Some thoughts on sex positivity

A lot of folks use the terms “sex-positive” (usually in reference to themselves) or “sex-negative” (usually in reference to people they don’t much like, or society as a whole), but rarely seem to define exactly what those terms mean. There’s a lot of heat surrounding them, but very little light, and I’ve seen a lot of conversations in the BDSM and poly communities turn into “I’m more sex-positive than you” slagoffs. Go out on the Web and it doesn’t get much better; a lot of the definitions I’ve seen offered up for sex positivity don’t really seem to be well-formed (the rather dreadful Wikipedia article makes it seem like little more than no-rules hedonism, whose adherents get down with one another “with few limits;” sex-positive activist Carol Queen sees sex-positivity as recognition that there are “millions” of sexual orientations, and then goes on to talk about it primarily in terms of gender politics). These kinds of conversations seem to dance around the most important ideas behind sex-positivity without actually addressing them head-on, and I think they paint sex positivity in an erroneous light.

First off, sex positivity isn’t (necessarily) about sexual behavior. It’s not about how many people you shag, nor in which position you shag them, nor what you do with them after you’re done shagging. It is possible to be asexual and still be sex-positive. And on the flip side of the same coin, it’s possible to have a dozen lovers with whom you shag in the Monkey And Crane With Hand Grenades On A Trapeze position in three-day thirteen-way marathon orgies while still being sex-negative. The number of partners you have doesn’t define sex-positivity.

It’s also not about having an anything-goes attitude toward sex. I once had a person online claim that being sex-positive essentially means little more than embracing total hedonism as the only sexual ethic; his argument was that the term “sex positive” means seeing all sexual activity as a positive thing, and that since nobody actually does that for real (few people, for example, are willing to make the argument that nonconsensual sex is OK), sex positivity doesn’t actually exist.

And sex positivity is not about dismantling cultural norms. Just as it is possible to be asexual and still be sex-positive, or to have wild kinky sex with twelve partners at the same time and still be sex negative, it is possible to be married in a monogamous relationship with one spouse and live in a suburban house with a white picket fence while still being sex positive. You can not tell whether someone is sex positive or sex negative simply by looking at their sexual arrangements.

Sex positivity at its core is simply the recognition that there is more than one “right” way to have sexual relationships. It is an acknowledgement that human sexuality is incredibly diverse, that different people have different tastes and relate to sexuality in different ways, and that as long as everyone is having sex with consenting adult partners, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sex, regardless of the way people relate to it. In short, it’s a deliberate refusal to place one’s own sexuality on a pedestal and proclaim it the “right” way to have sex.

Sex positivity is not about how many people you have sex with. I’ve talked, for example, to a person who is polyamorous and who has several sexual partners, who believes that having sex with anyone you don’t love”degrades” and “cheapens” sex, and is therefore wrong. Sex positivity embraces sex for a wide variety of reasons. Some people like to have sex simply for pleasure, without attaching expectations of emotional commitment to it. That is OK, provided that the sex is freely consented to by the people involved.

Sex positivity is not about having sexual relationships in any specific form. Some sex-positive activists see traditional pair-bonded monogamy as inherently disempowering and therefore bad, and say that being sex-positive means seeking to overturn heterosexual monogamy. Monogamous relationships are absolutely right for some people; there is nothing wrong with choosing to have sex with only one other person, just as there is nothing wrong with choosing to have sex with two, or five, or more.

Sex positivity is not (necessarily) about sex for pleasure. Nearly every person I’ve talked to and every Web site I’ve read about sex positive relationships focuses on sex as a natural and healthy thing to do for pleasure, which it is. But people choose to have sex for a number of reasons. Sex for procreation is a valid reason for sex. So is sex for profit. While it may make many folks squeamish, exchanging sex for money is a perfectly valid reason to have sex. Believing that a person who engages in prostitution is inherently less worthy than a person who has sex only for pleasure is not sex positive. Believing that all people who exchange sex for money are always disempowered and are always victims is likewise not a sex-positive attitude. Fundamentally, people have the right to control their bodies, and this extends to the right to choose when, how, and for what reason to have sex. Absent any coercion, sex for money, in any form from traditional prostitution to cam sex to production of porn films, is just as valid as any other consensual form of sexual expression.

Sex positivity is not (necessarily) about gender identity or orientation. I’ve heard the claim that all people are bisexual, and that anyone who is sex positive must embrace the notion that sexuality should ignore gender identity. The fact is that you can no more say “all people are bisexual” than you can say “all people have two legs.” Some people are attracted only to folks who have the same gender identity they do, some people are attracted only to folks who have a different gender identity than they do, some people are attracted (to varying extents at varying times and in varying circumstances) to members of many gender identities; while there is not necessarily a 1:1 correlation between gender identity and biological sex, there often is; and all this is a normal part of ordinary human variability. It is not necessary to identify as bisexual or pansexual in order to be sex positive. It is not necessary to have sex with partners of different sexes in order to be sex positive. Heterosexual cisgendered people can be sex positive.

Sex positivity is not about enshrining sex as a sacred act. I’ve spoken to folks in the tantric sex community who claim that in order to be sex positive, one must embrace the “spirituality” and “sacredness” of sex. For some people, sex does create feelings of spirituality, and that’s fine. But it doesn’t have to. Sometimes, it’s just about the orgasm. Sometimes, it’s just about friendship. Sometimes, it’s just about finishing the movie. The fact that it can be spiritual doesn’t mean it has to be.

Sex positivity isn’t (necessarily) about hedonism. Some people seem to have little or no drive toward sex; other people seem to take no particular pleasure from sex. A person may choose not to have sex, and that choice is just as valid as the choice to have sex. A person may choose to have sex for reasons other than physical pleasure–for reproduction, say, or for the gratification of a partner, or to scratch a biological itch–and that, too, is just as valid. A person is free to limit his or her own sexual expression, and provided that person does not then impose that limitation on other people, that person can still be sex positive.

At the end of the day, people have sex for a lot of different reasons, none of them intrinsically more “right” than any other. If you look at two (or three or fifteen) consenting adults having sex and say “Hey, what they’re doing might not be what I would do, or might not be happening for the reasons I’d do it, but that’s still a valid form of sexual expression nonetheless,” that’s probably a sex-positive attitude. The instant you start attaching thoughts of “They are more debased than I am because their reasons for having sex aren’t as good as mine,” you’ve stepped away from sex positivity, seems to me.

We’re all human beings, which means we all come factory-equipped with a tendency to see our own motivations as purer and more evolved than those of others–especially when we don’t understand why anyone else wouldn’t do something the way we do it. To be sex positive, it is necessary to take a conscious step away from that natural human impulse.

U.S. Teenager Cut With Knife. Could It Be…….Satan?

Culture is a funny thing.

It seems that most–perhaps all–cultures have, somewhere down deep in their collective folklore, some very strange embedded ideas that simply refuse to go away no matter how implausible (or impossible) they are.

In the Congo, for example, there is a deeply held belief that sorcerers can use black magic to steal men’s penises. Despite how absurd this belief is on the face of it, every so often there will be a penis-theft panic that results in suspected penis-ensorcering black magic users getting killed in the streets. Apparently, one’s penis grows back after this is done. Seems to me a quick status check of a purported victim’s trowser snake might be a good idea before lynching someone, but what do I know?

Here in the States, we have a couple of these bizarre nuggets of superstitious moose dung, sitting buried deep within the veneer of civilization surrounding us.

One of these is the notion that there are people who produce snuff films–movies intended for sexual entertainment in which a person is actually killed on screen for the sexual gratification of the audience. A lot of folks believe that these movies actually exist (and some folks believe them to be the logical end result of any interest in porn), despite the fact that thousands of investigations by law enforcement on several continents has yet to turn up even one example of such a thing.

Another common cultural trope is the notion of ritual Satanic human sacrifice. This idea is so firmly engrained the in the American psyche, despite its ridiculousness, that even ordinary crimes can end up being reported with breathless hysteria if there’s even a hint of violent religion tangentially associated in any way, however ephemeral or indirect, with perpetrators or the victim.

Or, any violent religion other than those which are culturally endorsed, in any event.

So it is with some amusement that I direct your attention, Gentle Readers, to a series of events that took place on November 6 of this year, and more to the point, on the way those events are reported.

Let’s start with CBS News. According to a CBS News article headlined Cops: Man bound and stabbed over 300 times by two women, a rather unfortunate 18-year-old kid met a couple of women on the Internet, and then travelled to Milwaukee with the hopes of having a kinky threesome with them. The women tied him up and then over an extended period of time inflicted 300 cuts on him. He escaped, called the police, and they were arrested.

Pretty straightforward, seems to me. Some folks, including several sweeties of mine, are into erotic knife play as a kink. I’m assuming that’s what this is based on the notion that if one intends to kill one’s victim and after 300 cuts fails to do so, one is either using the wrong tool for the job or is so stunningly incompetent as to be quite unable to work a typical, average doorknob, much less a computer. Hell, even a pair of those blunt scissors they give you in kindergarten can be used to kill someone, if you’re willing to put that much effort into it.

But there is one additional little detail in the CBS News report, a tiny little inconsequential thing that has turned the whole affair, sordid and sad as it is, into a bit of a circus.

Apparently, you see, one of the two women involved owns some books that might be about pagan or occult stuff. They were sitting on the bookshelf when the police arrived. And so…


It ratcheted up quickly. Before long, the headlines started featuring the word “Satanic” prominently.

In the UK, where the news-reading consumer likes a bit of salaciousness with their Satanism, the Daily Mail went for the sex angle, with a headline reading Two female room-mates ‘tied up teenager and cut him 300 times during two-day satanic sex torture marathon’

Over on Whacktrap, the headline read, Teen Plans Sex with Two Women But Instead Gets Cut 300 Times in Satanic Ritual Stabbing.

By the time the story had spread across news outlets, it was all about the Satan. By far the most common headline on the story reads “US Teen stabbed 300 times in Satanic sex ritual”–in fact, it’s actually pretty tough to locate news articles that don’t play up the Satanism.

And finally, by the time it got ’round to Glenn Beck (a man who is, I have it on good authority, personally knowledgable in all things Satanic, seeing how he has the Great Horned One on speed-dial), the sex bit had disappeared entirely; Beck’s take is Man stabbed over 300 times in satanic ritual. The first version of the article claimed the luckless teen had been killed–Mr. Beck has never met a fact-checker, or a fact, that he doesn’t want to drag out behind the chemical shed and shoot in the head, as his regular listeners know–and the URL on his Web site still reflects that mistaken notion. It has better narrative value, I’m sure.

So what we seem to have is that this kid decided to have a kinky threesome with a couple of women who were into knife play, they had some books on werewolves and pagan ideas sitting on the bookshelf, and these things combined into “ZOMG Satanic ritual stabbing!” Even though there seems to my eye to be nothing particularly ritual or Satanic about it.

Though I bet they totally used sorcery to steal his penis. It happens, you know. All the time.

Boston Chapter 4: The Horror of Middle America

If you drive across the American Midwest on Interstate 70 for long enough, a sort of hypnosis begins to set in. The road goes on and on and on and on, and there’s nothing interesting on it, save for the occasional dead animal of indeterminate species on the side of the road.

If you continue driving, eventually your brains will liquefy. Your eyes will begin to bleed. Strange apparitions of Hunter S. Thompson doing battle with Napoleon against the backdrop of war-torn Sarajevo while gibbons drift high in the sky strumming gently on lutes will slide in and out of the corners of your vision. When that happens, keep driving until you find your happy place. You know, the one where small insectoid life-forms crawl out of unexpected parts of your body demanding Pop-Tarts.

It is about then that you will see Prairie Dog Town, in Oakley, Kansas, just a stone’s throw from the interstate.

Prairie Dog Town is a microcosm of everything that is strange and horrifying about Middle America. It is the quintessential slice of Americana. Ray Bradbury could set horror films there. It advertises the world’s largest prairie dog, among other wonders and atrocities too numerous to mention. So it was a given that we had to stop there.

But before I talk about that, I need to talk about the Jesus of Wheat.

The Jesus of Wheat adorns a series of billboards that cluster along the interstate near a small town almost exactly an hour west of Prairie Dog Town. We pulled off the interstate to eat, as up until this point we had subsisted largely on lovely, succulent grapes hand-fed to us by Claire. This is a wonderful way to dine, and I highly recommend it, but inevitably we hit Peak Grape and it was all downhill from there. Soon we were forced to confront a stark reality: There Were No More Grapes, and it was time to deal with that, whether we liked it or not.

So we stopped for sandwiches, and met the Jesus of Wheat.

I don’t know what this billboard means, other than Jesus really, really loved wheat. This image occurs on every onramp and offramp in the town, as near as I can tell: Jesus, looking enigmatic, holding a stalk of wheat in His freakishly-long and perspectively-challenged arm.

Or at least I think it’s his arm. Maybe that hand is thrusting up from the ground, clutching wheat in its cold lifeless fingers, as a parable for the cycle of all life and the inevitable coming of the Zombie Apocalypse, I don’t know. I spent some time trying to work out the mechanics of whether He could actually hold wheat that far from His body, and I will admit, ultimately, to theological bafflement. Perhaps there are some things Man was not meant to know.

At any rate, I really had to record the billboard for posterity, by which I mean my blog. So while my companions dined, I slogged back up to the interstate on foot in 99-degree heat, roughly a half mile away or so, to get this shot.

The 99-degree heat turns out to be relevant later, as we shall see.

The theological ambiguity of the Jesus of Wheat left all of us, I think, in a fragile state of mind, so when an hour later we saw signs advertising Prairie Dog Town, our natural resistance–what little was left after the endless drive, anyway–was already considerably eroded.

Prairie Dog Town is a small, dilapidated building with signs promoting the World’s Largest Prairie Dog and other wonders beyond mention. It’s the sort of place that serial killers stalk in Oliver Stone movies, or the Great Cthulhu might seek out for a midafternoon snack of moon pies and the souls of the damned. We went in the front, picked our way through a gift shop overflowing with rattlesnake egg paperweights and small carved wooden toys, and bought our tickets in the back.

The back of the shop is crowded with the fruits of the taxidermist’s art, applied to various abominations of nature like this two-headed sheep calf:

It’s also lined with a series of very large wooden crates, about five feet tall and topped with wire mesh. “Go ahead!” said the lady working the till to my traveling companions. “Look inside! See what’s in there!”

As soon as they did, she hit the crates with a stick. About a dozen rattlesnakes, all of them more pissed off than Dick Cheney on a quail hunt, immediately started rattling and striking at the wire mesh, much disconcerting both of my companions. The smile on the woman’s face suggested that she lives for that.

Payment appropriately rendered, we walked out the back door into Prairie Dog Town. This…is Prairie Dog Town.

Each cage contains a forlorn animal or three. There are two aspects to the Prairie Dog Town Experience which this picture cannot convey: the brutal, oppressive heat that settled on us like a tangible, suffocating thing; and the smell. Oh, God, the smell.

Though, in all fairness, most of America’s heartland smells that way.

Beyond the eponymous prairie dogs, the pride of the collection at Prairie Dog Town is their herd of mutant five-legged cattle. Yes, they are mutant cattle, and yes, they have five legs, the fifth one of which dangles pathetically from their back.

This is exactly the sort of thing one sees when something goes wrong with an organism’s hox genes, as I was talking about a bit ago.

The place also offered for our amusement birds of various descriptions, some really forlorn-looking foxes behind a wire enclosure, a couple of pigs, and a very friendly donkey who was quite happy to see us.

And, of course, it had prairie dogs, who perched in the heat and chittered at us reprovingly, as if to say “You paid money to be here? Didn’t the Jesus of Wheat warn you about this place?”

It also had, true to the billing, the World’s Largest prairie Dog, which is neither a prairie dog nor particularly large. It’s a big fiberglass sculpture of something that’s vaguely reminiscent of a prairie dog in overall body plan, though the artist seems to have missed some ingredient, some artistic flair that might have captured that spark, that fundamental essence of the Platonic ideal of prairie dogs, or for that matter even of mammals in general.

That’s Claire standing next to it, using the high albedo of her sweater as a partial defense against the blistering hot radiation of the uncaring sun bombarding us from above.

A bit dispirited and lighter of currency, we finally wandered back to the safety and relative sanity of the car, each of us bearing the psychic scars of the time served in that place.

Fortunately, the most amazing thing the eight-year-old within me has ever seen was in our near future. Unfortunately, the time was now close where we would lose one of our numbers to the Guatemalans. But both of those stories will have to wait.

Signal boost: Polyamory mediation service?

One of the people on my LJ friends list is looking for input in developing a business plan for a personal mediation service aimed at polyamorous folks. Personally, I think this is a great idea. She’s written a post about it here, which I urge anyone interested in the idea of mediation for polyamorous folks to read and respond to.