Jun 21

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.

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  1. 3
    Harassment policies campaign – timeline of major events | Lousy Canuck

    […] Are harassment policies “sex negative”?: WilloNyx challenges the myth that a harassment policy would eliminate all consensual sexual […]

  2. 4
    Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work: Three existence proofs from SF&F, atheism/skepticism, and open source | Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog

    […] WylloNyx explains why anti-harassment policies are not sex-negative and would not prevent consensual sexual activity at conferences. “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 attendees and speakers. To address both aspects of sex positivity clearly without shame makes sexual harassment policies sex positive.” […]

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