A Surprising Truth About Sex/Kink-Positive Spaces

Since starting this blog, I’ve had a few experiences in sex/kink-positive spaces which…well, felt awkward and kind of creepy. I think I’ve finally figured out why they felt creepy: the people who I was interacting with didn’t appreciate a fundamental truth about our shared space.

A Surprising Truth About Sex/Kink-Positive Spaces

The truth about sex/kink-positive spaces is that a lot of them are basically public.  They may feel kind of private because you’re probably with a group of like-minded individuals who share a lot of common interests.  They may feel kind of private…but they aren’t.  It’s important to realize this distinction because it affects what counts as polite, acceptable behavior (as opposed to creepy behavior).

What makes a space private? When the only people present are either people who I invited myself or who were invited/vetted by someone I know and trust.

This means that most spaces where I am likely to interact with someone I don’t know are public spaces.  This includes places you probably normally think of as public, like a neighborhood park or a grocery store, but also spaces you might not normally think of as public:

Understand that I will interact with you, and react to you, largely in the same way that I would with any person walking up to me at, say, my local drug store.  I might be willing to have a wider variety of conversation topics with you than I would standing in the drug store — if I just gave a talk on sex toys and you asked me about it, I would be happy to talk with you — but there are a whole slew of things that you probably wouldn’t say to a random person in a drug store that are probably not a good idea to say to me, either.

The truth about most sex/kink-positive spaces is that they are public, and so the normal rules of behavior towards people you don’t know — such as being polite, respectful, and courteous — still apply.

Allow me to illustrate.

Good Idea / Bad Idea

Good Idea: Meeting someone new for the first time.
Bad Idea: Meeting someone new for the first time and telling them they’re hot.

This has happened to me both years I’ve attended Transcending Boundaries.  I’ve had a very brief interaction with someone, or just been introduced, and they make some comment about me (or some physical characteristic of mine) being hot.  This is awkward, and kind of creepy!

Yes, we’re in a sex/kink-positive space, but it’s a public space.  There’s a huge difference between having a polite, respectful conversation about sexuality and sharing thoughts about sexual attraction in a public space with someone I just met. There are perfectly reasonable ways of complimenting a stranger (e.g., “those are nice shoes”)…but if the compliment isn’t something you would say to a coworker, or in front of a parent/close relative, it’s probably not a great compliment to use with a stranger in a public sex/kink-positive space, either.

Good Idea: Messaging someone on FetLife asking about their meetup group.
Bad Idea:  Messaging someone on FetLife asking about their meetup group and then propositioning them.

I’ve had this happen, too.  For all of their talk about security, FetLife is basically a public space. A message from a person I don’t know very well is like a random person walking up to me in the drug store and starting a conversation.  You’d like more information about my (public) meetup group? Awesome.  You want me to come over afterwards and help you try out some toy? WTF.

Frankly, it would be unsafe and unwise of me to accept such an invitation.  One of the most basic pieces of advice in sex/kink-positive communities is don’t play with a stranger in a private place…so it’s kind of creepy to get an invitation to do just that.  I honestly don’t know anyone who plays with people who are total strangers — even the people I know who do casual play do so with people they already know or with people they may have just met but who are already friends with people they trust. Even then, they don’t generally start out playing in private.

If the person making this kind of proposition to me identifies as a man, it gets even more awkward.  My own gender is kind of complicated, but I am a person who was assigned female at birth and is generally read as a woman.  I am especially sensitive to the fact that for hundreds of years, people with my particular set of genitals have been treated as property.  Being propositioned by someone I don’t really know in a public place makes me feel like I’m being objectified, and it feels disrespectful.

Worst Idea: Messaging someone on FetLife asking about their meetup group, propositioning them, realizing their FetLife profile says they’re married, and then asking them to pass on the proposition to any available women at the meetup group.

Analysis of this one is left as an exercise to the reader.

TLDR: Don’t Be Creepy

If I don’t know you well,
…even if we are in a sex/kink-positive space or environment,
…even if you know that I’m a sex/kink-positive person,
please treat me with the same courtesy and respect as you would any stranger in a public place. 


Have your own Good Idea / Bad Idea stories, or advice for dealing with similar situations? Please share them!

Edited, 10/23: Clarified that there are ways of complimenting strangers that aren’t problematic.


A Surprising Truth About Sex/Kink-Positive Spaces — 11 Comments

  1. This is a very good point. I am co host of a women-only, all-women, play party in my area. It is a a public space, despite the atmoshpere of intimacy and safety that we promote. We have had some conflicts because of this, women who want us to restrict entrance for one reason or another that is not based on bad behavior. Which is a real reason to refuse entrance!

  2. What kind of worries me is how little safety advice the vanilla dating guides give. I had to read a stack of them for a book I was writing on Internet crime. There was only one that didn’t have the safety guide at the end and that was the one called ‘My Internet dating disasters’ so it was all pretty much safety advice.

    Then there was the guide that suggested readers try out the advice as they read along with no thought about safety till right at the end.

    I am currently working with the acronym Disease, Attack, Reputation and Emotion as the four main risk areas for cybersex. Good thing is that the bumper stickers are already deployed.

  3. The public/private dichotomy is a very useful concept, similar in explanatory power, I think, to Eric Raymond’s cathedral v. bazaar metonym. You might imagine two parties; the first a bondage dress-up mostly attended by couples, the second a conventional dinner party. Singles on the prowl for a one-night-stand are equally unwelcome, but far more likely to be observed at the first. The comedy of David Mitchell and Robert Webb comes immediately to mind, since this is a meme they have explored a lot.

    It may be that the creepy/unwelcome/inappropriate/awkward continuum is more obvious in overtly sex-linked spaces, but it’s easier to see it in that environment, rather than in other internet spaces. I think Limor Fried of adafruit fame, yet another highly visible female engineer, gets email-propositioned five or six times a day, and hers is the very antithesis of a sex-oriented space.

    The distinction between what is public and what is private is not so clear-cut on the internet, and I think this is the root cause of so much cyberangst. I’ve been on the internet since the mid-1980s, when it really was a cabal of the cognoscenti. To participate fully in the e-conversations of those days, you couldn’t be anonymous, nor could you afford to be perceived as a fool; reputation was important, and idiotic behaviour was social death. In the 21st century, no-one seems to care much about social death, although every day there is a new story of young people emotionally scarred by their experiences with twitter, Facebook or texting.

    Because the rules surrounding the ‘party’ are often not clear to those not in the know, there is a much higher likelihood of offence. Unfortunately, unlike a private party, it is often hard to eject the offenders from those mutable electronic public/private spaces, and even attempts at ostracism are ineffective because those causing the offence don’t acknowledge the right of the gatekeepers of taste to intervene.

  4. It’s not OK to propose someone in a public place? What do you think happens in parties?

    What you probably mean is more like: “it is not OK to assume that, because someone is in a sex/kink positive place, that person will be positive towards your sex proposals”. But that has nothing to do with public or private places.

    • No, I said what I meant. While I’d agree that it’s not OK to assume that someone in a sex/kink positive place will be accepting of propositions — I find it particularly creepy when someone propositions me in a public space.

      Whether or not a party is “public” depends on the party. Can anyone off the street just walk in? Then it’s public to me. Is it just my friends, or friends of a host I trust? Then it’s more private, and my standards of what is creepy are much different.

      If I don’t know you and the space is public, it is much more creepy for you to proposition me than if I perceive the space to be private.

  5. That all seems quite subjective, and it depends on your individual value of “creepy”.

    My personal experience at accepted play/kink spaces has been general acceptance of overt sexual dialog, but boundaries are always respected when signaled. Without an real exchange of information, you get all kinds of miscommunication such as people stigmatized for appearance.

    I’ve seen it happen!

    Just an addendum, “creepy” is a common trigger for men, generally applied indiscriminately in our formative years to describe shy or awkward behavior regardless of motive or effort. Just a different perspective.

    • That all seems quite subjective, and it depends on your individual value of “creepy”.

      Fair enough. I just wanted to let folks know that, in sex/kink-positive spaces, some of us react to explicitly sexual comments or invitations based on how public we perceive the space to be.

      My personal experience at accepted play/kink spaces has been general acceptance of overt sexual dialog, but boundaries are always respected when signaled. Without an real exchange of information, you get all kinds of miscommunication such as people stigmatized for appearance.

      Absolutely – I am all about explicit communication! Personally one of the hardest things for me to do is communicate boundaries in what I perceive to be a public space, when there are other people around. It’s one thing for me to tell someone i’m not interested in a corner at a private party (where I likely know the person, or we have shared friends)…I feel like it’s a different thing to be standing around at a conference, with a lot of people around, and someone has just made a sexual remark that makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or objectified. I guess this shows that while I can try to let people know to think about public/private issues, I also need to keep working harder at communicating myself.

      Just an addendum, “creepy” is a common trigger for men, generally applied indiscriminately in our formative years to describe shy or awkward behavior regardless of motive or effort. Just a different perspective.

      Eek! I didn’t realize this — thank you for pointing it out. Can you help me find a less problematic term? I’d be happy to rework the post.

  6. What I meant is that at night-clubs, discotheques, bars, etc… people propose other people all the time, yet these spaces are undoubtedly public.

    • Okay, yes! I see what you mean. I guess I wasn’t really trying to address those circumstances (I’ve only ever been to a dance club once). I’ll try to edit the post so it’s a little more clear that I’m talking about spaces that specifically advertise themselves as being sex/kink-positive.

      • Well, then, probably these places should not advertise themselves as sex positive in the first place, because they are not. They are places where *discussing* sex is positive, maybe, but that is a different thing.

        Examples of public spaces which are sex positive and where people are actually expected to propose: swinger club, gay bar, sauna… see what I mean? It is not about the “public space” part.

  7. Pingback: HOPE X: The Sex Geek as Culture Hacker | The Toymaker Project

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