Artwork by Zoë Ligon
Ashley Manta is the CannaSexual, a cannabis-friendly, sex-positive sex educator and coach based in SoCal. Because we're both health and pleasure-minded — I'm a sex educator, visual artist, and the proprietor of Detroit-based sex toy company Spectrum Boutique — we run in fairly similar circles and have a lot of mutual friends (many of whom have told me hilarious and intriguing stories about Manta) yet I only met her IRL for the first time this past summer at the ANME sex toy expo. It was immediately clear to me that Ashley was a badass — she's bubbly, whip-smart, and so easy to talk to.
Ashley began her career by teaching sexual violence prevention education in 2006, and is certified as a rape and domestic violence crisis counselor. She has worked with Planned Parenthood, and also been a victim advocate for a DA office in Pennsylvania, but has also worked in the more pleasure-oriented areas of the industry as a phone sex operator and as the webmanager for The Pleasure Chest, a sex store with locations in Chicago, New York, and California. She has been the Cannasexual (emphasis on "the" intentional) since 2015, and helps people navigate both cannabis and sex in a positive and empowering manner. On top of writing articles for a number of canna-publications, Manta also gives lectures and speaks on industry panels, including an upcoming appearance at the High Times Cannabis Cup next week.
I recently caught up with Ashley on the phone to talk weed and sex. As a sex educator and massive cannabis enthusiast myself, I was beyond curious to hear more about how she delved into education around the intersection of two of my most favorite things.
Ashley Manta, courtesy of Click Save Photo
Zoë Ligon: How did you get into working with both weed and sex, especially given that they're both taboo subjects?
Ashley Manta: I'm a sexual assault survivor — I was raped when I was 13. In college, I shared my story publicly for the first time at a Take Back The Night rally. It was incredibly healing for me, and a game-changer in terms of the way I was now able to own my narrative. It wasn't something that happened to me, it was my story, and I got to have control over it for the first time. It was such a huge shift in perspective for me, that I wanted to learn more about trauma and teach sexual violence prevention. I didn't want this to happen to anyone else, and if it DID happen to anyone else, they'd have the tools to heal and move forward, and get the support they deserve. But I burned out hard in 2011 — I was having flashbacks in court while I was trying to work as a victim advocate. So I left that job, and moved home to Harrisburg, PA where I grew up.
I only started using cannabis as an adult, by the way. I was anti-cannabis from the age of 13 until I was in grad school, where I reframed my views of cannabis with very supportive friends..
Whoa — basically me too!!
Crazy, right? The person who sexually assaulted me was using cannabis at the time, so I associated cannabis with getting raped. It wasn't until I studied trauma that I understood the feelings I had experienced; the dissociation, the disembodiment, and feeling "out-of-it." It wasn't because he was smoking cannabis and I was breathing it in, it was because I was having a trauma reaction! No one ever really talks about the "freeze" reaction.
After I left the DA's office I was working at, I decided to focus on the more pleasurable aspects of sex. I went to my first sexuality conference in 2013 and met other sex educators. I wanted to be one, too, but didn't think there was a way to do that full-time. I moved to California because they had medical marijuana, and I wanted to experience that. I got a job at The Pleasure Chest as their webmanager. Working with toys and customers on a daily basis really reminded me of how important these tools are. So I'm going along, everything's good, I'm living my poly life and using cannabis... and I then in 2014 I found Foria, the THC-infused coconut oil sex spray. Have you tried that yet?
I used a different brand of it a couple years ago. There's Velvet Swing, for instance. I didn't have much experience, but I did find that it made going to the bathroom really interesting! I know there's more to it though.
Really? That's fascinating. I definitely want to hear more, we can geek out about that later. I had had pain with penetration for years and years because of my trauma, and using Foria for the first time allowed me to have penetrative sex without pain! That was a big realization — I was like, "There is something to this, and NO ONE in my sex educator community is talking about it!"
Even in the open-minded sex educator world, there's a lot of resistance to the idea of mixing substances and sex — and understandably so! I'd spent years saying, "You only ever have sex when you're sober! Period!" And then I started using cannabis and having sex, and realized there is room for nuance. People are going to be doing it anyway, and there are ways to do it that are better, more effective, and positive than others.
In March 2015, I found out that the person who raped me also raped another person that I went to high school with. And that made me decide I was going to name him, on my blog, on the internet.
I knew if that there was two of us, there was definitely more than two of us. So I did! On March 7th, I posted this blog post, and within a week I had 22,000 hits, which was way, way, way more than I'd ever had. Seven other women emailed me saying they'd had a similar experiences, and I was like, "OH FUCK."
My PTSD flared, and I had to quit my job. I spent from March until June mostly in my house, trying not to have panic attacks all the time. Cannabis was so useful for me during that time. I'd feel disconnected from my body, and cannabis really helped bring me back to my baseline. AND it helped me to feel sexual again when I met my now-partner!
I went to a play party in July of 2015 and it was at that party that I first met my lover, B, who I write about online all the time. We hit it off immediately, and I became interested in sex again! With him and cannabis, I started to find my body again. I thought, OK, this is REAL, this is helping me, and this can be helping other people — I need to be talking about this!
I went to my first cannabis conference, the Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo, and that was what launched it all! I met with someone from Leafly, and they offered me a bi-weekly column. Later that year, Dope Magazine found me. As I started publishing more articles, I started speaking at events and people wanted to co-host things with me — they thought it was so cool that a sex educator was talking about weed!
Zoë Ligon pictured above
While weed does alter our state of consciousness, it is a very different feeling from being under the influence of alcohol or a dissociative drug. Unlike those drugs, weed is an aid that fosters a *connecting* feeling, where everything flows and melds more easily. At least, that's how I'd describe it. I don't feel that it's numbing anything out. It heightens everything!
I fully agree. "Heightening" is exactly the word I would use. It does heighten sensation. I find that I perceive more broadly when I'm using cannabis. I'm more attuned to tone, energy, body language, I'm more empathetic and I just feel more open when the noise in my head dies down and I can feel more clear. It's also really great for anxiety, and anxiety is of course what holds us back from being present in our bodies and experiencing pleasure.
It's really important to mention that you don't have to be high to get benefits from cannabis. There are super high CBD products that are not going to get you high, and you can still experience the benefits. You can really tweak it so that you can use it however works best for you, and that's not something you can say about alcohol. You can take bath in 1,000mg of THC and never get high!
It's so bizarre that the perceived effects can span such a wide range, too. For me, cannabis eradicates anxiety, but I know that for other people it makes them really anxious. I know you aren't a doctor, but what do you think accounts for this?
THC has what's called a bi-phasic effect, so it has opposite effects at high and low doses. There's a lot of additional factors — such as your personal body chemistry, prior association, and setting — that affect users' experiences. The tricky part with dosing is that everyone has a threshold where the effects switch, but that threshold is different for everyone. You might be feeling great, but then suddenly you're paranoid and anxious. It's a really quick turn usually, so it's really important to identify where your own threshold is. With topicals, you don't have to worry so much, but this line of demarcation happens with the psychoactive methods of using cannabis.
I think this is so relevant to us as sex educators, particularly when we talk about sobriety and consent. I used to say sex ought to be "safe, sane, and consensual" (sane including "sober"), and that was the golden rule. But given that the threshold of sobriety is different for everyone, and we're beginning to understand more broadly how different substances impact us, that doesn't seem accurate or realistic anymore. There are so many people that do understand the way a substance works with their bodies. I guess the easy answer to "can you consent" involves you judging your own individual sobriety, and knowing yourself well enough to make those calls — but obviously this all falls in a grey area. I know I personally can give and receive consent if I've had one or two drinks, but past that it depends. What would be concerns with giving and receiving consent while using cannabis as a sex aid?
Great question. My golden rule with cannabis is "negotiate before you medicate." If you're with someone new, it's different than with a long-term partner. My partner and I have been together for two and a half years, and we know each other well enough that we can use cannabis and if one of us goes too far, we can take care of it because we have built up a body of trust. But if a couple doesn't have that, or they're new to cannabis, I always encourage people to negotiate when they're having their overall safer sex talk and decide the things they want to co-create during their sexy fun time. It's very important to figure out where you are, where you want to be, and how a cannabis product will help you get there.
I think this discussion of alternative ways to heal from trauma is coming at such an important time. It's so empowering that you were able to transform such a traumatizing personal experience into something that gave you the drive to educate others. I'm sure there's folks skeptical about using cannabis as a healing and sexual aid, but given it's versatility, I think it is such a fantastic option.
On a less positive note, there is unfortunately so much corruption in the way the cannabis industry is run in the US. It's really weird to see white bros profiting off of and lavishing in something that people of color do prison time for. I've only seen a real dialogue about this arise in the last five years or so.
Oh my god yeah. This country has used cannabis and the War on Drugs in a larger sense to systematically discriminate against, oppress, and incarcerate people of color. It's a mess. Even though we have a ways to go, I'm glad the industry is finally paying attention to and having a conversation about the ways systems of power and privilege operate and how we can actively work to be more gender inclusive and anti-racist.
Oh yes, ain't it a theme? I find it so strange that even though it's becoming more widely accepted as a safer substance — and doctors prescribe Viagra for ED and more harmful medications like benzodiazepines for anxiety — that anxiety and libido-related issues aren't valid conditions for receiving a medical card.
I think it's because of fear and shame surrounding sexuality in this country. People are afraid to talk to their doctors about sex, doctors are kinnnnd of afraid to talk to their patients about sex because they receive precious little sexuality education… and certainly little pleasure-positive sex education.
Yeah don't you love when a doctor tries to school you on sex and then you're like, "WELL, ACTUALLY…"
It hurts me. I've had doctors tell people I know that they don't have to disclose their herpes status because is "no big deal." Herpes is no big deal, but you also have to fucking disclose it!!! All of this is to say that state legislatures are really just permitting the most severe reasons to use cannabis, such as HIV, cancer, epilepsy…
Cannabis has proven so useful as a way for people to reduce their opiate intake that pharmaceutical industries either want to own the industry, or shut it down.
Ugh. It's so transparently capitalistic. Well, my last question is hopefully a fun bonus question. In a perfect, utopian world, how do you imagine cannabis and sex existing together?
First of all, it looks like SO MUCH SCIENCE. I want people using a variety of cannabis products, going into fMRIs, and tracking their orgasms. I want ALL bodies and ALL genders studied, not just hetero people having penis-in-vagina sex. I want OODLES of research about cannabinoids and terpenes and what does what and how they combine. I want every single product in the cannabis and sex industry to be tested and actually be regulated so that we have proper dosing and what it says on the package is accurate, gender-neutral, and SAFE FOR BODIES. I want places you can have events and retreats where you can cannabis. Places like those resorts in Cabo that are cannabis-friendly.
Damn, yes. Hey, uh, you want to make this happen together?
Can we do that? That would be glorious. I also want Donald Trump to not be president, and all people of color who have been wrongfully imprisoned because of this asinine drug war to be released. THE END.
I agree with all of that wholeheartedly. Beautiful. Thanks for your time, Ashley.