“When Zoe met Liz” reads like a page from a Hollywood film about two young women coming of age in New York City during 2010s. Nearly a decade ago, photographer and now-New Yorker photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom met Zoe Ligon, who would soon become a sex education and entrepreneur, while the two twenty-somethings were working at a local American Apparel store.
After realizing they both lived in the same neighborhood, they started commuting to and from work together. A friendship quickly blossomed, and theirs has become a relationship that has grown both personally and professionally. Together, Renstrom and Ligon have authored their first book, Carnal Knowledge: Sex Education You Didn’t Get in School (Prestel)
The book features 52 progressive sex-positive tips that explore sexuality from a diverse array of perspectives. Renstrom’s brightly colored pop-art style images offer a wholesome look at the subject of sex with the wit and wisdom of a big sister whose “been there, done that” knowing offers a space for warmth, understanding, and acceptance.
“I am always inspired by Zoe’s openness and passion for education—she’s someone that makes me feel safe and heard when talking about my own pleasure,” Remstrom says. “I think what’s empowering is the accessibility she brings to her business that helps diminish feelings of stigma.”
Here Renstrom shares her experiences creating a wholly original visual language of sexuality and desire unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
What inspired you and Zoe Ligon to collaborate on a series of illustrated sex tips?
“I was commissioned by the online magazine, Topic, to create a series of photos focused on sex education—they pitched it as “6 things they never taught you in Sex Ed class.” I knew immediately I wanted to collaborate with Zoe on conceptualizing the text to make sure I had an informed voice and one that was pleasure-focused. I had just done some product photography for her incredible shop, Spectrum Boutique, and felt like I would need her expertise when it came to toy curation as well for the shoot.
“Zoe came up with seven incredible tips that I paired with some visual metaphors that I would set design and photograph. The story ended up being a lot of fun to create and it was a dream to co-author something with Zoe for the first time after many years of knowing and growing with her. I also feel like across the board—most people didn’t have a positive experience with sex education growing up, and this feels like a great entry point for the kind of information I wish I had in school.”
Could you speak about your decision to take a creative approach to illustrating these images, creating a symbolic language that is lighthearted and fun, rather than going in either a more explicit, clinical, lascivious, or clichéd direction?
“I knew I wanted the book to feel both accessible and fun to engage with even on the heavier topics we dive into. Oftentimes the greatest barrier to entry with sex education can be shame or uncertainty. My reasoning for still lives, bright colors, and ambiguity on models, is so the viewer can read the information and have a visual to remember it by versus something they could potentially compare themselves against or get intimidated by.
“Zoe is comprehensive in her approach so there are tips surrounding issues of trauma, relationships, and identity. I see my images as a whimsical entry point into robust information that can hopefully lead people to more self-love and pleasure!”
Could you share your thoughts on the idea of the “female gaze”?
“I think a lot about how cis, heterosexual men curate our culture and how that affects what we all value about ourselves and our sexual experiences. I see a lot of my personal work challenging the hypocrisy of these messages. Whether that’s advertising selling any kind of sex except one that centers female pleasure one moment to shilling feminist products the next—I like exploring all this consumption and what it means. I think that’s the ‘female gaze’ at work in my photography and what I continued in this book that centers a path to self-pleasure.”
Could you speak about the importance of women leading a conversation about sexuality, desire, agency, relationship, body image, and other topics covered in the book that allow us to expand the way we think about and discuss these subjects amongst ourselves and in public?
“I think it’s particularly important that people like Zoe, who are both sex positive and comprehensive in their education, lead the conversation so it can shift from one that talks about everyone else’s pleasure but our own.
“In the introduction, Zoe writes, ‘The world around me reinforced the message that pleasure was something intended for a penis; sex was something a vulva, mouth, or anus bestowed upon a phallus. Before I’d ever touched my own body, I was having every kind of sex except solo sex. It’s not that I wanted to try it and was embarrassed; I just had no desire to know my own body.’
“I think a lot of people can relate to this. I certainly do. We often save our own sexuality last for a myriad of reasons–and what I love about this book and a new conversation around sex. What are those reasons, how can we talk about them and figure out what’s holding us back from giving self-pleasure a chance?”
With Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “WAP” with a record breaking 93 million streams in America the demand for a women-centered approach to sexuality is very clear. Yet doing so is also met with so much pushback. Why do you think people are still so uncomfortable with women leading the conversation?
“I think people love to sexualize women but can’t deal with their sexual liberation or expression of sexuality—which always leads to policing it. People are terrified of female sexuality when they can’t control it and this pushback isn’t new. So many female rappers have faced this type of vitriol in the past when male rappers can haven’t for similar expressions of their own pleasure.
“‘Slob on my knob,’ anyone? We are in a moment, especially in rap, where it seems like we’re finally allowed to have more than one female star at the top of her game. I think people are excited that Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion can share this together with an incredibly catchy, amazing song. I think that energy is infectious.”
Lastly, can you share any advice for photographers who are looking to speak about gender, sexuality, body positivity, relationships, or other intimacies in their work, and what approaches might be helpful to allow them to break out of the clichés of representation on this front?
“In any project I always recommend making sure you take the time to educate yourself on the topic you’re trying to illustrate to avoid over-simplifying. Consider the different types of audiences that this work will be shared with and think about how you want to get your message across.
“Do you want to document to confront? Do you want to educate? Do you want to make a public record of something? Or are you just trying to express your personal experiences through a series? I always think having a thesis or some end goals can make how you create a little clearer.”
All images: © Elizabeth Renstrom. From Carnal Knowledge: Sex Education You Didn’t Get in School by Zoë Ligon and Elizabeth Renstrom © Prestel Verlag, Munich · London · New York, 2020.