“Our genitals are so crowded with stigma and insecurity. Because of that shame and insecurity, we tend to avoid them.”Hani Lees Dresner
A Q&A with Hani Lees Dresner, a ceramicist for vulva art and penis art, and sex-positivity educator, discussing intimate artwork, creativity, sexuality, their relationship, and how to use art as a therapeutic tool.
First, I would love to have you describe what you do in your own words.
I’m Hani and I run gashtrays, which is a sex and body positive ceramics line. I use my sculptures and my platform to discuss topics of sex education, period positivity, and body positivity. For me, it’s just been about sculpting very candidly. And it’s led to this sex-positive world.
Can you explain the word gashtrays?
So, in the UK, gash is a very common, disgusting slang word for vagina. You’ve probably got a US version. Basically, it’s just used by teenagers, and it’s shitty slang. But I love a dirty pun. And so was trying to think of how to make a birthday present for a friend of mine who’s a heavy smoker. Right. Genius, million top ideas. Combine the word “gash” and “ashtrays” to get “gashtrays”. An ashtray that looks like a vulva is the result.
So, I did that, and I foolishly put it on Instagram. I was shocked by the number of people that wanted their own vulva art and liked the name. It’s so funny how much the name is a selling point to a lot of Brits especially. But I love that it’s lost in translation to many people, I quite like that. Playing with the absurdity of these bizarre words that we use to describe the vulva has evolved, we’ve got so many in the UK, all these awful, strange words. But I think we have far fewer descriptive words like that for penises.
In the US, at least, there is not a positive slang word for vulva or vagina, all of them are negative words. They’re bad words, they’re insulting. There is no chance that you can spend your whole life with that cultural association of a part of your body with something negative, and come out with a completely positive view. That is going to shape the way that you think, not to mention all the even more pornographic and negative things that essentially make fun of and are being used to refer to that part of your body.
People think, parents, for example, if we don’t talk to our children, and give them this information, it’ll be a neutral experience. They think kids just won’t have that information. But culture will fill in all those gaps with inaccurate and harmful information. Culture is powerful, and it’s not in the right hands. So I love what you’re doing. It’s taking something and making it ironic, taking that same negative thing and kind of flipping it over on its head. I always love humor as a good way to go about change.
Oh, it’s a fine line. Like in the gay community, for example. So much language has been used to oppress gay people, like, queer. It’s been such a journey of reclaiming that language. And I think, when done right, it can be powerful.
So you created this first gash tray as a joke. And you mentioned you were so surprised when you posted it, and there was this great reception to it. I feel it shows how much people needed something like this as an outlet. So would you tell us a bit about what the response was to that first gashtray?
The first one I made in 2014. Now there’s so much vulva positivity and representation, that has been a lot better recently. But I remember at the time, people found it to be very provocative. I personally don’t find it provocative, that’s just not how I was raised to view the body. But there was the desire for it, at the time people were shocked to see that kind of thing. The idea of visualizing a vulva outside a sexual context. Day to day just having it in your home was shocking to a lot of people. That in itself was such an interesting reaction. It’s something that I grabbed on to, this is clearly a deep thing for a lot of people. Why are we so shocked by seeing this body part that 50% of the population carry around with them every day?
From that, I did a bit of research, and there’s like a shocking percentage of women who’ve never even looked at their own vulva.
60% of British people with a vulva cannot properly label one, they don’t know what goes where and what does what. That is so shocking to me because we’re supposed to have been taught this stuff, right? We’re supposed to have gone through this in school. In reality, we had one lesson, they tick the box. We go, “yeah, we know what that does”. But it should be a continuous conversation. It shouldn’t be just ticking a box one day when you’re 13. You’re never gonna remember that. And I just think it’s a real crying shame. So I just saw that there was power in representing this body part. It was starting conversations, whether people agreed or disagreed with it, that conversation was so interesting, and valuable to me, too.
Everybody is often nervous to start these conversations. They think they’re the only ones with these questions or concerns. You’re not the only person, you’re the one of everyone who is waiting to have this conversation. It’s crazy how when you create the space for it, people are exploding, waiting to talk about these things. That just proves wrong, this theory that we’re the only one asking something. I think one of the most important lessons is that you’re not alone, you’re not the only one in creating that community behind these types of movements.
You mentioned making it an everyday thing, giving the body a desexualized place. What comes to mind is that you’re creating everyday items that you can put up on your wall. Somebody might come over, and see this ashtray or this tile up on the wall or this flower vase. It should be something we’re used to, not a crazy, unknown, hidden away thing. At the same time, what I love about your art is that it’s also art. You’re creating this beauty and this celebration, which is making something special of it. This is a combination of seeing the body as approachable, yet celebrated, and creating an artistic and beautiful representation of it.
So you mentioned the house that you grew up in and your family, and how that’s been a part of this. I’d love to hear a bit more about that.
Well, I wish you could meet them there. There’s just never been any shyness around the body ever. My dad is always naked still. He finds his body so funny. When we can be so candid like that at home, I am shocked by people’s reactions to the body. I am shocked that people find it so provocative, or take it sexually. Because, to me, the body has always been so hilarious, and fascinating. It’s just so fascinating to me.
My mom, in 2017 had a double mastectomy after having breast cancer. That was real, that was another turning point in our family of openness and being aware of each other’s bodies. I worked with her while she was going through this because that’s quite a big change. When you look at yourself in the mirror to after that change, that’s an adjustment. She was a lingerie model when she was younger, too, so I imagine that must have been very challenging for her. But since then we’ve just spoken so openly. She gets her scars out all the time. Now, of course, it’s a process. But she’s jumped into this new phase of her life. She’s proud of her scars now. That positivity around your body replaces the idea that you’re less than or need to compare yourself to anyone else. It was celebrating her scars and the unique beauty of them as well. It’s so difficult to accept for many people, I think. When I do the self-portrait workshops, for example, a lot of people will look at themselves and consider wrinkles, or a mole, to be a flaw. I guess my family has helped me to see that these aren’t flaws. These are like your fingerprints. We’re just weird little bags of goo. And I enjoy that.
That sounds like a new, incredible, and unique, at least for most people, experience that you had growing up surrounding the hilarity of the human body.
In all of these things, you have to have humor. But at the same time, you have to make sure the humor is positive and accepting, rather than a rejection. Oftentimes this stuff is used in a humorous sense that is coming from insecurity. There’s one type of humor that comes from insecurity and being afraid you don’t fit in. They’re trying to bring other people down to feel better about themselves because they are insecure. And there’s a type of humor that comes from like, “shit’s weird”. We’re all weird. We’re bags of goo. But I’m having fun, and I know who I am. We can create intimacy through that humor and honesty, which comes from acceptance and security.
I find that leaning into your insecurities, being self-deprecating, makes yourself the punchline before anyone else can find a method. I guess that’s what I’ve done here. But I love it now. You’ve got to know that everybody has these same insecurities as everyone else.
It takes a lot to say it out loud. It takes a lot to admit that. And it’s not for everyone. But it can plant the seed in people to think “Oh, she said it. Maybe it’s okay that I’ve got it too”.
So as you started to open this conversation for people, right, it started as a joke. But it’s clearly evolved. What have been some of the most important and impactful things that you have seen this space bring to people, or that they have found in this space for themselves?
The first thing that came to mind, it’s educating myself. I hadn’t intended for this to be an educational platform, or for it to even be sex-positive, to begin with. It had just been the plan to post the gashtrays. And then as it snowballed, I started to educate myself in these things. It has been such a learning experience. Just from the community, especially being involved in that community has opened me up to so many different perspectives. It’s been a complete re-education. I learned about consent through doing this way later in life when I should have. But that was the big learning curve for me – a lot about identity, gender identity, sexuality. These were all massive revelations to me, and that all came from literally just being able to talk to people about it. The community itself was so accepting of everyone and their stories. That’s why I love today! People are comfortable enough to confide in me and share their stories. And that’s been brilliant.
I don’t want to take credit for this, because this is all from the Vulva positivity movement as well. But I think a massive thing that has come from this is looking at yourself. I don’t think that people take the time to look at their own genitals, in a nonsexual context as well. It’s so important to look at yourself for so many reasons. From a health point of view, what is your baseline? What is normal for you? If things change, then you know what’s changing, and what is your normal. From another point of view, just seeing how you work is a very important experience, but people don’t grab in there. People just don’t do it. I think the vulva positivity movement has encouraged people to do that, to inspect their bodies a little bit more often with a lot more love. Not in a critical light, just an observational tone. I think that’s so important.
This community, all these organizations, are driven by people who have not had the right education, trying to make sure that nobody else is raised like that.
Part of what you mentioned was sexuality and identity. Sexuality is a way to better understand your own identity. An incredible place for people to start their journey is understanding yourself and your own identity through this lens, and this relationship to that we touched on earlier. This relationship between creativity and sexuality that’s fascinating.
Yeah. I think creativity is just a form of communication with yourself, which again, we don’t do often enough. That’s what I’m hoping will come out of this. The sculpting tutorial we’re gonna do, the sculpting workshop is all about that. Are you a creative person in other ways?
You can be creative in the way you live your life, or in a certain art form. I love that you said, creativity is communication with yourself. Learning about creativity, that it’s not learning a new skill, it’s uncovering something human, that we have within us, but that we were disconnected from. It’s reconnecting ourselves and diving deeper, embracing and enhancing that part. Through tapping into it, it becomes much bigger, and you can hone that skill. People sometimes think, “Oh, I’m not good at relationships or being creative”. No, just life gets in the way. You have to get over obstacles that are keeping you from being in touch with that part of yourself. However, it’s much harder if you don’t make space for it. If you go about your life busy, and you’re not cutting out time to spend having intimate moments and deep conversations, you’re not going to be able to tap into your creativity.
That’s self-reflection. And I think there’s also a challenge to it. Once you get into that, if you make time to be creative, even if you’re already in the creative industry, we set very high standards for ourselves. I think we lose sight of the purpose of creativity. So much of it can be around language like “Oh, it’s not good enough. It didn’t come out how I wanted it to look, I’m not a professional ceramicist” or whatever else you might say. But that, again, is such a shame, because you’re missing the point. It’s so insightful.
That’s about the process, not the outcome. I’m all about intentions over expectations. Expectations are outcome-focused. If you’re judging things based on the outcome, or going into them with expectations, you’ll be disappointed. You don’t have control over everything in your projects. What you do have control over is the process and how you go into it. If you have intentions going into it, to challenge yourself, to learn, to grow, to be open, to try and be present. That’s how you can control them. That’s more valuable in the end. If a whole journey is from here to here, we only look at this one, tiny point on it. You’ll never make it there without this journey. And you’re ignoring the vast majority of it. In the end, the journey was more important. Creativity should be process-focused. And even if the outcome isn’t getting you to where you want to go, you might be growing in other ways. You, as a person, and as a creator might be getting closer to where you want to be going regardless.
It’s a learning experience, and even failures or mistakes are valuable. I love that mindset.
I would love to have you tell us a bit about how the workshop works. What do people do, and what are some of these points in the workshop where people tend to have these mindset shifts? What are some of the most valuable testimonials or comments people have made to you?
So in the workshop, we’re going to be doing a self-portrait tile-making workshop. Whatever genitals you have, we’re going to be teaching new sculpting techniques on how to represent your genitals in clay. It’s going to be open dialogue throughout, we’re just going to be discussing anatomy and our feelings towards our genitals. Questions like when did we first look at them, and other similar topics. It’s a slow process. It’s a very calming process. It’s very focused. And I think that in itself, it’s a healthy process. Essentially, you look at your genitals, you could take a picture or look in a mirror. From my personal experience, and from other people telling me, the act of intricately looking at your genitals, and spending upwards of an hour sculpting them, if you wanted to, focusing on each line increase, wrinkle, and hair. That act is so effective in disarming your insecurities because the image loses all meaning. No longer are these your genitals which can carry history and trauma. Now, it’s just an image in front of you. And you’re just following the lines, and you become so comfortable with it.
We did a similar workshop a few years ago, and this was pre-COVID. So it was beautiful, a room of 20 people or so sculpting their bodies together. And everyone went to the toilet mirror and took a photo. And by the time you were like, sculpting away together, we’d all got into the flow of it. People completely forgot, and they had their phones on the table with their pictures, everybody just out there. That’s pretty cute. It was so beautiful and so uplifting. It’s just becoming more at peace with it really, and just more aware of your genitals. I personally really recommend it because even I’ve done a few portraits of myself in the past, and it’s been like a long process. The act has been so therapeutic. And then I’ve come away, thinking it looks nothing like me. But in some ways, I don’t. It doesn’t feel very representative. I don’t like the look of the sculpture, but the act of it, of just staring at yourself for that long is just so calming.
That room sounds magical. Taking something we talked about earlier, making these sculptures, acknowledging that this is ordinary, in the sense that half the world has this body part, says that seeing yourself is a healthy human thing. Being able to look at it as separating ourselves emotionally from it, and getting rid of that noise. Like we were talking about before, life gets in the way. The noise, culture, the messages we hear, we’re getting rid of that here, and objectively looking at ourselves. Looking in this way, we can create that acceptance, and almost forget that it’s a part of us, to tap back into it. As if we were looking at somebody else. Often we’re more accepting of other people than we are of ourselves. Looking at it in this way is this ordinary thing yet, it’s art. We’re celebrating this beauty creating something extraordinary and unique. Yes, everybody has one, but we have our own fingerprints. We live in this unhealthy place, so tapping into those two sides of the spectrum is ordinary and extraordinary, so we’re bringing them together to reshape. I love this idea of reshaping the clay and reshaping our concepts of ourselves, our body image, and our sexuality and self-esteem.
Our genitals are so crowded with stigma and insecurity. Because of that shame and insecurity, we tend to avoid them. We tend to not look at them, pretend they’re not there. Except that’s just going to perpetuate it. Just take a long, hard look in the mirror.
We’re keeping ourselves from a deeper relationship with ourselves through that understanding. First of all, if you’ve never looked at yourself, if you don’t even know what you look like, it creates a lack of awareness. That in turn blocks acceptance, because looking at ourselves is a form of intimacy. BBXX, in the end, is about that relationship with yourself. First, we can only go as deep with other people as we can with ourselves. So if we’re keeping ourselves from deeper intimacy, then we’re also preventing deeper intimacy with everyone else. This space with ourselves is an incredible tool.
This connects to some of the research that we’ll talk about at the event. Art can be this therapeutic tool and uniquely allow for some of these things. You have to think and you can’t always find your words. In art therapy, sometimes we’re not willing to admit to ourselves, or out loud, insecurity. It might sound silly if we’re insecure about our fingernails, or belly buttons, or some random part of our body. We might not be willing to admit it or say it out loud. Art allows us to express those feelings in a nonverbal way. It helps process and recreate that relationship we have with that body part, for example. Again, it’s reshaping, not just what you’re creating, but what’s in your mind. As you said, you kind of lose yourself in that process. You come out with a different perspective and relationship with yourself. Art, in that way, is a very unique and powerful tool to tap into.
Because at the end of it, you get to hang it on a wall, and you get to look at it. That’s the best part!
You get to start the conversation with everybody! We sell these amazing necklaces that are also vibrators. And it’s incredible. When you wear that around, people always ask, is that a pipe? Do you use it as a whistle? Do you keep drugs in there? It becomes this opportunity to either say “Oh, yeah, it’s a necklace.” You don’t have to tell people what it is. However, when you choose to, it starts this whole conversation. Just as a result of wearing that necklace, a huge number of people have opened up to me and told me their stories. It’s a symbol that I am here to create this environment where it is accepted and they feel welcome. This symbol clears the air for people to be able to share their stories. So in regards to these genital sculptures, not only do you get to do this workshop but transform your relationship with your body. You get to know your body and mind connection. Then you get to walk away with something, a piece of art that celebrates it, and you can go hang it on your wall. After that, every time people come over, you have this amazing conversation starter to reinforce the entire beautiful cycle.
My dream is to have these conversations with people outside of the wonderful echo chamber we’re in. They’re almost more in need of the conversation than the people who have already begun this journey and are open to it. I was just thinking that now and then I do a bit of freelance design for this agency, and it’s not with my usual crowd. I go and work with a bunch of men, especially middle-aged men. I don’t bump into many where I am normally. They tend to be an uptight designer crew, and they’re very intimidated by gashtrays, I can see every time. They’ll be asking me how work is going, though they won’t say the word “gashtrays”. I’ll tell them it’s good and a bit about it. Every time they respond with, “Cool, cool” and then they’ll be a bit shy, and end the conversation. However, one time they asked what I was up to, and I told them I was writing a piece on FGM. They asked me what it was, and it sparked this conversation that they would have never had otherwise. We had this 40-minute conversation about female genital mutilation. They got so interested. I could see that it was a lot for them to break out of their shell and talk about it. But they did, and it sparked that conversation.
You just need a spark and you can start a fire. The number of times that I have talked to older men, and older women, but specifically men in their 70s and 80s about BBXX and sexuality. Those are sometimes the people most interested and accepting. They’re open, with responses like “oh my god, my wife and I are like this”. This is a global thing. These are conversations people all over the world are waiting to have. They’re just waiting for the okay. Being that symbol opens that space. It lets them know that it is okay. I love creating the symbol and giving people the opportunity to, with their own hands, create their own symbol, and to invite others to join this conversation that will turn that spark into a fire.
Hani’s event is launching soon! Tickets are available for purchase here!
You can sculpt yourself or a partner but lean into that process of reflecting on yourself, literally and figuratively. Use this opportunity to take this clay and create this beautiful tile. Create yourself. Explore yourself. You’ll end up creating these beautiful, beautiful works of art.