When Worlds Collide: On Consent in Sex-Positive Spaces

I’m fortunate enough to be embedded in a largely sex-positive and non-monogamous social web. I love connecting with people, I love talking about sex (don’t we all?), and I especially love talking about alternative forms of sexual activity and the interpersonal connections that are possible through them. This has inevitably led to lots of conversations with people who are intrigued about how kinky play parties, swinger clubs, private sex parties, and “all that stuff” works. More often than not these folks are at least a little curious to maybe, just maybe, give “all that stuff” a try.

However, once I mention that they’re more than welcome to attend such an event with me, the conversation shifts quickly and radically from intrigue to skepticism.

“Will I be allowed to just watch?”

“What if I don’t want to do anything?”

“Will I be expected to participate?”

So consistent are the questions and concerns about what kind of behavior is expected at these events that I’ve come to see them as a sort of identifying mark of people who are new to the world of sex-positive social gatherings.  It’s common for people who are new to sex-positive spaces to assume that such venues are inherently dangerous and that attending them guarantees sexual assault. More than one nervous acquaintance has even asked me if such sex events operate as a no-holds-barred, check-your-consent-at-the-door type of “free-for-all.”

These assumptions intrigue me in no small part because, while I’ve always leaned towards being very sexually open-minded and experimentative even before the sex-positive world opened its doors to me, I used to ask the same questions. Hell, back when I first discovered the intimidating world of kink and public play parties, the thought of attending a dungeon event for the first time by myself was utterly terrifying. I refused to go to one until I found a couple friends to tag along with because I, like many of the people with whom I talk about this stuff now, assumed that it was going to be a Wild West-type lawless sexual landscape.

I quickly learned that such spaces (the good ones, at least) are governed by far more implicitly strong expectations and explicit rules regarding consent than are most vanilla spaces. However, this misconception towards alternative sexual practices in general has been so prevalent in my life that I didn’t question where exactly it comes from until I began talking and writing about my own experiences with consent violation.

The conversation about consent violations in sex-positive spaces tends to be a tricky and divisive one. Bodily and sexual violations within these spaces are hardly rare; I’ve personally been on the receiving end of consent violations that occurred at the hands of people who were new to those spaces, or who otherwise got caught up in the fun and made some incorrect assumptions about what kind of behavior was acceptable (obviously not all violations are committed in this manner). The incidents themselves were traumatic and disheartening, but equally disheartening were many of the responses that I’ve received when I’ve tried to open about them to others, particularly to people who are unfamiliar with sex-positive spaces. Most of the responses were some flavor of “Well… Why are you surprised that something bad happened in a place like that?”, as if simply being present in those spaces not only gives others free reign over what happens to my body, but also removes my right to feel violated it.

As someone who’s always had a very strong respect for bodily autonomy and who generally treats alternative sexual practices as a radical form of human connection, this got me thinking: Why do people assume that consent doesn’t need to exist in sex-positive spaces? It wasn’t long before I realized that this belief has popped up thematically throughout my life, starting even before I possessed the language to think of myself as non-monogamous. I now see it in the expectations of someone I dated briefly back in college, who, upon learning that I’d participated in a threesome before meeting him, immediately asked which of my female friends I was most willing to reel into having sex with us. I see it in the victim-blaming mentality of my kinky and poly ex-partner who responded to an egregious swinger club experience of mine with “You can’t blame the guy, he probably thought you wanted it--That’s the message you were sending by being there.” I see it underscoring the pointed questions directed at me about what I was wearing or not wearing during other incidents, as if my clothing alone was the deciding factor in whether or not such incidents could truly be deemed a violation or if it was just a misunderstanding. That last point is especially interesting because, across conversations with different people, the detail that’s focused on always shifts and doesn’t seem to be terribly crucial in and of itself; rather, its importance stems only from the fact that, in the eyes of others, it often deems the perpetrator's actions “understandable.”

While relatively small in scope, these comments display a very dangerous attitude towards consent and what kind of behavior is not only permissible but expected in spaces that fall outside the box of monogamous, private, and vanilla. If affirmative sexual consent is treated as an utmost form of respect between two (or more!) people, then stripping away the significance of that act is invalidating at best and dehumanizing at worst. It’s as if our culture’s baseline state is to perceive people who practice alternative sexuality as less deserving of bodily autonomy and, therefore, basic human validity.

In addition to how misinformed most people are about consent in the first place, the sad fact is that those misunderstandings are amplified once the constraints that our culture places on “normal” sex and relationships are lifted. Group sex and public sex both fall far outside that box, as does kinky play. We inhabit a world that lays fairly rigid expectations on us regarding what relationships and sexual experiences should look like; and it seems that when most people encounter alternative sexual spaces for the first time, their knee-jerk emotional response is that such forms of sexuality must be inherently lawless simply because they don’t look the way they’re used to.

This also applies to alternative sexuality in general. I’ve received similar, if less scandalized, responses when opening up to people about polyamory; it’s commonly assumed that all the people I’m dating are also dating each other and that our sex lives are mostly chaotic group sex (I mean… They are, but that’s beside the point).

While in my experience this mindset is far more common in people who are unfamiliar with sex-positive environments, it’s hardly limited to those folks. I’ve come across a disturbing number of kinksters, swingers, and self-identified “freaks” who are quick to wave off consent violations as just an inherent risk of being present in the spaces that they call home. Even those who like to think of themselves as open-minded fall prey to this trap; unlearning the cultural attitudes towards sex and consent that most of us subconsciously carry takes far more work than just choosing to associate with those groups. Obviously this plays a major role in why consent violations occur in these environments to begin with, even if they aren’t significantly riskier than the vanilla world.

In spite of the pitfalls, sex-positive spaces and non-monogamy both appeal to me because they empower individuals to define their own “normal” in regards to sexuality and relationships. Non-monogamy in particular allows people the freedom to design and agree to their own unique, valid relationship structures; when practiced conscientiously this emphasizes our equality and humanity and leaves less grey area for consent violations to occur out of ignorance. Ultimately, many of us choose this path because of the radical emphasis that it places on love and our ability to share something meaningful with others. By practicing it as we do, we’re contributing in our own small way to empowering ourselves and others--and that’s what “all that stuff” is really about.

Max loves talking and writing about sex, consent, and relationships. She can usually be found drinking really good beer and keeping even better company.