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Sexuality, Professionalism & Abstinence Only Education

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:

  • I believe there is nothing morally wrong with consenting adults who want to connect to do so in any way they see fit. Emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy, physical closeness, intellectual intimacy – I am not going to engage in a moralistic ranking of how folks connect.
  • We, as people living in the West in 2018 need to improve our understanding of how invisible power lines have very observable impacts. This is especially true for folks who hold high degrees of power. The more social and systemic power you carry, the greater your need for a keen awareness of how this power protects and benefits you at the expense of others.
  • Giving a definite and direct no when we’re not interested in connecting with someone is useful, even when it doesn’t always feel comfortable or risk-free. Feeling emotionally unsafe is not the same as being in a situation when it physically unsafe to say no.

So, with hopefully enough framing and cautious preamble…..

Tips for navigating flirting in conference spaces:

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.

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