Subverting gender roles

I’ve never been femme. For a not-so-brief period in my life I was definitely anti femme. I would speak out of one side of my mouth that girls could do anything they chose to do while the other half of my mouth criticized at every turn the overtly femme choices that many girls chose to make.

I was wrong. I thought I was showing how equal girls could be in this world. Instead, I was merely reinforcing the male default status. Perhaps it took me having children to see how wrong I was. Took having both a boy child and a girl child to see that as a mom I was more comfortable with my girl choosing dirt and worms, than with my son choosing a purse.

I am not that ideal parent who made sure to subvert gender roles at every opportunity. I bought son clothes from boys section and girl clothes from the girl section. It was easy and I was a bit too busy loving my children in other ways. Even though I hated pink before I had my daughter, her first come home outfit chosen by me was pink (and Eeyore, and just adorable). Son had mostly dinosaurs and action figures for early toys, and daughter had mostly dolls and plastic pets. There is not a lot of difference between the substance of the toys. The toys, while gender marked, were often played with in similar ways. My son was never one to have violent fantasies with his toys, and my daughter was not super mothering to hers. They played pretend. They crossed their gendered toy so that littlest pet shop animals rode on cars, while dinosaurs drank at tea parties. They played with what they had in all the ways their imaginations would take them and for my part, those other ways I spoke of loving my children, was all about letting them just be children.

At some point, a marked shift began to occur in toy isles. Maybe it began with Lego Friends. My daughter was at high femme when Lego Friends came out and had only rarely expressed an interest in son’s Legos. I thought that having more realistic people and pet characters would hopefully excite her more about building with Legos. I was wrong, every time I showed them to her she was wholly uninterested. Her first Lego set was actually Sponge Bob which she loved a great deal. My son however did express an interest in Lego Friends (he still doesn’t have any, only because other sets he liked a little bit better). This was the first time my son had really been highly interested in a toy marketed to girls.

And everyone criticized Lego for the “pinkification” of their brand.

It wasn’t my son’s last foray into girl toys. When Nerf came out with Rebel line, my daughter requested the bow. It immediately became something my son and daughter both played with regularly. Something they loved enough they checked out the toy isles for the newest Rebel designs. It was one of the coolest toys they had ever played with and it was marked “for girls.”

And everyone criticized Nerf for the “pinkification” of their brand.

I praised them for it. I had grown stop hating pink. I had grown to realize that make up is valuable. I had grown to respect the choices of high femme as much as I respected the choice of butch. I was grateful to the toy companies for making toys marketed to girls that were likewise appealing to boys. In each toy lesson, came a life lesson to both my children. Knowing that girl things have value and that the color doesn’t decrease their value is important. It helped when my adolescent son saw a purse as a thing of value. It helped when my daughter asked for makeup and for me not to cringe at whether she would become a person who wouldn’t leave the house without it. It helped when my son chose flip flops for comfort rather than gender. It helped when my daughter early love of animals led to her dissecting a frog in hopes to understand anatomy better.

Learning the value in all things femme is a life long process. Culture routinely devalues that which is assigned to girl to the point that male attachment to any of those things means they have to be renamed. Murse, Manscaping, Bromance are all examples of valuable things typically assigned to women, that men feel they can only reclaim if they change the gender. For me, this is the battlefield that gender is to be subverted on. Not only that women can access and value things assigned to men, but more importantly that men can and should value those things assigned to women.

Talking about harassment at work

Just so everyone knows, I started a new job at the prison as a Corrections Officer (CO). It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that the overwhelming majority of new trainees are men. Even more so that there are even fewer women CO’s that have been there for a long time. I won’t say it is in the hiring though. Right now they are hiring all the fresh bodies they can get. Much the gender gap is in the recruiting and the perceptions that CO is a “man’s job.”

But the retention of competent females is another thing all together. I bet part of it has something to do with the story a woman CO told us as a class yesterday. The story tells of her own harassment in one particular area at the prison. The basics boiled down to men CO’s making sexually explicit jokes pointed at her and in front of the inmates. That last bit is important. The other CO’s were making the offensive and harassing jokes in front of inmates, some of whom are guaranteed to be looking for exploitative opportunities. One time that someone violates a boundary to that degree in such a dangerous manner is inexcusable. However, the jokes and harassment continued after she requested they stop.

She went to her superiors and asked to move and explained why. She specifically did not want to file a sexual harassment report about it but didn’t not want to be in the same department with people who were hurting her. She was moved as requested and nothing happened to her harassers (not that I am sure anything could have happened without her request).

All would have been fine if the woman telling the story had stopped there. Everyone in the room could have imagined her reasons for not reporting officially her harassment. But she didn’t stop. Instead she proceeded to recommend to the few women and sea of men that women think twice before officially reporting their harassment. Her reasoning was clear. That anyone who brings in outside help in handling their harassment, risks being ostracized from the group. That “everyone will treat” us “different” if we don’t handle this under the table. That our coworkers will be afraid to cut up and be friendly.

She basically told us not to report our harassment. She basically told us to run from it and do what she did so we won’t be friendless. She basically said let the next woman who works in that department handle it.

The funny thing is  that probably everyone knows that last damaging nugget of info she chose to share. As women many of us have always had to navigate the very narrow corridor of what is considered the “proper way” to handle such things. Most of us women don’t report, know how much we risk by reporting. Most of us women don’t need another reason to hide our harassment.

We need a reason to bring it to daylight.

This is an especially pertinent topic right now in the atheist/skeptic movement. People in our movement have far too long been stifled, silenced by all the reasons to “keep quiet.” The status quo fighters have done their duty in hiding harassment from the delicate eyes of everyone else. Now however, women and men in this movement are speaking out about this. One person risking it all and giving her peers a reason to talk was enough to start a mini chain-reaction.

I wish the woman teaching us yesterday would have been like like you all who are fighting harassment tooth and nail rather than passing it off to the next victim. I wish she would have at least said that she had our back in however we choose to handle our own harassment.

Absurdist humor and rape culture

I’ve seen it called absurdist humor. The idea that rape is funny because it is unthinkable. I’ve believed it myself. Told jokes like “what’s better than twenty-six year old’s? Twenty six year old’s.” As a victim of child rape myself, I might have even found it cathartic at times. Laughing at the sheer wrongness of it. But that was an younger me and the older me tries to remember that my views on absurdity are not reflected in the culture I live in.

Absurdist humor works best if the subject is actually absurd. If the subject is universally (within its complete audience) considered unthinkable.

Rape isn’t absurd. People like to rape. People even like to videotape themselves raping others and displaying it for the world to see.

Rape is a reality for many, many MANY people. In all likelihood someone hearing your rape joke is either a victim or a rapist. Maybe a potential rapist,  or an eventual victim. Chances are your joke about banging the passed out neighbor is going to influence your audience. If not the rapists listening then likely the victims into believing it was their fault.

The question is do you care? Are cheap laughs worth hurting others to you? Obviously some people think the cost is minimal when they knowingly encourage others to assault women on video for the world to laugh at. When they stand on stage and repeatedly brag about their prowess as a rapist pressuring the audience to see them as both protagonist and rapist. When they video tape themselves making horrifying jokes about how dead and raped a teen girl is.

All the above examples are of people just trying to be funny. Just trying to make people laugh. Recently we’ve seen Jim Norton attempt to defend people’s rights to rape humor* as long as the intent is to make others laugh. And don’t think for a second these jokes were unsuccessful to their target audience.

But who’s laughing at these jokes though? If you’re lucky, everyone is like me laughing at perceived absurdity. More likely, a portion of every comedy audience is willing to participate in sexual assault because they think violating others is hilarious.

And most importantly, while pandering to rapists, you may also be creating future rapists.

But do you care?


*as if targeting advertisers is somehow stripping someone of their rights to to create bad jokes

Today my daughter touched a sturgeon

I think she might have touched one once before, but it is always a negotiation when we go to the aquarium. The water is cold. The sturgeons look scary, like they might bite. After many pleas on our part, and demonstrations of her brother letting his two fingers slide across the backs of harmless fish, she still won’t budge. Off we go to see the turtles.

Today, without even the question on our part her hand went in the tank and she waited for a sturgeon to pass. It took a few tries with the stubborn fish swimming out of her reach, but she was patient, determined. Finally, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t scared anymore.

What changed this time? I think it was the girl, a bit younger than she, with hands already in the tank, excited every time her hands reached one. I think seeing this girl, not too far from her own age and without fear, allowed her to overcome her own trepidation. I think that seeing her brother touch the sturgeons wasn’t enough, just like seeing boys her age or girls much older wasn’t enough.

I think she needed a little girl, just like herself, to show her trying this big, new, scary thing wasn’t so bad.

So I thanked the mother for letting her daughter try big, new, scary things. I thanked her because I’ve watched mothers keep their daughters away from those same big, new, scary things. I thanked her because I know how much easier she made the path for little W.

I thanked her because little girls, like grown women, who are unafraid to carve the path to big, new, scary things are a tremendous girt to us all.

Abortion, two stories

I didn’t want to talk about this today. After all, I am supposed to be easing into this routine again. However, I read this piece called I Wish My Mother Had Aborted Me, and felt the need to get two stories out. Neither are terribly long, but hopefully they will give some background for the follow up thoughts on abortion.

When my mother was pregnant with her second child by a second father, she considered abortion. She was scared. She wasn’t married. The first father never even met his child. Mom was terrified and she sought counsel in her sister who had previously aborted a fetus. My aunt advised her against abortion, and months later I was born healthy and happy in the arms of a sick mother.

Maybe she wasn’t sick at first or maybe I was too young to know. Nonetheless her mental illness was brought wholly to the surface after trauma I won’t go into detail about here. Everyone tried to hide it from me with no success. I was seven when I watched her try to burn her face. Begging her to stop.  I remember her sitting with a bottle of aspirin talking one at a time till “god’s hand stopped her.” She had moments where it wasn’t so bad. She had moments where she was too drunk to care. She had moments where she was back to how I remember her in those first several years. She had moments that reminded me she loved us.The good memories kept me going.

Then she gave me up. Stuck to the man who both kept her alive and raped her daughter, she gave me to one of her sisters. I knew why she gave me up. I didn’t blame her for the weakness inside her. No, I loved her, called regularly and visited in the mental ward those times my stepfather wasn’t enough to keep her alive.

Those are some of the effects choosing not to abort had on my mother. There is no way to say whether choosing an abortion would have been better for her or not because truthfully I have also been a source of good for her much of the time.

There is no way to know if her choosing an abortion would have been better for me either. There is no well balanced scale of beauty versus bad in which to weight the moments of my life.

Time for the second story which will be significantly shorter.

I had an abortion. I didn’t want one. I was fighting like hell to have my first child. I miscarried my first pregnancy and my second moment of pleasant surprise was marred by the fact that the fetus was probably in my fallopian tube. Amidst excruciating pain and the new information that I was pregnant, I had to decide to take the shot that would help fully terminate my pregnancy. And truthfully, it wasn’t a super hard decision to make. Yes it sucked I was losing another pregnancy but there was no possible way I could carry one in my tube and to try would likely kill me.

So I did it and I went on with my life calling it a miscarriage because for the most part that is what the experience was. I call it an abortion now because there are some who will claim that I killed my baby by not letting nature take its course. I will take that all too often dirty word “abortion” and accept it without shame.

My mother and I have very different experiences with abortion. Really no experience with abortion is exactly the same. Some are easier. Some are harder. Some are thrust upon us with no good options.

Sometimes abortion is the selfish choice.

Sometimes abortion is the noble choice.

Sometimes abortion isn’t even a choice at all.

None of it makes the choice to end a clump of cells or a fetus with the potential for life good or bad, moral or immoral because none of it excuses for all the variables in the choice to abort. Morality is only so well defined for children.

I could make arguments all day about why abortion should be legal. I could make arguments about how bodily autonomy is as fundamental right, or how access to abortion helps income stratification. These are all argument about the relative morality of abortion as an implementable system of access. Today I have been talking about choices. I am talking about whether it is moral/immoral for a pregnant woman to have an abortion Which is an impossible question to answer. Morality is easier defined on the scales of systems.

On the scale of people though, on the individual choices we make with our own bodies morality is/can only be defined by ourselves. We are the only ones with enough knowledge to examine how good or bad our choice to abort is. It isn’t a simple choice for us to make but it is our choice to make it.

Vote Vulva 2012

So yesterday I made this magnet.

The inspiration for this came from twitter friend @ericainchaote who probably has little idea why I wanted this as a car magnet in the first place. Yeah, I put the topic for yesterday’s post up for a vote and everyone voted for vulva but that is not why this magnet is important to me.

There is something going on right now called a war on women and for the most part it is a war on cis women, trans men, and FAAB genderqueer. However,  pay discrepancies and access to insurance likely affects trans women too. Most of the attacks in the war on women are directed at people perceived to have vulvae. If you are perceived to have a cunt, you are automatically deemed inferior. In that sense, it kind of clicked with me when I saw this slogan. It is how I want to vote. I want to vote for someone protecting my vulva.

Not only that though. I want to vote to protect all vulvae. That means the vulvae of  non op/pre op trans men. The ones of post op trans women. Those of genderqueer. All of vulvae. I want to vote for candidates who know that women (in gender, sex, or both) are pretty fucking awesome. I want you to vote for candidates that promote rather than hinder our awesomeness.

I want you to Vote Vulva in 2012.

My vulva

I like it bald.

I didn’t used to. Heck, for a long time I couldn’t even shave my legs (too sensitive) much less my cunt. The thought of shaving past my bikini line turned my stomach. Shaved vulvae looked like prepubescent children. Who the hell wanted their cunt to look like that was beyond me. I felt liberated that I didn’t’ even trim. Trimming was too much maintenance, and I wasn’t one of those high maintenance girls.

One time I trimmed. It was complicated. Took some work trying to make the hair not look bizarre. But it felt airier and I liked it. Still, it was too much maintenance. I only trimmed every so often and rarely for looks. My cunt was about me after all.

My attitude about being bald changed slowly. I had a daughter, realized that all the bare cunts in porn looked nothing like hers. Gave up on the idea that people into shaved pussies really just wanted to fuck children. Gave up on the idea that the bald girls were tools of the patriarchy. I mean, shaving my legs felt liberating in the sense that I wasn’t able to shave at all for much of my youth and finally being able to choose to have smooth legs was freeing. Who was I to say that having a bald cunt didn’t feel the same way? Liberating.

So I did it. Took a shower. Let the razor travel further and further over my vulva. Pulled the labia skin tight and carefully slid the razor across the tightened skin. Checked every fold. Methodical but pleasurable.The sensation of running my fingers across a smooth vulva. My god. Totally different than running fingers over the soft curly hair of a trimmed or untrimmed pussy. Different than the smooth skin of the legs. Softer.

Oh and the sex. Fuck. I found new pleasures in my labia never felt before. My partner’s wet, warm mouth exploring my lips. Unfuckingbelievable sensations and how much fun it was for Jarreg to explore the uncharted territory of my pussy. There was no going back. This was for me.

The maintenance was totally worth it. Worth the extra time shaving. Worth the occasional razor burn. Worth it because it felt good to me. I liked the airy coolness of a bald cunt. I liked that I felt less uncomfortably wet in the heat of the summer. I liked growing short soft coats of quarter inch hair when I felt like it. I liked having the choice to go back to full on jungle pussy if I wanted to.

I haven’t yet. I haven’t grown the hair past  a week’s time. Not because I am obligated to some sense of cultural norm. Not because I care what anyone thinks because the only people who ever see my cunt are happy no matter how I style it. I haven’t grown the hair back because I don’t want to and the instant I want the hair, I will go back. No regrets. No concern.

So yeah, I like it bald but don’t assume me liking it bald is reflective of some sort of adherence to a cultural norm. At least not for everyone. To some of us, bald just feels good.

My take on this latest trope

WilloNyx covered most of this in the last post but I need to add some of my own thoughts.

So last night didn’t quite work out as I expected. I was trying to finish catching up on Twitter. I said a few thank you’s on Facebook. I was minutes away from the comfort of a warm bed. I saw a link from Thunderfoot. I saw the title “MISOGYNIST!” and I just knew it had to be good. I began to watch the video. A sharp, critical mind that had taken the time to read up on all the sexual harassment arguments could bring a new perspective. I watched some more. Ahhh, smart move I thought. Act like one of the asshats on the other side to help bring things into focus. Show them a refection of themselves and the ridiculousness of their position. I knew this was going to be good. The turn around was going to come any minute. Suddenly I realized his time was running out. Then it did. Did I miss something? Below the video was a link to a post at his FTB page. “There it was” I said to myself. Only it wasn’t.

The blog post was worse yet I still expected a gotcha moment. These were the same lame strawmen that people had been schooled over time and again in blog after blog, comment section after comment section. At this point there was no doubt that he was laying out these weak misrepresentations so he could plow them all down in one fell swoop at the end. (I never said I couldn’t be naïve.) My heart sank just a little when I got to the comment section. I was never what you would call a Thunderfoot superfan but I had watched many of his videos. This was a guy who obviously spent countless hours examining the arguments of creationists, watching their videos, understanding their positions before tearing them down. Yet he couldn’t be bothered to read any of the many discussions that had been taking place over the past year on a subject that he now took a hard stance on. And to top it off the stance he took was that of an dismissive, tone trolling douchenozzle. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell WilloNyx for a while. She hadn’t ever heard of Thunderfoot prior to him joining FTB. I advocated for the guy, told her that from what I had seen he was a badass, a skeptical heavy weight. I eventually had to tell her though because she asked why I was sitting in the kitchen saying “fuck” a bunch.

I agree with Willo. Things like sasquatch and crop circles and homeopathy are easy for skeptics. Those of us who advocate for skepticism are constantly asking others to suspend their sincere, sometimes zealous beliefs and opinions long enough to consider how they might be deluding themselves. Sure, most of us have done this ourselves at some point. Most of us have believed in some version of god. Many of us have believed very strongly in obviously ridiculous things. Telling others to overcome the ridiculous notions they cling to is easy. Overcoming belief in something that is obviously factually absurd is only slightly more difficult. Unfortunately it seems that we skeptics very rarely do that which we ask of others. We don’t turn that deep, critical light inward, to the parts of ourselves that are vulnerable. The parts that maybe define things about us. We pride ourselves on what we have overcome and maybe some of that was difficult. Yet here was an icon of modern skepticism that couldn’t be bothered to fucking understand the subject he was attacking at even the most basic level. It was as if he had scoured the comment sections of all the relevant blog posts since elevatorgate, collected only the misrepresentations and misunderstandings, intentional or otherwise, and distilled it all into a potent tincture.

This is the rift as I see it. Some of us continue to question our beliefs and opinions and some of us reach comfortable plateaus. When I see someone accusing those advocating harassment policies of not listening or not understanding the other side it reminds me of all those times I have been accused of not really understanding the Christianity I have argued against for so long. No amount of explaining would make my opponents realize that I understood it because I lived it for years. I dug myself out of it step by step. I understood it from the inside but, unlike them, I also understood it from the outside too and it was that deeper understanding, having both perspectives that allowed me to be objective and sympathetic at the same time. That’s what these so-called skeptics fail to grasp. We have all lived inside the culture that promotes misogyny and harassment. Most of us came of age amidst the attitudes and opinions we now argue against. Some of us even held the same opinions that those we argue against now hold. We have seen from the inside. We took the steps to question ourselves and we found those positions and opinions lacking in merit. Some still struggle with with moments of conflicting thoughts but we are honest enough skeptics to expose those thoughts to criticism, however uncomfortable. It isn’t unfair to ask people who would claim the label of skeptic to go that far. That is the bare fucking minimum one can do to claim that label with any amount of pride. Anything short of that and you’re just part of a club where everyone is congratulating each other for not believing in the fucking Loch Ness monster.



Skepticism, social justice, and me

I am going to my first skeptic convention in October, CSICon in Nashville, TN. I am totes excited at the opportunity given to me by the kindness of an (almost) stranger. My excitement at going seems a bit strange for me because I don’t automatically identify as a skeptic. I try to think skeptically, yes but I typically won’t ever use the term “skeptic” to describe myself. I describe myself as an atheist. I describe myself as a rational person (who sometimes flirts with irrationality). I describe myself as an activist. I don’t describe myself as a skeptic.


Well part of it is that the term “skeptic” as a label is a new concept to me. I live in a small town where almost everyone is a believer in some sort of nonsense. If they aren’t, they are too scared to talk about their lack of belief. I still find it amusing how many atheists live in my town that think they are the lone atheist in this godforsaken town. No one talks about their lack of belief here. I don’t do closets though.  Not being good at keeping quiet about the reality of me has subsequently opened the door for all those closet atheists to come out in my company. So I might know most of the non-believers here but it didn’t really occur to me that somewhere out in the big world there was  a collection of non-believers organizing to help teach the world how to think critically.

When I found my fellow non-believers, I also found new people called skeptics. I knew what it meant to be skeptical. I didn’t know what it meant to be a skeptic. I learned that most people who identify as skeptic were like me. They used empirical methods for evaluating truth claims in the world. I tried to do that. They made arguments against ESP, cryptozoology, homeopathy, anti-vaxers, tinfoil conspiracy theorists, and a shitton of stuff I already had arguments against or wanted good arguments against. So yeah, I could be a skeptic. It didn’t matter if many skeptics hadn’t made the leap to being similarly skeptical about their god. I mean we all have our blind spots. I just needed to try and be more cognizant of my own.

I was ready to call myself a skeptic. I was ready to go to skeptic cons and hear all these speakers talk about the bits of skepticism they found most motivating. I still was most motivated by atheism. I still found problems with the separation with church and state to be far more taxing than the neighbors who consult the tarot card reader for marriage counseling.

Then Elevatorgate happened. It didn’t deter me from wanting to join the movement but it did deter me from wanting to associate with some parts of it. Hell, it even motivated me a bit to be more vocal about my side. I mean there were problems here I could help address. This was something I could think skeptically about. I had nothing major vested in anyone. Then it continued for a year. I must have read enough about sexism in the atheism and skepticism movements to fill a bookshelf. Comment threads a mile long. I was ready for this fight.

Then people started arguing that skepticism isn’t about battling sexism, isn’t about combating racism, isn’t about tackling transphobia, isn’t about fighting homophobia. That the skeptics trying to address social justice problems in the movement were being divisive. That opinions on social justice were tearing skepticism apart. That those interested in dealing with these things are all well and good but should get off skepticism’s lawn to do so. That the intersection crowd are just trying to impose intersectional dogma upon the True Skeptics™. That we are going to ruin skepticism for all…Deep rifts…etc.

And all of it left me hanging. Do I want to join a movement that seems so Hell-bent on ignoring the things I consider important? If I join will skepticism end up fracturing along the fault line of social justice? Will I help it do so?

UFOs and Bigfoot are the easy shit.* I (we) can lol at it while pulling out the mountain of evidence in opposition. Our opinions though, our opinions are the meat, the heart, the struggle of skepticism. We are racist. We are transphobic. We are sexist. We are the sum of culture’s influence upon us. No person escapes the bigotry and bias of culture entirely.

Looking at those parts of us that are erroneously biased by culture is hard. It requires accepting that aspects of reality are sometimes measured in anecdotes. People are a collection of anecdotes. People cannot be measured in the same sense that liquids are measured. There is no rule book to humanity. Skepticism as it applies to social justice therefore is pretty messy. It is a dance full of nuance, indignation, apathy, and pleas for truces on all sides. Things like bigotry and harassment and trying to define them tends to leave a bad taste in skeptic’s mouths because much of the time the definition is shaped by the victims. The definition is measured by the effect it has on people. I mean that there is nothing wrong with insults except when there is something wrong with insults. There is nothing wrong with sex except when there is something wrong with sex. The definition is defined by experience because the definition is about experience and it is always messier in the middle.

So I get why some skeptics don’t want us to be involved with social justice. I get that social justice movements are sometimes at odds with each other and that examining them skeptically is fraught with difficulties. I understand if it is too complicated for those skeptics to differentiate between wrong and right so they throw their hands over their ears and say “I can’t hear you.” I get it. Change is painful.

What I want to say to those skeptics though is I am still joining this movement and I am not going to stop caring about skepticism as it applies to social justice.

If and when skepticism fractures along the line of crop circles and social justice, I won’t lament the loss of those who decided that admitting their facts were wrong was easier than admitting their opinions were wrong. I won’t look back in regret at the loss of those conservative skeptics. I will be on the progressive side of this movement feeling a little more comfortable in my self-applied “progressive skeptic” label than ever before. I will be over here watching the conservative side die off as it becomes progressively less relevant to the rest of the world.

*I don’t know whether to say thank you or fuck you to ThunderfOOt for the inspiration to finish the article when I got stuck right at this moment.

Are harassment policies “sex negative”

Short answer: No, harassment policies are sex neutral at worst and sex positive at best.

I probably need to explain some things before that makes sense.

Sex positivity is, by any sensible definition, not simply “yay, sex is awesome.” It’s far more complicated than that.

Sex positivity is a view that considers sex, and sex exploration, to be healthy and normal aspects of human life and development. As a movement it seeks to end the shame around sex and sex exploration such that no matter how you identify sexually you are not ashamed for that identification.

That last sentence is a tricky one because we recognize that some forms of sexual expression are rightfully illegal and/or immoral. The rights that sex positivity extends to sexual identity aren’t necessarily extended to all forms of sexual expression, especially if that expression might be harmful to another. This idea of sex positivity needs some caveats if we are to make it a workable definition that equally protects people’s rights to sexually express as well as people’s rights to be free from unwanted sexual expression. These are the two caveats I pose for such a definition:

1) minimize harm

2) safe, sane, and consensual

Truthfully the second one is included in the first, but “safe, sane, and consensual” has common usage in the sex positive movement as a caveat toward the initial premises of sex positivity so I include those terms here.

The minimization of harm follows a ton of different paths that I will mostly cover when dealing with the second caveat. I want to talk about minimizing harm when you decide to express yourself sexually. What is important to realize is that our sexual identifications are aspects of our personalities. They are rooted in all the horrible and wonderful things culture has shaped us into being. Due to the inherently personal nature of our sexual selves, sometimes aspects of culture may even be enhanced in our sexualities. Things we don’t really see as our character often come out in our sexual selves.

An example: Rape fantasies. I don’t see my actual character as someone who enjoys being raped but a unique combination of personality, culture and circumstance have shaped me into someone who gets aroused by rape fantasies. It isn’t an easy thing for me to talk about. I have to keep pushing those sex positive buttons to remind myself that sexual id’s are normal and healthy. I have to remind myself that it is ok that I fantasize about rape or even role play about rape so long as I keep myself safe in the process. My rape fantasies do not eliminate harm as the expression of them might be perceived by outsiders as a rape apology. I attempt to minimize it by stringently explaining the root causes of my rape fantasies and that they have absolutely no connection to real desires.

Here is a more difficult example: Pedophilia. I am going to say something pretty fucking hard for a lot of people to read next so I am giving you a trigger warning for these statements. Someone who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children is not wrong for experiencing those feelings of attraction. The reason they are not “wrong” is because they have absolutely no control over who or what they are attracted to.  Far too many people have tried with all their might to eliminate those feelings without success for us to judge them on the basis of the feelings alone. Maybe most pedophiles are the product of life circumstances. Maybe most of them were condemned to their attractions by virtue of their genes. Either way they can no more be expected to turn those feelings off than any of us can flip a switch on our own, less “deviant” sexual inclinations. To function in our society we accept that pedophiles should control the expression of their sexuality. Because of the harm that can be realized by expressing that identity we expect them not to act on the objects of their desire. They should control it to the extent the harm is minimized into legality.  Minimizing it into legality may be role playing with a consenting adult proxy. Pedophiles who express their sexual identities cannot completely eliminate the harm they cause. The mere mention of someone who is attracted to children is extremely triggering to most people eliciting a response to defend themselves, their own children, or both. Child rape is a reality and fear and precautions against child rape are normal and necessary.

Another example of minimizing harm: As I mentioned earlier our sexual id’s are rooted in culture. As I am most familiar with American culture, I am going to use examples from my own. In this culture, the pervasive undercurrent is that men carry the primary financial responsibility for heterosexual pairings. Never mind how much the attitude reflects reality currently, the attitude still exists. What that means is a portion of heterosexual women are going to be more attracted to men who are financially stable.  Likewise in my culture we have long standing stereotypes about weight, race, and gender expression. This means a huge portion of people’s sexual id’s will be be centered on those cultural normatives. Some will fetishize the victims of pervasive weightism, racism, and transphobia. Most sexual id’s will simply be a similar or amplified expression of weightism, racism, and transphobia that exist in society already. The fact that these sexual id’s are reflective of the culture doesn’t make them any less real and the fact that they are real doesn’t mean that the expression of those sexual id’s is not harmful. They often are. To maintain sex positivity, when addressing these problematic id’s is to minimize harm. Minimizing harm when our fetishes are the result of long standing stereotypes, means that we don’t assume those stereotypes are reflective of the entire group. It means that we accept that our fetishistic expression is not welcome on all the members of the group we fetishize. It means we seek out those who do enjoy fulfilling our fantasies rather than expect everyone to.  Minimizing harm also means when we are aren’t attracted to thin people we maintain that it is a personal sexual identification and is not reflective of a value judgement against not thin people. We don’t say not thin people are unfuckable. We state our preference and accept that our preference was shaped by culture and circumstance. None of it eliminates harm. They minimize it while maintaining that our sexual selves are our own. The more that minimization of harm is important to you as a person the more steps you can take. You can try and examine those initial attractions to see if they can be more fluidly expressed. In fact if you want to minimize harm you should try and examine your sexual id’s throughout your life. Some parts will change. Some parts cannot change. How will you know which parts are changeable if you don’t try?

Now time to talk about safe, sane, and consensual. The first, safe, is pretty self explanatory.  In my first example, if I went out and attempted to make my rape fantasies real, I risk my safety. Choking fetishes walk a very fine line in safety. Sometimes kink risks being perceived as unsafe. Within reason we should be accepting that outsiders cannot tell what kinks were agreed on previously and accept that strong reactions to noticeably violent kink are not always sex negative but more often misunderstandings. Sane is kind of problematic as a term. Very subjective and the only way I can see that it applies, is when you consider that any behavior we have can become obsessive to the point that we develop a disabling mental illness from that behavior. Still a very subjective term and I think it is mostly included for the euphony in the phrase. I don’t like it personally.  So let’s talk about consensual. Consent ought to be simple, but it really isn’t. With very little room for flexibility, minors can’t consent to sex with an adult and often not even with other minors. The power differential, lack of cognitive development, and repercussions all mean that adult+minor sexual activities are mostly illegal and many minor+minor sexual activities are illegal. Non human animals can not consent to sexual activities either. That leaves adult human animals who can and do consent to sex. And consent with adult humans animals is where it becomes extremely complicated.

An example: Sometimes, I need to be turned on before I am ready for sex. Surprising, I know, but the hustle and bustle of life can get me distracted. Usually at those times Jarreg might hear some initial protests toward sexual advances that subside if I am getting in the mood. When I am either too sick, too annoyed, too distracted, too sad for sex I might start out with the initial half hearted protests but soon enough I will make it clear to Jarreg this is not what I want at the time. Through communication Jarreg has learned that my initial protests are just my way of preparing myself for the times I am not sure I can get in the mood. He has learned what no’s of mine are definitive, and the proper ways to test my receptive waters. Likewise I have learned his similar behaviors when he is unsure about his desires to fuck. It is the fortunate result of  having been partners for a long time. Not every aspect of sexual interaction needs to be as clearly stated, but we still have moments of miscommunication. Miscommunication that is sometimes harmful even if it is very minor harm. Take that in for a second. Realize that  if miscommunication about consent can happen between two people who have been regularly sexually active partners for over a decade, how likely do you think it happens between people just meeting each other? All the fucking time. It happens a lot.

There are no hard and fast rules to consent applicable in all circumstances. But there are some guidelines. Since we can’t always know whether a person saying no really means no it is safer for both you and your partner to assume yes means yes and no means no. I mean, if you haven’t been interacting with them sexually for a long time and haven’t agreed about how you use alternative definitions of terms based on tone of voice and other cues, then it is best to assume the commonly accepted definitions. It minimizes the risk of harm to interpret words as they are defined. Alcohol is often a factor in consent. Drunk people can’t consent by law and that leads to a ton of rapes that neither party may ever consider rape. It also leads to a ton of rapes where only one party considers the sex rape. It is still rape. Rape with no clear line to define it. I mean, if I had a few mixed drinks while an experienced drinker did the same, I am definitely drunk while my drinking partner is not. I have little tolerance for alcohol. Others have a strong tolerance and we can’t expect breathalyzer tests before fucking.  So how do we know when someone is “too drunk for consent?” We don’t actually. We have to rely whether the victim interprets it as rape. That means that yes there may be times that people abuse the honor system of victim defined rape but the burden of proof and a system heavily stacked against rape victims stand in strong opposition to such efforts. This is the option with the greatest potential for minimizing harm, at least until someone comes up with something better.

The above examples are only a few illustrations of the caveats related to sex positivity. On the surface the caveats we propose don’t seem to be promoting sex positivity as they seem to be expressly about “not having sex.” It is important though to realize that sex is an interaction between two people and is inherently invasive (even if not penetrative). Our interactive sexual expression is often our most vulnerable form of interaction and deserves extra precautions based on that vulnerability. Maintaining sex positivity means we can be positive about our desires and our sexual expression as long as it does not violate another person’s personal sexual boundaries. Just as much as sex positivity is the right to say yes to sex for all reasons safe, sane, and consensual, sex positivity is also the right to say no to sex for all those same reasons. Saying no to sex is not sex negative. Saying no is the sex positive expression of individual sexual identities. Not shaming people for asexuality is just as important as not shaming them for promiscuity. We enter into the realm sex negativity when we shame personal sexualities that are not harmful to others. We enter into the realm of sex negativity when we make decisions about the sexual autonomy of others. The reason for the difference is that any given decision not to have sex is never harmful. The decision to have sex sometimes is harmful. I hope that distinction is clear.

Now it is time to tie this back into harassment policies at conventions and specifically how the harassment policies address sexual harassment. Sexual harassment policies are designed to prevent the sexual expressions of attendees that may be harmful to others. They are not designed to prevent the expression of attendees’ sexual identifications altogether.  That means if you find someone at a con you want to fuck and those desires are reciprocated, then this interaction is not harmful and therefore not in violation. That being said, some harassment policies have restrictions on speakers that are greater than those on attendees. While that may prevent mutually desired fucking at the conference, it is important to keep in mind that “not having sex” is never harmful but “having sex” can be harmful. Policies with heavier restrictions on speakers to not have sex on the job are merely an attempt to mitigate the risk of harm with the acceptance that the attempt can be inconvenient to those who wish to have sex at conventions.

Harassment policies do not police sex. They police non consensual sexual expression. They police harmful sexual expression. Even the ones that have heftier restrictions on speakers are merely saying that the power differential between speakers and attendees makes it difficult to ensure that sex is consensual and therefore not harmful to either party. The policies DO NOT in any way imply that sex or sexual expression of a consensual or non-harmful variety is bad.

A lack of statement about non-harmful sexual expression is neutral on the sex positivity scale. That harassment policies make it clear that they offer protection against non-consensual sexual expression makes the harassment policies sex positive. It means that not only the “yay, sex is awesome” part isn’t shamed but also the “sex isn’t always awesome” aspect is addressed to the protection of attendee’s and speakers. To address both aspects of sex positivity clearly without shame makes sexual harassment policies sex positive.

It’s time to stop calling a policy designed to protect a person who says no to sex, sex negative because it isn’t. Sexual harassment policies are negative about harassment, assault, and rape which are things we should all be negative about.