Editor’s note: Over the past few days, many have been talking about the Queer Alliance’s decision to cancel their annual event, “Sex Power God.” This article was written to situate the cancellation within the context of the event’s history at Brown. Through this historical lens, SPG’s consistent presence on campus over the past decades and the Queer Alliance’s most recent decision not to host the event will hopefully be better understood.
“Sex Power God” (often abbreviated as SPG) might be the most intentionally baiting event name on Brown’s campus. The title words alone provide little information about SPG, relying instead on piquing interest and having students ask, “What is Sex Power God?”
Answers to this question vary significantly depending on the person who is being asked. Some students have thought of SPG as a chance to dive into a sex-positive, LGBTQ-positive party space. Others have seen SPG’s presence on campus as a“crying shame” for a university “founded on Judeo-Christian values.” Certainly these two summaries don’t capture all the feelings that students hold regarding SPG. For more extended and nuanced explanations of opinions related to SPG, one can find a catalog by searching “sex power god” on the Brown Daily Herald’s website which turns up 24 pages of results.
The array of opinions is not simply the result of liberal and conservative ideologues butting heads. Rather, the conflicting understandings of SPG might be partially located in its consistent evolution. Every four years, there is a completely different set of students populating Brown’s campus and as such, even “institutionalized” events and traditions undergo significant change. While organizers over the years have tried to create an LGBTQ-positive space, the evolving student body’s constantly changing modes of engagement has created a history of drastically different iterations of SPG. The most recent SPGs, despite extensive planning and safeguards put in place by organizers, have not entirely lived up to their goals.
The first Sex Power God drew its name from a lecture that was given in the 80s. LGBTQ students affiliated with the Queer Alliance liked the title and used it as the name for a dance party they hosted. In the early years of SPG, participants came dressed in costumes and drag. The space functioned primarily as a fun, nighttime dance for LGBTQ communities to come together. Rebecca Hensler, Brown alum and SPG founder, wrote in an open letter to Lorin Smith and the Queer Alliance Coordinating Committee, “Calling the dance Sex Power God was a liberationist act, a f***you to those who thought sex, power or god belonged to them not us, and a good joke. But the dance was just a dance. It ended with Michael [another SPG founder] and I cutting the queer dance beats and playing Free to be You and Me off the album from my childhood that I brought with me to Brown — and I remember having the strongest sense of freedom I had ever felt in my life.”
Following 1991, Sex Power God became an annual event. However, as stated earlier, SPG’s regular recurrence certainly did not mean standardization of the event. The operations of the staff and the experience of participants were often influenced by campus opinion, the intentions of the organizers, and more general trends related to college nightlife.
In each iteration of the event, there have certainly been SPG participants who had positive experiences and found the space to be unique and empowering; however, there is another reality that must also be recognized: there have also been participants for whom the event was unsafe. In a variety of instances, SPG has fostered oppressive atmospheres that reinforced violent attitudes and behaviors. The incongruence between the goals and outcomes stemmed from many sources, but had the ultimate effect of reminding students that Brown does not exist outside the systems of oppression that operate in society.
By examining the question of apparel, it is possible to gain insight into how participants have understood the space. Initially, the apparent question that guided clothing choice was, “How can I play with gender?” With subsequent SPGs, this shifted to, “How little clothing can I wear?” While these two driving questions are certainly related (perceived gender frequently dictates how much clothing is seen as appropriate), the shift indicates not only a more overt use of the space as an opportunity to challenge norms beyond gender, but also the increasing sexualization of the space related directly to society’s insistence on the sexualization of nude bodies.
The (near) nudity and expectations of sexual interaction at the event began to shape the way SPG was planned and structured. The advertisements for SPG became increasingly risqué and the event became more widely known as a “sex party.” The sensationalization, on the part of both organizers and participants, cultivated unrealistic expectations based largely in pre-existing ideas about college parties. That is, SPG became the ultimate college party for many students: large crowds allowing for a degree of anonymity, ensured sexual encounters, and heavy drinking. While alcohol has never been served at SPG, “pre-gaming” became more intense as the years went on. The combination of expected anonymity, sex, and alcohol drove SPG to become what it was in its final years.
The 2005 iteration of SPG may have been one of its most extreme. In 2005, the Brown Daily Herald reported that there were over 20 medical transports due to concerns about alcohol. In addition to this sharp uptick in the number of medical transports, 2005 was also the year that SPG was brought to national attention by being featured on Fox News. The coverage of the event further predisposed many future participants to understand the event as “pure debauchery.” These events only further reinforced campus opinions regarding the event.
In addition to falling under the gaze of national media, SPG also began to gain campus attention in an unexpected way. Students (predominantly straight men who had not purchased tickets) began to make it a tradition to sit outside the venue where SPG was taking place. They held up signs to publically, numerically rate SPG participants as they walked in and out of the venue. Along with these ratings, the unwanted spectators also held up signs labeled “Take It Off,” “Put It On,” and “Lap Dance?” This explicit harassment and enforcement of ideas surrounding acceptable bodies contributed to SPG’s inability to fulfill its goals of creating a space that made room for sexual exploration outside the norms of society. It also demonstrates the ways in which SPG was turning from an experimental social space into a “party space” that all people felt entitled to. It is important to note here that this behavior was curtailed through the efforts of student organizers and administrators and is ultimately not the reason for the cancellation, but still remains a salient example of wider campus attitudes toward SPG and its participants.
The previous paragraph and other documented harassment related to SPG may indicate that harassment at the event was predominantly verbal and occurred outside the venue. Anecdotal evidence indicates otherwise. There have been many stories shared amongst Brown students in recent years relaying how they have experienced violations of autonomy and boundaries via unwanted touching and assault at SPG. With this information, it is also important to consider how conceptualizations of sexual spaces might interact with ideas of entitlement to bodies and consent. To claim that harassment and assault are unique to SPG would be to ignore the countless other accounts of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses that have been making national headlines. This contextualization is not intended to function in a way that normalizes assault and harassment as inevitabilities in “party” spaces, but rather to point out the ways that forces outside the control of organizers have played out during SPG.
Following 2005, wherein it was most explicit that SPG was not functioning to meet its goals, the event was revamped with input from administrators and student activists on campus so that SPG could be the space the new year’s organizers intended. Since its revamping, there has been an increased level of professional event security to monitor students entering the venue, increased patrolling of the dance floor by student staff, and the removal of students intending to harass participants both inside the venue and outside of it. There has also been a concerted effort to turn away intoxicated students at the door, a job frequently performed by administrators who have been present at all SPGs following 2005. In an attempt to establish terms of engagement for participants attending SPG, organizers had participants sign consent agreements wherein they agreed to participate in the space in a manner consistent with the expectations of the organizers.
Despite these changes and significant thought given to the issue, the planning committee has been unable to address the tall order of resolving the problems that have emerged and persisted throughout the various iterations of SPG. Especially in light of the heightened activism around sexual assault on Brown’s campus as well as calls for the university to take active measures to ensure student safety, it is clear that a break is in order. Hopefully, this break is used to develop ways to retain the event’s affirming and positive aspects, rethink what the space has the potential to be, and to reimagine ways for it to achieve its goals without compromising the safety and wellbeing of participants. In this process of reimagining, it is important to recall how the first iteration of SPG was able to repurpose the familiar — to take something that was “just a dance” and forge it into an empowering and liberatory space. To remember how, for Hensler and her fellow queer students, dancing to the familiar, childhood song “Free To Be You And Me” gave them “the strongest sense of freedom” they had ever felt. Every four years, there is a completely different set of students populating Brown’s campus and in this, there is incredible potential.
“There’s a land that I see where the children are free
And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live…
And you and me are free to be you and me”
Featured image via Dominic Simpson.