I’d guess I’m not the only student at Exeter who’s fed up of our uni hitting national news for all the wrong reasons. Over the past few months, the annual Safer Sex Ball has been embarrassing us all over again – firstly for the racist ‘tribal’ theme and more recently for an illegally distributed video of a couple at the ball having sex in the student bar. Last year, of course, we also had the SSB’s official publication (the ‘shag mag’) providing a glowing example of how not to be safe about sex by making a rape joke concerning stripping a girl naked without her consent.
SSB has always been controversial, which is probably why it’s always been so popular. To be honest, after feeling pretty disgusted by some of the decisions the organisers have made over the past two years, my knee-jerk reaction to hearing yet another tale of SSB misconduct is that the whole event should be thrown out. It seems so completely corrupted now that the ‘safe’ bit of the ball is like an afterthought, a joke, a vague memory of why SSB was founded and what the charities it sponsors are striving to achieve around the world.
I’m a confessed outsider when it comes to SSB. It has never felt like ‘my kind of thing’ because I’m not overly fussed about the idea of stripping off for a party. I would be fine with doing it in principle – me and my body are on pretty good terms. But I was at a friend’s birthday last week, fully dressed, in a pub. And I left that pub because a man was staring at me. An old man, by himself, staring at me, consistently. He didn’t react at all whenever I caught his eye (and I did a lot because you feel it all over when someone’s staring at you) and he didn’t stop. Another friend had to walk me out of the pub to make sure he wasn’t going to follow me home, because that’s how intimidating he was. I’m sure other women have had similar experiences. So when I say SSB isn’t my kind of thing, it’s not because I have a problem with the dress code, it’s because I already have enough incidents racked up of being harrassed and scared and upset without having been in my underwear and pressed up against a thousand other drunk people. I would rather not put myself and my body in that situation.
I think that’s what SSB is trying to be about, underneath it all – us, and our bodies, and our myriad sexualities. That’s what sex positivity is about. It’s about being comfortable and accepting. It’s about being honest about sex without glamorizing it, and recognising its place in humanity without shame for those who like a lot of it, or those who don’t have it at all. It’s about knowing yourself, your body, and what you want, and being able to tell your partners that, whilst also being damn sure that they are in the same place. It’s about consent, enthusiastic consent. And it’s also about acknowledging that other peoples’ sexualities are different to yours and that is absolutely okay.
SSB falls down on this when it sexualises other peoples’ cultures. Or when it thinks consent is something to joke about. It falls down when it fails to put enough security staff in a bar to separate a couple before they got caught on CCTV. Or when it doesn’t make it clear that despite the condoms being handed out at the door, there are, in fact, laws about where you can and cannot have safe sex. Or when a proportion of the people attending get so drunk beforehand that they aren’t even allowed into the venue. And most importantly, it falls down when all of this becomes what the event is perceived to be about by the wider community, when in reality the purported campaigns of SSB are completely different (apparently ‘sexual health and safer sex’, ‘no means no’ and ‘positive body image’, and the fact that I had to Google to find that out indicates they’re failing to reach everyone with those messages).
Obviously, the vast majority of students who attend SSB have an amazing night, and it’s a night that isn’t necessarily sexually charged every single second. When it comes down to it, it’s a ball, so it’s about getting drunk and dancing – and the dress code is just an added element of fun. It doesn’t inherently make it an immoral place where ‘bad things’ are more likely to happen, because an outfit has fuck all to do with sexual assault (alcohol has something to do with sexual assault, but in this respect SSB is no more dangerous than a Cheesy Tuesday at Arena). So the thing is, it wouldn’t actually take that much to bring out the sex positive core of SSB. It would take organisers who are much more savvy on social justice issues and much more aware of the environment they’re creating. That’s about it. There men everywhere – like my charming gentleman in the pub, who I personally hope treads on a Lego – whose ingrained misogynistic values lead them to make women feel uncomfortable, and SSB is not special – yet. It could be. If the organisers were explicit enough about it and made sure there was some way of enforcing it, it could be declared a revolutionary sex positive safe zone where it is every person’s responsibility to respect everyone else. It could foster a really inspiring attitude rather than making us all look like idiots.
We just need to be open to talking about this, and understanding why SSB keeps tripping up. We can’t just brush everything negative aside because ‘it’s for charity’ or ‘it’s only a bit of fun’, because that’s ignoring problems rather than solving them. I’d love to see RAG declare next year that SSB is going to be a fully sex positive environment (even if actual ‘activity’ might still be off the table) – and I’d love it even more if they followed through.