Recently, I was in an email conversation about sex-positivity and the other person asked me how sex-positivity and boundaries work. Her confusion centered on the fact that it often seemed to her that people who identify as sex-positive have an “anything goes” outlook. I’ve said before that, in my experience, sex-positive people often have stronger boundaries than average, but I think it’s worth exploring this in a bit more detail.
One of the hallmarks of sex-positivity is being able to tell the difference between something that triggers you and something that is a problem outside of how you feel about it. I’ve written about that here, so I’m not going to repeat that line of thought. Assuming that you can tell the difference between “this bothers me” and “this is causing genuine harm,” the question is what you do when there’s a problem. This is where the idea of “fierce compassion” comes in.
Compassion means “to suffer together”, so it tends to inspire us to find a way to alleviate the other person’s discomfort or pain. We might do it for their sake, to make ourselves feel better, or a combination of the two. I find that a lot of people think of compassion as sort of wimpy. The idea seems to be that if you’re compassionate, you want everyone to feel good and that means not telling someone that they’re doing something wrong. This is what Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion.” (Click on his photo for more info about his teachings.)
We engage in idiot compassion when we can’t handle seeing someone’s discomfort or suffering, and so we submit our will to our desire to make sure that nobody feels bad. For example, if I have a conflict with someone and I’m worried that my talking with them about it would make them angry, upset, worried, etc., then I might not bring the subject up in order to “not make them feel bad.” This is idiot compassion because I’m letting my desire to make sure they feel OK overrule my need to take care of myself. Another term for this is “co-dependency”.
I’ll be honest: I’ve seen this in many communities of erotic affiliation. For example, I’ve known of situations in which someone was abusive towards everyone they dated. It was gossiped about and whispered about, but nobody was willing to come forward to speak to this person because they didn’t want to cause controversy in their close-knit community. I’ve also seen people do things without taking the risks and possible consequences into account, sometimes with dire results, but nobody said anything because they didn’t want to seem like they were telling someone what to do. Of course, these sorts of things also happens in religious congregations, families, groups of friends, and any other gathering of people. Idiot compassion is everywhere.
Let’s compare that to “fierce compassion.” Fierce compassion is still motivated by the awareness of someone’s suffering but it addresses it by looking at the root cause of it. When we come from this place, we understand that we sometimes need to cause discomfort in the service of growth. One example is when a parent creates rules because they serve their child’s ultimate well-being, even when it seems unfair and arbitrary to the kid. Another example is when we maintain our boundaries, even in challenging situations. The discomfort that we or others may feel is in service to our well-being and/or the ongoing health of the relationship.
Fierce compassion requires us to understand that there are times when the short term pain or discomfort that arises is worth it because of the growth and ultimate alleviation of a deeper suffering. Ideally, we find a way address a situation as gracefully as possible. We don’t need to dump all over the other person- that’s not compassionate at all. Instead, we recognize their individuality and their humanity in order to engage with them. It’s a path of gentle power.
My experience is that sex-positivity works best when it rests on a foundation of fierce compassion because it enables us to develop and maintain our boundaries from a place of strength. Those boundaries could be personal boundaries or they could be a community norm. For example, if someone at a play party isn’t listening to a safeword, or shows up wasted, or is disrupting the event, then fierce compassion (for this person, the people they’re bothering, and the community that they’re disrupting) would help me take a strong stance and deal with the situation. I might choose to kick them out, engage in a conversation about the rules and expectations, or anything else that seems most appropriate.
Acting from fierce compassion would enable me to assess the situation before responding. If, for example, this person was simply unaware of how safewords work, that would be an opportunity to teach. If they were acting out of malice, that would be a reason to show them the door. Rather than applying a rule without reference to the specific circumstances, fierce compassion invites us to figure out what will be most likely to do the most good. That will vary quite a bit because each situation is unique. Rather than creating legalistic rules that we must obey, fierce compassion helps us develop our guiding principles, which we must then decide how to best work towards.
This, then, is where I think it connects to sex-positivity. “Everything is OK” or its close relative “it’s all good” can come from idiot compassion because we usually know deeper down that, in fact, some things are simply not OK. For example, I believe that ignoring someone’s health, pleasure, well-being or consent is never OK and I strongly believe that it’s important to protect myself, my friends and my community by maintaining that boundary. Fierce compassion is what lets me do that.
When we act out of fierce compassion, we can state our desires and limits with strength. We can speak our hearts and minds, maintain our boundaries, engage in a dialogue, take care of ourselves and our communities, and do so with both care and conviction. Clearly, this can be a challenging path. But I find that the people who choose it are often able to support sex-positivity, both in themselves and the people around them.
So to come back to the original inspiration for this post, sex-positivity isn’t about not having boundaries. It’s about creating boundaries that are based on well-being, pleasure, and consent. It’s about maintaining them with strength and with empathy. It’s about knowing the difference between supporting our guiding principles and enforcing an inflexible rule. And it’s about acting from fierce compassion.