Archive for August, 2007

arbitrary associations vs coherent conclusions: a study with a split personality
August 31, 2007

Review time!

Here’s the next instalment in my essay-by-essay review of Kleinplatz and Moser’s Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. For those who might actually have the book and be checking this against the table of contents (and please, if there are any of you so geeky as to be doing that, please tell me and I will totally kiss you), I’m skipping Weinberg’s article, which reviews the past few decades of literature on SM… not that it isn’t interesting, but by its nature as a literary review it doesn’t exactly present much that’s new and exciting. Weinberg does a capable job summarizing the way things were up until now, i.e. up until this book. Very good for those seeking an overall idea of academic/clinical work on the topic of BDSM.

Nope, I’m fast-forwarding one track to an article entitled “Differences and Similarities Between Gay and Straight Individuals Involved in the Sadomasochistic Subculture,” by Niklas Nording, N. Kenneth Sandnabba, Pekka Santtila and Laurence Alison – a contingent of Finnish PhDs in a variety of fields (except for Nording, who is an MPsych and PhD candidate). Basically, they surveyed a couple hundred SMers about their sexual and BDSM practices, demographic information and sexual history.

It’s not bad, I suppose. At the very least it doesn’t come to any conclusions that feel completely off the mark or “dangerous” in the political sense – in other words, when experts say something completely stupid, they’re still seen as experts, so people who aren’t educated enough about BDSM to see the stupidity still believe ‘em, and that sucks. The ways the authors express their conclusions is a little weird at times, but luckily there’s not too much in the way of ignorant political statements here. 

That being said, the paper has a number of flaws, in my humble critical opinion.

First of all, it’s not actually a review of the differences between gay and straight individuals; it’s a review of the differences between gay and straight men. They had a sample of 162 men and 22 women. They explain that they sent an 18-page questionnaire to two clubs, and later they further explain, “The MSC Finland association was mainly open for gay male individuals while the Kinky Club attracted mainly straight males and females leading possibly to an underrepresentation of lesbian sadomasochists.”

Hmmm. Yup, that would indeed lead your numbers astray. If you only use two sources to find your respondents, and one of them is exclusively for gay men, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a lot of gay men in your study. And if the other source is primarily heterosexual, then it’s fairly likely that more or less 50% of your respondents from there will be male and the remainder female, and that very few of those females will be lesbians. So for starters you’re limiting your number of female participants from the get-go. (In this case, in terms of straight respondents, it was more like 75% men and 25% women – I’d love to know why that skew existed.) And if you don’t ask any lesbian groups to participate to round it all out, well, you likely won’t hear much about lesbian sadomasochists. Wheee! Self-fulfilling prophecy. Although they openly admit this flaw, and don’t try to make any gross generalizations about their absent and near-absent female populations, it definitely bugs me that they still wrote and titled the paper as though it could encompass straight vs lesbian SM tendencies, instead of just pulling the female sample entirely and making it a study of male SMers.

Next up, they used a really odd method of categorizing types of SM play. Specifically:

“Using a multidimensional scaling analysis, it was possible to identify four separate sexual themes which in the Alison et al. (2001) article were labeled: hypermasculinity; administration and receiving of pain; physical restriction and psychological humiliation.”

Now, I get that it’s helpful to have categories when analyzing things, but these ones seem awfully arbitrary to me. For example, I’ve never known anyone to enter into SM play and call it “hypermasculinity.” And I have no idea how the researchers decided what behaviours counted in this category. Their list: “rimming, watersports, cockbinding, fistfucking, scatologia and the use of dildos, enemas and catheters.”

Huh? Nobody told me that when I fist a girl, I’m engaged in a hypermasculine type of SM. And I think it would come as a rather surprising piece of news for your average prodomme to be told that when she pisses or shits on one of her clients, it’s hypermasculine somehow. And I will certainly have to inform my very femme male friend P, who’s a big fan of the medical play, that when he catheterizes himself of a play partner (almost exclusively female and femme), he’s actually playing with hypermasculinity. Dildos? Okay, maybe – certainly I often have strong masculine associations with dildos – but I know lots of folks for whom the use of dildos is completely unrelated to anything masculine. Sometimes a dildo is just a conveniently shaped item for reaching happy places inside an orifice, rather than being the silicone embodiment of a masculine identity or headspace.

Perhaps this is my non-existent lesbian perspective though. Hm. Maybe gay guys really do feel hypermasculine when they fist-fuck or catheterize each other. I just fail to see a) where the associations of these specific sorts of play with hypermasculinity come from and b) how the extrapolation works beyond gay male play. Really, this is very confusing to me.

Then we move on to the other three categories. Pain play? Not so complicated. Physical restriction either. But that last one – “psychological humiliation” – is a little odd, again. First of all, I think it’s weird that they would toss around the word “humiliation.” I wonder if they asked the respondents to indicate whether or not they felt humiliated or felt they were humiliating their partners when engaging in specific types of play, or if they just arbitrarily decided that’s what was happening. There are so many different sorts of intense psychological states that one can enter when doing SM play – I’m really not sure why “humiliation” deserves a category of its own in a four-point list.

And when you look at the list of types of play that apparently fall under the category of “humiliation,” it gets all the more confusing. The list: “faceslapping, flagellation, the use of a gag, the use of knives and razors and verbal humiliation.”

So let me get this straight. Flagellation is a form of humiliation play? Ummm… where the heck did they get that idea? I’ve never heard of any other work associating these things. And certainly, in my many years in the BDSM world, I’ve never met anyone who would automatically chalk up a flogging to a desire for humiliation. In fact, flogging, in my humble opinion, is one of the single most versatile types of play you can imagine – it can be about pain, or not; it can be about punishment, or reward, or neither; it can be a mark of ownership or a mark of service or neither; it can be sexy, or completely non-sexual; it can be soft and gentle or nasty and challenging; and so on, and so forth. I’m a great lover of the flogging, myself, but for me, receiving a good flogging is basically the equivalent of a really purringly happy deep-tissue massage. It rarely turns me on sexually, and there’s not really much psychology to it at all; it just feels good to the body. So… humiliating?! Ah, not exactly. And when I give a flogging, it’s all over the map – I’ve used floggers for the purpose of sensual arousal, intense torture, gentle warm-up, skin-breaking intensity… so many possibilities with a single toy, not to mention a toybag with several selections. And I’m not generally much into humiliation on either the giving or the receiving ends, so I haven’t ever experienced flogging as humiliation, even though I’ve been doing it for years.

I could say the same for knives and razors. Is there any particular reason why a cutting scene should be humiliating? Califia has written about cutting as a spiritual art; many people associate cutting with ritual, release, or even simply the creation of beautiful physical markings. How on earth is any of that about humiliation? I mean, sure, perhaps it might be humiliating for someone to be strapped down spread-eagled and have their pubes shaved off with a razor in front of an audience… so it’s not an inconceivable match. But it’s hardly a direct link either.

So while the researchers’ data is definitely interesting in terms of laying out the types of behaviours engaged in by gay men and straight men, and noting the differences between those two populations (example: straight men don’t fist-fuck as much as gay ones do), I can’t help but scratch my head as to the logic behind the researchers’ interpretation of that data. 

There is a happy piece to the study: the researchers asked questions about early childhood experiences of family interaction and of sexual abuse experienced by SM participants, and the conclusion they reached was:

“The distribution of different attachment styles in the present sample was almost identical to distributions obtained in previous studies with general adult samples using similar methods of measurement, indicating the comparability of this sample with non-sadomasochistic individuals. This again suggests that conclusions drawn from clinical case reports based on people who have sought psychological help cannot be generalized to the majority of men practicing SM-sex.”

How lovely that they put a little political bite at the end of their findings. Guess what? SMers aren’t all poorly socialized weirdos from dysfunctional families! Wow!  

They do say, later, that the prevalence of sexual abuse was higher among the SMers studied than among children in Finland at large, and give some somewhat alarming numbers – 7.9% of males compared to a 1-3% average, and 22.7% of females compared to a 6-8% average. However, there are two issues here: first of all, the female sample was incredibly small, so I would question whether the study’s number is significant in any way. Second, I’ve never actually heard of such low numbers in terms of child abuse among the general population. Most studies I’ve read cite much higher figures. I wonder if these ones are particular to the Finnish? I’m not exactly well placed to know, but I’d be curious.

The study’s conclusions are blessedly coherent, for the most part. Basically, the researchers indicate that there are differences in common SM practices between gay and straight guys, and point out that this has implications for the way we understand sadomasochism. However, they also point out that:

“When drawing conclusions regarding the differences between gay and straight sadomasochists found in the present study, it should be remembered that it cannot be totally determined if these are just differences between gay and straight individuals in general or if the sadomasochism plays a specific part. Indeed, a single behavior can seldom be classified unambiguously as sadomasochistic or not without knowing the context of the behavior and the interpretation the individuals engaging in the behavior give to it. (…) The same criticism applies to differences between gay and straight sadomasochistic subcultures as well as to family interaction.”

Considering the earlier weirdness, I am impressed that they put such a nuanced spin on the conclusions of their work. I think in some ways the logic also works the other way around, too; certainly, gay and straight people may engage in different behaviours, SM or otherwise. But also, gay and straight SM subcultures have a major influence over the way SM happens between the people who participate in them. In other words, it makes perfect sense to me that gay men do anal fisting play more than straight ones do; not because straight men don’t have assholes or like playing with assholes, but because fisting is definitely firmly rooted as a sexual practice in queer culture and it’s only just starting to bleed into the edges of hetero sexual practices. Culture influences people’s behaviours as much as people’s behaviours create and sustain culture. So you can’t take a culture and make set-in-stone associations about what that culture means about its participants. Luckily, the researchers know this:

“Our results suggest that a person’s sadomasochistic interest may be influenced by a number of factors. Individual sadomasochistic behavioral repertoire is also most certainly influenced by social and cultural features which may be one of the reasons why gay and straight respondents show different repertoires.”

In addition, the researchers showed a pretty strong understanding of queer politics. They were pretty thoughtful in positing that “hypermasculinity” could in part be a reaction against gay male stereotypes of effeminacy, for example – it still doesn’t say how catheters are hypermasculine, but I get the gist of it and it makes sense.

All in all, I really appreciate the openness that concludes the study:

“The lack of unity in the phenomenon of sadomasochism makes it easy to understand that no one description – let alone explanation – can suffice for it.”

It occurs to me that it’s very strange that a study whose working associations and definitions are so odd could still wind up coming to conclusions that are pretty well-considered. Curious indeed. But I’d rather critique and question than complain. Really, anything that proves we’re not mentally ill is a good thing in my books. 

service beneath the surface
August 29, 2007

I was going to write a review of another Kleinplatz article, but I’m feeling compelled to respond to something else instead. Specifically, I just came across a blog post at Switch It Up that asks a question about service (in a kinky context). You can read the post if you want, but the basic idea is, isn’t domestic service “just a way to get your house cleaned by someone else without paying for it?”

Ooof. I realize there’s no intention to be offensive behind that post, so my response is not intended as a way of ranting at the author. I think some people are just not wired to enjoy or understand the myriad ways that kink and power relations can go very, very far outside the bedroom and sexual or sensual contexts. They don’t have to; the people who do it will keep right on doing it, and the people who don’t will keep right on enjoying whatever they do. But at the same time I feel a need to respond in some way because it feels like the question is rooted in some sort of misconception.

Of course the only way I can approach this topic is through my own experience, so as usual, your mileage may vary. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers or speak for all people involved in some form of service dynamic; I’ve simply been on the receiving end of service off and on for several years now, and have engaged in many a wonderful and thought-provoking conversation with service-oriented people in many kinds of relationships to me, including more than one currently ongoing conversation. So biased and flawed, here is my take on it nonetheless.

So for starters, let’s separate the idea of service and submission (and then put ‘em back together again). The term “submissive” is so wide and used in so many different ways by different people that I would not presume to try and fully define it here. However, at its most basic, I would say that submission is the act of acceding to another’s wishes; in a kinky context that process is eroticized. The dominant wants to do something, the submissive allows it to be done. The dominant leads, the submissive follows. Oversimplified of course, but it’s a starting point.

Service is not the same thing as submission, although the two can certainly come together. Service at its basis is not a form of allowing. Rather it’s an active thing; it’s a very intense and focused form of attentiveness to another person’s needs. It’s when one person chooses to prioritize the desires and comfort and wishes of another, and acts in very deliberate ways to maintain that prioritization.

Service dynamics can go all over the map in terms of what they mean to the people involved and how they are played out. The specifics of what kind of service gets provided and how it’s received vary wildly. For example, the person on the receiving end may or may not have a great deal of say as to what the service looks like. Sometimes the receiver simply accepts what is freely offered with no particular input other than consent (and sometimes even then, only the implied sort); sometimes s/he has the right to correct or guide the service; sometimes s/he has the right to expect or demand service and punish the giver if it’s not provided to satisfaction. And service itself can range from the extremely intimate – sexual services, massage, personal care, SM play – to the extremely practical or mundane – laundry, gardening, errands, whatever. These are all points for negotiation.

Unless you observe really closely, you often cannot tell what is going on with a given dynamic just by looking. You might not even know it if one exists. Someone can be in service without actually physically doing a darned thing, for example – a person can be available to serve and actively attentive without actually carrying out any actions. Someone can be in service without even being in the same city or country as another – any act that is useful and helpful to the receiver can be a form of service. That might include such things as keeping an eye out for information that would be useful to the receiver, making purchases, making travel arrangements, even helping someone else on the receiver’s behalf. For example, a service-oriented individual of my acquaintance once played hostess to a friend of mine who was badly in need of a last-minute place to stay on the other side of the continent – I sent an e-mail and all of a sudden he had a bed, a warm meal and a guided tour of the city awaiting him upon his arrival.

In addition to all this, service can play out in ways that look like any other sort of BDSM play on the outside, but that may be entirely different on the inside. For example, in your typical top-bottom physical SM scene at a play party, you would expect the “do-er” to be the dominant and the “receiver” to be the submissive. But if I like to be flogged in a certain way, and I have a helpful person in service to me who is skilled in that form of topping, it’s entirely likely that I will ask that person to employ their skills to create a scene where I get my happy beating exactly as I like it. In other words, there are definitely such things as “service tops.”

There are also people who are willing to bottom as a form of service – meaning what they’re getting out of the exchange is not necessarily the enjoyment of the bottoming per se, but the enjoyment of providing service to the person doing the topping. For example, although I love topping people in ways that get us both all happy, sometimes I like to really hurt people in ways they don’t enjoy. I do have a sadistic streak of the more classic variety than what we often toss around in the BDSM world. I’ve been privileged to have a couple of people in my world who have been willing to bottom in that sort of scene, full well knowing they won’t like what I do to them, but knowing that it pleases me and wanting to provide that pleasure.

So what’s in it for the person providing service? Well, as usual, it depends. For starters, I should say that while I’ve got a long-standing and complex relationship to service myself, I don’t identify as a service bottom in the kinky sense, so please take this piece with a grain of salt. That said, I’ve been privileged to have many in-depth conversations and relationships with service-oriented people, so I will draw upon that experience and their shared expertise in what follows.

If I could give a really short, concise answer to that question, I’d be leaving out a ton of incredibly varied and nuanced information. But I do think one thing is salient: service providers take great satisfaction in what they do. Service is not being a doormat. It’s not taking orders and fulfilling them the way a disgruntled employee does for a bitchy boss. Service is an art, and one that we’ve lost track of in a “you want fries with that” society.

In North America at least, we prefer to think of ourselves as egalitarian while nonetheless living in a highly hierarchical world where everyone bitches about everyone else. It’s perfectly common, for example, for a diner to treat a waiter like shit and complain about bad service; it’s also common for a waiter to provide shitty service and complain about nasty customers. Unless you get into very high-end businesses, we don’t see or value good service as an art – as the receivers of service, we just whine if our meal is cold or there’s no convenient place to hang our coats, and as service providers (and I do speak from many years of past customer service experience here) we just moan about workload, cut corners, keep up with quotas, skid by on the minimum effort and gripe about how underappreciated we are. And it’s all for good reason. In our high-speed capitalist economy, conditions are set up to make good service difficult – employers are more concerned about quick profit than customers’ real enjoyment, and service employees are underpaid, undertrained and undervalued.

But the desire to please is an incredibly strong piece of the human psyche, as is the desire to be valued and seen as competent. For most of us at least, we tend to thrive under a fair but demanding teacher much more than under a lax and lazy one, and the satisfaction of a high grade makes us glow. We perform better under a boss who knows what we’re capable of and gives us challenging work and promotes us when we do well than under a boss who lets our shoddy days slide and never notices a job well done either. In the more personal realm, when we give a gift, we want to see the delight on the receiver’s face – partly because it means they’re happy, partly because it means we chose well and timed the giving just right. When we rub someone’s shoulders, we want to feel them sigh and relax – partly because it means they’re feeling better, partly because it means our skill is appreciated. When we make love to someone, we want to see them enjoy themselves and (generally) come to orgasm – not just because it means they liked the experience, but because it tells us we did well.

The above is true for most people, I believe. But in kink, we tend to take what most people do and crank it up a few notches. So a kinky service-oriented person may behave the way most of us do at work, at school, in relationships… but sometimes they want more, whether as a general thing or because a particular person inspires that desire. Much like a person who likes vanilla sex might enjoy that just fine, but feel a hankering to take it further somehow.

For someone who is oriented towards providing service, there are precious few places in the world where that desire can be indulged to its fullest extent. We are conditioned to believe in egalitarianism in this society – so most people would feel weird to have a lover make the meals, do the cleaning up, mend the shirts, take out the garbage and so forth, and not share the load or take turns somehow. Or at least, we don’t have a framework within which that sort of behaviour is a good and fair and mutually pleasing thing. Instead it’s viewed as one partner taking the other for granted, or one being “pussy-whipped” (what an awful term) and the other “domineering,” or one being spoiled and the other being undervalued. We think the giver is making up for low self-esteem or trying too hard or making a fool of themselves. And we certainly don’t have any good things to say about the person on the receiving end – we might be jealous for a while, and then we start saying how badly s/he treats the other.

Service, in the context of kink, finds a place for those desires to go. For the person providing service, there are potentially enormous psychological rewards; they tend, from what I’ve seen, to take great pride in their skill, and rightly so. There are any number of models that can be followed for a person inclined to service – read Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace fiction series for a whole bunch of examples drawn from various cultures – and there are endless areas where service skills can be cultivated and improved, a sometimes lifelong process that can be imbued with enormous effort and dedication.

Sure, there are some basics; knowing how to help someone put their coat on and knowing how to serve a meal are great places to start. But from there, service varies as widely as the people engaging in it. I’ve received service in the form of bootblacking, massage, sexual favours, laundry, bus station pickup, travel planning, corset-lacing, academic research assistance, pedicures, bed-making, CD alphabetization, errand-running… and in forms much more nebulous than that. For example, one service-oriented person I love spent quite some time arguing with me and convincing me until I finally took a day off work… and boy, did I need it. Badgering as service? You bet. Another example: a certain lovely service-minded individual has shrewdly gone out of her way more than once to introduce me to people in her personal network that she felt I might benefit from knowing – and she’s been bang-on every time. Networking and matchmaking as service? Indeed!

Not only do forms of service vary, but style can vary greatly. Sometimes there is great satisfaction in extremely formalized service dynamics – the use of honorifics (Ma’am, Sir, whatever), specific sorts of postures or forms of etiquette or other generalized manners of making role distinctions clear. But sometimes it’s more practical or otherwise satisfying to keep things very casual. Certainly my partner A won’t present a glass of water to me by kneeling and offering it on upraised hands if we’re in a restaurant – that’s saved for home use, thank you – but at home we certainly do enjoy that kind of interaction. There’s an elegance and grace in formality that feels delicious to both of us. My partner E, on the other hand, would rather laugh in my face than use such formal manners, but on a hot day I can absolutely count on him to have a bottle of chilled water handy at all times and to toss it in my direction the instant he notices me break a sweat.

As to being on the receiving end of service… most people expect that’s a piece of cake. And from the outside, I can see why. But like anything in kink, it’s not that simple either. Of course it greatly depends on the dynamic that’s being engaged in and the people who are in it; I’m sure it’s different for everyone. Certainly my own experiences have varied quite a lot from one partner to the other and from one interaction to the next. But I can definitely outline my own process over the past few years of being blessed with the presence service-oriented individuals in my world – and I can tell you how it’s actually been one of the hardest of my personal kinks to figure out and accept.

All righty, a brief backgrounder. From a very young age, I’ve taken great pride in my independence. I’ve always taken care of myself and never relied on anyone to do things for me. I’ve been doing community leadership work since age 12; I left home at 18, put myself through university, started climbing my professional career ladder at 21, and started my own successful solo business at 27.

For me, dominance in BDSM is just a natural extension of my personality and approach to life. I don’t demand control from people and I don’t seek out people who are meek and submissive – in fact it’s kinda the reverse, I seek out people who are naturally strong themselves because those are the ones I can trust to deal with me as an equal and not just cave anytime I say what I think, which is often. And it means the world to me every time such a person gives up control to me, whether for a short time or an ongoing relationship. That, to me, feels like an incredible gift of trust and vulnerability, and it is very seductive. Not because it makes me better or bigger than them but because it means someone is willing to let go and trust me to do right by them. It’s intimate, and humbling, and beautiful, and it makes me want to strive to be the sort of person who deserves that degree of trust and stewards it well.

Now, that whole paradigm gets flipped on its head when someone wants to provide service to me. Precisely because all of a sudden they’re the one in control. Not in control of me, but in control of… I dunno… providing care? Meeting my needs or desires? Actually seeing that I have desires and places that benefit from care in the first place? Accepting service is a place where I’m really vulnerable. I’ve lived my entire life being in charge of my own well-being and not expecting anyone else to tend to it… and generally speaking nobody else has. (In no way am I saying I’ve been neglected or that nobody’s ever been nice to me – far from it. But being cared about is not the same as being cared for or being taken care of.)

As a result, it’s actually taken me several years of very hard emotional work to come to a place where I can accept service and feel good about it. When someone I love first started serving me I was terrified, and irrationally so… asking myself questions like, “If she does my laundry, won’t I forget how to do it myself?” or “If I start expecting her to do XYZ, then I’ll be screwed if she doesn’t when I’m counting on it!” or even thinking to myself that I didn’t deserve to be cared for that way, that it was decadent and shameful to let someone do that. Accepting service meant a loss of control for me, not the reverse.

I’ve gone through a lot of effort and numerous steps to get to a place in myself where service is OK, where I can accept it gracefully and feel good about it and not feel simply bewildered by it (“why would anyone want to learn exactly the way I like my socks folded?!”). Lots of conversations with service-oriented people; a few “aha!” moments in workshops and readings (a really good one with Midori about a year and a half ago, among others, which I blogged about here); and some soothing of that irrational place that has for so long felt like if I don’t take care of myself, nobody will. It would appear that some people actually will, and I’ve learned to let them and learned what sorts of responses constitute a fitting acceptance of that.

Now that’s the piece about how service is not submission – how it’s in fact a powerfully intimate and even toppish thing to do. The process of deliberately seeking out someone’s preferences and learning how to please them, whether they help out or not, is hardly a passive or accepting act; the act of surprising someone, of learning how they tick and figuring out what works and doing it, and doing it better each time… this is active and requires effort and dedication and drive.

But I have also learned that in some cases service is an expression of submission, and in those cases the appropriate response is more than just acceptance… it is expectation and standards and consequences and instruction and correction. I realize that this flips the paradigm once again, with the ball in a sense back in my court in terms of control; and yet it’s not quite that simple. First of all because I had to go through the emotional work to understand and accept service before the idea of shaping that service to my liking could even begin to enter my mind, rather than it feeling like some manifestation of plain old obnoxiousness, or taking it for granted that someone would cater to my whims. Second because there is overlap and bleed-through between the “service as control” and “service as submission” paradigms… they are not exactly opposites and it’s not always clear which paradigm is playing out when, or perhaps they simply hybridize sometimes with some people.

One thing’s for sure though: even and almost especially when a person is accepting service from a place of overt dominance, that’s not a passive process on the receiver’s end. It’s not just a question of sitting back and allowing someone to spoil you rotten. It requires a lot more work than that – thoroughly enjoyable work for those who are so inclined, but work nonetheless. Holding authority in a dynamic requires maintenance, mindfulness, respect, consciousness. You need to notice what’s going on if you’re going to appreciate it or tailor it. And someone who wants to be noticed and appreciated and who wants their work to be shaped and tailored will feel very dissatisfied if you only ever say, “Thanks, good job!” It’s like when I send a story to an editor and they don’t change a word – did they actually read it and like it, or do they not really care?

In a sense, shaping someone’s service is, in itself, a form of appreciation and acceptance (definitely a hybrid paradigm here!)… it’s a way for the dominant to say, “Yes, you are doing this well and you are pleasing me, so much so that I’m going to trust you with further information about how to do it more and better and deeper.” If accepting service makes me vulnerable, then shaping it allows that person deeper into my vulnerability; it’s an act of increased intimacy. And in turn, correction is a way for the dominant to say, “I know you can do better than that; you have shown me what you’re capable of and because I know you kick ass at this, I have high standards for you and I expect you to meet them, and I value you enough and care about you enough to point it out when you are falling short and tell you where and how I want to see you back at your best.”

So to get back to our original question: is service just a way for a person to get their house cleaned for free? Well, surely there are people out there who take advantage of a service-oriented person’s nature and use them for their time and effort and skill without holding up their end of the bargain… without being an appropriately graceful partner in the dance, regardless of whether you consider the receiver to be leading or following. It’s unfortunate but I don’t doubt it happens. But from there to assuming that’s what’s going on… not on your life. Service is a form of incredibly deep and complex interaction that taps deep into some of the most pervasive cravings in the human psyche, and if all you can see is a dust-free counter or a perfectly poured glass of wine, you’re missing the point entirely. A free housecleaning is only what’s happening on the surface. Underneath, there is so much more.

the size of sagacity
August 29, 2007

It has been an interesting day. I spent a chunk of the day working on stuff for Unholy Harvest, the big leatherdyke event I’m co-organizing with Jacqueline Saint-Urbain… it’s really coming together, and registrations are pouring in, and I think we’re both kind of in that stage where we realize that ohmygod it’s happening in FIVE WEEKS and hot damn we have a lot more to do! Not that I’m worried – it’s just that we’re definitely heading into crunch time.

One of the things I did today as part of that work was some brief googling to see if I could find leatherdyke groups to network with in the Prairies and the Maritimes – given that the only ones I know of are in Ontario, Quebec and BC. Results? Nada. Lordy, but the ladies fly under the radar… On the other hand, it would seem, so does everyone else in the flat and soggy provinces, if the number of bounced e-mails and defunct websites I found is any indication. Yeesh.

However, I did find a fully active and up-to-date site for a pansexual group called Sagacity, which meets in… you guessed it… Victoria, BC. Where I happen to be at this exact moment. And they meet… you guessed it… on Tuesday nights. (Yes, every week.) And so tonight, I dragged my (very open-minded) uncle to a little restaurant tucked away in a quiet corner of suburban Victoria to meet myself some island kinksters.

And sweet jeezis, there are a lot of them! I mean… wow. I’m kinda blown away. Apparently tonight was a small gathering – y’know, a mere 30 or 40 people. They often hit 75 or more, and that’s at a weekly meeting. They’ve got 2,000 people on their mailing list from all over the island and even over the US border, and their events are huge. This, in Victoria, population 300K! And while they certainly fit the general “pansexual” demographic – i.e. mostly straight – I spotted dykes, gay guys and transfolks in the room. Wow wow wow. That’s all I can say. I’m impressed.

Plus, they were friendly. A number of them didn’t quite know what to do with the whole uncle/niece thing – which is understandable, I suppose. I don’t know too many uncles and nieces who hang out together for extended periods of time in the first place, let alone talk about alternative sexuality together, let alone make forays into the BDSM community together on a Tuesday night. I think some of them thought we were kidding, or that we were partners with some weird age-play dynamic goin’ on, but we explained ourselves pretty well and they mostly seemed convinced. Regardless, they were a super-nice bunch, and I may even meet up with a few of their ladies later this week to be all lesbianish together or somethin’. Over coffee that is. Should be fun!

Anyway, I was intending to write either another Kleinplatz article review or a post about service and submission – or both – but I’m bushed. So I’m saving my drafts and I’ll write you something entertaining in the morning.

the intricacies of sm
August 28, 2007

Not too long ago, I finished reading the book Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, edited by Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser. It’s basically a collection of recent academic work related to BDSM in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, law and cultural studies. Trick is, it’s all work that comes from a kink-positive perspective – or at least, not from a kink-negative one. In other words, the studies don’t assume some sort of mental imbalance or criminal activity.

Often when I write a review here, it’s a general comment on a book as a whole. But in this particular case, almost every article that was included in the book is worth a response on its own. Generally speaking they’re good pieces of work; but in many cases I have critiques or thoughts or questions about that work, or the assumptions behind it, and it varies rather widely from article to article. So I’m pretty much going to tackle each one here. Maybe two at a time, sometimes. I will attempt to keep things at least somewhat entertaining for you while I’m at it, and I’ll probably spread it over a couple of weeks at least, interspersed with other stuff… I am on a Wet Coast adventure, after all, and I do have a few sexuality-related stops on the horizon.

In Kleinplatz and Moser’s introduction, they reference a study that Moser co-authored with Weinberg and William about 20 years ago, in which they put forward the idea that SM was made up of five components generally found together. They are:

“1. The appearance of dominance and submission; the appearance of rule by one partner over the other.

“2. Role playing.

“3. Consensuality, that is, voluntary agreement to enter into the interaction.

“4. Mutual definition, i.e. a shared understanding that the activities constitute SM or some similar term.

“5. A sexual context, though the concept that SM is always sexual is not shared by all participants.”

Interesting. I have to say I very much appreciate #5 – I’ve had many many disagreements over many many years with many many people who think that SM is always about sex, when in truth I’ve experienced profoundly moving D/s and many wonderful SM scenes that are so un-sexual (and un-erotic and un-romantic and, and, and…) that it’s ludicrous to think otherwise. Not to mention that for me, on the occasions that I bottom in an SM scene, it’s rarely about sex… in fact getting sexual kind of distracts me from enjoying the pain. Like, “Can you stop petting me and just HIT ME ALREADY??” (Yes, I’m rather particular as an SM bottom, when I do bottom.)

Anyway, I think this list of five items has its problems. Thing is, anytime you try to define BDSM, you will have problems. The acronym itself is a weird little exercise in smushing together a bunch of things in pairs that don’t necessarily fit… The triple acronym, for those not in the know, works thusly: BD stands for bondage and discipline. DS stands for dominance and submission. SM stands for sadism and masochism. Fine and good, right?

Except not so much. Like for example, why do bondage and discipline go together? I know plenty of people who do bondage because they like the sense of freedom they get through restriction… or because they like the pretty rope patterns… or because they like the heightened sensation that comes from being wrapped in rope and having the blood flow to certain areas increased as a result. Psychological freedom, aesthetic pleasure and physical sensitivity are hardly about “discipline.” And I know plenty of people who do discipline-oriented play that’s got nothing at all to do with bondage, and for whom bondage would just get in the way.

And if you’re going to put all this stuff into an acronym, why not include something in there about fetishism? I mean, for tons of people, their BDSM sexual orientation includes a list of fetishistic proclivities… leather, stockings, boots, gloves, toolboxes, corduroy, whatever. And this dates back forever – one of the most glaring examples being Leopold von Sacher-Masoch himself, whose novel Venus in Furs pretty much says it all. In other words, the original masochist himself had a major fur fetish. So why is this not included in our beloved acronym?

I’m really not advocating for an acronym switch here; lord knows, the queer one just keeps getting longer, which – while I’m all for being inclusive – often only serves to further confuse a lot of people, including the ones who themselves are adding to the alphabet soup. And while I do take issue with the idea that, for example, “role play” is considered one of the quasi-essential pieces of SM when I know tons of people who don’t do role play at all, and the idea that there is an “appearance” of rule by one person over another when I know people in very real 24/7 dynamics in which the “appearance” may in fact be quite discreet but the reality is pretty darned concrete… and while I also take issue with the fact that actual pain and/or intense sensation are completely left off a list of criteria that’s supposed to describe sadism and masochism (hello?!)… I don’t think the general idea of the five-point list is wrong per se. 

My point is simply that anytime you try to group together an incredibly diverse set of human behaviours into one explanation with one set of common characteristics, there is simply no way it’ll fit. And while this is true in all sorts of cases, sexuality-related or otherwise, it’s particularly glaring when you try to put that sort of label on a bunch of horny, politically aware and articulate misfits who take great pride in being different from the norm.

In any case, I don’t mean to harp on this one small piece of the intro text. There are other interesting bits too. Particularly this one:

“We have estimated privately that approximately 10% of the general population is involved in SM, but there are no studies on which to base that figure. Based on our experiences in conference hallways (where the real exchange of knowledge and learning in academia often transpires), an even greater proportion of sexologists, sex educators, sex researchers, and sex therapists are so involved. Although sexologists are usually quite nonchalant about their personal sexual behavior, those who have confided in us have done so in hushed tones and have requested our undying pledges of discretion. We have even run across partners who each request our secrecy, but cannot bring themselves to tell one another. Simple self-disclosures are not typically sufficient to solve the couple’s problem; such are the intricacies of SM. In some instances, both partners are dominant or submissive, or maybe one yearns for the physical aspects of SM while the other for the psychological aspects, or maybe their familiarity destroys the fantasy, etc.”

What a rich paragraph. Finally, the 10% estimate shows up in print somewhere citable, if not supported by research, at least supported by researchers. And finally we have some insider knowledge to say that people who are academically interested in sex tend to explore the outer reaches of it in their personal lives too (or at least think about it a lot) – not that this comes as a surprise to me, but it’s kinda good to know where the sexykinkygeeky cruising grounds are an’ all. Heh.

What’s most interesting about that little tidbit, though, is that it shows the extent to which people – even people who work in the field of sexuality and are generally comfortable with their own sexual behaviour – are still victim to the idea of kink as taboo, as scary, as that thing you’re not supposed to do or talk about. Wow. If any population were likely to be less vulnerable to those messages, you’d think it’d be the folks that research and critique this stuff for a living… but apparently not.

Again, though, that’s not necessarily a huge surprise. Perhaps such people are the ones best placed to understand the risks of coming out as kinky, and keep their perversions tightly under wraps as a direct result. Kleinplatz and Moser go on to write:

“… as is evident in this volume, SM participants lose custody of children, security clearances, inheritances, jobs, are disowned, assaulted, and generally are victims of discrimination and persecution/prosecutions. Much of the discrimination is surprisingly overt.”

And later:

“These stories demonstrate that even among other sexual minorities, sex researchers, and sexual rights activists, SM still elicits a panoply of negative feelings. Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism are still listed as diagnoses in the DSM, despite the absence of studies proving that SM practitioners even fit the criteria for definition of a mental disorder.”

Basically, SM is still controversial. I happen to live in a happy little bubble of open-minded folks in an open-minded community in an open-minded city (and so on: province, country…) so it doesn’t often jump out at me, but when I read stuff like this – and other texts in the same book – I can’t help but remember just how far we still have to go in changing the world’s minds about this thing that we do.

So there’s my take on the intro piece. Aren’t you just thrilled to know there are 15 more articles for me to rant about? Wheee! This will be fun indeed.

radical ecstasy requires radical research
August 26, 2007

And the travelling continues. Here I am in Victoria, BC, hanging out with my super-cool uncle. Victoria is the land of lush vegetation, and my dear unc lives right on the edge of a massive forest and lake, so this afternoon we spent an hour hiking in the, um, “backyard,” and we’ve got plans to do all sorts of stuff that will get us both out in nature – doubtless this will be good for me as I’ve spent the last two weeks either in a car for many hours at a stretch, or holed up in an office of one sort or another.

I wasn’t expecting this to be a particularly sexy leg of my journeys, but there seems to be an interesting new theme emerging… on the plane on the way here, I started reading Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s book Radical Ecstasy, about the ways in which BDSM can be a path to ecstasy much the way tantra and certain spiritual practices can – whirling dervishes, Native flesh-hook piercers, Medieval flagellants and so forth. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and already I can say that it’s typical Easton and Hardy work – they write competently, they make good points, they cover a topic in a pretty logical way, and yet I always end up feeling like I’ve gotten the grade-5 version of a book rather than the thick and detailed treatise my brain craves. Thing is, in many cases they’re the only folks out there actually writing about certain topics, so my shelf is full of their stuff and it’s often the reference in the field even when it’s actually pretty mundane. Well, from an intellectual point of view – certainly it’s rare that I strongly disagree or take issue with the points they make. I just want depth and they give overview.

Anyway, so here I was on the plane reading about energy work and chakras and radical ecstasy, and for all that it was kinda ho-hum in terms of a reading experience, it was nonetheless lining up really strongly with a lot of what I’ve experienced in my own BDSM play and sexual connection in the last three or four years. I’m really not the woo-woo type, and yet I’ve experienced things that I cannot categorize as anything other than spiritual – but a spirituality attained through the body, not by trying to pretend the body doesn’t exist or trying to leave it behind. Deep connection with something greater than just me and the person I’m playing with, that’s reached by knowing and exploring and touching and torturing and pleasuring bodies, not by floating off into some sort of weird holy space in our heads while hymns play in the background. You know. Down and dirty divinity. My kind o’ worship, baby.

But while I’ve been doing yoga forever and I get the basic concepts of things like energy work and chakras and returning to your breath, I think that reading a book about those very basics (albeit in a BDSM context) served to really show me that I’m interested in more than just the basics. That if I want to have language to describe these experiences, or ways of reaching out to welcome them instead of just being surprised and happy in the moments when they arrive, or ways of fine-tuning what I do with them while they’re happening instead of working with them as well as I can in the moment, I might have to do what a geek does best: research.

And then I showed up in Victoria, and spent the day with my unc, and whaddaya know… he knows tons of stuff about this! He’s a trauma counsellor with a dozen different certifications in all kinds of alternative therapies and ways of reaching into people and helping them heal, and so gee, no big surprise that he might have a few books lying around about such topics as tantra and energy healing and stuff. I’ve already got two on my reading pile, and I haven’t finished going through his collection by a long shot.

I totally promise I’m not going to turn into an annoyingly benevolent-faced Buddha with a permagrin and a third eye popping out of my forehead. I’m also not going to become a Krishna or dive wholeheartedly into new-agey crystal work and any of that. I’m just generally disinclined to really buy into anything like this wholesale. But I have a long history of reading about established religions and spiritual approaches, and in many cases quizzing their practitioners and visiting places of worship and participating in rituals when invited, without ever having adopted one as my own. Meh. Not interested. I’d rather glean interesting perspectives and knowledge from a variety of sources, pick the bits that work for me, and weave them together with a lot of common sense and personal experience into my own take on things.

So I think perhaps it’s time to engage in a similar process with the literature and experiential learning that are available out there on the topics of spiritual ecstasy and energy work that can be applied to bodily experience and connection.

I get the feeling I may have to sift through a lot of stuff before finding the bits that work for me. So often, in matters spiritual, the people who believe something really really REALLY want you to believe it too, so they go at it with a marketing approach rather than a genuinely educational one. Well, okay, “believe or you will go to hell” is perhaps a rather aggressive marketing strategy, but we’re all familiar with that one, and that’s not really what I mean. What I mean is that writings on topics religious and spiritual often have the tone of “We have this figured out, we’re enlightened / saved / chosen / insert your metaphor for “special” here, and if you want to be special too, here’s how.” And it’s not just limited to the Big Three of organized religion… I’m no less attracted to Wicca or Buddhism or other such systems precisely because they’re systems of belief or thought, even if their tenets are more free-form or more feminist-friendly or less guilt-and-shame-based or whatever. And no, that’s not for lack of experience with them. In fact I’ve gotten an enormous amount from of my contacts with and reading about any number of religious and spiritual traditions – from my childhood time in the Christian church to my teenage cover-to-cover reading of the Satanic Bible to my participation in a few Native rituals to readings and long conversations about Judaism with Judaic scholars to participation in Buddhist enshrinement ceremony to a year of practicing Pagan High Day rites. I just haven’t signed up as a member to any of them. I’m basically a classic GDI (BDSM shorthand for God Damned Independent, though taken slightly out of context here) and likely to stay that way – frustratingly so, for many people I’ve met.

But I want to glean what I can now as much as I always have. If reading a few books about chakras and tantra will help me get a stronger understanding of how it is that sometimes when I put a collar around someone’s neck I feel like I’m holding their wide-open heart in my hands, or how it is that my body can find its way to orgasm without even being touched when the right energy is raised, or how at times when I’m topping someone in a scene we get so deeply connected that I feel everything I’m doing to them reverberate through my own body, or how I can slip needles under someone’s skin and find that we’re both floating in a place where everyone else in the room fades away so completely that I’m surprised to see them there when we get back… and if that understanding leads me into my own ideas about how best to manage that energy and steward it well and gain maximum enjoyment in it for all concerned… well, I guess that’s a sex geek mission as much as any other.

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