October 7, 2019
Sexuality Superheroes: Jennifer Beman
Say hello to this week’s Sexuality Superhero! Jennifer is the artist behind the Graphic Sex Project: an interactive art installation where people make “graphs” of their sexual values and preferences using colored cubes. They can take a picture of their creation to share with a partner as a conversation-starter, and if they want they can add their graph to her growing collection. It’s a playful, fun way to think about sex – and get some powerful insights into what you desire and what you care about. She’s gathered over 700 graphs so far. The display of graphs is beautiful – a testament to the diversity of the human sexual experience. When she’s not asking people to graph their sex lives, she edits documentaries for clients like National Geographic, Discovery, Smithsonian, PBS, and the History Channel. She lives outside of DC with her husband of 30 years, and two college-age children. Read more about Jennifer below!
How did you find yourself working in sexuality?
It was a circuitous path. My own sex life has been a roller coaster of good times and bad times – so common! I had a long period of mediocre sex and low sex drive after the birth of our first child, and that continued for almost a decade. My husband and I managed to turn that around to recapture a passionate and adventurous sex life, and along the way I learned a lot about my own body and my sexual response. I began to think about making a documentary about how women feel about their orgasms, with the personal perspective of my own journey. I decided as a first step to start talking to women about it, so I started a monthly discussion group for women to get together just to talk about sex. I called it “Women Uncorked”. I wanted to talk about all the aspects of sex – the weird and messy and toe-curling stuff of a normal sex life, what we want, how we feel about what we get. I found that lot of women want to talk about that too, but don’t have friends that feel comfortable talking about sex.
I invented the Graphic Sex Project as an ice-breaker for my Women Uncorked group. But it’s funny – when you get a bunch of women in a room and tell them to talk about sex, they don’t need an icebreaker. They talk! So I started taking the Graphic Sex Project to other events: festivals, art events, workshops, sexuality conferences – even just setting it up in a park on a sunny day. I’d put up a display of a bunch of graphs people have made at previous events, bring out a few 1000 cubes for people to make their own. I have a furry red light box so they can take a picture. Each one is so unique!
What is the best part of the job?
I love talking to people about their sex lives! After people make a graph, they really open up about what’s going on for them. It’s so fresh in their minds, and the graph-making gives people a new perspective. They’ve put words on things in a way they never have before, so they often want to talk about it. It feels like such a privilege to share that moment with them where they are being so open talking to a stranger. It’s explicit, but it feels so playful and natural. The cubes de-sexualize sex – they look like toys. So the conversations that flow out of that have a playful quality. That is the whole point for me: to bring talking about sex out of the shadows of shame and embarrassment, and make it fun.
What is the most challenging part of the job?
Getting around a lot of subtle, and not so subtle, censorship. I would love to bring the installation to more places and events, to reach more people, but many events aren’t open to art of a sexual nature. They see “Graphic Sex Project” and that’s the end of the discussion! Similarly, getting the word out about the events I do is tricky. We live in a pretty puritanical culture, actually, and anything of a sexual nature is repressed and suppressed. The Graphic Sex Project at its core is really about communication, but try explaining that to Facebook!
Also, I’m trying to learn more about data science, because I think eventually, when I have thousands of graphs, I’ll have a treasure trove of information about human sexual behavior that will be really interesting for researchers. I would love it if I could make a contribution to science with my art.
What is your most important piece of advice that has the potential to revolutionize relationships?
Talk! Communication is so important to having a fulfilling and healthy sex life. It’s super common advice, but nobody says how you are supposed to do that. Talking about sex can be hard, and it takes practice. Some people have been with a partner for years and never talked about sex. Breaking into that first conversation can be the hardest thing, because it touches such a deep emotional core. Ideally, its an on-going thing – a wide open channel of communication, so you don’t put all the pressure on one big conversation, fraught with anxiety and defensiveness. Have fun talking about the little stuff, so you can talk about the big stuff when you need to. Talking about sex should be as easy as talking about food: what’s on the menu tonight? Let’s try a new ingredient! I’d like that spicier. Want to be my sous chef?
What do you do to decompress and take care of yourself given that you spend so much time helping and caring for others?
Haha, this is the hardest question of all! I barely do actually, since I’m trying to do this thing and I also a full-time job editing documentaries. In many ways, this project IS the way I decompress. It is my passion project. I’m having a great time with it!
What do you want people to know about your work as a sexual communicator, creator of Women Uncorked & Graphic Sex Project?
One of the things I’ve learned is that people have sexual scripts – ways they believe sex is “supposed to happen.” What happens first, second, etc. A lot of those scripts we get direct from our culture, and they aren’t necessarily serving us well. For heterosexual people, one predominant cultural script is that sex equals foreplay + intercourse + orgasm and done. I see so many graphs that tell that story, and I know that that isn’t the script that is most conducive to orgasms for women. I would like to advocate for the idea that people can play around with their internalized sexual script and do sex in lots of different ways, to create different sexual stories.
I think my project can be really helpful for people trying to make changes in their life. Now I’ve developed it as a kit for therapists to use with clients and I’m hearing great reports of the usefulness of it in therapy. And my Magnetic Graphic Sex kits are a way to have a handy home version to keep the conversation going about new scripts: like, let’s try more blue squares tonight!
The movie idea is kind of on the back burner for now!
Where can we learn more about your work?