One of the core values of Smut Slam DC– as articulated for *all* the Smut Slam franchises internationally by our founder, Cameryn Moore– is that it’s always a safer space for everyone there. It has to be, otherwise the event doesn’t work and it’s just a raunchy free-for-all that only embraces the no-fucks-to-give crowd.
Mindi and I take the promise of safer space very seriously. It’s built into the house rules that have been part of Smut Slam since its creation, and it’s why we make it clear that being at this kind of sex-positive event doesn’t give anyone the right to creep on anyone else– and that if anyone at our event is having trouble dealing with a creeper, they should always feel free to come to us and ask for help. (We’ve been very fortunate that as far as we know, no one’s ever had a problem at one of our events– but we will not hesitate to do anything from run subtle interference to outright ejecting someone who violates rules or makes someone else feel unsafe enough to warrant it. Hat tip to our friends at DC After Dark for having a well-articulated no-creep policy that is verbally communicated to everyone there, that inspired us to do the same!)
But one of the hardest, yet most important, parts of maintaining safer space in Smut Slam is being thoughtful about the stories everyone shares and how we tell them. It’s part of our rules briefing, and something that all Smut Slam hosts around the world model through the language we use onstage and the kinds of kickoff stories we tell, but it’s still tricky. I’d say that in any given Slam in DC, half to two-thirds of the audience is new to the event and the concept– and it can be hard to really “get” what Smut Slam is until you’ve experienced one. I wrote this post to help try to define what it means to preserve safe space through your story and why certain things should be avoided.
What is a safer-space-worthy story?
Very simply, it’s a sex-positive story that isn’t hurtful towards a person or group of people, that doesn’t exclude or erase/belittle the experiences of a group of people, that doesn’t shame anyone for their “weird” desires (aka “don’t yuck anyone’s yum”, which is a statement I find a little twee but still useful), and that occurs between/among consenting adults.
I know, that’s kind of a lot to unpack. Don’t worry, I’ve got examples coming right up!
Let me be clear: Being sex-positive and all this other stuff doesn’t mean that your story has to be happy-happy-joy-joy beginning to end. Being inclusive and respectful doesn’t mean that you can’t crack jokes or be funny in your story. Not yucking others’ yums (seriously I can’t even with this phrase) doesn’t mean you can’t talk about being in a situation that you found totally unsexy.
The beauty of Smut Slam is that it’s not a comedy show or a raunchfest or a kinkier-than-thou competition– its beauty is in its humanity, pure and simple. There are funny stories and raunchy stories and wild stories, yes. But there are also sad, wistful stories and heartfelt, sweet stories and really weird WTF stories and awkward stories and missed-connection stories and angry stories and cringeworthy oh-god-crossing-my-legs-so-hard-at-the-idea stories. There’s no “feel” of story that’s inherently wrong. But there are definitely better and worse ways to tell them, so let’s get into that.
What to avoid (and ways to maybe fix those things, when you can)
The rule of thumb that I always give during the rundown at the top of the show is that if your story starts with, “I had always wanted to have sex with a…”– then maybe it’s not the right story for Smut Slam. By that, I mean not telling stories that fetishize groups of people or that treat another human being as the means to checking off a sexual bucket list (fucket list?) item.
And part of the reason this is tricky enough to warrant a whole blog post about it is that it’s a shades of gray kind of thing. For example– let’s say your story is about fulfilling a fantasy of having a threesome. If everyone involved in your story was a consenting, adult participant, then technically you could say “I had always wanted to have sex with two other people at once” and it might still be a fine story for a Slam. *Even if* your story is about how it turned out to be really weird for everyone and you finally admitted none of you were having fun and you went out for pizza instead. But there’s a phrase coined by ethical non-monogamy communities known as a “unicorn hunter”, which usually refers to a heterosexual couple with a bi-curious (or sometimes definitively bi or queer) woman partner, who think that “adding another woman” would spice up their marriage and who shops around ENM communities for a (usually young, usually mainstream “hot”/thin/feminine) single bisexual ciswoman who’s eager to serve as their living sex toy/informal therapist when it suits them and to then quietly go away until summoned forth for sex again. It’s a pretty dehumanizing way to treat another person. So if your story was about fulfilling that fantasy by finding a woman who had enough “unicorn” characteristics to qualify and then treating her as if she were disposable, even though she may have been a consenting adult partner…do I even have to explain why that’s not a story that supports the idea of safe space?
(On the other hand, if the “unicorn” were to get up and tell the story of how she hooked up with this couple and they ghosted on her until they wanted to hook up again, and she was telling it to share how something that she was totally into turned out to be disappointing or confusing for her– that would be different, because it’s really about *her* vulnerability and honesty in sharing something so real that a lot of people can probably relate to, even though it doesn’t seem “positive”. Like I said, tricky.)
Here’s a good test for yourself: Look at your story through the eyes of people who might identify with the other people or the kinks or the experiences you describe. Ask yourself, if you were that person, would hearing your story make you *not* want to get onstage and share your own story because you felt embarrassed, shamed, mocked, or undesirable? If so, you probably need to tell a different story or find a different way to tell that one.
So with that said, let’s go through some examples of things that are common in the ways we talk about sex in our society, but that don’t support safer space, and also how you can still maybe tell your story but in a more sex-positive and safe-space-friendly way.
- Fetishizing groups of people. You’ve all seen the demeaning category names for “niche” porn that targets specific races, fat people, disabled people, transgender people, older people, etc etc. I’m not going to list them here. Treating people like attributes instead of human beings, especially in something as intimate and vulnerable as sex, is a terrible thing to do and I wish I didn’t even have to say that.
- Instead: OTOH, it is *totally ok* to find certain things attractive– for example, to go weak in the knees for silver hair or curvy bodies or androgynous fashion. Ask yourself if your story really requires you to describe your partner’s race, size, age, etc; if not, just skip it. If you feel like it matters or that you want to celebrate how gorgeous they are, talk about them as a whole person who happens to have something about them that turns you on.
- Perpetuating sexual stereotypes. This kind of goes along with the idea of fetishizing people, but can also be a shaming thing. For example, the idea that certain races have bigger or smaller penises, or that people of size or bisexuals are “easy” and will “sleep with anything”. Don’t crack jokes about this kind of stuff– it’s just not funny.
- Using outdated language or offensive terms. This one can be *especially* tricky because it can be hard to keep up sometimes– a word that was fine a couple years ago may have since become distasteful or even a slur, whereas words that might once have been insults may have been reclaimed and might be okay…but even then, maybe only by the people they apply to. And then there are the words that are just controversial, like the c-word, which I happen to love and embrace gleefully but is horribly offensive to others.
- Instead: Do your best. When picking your story, if you don’t feel 100% certain that you’re using acceptable terms, or you’re not sure how to refer to someone or something, do a quick Google search and try to get up to speed. You’re also welcome to ask me or Mindi before the show or during intermission if you have any doubts– we can’t promise we have *all* the answers, but we are happy to give you some guidance.
- Being trans-exclusionary. This is also a tough one because we’re all *really* steeped in very gendered language and a lot of cisgender people have very little direct experience with trans people and in talking in an inclusive way. The most obvious example of this is using genitals or other secondary sex characteristics as a shorthand for gender– i.e. vulva/vagina=woman or penis/beard=man. It can also show up in phrases like “real man/woman”, “preferred gender/pronouns”, “both genders”, or “passing as male/female”. The worst examples of this, that cross over into transphobic and actively harmful, include the whole subset of “Surprise! She was really a he!” stories, or refusing to use someone’s correct pronouns, or deadnaming them (using the name they had before the one they currently give).
- Instead: Try to get used to saying things like “all genders”, or “people with vulvas” if in fact your story requires you to talk about all people who have a vulva. If your story involves sex with someone who is transgender, ask yourself if your story requires you to talk about them being trans, or if it’s really just a story about great sex where gender is irrelevant? If it *does* matter to the story, plan what you’re going to say so that you can feel confident that you’re using inclusive, respectful word choices. If you’re worried about misgendering someone and you don’t know their pronouns, “they/them/theirs” is a safe way to go regardless of whether they’re transgender or cisgender.
- Body-shaming. The obvious one here is fat– as in talking about someone’s fat body as if it’s inherently undesirable or gross or a joke. But there are a lot of ways that our society commonly body-shames that are simply not okay, and especially not if you’re trying to respect safer space. For example, putting down micropenises or even smaller-than-average penises as a “disappointment”, or describing body hair as gross, or body modifications like tattoos and piercings as weird, or talking about baldness or wrinkles or stretch marks or saggy boobs or flat butts or uneven labia or…do you get the idea? Just, don’t.
- Disgust at a particular fetish. Look, you don’t have to share or even approve of every fetish in the book. But if your story goes, “…and just as I lay there hot and ready, he popped back into the room in his squirrel fursuit! I almost forgot my pants as I raced out of there!” then other people in the room are *definitely* thinking that their thing is too weird or gross to talk about, and that’s not safe space.
- Instead: If your story is about a fetish you weren’t expecting or didn’t negotiate, make it clear that your discomfort was in being unpleasantly surprised or in having to figure out whether you were going to consent to this scene. Or is the humor in it the fact that *you* specifically don’t share that fetish for an unexpected reason– like, “it’s not that I have a problem with furries, it’s that I have an irrational fear of mascot suits and I always giggle uncontrollably and/or pee a little when in a room with one”?
- Not giving content warnings or notes. Just because a story is between/among consenting adults, doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have content that could make it hard for others to listen to. Stories about extremely rough sex, edgeplay like cutting or piercing, or other extreme topics aren’t off the table, but it’s better to just quickly preface it: “This story is about a hardcore scene where we chose not to use safewords” lets people decide to pop out to the restroom if they feel like it’s something they can’t handle.
- Stigmatizing STIs. We often joke about STIs, culturally, as a way to handle our fear and discomfort around them, and it’s unfortunately still socially acceptable to express disgust at them. But it’s not remotely cool to refer to people as “clean” or “dirty” based on their health status, and things like, “I bought him a seafood dinner as thanks for that night, but his thanks was giving me crabs!” is not a clever or funny punchline for a story.
- Instead: If your story is about how you handled having sex with a partner who has an STI that you don’t have, or how you negotiate having a sex life while living with an STI, and you’re talking about it in a sensitive way without being judgmental, that could be an awesome and insightful story– and something really courageous to share.
- Stigmatizing sex workers. At Smut Slam, we are firmly of the belief that sex work is real work, and that sex workers are as worthy of dignity, respect, workplace safety, and personal agency as anyone else in any other job. Talking about patronizing sex workers as if it’s shameful, gross, demeaning, or morally wrong is stigmatizing. So is using terms like “hooker” or “whore”, unless you yourself are a sex worker reclaiming a word. So is making assumptions about a sex worker’s motivations for doing sex work, e.g. that they have “daddy issues” or are addicted to drugs or are too uneducated to get a “real” job or that they were tricked into it.
- Instead: Can you tell a story involving your interactions with a sex worker? Of course! In fact, a well-told story from within the sex industry could be really enlightening to a lot of people. Just, use respectful words– “sex worker” is always pretty safe if you’re not sure what else is OK– and talk about them as a real person doing a real job, not some cartoonish stereotype.
- Slut-shaming. We would hope that if you’re coming to something called Smut Slam, you’re not overly hung up on how much sex people are having or with how many people or how casually. But let’s say it to be clear: Being sex-positive means that no one is more or less worthy of respect based on how or how often or with whom they have sex. If your story involves someone who has had sex that you for some reason disapprove of, do you *really* need to call that out and be judgy about it?
- Instead: Just tell your story for whatever the point of it is (hint: not the fact that you disapproved of someone else’s choices), and leave the judging to our panel of guest judges, who are qualified to decide if you told a great story with enough flair to win an awesome prize!
Whew! That’s a lot of stuff! And yet it’s all easy to remember if you just abide by the guideline of putting yourself in others’ lingerie and thinking about whether your story contains anything that might make someone else feel too ashamed or bad about themselves to tell their own story. Of course, there’s one other thing…
…But what if I fuck up?
You got up, overcoming your stage fright. You told your story and were relieved that you didn’t ramble too much and you got it all in under the 5-minute mark. And yet…you had one of Those Moments. You saw someone wince when you used a particular term. You heard crickets at that line you *thought* was really funny in a snarky kind of way. You maybe have a sinking feeling that you didn’t think the whole thing through and now you’re offstage and you can’t take back the part that, in retrospect, was probably not OK. Maybe you’re oblivious to it, or maybe you’re wishing for the floor to just swallow you up.
So, two things. First, assuming you didn’t intend to be hurtful or mean or disrespectful, cut yourself a little slack. We *all* fuck up sometimes. We’re *all* still learning. Mindi and I do this sex-pos stuff all the time and we’re still constantly self-evaluating, deciding that we’re not going to say this thing anymore or have that attitude. We can fuck up too (and it’s OK to come talk to us after the show or at intermission or via email or whatever if we do, and to point it out to us). Culturally we’re always evolving and deciding how to talk about ourselves and each other and the things we do. You can learn and grow and do better next time.
Second, we as hosts might take time for a teaching moment after your story. We’ll gently point out that X is no longer a preferred term and Y is a better one, or that all bodies are worthy of love and desire, or whatever it is. This is not meant to shame you or scold you. It’s a way for us to take responsibility for maintaining safer space for *everyone* by letting the room know that we caught whatever the thing was and are neither going to let it pass unremarked nor berate anyone for it. It’s a way for us to raise awareness and pass on knowledge that other people besides you might also not have had. We always do it from the assumption that it was a mistake without malicious intent, and we just say it and move on with the show. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. We ourselves struggle to find that right balance and deal with our own discomfort. That’s why we make a point of it but not a production out of it, if that makes sense.
And a final thought: if someone else comes up to you later and says that something you said was an issue for them, your best bet for a response is just a simple, “I’m really sorry.” If you’re truly caught off guard, maybe “I’m really sorry; I didn’t realize I said something wrong. Would you be willing to tell me why you felt that way?” (but realizing that they don’t owe it to you to educate you, and if they don’t want to elaborate, you might have to find out more on your own.) It’s not about who’s right or whether it’s a fair criticism, it’s just about hearing where someone else is at and acknowledging how they feel about what you said.
This was a marathon, for sure (Mindi would’ve given me the hook onstage a long time ago!) so thanks for sticking it out– this is an important topic and hopefully this post is a helpful guide in deciding what story you want to tell and feeling good that you’re telling it in a way that lets everyone enjoy it. We love you all and want you to come and tell your stories and share in the love that is Smut Slam!
Photo shared via Creative Commons from Flickr user Ben Raynal