Meet the guys behind the No Safeword podcast, the guys behind the YouTube channel Watts the Safeword, and the woman behind the Center for Sex Positive Culture.
by Matt Baume
It was in 1991 that one of Allena Gabosch's friends came to her with a problem. The friend was taking a class on sexuality at Highline Community College, and told her, "We just got to the part about S&M, and it's all wrong. Can you come in and speak?"
Allena was a little taken aback. Sure, she was well known in the kink community. With a friend, she ran the fetishy Beyond the Edge Cafe, located on Capitol Hill where Honey Hole is now. (Back then, there was a dungeon in the basement, and she recalls some guy named Dan Savage regularly coming by to get cookies.)
But she was also unaccustomed to public speaking. Professionally, she was a restaurateur; although she was recognized as a leader in the kink community, it was still just a pastime. The first time she'd ever addressed a group, it was a bunch of students who'd come to hear about healthy food, and her hands shook so hard she could barely pick up a can of tuna.
To make matters worse, sexual anxiety was an integral part of her childhood. She was raised fundamentalist, and as a teen she was forbidden from talking about boyfriends.
But as a young adult, Allena discovered an attraction to kinky sex—what was then referred to as S&M, and today more commonly as BDSM. What's more, she reminded herself, she'd gotten into the restaurant business because she liked nurturing people, and opening eyes about sexual fulfillment could be a way to do that.
"I can do this," she told herself, and she told her friend, "Sure."
"Great," her friend replied. Then she added sheepishly, "Just... don't tell anyone you know me."
Allena laughed as she told me the story. "And I've never looked back," she said.
Although she didn't realize it, Allena was about to embark on an accidental sex-lecturing career that blossomed throughout the 1990s. When Beyond the Edge closed in 1999, she and some friends founded the Center for Sex Positive Culture in the Interbay neighborhood, to educate the public and strengthen Seattle's kinky community.
Now nearly two decades later, the center's mission continues with multiple daily events. Items currently on the calendar: a workshop on incorporating martial arts into sex, a clothing-optional dance party ("Special note: Bring a fun hat!"), an erotic massage class, and an arts and crafts night. Whatever your predilection is, there's a good chance that you can hone it at the center—or if you don't think you have any kinks, that you'll discover one.
Allena is in the process of stepping back a bit from full-time education. She's reduced her involvement with the center, though her schedule remains busy. The week that we spoke, she was scheduled to appear at three colleges, participate in a panel, and present to two groups about senior sexuality. She has a podcast called The Relationship Anarchy Show and a coaching business at EroticCoaching.com. She's also a frequent podcast guest, appearing on shows like No Safeword and Polyamory Weekly.
"I have a personal mission statement," she told me. "Remove shame from sex and bring joy." Her college friend's reluctance to be publicly associated with her S&M talk remains a harsh memory, all these years later. She's seen firsthand that feelings of horror around sexual conversations are instilled in us from the time we're kids.
"It's really scary to go to your mom and say, 'Mom, tell me about anal sex,'" Allena said, and I did not argue. "And what about kink or fantasizing? When I was a kid, I depended on Playboy or Playgirl—when I was young, there was nothing."
She added, "In sixth grade, the boys went to one room and the girls went to another. I don't know what the boys learned about. Girls learned about menstruation." (I experienced a similar lesson, and all I remember of what the boys were taught is that you're not supposed to say "boner" in public.)
The forbidden mystique of sex began to fade for her in the mid-1970s when she was 18 years old and living in Portland. Still a bit wide-eyed and innocent, "I snuck into a gay bar and met an amazing trans woman who let me ask her the most stupid questions," she said. It was the best sex education she'd ever had. ...
Being in love is one of the most amazing feelings you can have. You meet that one person who makes everything in your life so much better. Imagine having that same feeling with not just one person. I can remember all the times I have said, "I wish I could take Joe Schmo number one and Joe Schmo number two and combine them. He would be the perfect partner." The idea of a monogamist relationship does not sound appealing to me. I have done it before and didn't like it. Thinking about relationships in general does not make me super excited. In this moment of my life I may not be interested in the typical relationship of being in a committed relationship, but I am still open to the idea of intimacy and love. I want both of those things.
Polyamory is when you have multiple romantic or sexual relationships and not committed to one partner. I have been very open about this with many friends, co-workers and the men that I have been seeing. Some have looked at me with disgust or have a certain tone in their voice when I explain what being poly means. I personally don't want to feel like I belong to one particular person. I am not saying that I absolutely despise of monogamy and marriage. As a millennial I feel that the idea of marriage is not what it used to be. That is okay. I am all for embracing change. I am not sorry that I am not obsessed with the mainstream culture of saying yes to the dress and epic wedding reception flash mobs. ...
When you dedicate your professional life to working with human sexuality, you know from the beginning that you are working with a lightning rod topic. Have you ever been at a party, and someone casually asks you what you do? When you answer that you are a sex educator, a sex coach, a sex therapist, have you noticed how ears perk up around the room? People are fascinated, and people are opinionated. Like everything to do with the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, everyone has an opinion, and their own private battles, with sex.
We’re also still in the formative stages of an emerging trend – we’re seeing today the explosion in sex related information becoming available to the public at large. We’re seeing a proliferation of helping professionals specializing in sexual concerns. We’re seeing more people undertaking study of sexology in depth and building their knowledge beyond their own experience. Never before has the science of sexology and the knowledge it produces been more available to more people.
This is an extremely positive development. It means that people no longer need to suffer in silence alone. With the Internet in more homes around the world every year, even proximity is no longer a factor – people can access expert advice from professionals worldwide from the comfort of their own homes.
The other side of this coin, though, is that in this field terms are generally not regulated and standards of education vary. This means that, currently, anyone can call themselves a sex educator, a sex coach, or even a sex therapist. What we see now is highly educated and well trained professionals, mixed together under the same professional designators as pick-up artists and folks that have watched a couple of TED talks and decided that they are a sex expert.
This means that, if you are a human sexuality professional, there has never been a more important time to have credentials. You have invested a lot of time and money to develop competency in understanding sexual concerns and working with clients, and you have every right to want to set yourself apart from those that have not. It is therefore essential that you are aware of the sexology credentials available today, and have the information you need to decide which credentials are appropriate for you.
Here is an overview of 6 important sexology credentials available to human sexuality professionals today:
Kink Aware Professionals (KAP) Designation
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) formed in 1997 with the aim of fighting for sexual freedom and privacy rights for adults who engage in safe, sane and consensual behavior. Today, NCSF has over 50 Coalition Partners, over 100 Supporting Members, and over the years has formed alliances with other organizations that defend sexual freedom rights, including the ACLU, American Association of Sex Educators, Councelors, and Therapists (AASECT), Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS), and the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance, among others.
A key program of the NCSF since 2005 has been maintaining an online directory of Kink Aware Professionals. While sexologists and sexuality professionals are listed, the directory includes an incredible diversity of professionals – from accountants to doctors to realtors. The Kink Aware Professional designation signals to clients that a professional is accepting of diverse sexualities, forms of sexual expression, and sexual communities. The Kink Aware Professionals directory has grown to include over 800 professionals in the United States, Canada, and worldwide.
To receive the Kink Aware Professional designation, the following is required:
Membership in the NCSF, where there are 3 levels of membership available
Meet ALL requirements listed for Kink Aware Professional designation
To embrace the KAP Statement and to understand and agree to its terms
Once listed, Kink Aware Professionals can display on their own websites this status and membership, to show clearly their acceptance of diversity....
The first thing people always ask when I tell them about my open/polyamorous relationship is ""but what will you tell your children?!" The question always catches me off guard when I hear the panic in their voice, but my response is always the same: "I'll tell them the truth." What else would you tell a child? I find that the overall narrative we have surrounding love, sex, and relationships isn't one that includes the many types of sexualities, the types of relationships, and the types of love that I've found in my own life. I find it to be very limiting, and not a true reflection of what the world is like. So I've chosen to talk about my open relationship with my kids, who are 6 and 7, so that they understand what love and relationships look like for me, for some of my friends, and for other people around the world. My hope is that their ideas about love and relationships are formed without judgment, without boundaries, and that they're both open to possibilities, whatever they might be.
When talking about polyamory with people, I've found that most tend to be hyper-focused on how it affects my children. The first things they want to know are often: Is it confusing for them? Are they secure? I tell them a story about when my daughter was 4 or 5. I was doing her hair, and she asked me, "Mama, when are you going to get a boyfriend?" At the time I did have a boyfriend, but my husband and I hadn't told the kids. I asked her why she thought this, and she responded, "I just want more adults to love me, and I want you to have more people to love you. I want a large family." A few months later when we told the kids that we were seeing other people, but that we obviously cared about them the most, they weren't surprised, shocked, or even upset. I braced myself for something dramatic, but it was probably the most boring conversation we'd ever had together as a family. They just shrieked, "MOM HAS A BOYFRIEND! DAD HAS A GIRLFRIEND!" They got a kick out of that for about five minutes, then moved on to something else. It was the least dramatic moment I could've ever expected.
At the time, I felt like talking about being in open, polyamorous relationships with our kids was "so radical," but now it's just our norm. Granted, polyamorous and open relationships all look different from each other, and our norm might look drastically different than someone else's. There's even a difference between polyamory and being "open." According to Poly-Coach.com, polyamory is the practice of having many loves, and loving many ways. Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart coined the term in 1990, according to The Guardian, and polyamorists believe it's possible to be romantically linked to more than one person at a time.
My current partner and I fall a bit in between polyamory and being open, but when I was still with my ex-husband, we practiced a true polyamorous relationship. There's a stigma that when you have more than one partner you suddenly go from being a "good, wholesome" person, to a "depraved" one, constantly hosting orgies, or hanging out in dungeons. I never understood how my relationships determined my outward "goodness." I believe that you can have orgies and still maintain healthy relationships with people. Yeah, it takes a lot of work, like it does with any relationship, but it's possible. Love exists in many ways, and in many different forms. It's why I told my kids about polyamory. You can love one, two, or three people, and it doesn't diminish any of your love. It doesn't make it less true, or less real. ...
A few years ago, my husband, Rob, and I converted our traditional marriage to a polyamorous one. It's been remarkably smooth. We're very happy with our choice. And yet eventually we'll probably divorce. Does this mean that polyamory failed us? Not at all.
Like many of our generation, Rob and I are children of divorce, and so when we got married a dozen years ago, we designed a quasi-Buddhist ceremony that made room for the concept of anicca, or impermanence. We wrote our own vows and left out the "until death do we part" and "forsaking all others" stuff: Instead, we spoke about the inevitability of change and pledged to support one another as we continued to evolve.
We meant it, but we had no idea what that might look like. We didn't anticipate that our evolution could involve the desire for sex and relationships with other people.
But that's what happened. In our previous relationships and with one another, we'd both been serial monogamists, but after we finished having babies, we looked around and realized that although many things about our marriage were stellar—close friendship, mutual support and admiration, compatible co-parenting—we weren't ideal for one another sexually. We never really had been. Our libidos don't match; I'm more "sex motivated" of the two of us. Our relationship had thrived despite a lack of romantic chemistry.
This is not an unusual revelation, of course, and in most marriages, it results in screaming matches, or swallowed resentment, or affairs conducted amidst lies and betrayals. But Rob and I didn't see our "problem" that way—we didn't even really see it as a problem. We saw it as a reality, and an opportunity for positive change. We became poly.
I look at it like this: Humans go through multiple phases over the course of a lifetime. It makes sense that our relationship needs shift, too. I wanted kinship, drama, and obsession with someone eccentric in my twenties; equality, worldliness, and stability with someone calm in my thirties; intimacy, attention, and adventure with someone exotic in my forties. Each phase has required partners with different personalities, interests, and energies. As I see it, it's unfair to expect one person to evolve over many decades on a precisely parallel path to my own. Which is why I also believe that we should stop thinking about the end of a marriage as a crisis and start thinking about it as a reality.
Maybe longevity isn't the best indicator of a relationship's success. Why not measure marriages by the level of satisfaction reported, or the self-actualization achievable, or how much the people respect one another even after it's over, rather than as an endurance test? In Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the Edge of Normal,the cultural critic Jack Halberstam calls our culture's infatuation with long-term monogamy "the romance of permanence." In a 2012 interview, Halberstam suggested that rather than have weddings to celebrate the beginning of a union, we instead throw parties to honor milestones like getting through a difficult job loss or health crisis together, or to reward surviving the sleepless years of early parenting, or to cheer an amicable and fruitful separation. ...
A Canadian court has acquitted Jian Ghomeshi, the former CBC radio host who was fired in 2014 amid multiple allegations of sexual assault.
In this case, which involved complaints from three different women regarding incidents in 2002 and 2003, Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance to sexual assault by choking.
"I am forced to conclude that it is impossible for the Court to have sufficient faith in the reliability or sincerity of these complainants," Justice William B. Horkins of the Ontario Court of Justice says in his published reasoning. "Put simply, the volume of serious deficiencies in the evidence leaves the Court with a reasonable doubt."
"My conclusion that the evidence in this case raises a reasonable doubt is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened. At the end of this trial, a reasonable doubt exists because it is impossible to determine, with any acceptable degree of certainty or comfort, what is true and what is false."
Each of the three women say they had a violent encounter with Ghomeshi. For example, an account from one woman identified as L.R. in court documents states that she was having a drink with Ghomeshi at his home. Then:
"Suddenly, 'out of the blue,' he came up behind her, grabbed her hair and pulled it. He then punched her in the head several times and pulled her to her knees. The force of the blow was significant. She said it felt like walking into a pole or hitting her head on the pavement. L.R. thought she might pass out. Then, suddenly again, the rage was gone and Mr. Ghomeshi said, 'You should go now; I'll call you a cab.' "
In his ruling, Horkins questions the complainant's reliability, saying that details of her testimony shifted — such as whether she was wearing hair extensions or the kind of car Ghomeshi drove.
The CBC describes a chaotic scene in the courtroom after the ruling. Ghomeshi embraced his mother and sister. Meanwhile:
"A topless female protester jumped in front of Crown prosecutor Michael Callaghan yelling 'Ghomeshi guilty!'
"Police tackled the woman to the ground and took her back inside the courthouse as she struggled and kicked the door. She was handcuffed by police and led into the back of a police cruiser.
"Other protesters outside the courtroom chanted 'We believe survivors.' "
Ghomeshi did not testify in the case. After the CBC fired him, he called it a "moral judgement against his taste for consensual bondage and rough sex," as NPR's David Folkenflik previously reported. ...
A few weeks ago, I attended a Play Party Etiquette Workshop, a class for people interested in learning about how to behave at play (sex) parties). At the event, attendees were given a worksheet to express their "desires, intentions and boundaries," featuring such checklist items as, "During this party, I would like to be clear about my boundaries while connecting with strangers."
The Play Party Etiquette Workshop was held at Hacienda Villa, a sex-positive community in Brooklyn known for polyamory and play parties, led by sex educator Kenneth Play and relationship expert Effy Blue. Along with this worksheet, the workshop included a slideshow presentation with multiple slides on the importance of "enthusiastic consent," a concept also taught in schools, advised by feminist writers and even passed as legislature in California as the "affirmative consent" bill.
Both Blue and Play practice polyamory, as did many of the attendees. (While one doesn't need to be polyamorous to attend a sex party, there is often overlap between the two groups.) Polyamorous people have multiple partners, meaning they can date, love and fuck more than one person. That can make establishing consent and firm boundaries even more complicated than it is in monogamous relationships.
Poly people take specific approaches for everything from how to establish safe-sex boundaries with other partners to warding off aggressive come-ons. For starters, while those in committed, monogamous relationships only need to agree on a safe-sex practice for the two of them, those in poly relationships need to continually discuss it as their partners change.
Within poly relationships, "consent is more complicated because you need the consent of every partner for every action," John*, a 35-year-old polyamorous man, told Mic. "I can't just start barebacking one partner, because that can have an effect on the sexual health of my other partners."
For this reason, polyamorous people need to discuss things like condoms perhaps more often than monogamous couples do. In fact, a 2012 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine indicated that couples who practice consensual non-monogamy generally have fewer STIs and practice safer sex than monogamous couples where one partner has been unfaithful.
"What is typically common is that poly people will have very explicit conversations around safe sex with other partners. What are their boundaries, what are their preferences, what are their deal breakers," Zhana Vrangalova, an adjunct professor at New York University and founder of the Casual Sex Project, told Mic.
Poly people also have to deal with people outside the poly community constantly assuming that they're sexually available. "On one hand, a poly person is like a single person in the sense that they are not 'taken.' So when someone else learns that someone is poly, the perception is that: 'Okay, well, they are at least potentially available. Proceed as if this is a single person,'" Vrangalova told Mic.
John agreed: "It's certainly happened that people have assumed I'm down [for sex] purely because I'm poly, even in the most inappropriate situations."
But even though people outside the community might believe that poly people are up for anything, that's far from the case: Different poly couples have different guidelines for their relationship. While John said he personally is available to play with other partners, others in the polyamory community need permission from their primary partner before starting something with someone new. Some people prefer to discuss new partners with their primary partners beforehand.
Additionally, Vrangalova said that people outside the poly community tend to perceive poly people to be more kinky and sexual than monogamous folks. While that can be true for certain couples, polyamory is an identity that encompasses all ranges of kink and sexuality.
"I think those two things [perception of availability and sexual appetite] get inflated to get people extra sexually interested in poly people — and then extra disappointed if the poly person is not responding to them," Vrangalova said. ...
My introduction to polyamory came when I was drunk and horny. Walking back to my house after a first date, arm in arm with a smart, attractive, olive-skinned punk girl, we burst in through the front door, giggling and kissing. There was a pause and she looked me in the eye, suddenly serious.
“Before we go any further I need to tell you: I have a long term boyfriend. But I don’t believe in monogamy. I hope that’s okay.”
“Oh, that’s fine. Totally fine,” I said.
Truthfully, at that exact moment I would have accepted almost anything. But it really did feel fine. We went on a series of dates over the next few months; saw films together, cooked meals, held hands. Basically, did couple stuff.
I often asked questions about her other relationships and she was happy to answer. When she talked about love and sex she was thoughtful and eloquent. She made me want to learn more. A door had been opened.
If there was a Theory of Polyamory 101, it would probably start with the principle that love is not a finite resource, and so we should stop treating it as if scarcity applies. We know that love for old friends doesn’t decrease with making new ones, or that love for our brothers, sisters or children isn’t reduced with new additions to the family; but from an early age we absorb, unconsciously for the most part, the idea that romantic love exists in limited supply, is shared between a couple, and is tainted by any affections that stray elsewhere.
If this idea doesn’t sit well with you, the alternatives suggested by mainstream culture are few and far between, consisting more or less of serial dating, empty promiscuity, or lonely death in a house full of cats. Hence the widespread habit of what we could call "monogamy by default" – not an active choice between a range of options, but the acceptance of the only game in town.
In this context, polyamory is not so much a whole new game as an attempt to renegotiate the rules: it suggests that romantic love for one partner does not have to rule out attraction to another, or that the deep fulfilment and security of long term commitment should not banish away the excitement of new sexual encounters. All these things and more are up for discussion, provided it can be done in a transparent and consensual way.
However, regardless of how much you support the theory, putting it into practice still brings a huge potential for jealousy, hurt and insecurity. It's not that polyamory is too good to be true, but it's definitely too good to be easy.
When I first actively decided on polyamory as a lifestyle choice, I felt like I’d stumbled upon a way to hack the rules of relationships – to have all the benefits of romance, but without the inconvenience of compromise.
It was just over a year ago, January 2015, and I was starting two new relationships at the same time. Both of these people were unique: creative, unconventional, attractive to me on many levels. But instead of being blissfully happy with these two wonderful partners, I felt like I was in a constant state of crisis: neither relationship felt stable, and after a short while, each one was constantly on the verge of collapse. It was as if two plates were spinning slowly at the end of long sticks, far apart, and I was caught in the middle, frantically sprinting between them.
Looking back now, I can see the mistakes I made, but I wanted to know if it was typical to struggle when starting to experiment with non-monogamy. So I called Mel Mariposa Cassidy, a radical relationship coach and self-described “queer polyamorous relationship anarchist” to ask about some of the problems that she helps her clients to address. One of the biggest hurdles, she told me, is being absolutely honest about the reasons for exploring open relationships in the first place:
“You might be wanting to open up a relationship because you're not sexually satisfied by your partner, or you might open your relationship because you want to leave your partner and you feel like this is a safe way to do it. Some people explore polyamory because they want to consciously challenge the societal norms around monogamy and ownership dynamics in relationships, and jealousy and so forth. I try not to judge anyone’s reasons, but where I see problems is when people are not honest with themselves or their partners about it. Often people have core needs which aren't being met, and instead of really talking about those things they just decide to go and get them somewhere else.” ...