In March, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a panel at CatalystCon East with my friends and colleagues Rebecca Hiles, Dirty Lola, and Dylan Thomas called Is There A Secret Handshake?- Navigating Alternative Lifestyles. To get a good idea of what we set out to do, here’s our session description:
“Many people are drawn to alternative lifestyles such as BDSM, polyamory, and swinging, because they are seeking to explore a different side of themselves. As part of the learning process, people often feel that it is important to find a community to help educate them on their new lifestyle journey. For some, seeking out a community for education and camaraderie can be the most difficult part of the journey. At times, it may feel as though you have joined a club, but never learned the secret handshake.
In this session, we will share ways to find your place within the alternative community that meshes with your needs and desire. This panel will cover topics ranging from appropriate lifestyle etiquette and finding a community, to negotiation and safety!”
All the work I do is focused around alternative sexualities and their corresponding communities, and I hear people’s questions and concerns about getting involved in a new communities all the time. So it was wonderful to have a little over an hour to dispel myths and give practical advice on getting involved in various communities. We got through a ton of information, which was recorded for your listening pleasure, but if you’re looking for a tl;dr version, here were my four favorite takeaways:
1. Showing up and watching is a form of active participation
This was one of my little nuggets of advice, and one that I feel very strongly about. There are a lot of ideas floating around in the ether about voyeurism in alternative sexuality spaces, and many of them are pretty negative.
I’ve heard that people who just hang around and watch are “creepers,” or that if you show up somewhere with no intention to play that there must be something wrong. Seriously! I’ve been asked before why I’m in a space and “not doing anything.” Well guess what? Watching IS doing something! It IS active participation, and honestly, it’s one of the best ways to learn about yourself and what turns you on, about types of play you never knew existed, and about the more visually obvious skill sets necessary to do that type of play in safe, fun, and sexy ways.
I actually often recommend to my clients that they watch the first time they show up at a new party. This gives them the space to take in the environment and decide if it’s somewhere they feel comfortable engaging in different ways. It also gives them the chance to connect with other community members and make friends.
When you’re just starting out in an alternative sex community, you probably won’t know a lot of that community’s associated lingo or skill sets. I spoke to a friend recently who told me that when she started out in the kink community, one of her biggest fears was that everyone was going find out that she didn’t know what she was doing and that they’d think she didn’t belong.. She worried people would think she was a fraud or a wannabe (and this was long before 50 shades got kinksters up in arms over who is “really” kinky).
While there is some variance depending on the community you’re interested in joining and the area you live in, most communities realize that it behooves them to help newbies get acquainted. When people are up to speed on etiquette, safety techniques, and other skills relevant to the space, everyone is happier, safer, and less likely to get the venue or the community at large in trouble; whether that means losing the space, or gaining negative press.
When you speak up and say “I’m new” or “I don’t know about ______” and show that you’re genuinely interested in learning, there will be someone either willing to show you the way, or willing to point you in the direction of resources, workshops, or local community guides and mentors.
3. “If you build it, they will come”
I loved when Rebecca said this. We all need a space where we feel like we belong, and sometimes the groups available in one area just aren’t a good fit. So what can be done? Create the community you want to be a part of!
It can be as easy as making a facebook or fetlife group. You can broaden the topic or region of focus, and keep it an online community, or narrow the scope and post events in your town or city. What’s great about these websites is that they are free and easily searchable. If you enjoy in-person events, consider making a group on meetup.com. There is a monthly fee to run a group, but membership fees can keep the price low for everyone and will weed out the folks who are less interested in engaging with and contributing to the group.
That’s why we have the power to create the groups and spaces we want to see! I took a position as a Sex Geekdom emissary because I loved the idea, but we didn’t have anything like it in Philly at the time. I know someone else who is very introverted, but who wanted to make friends when she moved to a new state. So she started an introvert munch for herself and other introverted kinky folks. It sounds excellent, and if I had less on my plate, I’d probably start one too*.
4. Go where you’re celebrated
One of the audience members asked about the prevalence of sizeism, ageism, and other isms in sexually based communities that may deter people who do not fit the status quo. She was concerned that some communities may have more problems in this regard than others, and wondered what you can do when who you are is somehow off-putting to people in the community.
The truth is, we don’t live in a vacuum. We have all been impacted by society’s ideals. We are all bombarded every day with messages about who and what is attractive and what isn’t. So while it may feel like everyone in alternative communities is more enlightened and has spent more time examining mainstream ideals of beauty because they too have felt marginalized by the mainstream, that’s just not always the case.
Unfortunately there are still places where bigger bodies or older bodies aren’t treated as kindly, where people of color aren’t actively welcomed, or where you might be harassed or asked to leave because your intersecting queer identity and corresponding behaviors aren’t accepted. So save your time and money and only use them to support the spaces where your style, your size, your gender, your age, your body and your desires will be celebrated when you walk through the door.
We are planning to submit this panel again for CatalystCon West, which will be held in Burbank, CA in September. So if you felt like there was something we missed, and think we should add it for next time, please leave it in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Hint hint Los Angeles introverts… get this thing going!