By Ryn McCoy
When I first started dipping my toes into the kink scene here in Portland, it seemed I could not attend a single social event without running into two people in particular: Stella Harris and Angie Gunn. Not only are they both extremely active in Portland kink communities in social and organizer roles; they are also both full-time professionals in the field of sexuality.
Angie Gunn is a licensed therapist that serves LGBTQIPA+, kinky, non-monogamous, sexual trauma survivors, and others as an ally, advocate, and resource for connection, change and healing. She also serves as the Sex Therapy Expert for the Talkspace Team of more than 2000 therapists, and as the chairperson for SPEEC, an intersectional sexuality non-profit.
Stella Harris is a writer, sex coach, and certified Intimacy Educator. She teaches everything from pleasure anatomy to communication skills to kink and BDSM, and she has presented at venues and conferences nationally. She regularly writes articles for many different outlets, and her fiction is included in more than a dozen anthologies.
Proud Queer Monthly sat down with Angie and Stella to talk about kink, queerness, and sex education in the Portland community.
I believe that the work we do, every event we have, every client I see is an act of courage and defiance against a mainstream world that is trying to keep us from having sex and pleasure.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Angie: My primary mode is working as a therapist. A lot of my clients are kink folks, LGBTQ folks, and folks that are trying out different relationship structures along the openness spectrum. A lot of my clients are also sexual trauma survivors who have been exposed to harm in sexual spaces. I do some public speaking and teaching related to those topics, and last spring I also became the board chair of SPEEC, which serves as an organization for sexuality groups in Portland to have a place that they can go for resources, collaboration and, ideally in the next few months, a physical meeting space, which we have been working on getting. I personally identify as part of the kink scene and part of the non-monogamous communities, and I’m just dipping a toe into queer spaces, so that’s a newer piece of my identity.
Stella: I am a writer, educator and coach. I teach and consult in both sex ed and kink contexts, and I do private coaching around exploring sex and sexuality—everything from sexual technique to introducing kink to opening up relationships. One of the things I do a lot of is just telling people they’re okay, and listening without judgment. Many people that come to my office are telling me things they have never said out loud to another person before, so just me responding like, “Yep, that’s great!” is often all they needed. When I’m teaching, it’s a lot more about actual techniques or anatomy. I will often do live demo classes; with my Mapping the Vulva class I’ll actually have someone up on a massage table and be touching them, or I do a strap-on play class where I’m fucking somebody in front of a hundred people to teach techniques.
As a sex coach, one of the things I can get away with that is different from a clinical therapist is that I can actually be in the room with people while they are trying things and touching each other. It’s a lot like a personal trainer, telling you to do that one last pull-up when you would have given up if you were by yourself. Which is so often how it works with sex; people get frustrated when they are not getting the results they want, and they give up. Just pushing through that frustration is often a huge part. And yes, sometimes there are actual techniques I teach clients, and that can be part of it too, but the bigger part is more often me being there for encouragement and accountability.
The Sex-Positive Education and Event Center (SPEEC) has evolved a lot since its conception. What has that journey been like, and what’s next?
Stella: I was brought on early on as a volunteer when they thought that a building was imminent. A lot of the work of those early days was poised specifically around having a building, but that fell through. Since then, that hunt has only gotten harder because a space that is ADA accessible, accessible by public transit, etc.—those spaces practically don’t exist, at least not within any kind of reasonable budget. I was made a board member after about six months of volunteering, and since then we have had a gradual transition from being about that physical space to being about what other resources we can provide along the way. My time as a board member is actually up this month, but I will definitely still be involved.
Angie: My biggest goal coming on as chair last year was to make some deliberate shifts to being more intentionally intersectional, which was something that was a part of our language, but there were not a lot of efforts being made specifically to reach out to marginalized communities and get their involvement in creating sex positive spaces. So that is the biggest change we have made, and that has included recently adding a steering committee made up of delegates from different marginalized groups, so different areas of intersection will be represented. We are also still working toward getting a physical space, and we are really hoping to have that in the next six months.
We have also expanded what kind of events we do. We are still doing our standard events, like Narratives, which are discussion groups around different issues in sexuality, and we are now doing workshops once a month at the Close-In Munch on Mondays at The Liquor Store. We are also doing a youth sexual health leadership summit in November to help mentors, teachers, parents, etc. get educational information about things schools won’t talk about—pleasure, arousal, sexting, pornography, kink, etc.
Our current political climate can be a pretty scary place to be out sexually—so we all have to stick together and be sex weirdos together, because we need each other and we have a lot more power when we are together.
In your experience, do you feel like Portland has a particularly active sexuality and sex education scene?
Stella: Portland is this sort of confluence of the libertarian streak in this state and people that like to think of themselves as very progressive, so I think there’s a willingness to accept some of these things that makes it possible. And then, of course, the way the laws shake out in Oregon, there’s a lot of openness to sexuality. That’s part of why there are so many strip clubs; laws around sex and nudity and that sort of thing make it possible for clubs and venues to function—and even then it can be kind of tricky, but easier than it is in many states.
Angie: In Portland I feel like we are insulated in our sexuality communities, so we forget how alternative our lives really are. I don’t always remember how weirdo I am until I go do a talk or a workshop somewhere else. And then it can be nice for me to see that contrast and be reminded that we really are making important changes here and doing stuff that is meaningful. I identify as an activist, and I believe that the work we do, every event we have, every client I see is an act of courage and defiance against a mainstream world that is trying to keep us from having sex and pleasure.
What do you think are the biggest pros and cons of the kink scene in Portland?
Angie: The biggest pro in Portland is that it’s just a huge community, so you may not find your niche right away, but there’s a munch every night of the week and each one has a group of people to connect with. And I think the kink scene is one of the only places where you can walk up to a complete stranger and ask what kinds of things they’re into, and you’re likely to get a response—and they’ll be excited to talk about it! So it is usually a pretty safe space to learn and discuss without judgment.
As for cons, the same kinds of challenges you run into in any community you also run into in the kink scene; it’s not a more skilled community in terms of being able to manage those issues. There is definitely the kind of in-group fighting that is not always helpful to the community at large. Historically, the BDSM community has had a particular approach to consent and boundaries and how to navigate and negotiate sexual spaces that makes it distinct from other communities, so I think that puts it immediately at odds with certain other sexuality groups because of this different set of in-group rules. And then even within that BDSM community, there are conflicts between young folks and older folks, and between different kinds of kinks and the way that’s expressed, etc.
One of our challenges is that the larger the community gets, the more that stuff comes up. Which is unfortunate because there are actually a lot of shared values that could bring cohesiveness across different segments of the community. I mean, our current political climate can be a pretty scary place to be out sexually—things could shift dramatically at any moment—so we all have to stick together and be sex weirdos together, because we need each other and we have a lot more power when we are together.
There is progress and potential, but there is also twenty years of history of the kink scene being taken over by hetero folks that we are having to push back against.
Stella: Although it’s certainly not perfect, I think our community is relatively accepting of a wide variety of kinks; things that are stigmatized in a lot of communities seem to be more openly accepted here. When I was a greeter at a munch for a few years, people would be so shy to tell me the thing they were into, and basically whatever it was, I was like, “Oh great! This whole table of people does that thing; go talk to them!” A thread that runs really strongly through events here is “don’t yuck people’s yum;” just walk away if you are not into it. So that’s a nice thing, for people to know that they are okay and that we were all sort of misfits until we found each other, so now we’re all weird together even if we’re all weird a little differently.
Being a part of Portland, of course, the kink community has problems with inclusivity and diversity and accessibility. A lot of venues in town have not been accessible, which is one of the things that SPEEC is trying to address. And obviously everything in Portland has a race problem, but I think that kink is even especially white for Portland, which is saying something, so that is also something that SPEEC is trying to address.
Could you talk about the intersection of kinkiness and queerness?
Angie: At Kinkfest last year, Patrick Califia spoke about how the gay leather scene started out as a hub of activism, so queer and kink activism were very integrated. But they have slowly moved away and become different things, to the point where a lot of gay men want nothing to do with the formal kink scene, so they have their own pockets of gay leather communities that are not really integrated in the larger community. I’m interested to see if we can maybe build some bridges now and create some interconnectedness, at least amongst the older leather communities. I think there have been times where the kink scene was a pretty hetero and misogynistic place that was not always safe for different kinds of people. There is progress and potential, but there is also twenty years of history of the kink scene being taken over by hetero folks that we are having to push back against.
There are so many events you can go to where everyone has their clothes on and it’s in a public place, so you can take things at a pace you are comfortable with.
Stella: An interesting thing I have found in my personal explorations is that when I am in queer spaces—usually with younger folks, it seems to be a lot of people in their twenties—like say, at a sex party, and people go around in a circle talking about what they are into, they will go ahead and say if they are a top or a bottom, and talk about impact play and bondage, and it seems a lot more integrated, like kink is just assumed in those spaces. So at these queer sex parties people are spanking each other and slapping each other in the face, and that’s just what they do. But then I’ll go to sex parties that are straighter and older, and it seems very separate, like it’s either a sex thing or a kink thing.
Within the larger kink scene, queerness is definitely not as integrated as I would like it to be. There are a few places in town that host specifically queer parties, but aside from that, it all leans heteronormative, and most folks don’t want to show up to a party and be the only queer person in a heteronormative space. There are a lot of places where the attitude is that bi women are okay as long as they end up mostly playing with dudes, and it’s even less friendly towards men playing together. It really takes a huge event like Kinkfest to be able to see all of the people doing all of the things, and even then, groups like Dirty Playground organize meetups so queer folks can walk in together and feel safe.
What advice would you give to newer folks about getting into the kink scene?
Stella: It’s not all or nothing—there’s no “you must be this kinky to attend” stuff. Even FetLife has an option in the dropdown menu to identify as “vanilla” or “unsure.” There are so many events you can go to where everyone has their clothes on and it’s in a public place, so you can take things at a pace you are comfortable with. Even at bigger dungeon parties, you are not walking straight into something where everyone is just naked and rolling around—people have their clothes on, people are mingling, there’s always a snack table—it’s pretty tame compared to what porn or movies have told you it’s going to be like. So you don’t need to be scared—take a buddy and go try it!
A lot of harm tends to happen when people don’t know their own personal boundaries until after they have been crossed.
Angie: It’s a good idea to find groups that do the thing you’re into. SPEEC has a community resources list, and FetLife can also be a good place to find those listings. If you are, say, a little or a submissive that wants to connect to other littles or submissives first, there is a meetup for that, and that can feel a lot safer as an entry point than going to a more general event.
Doing tons of reading and getting a sense for what you are into is also helpful. When people walk into a playspace and just say, “I want to try everything!” that can be really dangerous. So try to be able to say more specific things, like, “I think this bondage thing sounds fun. I think I’m turned on by spanking. I’m interested in what it would be like to be in control of someone.” Having some idea of interests or arousal is helpful because it can guide your conversations and prevent abuse from happening in the scene. A lot of harm tends to happen when people don’t know their own personal boundaries until after they have been crossed.
Stella: A lot of people have that kind of bad experience as their first experience, and then they leave and never come back because they assume that’s what the whole scene is like. One of my favorite homework assignments for clients is to read short-form erotica, to see if thinking about a particular thing turns you on before you physically try it. Also it’s important to find safe people to try it with for the first time. You can try going to the kinds of events that have tastings (spaces where people can briefly try out a type of play with someone experienced in that activity)—it’s not perfect, but the people doing tastings are somewhat vetted as somebody safe to try this thing with, so it’s at least better than just meeting somebody on the internet.
Angie: And you can always say no and stop something immediately. There is sometimes guilt and shame around performance stuff, feeling like you need to do a good job, be a good submissive, etc. None of that is relevant when it comes to your pleasure and your boundaries and well-being. You can always stop something immediately and you can always renegotiate, regardless of what role you are in.
Stella: And you should get far away from anybody who tries to shame you for that.
Is there anything else about kink that we have not discussed that you think would be good for people to know?
Angie: Kink and sex can be separate or they can be integrated. There are some people who do kink together and don’t do any sex stuff with each other—even if they are naked and getting spanked, they don’t identify that as a sex thing. So that can help kink feel like a safer space as well—you can go and have experiences that don’t involve your genitals at all, and you can be specific about wanting that and people will be fine with it.
Stella: There has been some interesting writing and discussion about whether or not kink itself (or a specific kink) is a sexual identity. There are some people who identify that way; they are into the kink or particular sensation and as far as the person or people they are doing it with, gender is a non-issue, because it’s the activity that matters. So that is a fascinating area being analyzed and discussed.
Follow Angie Gunn at connectivetherapyservices.com.
Follow Stella Harris at stellaharris.net.
Learn more about SPEEC at speecportland.org; find volunteer opportunities at speecportland.org/volunteer. Check out upcoming sexuality events in the Portland area at speecportland.org/community-calendar.