Since 2017, Sarah has lived in Salem, Massachusetts, the site of the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. It’s given them unique insight into the power that can be derived from darkness, especially as it relates to sexuality and identity.
Aria Vega [00:00:00] This podcast contains explicit content. Listener's discretion is advised.
Aria Vega [00:00:06] POV by Lustery explores culture, politics and creativity in the sex industry, one point of view at a time. I'm your host, Aria Vega.
Aria Vega [00:00:17] Hey y'all, happy Halloween! I'm in your feed today for a festive bonus episode with a very sweet and spooky guest. So grab the candy that you're hiding from the kids and let's meet Sarah Brynn Holliday. Sarah is a sex educator, writer and speaker who identifies as a spooky femme. Their usual look consists of jet black hair, black horn rimmed glasses, black flowy clothes and black acrylic tips. It's an aesthetic identity that emerged from a series of interconnected experiences in Sarah's life.
Sarah Brynn Holliday [Interview] A few years after college, I bought a tube of black lipstick because I was going to an astrology themed party at a queer bar in North Carolina, and I was like, "OK, I'm a Scorpio!" And so I had this red velvet top and I was like, "I need some black lipstick for this." I put it on, and I was — [I] just looked in the mirror and was just totally... I was totally taken, just with myself. It immediately brought me back to when I was young, when I was a teenager, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, this feels like home to me too to really express myself in this way." And I thought, I'm allowed to do this!
Aria Vega [00:01:37] For Sarah, that sartorial freedom had signified a sort of emotional freedom from the influence of an abusive former partner. That partner, who Sarah dated as a teenager, used to shame them a lot for dressing in all black and listening to metal, constantly threatening to end the relationship over these tastes. So when Sarah saw themselves in the mirror wearing black lipstick again after all these years, it was a really pivotal moment.
Sarah Brynn Holliday [Interview] I've been calling myself "spooky femme" for the past few years, and there have been lots of revelations within that, but that's really at the core of that.
Aria Vega [00:02:12] That's so beautiful that you were able to take on this aesthetic and this identity that gave you a sense of power and agency that you felt had been taken from you, and that you felt more self-actualized on the other side of it. Did you find that becoming the spooky femme helped you arrive at new conclusions about your gender or sexuality?
Sarah Brynn Holliday For sure! And I love that you went there because that's totally — yes!
Aria Vega [00:02:40] I had a feeling!
Sarah Brynn Holliday Yes! *Both laugh* So I'm non-binary. I specifically identify as agender, which means for me that I consider myself to be gloriously genderless. I just simply don't have a gender, and I came out as queer in 2013 and I didn't come out as non-binary until last year. Being able to step into my own self as a spooky femme, and you really hit the nail on the head, I feel very powerful when I leave the house and I'm all done up, and I also feel powerful when I'm just like sitting at home. Just like right now, I have my hair thrown up in a clamp and I'm wearing all black and it's that's literally my closet, it's just all black. There's nothing else there. Maybe like a little bit of orange for Halloween. But it really allowed me to take an introspective look at, what does my own power mean to me and how do I move throughout the world? And my therapist and I have talked a lot about how my spooky femme identity, at the same time that that it really protects me in that I feel like when I walk into the world and I am all done up, I don't really want anybody to look at me because I'm like, "Stay away from me, this is this is my shield!" At the same time, it does the exact opposite. It very often will actually draw a lot of attention. And I'm like, "Yes, look at me, I'm powerful and I'm reclaiming myself." So it's this very interesting duality, and I feel that that had a really big impact on finally being able to understand like, yes, I am non-binary, it's OK to step into my own power in that way. And something I love about being trans is that the world is completely open to us. How I want to express myself is completely defined by me, and it's the same thing with my spooky femme identity. Like, I have crafted that and it's it's constantly evolving, and my understanding of myself as a trans person is also constantly evolving.
Aria Vega [00:05:09] I'm so moved by this worldview, and the way that your identity is a spooky femme is both an energetic boundary and also an energetic invitation as well, and that it's making more tangible your identity evolution. Because sometimes things about gender and sexuality can be really — seem so abstract. So they're all in your head, they're so specific to you...It seems like you're spooky femme identity has become this physical manifestation that allows you to engage and interact with it a little bit more of a hands on way. Would you say that?
Sarah Brynn Holliday Yeah, I I love that. Yes, you're absolutely right.
Aria Vega [00:05:48] Cool, I'm glad I'm picking up what you're putting down!
Sarah Brynn Holliday You definitely are!
Aria Vega [00:05:56] [Voiceover] Sarah became a sex educator after creating a comprehensive sex ed model as the capstone project of their undergrad program. Sarah knows from experience just how badly that work is needed.
Sarah Brynn Holliday I come from a small town in southeastern Virginia where we had very, very awful sex education, and I wasn't learning about sex ed in an actual, very comprehensive way until I was 21. And so I thought, how can we remodel sex education in the U.S. so there are people out there like me and anyone else who will not have to go through that same experience. And it was through all their research for that paper and that project that I found sex blogs, and I saw these people who were writing about sex and sexuality and masturbation and sex toys without shame. And toward the end of the project, I decided I'm going to start my own blog. That's how Formidable Femme was born, and it's been six years. And while I definitely do, I'd say more speaking than I do writing now, I will still always have a really special place in my heart for the blog.
Aria Vega [00:07:15] Wonderful. So that term comprehensive gets used a lot in discussions around sex education and how we can improve it. Can you talk a little bit about what makes comprehensive sex ed the gold standard? What what differentiates it from what is currently standard?
Sarah Brynn Holliday Absolutely. So for most people, we receive abstinence only and shame based sex education that focuses on all of the quote unquote scary things that will happen to you. When I was in school, in middle school and in high school, we were shown all of these images of "here's what it's like to live with an STD" and like, "here's a video of a live birth." And it was all of this just stuff that was really designed to not only make us fear our sexuality, but to shame us for even thinking about sex or having sex. And so thinking about a model that removes all of that, moving toward a comprehensive model of sex ed means that it's actually accurate. It's it's not shame based. It's it's based on facts. And it's based on an understanding that, yes, young people are having sex and they are curious about sex. And the best thing that we can do is to give people the accurate information that they need to make the best informed choices for their own bodies. And comprehensive sex ed is with so many things, but it's also anti-racist. It's also trans and queer-centric. It's also trauma-informed and it's pleasure-informed. And so all of these intersecting and all of these overlapping things can create sex ed that is, yes, factually accurate, but it's also really celebratory of all of the identities that so many folks have and that so many folks are really made to feel shame and fear about.
Aria Vega [00:09:10] Supporting survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence is also an integral part of your work. How do you understand that relationship between trauma and pleasure and how can that understanding facilitate healing?
Sarah Brynn Holliday Sure. So I'll speak a little bit about my own personal journey. The trauma that I experienced was when I was pretty young. I was in an abusive relationship from when I was 13 to when I was 17, and that's a very formative time for people in many aspects of their lives, including sexually and really how you understand your body. And so all of the ways that I viewed my body and that I viewed myself and my pleasure were through the lens of what my abuser had actually done. To me, it was through a lens of harm. It wasn't through a lens of celebration or excitement or really anything else. It's very common for survivors to have to carry that trauma with us and really have to sift through what are all the layers of this and how can I relearn the map of my own body? And that's how I like to say it. So when I work with survivors, whether it's workshops or whether it's one-on-one or whether I'm writing, I like to frame it as when we're relearning our own journey to be able to access pleasure again. We really have to learn the map of our own bodies all over again and learn what feels good to us, what may not feel good to us, what we might want to explore,
Aria Vega [00:10:48] Yeah, thank you so much for explaining that because it's funny. I became a sex educator around the same time that I had experienced a major sexual trauma. So like, I was like getting all this language to talk about pleasure before I had the language to really understand the trauma I had experienced. I didn't understand how and why they were influencing each other. And the first step to me untangling that knot was somatic awareness, a technique that I had learned through from a therapist. Honestly, it was at rehab. It was at rehab! Because that trauma manifested itself as a lot of chaos, and the place that they sent me to deal with it had was the only trauma-aware sort of treatment I had ever received. And that was where I learned about somatic awareness and began to learn to just read input from my body at all because it's so difficult to make sense of pleasure when you're shut off from your body in the way that often happens when we have survived something traumatic. So thank you for clarifying that because I think that I think that's going to be a light bulb moment for a lot of people. I think that's that's it right there. Has that been what you've seen in your experience in your work that that somatic awareness is like the key to unlocking that door?
Sarah Brynn Holliday One thousand percent. And it was for me and it is for lots of survivors that I work with, for sure.
Aria Vega [00:12:21] [Voiceover] Sarah lives in Salem, Massachusetts, which has the honor of being known as the spookiest place in the United States. It was the site of the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century, when dozens of citizens accused of witchcraft, mostly women, were prosecuted. It was a time of mass hysteria, one in which the courts believed in the devil and allowed for spectral evidence to factor into their proceedings, leading to the death of 19 people in three months time.
Sarah Brynn Holliday [Interview] So I moved to Massachusetts in 2017, and I lived right outside of Boston for my first year. Then I went through a breakup and I had to decide, am I going to move back to North Carolina or am I going to say Massachusetts? And I thought, I was pretty young, I feel like that chapter of my life in North Carolina has really closed, I feel like this is done, and I'm going to move to Salem. My hairstylist knew that I was leaving a pretty crappy relationship situation and that I needed to get out and she said, "OK, one of my friends is moving out of her apartment. We just renovated the whole thing. It's like an eight minute walk from the center of town. It's in a historic district. You need to go look at it." And I was like, "This seems very serendipitous, okay..."I went and I got the apartment and I've been here since, and it felt like everything just aligned when it needed to right in that moment for this to happen. I love it here. My first year here, I was obsessed with everything in October, and then my second year I will say I became a little bit of a curmudgeon because we see like hundreds of thousands of visitors every October, like seven hundred thousand for our small town.
Aria Vega [00:14:16] Oh, that's like a city-size population descending on what I understand is, yeah, very small town.
Sarah Brynn Holliday A small town, yeah! It's definitely it can be a little stressful for the locals. But for me, especially this year, I think it's really thrilling because I can definitely empathize with wanting to travel somewhere that you feel very connected to, whether it is spiritually or maybe emotionally, or you just love it there. And especially being what we are now, a year and a half into a pandemic, wanting to return to places that are special to you. So this year I'm actually volunteering and, you know, trying to help folks on their way downtown. And it's been really fun! I adore it here. I can't see myself living anywhere else right now.
Aria Vega [00:15:08] So Salem is a little bit legendary. Many people are familiar with the Salem witch trials, but it is a historical event that, in my opinion, is not very well understood. How would you summarize the takeaways that we should bring with us from that chapter of history?
Sarah Brynn Holliday I love this question because I think it's so important to think very consciously and very critically of how we consume the trauma and pain of other people and coming to Salem as a tourist. Now this is not everyone, but some people come here because they want to know all about the witch trials, and how they go about their visit here in a way that I would not say is aligned with my own ethics and my morals. So the witch trials were an egregious human rights violation. And there is a memorial to the victims of the witch trials in Salem that I urge everybody who is here to take 15 minutes of their whole weekend here and just go and visit and to pay their respects to the victims. Because as you walked down the main street in Salem, it's a pedestrian walkway. You'll see a lot of touristy shops and there are a lot of non touristy shops that are right there. But you'll see shirts that say something like "I Got Stoned in Salem," and that's a reference to the man who was killed in the witch trials who was actually pressed to death with stones. You'll see other shirts and souvenirs that make a mockery of the people who died. Many people who come to Salem don't know about the history of the extreme misogyny and the racism that was central to the witch trials. People don't really know about Tituba, who was a black woman who was accused of witchcraft in Salem. All of this goes to show that we can learn a lot of lessons from the witch trials and what's happening currently in our lives, in our country and in the world. You see the term "witch hunt" thrown around by extremist politicians who are completely misusing the term, because a witch hunt is inherently an oppressive act against a group of marginalized people. So there's a lot that we can take away, both in our larger lessons in society and also how we exist when we come to visit a town or a city or a state that has that kind of storied history and how we can respect the victims.
Aria Vega [00:18:06] [Voiceover] Throughout Western history, the term "witch" has been wielded as a political weapon against women with sexual agency in order to reduce their autonomy. I asked Sarah if they felt spiritually connected to that history as a sex educator and a feminist.
Sarah Brynn Holliday [Interview] I think it will actually surprise a lot of people to know that I am not the most spiritual person, but I am beginning to tap into it, and it's been a really interesting experience so far. I've always considered myself to be very intuitive, but kind of pushed back against the [notion that] that doesn't mean anything more than... kind of like a weird sixth sense every now and again. But I've talked to a number of modern day witches and folks who are actually witches. There were no witches in the Salem witch trials, like a lot of people think that there were. These are women who were accused because of their agency, because of their intelligence and because they owned land. This is why. So now really talking to friends who who are modern day witches, I'm starting to understand that in myself a little bit more, to really listen to my intuition as a signal and a sign to tap into that, and through that journey have started to feel even more aligned here in Salem than ever before. And I'm like, is that a coincidence? Probably not. So on many different levels, not just spiritually too, I think it's really prescient that there are folks here in Salem who are working on sex ed, who are working on awareness, who are working on letting people know the real history of what happened here and then letting folks know that there are modern day witches who are exploring all of this within themselves.
Aria Vega [00:19:57] In your opinion, do you think that sexual energy is particularly potent during this time of year? Because I know that it is common practice for many witches to utilize sexual energy in their conjuring.
Sarah Brynn Holliday Yeah, I mean, on a personal level, I certainly feel it! *Laughs*
Aria Vega [00:20:17] Hell yeah, me too! I think so.
Sarah Brynn Holliday I think that, again, no matter what the reason ends or no matter what your set of beliefs is, this is just a very powerful time in general. And I I love the thought that sexual energy is really starting to expand at this time with a thinning of the veil and with all of the introduction of fall. I think so!
Aria Vega [00:20:49] And you know, I'm thinking too about the "cuffing season" meme that happens every year. Even if you're not necessarily practicing sex magic or anything like that, a lot of people are trying to invite it into their lives and calling it something else, but that's what they're doing, right?
Sarah Brynn Holliday 1000 percent. And I love that you brought that up because I feel like I know a lot of people who are now like, "OK, it's starting to get a little chillier. I had fun this summer, but I would really like to kind of lock it down for the winter." It's cuffing season, like you said, it happens every year, but this year there seems like there's.... It seems like it's super charged in a way? I don't know, just this like incredible drive to find a partner or to find partners. I also know a lot of people who are not heading into lockdown mode. They're like, "We're carrying Hot Girl Summer into the winter!" And I'm like, "I'm here for it."
Aria Vega [00:21:53] *Laughs* That hot girl summe, hot vax summer, however, you thought this summer was going to go, I am feeling a lot more sexual energy and sexual tension in the collective now than in the summer when it was forecasted to be.
Sarah Brynn Holliday Me too!
Aria Vega [00:22:06] It feels like people are more interested in relationships than in hookups, and how much that has to do with the pandemic and all of the other geopolitical chaos and climate change and all of these things that are making us feel fearful... We want someone to come home to more so than someone to go out with. You know, we still want to go out, but I come home to comfort that we feel like we have been deprived of for the past forever, and I hope everyone finds what they're looking for. Put it that way.
Sarah Brynn Holliday Yes, me too.
Aria Vega [00:22:40] That's Sarah Brynn Holliday sex educator, speaker and spooky femme. You can read Sarah's blog at formidablefemme.com. You can also find them on Instagram @formidablefemme and on Twitter @SarahBHoll. That's H-o-l-l, and Sarah with an H at the end. How did your hot vax summer go? Did you expect to go out looking for hookups just to end up in a relationship? Are you struggling with when to bring up vaccination on a date? I want to hear about all of the new dating woes of this post-vaccine portion of the pandemic. Send me an email or a voice memo. email@example.com, or you can find me on Twitter @vegadreamcast. If you're into the show, please leave us a five star rating and a review. POV is brought to you by Lustery, and this episode was hosted by me, Aria Vega. It was edited and produced by Katherine Fischer and Adrienne Teicher, and our showrunner is Paulia Pappel. Lustery is the home of real-life partners filming their sex lives behind closed doors. If you're 18 or older, you can find us at Lustery.com, and we're on Twitter and Instagram a@lusterypov. Happy Halloween, lovers. See you tomorrow!