While it may seem an odd comparison, the reality is that in both places folks can come together for convivial community through belonging, regardless of their political or social affiliation. If we consider public spaces as locations of community connection and validation, there really is no difference. Not convinced? Read on!
Sex and sexuality are all around us everyday by the nature of what it is to be a human being walking the planet. Media, and culture, texts, bodies, and experiences have been desexualized while also being hyper-sexualized. Sex and desire are constrained while also being fetishized, and gender has been compartmentalized—boxed up and in—while also abandoned with a fundamentalist zeal.
The Inequities of Healthy, Pro-Sex Spaces…
Looking at public/shared spaces where sexual practices are explored and accepted illustrates that for sexually active, and especially for sex and gender variants, these spaces are underground; this is especially so for women (regardless of their sexuality). Secrecy, shame, and silence lie in the participatory relationships between pornography, BDSM, performance, internet, and visual locations of desire. Healthy and consensual spaces, for women especially, occupy a relatively invisible space; compared to heterosexual and gay men, for example, there is no comparison: women and gender variants have very little space to explore sex and desire.
Straight men have gentlemen’s and strip clubs, escort services, massage parlors, and brothels in every city. There is a good chance that that red light on after 6pm, in the mostly curtained, fancy new high-rise condo building in Yale Town or Mid Town is a brothel; and the bubbly, young woman who sells you flowers in the flower shop or makes you macchiatos at your local cafe works there in her off hours. Much research has recently been conducted on the rise of Daddy sites, and the young women (and some young men) who populate them to help pay for their college or University.
More commonly, many men have access to either powerful, economic positions or a degree of social acumen and hip suaveness that permit and make allowances for sex and desire to be an acceptable form of masculine expression. Gay men also have an enormous range of acceptance of deviancy; further, they have a host of locations and spaces within which perverse and subversive gay male sexual practices and identities are accepted and explored. From bathroom stalls and bath houses to parks and rest stops; from nightclubs and bars to community organizations and online networks, gay and queer men have especially mastered the art of cruising and public sex; they use simple body language and glances with an optimum degree of efficiency and outcome.
In contrast, women who are similarly empowered in their sexual desires—regardless of their sexual preference or gender identity—have very little social acceptance for their sexual expression being accepted as normal and healthy. Sexual expression and desire is often viewed as “slutty”. Women have far fewer communities, networks, and healthy outlets. One could even say that women’s sexual needs, outside of the “normal” monogamous relationship, have very little visibility and acceptance.
LGBTQ people have long developed subcultures and codes, creating liminal, fluid, and dynamic communities and spaces that serve the need for creative outlet, community building, activism, visibility, and relationality. Like any other “outsider” or “non-dominant” group, establishing subcultural practices, language, and community spaces is critical. Amongst a society that regulates, controls, and monitors homosexual and variant sex, variant communities exist to offer sites of fluidity, belonging, ambiguity, and affinity within a structured environment that holds “safe, sane, and consensual” as its mantra.
Community connection and visibility along with socializing and a space for radical acceptance accompany such spaces. When we consider public spaces as locations of community connection and validation, my research indicates there really is no difference between safe spaces where sexuality is explored and a Yankees game. Sub-cultural communities exist as safe havens that welcome people with multiple (sometimes conflicting) identities, who engage in multiple communities and come together as a neotribe. The concept of the neotribe, writes Darren Langdridge, has “increased in popular culture studies as a heuristic for understanding the ways in which nebulous communities might serve the needs of their members in a time still dominated by a culture of individualism” (“The Time of the Sadomasochist: Hunting With (in) the ‘Tribus,’” 375).
This certainly seems similar to varied multitudes that gather at a Yankees game. At Yankee stadium, as at the midtown New York Public Library, a specific bathroom may be the main restroom gay men cruise in, while the others are left for the officially intended purpose. If other, safe sex spaces were provided in greater numbers, gay/queer men and women who are vulnerable would take less risks and non-sexual public spaces would decline in use, keeping all parties safe.
The Perversity of On-Line Spaces…
Another example of a space that allows for non-mainstream desires to be expressed is the online classified site Craigslist, whose free service exists in almost every country worldwide, every major city, most small cities, and many large towns. In the “Personals” section of each city’s site the following categories are available: “strictly platonic, women seeking women, women seeking men, men seeking women, men seeking men, misc. romance, casual encounters [both of which allow one to choose which advertisements to read based on the gender(s) a poster is and the gender(s) they are looking for: w4m, m4m, m4w, w4w, t4m, m4t, mw4mw, mw4w, mw4m, w4mw, m4mw, w4ww, m4mm, ww4w, mm4w, m4ww, w4mm, t4mw mw4t], and missed connections [often has the categories: w4m, m4m, m4w, w4w]”.
There is gradation of perversity in the “Personals” of Craigslist that is relatively reliable even as it varies from city to city, and that gradation is in the order Craigslist lists the sections. The one exception: there exists little difference between “misc. romance” and the “men seeking women.” So “misc. romance” will be somewhat similar, but with a little more perversity, than the “men seeking women” or “women seeking men” section; the “men seeking men” and the “casual encounters” are the most perverse and explicit. These pages contain either casual sex for the night and/or some type of perverse sex: be it role-play, fetish requests, oral sex, a particular attraction/turn on to a body part, size, age, marital status, multiple partners, BDSM, verbal play etc.
In large cities, there are hundreds of postings in the subversive sections regardless of it being day or evening. London has almost 500 postings in “casual encounters” on a Friday night, while the San Francisco Bay Area will have over a thousand. The amount of people posting and using Craigslist for intimacy and sex is indicative of the widespread social practice of sexual perversity. The reality is that perverse desires are not as uncommon as our society thinks. Rather, they are common for a wide-spread average within our society.
The internet has become a location for many types of intimacy and sex to be sought and gotten. By posting a profile with, usually, a photo, and filling out sections such as “self-summary’ people get their desires met. On Ok Cupid the range includes answering such questions as: What am I doing with my life; I’m really good at; The first things people usually notice about me are; favorite books, movies, shows, music, and food; six things I could never do without; I spend a lot of time thinking about; on a typical Friday night I am; The most private thing I am willing to admit is ; I’m looking for; and You should message me if”. Users then answer as many of these as they like. There are close to eight hundred questions in the subsequent pages of “getting to know” a person, with the average user answering between two hundred and four hundred questions to have their desires match another user.
OK Cupid’s questions are member-derived questions. A math-based system matches users up by percentages: When a user notes their answer they can also note what is an acceptable match: how they would like someone else to answer (to which multiple answers are allowed). Further, they can opt to states how important the issue is to them. Percentage match rates are calculated based on which common questions two people have both answered, and further, the percentages are divided into categories: sex match, romantic match, friendship match, enemy match. An example question would be: “what kind of sex do you like”? Answers: “vanilla” “the odd spanking” or “the freakier the better”. If one user chooses “the freakier the better” they can program into their profile that an “unacceptable” answer is “vanilla”, while acceptable is “the odd spanking” and their own answer. They two users will then most likely produce very low scores on the “sex” match section and if enough questions are “not acceptable” an “enemy match” will show when viewing the other person’s profile.
What these sites allow and provide are for single, poly-amorous, and non-monogamous folks who are busy with their lives to seek casual sex or a relationship. Dissatisfied married people and cheaters also appear on such sights of course, often seeking casual sex and/or a lover. What this speaks to is that either these folks (mostly men) have an inability to speak up and ask for what they want (shame, guilt, and/or fear may be present, a lack of communication skills, and/or emotional maturity), they are not able to receive what they want with their partner and/or unhealthy, sexual compulsion, addictive issues and behaviors are at play. People selling sex and buying sex appear on sites as well, especially on Craigslist. Most certainly, there are a range of people on such sites: from satisfied and content to very lonely.
The main point here is that the plethora of free, non-judgmental online services that are now available for people to meet and engage with others in regular, anonymous, casual, or relationship-based sex is an indicator of how variant our North American culture really is when it comes to sex, sexual desires, and sexual identity.
Other sites that connect desire, sex, and identity, between the personal and private at the community, public level are the many musical groups, artists, art collectives, curated exhibitions, performers, fashion, media/marketing, sex and/or erotic clubs/events, community gathering events, and competitions. These are numerous, usually not gender specific, appear and disappear, and hold space for creating and sexual expression. Special events in clubs are the most consistent, there are also yearly events such as Folsom Street Fair, Ms. And Mr. Leather, bootblack competitions, play parties, workshops, lectures/readings in book stores or local sex positive stores and such.
Truly, there is a need for safe spaces and conversations that “support forms of affective, erotic, and personal living that are public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity,” (Berlant and Warner, 562). This is especially needed for sexually variant folks and women. Supporting that which empowers a person in all aspects of their life can not be underestimated as a foundation for a society and culture committed to freedom.