Ruthless Self-Compassion with Samantha Bitty

Jems recently spoke with sex and consent educator Samantha Bitty. What started as a convo about the best toner for bleached eyebrows ended as a thoughtful exposition of Samantha's beliefs regarding safer sex practices. Samantha shares her personal experiences as well as tidbits of advice and encouragement. Her exuberant personality is infectious and will leave you wanting more. So, read on!

We're so excited to have you on board as one of our Jems Community Experts! We'd love to hear more about your professional background. What led you to specialize in sex and consent education?

That's a tricky question, but I think the easiest answer is that I had insufficient sex and consent education, leading to less-than-ideal experiences and leaving me with a lot of shame, self-doubt and blame. When I made the decision that I wanted to go into sex education, I was accessing abortion care at about 17 and felt as though I didn't have any agency through the entire process. I found it damaging, not the procedure itself, but the process, the nursing care – all of those pieces. 

Thank you for sharing. That must have been a difficult time.

I remember thinking, I wanna be the person on the other end of this, for all of the [people like me] in the world who don't feel like they have agency in one of the most important areas of our lives – sexual and reproductive health. I also have lived experiences of gender-based and sexual violence and knew that people like me could benefit from compassionate, empathetic, agency- and autonomy-driven care. So that was the entry point, and along the way, I've learned a lot about what I enjoy and what I'm good at.

You seem to focus a lot on topics that are sex-adjacent, like consent, which are so integral to sexuality. We're not taught these things, especially at a young age, but sex isn't just anatomical and physical. There's so much more to it. 

[Typically], the focus is always on physical health and avoiding unwanted outcomes as opposed to how our sexual health is not just the relationships we have with others but the relationship we have with ourselves, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I don't see sexual health as separate from mental health and well-being. I want to create environments where we can find out what we want and need, and even all the stuff we don't want. 

It sounds like you want to create something you found lacking in your own experience.

I didn't grow up with a lot of representation of people who looked like me, sounded like me, or had my experiences. So when I decided to have a media-based practice, I first had to get over the idea of who's gonna wanna listen to what I have to say. There's room for all of us, but sometimes you have to carve out that room for yourself and find the right mentorship and guidance – and that can come from all different places. 

Where do you get your inspiration from? 

I gain a lot of inspiration from my coaching practice. I work one-on-one or with couples, and we talk about emotional and sexual health, relationships in general, boundaries, consent and recovery. I'm constantly inspired by the people that I work with. Not only by what they bring to me but their willingness and ability to transform themselves and their relationships. I'm also inspired by my life, struggles, and relationship dramas. I want to be the person I never had – and to keep myself well enough to be that person for others. 

In terms of what inspires me creatively? These days, it’s disco. It's keeping me sane, especially in these colder months. 

I Will Survive! You mentioned consent and recovery. Are you comfortable expanding on those topics and providing insight into why they are so close to your heart?

I'm sober and in long-term recovery. I've now been sober for eight years!

Congratulations, that's huge!

I've been the person I wanted to be for nearly eight years, which is really cool. Since I experienced consent-related trauma at a very young age, it wasn't until I got sober that I realized I was treating a lot of that hurt with substances. I started abusing substances when I was very young, around 12. Practicing sobriety has been why I'm able to serve others. It's the reason I can trust myself today. However, I recognize that we all have tools in life, and they're not good or bad. They're either effective and sustainable or not as effective, not as sustainable. My lived experience is why those topics are very close to me. I see the benefits when I share; it makes it less hard. Trauma and addiction are very alienating experiences, and what's possible in recovery and consent culture is connection, interconnectedness and interdependence versus codependency or independence. Feeling connected is so important to me. 

It's amazing to see you blend the worlds of recovery with sex education and consent in a way that's not alienating to those who are not or haven’t been in recovery. You do an excellent job of leaving that space open.

Thank you for that. This is all very important to me. I'm always mindful not to make recovery or trauma my entire brand. I'm looking for connection, integrated care and the ability to acknowledge that our relationships with sex and each other are complex. 

They truly are.

I have a lot of issues with calling the type of sex education I do inclusive. I'm like, who's including who? Why are we separating things? Sometimes we need spaces specific to certain experiences, like for Black women, because there are nuances, but when it comes to sex education, I'm like, sex is sex

What an interesting point!

The term inclusive was once a useful way to signal that something wouldn't be a heteronormative, ableist or racist endeavour, but I want us to move past that. I want us to go a step further collectively. If your sex education is not reflective of people with disabilities (physical and neurological) and the range of experiences we can have across genders and sexualities,  then it's not sex education. You mentioned that I teach in a way that doesn't alienate. I appreciate that, because I don't think it's that hard. I'm trying to teach critical thinking skills. I just say dick sometimes. 

Love that! It's 2023! If you're teaching something as important as sex education, there should be no question that everything – and everyone – is welcomed and embraced with open arms. 

It takes work, especially if you're not a person with the lived experience, or if it's not part of your identity, then you have to take care not to prescribe or co-opt. It takes intention. Now I bring intention to everything I do and, to bring it back to sobriety, I can do that because it's a very intentional choice. 

How do you define safer sex? Either for yourself or for your audience as a whole? 

The first thing that I acknowledge is that safer sex is the choices we make about our physical well-being, and it's also, equally, choices that we make about our emotional well-being – and sometimes those things can conflict. My definition of safer sex requires information and agency.  And agency requires an awareness of the power dynamics of circumstances – it's environmental. I think safer sex can look very different for different people at different times. 

Condoms are one tool in an arsenal of sacred sex practices. Though, for that tool to be effective, you must know your body. Condoms are not one-size-fits-all. You have to understand how to use it safely and properly. You have to know how to dispose of it properly. And you have to know what to do if anything goes awry. 

Which is why communication is key.

Knowing what we want and need, how to communicate, and knowing it's always possible to follow up and be like actually I want this are all key. Also, giving ourselves the space to make mistakes and recognizing that we may not know it was a mistake until after the fact – then using that information to make decisions moving forward. 

Mistakes happen all the time.

Exactly! The thing about sex and intoxication is that legal consent is sober. Plenty of people have wanted experiences while intoxicated. Plenty of people use substances to have sex for many reasons. It's not about whether it's good or bad. It's about what we want and how we take the best care of ourselves. A harm reduction approach instead of being binary is essential, because nothing in life is that simple. 

Certainly not!

What was considered safer sex to me this morning might be different this afternoon or with a different partner. Acknowledging that the emotional part is just as important as the physical part requires self-awareness and fearlessness for all parties involved. Fear and shame are huge reasons why people don't practice safer sex. It's hard to have conversations when acting out of a fear-based mindset, even if it's as simple as touch me here, or I don't like this, let alone talk about barrier methods and everything else involved. It's sometimes hard to let those walls down and have those conversations. It comes down to education that's not rooted in shame or judgment. 

I appreciate what you said earlier about how, even if you didn't communicate a boundary initially, it's okay to go back and say hey… 

When we talk about aftercare, I believe aftercare is before, during and after. It's never too late to follow up and have those complex conversations. And honestly, it is awkward. Sex has this very real shame and stigma attached to it that prevents us from having those uncomfortable conversations, and also, for many, sex stuff is inextricably linked to our self-worth. But the thing is, there is so much stuff in life that is awkward. We experience discomfort all the time.

Do you think that practicing safer sex is essential to pleasure? And do condoms and other barrier methods play a role in that?

Yes! Nothing is more pleasurable than feeling comfortable, and comfort is often connected to how safe we feel in a situation, both physically and emotionally. 

I think condoms and other barrier methods can create a lot of emotional safety. Especially if you have fears about STIs and if you have fears about pregnancy. I also believe there are many ways to make condoms and barrier methods a hot part of the process. (Sometimes, I use that time to drink water.) And I think bringing curiosity and humour can make it more pleasurable!

When people feel like they're being irresponsible, that can be a barrier to pleasure. So, in that regard, physical or emotional safety is integral to pleasure. That can look different for different people. 

Just because something is pleasurable in the moment doesn't mean it's necessarily safe. 

Which is why I always talk about aftercare. You can have the time of your life with somebody, and if you don't hear from them after, it can completely change your emotional response and create an unsafe experience.

There's been a lot going on in the sexual sphere over the past couple of years, especially with abortions being increasingly limited, censorship issues and STIs on the rise. How do you maintain a positive mindset through all of this?

Knowing that we can make individual differences in individual people's lives is a great place to start. Our collective responsibility, which means I'm not alone in this, is to continue to push for systemic change, and that happens in a variety of ways. We're gonna keep pushing, we're gonna keep fighting. The work I've had to do in therapy is recognizing my limitations and capacity, accepting that, doing what I can and being part of that collective. Being in a community really helps, and just processing all the feelings that come with that.

Brilliant. Do you have words of wisdom or general advice that you want to share with our community?

Something that I've been telling a lot of my clients lately and something I've been practicing myself is having ruthless self-compassion. At any cost, I'm gonna practice self-compassion. And that's not the same as letting myself off the hook for bad or harmful behaviour towards others. It's about recognizing that I'm the only person who can meet me where I'm at, and I have to do that. I spoke with a friend over the weekend, and they said our empathy toward ourselves creates abundance to have empathy toward others. Ruthless self-compassion is a system of empowerment. We talk a lot about systems of oppression. I want us to spend more time talking about systems of empowerment because those are sustainable resources, as opposed to always trying to put out fires.