Annual sexuality conference invites participants to expect the unexpected. (In bed.)
The Holiday Inn in downtown Toronto isn’t a place most people think of being especially sexy—it’s mostly the refuge of baggy-eyed business travellers—but Samantha Fraser has learned to see beyond its cinder-block walls and aggressively patterned carpet to unlock the sexy potential within.
Fraser’s annual Playground Conference, which is billed as a “sex-positive, inclusive and intersectional sexuality event,” is two days of workshops and seminars scheduled for November 13 to 15. It will offer workshops on topics from solo polyamory to contraception, and presentations by sex educators and thinkers both local and international.
“The conference is not dry, nor is it mired in readings of papers. I believe that Playground is working to show that learning about sex, and all its facets, is fucking fun,” says Andrew Morrison-Gurza, founder of Deliciously Disabled (which we profiled in August) and one of this year’s speakers. “I have the chance to be 100 per cent myself; the deliciously deviant, kinky cripple that I am. There is something really freeing about that.”
Fraser does nothing half-assed. (When I arrive at her house for our interview, she opens the door tentatively. “It’s a little weird in here right now,” she warns; her house has been elaborately decorated for Halloween.) Playground was born from a mix of frustration and experience; after speaking at the Momentum Sexuality Conference in 2011, Fraser returned to Canada and started wondering why no-one in Toronto offered a similar event. “I come up with a lot of ideas, and I don’t necessarily follow through on most of them,” she says with a laugh. “But do what you know.”
Fraser, who had been planning events since 2004, and who published a book about non-monogamy in 2013, started researching what events were out there. “I was seeing conferences.” She launched Playground later that fall.
After five years, Fraser now has a system. Organizing the conference begins with a call for submissions, which Fraser and her co-producer J.P. Robichaud vet using a green-yellow-red system. “For some people, even if they haven’t put a description in, if we know that they have a good voice and we can trust them, they automatically get green,” she says. “And some people get red because they just don’t fit.”
This year, their selections were reviewed by an advisory panel that included speakers and sponsors, and then Fraser gets to work on the details. The conference itself will offer a Friday night keynote speaker and dinner open to the public, a prom on Saturday night, and a room full of vendors and nonprofit agencies.
While Playground isn’t a polyamory conference, in 2014 and 2015 the event has partnered with Polyamory Toronto. Eva Dusome, organizer of Polyamory Toronto, will present two workshops and moderate a panel; her organization also offered financial support and promoted the event to its membership.
“We haven’t ever wanted to do streams, but when they approached us, we thought we’d try it,” says Fraser. The group will be presenting six poly-themed sessions throughout the weekend. “Poly Toronto is interested in possibly doing something for themselves, and this is kind of a testing ground to see if it’s worth it.” The group is now working towards a conference of its own in 2016.
As the weekend unfolds, attendees can find themselves in sessions that lead to unexpected places. “We had a session a couple years ago about daddy doms, and that was really heavy for a lot of people,” says Fraser. (Also, she points out, Oasis Aqualounge is a short walk away, and “we sometimes hear talk of hotel room parties.”)
Mostly, though, the response is equal parts emotional and intellectual. “Playground cultivates a space to explore the unexplored, to discuss the taboo, to fine tune our self-awareness and our communication skills,” says Dusome. “The contrast of the conference space to mainstream culture can be a shocking one. I learned last year that I must take the Monday after the conference to ease back into a regular way of living.”
“The very fact that this conference exists adds a certain amount of validity to the sex-positive community, something that can often be dismissed or looked down upon,” says Julia Lewis, who has attended the conference for the last two years, and will attend again this fall. She heard about the conference from Fraser’s Tell Me Something Good storytelling night, and says it “seemed like an event that would dovetail nicely with my interests in sexuality and community—and it did!”
While larger American conferences attract sponsors like Trojan or Lelo, so far Playground has relied mostly on ticket sales and smaller donations to break even. Fraser is sometimes frustrated by the financial impact the conference has on her life, but most of the time, she’s pragmatic. “I’m very realistic about it now. I love it, and I’m very proud of it. It’s definitely not something that I do for financial gain.”
In the future, Fraser wants Playground to reach the people who attend the Everything To Do With Sex show but who are too nervous to attend the workshops.
“I think we’ve done a good job connecting with the queer community, and with people who already value sex education,” she says. “I wish we could connect more with the quote-unquote mainstream communities. I think it comes down to dollars and advertising.”
For now, the impact of this conference is mostly on the attendees themselves. Fraser sees that as a good thing. “It’s for people to be in a room and know that there are other people like them.”
Traditionally, she hosts a post-event wrap-up session so that everyone who stayed to the end can debrief. “It’s the time where people say things like, ‘I don’t usually like to talk to people, but I spent the whole weekend talking to people.’ Shit like that is huge.”