Iowa City is often touted as an oasis of culture and liberal thought amidst an otherwise conservative Midwest, even going so far as to be named the third “gayest city” in the United States by The Advocate magazine this February. Where the otherwise cosmopolitan town falls short, however, is in its sexual culture, University of Iowa student Shannon O’Reilly says.
Seeing what she describes as a sexual monoculture, O’Reilly formed the independent group Sex Positives last March. The organization serves to give an outlet–through panels and group discussions–to those who might otherwise be defined as sexual deviants by the mainstream media, including sadists, masochists, cross dressers and all other sexual identities that fall under the umbrella of kink.
“This culture that’s in place defines sexuality as one thing along very specific terms, and we view this current culture as unsatisfying,” O’Reilly says. “Sexuality is an important part of the human experience, and by stifling it, we limit people’s enjoyment of life.”
As O’Reilly will point out, finding such an outlet can be difficult. The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM), a sort of guide for psychologists, lists the aforementioned sexual identities as falling under the same category: Paraphilia. Also falling under the label of paraphilia is pedophilia, and thus, the controversy becomes evident. “There are kink-friendly psychologists,” O’Reilly admits. “But it’s challenging to find professionals who are queer or BDSM friendly.”
The DSM is prone to revision. Until the Board of Directors of the American Psychiatric Association altered their stance in 1973, the guide considered homosexuality to be a mental illness as well. It’s unclear whether future revisions will continue to hold kink under the same umbrella shared by pedophiles and molesters, however.
Faced with such a pejorative label, one of O’Reilly’s chief goals with Sex Positives is to educate others about kink, clearing up knee-jerk misconceptions about those who follow non-traditional sexual lifestyles. “We’re not all queer, radical, out-there folks,” O’Reilly says. “I know a whole bunch of people in the group who just want to be able to talk about it more, share their experiences and not feel as though they’re bringing up a topic that is so taboo.”
One of the speakers at an April Sex Positives meeting, who wished to remain nameless, warned, “The mental health community doesn’t like us. There are people who see me as extremely creepy, so beware of the social consequences.” Many of the groups members who are both homosexual and into kink must essentially “come out” twice to friends and family. The stigma can run deep.
The anonymous speaker went on to say that although her parents are okay with her being a lesbian, she has yet to come out to them about other aspects of her sexual identity. She tested the waters once, mentioning a fictional friend whose sex life mirrored her own. Seeing how her parents reacted to this fictional person, who was, in all actuality, their own daughter, gave her enough cause bury the topic indefinitely. Prior to the April meeting, she experienced a moment of panic when her RSVP to the Sex Positives event appeared on her Facebook profile page.
It is one of Sex Positive’s end goals to remove the modern day scarlet letter people like this anonymous women feel burdened with. The group extends beyond kink, however, seeking to open up sexual dialogue for all groups, kink or traditional, gay or straight.
“I’ve had friends who have never had sex while sober because they don’t know how to talk about it, and that’s horrifying to me,” O’Reilly said. “You don’t have to be drunk to have sex, yet a lot of people see them tied together.”
With the intention of showing students that sex and alcohol can be mutually exclusive, Sex Positives is currently organizing a Safer Sex Carnival to be held in an undisclosed University Dormitory this autumn. It’s O’Reilly’s hope that through this event, in addition to the regular discussion panels already taking place, Iowa City residents may receive the sex education they never received in their more formative years.