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Sex Positive Spaces and their Reckoning: Testing Positive for Misogyny

Sex positive spaces need to do more than pay lip service to consent, when the people in those spaces don’t always care for it.

My first encounter with sex positivity was in university. I was an undergrad in a women’s psychology class, and it was the first time I’d sat in a lecture where the instructor talked so openly about sex. I was enthralled. My love affair with feminism began in that class, and we’ve been going strong ever since. Yet I’ve always been slow to trust. Sex positivity sounded nice, but the words themselves have somehow rung hollow over the years — not because I don’t believe sex positivity is worthwhile, but because I think people are generally rotten and will always find ways to ruin worthwhile things.

Sex positive spaces are a natural extension of sex positivity, and by sex positive spaces, we usually mean places where sexy things happen, whether it’s a club or a private party. Most public sex positive spaces, like clubs, will have strict rules and codes of conduct that ensure a culture of consent is enforced. Like at any club, there’s security that will happily toss someone out if they’re harassing another person, and I want to believe that sex positive establishments take these kinds of violations very seriously.

But is this really enough?

Lack of Consent is Not Always a Resounding “No”

In my experience, non-consent isn’t always so explicitly coercive. It’s not always glaringly obvious, or a thing people feel comfortable reporting. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like a “big enough deal” to report, but these dismissals and rationalizations often gloss over a larger issue: far too often, sex positive spaces become the perfect environments for otherwise unacceptable behavior to go unchecked.

Slapping on a sign that says “sex positive” does not magically exclude that space from misogyny. Because the people entering these spaces often bring with them the power dynamics inherent to normative society, sex positive spaces can very easily replicate and reinforce those same power dynamics. And this is a story I’ve heard and read about far too often, especially from individuals who are part of marginalized groups and lifestyles.

Although sex positivity is emphatic about consent, rarely is consideration given for the way real world power dynamics impact the practice of consent in sex-positive spaces where people are, both literally and figuratively, completely naked. While consent is emphasized, so is openness and acceptance; no one is to be shamed for their sexual proclivities. On the contrary, people are encouraged to explore. But can these two principles co-exist? More specifically, can they co-exist when normative power dynamics are inevitably extended to alternative spaces and lifestyles?

Women Still Lose in Sex Positive Spaces

It is well accepted in most left-leaning circles that women are socialized to be empathetic and accommodating, and to handle men’s feelings with care. They are routinely blamed for sexual violence committed against them on the grounds that they were not considerate enough towards their attackers. Women are wary of saying no, because the consequences could be devastating; they could end up dead.

And yet here we are, having invented a kind of space where women may still find themselves trapped by the burden of having to protect men’s feelings, and men are protected by the reassurance that their every desire is acceptable. In the absence of problematic but nonetheless available deterrents like social stigma, men are given unfettered license to exercise power over women who are already gagged by their very real and legitimate fear of offending.

If, for example, a man is leering at a woman at a sex-positive social event, and she is uncomfortable with it, odds are she will not express this, because her right to establish her boundaries will be perceived as conflicting with the fundamental principles of sex positivity: acceptance and openness.

Coupled with the fact that she is already socialized not to embarrass a man lest he rape or kill her, she is far more likely to rationalize the experience as ‘exploration’. In this analogy, we see how rape culture is more or less replicated in the very spaces intended to dismantle it; only more alarmingly, the victim loses any legitimate grounds to characterize the encounter as a violation — for the very reason that it occurred in a so-called sex-positive space where consent is allegedly always given and received.

Moreover, few people will report someone for leering at a sex club, even if they technically can. I am sure we can all hear the chorus of, “Well what were you doing there then?” being sung at the complainant, which is precisely the problem I am trying to highlight.

By this logic, women should never go to sex positive spaces lest they don’t enjoy themselves. They must enjoy themselves, or they have acted stupidly; they should have known better. In this construction, sex positive spaces become anything but for female gendered people. They have no choice but to enjoy it, or they will suffer the same treatment as any sexual assault victim wearing a skirt.

Sex Positivity Needs More Negativity

This leaves everyone worse off. I think sex positivity is necessary for a more inclusive society, but it needs to do better than rote conduct codes that see non-consent solely as explicitly coercive behaviour. Sex positivity needs to contend with the diffuse nature of power, and the subtle way power dynamics play out to silence people who feel they have no grounds to speak.

Sex positivity needs to do more than merely provide lip service to the importance of consent; it needs to pro-actively destabilize a dynamic wherein women feel their consent must be given to protect male egos, and men feel women’s self-assertion is somehow an attack on the doctrine of sex-positivity. Negativity must be allowed; refusal cannot be stigmatized.

Men need to learn that women can accept the sexual proclivities of others without becoming objects for their actualization; and while acceptance is kind, it is by no means anyone’s obligation.