Is there room for sex (or at least sex-positivity) at atheist/skeptical conferences?

So, the consensus that is forming on the atheist blogosphere seems to be that there should be significant distance between the world of skeptic/atheist conferences and the world of sex.  If you find yourself at a conference, you should probably put the possibility of hooking up aside.

You know, unless you really want to keep pissing a lot of people off.

Some quick context, in case you have not been aware of the various goings-on around the atheist/skeptical blogosphere recently.  I won’t bother trying to summarize, so I’ll just point you here, here, here, and most recently here (there are many others, but that is where I spent much of the last few days or so…).  Arguments have been had, flame wars ended in ban hammers being unleashed, and good times were had by all.  In the end it seems that a few people were educated, some minds possibly changed, and many others are still holding onto the opinion they came in with.

Oh, and a fair amount of frustration (perhaps related to lack of sex? Or is that joke not funny? Fuck it.)

Just another weekend on the internet.

(I also spent way too much time here, but that is not directly related to this post, but since I spent like 2 or 3 days reading and contributing to comments, I figure I would pass it along)

So, I’m a bit nervous to bring up some questions considering where things stand and what people have said, but I’m going to do it anyway.  I’ll claim that I was tired.  Perhaps drunk will work.  I’ll start drinking now….

So, this is a question that is of some interest to me, because I think, write, and sometimes comment about the intersection of issues related to sex-positivity and skepticism.   I’m an unapologetic slut who is not only quite comfortable with my sexuality, but who believes that sexuality is and should be a part of our lives in more integrated ways.  That is, I don’t think that we should pretend that it’s not a real thing that we think about day to day, assuming we are actually thinking about it.

And I know that many people don’t think about sex at all, much, or in most circumstances.  I also know that other people, such as myself, think about such things rather frequently, and I personally have to remind myself that this is not the case with many people.  So, what do we do with these facts when we travel near or far to go to a conference and find ourselves possibly interacting with interesting people whom we will likely not see again any time soon?

I don’t often go to conferences, being generally broke and not being invited to speak at them and all.  But when I do go to such events, I would be lying if the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of smart, funny, sexy people is not something I will notice.  I’m attracted to smart people, and I feel no shame in feeling that way.  I’m not merely objectifying a person by finding them attractive if part of what attracts me to them is a combination of their thoughts, sense of humor, and of course their body.

We are always objectifying others.  We are doing so in the technical sense of other people literally being objects (but not mere objects), but also in the sense of making judgments based upon mere appearance, even if more information will eventually provide a more substantial judgment after we have a chance to get to know them better.  The question is whether we are merely objectifying, or are using multiple criteria of judgment to view a person.  I think it’s only honest to admit that this is part of our humanity, and not pretend that this behavior did not exist or that it was wrong per se.

It seems to me that part of this desire to cut out flirting, hitting on, etc at such events verges on doing just that.  In an attempt to create a safe space (and I cannot emphasize enough how important safe spaces are), I worry that we may be cutting out part of our humanity, a part of our humanity that means a lot to me and many other people.  I wonder if we are forgetting that part of creating a network of people, if we care about sex positivity in our culture, must involve our sexuality in all of its diversity.

Religion has done too much to squash and make sexuality dirty and immoral.  I am left with a bad taste in my mouth that the hetero-normative concept of sexual ethics has made too much of an impact on our culture, even among skeptics and atheists. I want to live in a world full of sex-positive skeptics who embrace their lustiness openly and unapologetically.  Perhaps my definition of sex-positivity goes beyond most people’s.  I think that is quite likely.

Now, I don’t suggest we schedule orgies at conferences, or that we consider this desire for sex positivity over the concerns of people’s safety, but I think that in this conversation we need to keep in mind that some people at such conferences, while not there for the sole purpose of sex, are quite interested in finding potential partners for such activities.  And whether we extreme sluts are an extreme minority or not, the fact is that recent discussions are going to make us avoid such interests.

And while I think those safe spaces are ultimately more important than this concern, I don’t want this concern to be ignored.  I don’t know what role sex-positivity can play in the networking and growth of this community pf reason, but I hope it is not left behind completely.

That said, I am quite shy IRL.  I rarely openly flirt with people I don’t know, I have never directly propositioned anyone at a conference whom I had not already known and interacted with prior to then, and I do attend such things primarily for the lectures and opportunity to meet people in non-sexual ways.  I don’t go to conferences to hook up and I have always tried to be completely respectful to speakers, guests, etc as people with minds, and not as mere bodies.

But bodies we have, and we cannot forget that nor the fact that they can be quite distracting at times.  I find a wide variety of bodies, especially when they contain brains which house intelligent minds, quite attractive.  I am left wondering if there is room in the conference world for this sexuality, or if it will have to be something left behind when we attend such things, perhaps finding it by accident in rare cases, but never intentionally pursuing it.

The fact is that if you want to find hook ups, there are places for that.  There are singles bars,  clubs, and swingers cruises for all those interested in such things.  But is there room for setting aside a time and place for people who might be interested in sexual activity at such conferences? Could we designate an arm band system, a specific location and time, where such flirtation is not only acceptable, but set aside for?

And if this were to be arranged, would it end up merely attracting the creepy people none of us wants to hook up with?

Ugh, there just does not seem to be an easy solution here.  Perhaps it would be better to leave it out of the conference atmosphere, but I hope not completely so.  Guidelines at very least are important, and we need to continue to educate ourselves and one-another about what a safe space looks like, as there are still many who don’t understand this idea (hell, I’m still learning and I think about this stuff all the time).

It seems that we, as a community, will have to adjust to the fact that many people (perhaps most?) simply don’t want to mix their business/activism with that kind of pleasure.

And while I understand this, the side of me that wants a more sex-positive world can only look on with some small measure of frustration and disappointment.  Despite what I would ideally prefer, I am forced to admit that there are too many issues of social justice between where we are as a society and where we will need to be before we can have gatherings where enough people are respectful, safe, and mature to allow our freaky flags fly en masse.

I hope I get to see it before I die, but I’m skeptical.

21 thoughts on “Is there room for sex (or at least sex-positivity) at atheist/skeptical conferences?

  1. We’re talking about groping. We’re talking about following people back to their hotel rooms. We’re talking about not stopping when being asked to stop. We’re talking about having conversations with people’s body parts–the ones that don’t house those brains you say you’re interested in. We’re talking about continuing to hit on people who are clearly uncomfortable. We’re talking leaping over someone’s boundaries and running away.

    We object to all this, and you ask whether there’s still room for any sex? I think you may be backward on who has the negative view of sex.

  2. @stephanie

    The conversations I have seen over the last few days transcended the issues you cite above. Yes, those things are discussed, but there were many people who advocate simply putting sex to the side completely for conferences.

  3. I don’t go to the conventions so I don’t have a dog in the fight (as Mel Gibson would say). But I do think that there is some valid concerns about sexual predators. I also think that some people are going Sam Harris on the issue (i.e. overly concerns) and as such are going too far. I have seen comments claiming that people “looking creepy”, “looking at someone funny”, etc. should be kicked out of the conference. This too me seems like it goes too far as those things are pretty subjective. Even the “conversation with body parts” is a little hard to justify in most cases. These things cross the line from valid concerns to witch hunt. I worry that the thought police might be next.

  4. As often happens, there’s a distinction between the community leaders (mostly bloggers, in this case) and the points they’re making, and the community at large (mostly commenters, in this case) and the points they’re making. All the blog posts I’ve read are, as Stephanie says, talking about abuses of power and aggressive, disrespectful approaches. I don’t delve into the comment sections often because I like to keep my respect for humanity, but my impression is that most of the attitudes Shaun is objecting to come from comment sections.

  5. It seems to me that if the atmosphere is informal and social, if drinks are being served and people are wearing their “party” clothes rather than their “professional” clothes, then a respectful sexual approach is appropriate and acceptable. In other words, if you can reasonably assume that a person’s primary goal for being where they are is to interact socially, then flirtation and a gentle proposition aren’t out of place.

  6. Reading through the various threads, I am honestly confused about how the conferences differ from just about any social encounter in a non-sexual environment (i.e. the grocery store, shopping mall, coffee shop versus say clubs and singles-bars). Any unwanted sexual advance can happen anywhere – assuming the person making the advance backs-off when told and doesn’t make any unsolicited physical contact, who cares! Seriously, you’re in a public environment, people are going to try to mate; we are animals after-all. This desire to mate is exacerbated by being somewhere novel with reduced inhibitions (due to reduced fear of judgement from a familiar community).

    While there are more and less appropriate ways to propose or initiate an encounter – discretely and respectfully spring to mind – these hold true for any venue or location. I would be rather put off by any event that attempted to prohibit/discourage/regulate sexual engagement, that is nobody’s business but the individuals involved.

    N.B. It is in bad taste to overtly proposition a speaker/presenter. Not only do they need to consider their professionalism, this is unfair given the fact at the speaker is unlikely to have had one-on-one time with the person making the advance, whereas the person making the advance has likely had an hour to develop an attraction to the speaker.

  7. Oh it’s so complicated! I too find smart, interesting people who think about things quite sexy, yet am generally skittish of strangers. I’m also alternately oblivious to and skeeved out by the way flirting (in most mainstream venues) happens most times. Still, I’d far prefer for someone to tell me they think I have great boobs and would like to make out with me than to just hint at it, assuming they are respectful of my possible “no thank you.” I like transparent, respectful asks, and people who ask for consent frequently and sincerely. The Network for New Culture (a bit too crunchy and not enough sarcastic snark for me to be completely into, but they do cool things) has some really neat stuff addressing the complexities of the whole flirting thing.

  8. Yeah, I’m pretty shy myself. There are many times, even when around awesome poly people, that I am thinking ‘I want to make out with that hot girl with the great boobs’ but end up just having a nice conversation with them. Argh!

    Damned insecurity!

  9. Insecurity sucks! In my experience (I’ve got a rather odd combination of being insecure and oblivious) it often leads to two awesome people having a nice conversation while having the hots for each other but both being too insecure to say anything about it. I wish there was a secret handshake that meant “I’m totally insecure but into you” which only other insecure people knew.

  10. Holy crap, what an idea!

    It would be like a totally secret society of shy sluts. I think we should start it.

    BTW, I totes want to make out with you now…[shakes your hand propositionally]

  11. That would be a great secret handshake. We should probably get to work on that.

    For me, though, the problem isn’t so much insecurity as being conflicted about cultural expectations viz a viz “proper” flirting/dating situations. A previous commenter listed several “non-sexual” situations, such as the grocery store or a coffee shop. While I agree that these places don’t exist solely for the purpose of meeting people to date, available people do, in fact, meet, flirt, and sometimes date as a result of interactions at such places. How am I to know if the seemingly available woman shopping for quinoa at Whole Foods is open to my approaching her or if she considers the grocery store a non-sexual environment? I can’t know with certainty (barring Shaun’s whimsical idea of “I’m approachable” wrist bands, or some other clear, visible symbol of availability/receptiveness), though one would hope I would try to look for obvious signs before proceeding.

    I’m not sure, then, that designating certain places as flirting/dating-friendly and others as off-limits really solves the problem of some people making unwanted advances at other people. It may solve the problem for some people but not for others, which is not terrible but non-optimal as well. It’s also difficult to imagine how one would devise a system of space-designation that would accommodate all possibilities. I know some conferences do, in fact, set up specific times and places where socializing/flirting/dating is encouraged, and the assumption is that advances are not welcome at other times/in other places. But what about in hallways, out in front of the hotel, in the elevator (Rebecca Watson’s recent, and famous, horrible experience notwithstanding)? Ah, the grey areas.

    In addition, I agree with Shaun (and some of the writers on the blogs he linked to) that the best solution may be for sluts like us to choose our flirting/dating opportunities very carefully and opt not to flirt at all unless signs are clear that flirting is welcome. Still, this breaks my anarchist heart just a bit. After all, isn’t the point of a culture of consent that one can ask for what one wants, the person asked can say “yes” or “no” freely and definitively, and that’s that?

    Of course, I realize that we don’t live in a culture of consent. I also realize that the history (and present reality) of male, hetero privilege means that the consequences of my flirting with someone (whether I initiate it or he/she does) are unlikely to be dire. I’m unlikely to feel threatened by unwanted advances, to be stalked, etc. I’m also unlikely to be considered solely a sex object. So a set of rules that would probably suit me well would be likely to make others uncomfortable, or could lead to their discomfort. And so we’re back to the realization that the world I’d like to live in is not, in fact, that world in which we live.

    So perhaps the question we should be asking is: how do we build a culture of consent? How do we encourage everyone both to ask for what they want clearly and to be honest, direct, and compassionate in responding to other people’s requests (and for the requesting person to accept the other person’s answer unequivocally)? If everyone operated under that ruleset, wouldn’t “unwelcome” advances be extremely unusual events (if not impossibilities)?

  12. You know, the Secret Society of Shy Hedonists would have an appropriate acronym.

  13. @Alex- The Network for New Culture does an AMAZING job of creating a transparency focused, consent oriented culture which teaches some great skills about hearing and saying no in a compassionate, direct, honest way.

    @Shaun- Ditto

    And yes, let’s make some Sssh bracelets and a secret handshake, we may be able to solve all these problems at once.

    And oh the elevator flirting, it’s right up there on my creepy list as when guys flirt with me in nearly deserted subway stations. This pretty much sums up why Ironically, and almost certainly unfairly, I would be completely fine with a women (and probably even a gender-queer or other non-male presenting person) flirting with me in the same circumstances.

  14. @Shaun
    June 22 @ Sexploratorium. This one is on kink and feminism, called “Cuff Me, Spank me, and Call me a Feminist”. After-party at my place (about 5 blocks away). Bring the crew!

  15. All I can say is our children watch us. We wonder what’s wrong with America. I’ll put you all in my prayers. God Bless You

  16. @AL

    So, what does that have to do with anything? I know many polyamorous,people, swingers, etc with children. The children to see the actual sex and whatnot, they just see their parents living the way they live and don’t see it as abnormal because you have to be acculturated to think that what we poly people do as abnormal. You actually have to address why what we do is wrong, not appeal to “the children” as an emotional appeal.

    What’s wrong with America? Well, perhaps lots. Part of it is unskeptical people who have a parochial point of view which blinds them to other worldviews.

    Lastly, god bless us? Which God?

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