Monthly Archives: August 2006

The economics of a swingers party

So I just got an invitation to a sex party — a swingers’ party, really — and I’m thinking about the message conveyed by the pricing options. The cost of the party would vary according to how early one paid, and what configuration of guests one was paying for.

Here’s how it broke down:

At least two weeks before the party –

Couples: $90, MFF Trios: $120, MMF Trios: $170, Single Females $25

At least one week before the party:

Couples: $100, MFF Trios: $130, MMF Trios: $185, Single Females $30

Less than a week before the party:

Couples: $120, MFF Trios: $155, MMF Trios: $210, Single Females $35

I know about this particular group that they have less expensive gatherings on weekdays. These cost about $40 per couple. Clearly people will pay more on the weekend. There must be greater demand for parties on weekends and greater demand for party guests on weeknights.

But aside from looking at how cost varies depending on the night of the week, there are some really interesting messages implicit in the pricing structure for this particular gathering.

  1. Unattached women are intensely desired. So much are they in demand that as an inducement to get women to attend solo, they are charged only 30% of the rate paid by couples. If I my partner were a woman you can bet if we wanted to attend this party I’d suggest gaming the system and registering separately.
  2. Trios are desirable if they contain two women. If they do, the trio gets a $15 break on the cost you’d imagine they’d have to pay if their rate were simply 150% of the couples rate. On the other hand, they don’t quite get the break you’d expect if you charged the couples rate plus one unattached woman rate. In other words, they’re still slightly less desirable than unattached women.
  3. Trios containing two men and a woman are allowed but discouraged by a $50 surcharge over the FFM trio rate (or $35 over the “couple rate times 1.5”)
  4. Unattached men are not allowed at any price (without special permission from the organizers, and I assume a price is worked out separately).

It is possible that the pricing here reflects an undersupply of unattached women and an oversupply of extraneous men. Thus, men without any partner are not allowed and men who are part of a trio with another man are discouraged (an extra man floating around, as it were). But this assumes a male-female coupling as ideal, a cluster with more women than men as a bonus, and assumes, that men don’t want to be with other men sexually unless there are women involved.

Or, the pricing can be seen as a way of moderating behavior. Perhaps it is not assumed that men don’t want to be directly sexual with other men, but that such men are simply being discouraged from attending this party. Perhaps the assumption is that other people are made so uncomfortable by the sight of men enjoying each others touch that to welcome such men would kill the mood for everybody else. These are “swingers parties” after all and have “opposite sex” couples as their base. Someone suggested to me that the reason for discouraging unattached men or trios with two men is that the additional men would be likely to create problems for the women at the party. That is, that women would be overwhelmed with the numbers of men who would approach them, and that the limitations on the number of men attending is a way to create a safer space for women to explore their sexuality.

So, is this wholly a matter of supply and demand? Or are swingers parties focused on protecting women from men, or are they protecting men from each other? Perhaps the overarching message is that men’s sexuality is still deemed dangerous, problematic, and uncontrollable.

Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it 😉


Filed under Gender, sex, sexuality, sexually oriented businesses

“He rubbed your belly and it felt good…”

The current issue of the New Yorker magazine has a cartoon by Danny Shanahan, that, apropos of a few recent conversations, I just had to mention here.

Two dogs are walking down the sidewalk. One looks worried (his eyebrows are drawn up in the center, down at the outside corners). The other is speaking. He says “He rubbed your belly and it felt good — that doesn’t make you gay.” (You can view the cartoon for sale here.)

Given that dogs sniff each other’s butts without regard for one another’s sex, and that they lick themselves and they masturbate using any available surface (table leg, human appendage, it matters not) I’m sure they’re less hung up on this stuff than people are. So man’s best friend here must be standing in for man, no?

Is there anything makes men more anxious than their enjoyment of physical contact with another man? Apparently yes. Apparently the label “gay” makes them even more anxious than the contact itself. Having your belly rubbed is fine. Being thought of as gay? Yikes!

And while some of us are out there trying to make all those “straight” men feel more comfortable with their same-sex arousals, what about the gay men for whom “gay” is an important identity and political category?

Dan Savage understands the problem. He answered “Middle-aged Kinkster” who wanted advice about how to go out and experience “gay sex,” which he had permission from his wife to explore, and Savage answered thusly:

“A. No ideas, MAK. No advice, no guidance, no pointers. You know why I got nothin’ for you? Because if we gay guys aren’t allowed to be married— to each other—then you married straight guys aren’t allowed to be gay. Not even once, not even if you’re just going to put it in a little, not even with the wife’s permission. (Married Canadian straight guys can be as gay as they like, of course—have at it, fellas.) “

Savage is wrong, I think, to tell this guy never to explore sex with men, but I absolutely understand his resentment of people with heterosexual privilege “playing” with activities that are used to stigmatize and deny privilege to large groups of people.

So, and I know this may sound facile in the way that Rodney King’s “why can’t we all get along” sounded facile, but still: How do we create the kind of culture where everybody can relax and enjoy having their bellies rubbed without the granting or denial of respect, legitimacy and access to basic social resources or respect being determined by the gender of the person who does the rubbing?

Because we seem to be rather stuck.

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Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality

Comments welcome and, I think now, facilitated

Several of you told me yesterday that comments appeared to be “turned off” for one post, and that registration was still required even though I said I’d stopped requiring it. I believe — and I hope you’ll tell me if I’m wrong — that I’ve fixed the problems for real now! If I haven’t, please use the “drop me a note” link to send me an email alerting me to the problem.

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Guardedly good news in the fight for contraception

I woke up this morning to this message from Planned Parenthood in my inbox:

“Plan B prevails! Today, after years of foot-dragging, the FDA put politics aside and granted over-the-counter status to emergency contraception for women 18 and older. ”

It’s hard to believe that we’re still fighting for access to safe, effective contraception, but we are. The “reproductive freedom” fight is not just about abortion. The radical right has been trying to undermine access to birth control as well. (This was the focus of an interesting feature in the New York Times Magazine some months back.)

While this long awaited over-the-counter approval of Plan B is an important win for adults, access is still being denied to sexually active teenagers, forcing them to get a prescription, a hurdle that may prevent them from getting access quickly enough. The point of emergency contraception is immediate access — we’re talking about emergencies, after all! And since sooner is better in terms of the effectiveness of emergency contraception, any delay is a potentially devastating one.
So, thanks and congratulations to all those who worked so hard to get us this far. There is obviously a lot of work that still needs to be done to protect our sexual freedom and reproductive rights. Let’s not let our guard down!

For information about emergency contraception, provided by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, click here.

For a good teen-oriented sexuality information site, visit Scarleteen.

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Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex and health

Age, consent, position, power, agency, abuse

The New York Times has recently been raising the alarm about sexual predators on the Internet. Back in December they broke a story about Justin Berry, who in turn was helping the FBI to break a ring of child pornography traders, especially those who would pay for boys like Berry (he was underage when he began) to pose and masturbate in front of their web cams. In the past week the Times has published two more articles, here and here, warning about the new ways that child pornographers and consumers of child pornography are getting around the law, organizing groups, and trading advice for luring real children to have sex.

Let me begin by saying, unequivocally, that sexual exploitation and abuse is wrong. Nothing I write below should be construed as challenging that basic principle. ALL exploitation and abuse is wrong.

That said, young people are sexual creatures with varying amounts of agency, self knowledge and with a host of diverse desires.

Is an intergenerational sexual relationship necessarily exploitive and abusive, or is it possible that some can be consensual and healthy?

What determines when a person is old enough to give meaningful consent to sex? And how should we define “sex” for the purposes of understanding when consent can be given? Is kissing sex? Is fondling or mutual masturbation sex? Are cunnilingus and fellatio sex? Is it sex if there is no orgasm? Are kids who are “playing doctor” having sex? Are young teenagers making out and rubbing their bodies together having sex? Can I be 15 and consent to sex with another 15-year-old but not with a 25-year-old?

While some of these are questions that are pretty clearly answered by state laws (or so it seems on paper) they  are much harder to answer in “real life.” In state law there is a clear “age of consent” but in real life things are much more complicated.

And to what should we attribute the seemingly common fantasy of having sex with a minor? And how should we understand the process by which that fantasy sometimes gets turned into reality? The Dateline To Catch a Predator series makes it seem as if nearly every man in the neighborhood wants to have sex with a minor, and as if many of them are willing to go beyond the world of fantasy and try to meet minors for sex.

The line between fantasy and reality should be clear. Is it wrong if I want to dress up as a 15-year-old boy and then be fucked by an older man? Is it wrong if an older man wants to have sex with a woman who is dressed up as a teenage girl in a school uniform and role play being her teacher and keeping her after class? Is it dangerous for me to watch pornography that depicts these same scenarios? In none of these instances is a real child being abused or exploited.

What happens when people are made to feel so ashamed of their fantasies that they never reveal them to their lovers, partners, friends? Would there be less sexual abuse of children if people could act out their fantasies with adults?

Patrick Califia, one of those writers/thinkers/be-ers who I would put in the pantheon of sex-writer deities, has written thoughtfully and provocatively about age-of-consent laws and the panics that periodically arise around child pornography and sex abuse of children. In an essay in his book Speaking Sex to Power he writes about the harm done to kids and adults alike by overly-broad and irrationally-applied child pornography laws, picking up arguments he’d made initially in Public Sex. Again the point is not to allow the victimizing of children, but to prompt a discussion about what constitutes the victimizing of children, what harm is done to them through our attempts at protecting them, and how to tell the difference between fantasy or thought and action.

I wish I could remember where I read this example, but it struck me as a powerful one. Nursing mothers sometimes report sexual arousal accompanying breastfeeding of their children. Is it abusive if a mother has a sexual response to her child’s suckling? What if she decides to continue nursing – and her child wants to continue to nurse – past the age where many other mothers stop? What if she is still allowing her child to nurse at 2 years old or 3 years old or even 5 years old? Would that be abusive? What is it, exactly, that makes a sexual connection between an adult and a child abusive? Perhaps it is the lack of mutuality? In the case of nursing, both mother and child are receiving something valuable, in addition they are bonding as a family. What if, during diaper changes, she noticed that her baby boy got aroused when she rubbed his thighs with ointment? What if she did that each time she changed him because he so clearly enjoyed the sensation of it? Would that be abusive? What if she gets nothing out of it herself but is just doing it because it appears to please the baby? Is that any different than the behavior of an adult who fondles a child because the adult gets pleasure out of doing so without regard for the child?

Yet, kids enjoy physical sensations that we say are bad for them, and that they may later come to regret. What is the cause of the regret? For some, at least, it might be the stigma attached to their activities. For others it might be the lack of information they had when they made their decision. Certainly for those who are coerced, the coercion itself is harmful.

I understand the need to protect children from harm. But I fear that our reflexive denial that they are sexual, and the connected willingness to deny them sexual information that would help them make decisions, develop boundaries, and understand their own desires, does them more harm on a regular basis than they suffer at the hands of abusers. In addition, the focus on protecting them from strangers redirects our attention away from the fact that so many abusers are not strangers to them.

A few years ago, Scarleteen, a sexuality information web site for teenagers, published this article on the need for calm discussion and rational policy around teen sex. The authors link the hysteria around child sex abuse (which is wrong, always) and the denial of accurate comprehensive sex education for kids and teens.

In light of the recent Times coverage of sexual predators on the Internet I think we need to take a deep breath and revisit the arguments made by Heather Corinna and Hanne Blank at Scarleteen, by authors like Patrick Califia (Public Sex and Speaking Sex to Power, Cleis Press), and scholars like Judith Levine (Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, University of Minnesota Press).

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Filed under public discourse, Relationships, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sexuality, sexuality and age

2006 Masturbate-a-Thon

Speaking of the goddess, Carol Queen, I encourage you to check out these links:

This one begins her narration of the recent Center for Sex and Culture-sponsored Maturbate-a-Thon held this year for the first time in the UK. Very exciting!

This link will take you to the Center for Sex and Culture itself. It was founded by Carol Queen and her amazingly kind, generous, not-to-mention brilliant partner Robert Lawrence and it’s a fantastic institution.

Carol, Robert, you rock!

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Filed under Advocacy, Info, and Activism, News..., sex, sexuality

Sex-postive or Sex-radical?

I said I was going to seek your input, explicitly, and here’s why:

Language shapes how we think about issues. I love language. I agree with Chelsea Girl that “good grammar is hott.” I think semantics is sexy. I am fascinated by the nuances of word choice. (It should be no surprise that I’m generally more turned on by written porn than video porn.) And in this obsession about language and sex lies the root of my current dilemma.

Let me start by saying that Carol Queen is one of the smartest, sexiest writers I know, and it was her writing that introduced me to the term ‘sex-positive.’ I am convinced that she is a goddess! Her nonfiction explorations of sex and culture are brilliant and her erotic novel, The Leather Daddy and the Femme, is the hottest thing I’ve ever read. If Carol Queen says ‘sex-positive’ how can I possibly question the term myself?

And this, exactly, is my dilemma: whether or not to use the term ‘sex-positive’ to describe the kind of culture I hope to see created — to participate in creating — as the US struggles through its — our — cultural-sexual issues. I’ve used the term ‘sex-positive’ uncritically for years to describe a state of mind, of being, of culture, where no consensual sex, no sexual or gender identity or expression is stigmatized, criminalized or otherwise forbidden. What could be clearer? And how could I now be questioning that usage?

It started over breakfast when my friend Richard told me how much he disliked the term ‘sex-positive.’ Since I think of him as one of the more sex-positive people I know, I was surprised. I asked him why he disliked the term. He explained that he saw people divided not so much about whether sex was good or bad (in other words not so much over whether they felt positively or negatively about it) but over what kinds of sex they felt positively or negatively about. Then I thought about the introduction to the book I’m working on, where I uncritically use the term ‘sex-positive’ but where I also use a different set of terms. I describe those who talk about sex as belonging only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage and as existing primarily for reproduction, and as a marital duty, and perhaps as a way of expressing intimacy and love between married people, as people who use a conservative sex narrative. People who are more flexible about sex, and think that people should be able to do whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes, but who would prefer to see sex expressed within the bounds of “loving relationships” (regardless of gender or marital status) use what I call a liberal sex narrative. I contrast both of these with what I, and others, call a sex-radical narrative that sounds exactly like what I defined above as ‘sex-positive.’

So: sex-positive, or sex-radical? There are good political reasons to use ‘sex-positive.’ It’s harder to argue with, first of all, which makes it, potentially, a more effective framing device. It captures the sense that sex is good without sounding frightening to people. Lots of people, before reading the definition I gave above, would identify as ‘sex-positive,’ so it is a term that resonates with a wide range of people. On the other hand, it is confusing because lots of people who like the sound of ‘sex-positive’ do not agree that all consensual sex, all gender and sexual identity and expression, is okay. That idea is really a rather radical idea. In that sense, ‘sex-radical’ is more descriptive, more accurate. But politically, it is more problematic. It does not have the advantage of resonance that ‘sex-positive’ has. It is immediately alienating to people who are turned off by radicalism of all sorts. In short, it has a ‘preaching to the choir’ problem.

I wrote in an earlier post about some sex toy and sex advice web sites that market themselves to a Christian-identified audience. These are sites that encourage a wide range of sexual expression but only within the very specific boundaries of a Christian marriage. They encourage exploration of BDSM fantasies, of dildo use, of talking dirty. People who are inclined to follow this advice may well think of themselves as ‘sex-positive.’ But they are certainly not the people I have meant when I’ve used the term. These folks, while valorizing the vibrator within their own bedrooms, also condemn pornography, condemn same-gender sex, condemn sex outside of marriage. They are positive in their attitudes about a very limited range of sexual options.

My inclination is to go with the more descriptively accurate ‘conservative, libereral and radical sex narrative’ language, and to use ‘sex-radical’ where I would have otherwise used ‘sex-positive.’ But I am mindful that ‘sex-positive’ is a much more widely appealing term and I hesitate to give too much ground to the conservative sex-narrative folks by using a term that may be alienating to people who otherwise agree with the underlying idea that no sexual and gender expression and no consensual sex deserves stigma and condemnation.

Of course I, myself, love the term ‘sex-radical’ and am an advocate of many radical changes to the dominant US culture and social structure.

What do you think? Sex-postive? Sex-radical? Something else altogether? (If this whole thing sounds like a foreign language to you, I encourage you to browse this Wikipedia entry for more background on the origins and use of terms like ‘sex-radical’ and ‘sex-positive.’ I don’t always recommend Wikipedia, but this is a pretty good entry.)

Submit your comments below or email them to me using the “Drop me a note” link.


Filed under public discourse, sex, sexuality

Some blog-related housekeeping

I’ve been away from my blog for nearly two weeks and am returning with some changes I want to let you know about. They each have to do with ways of responding to my posts, or being in touch.

First, you’ll notice on the sidebar I’ve given you a way to email me. Just click on the “Drop me a note” link above my photo. I hope this will make it possible for the shy among you to let me know what you think about what you read. I figure that some people don’t want their thoughts broadcast to the world and so this is a way for you to reach me without reaching anyone else who might come across my blog.

Second, for those who’ve tried to make a comment but have been put off by the need to register or fill in an email address and name, I’ve changed the rules for commenting. Now, instead of needing to be logged on or registered, anyone can make a comment, but the comments will be moderated by me. That means that they won’t show up until I’ve had a chance to read and approve them. The purpose of either approach is to cut down on spam, but the latter approach may make you feel more free to comment since you don’t have to have an account anywhere.

So, now that I’m back and you have more options for participating in these discussions, I hope they’ll become richer and more interesting. My next post will specifically ask for your thoughts. I hope you’ll share them!

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Brat: Should I have known as a child?

It isn’t what you think. Or maybe, if you were a peculiar sort of child in the 1980s, it is what you think.

This memory came to me the other morning as I was walking with Will. We were talking about a car that a lover of his once owned.

I have never been one to take note of cars. Generally speaking I find them uninspiring. But I have a very vivid memory from about the time I was 10 or 11 years old of a particular, peculiar car I used to see driving around my apartment complex. It was not a beautiful car. It was not a car that ordinary people loved. My friends raved about Mustangs or Irocs or other fast and sexy sports cars. This was not that kind of car.

I particularly remember seeing it by the pool area as I would walk with my friends, wrapped in towels decorated with Snoopy or Bugs Bunny or Wonder Woman, still dripping water and feet smack-smacking in wet flip flops or jellies, from the pool to whichever of our respective apartments was likely to have the best snacks, and where we could put Grease on the VCR for the hundredth time without a parent complaining.

It was a Subaru Brat circa early 1980s. Neither truck nor car, it was possibly the strangest mass-market auto ever made. It seemed to exist to defy categorization. It was not a station wagon. It was not a pickup truck. It seemed designed for kids and dogs but this one, yet didn’t seem to be a “family car.” I don’t know who bough them.

Riding in the back of a pickup was sexy but dangerous and also illegal. Riding in the back of a station wagon was probably also dangerous and illegal, but mothers let their kids do that as a matter of course. The Brat had actual seats, outside, facing backward. It seemed built to walk right up to the rules and poke them in the chest and say “I dare you.” It didn’t quite break the rules but did seem to suggest that they were arbitrary and challengable. It was perfect for a kid like me who was a nerd and a geek and a conformist and yet who didn’t fit in to any groups. How on earth can a conformist not fit in? Maybe that was why I was so fascinated by this silly car.

Like I said, I never did pay much attention to cars. But the Brat spoke to me. I don’t remember anything about the driver, and I couldn’t tell you if, at the time, I even took note of who owned it. But I know that I wanted to ride in the back of this Brat, in one of those backward facing seats, and I imagined somehow that such a ride would mean a rush of freedom and I remember thinking of this in somewhat erotic terms. I remember a fluttery feeling in the pit of my stomach when I would see it parked by the pool area.

Maybe this early infatuation with a strange and unpopular auto was partially responsible for imprinting on my impressionable pre-teen brain a love for things that are hard to classify, for liminality, and for the spaces in between. Maybe I should have paid more attention to cars as a child.

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Filed under Childhood Memories

Teenage “interns” – is there a line between work and socializing, and how do gender and age figure in to knowing when it’s okay to cross it?

This past weekend’s Sunday Styles section of the New York Times contained an article about teenage interns and the 30-somethings they work for. The article described the relationships as mutually beneficial, and as social in addition to work-related. It begins with a story about one 30-something woman, Rose and her 16-year-old “intern/best-friend-forever,” Will, at a sweet sixteen party for one of Will’s friends where someone suggests a game of Spin the Bottle.

Oddly, the article then did not turn into a moral panic piece about how older women are exploiting young men (and young women). Instead, even though at one point the article’s author puts “intern” in quotes, as if writing it with a wink and a nod, there is general approval for these arrangements. Will’s father is even quoted as saying that he’s glad Rose helps him out with all the ordinary chauffeur duty that parents of teens apparently have to do. This despite the fact that, as revealed in the article, Will sometimes sneaks sips of Rose’s alcoholic beverages at lunch.

We also learn that much of the time these interns work for free, that part of their appeal as “interns” is that they give their “employers” insight into youth markets so that those markets can be more thoroughly mined. We learn that for the most part the high schools these teens attend don’t offer credit for these “internships.” We learn that some “interns” are as young as twelve because “cross generational bonding is a natural part of any youth-oriented industry.” (That statement was made by the employer of the 12-year-olds — a firm called Buzz Marketing.)

Now, in an age where we express tremendous concern about online sexual predators (witness the incredibly popular Dateline series “To Catch a Predator”) how is it that this article doesn’t raise any of the same hackles? Mind you, I’m not opposed to age differences in all kinds of relationships. I just found myself wondering:

1. How different would this article have been if it had been profiling high school girls working for 30-something guys and hanging out socially together, playing Spin the Bottle and sharing margaritas? (It is interesting that the article, near the end, does include one story about an “intern” relationship that turned into a dating relationship, and that story involves a 16-year-old girl and a 21-year-old guy.)

2. Why does it seem okay to exploit teens for their labor and their access to markets but not to have sex with them?

3. Also, how does this “obsession with youth” feed the fantasies of older folks wanting to have sexual relationships with teenagers, and

4. How does that contribute to the impression that older folks aren’t attractive themselves?

Just something to think about this morning. No answers. Just questions.

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Filed under News..., public discourse, sex