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This story contains sexually explicit material.
“I am very uncomfortable. And that’s why I need to be here.”
This introduction — spoken softly from the back of the room — elicited light-hearted laughter from the semi-circle of participants gathered for the “SexPositive Portland” orientation. I watched as the 45 or so attendees went around the circle and introduced themselves by sexual orientation: “bi-curious and open,” “heterosexual swinger,” or “pan-sapio-poly-kinky.”
But this candid admission from a young woman in the back served as a reminder that talking about sex in a room full of strangers can be overwhelming to the uninitiated.
I felt that discomfort, too.
“I’m heterosexual and uh… interested in learning more,” I finally muttered, feeling my face flush pink. I sat back down as the group offered a collective smile in my direction.
SexPositive Portland is a MeetUp group devoted to spreading the ideology of sex positivity, or the belief that safe, consensual sex is healthy and pleasurable. It’s a movement, an ideology, and an identification that embraces all sexualities, all preferences, and all frequencies of sexual activity. The sex positive movement makes no moral distinctions when it comes to sex. As long as it’s consensual, anything goes.
Before moving to Portland, Oregon, I had never heard the term “sex-positive.” Then I started dating a man who identified as polyamorous and sex positive, polyamory being the practice of seeking and maintaining multiple romantic and sexual relationships simultaneously. He was so confident and comfortable with discussing all things related to sex that I became intrigued by his lifestyle.
Why did sex make me uncomfortable?, I wondered. Why couldn’t I embrace these topics with the level of confidence that he displayed? After all, I was a member of the generation that gave birth to the term “hookup culture.” I used two different apps to help me meet—and sleep with, under the best of circumstances—men. I was fine with my sexual needs being displayed by icons and alerts. But actually talking about sex? With strangers? It seemed kind of scary.
I was fine with my sexual needs being displayed by icons and alerts. But actually talking about sex? With strangers? It seemed kind of scary.
Then I discovered the SexPositive Portland Meetup group and met with Gabriella Cordova, founder of Sex Positive World, a “non-profit dedicated to making the world a Sexier, more Touch-Positive, Heart-Centered, and Connected Place,” according to its website. We met at a cuddle party (which is basically exactly what it sounds like) hosted by the SexPositive Portland Meetup group. When I rang the doorbell, a jovial man with a thick beard poked his head out.
“Hi! You know what’s happening in here, right?” he asked, before opening the door to a room full of bodies splayed across the floor. A chorus of giggles greeted me, with people piled on top of each other like happy puppies.
Gabriella was on her cell phone in the kitchen, just past the cuddle puddle. She waved me in as she continued her conversation, arranging a veggie platter and addressing a wave of people coming and going through the house.
The first thing that’s evident about Cordova is how busy she is. As the founder of Sex Positive World and the leader of two sex positive groups — one in L.A. and an original chapter in Portland — Cordova is constantly on the move, organizing and leading events that bring sex positivity to the mainstream.
The second thing I learned about Cordova is that she loves sex. Like, a lot. “I’m just going to go have sex with this strange girl!” she announced jokingly to the pile of cuddlers, as she and I retreated to a back room.
Cordova has been interested in sex-positivity for years. She first learned the value of fulfilling sexual needs from the women in her family, who have engaged in sex work. (Her mother worked the Red Light District in Amsterdam, and her grandmother was a pin-up girl.) Cordova recalls her mother enjoying her position as a sex worker, which gave her a positive impression of the industry from a young age.
“She thought it was an amazing gift she was giving to the men she was seeing — and to their wives. She provided this outlet and she was able to support their marriage,” Cordova said of her mother.
The sex positive movement’s acceptance of all consensual sex embraces the sex industry as well. Society’s narrow definition of “sexy”—young, white, able-bodied, and svelte— leaves many people who don’t fit that definition sexually unfulfilled.
“There are a lot of people who are sexually disenfranchised by society, and [not having sex is] really bad for them,” she explained. Cordova believes the sex-positive movement can help broaden society’s definition of sexy to include more people who fall outside the definition of what constitutes sexy—if not everyone.
Cordova believes the sex-positive movement can help broaden society’s definition of sexy to include more people who fall outside that definition—if not everyone.
That’s why Cordova founded the SexPositive Meetup.com group, which fosters the exploration and practice of sex positivity. SexPositive events are labeled Level 1 through 4. Level 1 is educational and social, with events ranging from a gathering at a coffee shop to a group outing to an informational panel on sex education. Level 2 events involve nurturing and affectionate touch. There might be hugging, cuddling, or massage, but sexual energy is not allowed.
(Cordova acknowledges that sometimes sexual energy is unavoidable, but that members are asked to remove themselves from the activities if that happens.)
Level 3 events are sensual. There is touching and sexual energy, but no penetrative sex. And level 4 events allow for sexual experiences — including just about anything that members are down for.
The orientation I attended is required of all new members to the Meetup group. It’s intended to prepare new members for the specifics of each level and teach the importance of boundaries and consent. Members may not move up a level until they’ve been approved by a group administrator, in order to maintain a responsible, self-aware community.
SexPositive Portland currently has 1,471 members. There is a waiting list to join, and straight men will wait the longest for approval. Cordova believes in maintaining a balance of men, women, and sexual preferences, and the abundance of straight men applying for membership results in more stringent consideration.
With so many members involved with the group in various capacities, those who wish to reach Level 4 must devote serious time to becoming a part of the community. Group administrators want to get to know the members of the group and discuss with them what sexual activities they’re comfortable with, and how to properly communicate those preferences.
It’s important to Cordova that the group practice what they preach, and Level 4 events give approved members the opportunity to practice this sexual freedom. One example of a Level 4 event was titled, “Potluck, Game Night, Cuddling, and Orgy”, which played out exactly as the title suggests.
Meetup.com, however, frowns upon the display of sexual events on their site, and banned SexPositive Portland from displaying Level 4 activities. In response, the group removed them and created a private Facebook group where Level 4 events could be shared freely. Online communities like Meetup.com are crucial outlets for sex positive people, who may feel discriminated against on more mainstream platforms. The Meetup.com group is private, but without the ability to post Level 4 activities, the group’s message is muffled.
One member raised his hand at the orientation to note that he didn’t belong to Facebook, and therefore, had no access to Level 4 events. It was unclear as to how that would be remedied.
Given SexPositive Portland’s discreet and warm-hearted approach to sex-positivity, it’s hard to think of a reason why social media platforms would ban the group, especially because, as Cordova says, “it’s not just about sex.”
“When people are having the kinds of relationships that they want, they’re happier,” Cordova tells me. “Happier people don’t consume as much and there’s less destruction to the planet.”
“When people are having the kinds of relationships that they want, they’re happier. Happier people don’t consume as much and there’s less destruction to the planet.”
But by using sex to promote a happier, healthier world, sex positive activists face more scrutiny than other planet-fixing movements, like recycling or eating organic. For instance, the cuddle party I attended also doubled as a documentary shoot for a film on sex positivity. While most people in the house had volunteered to be filmed, several hung back in the kitchen, avoiding the cameras for fear of being outed. One young woman was wary about appearing in the documentary, due to her upcoming licensing for psychotherapy. Another man was concerned that appearing in the film could affect a custody situation.
Cordova pointed out that this fear of sexual expression is something homosexual people would have faced ten years ago, “and now — you can’t be seen cuddling!” And indeed, there is a societal expectation that your sexuality, regardless of your orientation, be kept under wraps. But what the sex positive movement seeks to ask is: why? Why can’t we be sexual, without feeling ashamed of our own bodies and feelings?
While young adult approval for gay-marriage recently hit an all time high, a celebrated athlete-turned-reality TV star came out as transgender and appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and feminism has taken the mainstage in popular culture, it might seem like the perfect time for the sex positive movement to find support. After all, what could be more empowering to all genders and sexualities than celebrating them in their many nuanced varieties?
But according to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute, the Millennial generation is surprisingly conservative when it comes to sex. 37 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “sex between two adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship” is morally wrong.
In the age of Tinder and vaguely defined relationships, that might seem counterintuitive. Yet despite recent progress towards acceptance of different sexualities, we remain hush-hush about anything too overtly sexual.
With this in mind, it can be difficult to get people on board with the movement, especially in light of the fact that many people see sex positivity as synonymous with rampant promiscuity.
“People think it means we’re down for anything,” Cordova told me. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.” Instead, she said, being sex positive is about understanding exactly what you are and aren’t down for, and feeling comfortable and confident in those preferences.
After our interview, Cordova said she wanted to show me exactly what she was referring to by having me witness a little more of the sex-positive movement in action. So she led me to the basement, where a man and woman were suspended from the ceiling by chains and rope. They wore almost nothing but their underwear. A strip of black duct tape was stretched tightly across the woman’s breasts.
“This submission of power is a huge turn-on for some people,” Cordover whispered to me.
A man wielding a wand that glowed purple touched the tip to the woman’s abdomen. Her toes, painted red, curled rigidly at the shock. Her body jerked, and she smiled.
“Do you want to try?” the wand holder asked me.
I agreed, holding out my forearm.
“I’ll start at the lowest level — you’ll barely feel it.”
The shock was a tickle.
He slowly increased the voltage until my arm jerked, the shock running through my fingers.
It felt surprisingly good.
The bound-up couple offered me friendly smiles, but looked eager to get back to their own play time with the magic wand. I waved goodbye and returned to the main floor.
Photo via Andrew Russeth/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)