When “sex-positive” is a euphemism for “male gaze”

I had been wanting to attend an event at Mission Control for a while now. One of the reasons I hadn’t is because, other than the price tag, nearly every opportunity to do so seemed to require some kind of dress code. My opinion on dress codes can be summed up as, “well, fuck you very much,” so I was turned off right quick from most of the advertised events at Mission Control.

Then, by way of Reid Mihalko, I learned about PINK. This semi-regular event seems to specifically do away with dress codes:

Dress Code: n/a… you can leave your costumes at home and just come all gussied up or even dressed down. We’ll be happy you’re there no matter what you wear!

I also highly appreciated one of the organizers’ elevator pitches, which I was fortunate enough to hear at a semi-private dinner beforehand: “You know how you can order wine at a restaurant, but that doesn’t make it a bar? Well, you and your partner can have sex at PINK if you like, but that doesn’t make it a play party. It’s just a party, and some people like to play or have sex.”

All right, I’m thinking, now I’m actually excited to check out the venue. I mean, I was interested before, but I wasn’t expecting much. This, despite the fact that I’ve heard great things about Mission Control, left and right. Still, whereas most people in this town use “sex-positive” to mean some kind of fucking utopia (and I use those words advisedly), their implementation (and their instrumentation) is more than often more than somewhat lacking.

Nevertheless, the PINK party was an opportunity to check out the space, and so I gave myself a predictable mission: scout the imagery. What I found was unsurprising: I counted 22 eroticized images of women to 1 of a man.

But this count is somewhat misleading, and I’ve had some requests to clarify. So, here’s the exacting breakdown, albeit hastily-authored.

My (admittedly subjective) criteria:

  • Expressly eroticized imagery only. So-called “family-friendly” photos or imagery that does not specifically signify a “look at TEH SEXY!” were not counted. This, notably, excluded a painting of a lesbian couple in pseudo-drag above the bar from my count.
  • Imagery that depicts human or humanoid creatures only. I’m not going to gender the animals. That being said, if there’s a mermaid with huge breasts in the room, that’s counted as a woman. (Yes, this kind of thing has happened before, although not at Mission Control as far as I saw.)
  • Decor only, not props, toys, or play equipment. While there are certainly an overabundance of equipment specifically designed for use on women at these venues, that is a whole other can of worms and I’ll get to that later. In the mean time, I’m only looking at the items making up the “ambiance,” not the items designed for functional use.

With that said, there were a few things in the numbers I had to fudge to make sense in 140 characters. These were:

  • The coffee table near the entrance was, itself, a collage of erotic images of women. While I could easily have counted this as “50+” for the women, I only counted it as 1.
  • On the coffee table was The Big Penis Book. Some have said this should be counted as one for the men’s column, but I didn’t include it in the count because as far as I saw, it was picturing solely penises, not men. I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider a picture of a vagina (or, more accurately, a vulva) equivalent to a picture of a woman. Why should I consider a picture of a penis equivalent to a picture of a man?
  • There was a digital picture frame on the opposite wall from the bar. This rotated through a slideshow of images. I watched it for a goodly 3 minutes or so, noting that the images changed approximately every 10 seconds. In the approximate 3 minutes that I watched the slideshow, I saw 1 and only 1 picture of a man. The rest were pictures of women. I counted this as 1 picture of a woman, not of a man, because the ratio in this particular device was about 17 to 1 in favor of women.
  • There was an old-time absinthe poster near the bar that had images of demons. I recall seeing both male- and female-assigned individuals depicted on the poster, but none of them were expressly sexualized, even though it could be argued that they were “sexy demons,” and so I did not count this item at all.

As can be expected, I made a point of pointing this out to people who were wondering what the hell I was doing writing down ticks to keep a tally on my own business card. When I explained that I was keeping track of how many images of women versus images of men I found in the venue, everyone wanted to know what the count was. After telling them about the disparity in the ratio, the single most common response I got was a “Oh, that’s weird,” or “Huh, interesting.”

I found the response itself very telling. Weird, as if it’s some kind of surprise, or interesting, as if it’s unusual in sex-positive spaces. It was always punctuated with a moment of thought. “Huh. Hmm. Oh….” It was as if no one had ever considered this before.

One man I spoke to made the common remark, “Well, women are just way more fun to look at.” I can’t tell if he was being serious or facetious, and I don’t want to assume because he seemed like a nice guy, but if it was a joke I did not find it funny. In fact, it was immediately triggering and I almost left the room right then, but I got caught up in a conversation with someone next to me and then had the opportunity to discover that this man was actually kind of a well-read sci-fi geek, which I think is cool. I still did not appreciate the remark, though.

Anyway, whoever runs the Mission Control twitter feed responded to me on Twitter after I posted my tally online:

@maymaym Hi, we are aware of that situation and will be correcting as we move forward and install new art. We are open to all!

I replied:

@missioncontrol Good to hear. And I look forward to seeing a different tally result on my card next time or shortly thereafter I’m there. :)

If this sounds like a friendly threat, that’s because it is. I had a genuinely okay time at Mission Control. Not great, but okay. The people were incredibly friendly, and they did the best job at “being the bus driver" at any venue I’ve ever attended. Ever. That counts for something. It’s not so surprising, really, because while Mission Control is BDSM-inclusive, it is not actually a BDSM space, so they don’t suffer from the ridiculously pompous “WE SCARY! YOU SCARED OF US!” chest-thumping attitude prevalent in the BDSM Scene.

But their (refreshing) lack of an “I’m so much more hardcore than you” attitude does not earn them a pass on the imagery issue. And while it’s good to hear that they say they are “aware of that situation,” I have been told exactly that on Twitter about the exact same situation before, and exactly nothing has happened in that case. (I’m looking at you, Wicked Grounds.) So you’ll forgive me if I don’t exactly fawn over being reassured.

The fact of the matter is that “sex-positive,” when used by sex-positive people, is often a polite euphemism for “male gaze.” The fact that I was even conducting a tally, far less the actual results of the tally, was a novel and interesting thing betrays how little thought so-called “sex-positive” organizers actually put into representing gender equality in their venues.

You know how when you learn a new word, suddenly you see that word popping up apparently everywhere? That’s not because the word didn’t exist before, it’s because now you’re recognizing it. This is the same thing that happens to sex-positive spaces when I point this out: the notion of sexualized imagery of men simply doesn’t exist as a concept so they don’t even realize that they’ve just filled their space up with pictures of skinny, naked, white women.

I don’t think this makes sex-positive people malicious, it just makes them no better than not-sex-positive people. Both groups are equally stupid.

It’s like how I’m stupid with sports. I don’t know the first fucking thing about sports, so when I walk into a bar and there’s some game on, I can’t tell you that it’s the Bulls playing the Red Sox or whatever. All I can tell you is that some sports thing is happening on the television.

And all I’m saying is that in a community of supposedly sexuality- and gender-sensitive individuals, there is a massive, gigantic, blind spot that should be fucking embarrassing to anyone who calls themselves “sex-positive.”

Because I don’t call myself a sports fan. And I’m not going to unless I know that the Bulls don’t even play the same goddamn sport as the Red Sox. I’d look pretty fucking stupid otherwise, wouldn’t I?

UPDATE: Three months later, the imagery situation has not improved.