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The HUMP! Festival, and Loving the Modern, Sexy, Secular World

I’m in love with the modern world. I’m having a seriously passionate sexy affair with it. The modern world is smokin’ hot.

And I am powerfully of the opinion that the modern world is a smokin’ hot lover, to a huge extent, because the modern world is an increasingly secular world.

I was in Seattle last weekend, giving a talk, visiting fellow Freethought Blogger Jen McCreight… and seeing the renowned HUMP! festival, the amateur- and- locally- produced porn festival founded by Dan Savage. And HUMP! was wildly super-awesome, with quality ranging from “pretty darned good” to “that was one of the most imaginative, insightful, jaw-droppingly gorgeous pieces of porn — heck, any kind of art — I’ve seen in a good long time.” I loved the polymorphously perverse variety of it: the mix of straight and gay and lesbian and bi and “who the fuck knows what that was”; the mix of kink and vanilla and many flavors in between; the mix of fucked-up and hilarious and touchingly sweet. I loved that some of the most kinky and fucked-up stuff was also some of the sweetest. And even though it makes me a little sad that most of these films are shown only for the HUMP festival and will never be seen again (all copies of the films are returned to the filmmakers or destroyed after the festival — one of their mottos is “porn star for a weekend — not for life”), there’s also something about this that I liked. It made me feel more present, more in the moment, made me pay closer attention and really be here now. (Be there then. Whatever.)

But I think the thing I liked best about the HUMP! festival was… well, the very fact that it was happening. The fact that several hundred people were willing — not just willing but happy, not just happy but excited and delighted and eager — to sit in a public space with several hundred strangers, and watch explicit, often wildly freaky sex videos. (At multiple shows per night. Most of which sold out almost immediately.)

There was a shameless quality to the event. And I don’t mean “shameless” as in “brazen” or “audacious” or “in-your-face.” I mean, quite literally, without shame. The audience was excited, delighted, surprised, shocked, turned on, grossed out, touched, laughing uproariously, on the edge of their seats, and more. But I was in that theater for an hour and a half — longer, if you count hanging out in the lobby waiting to get in — and I didn’t get a single whiff of shame. A little giggly nervous excitement was the closest I saw to anything even resembling shame. And it was a privilege and a delight to see, and to be part of. Like Lily Tomlin said in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: “The play was soup — the audience was art.”

And this shamelessness over sex? This eagerness to celebrate it? This open curiosity about its wildly varied possibilities? This willingness to acknowledge — in public, in a room full of hundreds of strangers — that you have it yourself, and that you enjoy it?

This is not something we have ever seen in a world controlled by religion.

This is something we’ve only started seeing in a secular world: a world where laws and rules and social expectations about sex are liberated from religion.

The degree to which the world is secular appears to be the degree to which sex is freed from shame.

I’m not saying that everyone in the audience at HUMP was an atheist. It would surprise me tremendously to learn that. I’m sure there were progressive Christians in that audience, reform Jews, Wiccans, “spiritual but not religious” folks, “I’m finding God in my own way” folks, what have you. But… well, actually, that’s sort of my point. I think this is something a lot of religious believers have a hard time remembering: A secular world actually works in their favor. A world that isn’t controlled by religion is a world in which they’re free to practice whatever freaky, dumbass religion they want to. A secular world is a world where you can be Baptist, or Muslim, or Mormon, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Seventh-Day Adventist, or Wiccan, or “spiritual but not religious”… and it’s okay, because your world isn’t being controlled by the Pope or the Church of England or whoever. (As Ingrid said when we were talking about this: Try living in Italy in 1600 and saying that you’re “finding God in your own way,” and see how fast you get burned at the stake.)

And — to bring it back to sex — a secular world is a world where you can watch porn or not, masturbate or not, have gay sex or not, spank each other or not… according to your own conscience, within reasonable laws (about things like rape, age of consent, sexual harassment, etc.) that prevent people from seriously hurting each other.

Many of you probably read about the Sex and Secularism study that came out a few months ago. In case you haven’t: Researchers recently did a study of thousands of religious non-believers — mostly former believers — asking about their sex lives before and after leaving religion. And for the overwhelming majority of respondents, the effect on their sex lives of leaving religion was overwhelmingly positive.

Importantly, the physical details of their sex lives mostly didn’t change very much. Believers and atheists have about the same kinds of sex at about the same rate: they’re just about as likely to have gay sex, have extra-marital sex, have kinky sex, watch porn, masturbate, etc. Atheists just feel less guilty about it. Atheists have sexual ethics, of course. It’s just that we base our sexual ethics on… well, on ethics. Our sexual morality isn’t based on what someone else wrote down thousands of years ago about what God supposedly told them about how he does and does not want people to do the nasty. Our sexual morality is based on issues like consent. Honesty. Fairness. What hurts people. What brings people joy.

Atheists have sexual ethics. And of course we feel shame and guilt when we violate those ethics. But we aren’t, for the most part, ashamed about the very fact that we have sex, and the fact that we want to have it. I was at an atheist conference in Cincinnati a few weeks ago — not in Seattle, mind you, not in San Francisco, not in New York or Berlin or Amsterdam, but in Cincinnati, Ohio — and researcher Darrell Ray, creator of the abovementioned “Sex and Secularism” study, asked the audience when he spoke, “How many of you masturbate? How many of you have had extra-marital sex? How many of you have watched porn?” And the overwhelming majority of the audience raised their hands without hesitation. Something that — as Ray pointed out — would absolutely not have happened if this question had been asked at just about any church or synagogue or mosque. Again — the answers would have been the same. The members of churches and synagogues and mosques are masturbating, having extra-marital sex, watching porn, etc. at pretty much the same rate atheists are. They’re just not copping to it. They’re ashamed of it.

Persuading the world out of religion — or, at the very least, persuading the world to base its lives on something other than religion — frees the world of pointless sexual shame.

And that is an unbelievably beautiful thing. It is imaginative and insightful, hilarious and touching, exciting and delightful. It is a privilege to be part of it.

The world is changing. It hasn’t changed enough yet, make no mistake. Hipster Seattle is not the entire world: there are still huge reaches of the world where people are filled with shame and fear and guilt over the inarguable biological fact that they have sexualities. There are still women being taught that their sexuality belongs to their husbands; there are still gay teenagers being shamed and bullied and driven to suicide; there are still little girls getting their clitorises cut off. And yes, of course, there are things about the modern world that suck, sexually as well as otherwise: too-early sexualization of little kids, intense pressure towards impossible standards of physical beauty, etc.

But the degree to which the world is secular appears to be the degree to which sex is freed from shame.

And that is an awesome thing.

That is worth fighting for.

Let’s keep it up.

Comments

  1. stevebowen says

    I think this is god as parent thinking. No one wants their mum or dad to catch them wanking or shagging the first boy/girlfriend. Whether i’m mixingbup chickens and eggs I don’t know, but sexual guilt isnt confined to the religious, they just make a fetish of it.

  2. TommyP says

    Greta, well said. I can’t possibly imagine going back to the time I was ashamed of having sex. Now, it’s just a beautiful, fun thing to share with others. I’m really glad to hear about this festival, and it makes me want to reach out a bit more and get involved with similar things here in Los Angeles/West Hollywood. There’s a lot of joy to be had in sex, and sometimes you have to reach out and show that to people, or they’ll never come to realize it.

    I’m glad the world is changing enough to where we can actually do something like that festival.

  3. says

    (all copies of the films are returned to the filmmakers or destroyed after the festival — one of their mottos is “porn star for a weekend — not for life”)

    That makes me sad. But I now have a new goal in life: go to HUMP!

  4. Dhorvath, OM says

    Shame. Now that’s a dirty word, at least when it’s about consensual sexuality. The amount of control that religion exerts by tripping on shame is appalling, shame for acts that will happen and never hurt anyone can drive the best of people to act against their inclinations in public. This is the legacy of shame, that it drives people to think that what they do alone or with trusted companions somehow defines the larger community to which they belong.
    Greta, you keep right on with what you do, more people need to be exposed to the idea that shame need not be a normal response to sexuality, and you help that happen.

  5. jherazob says

    I’ve thought for many years now that shame is not a virtue as Victorian/religious morality used to posit (disguised behind the odious word “modesty”), but something we must strive on eliminating, a diagnostic aid like pain, in that if it’s present then there’s something wrong going on and you must do whatever it takes to make it stop as you’re getting hurt. That’s something i initially learned from naturism, but i’ve seen it in many different contexts, nonbelief included.

  6. cat says

    I dunno. The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition tends to be fairly down on sex (though, not always- some English 17th century dissenters, for instance, from the Diggers, if they actually existed, to Milton, in his descriptions of Adam and Eve getting it on, come off as pretty sex-positive) and Buddhism often (not always) emphasises desire as suffering, but what about the Kama Sutra? That’s a religious text. Or what about ancient cults of Bacchus/Dionysus? Religion may often allow for or justify arbitrary rules, and sometimes (often) those rules are attached to sex, but I would say there is no necessary connection between religiosity and sexual repression. What about the converse? Secularism isn’t, I would say, necessarily sex-positive either. Epicurus, for instance, had a view which in some ways approximates to the Buddhist one- that sex embroils you in difficulties, opens you to pain, and is best avoided. This isn’t quite the same as feeling guilt or shame over sex, but I can imagine a secular stoic feeling shame over their weakness to sexual temptation. So, I think you’re probably overstating your case here. The correlation you notice is probably true right now, in Christian America. Maybe it is even likely to be often true. But it is not always and necessarily true.

  7. says

    I whole-heartedly agree with you, Christina! Great post.

    I recently attended a fantastic reading and Q & A by the author of Sex At Dawn, a book about the prehistoric origins of sex. It was thrilling to be surrounded by sex-lovers similar to the audiences at HUMP! On the surface HUMP! is a hilariously rockin’ good time for all, but more importantly it’s paving the way for new attitudes toward sex and making it OK for all of us to be who we are without shame.

    http://bananafish1.wordpress.com/

  8. M says

    I attended the HUMP! Festival last night in Portland with my BFF who happens to be a progressive Christian (and a virgin). We had a great time! The audience in general seemed to have a great time. And even though my male friend was definitely outside of his comfort zone with the overwhelming amount of gay sex happening before his very eyes, he said he’d happily go again next year. It was a great experience and I recommend everyone go at least once. Great article, Greta! I agree with everything you said. :)

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