I live in a bubble. I do a great deal of work with issues related to sex and sexuality. That means that much of my world is involved in those issues as well. Both by necessity and choice I have surrounded myself with people that are comfortable with those areas. We can talk about sex and sexuality without batting an eye. We see it as an important topic that affects everyone. After all, we are all sexual beings. We believe that a good sex life (as defined by you) is important for everyone.
Since I live in that bubble I sometimes forget that there is another world outside that bubble. One there is still very sex-negative. Where people are uncomfortable with sex and sexuality. For many there is shame around those topics. The idea of being open and direct about them is frightening or upsetting. That reality was put directly in my path a few nights ago.
I help organize a chapter of a great group that I’ve mentioned before – Sex Geekdom International. At last count the group has 19 chapters in 6 countries. Our Madison chapter has over 200 members. The group, straight from their website, “is a global community for people who love having geeky conversations about sex. There are Sex Geekdom hubs throughout the US and internationally that provide a regular opportunity for like-minded people to find safe space + community.” The focus is education and conversation about sex and sexuality for the purpose of promoting sex-positivity and happy, healthy sex lives for everyone.
Our Madison chapter has psychotherapists (including myself), all forms of medical practitioners, researchers, students, among many others who have an intellectual interest, commitment or curiosity about sex and sexuality. It brings together people from all walks of life.
One of our regular events is a monthly discussion group. Attendance ranges from 6 to 35 people any given month. For almost 2 years we have held the meeting in the community room of a local Panera Bread cafe. They have been good hosts and in the past have been incredibly welcoming and warm. The room is fantastic since it is free to use in exchange for grabbing some dinner or beverages while we are there. It affords us privacy to be able to have conversations that we recognize many people may not want to hear. Because we regularly have new members attending, we have always hung letter sized signs on the doors to the room. The signs say “Sex Geeks Welcome Here.”
If you don’t know the term Sex Geek, well known sexuality educator and author Charlie Glickman, Phd suggests that sex geeks share these traits –
- a deep and abiding interest in sexuality
- an interest in talking about sex with other people and helping them improve their relationship to sexuality and other people
- applying that information to one’s own life
- a sex-positive perspective
- the awareness that a lot of sexuality information isn’t about oneself
As we began our monthly meeting the cafe manager came to the door, took down our sign before entering and told us that they had received complaints about our signs and we were not allowed to have signs that have the word “sex” on them. We asked why it was an issue no since we had been using them for almost 2 years. She said they had complaints last month and she talked to her General Manager who said the word sex was not allowed to be used in the store. I asked her to explain what was offensive about the word sex, that it is simply a word describing a subject, not a profanity.
She said that people are offended by it and that children might see the word. I asked her why she felt it was inappropriate for children to see the word sex (not see sex, mind you, just see the word sex). She said they are a family restaurant and asked if I thought it would be appropriate to walk up to someone in the restaurant and say the word sex. I said, I have no problem doing that and started to head out of the room towards a nearby couple. The manager physically blocked the door and prevented me from leaving. I told her that I was simply going to show her I thought it was okay and made another move to leave. She once again blocked my exit. She then told me that if I said the word sex to anyone not part of our group, she would call the police. I refrained from testing her resolve.
Now, I’ll give her this – she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know my personality (well didn’t!) and she didn’t know that I’m a therapist that talks with people about sex and sexuality all day long. So, she walked into that one!
To her credit, she did say that our group was welcome to meet there, that it was only the signs that were an issue.
There was some more back and forth before I removed the other sign and we had our meeting. Needless to say a great deal of discussion ensued, including why it is that people are offended, or more likely, frightened of the word sex. It is unfortunate that people are uncomfortable with their own sex and sexuality. I think that makes them even more frightened of others who are comfortable with it. Unfortunately that is life outside of my bubble.
I tried once more after our meeting to have a conversation with the manager about how they came to the decision and what their policy is regarding responding to complaints. I pointed out a couple of things in the restaurant that I could take offense to and asked if she would remove them. Her response was that it is their restaurant and they can do what they want. She told me that arguing with me was a waste of her time and she had more important things to do. That ended the conversation.
I want to make two things very clear.
- I believe that any business has the right to make their own decisions about how to run their business. They get to make the rules, as long as they are legal, and those rules can be completely arbitrary. I support their right to that even if I don’t like their decisions.
- We are very willing to change our signs. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable or offend anyone, even if we don’t think they should be offended.
Having said that, imagine how differently this could have gone. What if the manager had come in and said she needed to talk to us? She could have said that they’ve gotten some complaints and that as a business it is always a challenge to balance the concerns of different customers. She could have said that they need us to do different signage and asked if there was a way we could do it that would work for everyone. She could have told us she valued us as long time customers and wanted to be able to maintain that relationship. What if she actually listened to our side of things and instead of telling us we were wrong and offensive simply said I hear you but we still have to find a solution. I feel confident that we would have been very understanding, even if we didn’t like it, and would have been willing to change the signs.
I can imagine the manager was apprehensive about approaching us and telling us we needed to make a change. She may also have her own issues and fears around sex and sexuality, so our group may have been threatening in and of itself. I can only guess the reason she took the approach she did. The unfortunate impact was that it caused us to be hurt, angry and defensive.
It is a good lesson to remember. How we approach a situation has huge impact on the outcome. A harsh, judging approach will seldom get a good response. An open, vulnerable approach invites collaboration and joining.
This situation highlights how far we have to go in our society in regards to eliminating sex-negativity. It is a sad situation when the word sex, used in a non-provocative way, elicits such a strong reaction. I don’t believe we would have been treated the same way if the issue had been about our noise level or some other, more acceptable issue. I’m just happy to know that there are so many people committed to spreading education about and acceptance of sex and sexuality.
At this point there are some ongoing conversations with both corporate and and the general manager about how it was handled. Hopefully things will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and we can restore the peace.
Here’s to a happy, fun, fulfilling sex life!