“Sex positive” spaces emphasise the importance of consent. It comes from a good place, but I don’t think there’s enough awareness within them of how boundaries, mental illness, and surviving abuse intertwine. The combination of the three can make navigating these spaces difficult. I’m hoping that by writing about it, those like me who participate in these spaces might become more aware of this dynamic.
Embracing “sex positivity” was actually crucial to me surviving sexual abuse and assault. Rather than being terrified of my body and terrified of sex, I began to learn as much as possible. I became a sex nerd and the more I learned, the more comfortable I felt with my body.
In hindsight, the problem with the places where I sought reassurance, the “sex positive” communities that I steeped myself in, is that “positivity” became another word for “We don’t want to hear anything negative.” Although I was able to embrace the positive sides of my body and sexuality, the negative experiences were left stagnant. I learned all about how to say yes, but nothing about how to say no.
That meant that when I did enter parties and other situations where there were cuddle piles, nudity, threesomes and other experiences “sex positive” blogs and individuals wax poetic about, I was not prepared to negotiate what I really want. All of the sex positive, polyamory advice I had read told me that I shouldn’t listen to my fears and thus, not listen to my own inner voice telling me when I wasn’t comfortable. I told myself that jumping out of the comfort zones of my Puritanical American Southern upbringing would always be uncomfortable. And the abusive voices I grew up with that told me to shut up, stop crying, and stiffen my upper lip found a new home in a form of sex compulsoriness that told me I was just being too much of a prude. I just needed to chill out, man.
Later I would find a word that would encompass the strange separation I felt from most people and the way they talked and felt about sex — demisexual. I am sexual, but, either due to consequence or design, there’s a lot of things that have to happen before I actually feel attracted to someone. When I look back on it, the discomfort I felt in these overtly sexual situations cries out to me as a clear sign that this just wasn’t how my sexuality worked — and that was okay. But instead, at the time I pushed myself so far out of my comfort zone, in all honesty, I ended up in situations where I was being touched sexually or otherwise where, had I been actively asked for my consent, I would have wanted to say no.
Growing up in an environment where you are abused and gaslighted, you become completely accustomed to assuming there is something wrong with you, that your voice is not important, that what you want doesn’t matter, and you need to fit into a mould of perfection. It’s hard to say no when this pressure bleeds into all aspects of your life. You want to be “into it”. You want to be “cool”. You want to have stories to tell about those fun threesomes, waking up between lithe bodies, and have the opportunity to prove you’re just as much of an un-prude as everyone else. Even if you don’t have the desire to brag, there is an inner abusive voice that carries over that tells you that you aren’t good enough.
I remember joining cuddle piles, lying as stiff and uncomfortable at the overpowering sensation of strange touch, holding my breath like a Fear Factor contestant enveloped in spiders, willing my fear to subside. Consent was prized and valued maybe, but consent is process not a signed contract or a nod. Breaking the silence felt taboo — killing the buzz, being the wet blanket, which no one wants to be. So I let my silence stand in for consent. And although I don’t consider myself violated or assaulted because I didn’t feel physically in danger, these instances stick out to me as clear examples where I sacrificed sanity on the altar of sensuality.
Today, I have the self confidence to be able to say that “sex positive” situations, on the whole, don’t really interest me. At best, I’m just not interested in seeing random strangers, or friends, have sex. I can say that positively, knowing there is no judgement against anyone. In the same way I’m uninterested in skydiving, I’m not interested in these scenarios. And sometimes, I just find it plain awkward. At worst, these situations bring forth the overwhelming pressure to not harsh the mellow and kill the vibe with my idiosyncrasies.
Although I don’t feel I have anything to prove to anyone anymore, this anxious feeling of having to negotiate consent, of having to put my boundaries out there loud and clear when I have spent the vast majority of my life being punished or ridiculed for communicating my boundaries outweighs the benefits these scenarios can bring. As I child, when I put up a boundary, at best it was mocked. At worst, they were purposefully violated with a laugh.
This carries over not just in situations that may be sexual, but even to polyamory. I usually dislike any situation where I feel a pressure to be happy with my partner doing something else with someone. I find it much easier to just avoid that than to force myself into these situations over and over. Sure, maybe if I forced myself to cope with the anxiety of the pressure of being into it, I would eventually learn to deal with it — but to what point or purpose?
Largely I have left “sex positive” and polyamory communities because there is not as much value in saying no as there is in saying yes. There is no recognition that sexuality and sex lives come with not just positives, but also negatives. Maybe I’ve met the wrong people, but in the communities I’ve been in, there is more showing off than showing up. The value of consent is well intentioned, but shallow, swallowed underneath the overwhelming call to leap out of your comfort zone and live life to the fullest. Because the only way to live life to the fullest is for your every weekend to be like Shortbus.
So, if you’re anything like me, and you’re someone on the asexual spectrum or someone who finds boundaries difficult because you were never allowed them growing up, consider this your official permission slip to stay within your comfort zone. Don’t sacrifice your sanity for sensuality that, in the end, may not actually pay off. When the stress of the pressure to be into it outweighs what the experience can give to you, feel free to call it quits. And let the haters date.
Don’t listen to other people who tell you how you can be happy. You know yourself best. Maybe you’re just not very Rainbow Rhythms. And that’s okay.