Shame is such a stumbling block when it comes to figuring out and living joyfully in your sexuality – and so many of us are swimming in it. Religions that left us thinking our desires, and by extension ourselves are sinful, violence and trauma that has been done to us that leaves us feeling broken, dirty or wrong, painfully narrow constructions of what attractiveness can be. None of us grew up in a society that really wants us to be happy with ourselves just as we are.
That’s what shame is about – a seed of doubt existing in the deepest darkest places of ourselves, that somehow we’re wrong on some core level and can never change that. Often this message of our inherent wrongness is paired with a message of how we can be right – by massing wealth or status; by spending hours on exercise and diet to hit certain (racist, ableist, transphobic, and fatphoic) markers of attractiveness; by confessing our brokenness and promising to follow arbitrary rules. All in the name of being worthy.
Here is a Truth: there is no correlation between our worthiness-as-people and our achievements. But for those of us who struggle with shame, this is a hard truth to hold onto.
And yes, I say this as someone who is in this struggle too. I’ve been doing shame reduction on a personal level work for years now. I’ve got my bopo role models to help inspire me, my somatic practices to keep me in this body, and my dating rules that limit my exposure to fuckery, and it still, STILL, creeps in. Every now and then I lose my ability to see the innate goodness of myself. It starts by thinking the body I’m bringing to the table isn’t desirable enough. Then it recalls the ghosts of middle school, of schoolyard cruelty and boys who thought offering affectionate connection was a hilarious game. At the peak of a shame spiral, I lose the ability interpret information from anyone around me. Is that person looking at me because they think like what they see, or are they fixated in disgust?
In these worst moments, I feel alone and lonely – despite often being surrounded by people. In turn, I started to isolate myself. I reach out less, can’t bring myself to set plans with anyone and I check out of any potential relationship connections. That’s what shame does – it disconnects us. It’s a liar that says we’re alone in this and are going to be alone in this forever. Shame’s a jerk if you’re already in a relationship and an absolute asshole if you’re a solo unit.
Now, as I mentioned, I’ve been working on digging into my shame for years now, so these bouts of shame don’t stick around too long. I’ve learned when to push myself even though I don’t feel like it, and how to remind myself that my body is a good body, and how to limited attention seeking behaviour that tries to gain external validation. For me, the goal is to be shame-less, and when I scale back to look over the years I can see that I’m moving towards that goal. It’s been key work in stepping into a sexuality that I can honestly say I love and find sustaining. And I never could have done it alone. I still can’t do it alone – I rely on the care and connection I have in my life to help in the moments when it’s too overwhelming.
Working with someone to explore how shame impacts your sexuality gives you a safer space to dig into The Things You Believe To Be True about yourself, your worth, your desirability. Someone with a bit of space and can help you evaluate if that story is realistic or being influenced by shame. Together, you can create an action plan to dig yourself out of a shame spiral, or for the times you can’t, a plan to ride the waves of emotion.
Finding relationships is enough work without also trying to fight past shame. Get someone on your team – it’s absolutely worth it.
When you put allosexual, alloromantic folks together, I guarantee you some of those folks are going to find others attractive. Attraction is built into our bodies because as humans we are genetically coded to reproduce. Of course, nothing is that simple. None of us are walking copies of our genes. We’ve got big, juicy brains that can weight decisions and make choices based on those. So, even though we might find someone attractive, we can choose not to act on that attraction if we recognize it as inappropriate. For example, we might be in a monogamous relationship, and our ethics don’t allow for breaking that commitment. Or, we may know the subject of our attraction is a monogamous relationship, and we don’t want to put them in an ethical quagmire.
Beyond risking folks feel uncomfortable, there are many times when it’s flat-out inappropriate to consider striking up an intimate relationship with someone due to power imbalances, even if we suspect our desire might be welcome. Lecturers, bosses, and significantly older men serial dating women under 25 without financial compensation, I’m looking at you. But what about spaces where sexuality and professionalism go hand in hand? in Ask: Building Consent Culture, Tobi Hill-Myer shares the considerations she’s developed moving from a DIY shooting porn with friends, partners and potential lovers to a more formal director status. Hill-Myer tackles some hard questions, particularly around the lines of economics, coercion and agency. It’s a very worthwhile read – in fact, I have been recommending the entire book since I saw the contributors list.
Porn creation, somatic, and hands-on sex work aren’t really my world – at least, not as a professional. Sexuality conferences, on the other hand, are. I’ve presented at sexuality conferences like Playground, Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, the Guelph Sexuality Conference and Catalyst Con. I’ve also taught at kink focused conferences like Winter Wickedness, Dark Odyssey, TEASE, and Debauchery. Often these spaces draw higher degrees of non-monogamous folks (ethically or otherwise) with interest in exploring sexuality in a variety of ways with others. This exploration can include intellectual debate on sexy topics, flirting that ranges from casually playful to sexually charged, kink parties, orgies, cuddle piles, and these random moments when you aren’t sure if you want to bed someone you just met, or be someone you just met. Additionally, for sexuality professionals, immersive conference spaces leave you with two options, hold the professional mask for upwards of 40 hours, or isolate yourself in your room (unless you’re sharing a room with a colleague – those hotel rates are not cheap!). For those of us who also work at and attend ‘lifestyle’ focused cons (kink, swinger or polyamory) these issues can be more pronounced as there ratio of presenters/professionals to attendees is smaller, meaning if your usual harm reduction plan is to hook up only with other educators, your options are very limited. Additionally, having a recognizable name that sells tickets gives you the ability to negotiate a better compensation package, and impacts the power and authority given to by attendees in this space.
So to sum up the gist of conferences spaces: we’ve got various adults, with their varying desires, attractions, and relationship boundaries in a semi-confined space. In this space, there is varying types and degrees of substance consumption, varying degrees of sleep, anxiety, groupthink, FOMO, career envy, insecurity demons, vacation mindset and all sorts of other influences at play. Y’all. That is a lot to navigate.
Recently at Playground a panel of sexuality educators and performers were asked about how they handle the question of ‘should I be flirting with/hitting on other folks in this conference space?’ Each voice answered in turn that this was a complicated issue and ultimate consensus seemed to be this issue was too complicated the should be avoided.
In short – just say no.
And truthfully? My heart dropped. While I appreciate the complexity of the question put before the panel, I disagree that recommending abstinence is the answer. We might not have perfect, or even complete answers to the question of how to handle the intermingling of personal and professional spaces, but here is something we do know: abstinence-only education doesn’t work. Consistently, when it comes to abstinence-only vs harm reduction approaches the research shows telling folks not to do something will not stop it from happening, and a higher risk of negative outcomes when it does happen. That means, when it comes to sex, we see higher rates of risky behaviour, like not using condoms, or not talk about what’s about the happen, which in turn is high risk for regret, coerced yeses and unnecessary emotional stress. In the substance use world, we also see higher risk activities, like sharing/reusing needles, using unfamiliar product, or using in secret, which leaves one unable to get help if needed.
Instead of contributing to the abstinence-only approach, I want to join the conversation about what a harm reduction model could look like when focusing on intimacy in conference spaces for sexuality professionals. As this is a conversation, please do not consider what follows as definite, but a step towards something more useful than an abstinence-only education. And, before I offer up any tips though, I want to be very clear about some of the things that inform my view here:
So, with hopefully enough framing and cautious preamble…..
1. Start with knowing that folks come to these spaces for a variety of reasons and all of those reasons are okay. Do not assume that everyone’s agenda is the same as yours. Some folks want to keep it all business; others will be there for pure pleasure, many will have a mix. Show respect for people wherever they are in that mix. If you don’t know, asking a question like: ‘Is this a strictly professional space for you, or are you open to a little personal pleasure this weekend too?’ can give folks space to say share how they view this space and draw boundaries early.
2. Build a habit of considering the social dynamics at play in the spaces you’re involved in. What gets praised (and therefore automatically increases the pressure to accept), and what gets even slightly sneered at (and therefore automatically increases the pressure to reject). Monogamy, celibacy, “vanilla” desires, asexuality, disability + sex, agism, racism (particularly anti-blackness and colourism) – y’all even slut shaming. Our spaces are not free from judgement, bias, backtalk and calming to be one of the ‘cool kids’. We must be aware of how these judgements practically affect other’s options and weave this understanding into our actions.
3. Recognize your level of social capital in these spaces and think critically about how you got it. Social capital is often in flux, so practice this as a thought exercise in a variety of spaces so you’re less likely to be caught off-guard holding significant more or less social power than you expected.
4. If this is a space you hold power in (you’re a presenter/speaker, have a high degree of social capital, are very attractive or charismatic, etc.) consider what you can do (what actions can you take) to check that power. Perhaps that means letting other’s take the lead with flirting or taking the lead with propositions. Definitely, do not hit on anyone while you’re teaching and consider purposefully creating space between your class/session and charged interactions with admirers.
5. If you find any reason to doubt if your interest is wanted, play a longer game. The sexuality world isn’t massive. You’ll often see the same people at Catalyst, Woodhull, Playground, Sex Down South, and depending on your interests, perhaps also at kink, swinging, gaming, or furry conventions. If you think you’ve got a good flirt going on, but aren’t sure, it is okay to leave any escalation or propositions to another time. Distance also helps you evaluate mutual interest. Is there follow up flirting via twitter? Did y’all find more ways to bump into each other at the next conference, or did you stop seeing them?
6a. Make it easier for folks to set boundaries. Yes, exercising our boundaries clearly and directly matters. And still, if you tell me boundaries are easy, I’m going to counter by asking you how well you say ‘no’ to your family. We aren’t (often) raised to be great at setting boundaries; firm boundaries makes it harder for external controls (like advertising, religion or social norms) to sway your life. So consider, how are you building in opportunities for folks to exit your presence, set a boundary, or turn down your advances?
6b. Practice receiving boundaries and rejections well.
Even as we preach firm boundaries for all, we often fail to receive them respectfully when they are pointed in our direction. Think back to the last time someone said no, or set a boundary that felt unfair to you. How did you respond? By coming from the understanding that setting boundaries is often tricky and saying ‘no’ often has unwanted consequences we can start to focus on how we can make it more comfortable for folks to say no to us.
Remember these are steps in creating a harm reduction approach, meaning at the same time we practice getting it right, we need to remain open to being accountable, and responsible for the times we get it wrong. This is a start, not an end.
It’s not the first time I’ve been presented the words spontaneity and consent like they’re complete opposites of a coin, only one happening at a time. Which is so very odd to me. Do people wake up one day six months, three years, or even a decade into a relationship not understanding what is an acceptable interaction between yourself and your partner? Of course you don’t. As you grow and build a relationship (which we could also call a history of interaction) with someone, you come to anticipate how they will react to things. You’ll learn that they hate having their feet touched, but a smack on the ass as you walk by is peachy. You’ll learn that they’re really into being woken up with sex – but only if you made a coffee and put it on the bedside table first. You’ll learn that they love being grabbed around the neck, thrown on the couch and having their face ridden like a thoroughbred on Tuesdays after they’ve had 10 minutes to settle into home after their day, Friday nights as long as you start by 6pm because at 7pm their show is on, or Sunday afternoons – and never more than twice in the same week.
Sound complicated? If you don’t know someone, it definitely is. But that’s why relationships are built over time and build that history of interaction and include little conversations over breakfast like, “Hey, I keep thinking about jumping you one day… Just grabbing you and throwing you down, restraining you with my belt, and destroying whatever you’re wearing so I can fuck you. What do you think about that?” If you can’t have those conversations, you have no business trying that move out. I’d say a good rule of thumb for attempting anything you haven’t discussed is to be 95% or more sure that whatever you’re about to do will land the way you want it to. If you’re verging on 70, 60, or 50%? You’re engaging in very high-risk behaviour. It’s not a matter of if you fuck up; it’s when, and how severe.
Also, please remember that being “okay” with something that happened, or allowing it to happen, is not the same thing as consenting to it. People choose, for a multitude of reasons, to keep going with sexual or BDSM encounters even when they aren’t 100% cool with everything that’s happening, and any choice that gets made around that is completely up to the individual that makes it. The really sad thing is many people are measuring the uncool thing that is happening against shutting down the encounter – the worst possible scenario – or some other unknown thing. If you’ve never once thought, “Well, I don’t like that x is happening… but I think they’ll stop if I just y, so let’s try that.” then I’m going to gently suggest your experiences are not that of the average person and perhaps you should spend some time considering that.
If someone comes to speak to you after one of these encounters they are doing you a favour. They’re offering you a chance to build trust, keep things on the right track and as Guy New York notes, stop the formation of bad habits. It might bring up a lot of feelings for you, but whoever you put off is already dealing with their own feelings. Take your feelings to a trusted friend who will help you check your behaviour.
Not knowing something is going to happen is not the only way to be spontaneous; so I want to really encourage you to think about ways you can combine consent and spontaneity in your sex and kink. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section so we can all benefit, and so we can all do better.
With the uptake of visibility around sexual harassment and assault, it may feel like suddenly the standards of what’s “okay” and what’s “not okay” have changed wildly leaving you scared you can’t keep up. I understand that feeling – but I also know it isn’t grounded in reality. Ethically speaking, this has never been okay. It’s not okay to treat others with less autonomy then you want for yourself – and as a moral guideline – this is true regardless of regardless of the law, or what you can get away with because our legal systems have not be set up to serve justice.
No, this shit is not new, it is just more visible at the moment.
As hard as that can be to take in, it’s imperative that folks figure out a way to wrap their heads around these facts. Not only because it will help to navigate any “negative” feelings towards this change (frustration, feeling a loss of power, perhaps even anger), but it can also aid in understanding the experience of others. Why is anyone hesitate around putting themselves in a potentially dangerous or harmful situation? Because sexual harassment and sexual assault whether direct or indirect are not new experiences for them, and now you’re one step closer to trauma-informed relating.
So, what’a well-meaning person whose feeling stuck in fear to do? Never interact with others again? Absolutely not. Humans need connection. We are hardwired to share in community with others. Walling yourself off from that will only create misery. What can be done, however, is work to bring consent into an active focus within our interacting with others.
Deciding to put consent at the forefront of our actions often requires a fundamental shift in how we’ve previously thought about interacting with others. First, we need to take the idea that consent is only relevant when it comes to touching other’s bodies and blow that out into recognizing that we need to start considering consent (that is, someone’s agreement and desire to interact with us) much sooner. Frankly, as soon as we start thinking about interacting with them. You see, by the time interactions comes to a more critical junctor, we’ve already given the person we’re interacting with a lot of information about how (if) we recognize, consider and respond to soft nos and small boundaries. At this point – for a variety of reasons – they may no longer feel like they’re in a position to say no in a way that will be respected or lead to a safe outcome. And no, yelling at the other person about how you’re an unwitting jerk who doesn’t understand women is *not* a respecting their no.
Second, it’s time to start thinking beyond consent as agreement and looking at how we centre respect, mutual enjoyment, care, and balanced entitlement in our interactions with others. How would your behaviour change if you considered your actions – every single one of them – through the lens of being in the connection of relationship with those around you? Viewing yourself as fundamentally connected through shared humanity?
And yes, I mean everyone.
I believe there is society altering potential to attempting to put consent at the root of our actions (recognizing, of course, that this complex and may not ever be 100% achievable). However, as my jam is sexuality and relationships (and not, say, corporate culture or family dynamics – though I assure you, it’s translatable!), that is where I’ll be focusing this writing.
Now, without any further preamble, here are four tips for navigating consent in light of #metoo, even when it freaks you out.
1) Dig into the root of your fears
Start by asking yourself what you’re truly reacting to here. Is it upsetting to know just how pervasive sexual violence is in our world and you want to make sure you aren’t contributing to it? Are you afraid that someone is going to think you’re a creep? Do you know you’ve had lousy consent practices in the past and are wondering when someone will be coming for you? Is it a combination of those things? What is that fear combination?
Can you give it a percentage or does something simply feel more substantial than the others?
By digging into our own truths, we discover where we stand and where we are starting. It’s only through getting to the truth of the problem that we can work to change it. Digging into reality might mean confronting some bitter facts (the world is often a violent place), or facing parts of yourself that you dislike (you have not always prioritized consent). Confronting ourselves can be scary, so finding support to do this work is critical. Whatever you discover in this dig, remember that you are a human being, not a monster. This is about patterns and not a simple declaration of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Every single person has room for improvement in this area of their life.
2) Centre others first
One of the biggest fears among people I’ve worked with is that they’ll express a desire and that will make someone else uncomfortable, angry, or they may be mocked for their desire. There’s always a lot going on inside of fear, but the piece that relates to putting consent as a focus in our interactions with others is this: an obsession with how we’re perceived leaves little space to consider the other people in our interactions. We’re so caught up thinking about ourselves we cannot hold space to think about others. In other words, when we centre others instead of ourselves, it means we need to care more about making someone uncomfortable than someone perceiving us as a jerk – and this is a great place to start.
What would it look like to centre someone else in your flirting? Here’s a hint, it starts with figuring out if they even want to be flirted with right now. If the direct ask isn’t your style, make sure you’re paying a good deal of attention to the other person to look for cues in their body language or engagement style that can provide information about their comfort levels.
Here’s the question you want to ask yourself: what specific actions do I need to take to make sure I’m centring the subject of my desire over my own desires? Get concrete in your answer – make a plan.
Yes, this does mean that sometimes you will not get to act – like if you leave the person listening to music while reading a book alone (because that’s what it looks like to centre the other person in this situation), then no. You do not get to act. But welcome to the reality of treating others with as much entitlement as you grant yourself.
3) Normalize asking
People have differing levels of consent needed to feel safe enough in an encounter with you, and these levels will be informed many different factors. Are they a survivor of sexual violence? Have they been lied to or manipulated by others (like family members, or past relationships)? Have they already experienced a bunch of harassment today? Are they on familiar turf with lots of support around? You may not know the answer to these questions – and that’s okay. Trying to figure out what level you should default to often backfires – we cannot mind read. Instead, get comfortable with asking. That might look like direct questions like ‘Are you up for flirting tonight?’ ‘Can I join or, or are you enjoying being alone at the moment?’ Or more general questions such as ‘Do you know what you need to feel comfortable and safe at this moment?’ or ‘Are you comfortable speaking up if you’re unhappy with how things are going? You could also ask as a way of double checking nonverbals cues – ‘You seem pretty open to company – am I reading that right?’
It is okay to not have the answers, and it will serve you better to own that fact and move forward from there. And if someone thinks less of you because of that?
4) Remember your comfort matters too.
If someone tells you they don’t like your need for assurance or reassurance that whatever is happening between you two is something they desire and that leaves you feeling distressed, that could be about your own boundaries not being respected. What you need to feel safe enough to be secure in any intimate encounter is important, and it matters. While we can’t use consent to control the future (i.e., I need to know that nothing negative will ever come out of this encounter), if the person you’re hooking up with isn’t showing your needs respect? Red flag. If someone is mocking you over your needs around checking in? Double red flag.
If, on the other hand, someone tells you they don’t need you to check in so much, it’s okay to take them at their word. This is the nature of trust and connection. As we get to know people and build a history of interaction with them we set different boundaries, have different expectations around checking in, or change our safety requirements. In these moments good consent practices mean being a person others can talk to about changing needs.
If you’ve read all of this and you’re still feeling like you have no idea how to navigate interacting with other folks, or that you don’t trust yourself to be able to do these steps, these concerns are exactly what sexuality counselling is for. In a one-on-one space, we can dive deep into the specifics of fear, shame, desire, and figure out what having a healthy sense of entitlement looks like in your life.
There’s an article making the rounds right now about how one sex party host has built a culture of consent at their party through a series of rules and agreements. And I’m very sorry to say it’s an article I’m not a huge fan of. Sorry because as much as I appreciate the conversation and think clear rules of active consent are useful for sex parties, I don’t think we can simply apply those rules to a more daily experience of sex and be done with it. And no, 60 person orgies are not a daily experience for sex for your average person.
Here’s my biggest beef:
Consent is binary. You have enthusiastic consent or you do not have consent.
While I think enthusiastic, clear, (and I would add verbal) consent is important in scenario’s of high sexuality (like orgies, weekend cons, kink spaces, etc) I’m not sure this conversation is overall helpful to how most people struggle with consent in their daily lives or wrestle with self-coercion in their person sexuality.
So I’ve been complaining, a bit, on twitter.
Real life isn’t sex parties. Relatioships aren’t sex parties. Struggling w/personal sexuality isn’t sex parties. Life’s complex. Embrace it.
— Heather (@MissHC) August 15, 2016
But I want to be clear that I don’t think enthusiastic consent is useless; I’m just unconvinced that it’s the most useful measure of consent, especially when it comes to real-world relationships. The kind most of us are having. Outside of sex-focused spaces.
Here’s a great way to use enthaustic consent in a real world way: If I could be having any type of sex with any type of person, what sex would be AMAZING right now?
Pondering this question when you’re not in the middle of a sexual scenario helps to you to start to recognize sex that you’re probably going to be interested in, or gives you a scenario to play out next time you want to want sex with your lover, but aren’t just there yet.
Predicting sex on desire can be a great measure of consensuality, but it’s not the only measure and not being super jazzed to have sex right now doesn’t mean that sex should be inaccessible. It just means that we need to be upfront and honest about where we’re at and how we want to navigate what consent looks like (and by that I mean, how to be sure you’ve got consent – let me be super clear that we’re talking present plus – when consent doesn’t match your understanding of enthaustic.).
On June 12, 2016 I woke up to two things. News of the murder of 49 people – mostly Latinx and people of colour – at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and an e-mail asking me to write why sexual freedom is so important to me. It was almost funny to see two things back to back. Almost. What it really is in numbing. I am writing you this in the wake of a hate crime.
Today is june 25, 2016 and so far this year 12 transwomen of colour have been murdered. I am writing you this in the middle of an epidemic
I don’t need an entire article to tell you why sexual freedom matters – you can turn on any media and see for yourself: sexual freedom is a matter of life or death.
In moments like this, when I sit and reflect on the state of sexuality in North America I realize what actually matters to me is the fight for sexual freedom. That is why conferences like Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit are so important to me – I get to see people fighting for me. I get a reminder that I’m not alone and I’m not fighting alone.. And that gives me hope. And when you’re waging culture wars, hope is an incredibly necessary thing.
Part of the reason I do the work I do as a sexuality educator, agitator and coach is because I firmly believe that a deep acceptance of our sexuality is one of the most accessible paths to empowerment. Because sexuality is so deeply individual, it’s completely ours to explore, accept and integrate. Try as they might (and they will) people cannot take that from you. Our sexuality gives us what we crave as humans – and I don’t just mean the literal act of fucking. Our sexuality connects us to others, it gives us ways to create physical intimacy yes, but it also helps us find emotional intimacy with chosen family, our communities and ourselves. Sexuality helps us heal the deepest wounds and can bring us a euphoric joy that can’t even be describe until you experience it. And in a world where many of us do not experience power as individuals finding a personal sense of power is radical. It’s life saving. It’s world changing.
And that is worth hoping for. It’s worth fighting for. We are worth fighting for.
You are worth fighting for.
With solidarity and fierce love,