that in your life or work often?

I still hear that, more from female friends but also from male friends. And even I now might want to say something during sex but not want to ruin it, so I might not; and that thing that maybe I didn’t want to do I might want to do later; and this is where consent becomes an issue that is not black-and-white. We are taught that no means no, and often it is much more complicated than that. So passivity is not something that we fix and then we become invincible; it’s a muscle you have to exercise, I think.

 

Also, a lot of the time we talk about consent, I see it being taught as something that men ask for, and something that women give. There is so much wrong with that, as it assumes that heterosexual sex is the norm, and then it victimizes women before they have really even been victimized. But what I am talking about in workshops now is the importance of young men giving consent as well. There’s this idea particularly of teenage boys that they are just game for anything, that they want to do anything sexual. This is really unhelpful and damaging as it puts on this pressure for young men to be performers, as well as the consent issue.

 

G: You did ‘Girls Wank Too’ with Pink protests: tell me about that project.

R: That is a really exciting project, as it’s a peer-led movement. The people who started Pink Protests are in their early 20s, and they are just exiting that terror of teenage years when you don’t know who you are and what the fuck you’re doing, and I’m from a secular background completely, but even then, masturbating felt like a sin to me and something that I felt was evil-

G: Absolutely-

R: -and banned myself from doing from 14-18, and only because of the social messages around me. Without any religious influence.

G: To talk for a bit about language and masturbation, I follow a US sex toy company, Wildflower Sex-

R: Yep.

G: Their Instagram is one of the most positive feeds, just in general, that I follow. They refer to masturbation as solo sex, which I think is really useful.

R: Yep, I use that term too. Masturbation has a bit of a bad rap and negative connotations. Solo sex is a really lovely phrase as it elevates the act to a genuine form of sex. I do talks around pleasure to adult audiences too; as they often received poor sex ed when they were teenagers; but mainly, stuff about relationships and sex, we should never stop learning. We are evolving beings and our sexual journies change so much in our lives. Lots of the women that come to my talks around a modern guide to pleasure, where I talk about anatomy a bit, like the anatomy of the clitoris and areas around the vagina and vulva that feel nice, lots of people there still are grateful that I’ve spoken about pleasure that’s not just something you can achieve with a partner. For example, I get asked about G spot stimulation all the time, and when I answer I give examples on how you can reach it by yourself, with a partner or with a hundred partners, however you like to have sex. I gather that lots of people believe their sex lives switch off without a partner. They may still be masturbating, but they are not thinking of that as an evolving part of their lives; they think they are just treading water, and waiting until someone comes along with whom they can do this ‘properly’. And we need to look at solo sex as something that is very valid and worthwhile too.


 

G: I feel like facilitating is a bit of a theme here, as in your body positive life drawing classes you are posing for them, but also leading it, so you’re reversing the gaze a bit; you’re not a muse figure, you’re in control.

R: and we make it silly too. At the beginning, we put on silly music and have a race to see who can get naked the quickest. We’re then naked for the rest of the session, and we pose and lead the session. The silliness in nudity is quite important for us because the only time people see a body, often, is when it’s sexy. But nudity is not about sex. You can switch on the sexy, or off, but nudity can connect you to a childishness aswell. It shouldn’t just mean, now sex is happening.


 

was important. It’s a shame it happened because of someone else, but that’s how it happened. From there, I’ve been more and more inquisitive with it, and taken it more as my own. I began to actively watch porn, not just to get off, but as a kind of sex detective to see all of these different ways of having sex, and opening this glorious Pandora’s box of just everything. I never really realized that could mean a job. And in terms of personal confidence, in the past few years, being non-monogamous and increasingly more queer are things that have helped me feel great when approaching sex. Also, finding a group of amazing people in this sex positive world who are poly or kinky or queer or non-binary has really helped. Because if you feel othered or weird, the faster you find the other weird people really helps.
 

G: So, I feel that what we’ve talked about so far is really really gendered to my mind, as girls don’t even admit to each other that they masturbate, and I know a minority of women that watch porn now, let alone when we were teenagers.

R: Yeah definitely. I talk about porn a lot in my work, and it’s so often talked about as something scandalous or funny, particularly when young. But we never had conversations about the fantasy and reality of porn, and how that works with real life, and I think it’s really valuable to have someone help break that down. When I walk into schools I’m really positive about porn consumption, and it’s another type of confidence we need to learn, like being comfortable watching or not watching it, being comfortable masturbating, particularly with young women, that’s not learned behavior at all.

G: I also would like to talk about making money from sex in other ways. I read something recently which was claiming that there is a gulf between sex education and sex work, and that sex educators (perhaps unintentionally) perpetuate a hierarchy involving sex work and other types of work (in which sex work is on the bottom.)

R: Right yeah, I value sex work hugely, and it’s a real shame that it’s been devalued throughout history and now when feminism has such a loud voice, but there are so many people who are for women’s rights but against sex worker’s rights. I think sex workers can be a really valid source of sex education, especially on a one-to-one basis with clients; most of the sex workers I know are people that the main function of their work is exploring intimacy, and being someone who will listen to their client, almost like a therapist or a counsellor, and sex is a secondary thing. Last year, I really seriously contemplated becoming a sexual surrogate, which is difficult to explain but it is essentially a cross-section between sex work and therapy, both physiotherapy and psychotherapy. There is a belief that surrogacy is essentially glorified sex work; which in turn takes value away from sex work. I know surrogates who see surrogacy as a form of sex work, and I know surrogates who don’t classify themselves as sex workers. I think if I were to work as a surrogate I would identify that as within sex work. What stopped me from pursuing that further was my age, as I don’t think I’ve had enough life experience to undertake the responsibility of helping someone over whatever emotional hurdle it is. But in 10 years, that would be something I’d be very excited to explore. My family were very supportive, but I do think if it wasn’t dressed up in the way it is, and I was thinking of escorting, there may have been a different reaction. And that is maybe a classist attitude, and there is a hierarchy operating there in terms of the validity of different types of sex work, which I don’t agree with.

 

I like the fact that sex education is becoming more popular, and I love the many different people using social media as a political tool for discussing sex education. But I am also wary of the fact that everyone has a story to tell, so the word ‘educator’ can apply to everyone, we should all be learning from everyone all of our lives. But there are people who may not have had the same amount of experiences or done enough research or education themselves in order to claim that title. So while I think it is really important to learn emotionally from people on social media, for example, I always advise young people to be visiting sites like the Brook website, the NHS, and other sites where you know you are getting impartial and scientifically correct information; because sex is so subjective, it is important that people listening to the sex education movement on social media aren’t hearing a subjective message and believing it is objective.

 

G: Something else I was thinking about is the way in which we fictionalize or construct desire is that it is entirely specific to that person, or the type of people we are attracted to; and perhaps sex work in general deconstructs that notion a bit. Do you agree or think desire is more nebulous than how we have conceptualized it?

R: Yeah. As someone who is non-monogamous I definitely feel that way. And in relation to sex workers I’ve spoken to, there is always the question of ‘what if you don’t fancy the person’, and that’s one way of approaching it, but another way is a willingness to see the beauty in people. For me, non-monogamy is something I love because it opens up the possibility of finding beauty in people, and that desire not detracting from the relationship you have to someone else. Desire and sexual play can be infinite.

 

@rubyrare

R: I was deathly afraid of anyone seeing me with any form of pubic hair, and I don’t even remember making the decision to shave it off. I just did it. And the sex I was having, it wasn’t that it wasn’t consensual, I just hadn’t been given the tools to think about the ways I wanted to have sex. In those five years, I never had an orgasm, and I thought it was something that would just happen with no work being put in to it; so I thought that I was a failure-

G: Oh god yeah. It’s so so common.

R: Yes! It was like everyone was at a party and I wasn’t invited. And then at uni, I was sleeping with someone whose masculinity was bruised by the fact that I couldn’t orgasm. So, I was blamed in a way. And also he was a fucking arsehole, so that didn’t help. Then when I was 20, I met someone who was to be my boyfriend for quite a long time, and that was the first time my pleasure felt like something that

G: And on the expected passivity of women during sex, of woman-as-facilitator, do you come across that in your life or work often?

I still hear that, more from female friends but also from male friends. And even I now might want to say something during sex but not want to ruin it, so I might not; and that thing that maybe I didn’t want to do I might want to do later; and this is where consent becomes an issue that is not black-and-white. We are taught that no means no, and often it is much more complicated than that. So passivity is not something that we fix and then we become invincible; it’s a muscle you have to exercise, I think.

 

Also, a lot of the time we talk about consent, I see it being taught as something that men ask for, and something that women give. There is so much wrong with that, as it assumes that heterosexual sex is the norm, and then it victimizes women before they have really even been victimized. But what I am talking about in workshops now is the importance of young men giving consent as well. There’s this idea particularly of teenage boys that they are just game for anything, that they want to do anything sexual. This is really unhelpful and damaging as it puts on this pressure for young men to be performers, as well as the consent issue.

 

G: You did ‘Girls Wank Too’ with Pink protests: tell me about that project.

R: That is a really exciting project, as it’s a peer-led movement. The people who started Pink Protests are in their early 20s, and they are just exiting that terror of teenage years when you don’t know who you are and what the fuck you’re doing, and I’m from a secular background completely, but even then, masturbating felt like a sin to me and something that I felt was evil-

G: Absolutely-

R: -and banned myself from doing from 14-18, and only because of the social messages around me. Without any religious influence.

G: To talk for a bit about language and masturbation, I follow a US sex toy company, Wildflower Sex-

R: Yep.

G: Their Instagram is one of the most positive feeds, just in general, that I follow. They refer to masturbation as solo sex, which I think is really useful.

R: Yep, I use that term too. Masturbation has a bit of a bad rap and negative connotations. Solo sex is a really lovely phrase as it elevates the act to a genuine form of sex. I do talks around pleasure to adult audiences too; as they often received poor sex ed when they were teenagers; but mainly, stuff about relationships and sex, we should never stop learning. We are evolving beings and our sexual journies change so much in our lives. Lots of the women that come to my talks around a modern guide to pleasure, where I talk about anatomy a bit, like the anatomy of the clitoris and areas around the vagina and vulva that feel nice, lots of people there still are grateful that I’ve spoken about pleasure that’s not just something you can achieve with a partner. For example, I get asked about G spot stimulation all the time, and when I answer I give examples on how you can reach it by yourself, with a partner or with a hundred partners, however you like to have sex. I gather that lots of people believe their sex lives switch off without a partner. They may still be masturbating, but they are not thinking of that as an evolving part of their lives; they think they are just treading water, and waiting until someone comes along with whom they can do this ‘properly’. And we need to look at solo sex as something that is very valid and worthwhile too.


 

G: I feel like facilitating is a bit of a theme here, as in your body positive life drawing classes you are posing for them, but also leading it, so you’re reversing the gaze a bit; you’re not a muse figure, you’re in control.

R: and we make it silly too. At the beginning, we put on silly music and have a race to see who can get naked the quickest. We’re then naked for the rest of the session, and we pose and lead the session. The silliness in nudity is quite important for us because the only time people see a body, often, is when it’s sexy. But nudity is not about sex. You can switch on the sexy, or off, but nudity can connect you to a childishness aswell. It shouldn’t just mean, now sex is happening.


 

G: I also would like to talk about making money from sex in other ways. I read something recently which was claiming that there is a gulf between sex education and sex work, and that sex educators (perhaps unintentionally) perpetuate a hierarchy involving sex work and other types of work (in which sex work is on the bottom.)

R: Right yeah, I value sex work hugely, and it’s a real shame that it’s been devalued throughout history and now when feminism has such a loud voice, but there are so many people who are for women’s rights but against sex worker’s rights. I think sex workers can be a really valid source of sex education, especially on a one-to-one basis with clients; most of the sex workers I know are people that the main function of their work is exploring intimacy, and being someone who will listen to their client, almost like a therapist or a counsellor, and sex is a secondary thing. Last year, I really seriously contemplated becoming a sexual surrogate, which is difficult to explain but it is essentially a cross-section between sex work and therapy, both physiotherapy and psychotherapy. There is a belief that surrogacy is essentially glorified sex work; which in turn takes value away from sex work. I know surrogates who see surrogacy as a form of sex work, and I know surrogates who don’t classify themselves as sex workers. I think if I were to work as a surrogate I would identify that as within sex work. What stopped me from pursuing that further was my age, as I don’t think I’ve had enough life experience to undertake the responsibility of helping someone over whatever emotional hurdle it is. But in 10 years, that would be something I’d be very excited to explore. My family were very supportive, but I do think if it wasn’t dressed up in the way it is, and I was thinking of escorting, there may have been a different reaction. And that is maybe a classist attitude, and there is a hierarchy operating there in terms of the validity of different types of sex work, which I don’t agree with.

 

I like the fact that sex education is becoming more popular, and I love the many different people using social media as a political tool for discussing sex education. But I am also wary of the fact that everyone has a story to tell, so the word ‘educator’ can apply to everyone, we should all be learning from everyone all of our lives. But there are people who may not have had the same amount of experiences or done enough research or education themselves in order to claim that title. So while I think it is really important to learn emotionally from people on social media, for example, I always advise young people to be visiting sites like the Brook website, the NHS, and other sites where you know you are getting impartial and scientifically correct information; because sex is so subjective, it is important that people listening to the sex education movement on social media aren’t hearing a subjective message and believing it is objective.

G: Something else I was thinking about is the way in which we fictionalize or construct desire is that it is entirely specific to that person, or the type of people we are attracted to; and perhaps sex work in general deconstructs that notion a bit. Do you agree or think desire is more nebulous than how we have conceptualized it?

R: Yeah. As someone who is non-monogamous I definitely feel that way. And in relation to sex workers I’ve spoken to, there is always the question of ‘what if you don’t fancy the person’, and that’s one way of approaching it, but another way is a willingness to see the beauty in people. For me, non-monogamy is something I love because it opens up the possibility of finding beauty in people, and that desire not detracting from the relationship you have to someone else. Desire and sexual play can be infinite.

 

@rubyrare

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