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Sex Maniac's Ball: sexual freedom or exploitation?

There's usually some lively and intelligent debate to be found in the guestbook, but this thread in particular seemed worth archiving...

D:subject: query (pun only somewhat intended) re Sexual Freedom Coalition and Ball

I was rummaging through Mike's giant activist database and I came across the website for the Sexual Freedom Coalition. Has anyone participated in any of their events? Anyone going to the Sex Maniac Ball tonight?

I'm quite interested in the functioning of organised, structured, sex-positive communities, particularly in light of the popular romantic conception that sex is something that happens "spontaneously" (even when activities, liaisons, meetings, etc. are clearly orchestrated and scripted) and the ways in which sexuality activists can be isolated and/or marginalised in the context of other social/political activist movements.

Any thoughts?

Don't hide that sly grin... ;)

Jon A: in reply to above:
I don't see the connection between sexual freedom and the "Sex Maniacs Ball" ... 


D: subject: The Connection.

Your comment suggests that you also don't know very much about the Coalition or about the Ball (the name of which is rather tongue-in-cheek).There's plenty of information on the website (, but my interpretation based on what I've read (having never attended the ball myself and not knowing anyone who has) is that the ball is a forum for social interaction (flirtation, discussion, and experimentation), celebration, and spectacle with, among, and for consenting adults who express their sexuality in a variety of different ways (even, if not especially, those ways that are criminalised and/or marginalised).

Proceeds from the ball benefit Outsiders, an organisation that creates opportunities for disabled people to socialise and form friendships and sexual relationships.

The connection between the validation of diverse sexualities and forms of sexual expression including same-gender sex, polyamory (consensual non-monogamy), group sex, BDSM, and swinging (just to name a few) and the freedom to have sex with whom and in the way one pleases (given that the other party/parties involved is/are consenting participants) is absolutely clear to me.

There are sodomy laws in the States and gross indecency and age of consent laws in Britain that restrict sexual freedom and discriminate against "alternative sexualities". SFC (which, on a marginally related note, is also the acronym for the pro-choice activist group I co-ordinate, Students for Choice) also refers to a 1751 Disorderly Houses Act, which the police used in 1996 to shut down the ball. The more that particular forms of consenting sexual expression are policed or condemned by the law, the less likely it is that people engaging in those forms of sex will have access to information about how to do so safely and healthfully. 

The purpose of the ball, as I understand it, is to promote safe(r) sex (for reproductive and non-reproductive purposes alike) as a right of all people and to encourage the decriminalisation of it at the statutory and social levels.

In other words, the guiding principal of the ball is: sex and eroticism are fun; let's all get together in a place where we can enjoy them without being told we're abnormal or criminal for doing so.


Jon A: in reply to the above

D wrote:
>Your comment suggests that you also don't know very much about the Coalition or about the Ball.

You're absolutely right, and a realised the stupidity of what I posted only after I posted it (as one often does). But I did have a look at, and I realise I'm being a little judgmental here (and shouldn't really speak without having been to a Ball myself) but it does look like quite a sordid affair to me, and I quote:

"Tiny peepholes in the walls of the tent allow other guests to spy on their action, so long as £1 is placed in the collecting box."

On the other hand (and on a more encouraging note), so as not to show only one side ot the affair, the page also says:

"Erotic confusion abounds in the year 2000, people are seeking others for honest, meaningful pleasure, spiced with gender play and glimpses of bisexuality, women especially wanting so much more than ever before. If you are craving to break out of convention, yet don't know how or where to go, this Ball is a safe place to begin your exploration."

John W: in reply to the above:

I had a flyer for this thrust in my hand (I don't know, maybe it was the dirty Mac I was wearing), but I got the impression it was just a big Surbiton-style partner-swapping party with some of the profits going to charity (sample text, as I remember: "please don't wear Nazi regalia because it might offend people"). Which is all fine by me, consenting adults and all that, but it didn't strike me as being particularly campaigning as much as an excuse for a party.


D: Subject campaign/party/big laugh

Well, I did a bit of "research" (not by going to the ball, but by asking around) and a story rather easily came my way.

The story is short and, sadly, unsurprising:
  1. Couple attends event.
  2. Event seems very contrived and filled with rather uninspiring people who happen to be in fetish gear, plus a few people who ask if they can cop a feel.
  3. Event seems highly unerotic and turns out to be a big disappointment for the couple.
  4. I find the story quite entertaining, but lament the fact that something so good in principle and spirit turns out to be such an unfulfilling experience.
Now, this is only my version of one person's account of two people's experience, and it's the only first-hand account I've heard, but it doesn't bode particularly well for the ball.

Does anyone know if the Sexual Freedom Coalition campaigns or does any clear(ly) political action? Their website says they run support and meeting groups and, yes, having sex and talking about sex can be political acts in themselves, but social and support groups are unlikely to mobilise broader support for the cause, don't necessarily incite people to political action, and don't necessarily permit people to realise that ensuring the right to have one kind of "unacceptable" sex or another is as important (in the broader civil libertarian context at least) for the people who don't have it as it is for the people who do.

Anyone recall whether the Sexual Freedom Coalition played any role in the last big age of consent campaign? What about the anti-section 28 effort?


Jon A:  in reply to the above:

I have to say that, although fighting for freedom of sexual expression is important (mainly in the sense that there shouldn't be rules enforced upon us a particular code of sexual conduct between consenting sexual partners), the SFC, as an political organisation seems quite dubious and their intentions quite confused. In the light of your comments I looked again at the page an found this:

"Proposing the motion, Dr Tuppy Owens, editor in chief of the Sexual Freedom Coalition, sex therapist and ex-porn start, said that it has already been established in Denmark that porn damages neither children nor adults. She proceeded to give 15 good reasons why porn is beneficial in society, with a slide show of hard-core pornography"

I myself strongly dispute the results of this said research on grounds of, not just intuition but also a lot of reading I've done on the subject.. But *this aside*, it's pretty much consensus that there is no "hard" proof either way and, moreover, it is said to be impossible to prove inconclusively that porn is harmful (to both children *and* adults).

Now, this woman is the SFC's chief editor and claims to hold a Phd (not this means much these days), not a figure I would have expected to come up with the crap above. Besides, it's well known that the sex industry is one of the most powerful capitalist entities (the turnover for most of the sex entertainment industries is billions of dollars per-year) and I wouldn't be surprised if they, amongst other "self-preservation" activities, funded the type of research Dr Tuppy quoted above.

Sorry if I'm ranting, but I just too often see pro-porn campaigns which "hijack" the civil -libertarian cause and claim that this is what they are campaigning for when in fact what they are really after the the right to sell porn without being hassled and, in the process of treading over people (in the best extreme-capitalist tradition), make obscene amount of money. (Not that this is necessarily the case with the SFC, since they don't openly seem to be in it for the money).


Spliff: in reply to the above:

I once spent an evening in a pub(about 10 years ago) with Tuppy Owens and her cronies and found them to be stupid beyond belief. They never once mentioned any wider issues about sexual freedom apart from suggesting sex with as many different people IS freedom. I tried to bring in aspects of sexual politics, along the lines of gay liberation, lowering the age of consent, they were totally uninterested. What they wanted was for my wife and I to pay £100 a pop to go to an 'orgy' in Amsterdam.(we would pay our own fares) We declined saying (something along the lines of) If we wanted to go to an 'orgy' we would find friends in East Cheam which is not a million miles away from Surbiton. It all seemed to do with money. It would be nice if Tuppy would respond to this thread. Somehow I doubt it.

M: in reply to Jon A. (campaign/party/big laugh)

Sex/Love/Money Making/Freedom of expression. Which area would this Ball come under, (no pun intended).

D: in reply to the above:

I think the point of contention here may be whether those aren't all interconnected (particularly within a "totalising" system). As far as moneymaking is concerned, the ball is a fund-raiser for an organisation that creates opportunities for disabled people. In my book, that's money well worth making. 

D:in reply to Jon A. campaign/party/big laugh)

I think your rant is thoughtfully informed and your challenges worthwhile, though, like you, I don't know very much about the SFC, Tuppy, or how they might respond to the issues you raise. This post veers in and out of a book I just finished (Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by Jane Gallop - easy read, highly recommended), a billboard I just saw, and a conversation I just had, so bear with me.


Certainly, if someone says, "I participated in the creation of a porn film and it scarred me" or "...and I wasn't paid" or "...and the climate was one in which my body didn't belong to me but belonged to the producers", one cannot deny that person's feeling of exploitation. Similarly, if someone says (Catherine MacKinnon, for example) that she feels her daily life shaped and restricted by an oppressive porn-saturated culture, one cannot say that she has not been "damaged" by pornography. On the other hand, plenty of people find porn healthy, enjoyable, inspiring, and a productive way of making a living. These are not unheard of or revolutionary arguments.

The intersection of civil libertarianism and capitalism is a tricky one. Orthodox libertarians typically support a completely unrestricted economic market. How can one support total freedom in all things except the economic market? The flipside, of course, is that the capitalist system actually restricts our freedom and functions in a way that is, in fact, totally divorced from the people who mechanically and compulsorily perpetuate it (a la Adorno and Horkheimer).

Then there's the old feminist quasi-Foucauldian critique of power, which introduces sexuality into the discussion (largely absent from Marxist and other dialectical critiques), in which we're all stuck in an omnipresent system that sexualises power and in which the heterosexuality and self-commodification by the subordinates in the system (women and queers) are mandatory due to economic conditions that demand that women have sex with men in order to survive, and thus their consent to such sexual relations (and their various manifestations in porn, strip clubs, etc.) cannot be freely given. [I paraphrase this succinct summary from Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by Jane Gallop]

The question remains whether women (and, more broadly, people who work in the sex industry) are treated not just as objects, but also recognised as independent agents. The theoretical framework from which this discussion starts doesn't seem to permit an answer to that question and so it would seem (not unreasonably) that the only people who can answer the question are the people in (the) question.


I went to Patpong (red light district in Bangkok) with a friend some months ago. I was quite eager to go and I persuaded him (he was initially very reluctant) to join me. When we arrived, I spent a fair amount of time talking with people on the street (particularly touts and drug dealers, most of the prostitutes I saw were not especially interested in chatting with me [a young woman with a giant, fuzzy blue hat and big trousers who was, fairly obviously, not going to give them any business]). 

My friend was quite disappointed to learn that I "dragged" him there, but was not particularly interested in watching any of the "fuck shows" or any of the other things that I imagine might be rather painful and degrading. This legal, free-market version of many red light districts I've visited seemed no more uplifting or empowering to me than the one in pre-Giuliani NYC, for example (where the goings-on were not altogether legal), save for the fact that the touts in Bangkok charged us with leaflets for "pussy ping-pong" instead of adverts for "gentlemen's clubs".

The fact is we do live in a society of sanctioned commodification of our bodies and skills. To someone interested in a critique of capitalism, Moby's body on the CK ad is no less objectionable than a woman's ass in a magazine. The fact that Moby is seen stretching as a solitary figure (i.e. independent and mobile) in front of what looks like some bizarre Martian landscape and the woman might be bound and gagged in the magazine (I.e. helpless and immobile) (though I do not mean to suggest that this is always the case) is a disparity that suggests the whole capitalist-patriarchal juxtaposition is a bit more complex than it initially seemed.


Jon A:  in reply to the above:

Wow, I didn't expect you to delve that deep, though I really enjoyed reading it. I would like recommend you a site to look at, it's basically an anti-porn spiel and looks a bit chaotic. The site-master seems quite a radical feminist and has strong arguments on the subject and very strong and uncompromising views (A demonstrator at heart - something I admire). She quotes a lot from the books of Andrea Dworkin (and other feminist authors, some of which you're probably familiar with, since you mentioned MacKinnon).

Whether one agrees or disagrees with her, I think that at least she presents a strong case.

I've recently finished reading three books on pornography (both named just that), one by Andrea Dworkin, one is a research undertaken by two woman and a man (whose names I've forgotten) and one by Susan Kapeller (I think) called "The Pornography of Representation" (highly recommended). Now, just in order to balance out the argument, I'm planning to read the opposite views in a book called: "Bad Girls & Dirty Pictures - The Challenge to reclaim feminism" by Allison Assitter & Avedon Carrol.

Like you've said: the issue is very complex and there has been a hell of a lot written in support of both sides of the argument.


John W:  subject: social pollution, porn/erotica and getting off on dogma in reply to D (campaign/party/big laugh)

3 things which may contradict each other:

Yeeeesss, to extend (or possibly rephrase, I may be mistaken) the Foucauldian-systemic angle, surely the porn problem (if there is one) is that the benefits of the porn biz (the cash, mostly) do not accrues to the same people who eat the costs (everyone else in society). If you think that porn is bad, you could compare it (crudely) with a factory pumping out toxic crap - the people making the crap are getting very well paid for it, the people who have to put up with it get very little out of it. So to say that porn "actors" are being exploited may not be true, but that wouldn't necessarily mean that porn isn't exploitative.

2) There is a distinction between porn and erotica (or so a friend told me). Media with people shagging things/other people (I think we all know what we're talking about here) is called erotica when so-one is not being degraded/exploited, and called pornography when somebody is. (Apparently).

3) I was reading something the other day by Marcuse (author of "one-dimensional man") which I understood (possibly wrongly) to be saying that sexual liberation was all a big plot by people in power to make the masses indolent. The idea was that before people relieved their frustration (about everything)through political activity, but now (1960s), people just lose their frustration though sex. Hmm. (I have just realised that if my sysop has installed that software that scans for potentially litigious or naughty words, I'm really in the shit!) 


Jon A: in reply to the above:

Sorry, I can't seem to keep my head out of this discussion :)

I love your analogy of porn to toxic waste, but unfortunately it doesn't hold since there are of people (consumers) who claim that porn is beneficial to their life.

With regards to the actors (god, I can't believe that these people have achieved the status of actors and can actually receive the equivalent of an Oscar for their performance - I just find that highly amusing.), there are anti-porn feminists who argue that the actors are being exploited regardless of whether they are being paid since they are often in a financial position that doesn't leave them much choice but to accept what is probably the most tempting employment offer they can hope to receive. (that's just one of the arguments, I'm ashamed to say I don't remember the rest).

I take it, from what you've said about porn vs. erotica, that you don't see much difference between the two. Nor do I - they are both designed to turn-on male viewers and it's impossible to tell, from watching the film ,whether any of the actors have been exploited or abused in any way. I once read that Linda Marchiano (aka Linda Lovelace) was actually forced to perform in Deep Throat under physical threats and this is a film (as far as I've heard, I haven't seen it myself) that is supposed to be quite tame in relation to modern pornography. (She herself has, apparently written two books describing how she was kidnapped and held as captive by her partner and forced to do the film). OK, this may not necessarily be true but it is certainly possible since this does happen to many women in the sex industry. 


John W: subject: ban porn, exploitation and marmite perversions in reply to the above:

I have to tell you that I'm just not sure about porn: I don't like the idea of exploitative material floating around (if that's what it is), but I also don't like the idea of banning things either, especially when I wouldn't be sure exactly what it is I wanted to ban. ("Really-bad-karma-type-stuff" makes sense to me, but no-one else.) "the actors are being exploited regardless of whether they are being paid since they are often in a financial position that doesn't leave them much choice" - a semi-Marxist (Marxish?) type idea, and not one that's impossible to agree with, I agree. But then is all employment you do for money exploitation, blah blah blah...An interesting thing to throw in (that's not me being sarcastic, I really mean it).

The toxic waste argument isn't perfect, you're right. How about replacing "toxic waste" with "Marmite", because I really hate Marmite, but a sick disgusting minority of ill people say it really improves their lives!!!!!!!!!!

I'm not really sure about the porn/erotica distinction, it was just something I heard that I thought was quite interesting. Possibly if one was to watch lots of it (which I'm afraid I don't - is there anyone here who does who'd like to contribute?), you could tell the difference between exploitative and non-exploitative material. Certainly I couldn't tell much difference when I bought piles of it when I was 14.

Oh well. Did you know that the second-most visited site (according to some bloke I met at the pub, etc) on the web is


Jon A: subject: I love marmite in reply to the above:

But I am anti-porn ! - so there you go. Like you said some people claim porn improves their lives (more than that - some people claim that porn improves *other* peoples lives). You can read one particularly unconvincing argument here:

Though this is a little unfair of me since I know that there are better pro-porn arguments out there somewhere, I just happened to come across this one yesterday.

I think your first paragraph *really* hit the crux of the matter: wanting to get rid of something you see as harmful in society and at the same time trying to uphold free speech. One organisation that tries to protect porn in the name of free speech is the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). They are passionate about protecting something which is enshrined in the American constitution and reminds me a little of the gun debate. What needs to be looked at, in cases like pornography-as-free speech (as in the case of the gun debate) is exactly who stands to gain, what they stand to gain, where is the money coming from to fund the lawyers, how much money is involved etc. It's not a simple matter of protecting a constitutional right. Free speech is important to protect but we must be careful what we push under the ever expanding umbrella of free speech. For a criticism of the ACLU I recommend you take a look at:


D: subject: Erotica and Gender
in reply to Jon A. (social pollution, porn/erotica and getting off on dogma)

Yikes! more from Jon and John yields more from me in this discussion... 

Jon A writes: [snip] ..take it, from what you've said about porn vs erotica, that you don't see much difference between the two. Nor do I - they are both designed to turn-on male viewers and it's impossible to tell, from watching the film ,whether any of the actors have been exploited or abused in any way. 

Porn and erotica - regardless of whether they are distinct genres -- are not made exclusively for male consumers. It has historically been the case that the porn industry (NB: some outdated film theorists claim that filmmakers make _all_ films exclusively for the hetero male gaze -- an argument not without its validity, but rather short-sighted in its understanding of spectatorship and in its failure to consider that people of other sexual persuasions and gender identities may appreciate what is here considered "the hetero male gaze") has been run by men for consumption by men, but to suggest that there isn't a whole range of porn geared towards straight and queer women and _gay_ men (you used biologically sexed males as the identity criterion and not sexual orientation, but the trajectory of the argument you've made typically refers to straight men) is simply incorrect.

I think what you're getting at, though, is the tendency to categorise porn for women as "erotica" rather than porn because it presupposes a less violent, less vulgar, and less "obscene" type of sexual media. 


D: subject: Getting off on procrastination in reply to John W. Social pollution, porn/erotica and getting off on dogma

Quick comment before I actually sit down to write about things I'm a lot less interested in writing about (my final essays).

John wrote:
2) There is a distinction between porn and erotica (or so a friend told me). Media with people shagging things/other people (I think we all know what we're talking about here) is called erotica when so-one is not being degraded/exploited, and called pornography when somebody is. (Apparently).

This strikes me as the most problematic part of your contradictory post (it is still stimulating [! sorry, couldn't resist] even though it's contradictory). Who determines what is and is not degrading? How can anyone possibly suggest such a clear line? To some people, being bound and gagged is degrading, to others it's sexy. It seems to me that consent would be the critical component here...perhaps the implication is that "erotica" includes the expressed element of consent whereas porn does not. It seems to me that the distinction is a bit too murky and more of a marketing tool than anything else.

Re Marcuse (whose work I've never read) and sexual liberation -- I am always suspicious of sweeping arguments that seek to discredit the strides made in the 60s. I am certainly not in the camp that sanctifies the 60s beyond all criticism, but arguments that seek to discredit the 60s are usually laced with well-concealed, underhanded attempts at destroying feminism and denying the importance of material human rights gains made through social liberation movements. I know I just made a big generalisation, myself, and it's probably one better not made in this context, since I haven't actually read the text in question, but there you have my initial reaction. 


John W: In Reply to the above:

yes, I didn't necessarily believe all of the stuff I posted, I just thought bits of it were interesting. What I was trying to get at with the toxic factory metaphor (and obviously failing miserably, seeing as you and Jon both didn't get it) was that the exploitation/damage could be taking place beyond the set of the film, i.e. in society at large.

You're right, what obscenity "is" is completely subjective (or maybe it isn't), but that's not necessarily a reason not to try a legislate for it. (Or maybe that's the best possible reason not to legislate against it, come to think of it).

If I had been more awake when I read Marcuse's stuff, I would have been able to say more. I didn't really believe what he said; I suspect he was a very frustrated man (politically and sexually), though I freely admit to knowing absolutely Chagall about him 

(Thread first published on urban75 in May 2000)

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