"sex-positive". what a loaded term.
I've been reading this whole thing over the past couple of days, and processing everyone's reactions and responses, and thinking about all of the points being made on all sides (whether I agree with them or not), and there's a whole swirling mass of reactions going around in my head. A lot of it revolves around the label "sex-positive", what it means, and how it's been construed (and, I feel, misconstrued) in certain subcultures I move around in. I kind of want to meander around and talk out loud about my thoughts for a while. (A long while.) I have no conclusions and no theory to advance here; I just want to sort of noodle around the issues and explore them.
Background, to frame the discussion: I am a thirty-one year old woman who's been sexually active since I was fourteen. I used to identify as bisexual, and still do if really pressed to provide a totally accurate description of my sexuality, but in practice I haven't slept with a man in about eight years. (I don't rule it out, and there are men I've been sexually attracted to since then, but in practice, I tend to go for women.) I don't consider that I've experienced rape, though looking at things in hindsight, I've experienced a couple dodgy consent issues in my past (and there are those who believe that a fourteen-year-old can't consent to anything -- for what it's worth, I don't agree; my phase of sketchy consent didn't happen until my very late teens) -- but either way, I can't ever remember being in a situation where I felt unsafe or threatened with sexual violence. I'm very ideologically casual about my sexual encounters -- I will happily have casual sex with friends with whom I am not 'in love', as long as everyone involved is good, giving, and game and understands that the watchword is 'no harm, no foul'. (In theory; in practice, my libido's taken some serious hits in the past two years due to disability issues and the impracticality of having sex when one's hip will dislocate if you look at it funny.) I am polyamorous by inclination, currently monogamous in practice.
I mention the background for context, and also because it illustrates a lot of the prejudices and privilege I bring to the table. I consider myself "sex-positive", hands down. I like sex. (A lot.) I like sexuality. I like having sex, I like talking about sex, I like writing about sex, I like exploring sexuality. I think bodies are neat. (When mine's not trying to kill me, that is.) I think sex between two (or more) people of like minds can be anything and everything from a friendly way to blow off some tension to a beautiful, world-moving expression of transcendent love. I also don't value the beautiful, world-moving expression of transcendent love more or less highly than the friendly way to blow off tension. I think there's room for both, and that it's nobody's business but the people involved as long as everybody's on the same page and there's open, forthright, and up-front communication. That's what I mean when I say "sex-positive".
The problem is that "sex-positive" is a loaded term.
And it goes both ways. There's a real problem with certain people (who identify as "sex-positive") believing that their way is the One True Way, who believe that anyone who doesn't see the complex, seething issues of sex and sexuality (in a society as damaged as ours is) in the same way they do is repressed, prudish, Part Of The Problem, or brainwashed into thinking that their way is right. There's a real problem with certain people (whose experience of the concept "sex-positive" comes from those people) believing that "sex-positive" equates to "agent of the patriarchy", who believe that someone who identifies as "sex-positive" is trying to remove everyone else's agency and dictate the One True Way. And yeah, you know, there's elements of truth from both camps in there. There are a lot of times when I want to throw up my hands and tell someone to get the fuck off my side, because they're making me look bad.
The thing with this particular situation is -- I know this subculture. I spent a lot of time on the SF convention/anime convention/Renfaire/SCA circuit (let's call it the "nerd underground", for ease of discussion) at an early age, and it did me a lot of good in some ways and it was a real annoyance in others. The subculture (as I know it and experienced it) is made up of equal parts people who are genuinely, honestly, respectfully "sex-positive", with the corresponding weight upon and awareness of consent & comfort issues, and people who just want no-strings sex and lechery and don't care what sort of damage they leave behind them. (For ease of reference, let's call the two groups "sex-positive" and "getting-laid-positive".)
I think the whole Open Source Boobs thing -- as it was presented in theferrett's journal writeup, since I wasn't there and have no idea what the actuality of the situation really was -- runs smack-dab into that dividing line. I also think that there's a fundamental nomenclature problem here. Way too often, people who are "getting-laid-positive" say "I am sex-positive" and really mean "I am pro-open-expression-of-your-sexuality" instead of "I am comfortable with my own sexuality". And there's a really, really fine line between that and "I will pressure you to openly express your sexuality for my benefit". In contexts of the nerd underground, it can be nearly impossible to distinguish that fine line.
From the time I was 17 to the time I was 21 or so, I spent my summers working the Renfaire circuit. I won't say which faires -- that's not the point -- but at the time, it was an intriguing culture. For those of you who've never been to Faire, there's a really big cultural emphasis on showing off the goods -- men wear very tight tights, women wear low-cut blouses and cleavage-enhancing bodices. (When lacing up my bodice in the morning before the gates opened, the test was always -- if I couldn't rest a pewter mug on my cleavage and have it balance properly without being supported, the bodice wasn't tight enough. And before you ask, no, it wasn't uncomfortable at all; the damn thing offered a hell of a lot more back support than any bra I've ever worn.)
I was there the summer that the International Wenches Guild was formed; I was one of those first-year members. I've been on Wench Walks ("We're walking ... we're wenching ...") and handed out Free Kiss cards left and right. And when you look at the Wenches Guild information, and particularly when you look at the information about the affiliated guild for men (the International Brotherhood of Rogues, Scoundrels, and Cads), it sets off a lot of the same red-flag bells and whistles that the Open Source Boobs sets off. Looking at the way it's presented and framed on those websites, and if that were my only experience, I'd be skeeved out by it. But I was there that summer and subsequent summers; it wasn't sleazy or creepy. It was a playful expression of touch-positive culture -- Faire is a very touch-positive culture -- with a lot of concentration on letting people decide their own comfort level with being touched.
It did a lot of good for my eighteen-year-old, not-classically-attractive self. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were touch-positive, by people who didn't feel it was weird or unacceptable for me to want to display my body, by people who understood and accepted that it was my right to set my own boundaries about what I wanted to show and what I wanted to do. It was the first time I ever experienced an environment where the concept of "showing my body does not give you an implied license to touch my body" lived hand-in-hand with "explicitly permitting you to touch my body does not give implied license to perform sexual acts with me". It was the first time I ever realized that ogling someone else's body -- or having someone ogle my body -- could be a respectful expression of appreciation for physical beauty without also containing "pressure to perform", as it were.
It was also the first time that I became aware -- slowly -- that there were people who saw that kind of environment and interpreted it as "hey, free eats".
Because Faire wasn't any kind of utopia. There were skeevy men (I'm trying to avoid gender assumptions here, but to be honest, the skeevy people were overwhelmingly male) who saw an eighteen-year-old girl with considerable physical infrastructure and an appreciation of sex, and thought "hey, I gotta get me a piece of that". There were people who didn't respect that difference between looking and touching, and people who did go for the hard sell of "if you're showing it, you must want me to touch it" and acted accordingly. I found myself in a couple of situations where I did experience heavy pressure to "put out", as it were, and there were a couple of cases where I found myself going along with that pressure -- not because I felt threatened, but because my default belief (at that point) was "hey, why the hell not". I wasn't the only woman who experienced this, I don't think, at Faire or at SCA events (which is a whole 'nother ball of wax -- there's a reason one popular SCA song ends with "if you can't get laid at the Pennsic war, you can't get laid at all").
(I should state however, for the record, that during the entire time I was at Faire, there was never a single case of violent sexual assault that came to my attention. Not just "reported", but "came to my attention" -- the gossip underground was very powerful. Dubious consent or heavy pressure into sexual intercourse was relatively common, but violence wasn't. In the entire four years I was heavily into the circuit, the only instance of violence against a woman that I was aware of wasn't sexually-motivated -- it was a patron attempting to mug someone. The Faire had many traveling salespeople, hawking all sorts of different products -- I was one of them, in fact -- and at the end of the day, it wasn't uncommon for you to be carrying a couple hundred dollars in your belt pouch, and traveling along some fairly deserted pathways. The patron attempted to relieve her of said cash while she was on one of those deserted pathways with nobody else around, and she screamed at the top of her lungs and had a dozen heavily armed and really annoyed people there in a minute flat. I'm not saying this to excuse the people who were doing the sexual pressuring, because they were sleazy and needed to be reined in by the invisible dogpile of shunning a lot harder than they were, but there were good parts, too.)
Again, this is all sort of ... background, I guess, or personal anecdotes just to explain what shaped my thinking about this kind of thing. I've been in nerd-underground cultures where "sex-positive" turned out tremendously empowering, and in nerd-underground cultures where "sex-positive" (by which I mean "getting-laid-positive") turned out really skeevy and threatening my (and other women's) agency. (Often at the same time, and during the same incidents, from different people.)
And the thing is, it's really hard to see that distinction when you're in the middle of it, and it's hard to make that distinction clear to people who don't intuitively get it. And it's really really fucking hard to explain to someone who doesn't have that intuitive understanding why "may I touch your breasts?" is -- for me; I'm not presuming to speak for all women here -- a perfectly acceptable question (that will usually get an affirmative answer) in some contexts and from some people, while it's horribly intrusive and skeevy from others.
Performative sexuality is a touchy subject no matter what context it's in. Everybody's got different comfort levels, and any touch-positive, sexuality-positive, open and affirming subculture is going to run into the problems of differing comfort levels. I believe that part of being ethically "sex-positive" is an awareness of the comfort levels of the people around you, and a stated goal of respecting those comfort levels -- even at the expense of your own (imaginary) right to Do What You Want.
Yeah, that means that sometimes, you (generic "you") wind up having to stop making out in public because someone next to you is really skeeved out by it. It also means that it is your ethical responsibility to be aware that the person next to you is skeeved out by it, to watch for the people around you being skeeved out by it, and to never make someone feel even more uncomfortable because they've expressed being uncomfortable. And I don't just mean outright saying "hey, that skeeves me out, please stop" -- I mean all sorts of subtle and secondary cues, like body language, tone of voice, dirty looks, etc. And the problem is, many members of the nerd underground are bad at picking up those social cues. (Very, very, very bad at it.)
A strong part of being ethically "sex-positive" is to avoid transferring your assumptions of sexuality to other people. I've seen a lot of people, in discussion of the Open Source Boobs thing, saying "well, there were women involved, so it wasn't skeevy", and it's not the first time I've seen such arguments advanced. It goes back to the whole unspoken assumption, very common among the nerd underground, that my concepts of "sex-positive" should be your concepts of "sex-positive" and if they're not, you're not really "sex-positive"/a prude/a killjoy/a brainwashed tool of society. A lot of "getting-laid-positive" people use that kind of argument in justifying their attitudes, and it functions in an equivalent fashion to the 'some of my best friends are gay/black/women/Jewish/etc' argument in discussions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious prejudice: it is fronted as the magical pixie dust sprinkled over the situation to make it Okay.
I don't like that. I don't believe I have the right to decide for any other person -- man or woman -- how they want to express their sexuality. I don't believe that people who choose to express their sexuality in a different fashion than I do are any better or worse than I am. I don't believe that there's any magic incantation or invocation that you need to do or perform in order to self-identify as "sex-positive". I don't believe that someone who doesn't want to be touched (at this very moment or ever) is a prude, or brainwashed, or trying to harsh my fun. I don't believe that people who are made uncomfortable by my behaviour, in public or in private, are evil or annoying. When I realize that I'm making someone uncomfortable, I'm generally horrified by it, immediately stop what I'm doing, and apologize.
I'm a sexual person, I'm a touchy person. I hug. I snuggle. I tease. I flirt. I leer, I ogle, I crack dirty jokes. I lean against people if they're next to me, and I dole out backrubs and footrubs and handrubs at the slightest provocation. I also try really fucking hard to maintain awareness of secondary cues from the people around me, to make sure that my behaviour is read as friendly and not obtrusive. I still get it wrong sometimes. And I'm lucky; I'm blessed with a really good body-language detector and a fairly high awareness of social cues. For people who don't have that, it's one short step away from being That Guy. (Or, yeah, That Girl -- but in our culture, it's usually men who, blinded by their privilege, don't realize how uncomfortable they're making people.)
There's no good answer. There's no magic checklist that you can haul out and tick down to check that what you're doing, how you're performing, is Okay and not Skeevy. It's a question of paying attention, and adapting your behaviour in such a way as to make things happy and mellow and no-pressure for everyone involved. And that's fucking hard. We all function with so many pre-programmed attitudes and assumptions -- racial differences, gender differences, subculture differences, socialization differences, experiential differences -- that achieving a point where everyone's okay and nobody's freaked out or triggered or made uncomfortable or made to feel threatened is sometimes if not often impossible in a group of people with differing experiences and attitudes.
I struggle a lot with that. I struggle with the concept, the reality, that many women of my acquaintance feel threatened with sexual violence on a regular basis, to the point where it's a fundamental underpinning of their experience of the world. I am in no way saying that this experience is invalid; it's very obviously true that it is. I've never felt it. I literally cannot remember a single instance where I was in a situation where I felt that I was in physical danger. (I used to walk through Central Park at four in the morning on my nocturnal peramublations around Manhattan, and I was the only person on my dorm floor who was willing to walk through Washington Square Park at 2AM to get the pizza. And man, do I have stories.)
I know that this not only makes me damn fucking lucky, it makes me a distinct minority among women. I've felt the visceral reaction of "okay, you are creepy", but I've never been in a situation where that visceral reaction proceeded onward to a perception of physical danger. This fact privileges me. It gives me, I think, some small understanding of what the experience of having a piece of "male privilege" must be like: the privilege to walk through life without having to have eyes in the back of your head. For a long time, I took it for granted. It took me a really long time before I could understand that not everybody felt that way, and ever since I started waking up to it, I started trying to pay considerable attention to the elements of both the overarching American culture and the elements of various subcultures I belong to, trying to identify what does create that sense of awareness of danger.
I still don't have an answer; I am no closer to being able to absolutely identify what level of "awareness of others' existence as a sexual being" is okay and what level of it is danger-producing than I was when I started. I've got a start, though, and it's all tied up with objectification; it goes back to that distinction I was making between "sex-positive" and "getting-laid-positive"; it revolves, a little bit, around an assumption of "right of public access". I think the trouble happens when someone feels entitled to access someone else's body or someone else's sexuality, when someone feels entitled to receive fulfillment of their desires and wants at the cost of another person's desire to not fulfill those wants.
I still struggle with trying to define what kind of behaviour shows that entitlement -- because there's a very fine line between "hey, this is what I would like to get right now" and "this is what I would like to get right now, and you are obliged to provide it". And I'm totally down with people around me directly saying to me (in words or in subtext) "hey, in an ideal world, this is what I'd like to do with you right now", but I'm not cool with "this is what I'd like to get right now, and if you don't provide it to me I'll either just take it or pressure you to give it."
And the fact is, the very same set of actions (or statements, or situations, or whatever) can be either thing. I can, very easily, see how the Open Source Boobs thing, in context at the convention it happened at, was, for certain participants, a happy mellow laid-back empowering "sex-positive" thing. I can easily see how it could be a way of indicating that yes, I'm touch-positive; I'm looking for other touch-positive people; you can approach me without worrying. In a way, I think it was a fumbling attempt at putting some kind of structure into place where people who genuinely want to be one of the Good People, but who aren't blessed with that same sort of awareness of social cues and body language, could relax a little bit.
The fail, and the reason why so many people have participated in the not-so-invisible dogpile of shunning in this particular case, was in how it was presented to the wider audience. Because the language used, the cues and the framing, had a really strong undercurrent of entitlement. (Whether the project itself had that assumption of entitlement or not.) There's a lot more fail involved in this than just that, of course, and the fail has been extensively discussed in other places. I could go over each and every one of the fabulous points that so many other people have made, but ultimately I think the real reason for such visceral reaction spreading through the 'blogosphere' is the fact that the post describing the scenario was dripping with the language of entitlement, with the language of "getting-laid-positive" instead of "sex-positive", with language that makes the reader think that this person's motivation was less "I am okay with my body" and more "I believe I have the right to be okay with your body."
That's the part I'm not down with. I am sex-positive. I am pro-sex. I'm okay with my body; I want it to be appreciated, and I want it to be admired. I am down with people looking, and I am down with people touching. Nine times out of ten -- hell, ninety-nine times out of a hundred -- I will cue you about this. I will indicate with all possible channels of information that yes, this is okay and acceptable.
But something like this -- some semi-organized, something public, something that hasn't been thought out in advance and designed to take into account everyone's differing comfort levels, something that isn't aware of the practical difference between empowering "sex-positive" and skeevy "getting-laid-positive", something that doesn't have boundaries and doesn't offer people a way to remove themselves from the environment, something that is aggressively public and pushy, something that is presented and framed as "if you don't agree wholeheartedly you are One Of The Bad Evil Them" -- does a hell of a lot of damage. To the people who are approached to be part of the experience, to the people who are around the fringes of the experience, to the people who aren't comfortable with the experience, and yeah, to the people in that particular subculture who do try to be ethically "sex-positive" in a way that doesn't push their attitudes on uninvolved bystanders.
There used to be a tradition in the BDSM subculture -- and it's still there, though it's primarily active among people who are involved in a physical, real-world BDSM-friendly community, and less present in people whose experience with the BDSM culture is primarily internet-based -- that consent-for-involvement-as-a-bystander must be specifically given. It's kind of hard to sum up neatly, but the gist of it is: don't involve other people in your scene unless they indicate they want to be involved. Performative sexuality (which in this context can be anything from one person calling another person "Master", to kneeling, to explicit sexual contact -- anything you get a sexual charge from, really), on display, should be limited to areas that are clearly labeled, that other people can leave (or not encounter in the first place). It's okay to, say, order your submissive to fetch drinks for the whole table on his/her knees if you're at a play party where that sort of thing is normalized, but it's not okay to order your submissive to fetch drinks for the whole table on his/her knees if you're out at the local sports bar -- because by doing that, you're involving people in your sexual game who not only haven't given their consent, they haven't been offered a chance to give consent.
That's what we're hitting here, I think. The language used in the Open Source Boobs post had clear and distinct overtones of "everyone must play our reindeer games" -- either by opting in or opting out (and thus legitimizing the game). That's not cool. It pushes one specific set of attitudes and values on everyone in the same location, and that is precisely what gives "sex-positive" a really bad reputation. Not only that, it's precisely what "getting-laid-positive" people are saying they're against: one subgroup of people imposing their sexual mores on the entire environment around them.
And I've talked and talked and talked about this, and I'm no closer to having a clear and concise summary of my beliefs about the whole sitution than I was when I started. (I do feel like I've made a few internal realizations, at least, which is a good thing.) I can't put my position into a single sentence, or even a single paragraph.
I just know that I want some way -- in real life, at parties, at Nerd Underground events, in just about any social situation -- of identifying myself as "sex-positive" without people who hear me say it thinking that I really mean "getting-laid-positive". I want some way of saying that I'm comfortable with my choices about own sexuality without people who hear me say it thinking that I'm trying to make decisions for them, or force my comfort level on them, or making value judgements about their choices about their sexuality. I want some way of indicating that I am totally down with whatever choices you make about your own sexuality, and I respect and value those choices, and I will do my utmost level best to behave, to you and around you, in a way that respects those choices and your comfort level. I want some way of saying: hey, you know, if I'm making you uncomfortable, and I don't realize that I'm making you uncomfortable, it is totally okay for you to tell me that, and I will immediately apologize and do whatever I can to make good on my goals of not making people uncomfortable, whether that's stopping what I'm doing, going elsewhere, or even just explaining where I'm coming from -- at your discretion. I want some way of saying that it's okay to approach me, as long as you're coming from that place of respect-for-choices. I want some way of saying that yeah, it's okay for you to ask if it's okay to touch my boobs. (Or kiss me, or hug me, or put an arm around me, or give me a backrub, or whatever.)
I don't have a way to do that right now. I can do little bits of it; I can try, as hard as I can, to indicate it with what I say and what I don't say and what my body language indicates. But it's never going to be 100%. I'm never going to be able to encapsulate it in a one-sentence manifesto.
You can't fit that onto a button.
But, you know, if we're at a Nerd Underground event together, and we're having a friendly conversation and I'm smiling at you and not trying to remove myself from your personal space, it's probably okay for you to ask if you can touch my boobs.
And as long as you're not some random skeevy person who hasn't once yet looked in my eyes, who hasn't offered me your name, who isn't indicating -- with verbal and somatic cues -- that you think that just because I'm showing you my body, you are entitled to touch my body, I will probably say yes.