A Little Brief on Sex-Positivity and Events

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Lately, I have been reading many people’s writings online and I have made some shocking discoveries. I have arrived at a solid conclusion: folks don’t understand what the hell they are talking about, particularly when referring to parties as “sex-positive.”

This is a bit of a diatribe on the many ways in which the layperson (popular culture) skews academic terms, reducing them to some colloquial neo-activist jargon with no understanding of the word, its application, nor its history.

We see “sex-positive parties” being discussed and promoted. These are parties where “sex-positive” means no matter who you are, what gender you are, what sexual orientation you are, everyone is equal, and you can get it on with these people in that space. Why is this flawed? Why should we care?

Here is a small, somewhat rudimentary explanation on what sex-positivity is, and why an event cannot be promoted as “sex-positive,” thus becoming one of the greatest and most egregious hijackings of a term to which I have ever been witness.

“Sex-positive” is not a designation for a type of event. If sex is permitted at an event, please call it SOP (Sex-On-Premises). It even fits better on promotional materials! Sex-Permitted Party is even better. Moreover, an event which encourages sex-positivity does not necessarily have to include sex on premises, says Allena Gabosch, Executive Director of the Center for Sex-Positive Culture located in Seattle, Washington (formerly The Wet Spot). In fact, failing to recognize that very issue is entirely against the ideology of true sex-positivity.

Indeed calling parties sex-positive is literally an impossibility as it is an assumption. Parties cannot be predicted as being sex-positive. They could very well be sex-negative as we have seen lately. How can we possibly know a party is sex-positive unless it has already happened, and we have wound down to think about it, recognize who was there, why they were there, what happened, how attendees felt, and the overall vibe of the event? Perhaps the people there subscribe to sex-positivity as an ideology, or that it encourages sex-positive mindsets, but it is not an event label. PLEASE. In the immortal words of Metric: “Stop! For the love of god!”

Things you can call sex-positive in its correct application:
A culture.
An ideology.
A doctrine.
A dogma.
A movement.
A world.
A worldview.
A community.
A person.
A zeitgeist, an era, an age, or any form of temporality.

It is an essence.

For those who don’t know enough about sex-positivity, here is a little background:

The dichotomous nature of sex-positivity vs. sex-negativity can be dated back to the 1920s. Wilhelm Reich wanted to combine theories of Freud and Marx in a way Leftists could find acceptable. It essentially hypothesizes that some societies accept sexual expression as valuable, insisting upon it as a prerequisite of mental health, while other groups of people deplore sexuality and try to enact legislation and puritanical or “morality-based” social norms as a means of social control.

What do we mean when we say “sex-positive”? The actual term “sex-positivity” is a feminist term coined in the late 1970s. It is a philosophical social movement that encourages pleasure as opposed to puritanism. We can understand sex-positivity by understanding sex-positive feminism. Widely regarded as one of the founders of the early pro-sex feminist movement, Betty Dodson (one of my personal idols who has inspired me greatly after meeting and speaking with her) generalizes sex-positive feminism very succinctly in this quote:

“For me a sex-positive feminist is a person who supports individual choice for all sex styles and life-styles [not lifestyles]. This would include the variations such as straight, gay, bi, intersex, trans*, and of course selfsexuals and asexuals. Life-styles would include bachelor (male or female) [or any other gender for that matter], married, monogamous, serial monogamy, polygamy and polyamory. And then there are those of us like myself who insist upon doing as many of the above as possible.”

I would also add that gender non-conformity, queer, and cisgender roles also play important parts.

Along with Carlin Ross, Gayle Rubin, Carol Queen, Nina Hartley, and others, the movement advocated the freedom of information about consent, masturbation and self-play, physical and emotional health, risk-awareness, personal responsibility, and other sex-related topics. This fight between the sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists was called the Feminist Sex Wars.

The pro-sex tribe took exception to Catherine McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and others’ distorted conceptions that pornography is inherent violence against women. Linda Lovelace hypocritically helped out the anti-pornography advocates, using her notable role in the infamous porn flick Deep Throat as a means to perpetuate the idea that all women are forced into sex work. I have zero respect for Lovelace because of the lies she spewed to the anti-pornography movement, in order to catapult it to a higher level of attention.

In truth, all cultures regulate sexual behaviour one way or another. No human society allows its members, whatever their age, sex, or social status, to interact sexually with one another without restriction. Indeed, there are several cultures in which heterosexual intercourse, even with the full consent of the adult participants, can be punished by ostracism, mutilation, or even death if it involves, for example, a liaison between a male of a lower caste and a female of a higher one. As a perfect example of this, we can look at the honour killing of Jaswinder (Jazzy) Sidhu, a South Asian woman from the Metro Vancouver area who fell in love with and married a lower caste man, a rickshaw driver, in India’s Punjab region and was subsequently murdered there on the orders of her mother and her uncle from here in Canada. Also, the concern with the legitimacy of one’s offspring inevitably causes the sexual freedom of women to be restricted. Fathers ideally tend to seek clear lineage and progeny for the most part.

Another example of regulation on sexuaĺ activities is that of homosexuality and the Church:

“Medieval Christianity professed an ascetic ideal that would forever place homosexual activity outside the scope of morality, since it can never serve the Christian ideal of procreation or generation within lawful marriage, and all other forms of attachment were denied the right of sexual expression…”

Therefore if complete sexual freedom is añ unfounded myth, however appealing it may be to critics of Western sexual mores, then what factor promotes its acceptance?

The answer? Sex-positivity.

The crux of the sex-positive ideology includes the concepts of informed consent, agency, and health within one’s own sexuality. For some, this means having lots of sex, being polyamorous, free love, debauchery, true sexual liberty; as Oscar Wilde calls it: “all Cupids and cornucopias”, and perhaps some wild orgies.

BUT…

For others it might mean abstaining from sex entirely. Sex-positivity aims to remove stigma and shame from ALL consensual sexual choices.

While language does continue to evolve, it is extremely important that the essence of words remain true, particularly when they have potentially serious consequences to physical, emotional, and mental health. And while I appreciate the evolution of words, I disrespect the misrepresentation of important meanings to suit and fulfill personal agendas. That’s why I don’t watch Fox News!

Indeed, we can expand the term to include more culture, more worldviews, more life-styles, however using it to tell people: “Hey, you can fuck at my event. Come on down!” is just plain wrong.

Yes, perhaps attendees are sex-positive but that does not make an event sex-positive. An event with sex-positive people in attendance still has the potential to be sex-negative and we must always be cognizant of this fact.

With this little rant, I aim to dispense actual, factual information and knowledge on terminology and buzzwords such as this, so we can all learn and thus begin using them correctly, returning power to the words themselves . The popularization of words in the wrong context is in fact beginning to affect Academia and all the work we have collectively put in to create these terms. We are finding that due to some odd phenomenon, many people have clutched on to a false understanding of the words and are, as a result, forced to undo and correct much of the spin placed on “new buzzwords”. Inevitably, we look like assholes when we correct the layperson or try to educate. Nonetheless, I continue to fervently spread the message however and whenever I can. This begs the question: who is doing the actual damage here? Twisting extremely socially important and highly researched words in a reductionist, exclusively self-serving way, in fact helps nobody.

Now that you, dear Reader, have a little more information about sex-positivity, I encourage you too to stand up proudly and correct those who insist on using these terms with impunity, and/or those who simply are too ignorant to know any better.

We will create a truly sex-positive environment once we begin understanding it.

11 Comments

  1. Terra / February 18, 2015 at 2:44 pm / Reply

    Wonderfully written!

    I admit, I have used the phrase incorrectly.
    Primarily this is because people use it incorrectly around me.

    I’ll do my part. I’ll correct them when I opportunities arise.

    <3

  2. Joolz / February 20, 2015 at 7:59 pm / Reply

    Shared on my twatter feed as well to keep the conversation flowing.

  3. Ryan / February 21, 2015 at 10:29 pm / Reply

    I disagree very strongly with this. I feel like the author wrote with a great deal of knowledge about history and sexuality but without much experience in the various sexual communities–especially the sex positive one.

    When we were heavily involved in the swinger community in various countries, we attended a ton of sex parties, both off premise and on premise. You are correct, “On Premise” is a very valid way to describe parties and clubs. However, it isn’t the only way, and it is not nearly the best way. Mostly, it is a description of the rules, not the crowd or vibe. The actual party could be a swinger party(couples and single females), it could be an LGBT party, it could be a kink party, or it could be something else entirely (littles, furry, etc…), When we discovered sex positive parties, we discovered a series of events where all of the above are welcome and encouraged. The term describes the vibe, the community, and yes it also describes the party. There are some not ideal sex positive parties in Vancouver, but at parties in SF and NY and elsewhere, the vibe is usually VASTLY more social at a sex positive party than at the other types of events. Sex is around and is an element of the evening, but its in a spirit of celebration, not anything exclusionary or forced upon you.

    An individuals jaded misperception of a movement is no reason to hijack the term that has been used to describe this growing community for many years–to do so feels sex elitist. In the end, shouldn’t we want more things to involve sex positivity, not less?

  4. 2ndNature / February 23, 2015 at 10:06 am / Reply

    I disagree very strongly with your disagreement. You are attempting to validate your misunderstanding with “oh i have been to parties here there and everywhere” and so you think you know what you’re talking about when it is clearly evident you do not. Your belief is so deeply entrenched in your lay, flawed vernacular that you are in deep denial about your lack of knowledge and misappropriation of a term you don’t want or seek to understand.

    It seems odd to me that you would assume I have a lack of experience. That would be very wrong indeed. I too have been to events, parties, conferences (both kinky and academic) “here there and everywhere” and have spoken to “this and that well-known, famous, respected author/presenter/educator/sex worker/etc” and could name-drop all those who agree completely with me till the cows come home, but I choose not to because I don’t want to seem like an arrogant prick. The only arrogance I see is your location-dropping and assumptions of my inexperience to support your insistence on continued incorrect usage of something you clearly know nothing about. “Sex-positive” is not akin to being a “furry” and definitely not the same as GLBT and let’s not forget QAI, sexual identities/orientations, not ideologies, and decidedly not essences.

    It is my experience in fact that has prompted this writing, which I have rightly supported with facts from Academia.

    I will repeat that you cannot say a party was sex-positive until it has happened. Saying so could be seen as false advertising. As I also said, you can definitely call an environment sex-positive, so the party’s ENVIRONMENT could be sex-positive, but not the party. My big problem is with those who insist on describing sex on premises as sex-positive, instead of the environment in which the party is held.

    I suggest reading up a little more on sex-positive culture, as opposed to deriving your pop culture misunderstanding from the pop culture misunderstanding of others. Time to break the vicious trend!

  5. Melly / February 23, 2015 at 6:26 pm / Reply

    I have now come across your writing on this subject a few times. Each time I’ve read what you’ve written, I have been struck by the arrogance, lack of willingness to discuss and elitism that some of your writing conveys. Especially when you’ve chosen to make this argument in the comments on threads where people are talking about having been sexually violated; the lack of empathy and drive to be right is concerning. For me, one of the key components of sex positivity is that it is a social movement and one that I’d argue is imperative to healthy people and healthy society. I do not believe we can attain social change by beating allies over the head with our opinions and demanding they fall in line. The kind of divisiveness that is inherent in your ivory tower-esq arguments are ultimately damaging to your very own end goal.

    Often in social movements, we see grassroots knowledge being influenced through academia and we see academia being influenced through grassroots movements. To demand a division or to try to control these influences so that they are top-down and unidirectional rather than symbiotic is naïve. To try to exact that type of control while calling down and degrading the people who are the movers and shakers on the ground in the grassroots component of this movement is divisionary and not at all useful.

    What I think you’re failing to realize or are refusing to see is that some people are telling you that there are now events and groups organized for the sole purpose of advancing sex positive culture. That means that these groups understand what sex positive means in its academic sense and are doing what they can to help promote it. Promotion may be through workshops, parties, mixers, education or any number of other facets. These groups throw sex positive events where people are free to be themselves, where they can find communion with like-minded individuals, where they can be educated and sometimes (though not always) where they can have sex.

    When the focus of the community, group and its leaders is sex positivity then the event is sex positive. To say that you cannot determine if the event is sex positive or negative is like saying you can’t determine if a gay dance is truly a gay dance until afterwards when you’ve tallied the results and determined that ever single attendee was gay. Just because a couple of BFFs who happen to be hetero women or a couple of bi-guys come doesn’t mean the event is not gay. Likewise, sometimes things happen at Sex Positive events that are not sex positive but that doesn’t mean that the entire group/event is sex negative. This is especially true when organizers and leaders take the time to make that a teaching moment, inform those who were not being sex positive and help spur more change growth and education. Then the net result is more sex positivity. Groups, organizers and leaders can set the intention of throwing sex positive parties through promoting sex positive ideology, by advancing the culture, and promoting sex positive education. When those are the focuses of the event, it is sex positive.

    I agree totally that Sex Positive and Sex on Premises/Sex Permitted are not the same thing and that these terms should not be used interchangeably. I also agree that using them interchangeably could be detrimental to the Sex Positive movement, especially where there is no actual focus on sex positivity. I think that for an event to be sex positive, it needs to have some goals other than letting people get it on. I also think that claiming that Sex Positive events cannot and do not exist is akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. These events are the grassroots component of the academic movement. Sex Positive events and groups are part of the social change that should be important to all of us activists whether we be academic, grassroots, new to the movement, old hats or otherwise. No good comes of taking an elitist stance against our own.

    Perhaps communicating with more compassion and less talking-down to people would help illustrate your point better or at least make it easier for people to absorb. People do not like being told that they don`t know what they`re talking about. Especially when they’ve dedicated years of their lives to promoting sex positivity. I also think accepting that things may be changing and that though SOP events are not the same as Sex Positive Events, the latter may exist. Probably at least partially because of the groundwork laid by those you idolize in your post. The existence of these events is a testament to the Sex Positive work done to date because it means times are changing.

  6. 2ndNature / February 24, 2015 at 11:18 am / Reply

    The only people to whom I sound “elitist” is a very small, very specific population of individuals. Everyone else is on board. So that small, very specific population’s perception of me is insignificant, to me anyways. Those who find me “elitist” are the very people who simply don’t get it, or refuse to understand, or are in denial, and that is precisely why they perceive me as “elitist”.

    It is like Republicans calling Obama “elitist” because he is more accomplished, and thus possibly perceived as more intelligent, even despite being of colour. It makes them look bad in comparison. It is no different in this situation. It makes a very small, very specific population defensive for going about things the wrong way. I have tried in vain to elicit awareness and well, some people will not accept it. That is ok with me. At least I tried out of caring. That is what compassion is. Passing off consent violations as other people’s responsibility is uncompassionate in my opinion. So yeah. I tried, although to no avail for that very small, very specific population. I am really enjoying my time being praised for taking a stand.

  7. 2ndNature / February 25, 2015 at 2:59 am / Reply

    Ok update: I have mulled it over in my head let it sink in. I am beginning to understand what you are saying when you make sex-positive people who all are sex-positive and they all have a party. Ok i get that. I can get behind that for sure.

    My major qualm remains about the difference between SOP and sex-positive. I have noticed a change in usage lately and that’s pretty cool. There are however people who conflate a sexy time.party with a sex-positive one.

  8. Melly / February 25, 2015 at 7:53 am / Reply

    It’s really too bad that you cannot have a conversation about the changes people see and how people are using the term “Sex Positive” for events that are not/not always sex on premises events. Instead, I see you using logical fallacies such as; Straw Man (ad homimem/abusive fallacy/poisoning the well), Proof by Assertion, Moral High Ground. For example, appealing to this unknown/unnamed crowd of people that support your position without actually arguing your position, attacking the person presenting the argument and presenting an either/or scenario where other options exists – all of these in place of presenting any concrete information. It would be good to see you present actual knowledge in some logical arguments rather than falling back on calling people down and telling them they do not matter while laying claim to your own success.

  9. Ryan / February 26, 2015 at 10:25 pm / Reply

    Wow….I took issue with your conclusions and decided point out my disagreements, but I stopped well shy of personal insults. You however went off the deep-end and I feel that it kinda destroys your credibility. This is the most sex negative discussion of sex positivity that I have ever read. It feels like you had bad experiences and need to shout about them, rather than being constructive and creating a community that celebrates the ideals that you claim to trumpet. Honestly, I’m glad that all of the discussion that I’ve read about this article has been about its severe flaws.

  10. Ryan / February 26, 2015 at 11:03 pm / Reply

    And Melly, that was spot on. Well said.

  11. Dave / May 10, 2015 at 12:17 pm / Reply

    Hopefully it is not annoying that I am posting months after the last post, but…

    If you can call a party sex positive until after it has happened, then I guess you can’t even call it a party until it has actually happened.

    Describing a party as sex positive is describing the intention of the party and, in that context, seems perfectly acceptable.

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