Here's what I learn one humid, sticky night in July at a rooftop bar in Washington D.C.: It’s not a sex-positivity party without some sex-positive bingo. I'm standing in a diverse crowd that's gathered here tonight for an event hosted by the city's health department. At a table squarely in the center of the bar, teams of four young adults bounce eagerly, hands hovering in anticipation over buzzers. An announcer holds a mic to red lips and asks in a booming voice, ‘“What percent of cisgender women can orgasm through penetration alone?”
“Twenty-five percent!” Someone screams. A buzzer sounds.
“Correct!” The announcer says.
Everyone laughs and they’re off to the next question: “What percent of cisgender women have experienced orgasm?”
I don’t hear the answer because I’m too mesmerized by the scene. In the main bar, a jazz band plays on a stage, an enthusiastic team of young adults play sex trivia, and bartenders give out free beer and wine. Tables helmed by local nonprofits line the walls, handing out information and multicolored condoms. A local sex shop displays its wares ranging from anal beads to dildos.
At 23, attending a sex-positive party is not the most unusual thing I’ve done. In fact, I’d always considered myself sex-positive. As a college resident assistant, I was always stocking the floor lounge with condoms, stretching dental dams over my face in front of a bunch of 18-year-olds to demonstrate what they did, and writing out the names of different STIs on our bulletin boards. I told friends and students alike that they could tell me anything — sexual encounters, STIs, pregnancy scares, experiences they couldn’t quite put a name to.
So, when I saw a Facebook ad for a sex positive party in my city, I knew I had to go, inviting a friend from my cohort of gender studies students in college and, of course, my boyfriend.
They wander eagerly around to enter a raffle as I meet Michael Kharfen, senior deputy director of the HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration for DC Health, the local governmental health department in Washington D.C. Despite his intense job title, he laughs and calls himself a "sexpert." He leads me to the bar’s balcony, past a Planned Parenthood table, a tarot card reader, and a table loaded with condoms where volunteers are talking about a local program that promotes sex ed for teens.
"Sex is a natural part of life," Kharfen keeps telling me. He says that's part of the reason why DC Health threw this party in the first place — to show that it's something normal. But the event's meaning runs deeper than that.
Kharfen wants to bring an affirming approach to sexual health that shies away from scare tactics. Rather than teaching people solely about the risks that are associated with being sexually active, Kharfen instead wants to teach people how to embrace pleasure and be proactive about their sexual health and safety.
I think about the trivia game I witnessed earlier. The questions focused not on STIs, but on pleasure — specifically orgasms. “This is a season of pleasure, rather than a season of risk,” Kharfen says cheerfully as people dance and group sits at the end of our table to munch on French fries. In the middle of the balcony, a sign reads “Ask a sexpert!” and a group sits having an animated discussion.
Later, when my boyfriend Josh and my friend Steph rejoin me, we begin to talk eagerly about how my efforts in college to educate on sex had been good-natured but perhaps short-sighted. I had focused my attention on teaching people to reduce their risk of unwanted pregnancies and STIs. I thought back to the booths I tabled in college, jerking out a handful of condoms at students as they walked past trying to avoid eye contact. I remember finding the dental dams I had given to my residents papered all over the wall and asked, in horror, at our next event, “Why aren’t you guys using them?” Why aren’t you having fun?
I look around. The environment is relaxed. People dance to music, chat, pick up flyers and condoms in passing and drink beers. If you took away the booths and the anal beads, you had a regular bar where my friends and I might readily swap stories of sexual experiences, mention new birth control methods we were using, and discuss our thoughts on pregnancy. But rather than the volunteers at the booths shouting information at passersby, attendees make their way to them to casually pick up condoms or hold vibrators in their hands.
Later, Steph and I begin swapping stories of being afraid to even buy condoms, I realize a large part of sex and sexuality is learning naturally with the people you trust. And that’s what the party offers — a space to learn and talk. It makes me imagine sex positivity as a cloud. Inside, the cloud is full: sex toys, new partners, and even STIs. But like I learn at the party, sex positivity less about fearing sex and sexuality and more about enhancing and taking part in pleasure. Sex positivity is wrapping up that cloud in natural conversations on pleasure and safety, to make it more enjoyable for everyone.
Before we go, Steph shows me that she won the raffle. It’s a gift card to a local sex shop that’s displaying some of its wares. So, naturally, before we leave, we stop by the table to take a look. There were a few things for me I’d been eyeing anyway.