Archive for October, 2008

the quiz of kink and the question of queer*
October 30, 2008

I’d like to start of with two announcements for you today, both of them regarding events that will be taking place next weekend. The first is NOCK, or Northern Ontario Conference of Kink, which takes place on November 7 in Sudbury. And from November 7-9 in Peterborough, Ontario, there’s a conference called Bodies of Dissent: Trans Access at the Trent Women’s Centre. I’ve posted the info for each one below the body of this post. Enjoy!

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*I originally posted this on September 18, 2006. Unfortunately the quiz in question is no longer available online unless you create an account, but the link is here if you want to give it a shot.

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So there’s this “how kinky are you” quiz that’s been circulating online, and I finally decided to take it. I kinda grew out of quizzes in my early teens when I realized that most of them were completely inane (“Are you a good friend? Are you fun in bed?” etc., etc.), and even the good ones rarely told me anything surprising about myself. But this one seems to keep popping up, and I figured it might be fun to regress to adolescence and see how my personal kink gets reflected back to me through someone else’s arbitrary lens.

Okay, straight to the punch line: with a maximum score of 1,000, I landed at 751 points, which apparently rates me as being “you live and breath kinky!” – a rating which seems relatively accurate aside from the glaring spelling error.

(Quick aside: do you folks find it irritating that I’m constantly carping on grammar and spelling in what’s supposed to be a sex blog? I hope not… I don’t know if I can help it. Maybe I should take a “how obnoxious an editor are you” test and see how likely it is that I’m pissing people off. For the moment I’ll just excuse my bad behaviour by pointing at the “geek” part of “sex geek.”)

So apparently I’m pretty darn kinky. 75% or so. (Is the other quarter vanilla? If so, which quarter is it?) Like I said… these tests rarely surprise me.

What did surprise me was some of the reasons why I make that score. Three questions in particular that made me raise an eyebrow: 1) Have you ever been attracted to someone of the same sex? 2) Have you ever had sex with someone of the same sex? and 3) Would you let someone of the same sex go down on you if you didn’t have to touch them or return the favor? (American spelling this time! Okay, okay, ball-gagging the internal editor now…)

How fascinating that you effectively get kink points for being bisexual or gay. Gee, can you tell it was a heterosexual who wrote the test? I mean, “let someone” of the same sex go down on you, if you didn’t “have to” touch them? Where’s the frickin’ fun in that? Why would you bother gettin’ down with someone if you had to mentally block out their gender in order to enjoy it? That’s a pretty big part of someone to try to ignore while they’ve got their tongue in your crotch! How dehumanizing. I almost answered no as a matter of principle – if someone’s gonna go down on me, you better believe I’m going to touch them at some point.

I guess when you’re nominally straight, the idea of same-sex sexual activity might seem transgressive in some way, and thus kinky. It’s like that titillating no-man’s-land where you might venture if you had that one extra drink, if your honey was out of town, if nobody was likely to find out, if you know you’re straight so a little dabbling doesn’t mean anything, if you could pass it off as one of those things you just have to try once… or whatever other excuse you can come up with to happily maintain your firm stance as a Confirmed Yet Laudably Open-Minded Heterosexual.

Really, it’s kind of insulting. I mean, if some chickie wants to muff-dive on a lark because “girls have such soft skin” and anyway her boyfriend will get all excited about the idea, or some dude decides that if he gets to blow his load down someone’s throat it’s not that much of a big deal if said throat happens to have an Adam’s apple and a five o’clock shadow on it – well, who am I to say it’s wrong? You go, girl. Get all experimental. Have a blast. I may not be interested in being the subject of that sort of experiment for the entertainment of straight people, but I don’t condemn it. I just wish people didn’t get so self-congratulatory about it. I mean, so what. You made out with someone of the same sex. People have been doing it for centuries. It doesn’t make you extra-spicy-exciting. It makes you human.

I mean think of the logic of the thing. Picture it: You’re a girl. You grow up not being super interested in boys, except maybe to play street hockey with. You never really understand the dating thing all your friends in high school seem to be so excited about. You have a couple of raging crushes on the popular girls, but whatever, doesn’t everybody? Eventually you come across a girl who decides you’re cute, and that makes you blush and stammer, and you end up kissing one day after you run into each other at the Dairy Queen, and all of a sudden the world comes into sharp focus. You’re a lesbian! So you stock up on your Ani DiFranco records, start reading Sarah Waters, cut your hair short, go to college, join the campus queer group, pierce your nose, get a girlfriend, break up, get another (or twelve), figure out how where the G-spot is located, graduate, get a job at a women’s centre, start doing the Pride circuit every summer, meet a hottie, do the U-Haul thing, buy a house and a car, get a cat and live with them happily ever after.

How is any of that kinky? With a few allowances for cultural specificity (and yes, I know that not every dyke follows the exact same path), that’s just a pretty typical vanilla life from what I can tell. It happens to include a deviation from the statistical norm in terms of the gender of sexual object choice, but that’s hardly in and of itself a major plunge into the uncharted waters of sexual adventure.

Or, in short: straight guys eat pussy. Why is it kinky if a girl does the same? (Gawd, I know, it’s bizarre for me of all people to be leaping to the defence of vanilla people.)

First of all it’s a question of accuracy. Speaking as a Confirmed Kinky Bisexual, I ask you to please believe me when I say that sex between women is not always kinky. It’s not extra-exciting just because it’s with a girl. (Or if it is, maybe you should reconsider whether you’re actually attracted to men, or at least reconsider the lover(s) you’re with.) For me, at least, the mere fact of having a naked girl in my bed (as opposed to a naked guy) does not by any stretch guarantee that we’ll get up to anything outside the realm of vanilla. And you know, that’s OK with me! Vanilla sex can be lots of fun. In my opinion kissing is one of the greatest pastimes known to humankind, cuddling rocks, and – well, I like orgasms, and I’m not generally too picky about how I get there. One doesn’t always require a bucket of lube, a scalpel and two pairs of restraints to make a fun evening.

Second, it’s about stereotypes and objectification. Most queers I know do not see themselves as exotic creatures whose bedroom practices should be held up as awe-inspiring examples of extreme sexual experimentation. Really, most of us just want to get laid like anyone else, and it’s just a question of using the body parts at hand to make that happen. No big mystery. “Oooh, what do lesbians do in bed?” Uh, finger-fuck and eat each other out. Same thing straight people do, minus the cock. What did you think happened? They grew three extra hands and masturbated each others’ nasal passages?

To hold up same-sex sexual behaviour as inherently erotically transgressive is to exoticize people who never asked to be made into a contorted projection of other folks’ repression. It makes queers into “those strange people over there who do those disgusting things… that I might want to try, but only if I can run back to my safe little acceptable life once I’m done.” It creates a division where there isn’t one. To borrow some academic language for a sec, it creates an Other (“different”) who, in the age-old tradition of binary power dynamics, is opposed to the Subject (“normal”) and comes out on the political short end of the stick. It’s hard to be exotic and still be respected; it’s hard to be fetishized and still be seen as human. In short, the equation is not only inaccurate, it’s disrespectful.

Third – and here’s where I stop championing vanilla sex and get back to my roots as a pervert – the equation of same-sex sex with kink confuses the definition what is truly kinky. Certainly, there’s no arbitrary definition out there as to what counts as kinky in the first place – it’s not like I can pull out my handy board-approved list and point to all the activities that made the cut. But I’d say a generally agreed-upon broad definition would include sexual (and sometimes non-sexual) activities that involve consensual power exchange, “extreme” physical sensations (i.e. pain or other unusual types of sensual stimulation), and/or the use of fetish objects (i.e. traditionally non-sexualized body parts or items). In other words, kink is about transgression – not necessarily enormous transgression, but transgression nonetheless. And tons of same-sex couples out there don’t go near any of those things, don’t see themselves as transgressive or kinky, and would rightfully resent being labelled as something they aren’t. (Please note I’m not a fan of queers who spend a lot of time distancing themselves from leatherfolk to avoid being politically “tarnished.” But I do understand the desire to be seen for what you are, and not to have people assume you are something you’re not. And I believe there are ways to make the distinction without basing it on misunderstanding and hostility.)

Of course this is definition has very blurry edges, and there are lots of grey areas; for example, I’m personally quite sure that a whole lot of people who don’t really think of themselves as kinky still play at the edges of it (by the above definition) with no qualms. Blindfolds, light bondage, biting and scratching, spanking, light power play during sex, and so forth – these activities won’t automatically send anyone tumbling over the edge and into the chasm of St. Andrew’s crosses and single-tail whips, but in my books they’re still at least a step or two over the vanilla line.

But the point is, any people of any gender combination can play in the realm of kink – whether it’s two men, a guy and a girl, or a pair of women. Kink is a great equalizer. One of the things I like most about the kink world is that if I’m in a public dungeon, it can be filled with people of every conceivable orientation and the common point is our desire to transgress the boundaries of “normal” pleasure and seek out our satisfaction on the edges. Which is not the case when I go to a lesbian bar. The common factor in a dyke bar is gender preference, nothing else. In that setting, I can kiss a girl and nobody will blink, but if I want to string someone up and paddle their ass until it’s purple, you better believe it’s not going to happen in that same lesbian bar – for that I need to find a dungeon. On the other hand, I can bring a lesbian to the dungeon and kiss her, and nobody will blink there either – a kiss between people of any genders would be considered really quite banal compared to what Bob and Joan are doing to Ted in the corner over there with the plastic wrap and the taser gun.

Apart from the problematic same-sex questions, the rest of the kink test was all right, though honestly it was a bit vanilla. I’m sure I lost points for not liking to videotape my intimate activities and not being into “consensual bestiality” (I’d love to know how they define “consent” here!), but they didn’t ask me if I like fisting or needle play or caning or foot worship or strap-on sex (does strap-on sex count as kinky? hmmm, another debate!) so I’m not sure the 751 is truly representative. If they’d only asked the right questions, I might have qualified for the 901-1,000 point slot and merited the honour of being in “Super Freak Alert!!” range. Ah well. I guess I’ll take my 751 and be happy with that. I guess there’s only so much you can expect a quiz to tell you, after all.

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Alternative sexuality conference to be held November 7th-9th, 2008, 4 hours north of Toronto, in The City of Greater Sudbury, ON.
NOCKTM is a three-day educational and social conference with the goal of educating people in the safe and responsible practice of bondage, percussive play, submission, and other alternative sexual practices.
NOCKTM has programming geared for people at all levels of experience, including those who are just curious. People of all genders and sexual orientations are welcome. Scheduled events include workshops, a social area, a vendor’s marketplace, and a play party for exploring in a safe environment. There will also be hands on experiences for those who wish.
The cost of the event is $50 ($65 after October 15th), which includes a buffet supper. Advance registration is required, as tickets will not be sold at the door. Tickets are available now, and can be purchased online at http://www.nock.ca, over the phone by credit card or in person at various locations listed on the web site.
NOCKTM is a NO ALCOHOL event.  participants must be over 18 yrs of age. Government-issued ID will be checked at the door. This is an accessible venue.
NOCKTM is sponsored by the SNO Bears (Sudbury & Northern Ontario Bears), the Plaza Hall Theatre, the Rock City Rollers and Between Us Lovers Boutique.
NOCKTM will be making a donation to the Healthy Sexuality Outreach Program through the Access Aids Committee of Sudbury.
Website: http://www.nock.ca
Email: info.nock@gmail.com
Facebook: Nock Sudbury

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The Trans Conference is being put together by Peterborough’s Trans Events Committee.

Bodies of Dissent is focused on decolonizing ourselves from the racialization and gender norms present in our society, as well as from institutional practices of psychiatry and prison. We are calling for a rebuilding of ‘trans access’.

The conference features workshops, presentations, talks, discussions, film screenings, performances and dancing. Topics include disability, race, barriers to access, youth, mental health, psychiatry, prison system, and more.

We would appreciate it if you could circulate the poster as well as registration form and program via, email, website or printing the poster and making it available at your organization.

projects, structure and protocol: three mechanisms for 24/7 d/s
October 28, 2008

And here’s your next instalment in the “Joys of 24/7 Living” series. Okay, so I’m not writing a series, but I’m starting to think maybe I should! Today’s thoughts are about projects, structure and protocol.

I’ve been musing about these ideas for several weeks now. Y’know, it’s kind of funny how in some ways, D/s or M/s relationships are sort of like regular relationships on steroids—added intensity and added consciousness. I’m not trying to do that “our relationships are sooo much more exciting than your paltry vanilla relationships” thing that so many kinksters like to do; I’m just pointing out that the degree of deliberate, explicit and concerted effort that I put into my D/s relationships is way beyond anything else I’ve ever experienced in a non-D/s context. It’s actually an enormous amount of work. The payoff happens to be spectacular and it is to my taste—I wouldn’t be willing to invest this amount of myself if it weren’t, and I can totally see how if the payoff wasn’t your thing, this type of relationship would hold no real allure.

I guess I’m just explaining this because it feels like I spend a lot of time writing about the intricacies of these relationships in a way that’s reflective of my reality but that might appear mildly obsessive. I suppose it is. Healthy obsessive, mind you, but yeah, it takes up a lot of space in my head. I’m an intense person, and I connect with other intense people, and that makes for intense relationships; that translates, for me, into a rather intense degree of reflection on the way those relationships can be structured and maintained so as to function optimally. Ongoing D/s ain’t for everyone, and it ain’t for me unless the people I’m doing it with are an absolutely excellent match (and, like me, are inclined towards D/s). I might liken it to the intense degree of focus and effort that some people put into their hobbies. For some folks, the obsession is painting, or dance, or antique typesetting, or soccer. For me, it’s dominant/submissive dynamics and human sexuality.

So. Insert standard disclaimer here: all of what follows presumes a fully consensual, desired, mutually agreed-upon and discussed relationship framework, and further, presumes that the people doing it are really enjoying themselves in this framework and feel utterly free to state at any time if they are beginning to feel otherwise. If you want to plug today’s post into the appropriate context, feel free to read my recent post about control and ownership if you haven’t already.

Right-o. So my job, as a dominant in two 24/7 relationships, is to govern with my bois’ well-being and fulfillment in mind while enjoying the fuck out of myself; their job, as the submissives, is to be receptive and obedient to that governance, and to fully engage in the process by means of honest communication, feedback, suggestion, questions as needed, and so forth. While enjoying the fuck out of themselves, of course. In case it’s not abundantly clear, I’m not of the mindset that submissives can’t ask questions or challenge my decisions. In the framework of these relationships, it’s understood that I have the final say, and that all discussion must be conducted with respect and in a spirit of trust and goodwill, but that doesn’t mean there’s no possibility for discussion.

I realize it doesn’t work this way for everyone, but for me and for many others, 24/7 D/s—as in, ongoing D/s that extends well beyond the bounds of the sexual—might be seen as two or more people coming together to indulge in a fetish for constant improvement. Note that I said “two or more,” and not “a submissive.” The question of constant improvement applies to the dominant, too—or at least, if the dominant wants to retain any credibility with the submissive, they better be doing something worthwhile that’s congruent with the values they impress upon the submissive, not just sitting around saying “do as I say, not as I do.” This might mean improvement, or it might mean maintenance. Either way the principle remains the same. It’s amazing to note the degree to which managing someone else’s well-being can inspire one to manage one’s own well-being better!

Of course this greatly depends on the nature of the dynamic. If a dominant takes up ownership of or responsibility for various elements of a submissive’s life—say, sexuality, spirituality, intellectual pursuits and appearance—but largely leaves the submissive’s health, fitness and finances up to them, then perhaps the question of maintaining well-being is not so directly important to the dynamic. But in that case, the dominant would probably still lose credibility if he or she were not a sexual explorer in his or her own right, did not have a spiritual practice, didn’t pursue his or her own intellectual projects, and couldn’t be bothered taking care of his or her appearance. It’s difficult to take up the management of someone else’s life if you can’t manage your own, or at the very least, the areas of your own life that match up with the areas of your submissive’s in which you hope to exert an influence.

In the context of an ongoing D/s or M/s relationship, or at least, within my own, I’ve observed that there are three different mechanisms for governing the submissive person’s behaviour while indulging in the constant-improvement / ongoing-maintenance fetish. Those three mechanisms are projects, structure and protocol. I’ve noticed that when one of those things is lacking, the relationship tends to feel out of whack, slightly off, not quite right. The “bad” news is that it takes a fairly constant degree of vigilance to keep everything in balance. The good news is that things are fairly easy to fix if you pay attention to them, or at least they have been for me. The following is my attempt to break down those three mechanisms and explain them.

Projects

Projects are finite endeavours with a defined goal in mind. Much like in the corporate world (don’t laugh!), projects should be created and managed according to SMART criteria: they should be Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-bound. Here are some questions to ask for a project you might want to take on…

  • Specific: Is it specific? Can you define its goals? Can you define the precise methods and steps you’ll use to reach them?
  • Measurable: Is your project measurable? Is there a concrete way for you to know whether or not you’ve achieved your goals? Is there a concrete time frame in which that measurement will take place? What are the consequences if the results don’t measure up to your expectations?
  • Action-oriented: Can you break down your project into actions and make a list of those actions such that, if followed, the goal is sure (barring major disaster) to be attained?
  • Realistic: Do you have the resources you need (advice, information, cash, time, energy, health, knowledge…) available to you? If not, can you find them? Are you able to prioritize your project such that you actually meet your deadlines?
  • Time-bound: Have you a set deadline by which your project should be finished? Can you plan your work back from that deadline and integrate the project’s steps into your life so that you meet that deadline?

For example, a project I plan to assign to Boi M when he hits a lull in his work is to have him take a ten-week Thai cooking class to learn how to make at least four new dishes that are pleasing to me. This project is…

  • Specific: He will research available classes, register for a class, take the class, learn how to make a number of new dishes, and then together we’ll figure out which ones please me, with the goal being to find four that are to my liking.
  • Measurable: Once he’s done, he’ll actually have the skills and knowledge to make those four dishes and can then do so at my request. I will ask for one dish on our weekly date night for the following two or three months to select the four I like.
  • Action-oriented: The project can be broken down into concrete steps such as researching the available local classes, registration, acquisition of supplies, transportation to the class, attendance at the class, and so forth.
  • Realistic: The reason I’m not asking him to do this right now is that his schedule’s so darn packed there’s no way he could fit it in without adding considerable stress; he’s also working on a couple of other projects for me already. One must account for the limitations of real life (no matter how much one likes yummy Thai food). So it’ll wait for a time when it can realistically be worked into his life. We’ll also need to select a class that we can afford, that’s within easy travelling distance, and so forth.
  • Time-bound: The class will have a distinct start and end date, followed by a set number of once-weekly meals. Ta-daaa!

Projects are about the future. If projects are lacking, the relationship has no forward motion, no growth. The submissive may begin to feel neglected, as though there is nothing new for them to learn, no fresh ways to serve, no tangible improvement, no sense of significant accomplishment. They might also begin to feel undervalued or unappreciated—as though the dominant didn’t really feel it worth bothering to shape or direct them into new areas of development. Dominant/submissive dynamics are all about development; stagnation will kill a D/s relationship much like it will kill any other sort of relationship, only potentially faster and more painfully. D/s is not just about spending time together and enjoying one another’s company. It’s about a very particular form of relating that’s powerful, intense and unusual. It’s full of energy that needs to be channeled somewhere for the benefit of both the submissive and the dominant and in many (though not all) cases, also for that of the family, tribe, community or world at large.

If we use the metaphor of a painting, “projects” are like the finishing touches, the depth and texture, the flourishes that turn a picture on a canvas into a true work of art. If we took the metaphor of dance, projects would be the study of refined technique and the perfecting of specialized moves—or perhaps, the careful and repetitive practice of a move that’s particularly challenging until it can be done with ease. Projects are the above-and-beyond, the quest for excellence rather than simply existence.

Some projects may transition into long-term, ongoing work, or the results of a project may then need to be maintained, in which case a project may morph into an element of the next mechanism: structure. For example, I started Boi L out with a project to increase her ability to stay in a kneeling position without pain or complaint when necessary in my presence. I assigned her 10 minutes each day of kneeling on a hard floor to get her legs accustomed to the position, and required her to report to me and let me know when pain or discomfort set in. She started at about 7 minutes of comfort before her feet would fall asleep or her knees begin to ache. We’ve gradually scaled this up, and her flexibility and stamina has increased to the point where she can hold the position for nearly 15 minutes before feeling any discomfort. The original goal—to have her stamina improve so that she would remain pain-free during her everyday instances of kneeling for me—has been achieved, but the routine has remained part of her everyday. It has become a) an opportunity to maintain her increased stamina on an ongoing basis, and b) a moment of time each day where she experiences and expresses her submission to me regardless of how far apart we are, geographically speaking. These are very different from the original goal of the project, which was purely practical in nature.

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Structure

Structure is a set of daily, weekly or otherwise ongoing and regular routines designed to reinforce the D/s dynamic by creating and maintaining a certain focus or headspace, to provide regular opportunity for concrete expectation and the simple mutual pleasure of its fulfilment, and (in some cases) to get everyday tasks accomplished to the dominant’s satisfaction. Structure can include elements of the basic maintenance of the submissive’s health and well-being; by holding the submissive to those sorts of structure-based requirements, the dominant indicates his or her care for the submissive and shows expectation for the submissive’s self-care. My bois and I see this sort of thing as one element of “protecting the property,” a handy phrase we found in the book Slavecraft by a grateful slave and Guy Baldwin. Structure can also serve as a barometer for the relationship: if regular, simple expectations are not being met on the part of the submissive, something’s probably going wrong and needs to be checked on. Same goes for if the dominant is finding it difficult to enforce structure. These “failures” may indicate exhaustion, underlying relationship tension, miscommunication about expectations, or any number of other challenges that need to be dealt with via honest communication and sincere efforts toward repair.

For example, every night I lay out clothing for Boi M to dress in the next morning so that I have the pleasure of picking his clothes; the process is definitely enjoyable to me, especially since he’s such a hottie when wearing them, and he has the pleasure of wearing something that reinforces my ownership of him and leaves my mark on him all day long. For his part, every morning he lays out my breakfast dishes, and each time we first greet at home in the evenings he brings me his collar. He’s also in charge of a number of regular domestic tasks, such as doing groceries (ensuring that my preferred staples never run out), taking out the garbage, making at least one healthful dinnertime meal per week for us to share, folding and putting away my clothing, and so forth. I also require that he devote a certain amount of time each week to specific self-care activities, and with some well-chosen exceptions (heh heh) I enforce a bedtime that ensures he’ll get enough sleep in order to function well at his day job, for which he gets up at an ungodly hour of the morning.

For Boi L, who doesn’t live in the same city as me, I have a fairly extensive list of daily structure elements in place, and I switch them up depending on our respective contexts. For example, she does a full cardiovascular and muscular workout every day (minus regular breaks for recovery), flosses her teeth before bed each night, and texts me goodnight every night. In addition, she sends me a weekly report every Tuesday that provides me with updated information on a set list of her activities; currently, the report includes information on her state of health, her progress on and responses to the current reading assignments I have her working on, her kneeling, and a few other items. In response to that report, within 24 hours I send her instructions for the week detailing how frequently and in what manner she’s permitted to jerk off for the week; if she’s late on her report, she’s not allowed to masturbate until she sends it in (barring technical difficulties over which she has no control).

Structure is about the present, in a general sense. If structure is lacking, the relationship feels formless; there’s nothing in particular that would cause the partners to experience that relationship as a power-based one. In a sense, without structure, the D/s can’t really be ongoing. You can enjoy D/s on an occasional basis with someone, of course, but the feature that takes D/s from a “let’s do this on Saturday night” thing to a “this is who we are to each other all the time” thing is that the dominant begins to reach into the submissive’s life even when the submissive is not present, and she or he holds a regular presence there in the form of requirements the submissive is expected to meet all the time. Boi L shared her concept of “default values” early in our relationship, and while it applies in various places, I’ve found it particularly valuable in the realm of creating routines as part of structure—as in, creating rules that state that she or Boi M are expected to do certain things unless told or given permission otherwise.

Again, let me be clear that this is not a hierarchy of validity—weekend forays into D/s or entire relationships that play out only in specific time frames (a week-long visit two or three times a year, say) are perfect for the chemistry that exists between many folks. 24/7 is not for everyone. In 24/7, though, structure is the fabric of the relationship, the baseline, and the relationship itself is ongoing. A submissive who’s oriented toward 24/7 but lacking a structure provided by a dominant will, oddly enough, often gravitate towards either creating their own structure in order to maintain the emotional connection and charge of the dominant’s influence (“every night before bed, I’ll kneel and think of you”), or they will fall away from structure such that they only really “feel” the relationship when the two people are together. In these  circumstances, and particularly with the latter, the submissive doesn’t experience the dominant as being particularly relevant to their everyday lives or present in an ongoing way; for someone oriented to 24/7 dynamics this can be distressing. Single submissives sometimes create structure for themselves, framing it in ways that sound like “I work out daily to stay in shape so that I can be pleasing to and capable of serving a potential future dominant.” To continue with the painting metaphor, structure is the stretcher, the canvas, the gesso, the base coats of paint, the outline of an image—the stuff without which the painting simply couldn’t happen. In dance, it’s the basic steps and rhythm.

Some elements of structure, particularly the more detail-oriented and interactive ones, may begin to overlap with or morph into the next mechanism: protocol.

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Protocol

Protocols are the “how” of what’s done, rather than the “what.” Anyone can do something nice for someone else; the difference between an egalitarian act and an act of service shaped by D/s is the protocol that lends that act a flavour of deliberateness, consciousness, respect and formality (the latter to varying degrees depending on circumstance). Protocols are specific, and at times elaborate or nitpicky, ways of interacting that make it impossible to forget the context in which a given act is being carried out.

For example, let’s take the idea of making and serving up dinner. On its own, that act is a “what.” Anyone can make dinner for a friend or lover and serve it to them. The “how” is what makes it different when my bois make dinner. For them, serving dinner involves setting the table according to my preference (including appropriate cutlery and candles), giving me a five-minute warning before dinner is served (in a respectful tone and using specific forms of language), escorting me to the table, pulling out my chair, laying my napkin on my lap, waiting for permission to sit, eating only after I’ve taken the first bite, employing specific table manners, requesting permission to leave the table as needed, standing if I stand to leave the table, and so forth. I happen to be a slow eater, so their protocols also involve them matching their eating pace to mine so that we enjoy our meal together and they don’t finish half an hour before me. These things are protocols.

Protocol is about the immediate moment. If protocol is lacking, then when the two people are together, the relationship looks and feels no different from a vanilla one. Protocol is a moment-by-moment shaping of behaviour and “flavouring” of interaction that keeps the power relations concrete and tangible at all times. It is a fine-tuned manner of expressing respect for each person’s role in the relationship. They may involve details of behaviour, language use, body posture, dress, greeting, and many other areas. Protocol is not simply about the way the submissive approaches or interacts with the dominant; it’s also, though perhaps more subtly, about the way the dominant receives or responds to the submissive, including the enforcement of protocol (i.e. creating it in the first place, correcting it when it’s faulty or sloppy, and so forth). Protocol takes everday interactions and elevates them to a level of consciousness that holds the participants in a specific headspace that is pleasurable to all concerned.

Again, the painting metaphor: protocol has nothing to do with the size or style of the art created. It’s about the care taken in choosing each brush and tool, maintaining them with carefully tailored cleaning rituals, using practiced and refined techniques to achieve specific results, taking joy in every last deliberate detail involved in making the work one of quality, and extending that approach of care and quality to the equipment, the studio and the supplies that are used. In dance, protocol would be the small but highly studied bodily movements that make a dance flow perfectly, the exact turn of a wrist or placement of a foot, the tiny details that make all the difference.

***

When each of these mechanisms is used consistently, successful 24/7 is guaranteed. Hah! No, I’m kidding of course… tons of other factors come into play there. But in my experience I’d say that these relationship management strategies, which in many ways borrow from strategies employed in other areas of human society that have nothing to do with sex or intimate relationships, do create a framework that can lend clarity to a dominant/submissive dynamic. That can provide both a language with which to troubleshoot when things start feeling like they’re going off track and a structure into which new ideas and experiences can be plugged for maximum benefit.

There it is, folks. The result of much percolation. As always, I’m interested in your comments… don’t be shy!

a battle we can’t afford to lose*
October 24, 2008

*I originally posted this on May 14, 2006. At the time I was living in Montreal, I had been with a male partner for just over two years, and I’d just hooked up with a new female lover. Since then I’ve encountered many dykes and trans folks who use latex, particularly in Toronto and particularly in group sexual spaces (such as the Toronto Women and Trans Bathhouse and various private sex parties). But I’m still almost always the one to bring up the question of safer sex, and I’m still not convinced that dykes have safer sex outside the bubble of the small communities that dedicate a good chunk of their social lives to sexual exploration.

The post below is a bit of a rant. Although I didn’t write it at the time, it was in part inspired by something I read about gay men saying they’re “tired” of wearing condoms, as though it were something they could do for a little while until that pesky HIV virus disappears and then get back to happily barebacking. Hearing that made me want to tear my hair out – how many women complain of being “tired” of condoms, fer crying out loud? Pregnancy isn’t going to magically disappear anytime soon! And yet, in the conversation I had with my friend M referenced below, I sort of understood how a certain weariness can creep into the experience of safer sex. It’s not that I think unsafe sex is okay, but I do understand that the emotional cost of insisting on safer sex at all times is not always an easy one to pay.

Even in sex-positive communities, safer sex is not always a priority. A woman I know was recently diagnosed with a digestive-tract parasite that’s usually transmitted via analingus (rimming), and it turns out she’d passed it on to at least one other woman in the same manner – both of them educated, aware, sex-positive queers. Dykes do get sick from sex, folks; it’s not just the boys who need to be concerned.

On that uplifting note, I give you the following…

***

I had brunch with my friend M today. M is a wonderful, warm, witty and intelligent fag in his early forties, the kind of gay man that has a hearty appreciation for good cleavage (walking down St-Denis with him in the summer you’d think he was a frat boy) and who can talk about anything without a trace of shame.

Somehow we got onto the topic of safer sex, and it was one of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve ever had on the subject, though in a way it’s hard for me to say what I learned. I think maybe it’ll take a little while to sink in, but I’ll try to explain a bit.

Safer sex, in theory at least, has always been a complete no-brainer to me. In a sense, I think it was easier for me than for some queers because my first sexual experiences were with men, and I had a deathly fear of pregnancy, so if anyone even looked at me the wrong way without a condom, I’d have a bird. And I came of age in a time when AIDS was in the news all over the place; simply put, I have never known a world in which having sex couldn’t kill you. So as a teenager, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of unsafe sex – the thought was utterly ludicrous.

My past decisions to the contrary have only ever served to reinforce my feelings on this. At one point as a teenager, I was on the Pill and my boyfriend (of 2 1/2 years) and I stopped using condoms because we were monogamous – or so I thought. He cheated on me several times with his ex, which to me was just as good as playing non-consensual Russian roulette with me on the butt end of the gun. When I found out a year after the fact, I broke up with him. I got tested. I was clean. I got tested again and was clean again. I vowed never to have unsafe sex again, no matter how much I trusted someone, ever.

Five years later, I had a short-lived fling with someone. He told me he hated condoms, but he swore to me he got tested regularly, and showed me his test results to boot. I was still on the Pill. I went for it. It was the single stupidest frickin’ thing I have ever done in my entire life. Afterwards, I remember thinking to myself: With the ex-boyfriend, he was a dishonest schmuck and he put you at risk when you thought you were making safe choices. This time, you’ve got it laid out in front of you, and you took the risk yourself. If you catch something from this man, it is entirely, 100% your fault. You complete idiot.

I stressed out something fierce. I waited the three months you’re supposed to wait before you get tested. I got tested, the full battery. I was clean. It was a day for celebration. And that, my friends, is the last time in my life I ever had unsafe sex. Seven years ago now.

Well, sort of. It depends on how you define unsafe sex.

Aha. Here is the issue of the day.

My two experiences with unprotected penis/vagina sex happened before I ever found the queer world, before I ever slept with a woman, before I was polyamorous, before I ever started working on Gay Line, and so on and so forth. I’ve gotten an enormous amount of safer sex education over the past seven years; I am now intimately familiar with information about how to have safer sex in every conceivable gender combination, including acts that half the world probably doesn’t even know exist. I am the proud owner of big boxes of latex and nitrile gloves, condoms, a dozen or more non-porous silicone and metal sex toys, washable SM toys, four kinds of water-based lube, and about fifteen different manuals that explain every kind of sex act, what its risk levels are, how to mitigate them and how to have a good time while you’re at it. And I still get tested regularly, just in case.

And yet… and yet. I am not perfect. There is no way to reduce your risk to zero. Especially in a queer world, where sex acts are not uniform and easy to predict. Especially in a world where people haven’t done research to find out whether or not what we do is safe.

Take female ejaculate, for example. Nobody knows if it can carry HIV or other diseases. The medical profession is still debating whether or not girls actually can ejaculate at all, and half the time, the ones who think we do think it’s just piss. (Fact: Girls ejaculate, and it’s not pee. Trust me.) So if I’m with a girl and one of us is a gusher, who the fuck knows whether or not we could be transmitting stuff to one another? That shit can spray!

Not to mention that the messages we get in our safer sex education materials are really quite different. For example, most materials about safer lesbian sex (on the rare occasion that such materials come into existence at all) mention that you should use gloves for penetration and dental dams for going down on one another – but I’ve never seen safer sex educational materials aimed at heterosexuals say anything about these options, and last time I checked they had mouths and hands too. For them, it’s all condom-focused, pretty much to the exclusion of all else.

Does het sex automatically and exclusively involve the interaction of a penis and a vagina? What about oral sex? When it comes to guys, I don’t think most men out there have even heard of a dental dam, let alone would think of using one. What about the kind of technically heterosexual sex I tend to have with male partners, which often involves anything and everything but “standard” acts? If I didn’t have access to queer educational materials, it might never have occurred to me that it’d be a good idea to put a condom on my silicone cock when butt-fucking a boy and boil it afterwards to sterilize it, especially if I wanted to use the same one later on someone else.

The ways different communities internalize safer-sex messages are different as well. For example, it’s lovely that lesbian safer sex guidelines include the use of a dental dam during oral sex. Except… where the fuck can you buy a dental dam? I can name one place I know of in the entire city. One. And let’s assume you haven’t heard of this one place, but you have heard of other potentially good methods, such as cutting open a latex glove and spreading it out over your partner’s genitals. Great idea, but who the hell has a pair of scissors and a latex glove or condom handy at the moment you want to dive into some hot girl’s crotch? (What dyke carries condoms at all?) Or a piece of Saran Wrap-brand non-porous plastic wrap (whose apparent safety was proven in one study)?

I’ve taken the habit of carrying condoms and gloves with me at all times, but crikey – safer oral sex is simply out of the question unless there’s some serious planning time involved beforehand. In my world, this has mostly translated into me not performing oral sex on girls at all. My last long-term female partner and I agreed, after discussion and testing, not to use oral-sex protection with one another, but to use it with others, and it just never ended up happening – we stuck with hands and toys with our other partners.

And never mind dykes having access to a) the information and b) the supplies. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that, in Montreal at least, women do not have safer sex with one another. We just do not. It’s not part of our culture. I have never once encountered a woman who uses dental dams or gloves – except at SM play parties, which are attended by a ridiculously small proportion of this city’s dykes, and even there I’ve only seen gloves used, no dams, and my sense is that we may behave differently in this respect in public or group settings than we do in private.

And not only do women in Montreal not have safer sex with one another, we don’t even talk about safer sex. It doesn’t even come up in conversation. In my own experience, if safer sex comes up at all in conversation, it’s usually me that brings it up, and I’ve never used a frickin’ dental dam. Women who have gone down on me have never asked me if I have a dam handy, or if I minded if they used one. In fact, with women or otherwise, with perhaps two exceptions (one being my honey, bless him; one being a girl I dated a while back who had herpes and was wonderfully up-front about it), I have always been the person to bring up safer sex, period.

It doesn’t help that our realities don’t show us any particular reason to be careful. While I know there is such thing as diseases one can pass from mouth to genitals, or from genitals to open cuts on a person’s hand, or whatever, I’ve only rarely encountered dykes with STI stories to tell. I guess we just don’t see anyone suffering, so we assume there’s nothing out there to catch – but who’s to say if it’s happening and we’re just not talking about it?

I’ve often wondered if the lesbo/queer world will ever encounter its equivalent of AIDS in the gay male one, and if so, what that would look like. I think, culturally speaking, the dyke world is way, way behind the gay and even hetero worlds in terms of safer sex, and culture is damned hard to change.

For all I know there could be a genital herpes epidemic among Montreal lesbians, but nobody’s researching our safer sex practices or rates of STI transmission, because we don’t have the almighty penis, so we must therefore not have real sex at all, and if we did, oh, it’d probably be fine, don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.

And the not-talking thing is hardly reserved for lesbians. Queers in general aren’t always very good about this. Over the years, various people have taken my cock into various orifices, and not a single one of them has even asked me if I’ve sterilized it, or even washed it recently. Of course, I have, but what… they could tell by looking at it? Or at me? For all they know, I could have removed it from someone else’s asshole half an hour before, wiped it with a Kleenex and tossed it right back into my bag. I’m flattered at their trust and all, but is that really what’s going on?

I think that a comment from M, at brunch today, inspired this whole line of thought, and it suddenly gave me much more sympathy for fags. He said, “Safer sex is a constant battle. First you have to fight your own internal battle -” By which I assume he meant deciding that you really need to prioritize safer sex and be consistent even though it doesn’t feel the same with latex and you really just want to feel your skin on someone’s skin.

“- Then you have to fight the battle with your partners.” By this I’m guessing he meant the challenge of talking about safer sex with someone when you’re in the throes of passion; being the one to bring up and in a sense “enforce” that thing the “authorities” tell you you’re supposed to do, when it’s a source of cultural pride for queers to be rule-breakers; having the protection with you; knowing how to use it, and use it in ways that keep the sex hot; having enough of it with you that you can have sex more than once in a night, or with more than one person, and stay consistent; dealing with people’s fears that, if you bring up safer sex, it must be because you have a disease; and so on, and so forth.

You know, all of a sudden I got it. It is a burden. It is a load to bear. Or it certainly has the potential to be.

I’m realizing it all the more lately. My honey and I have been together over two years now, and we’re pretty comfortable with our safer sex rules: condoms for penetration between the two of us, but no protection for oral sex or hand jobs unless we’ve got open wounds or something. With others, the rule is condoms anytime a cock is involved, for penetration or oral sex; gloves for more extreme forms of hand penetration (fisting) or if one of the people has an open wound of some sort; dental dams for oral sex on girls. People can go down on us without protection if they want, except if we know someone has an oral STI (herpes, etc.), in which case latex is de rigueur. All fine and good; these are rules I fully agree with and like. They’re aren’t a perfect guarantee but they’re pretty solid.

But one of my unexpected birthday presents this year was a lovely make-out session with a very hot girl, which was followed up a few days later by an exquisite all-night romp, with a repeat performance first thing the next morning. It looks like this may become a habit for the two of us in the next little while.

So it’s got me thinking. It’s really easy to avoid oral sex for a one-night stand, and thus stick within the rules. But even though she and I have just been together twice now, I’ve gotta say, the thought is on my mind for future encounters. Do I really want to figure out how to use a dam now? Do I want to have this conversation with her, when dykes don’t talk about this stuff and all I really want to think about is how incredibly hot it is to wrap our bodies around one another and fly? When we’re all covered in sweat and come, is that when I want to have to break out a square of latex to separate us? Chrissakes, I’m a dyke – one of these days it’d be nice to have girl juice on my face, y’know?! Is that too much to ask?

Well, maybe it is too much to ask. So all of a sudden today, sitting at a table with a man who’s a member of the most stigmatized minority of all when it comes to potential STI transmission, I realize that I sympathize with the fags. And in a sense, with everyone who’s ever wanted to just have sex with just their bodies, plain and simple, no barriers, nothing coming between us and our lovers at all, no heavy conversations, no thinking about potential disease and death in a moment that’s supposed to be all about life and passion and lust and intimacy.

Maybe, by now, we should all have gotten over the idea that it’ll ever be safe to get that physically close to another human being. Maybe that thought, that possibility, should be off the radar. Maybe it is too much to ask.

I, for one, am going to keep having safer sex, because I want to be around to have sex until I am so old I can’t do it anymore, and then I want to do it some more anyway. I’m not going to let a piece of latex stand in the way of that possibility – in the balance, if the latex wins the safer sex battle in my own head and I in turn win that battle with my lovers, in the end we all win the battle of staying alive long enough to fuck each other senseless for years to come. And that is one battle I refuse to lose.

But I am, most definitely, asking why the fuck it ever had to come to this in the first place.

sadomasochism, spirituality and ethics
October 20, 2008

Last week, I gave a lecture on the ethics of sadomasochism for Daniel Cere’s sexual ethics class at McGill. I find it endlessly amusing that I was asked to speak in a class within the Religious Studies Department. I’m certainly a spiritual person, and I’ve definitely got a broad range of general knowledge about the world’s religions, but by no means am I an expert in religion or spirituality. But I do know what I’m talking about when it comes to BDSM, and I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about ethics, so I guess the fit works from that angle. In any case, we agreed ahead of time that I’d touch on three topics: religious motifs in BDSM, the practical ethics of the BDSM community, and the idea of erotic and spiritual ecstasy. It’s very much an overview, but I thought it might be fun to post my notes here for your enjoyment.

I started out with a general definition of BDSM/kink/leather. I realize that practitioners often get extremely picky about the semantics of all this, but for the outside observer, the particulars are often confounded into a single morass of sexual otherness, and even for those who play in the community the distinctions aren’t always crystal clear. So for our purposes, I defined the whole shebang as being a practice of relationship (usually sexual, sometimes not; ranging from long-term to casual and fleeting) or fantasy that involves:

  • the voluntary exchange of power and/or
  • the experience of giving or receiving intense sensation and/or
  • the incorporation of fetishized objects (i.e. eroticized objects, materials or sensory experiences that fall outside the range of those considered “traditionally” erotic).

I also made the distinction between community and practice. I can speak from the point of view of a participant in a community of people whose sexual and intimate lives often feature these experiences and who consider them to be an important part of their identity to varying degrees. We have a body of literature, a plethora of discussion boards and websites, community events and terminology and codes of conduct and so forth. But I don’t for a second believe that we’re the only ones who enjoy the experiences that are at the root of this community. There are tons of people out there who enjoy sexual experiences of this kind without ever identifying as part of the BDSM/leather/kink community, or seeking out its literature or websites, or employing its conventions or approaches or language. I think this is particularly important to mention when speaking with an audience of presumed-vanilla individuals because in truth I’d bet that a sizeable percentage of them has flirted with or engaged in practices that I might consider to “count” as BDSM/leather/kink, whether or not they have ever worn a corset, read Califia’s erotica or learned what “SSC” stands for.

So, with that as a starting point…

Religious motifs in BDSM

Role play
While religious themes, costumes and rituals do, for some people, make up part of the way they approach SM play, that’s really more about the taboos that SM tends to eroticize for the purposes of play—of which there are many, including age, gender and tons more—than it is about religion per se. Foucault, with his idea of the confessional, makes the erotic link nearly explicit; the perverse pleasure in guilt, confession, punishment and redemption is definitely a cycle that many have turned into erotic play.

I can’t help but remember a hilarious scene I saw at a play party in which one woman played the part of a Mother Superior, a second played the part of a novice nun, and a third played the part of a confessing schoolgirl. The funniest part for me, as an observer, was knowing that the pious Catholic schoolgirl in question was actually an out-and-proud Jewish leatherdyke well over age 30. While I don’t pretend to know about the personal histories of everyone involved, for me it served to show how a bunch of happily kinky dykes, who don’t appear to be suffering from any great shame about their sexual orientations and practices, could still employ the classic themes of religious role-play to have a grand ol’ time even if those themes had little or nothing to do with their own lives or “real-life” experiences of religious shame, guilt and confession. Of course there may be tons of people out there whose entire sexuality revolves around the religious motif and for whom it’s not about role-play at all, but I am hardly the right person to be saying anything about them as I’ve never (to my knowledge) met one.

Flagellation and asceticism
Niklaus Largier wrote an enormous book about the history of flagellation entitled In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal. It’s a bit of a slog to get through, clocking in at over 450 pages of dry, academic prose, but the illustrations are great if you’re into that sort of thing. He catalogues the ways in which the concept of religious ecstasy brought on by flagellation eventually, over the centuries, translated into the erotic use of flagellation both in practice and in pornography. In essence we are talking about different forms of ecstasy in which the body is stimulated as a means to achieve an altered state—in religious context it’s a state of spiritual ecstasy, in kinky contexts it’s a state of erotic ecstasy. For some people those things are not entirely separable. Certainly Largier’s work gives a detailed analysis of the ways in which this practice, and imagery related to it, existed for several hundred years before they were co-opted by pornographers and the links, whether humorous, political or practical, made evident between the two purposes for that sort of stimulation. Which leads to…

Religious references in kinky erotica
The popularity of using religious references for erotic and kinky purposes is evident in a wealth of erotic fiction work including writing, film and many other types of cultural production. Anne Rice’s novels are a good example, but there are ton of others—Madonna’s songs “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer” for starters, and these are just some of the most extremely mainstream examples. These more recent examples follow faithfully on the heels of hundreds of years’ worth of religion-themed erotic works dating back as far as the 16th century and gaining widespread currency in the Victorian era, and they are worth bringing up if only to indicate the breadth of the effect that religion has on contemporary eroticism. These cultural and artistic works provide their consumers with the experience of breaking taboo and eroticizing the forbidden, whether or not that translates into the re-enactment of religious themes in actual sexual practice; and occasionally these images and stories are politically provocative or humorous. Certainly two of my favourite examples of religious imagery co-opted for erotic purposes are Divine Interventions, a company that produces high-quality silicone dildos and butt plugs shaped like Mary and the Baby Jesus, among other things, and Leatherbeaten’s “La Seria Penitentia,” a line of floggers modeled after actual Christian flagellation instruments, unfortunately discontinued but no less brilliant in concept.

Political activism
The intersection of religion and sexuality has long been a site of political work. Of greatest interest for our purposes are the places where sexual practitioners have rebelled against religious proscription, sometimes using religious imagery as a form of protest. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a group of gay leathermen who do outrageous nun-themed drag and raise funds for charity in San Francisco. They aren’t anti-religious crusaders, but they have certainly co-opted both the image of the nun and the strategy of drag itself—as beefy butch leathermen, they are also implicitly using drag to poke at the overwhelming focus on masculinity in the gay leather scene—to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for AIDS charities. In some ways this fits marvelously, and ironically, well with the traditional idea of nuns caring for the sick; in others ways it’s turning the imagery back on itself in recognition of the Church’s staunch repression of AIDS activism, such as the Pope’s public insistence that condoms don’t work to prevent HIV infection even when reams of scientific data prove that they do.

In another example, Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco’s enormous kinky street festival, has in recent years been viciously targeted by the Religious Right, which is pressuring the fair’s major sponsors to pull out of their contracts. In reaction, the fair organizers attacked back on the occasion of their 25th anniversary. The two best examples of this are their Last Supper poster, which features a table covered in sex toys and kinky implements and populated by leatherfolk in various states of undress and kinky garb; and the Fair’s flier ads which directly quote the religious-right zealots who decry the festival—“depraved and immoral!” and so forth—but positioning them so that readers will understand those very quotes to be laudatory. It’s quite a brilliant strategy. In a way it echoes the heavily political works of the Marquis de Sade, after whom “sadism” is named, who never separated the depravity of his kinks from the repressive social context in which he operated. For him, dirty sex was an explicit fuck-you to the Church, the State and other forms of institutionalized bodily and sexual repression.

The practical ethics of the BDSM community

Despite all these religious references, it’s quite rare that organized religion directly informs the ethics of SM play or relationships per se. As a community we seem to prefer to mess with religious symbolism than to integrate it. The ethics of the SM community have developed largely independently of any religious forces, except perhaps in the sense that it has developed in opposition to those forces—a concerted subcultural refusal to comply with a dominant norm. Rather, SM community ethics have mainly been created in a secular context, with nods to libertarianism, sex-positive feminism and so forth.

Some very interesting stats by Trevor Jacques (check out page 12 of this presentation) show that the vast majority of people in the SM scene who grew up in Christian families of one variety or another now consider themselves to be Pagan, Buddhist or atheist, although those who grew up Jewish tend not to budge from that, kink notwithstanding. I’d love to get a cause-and-effect analysis of this particular set of stats, but in the meantime I’m simply interested in pointing it out.

In any case, completely independently of religious persuasion, the questions of safety, ethics and consent are hot topics in BDSM circles pretty much everywhere. The acronym SSC, standing for “Safe, Sane and Consensual,” was proposed at a Leather Leadership Conference in the mid-90s and has been widely adopted since then; for all that its merits are debated, it’s certainly considered a common starting point for discussion if nothing else. People often argue that “safe” is a relative term, and inaccurate in that nothing is ever completely safe, much as sex-positive communities have taken to talking about “safer sex” rather than “safe sex” for similar reasons.

It’s also argued that “sanity” is a troubling term to choose given that the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual still lists both sadism and masochism as mental illnesses. Their definitions have been amended to specify that they must be present for at least six months and cause “significant distress,” so for all we happy non-distressed sadists and masochists that’s just dandy. But the problem persists in that the “distress” in question is likely produced, for the most part, by social and cultural forces that decry sadistic and masochistic sexual practices as being sick and immoral, no doubt supported by the existence of a psychological profession that continues to keep them on the books as exactly that. A bit circular, you might say.

There’s also the ongoing question about how exactly one determines the presence or absence of consent; the law, in Canada at least, argues that it is not legal to consent to assault, so no matter what pretty ideas we come up with, our asses can and sometimes do still get tossed in jail (while boxing clubs and hockey arenas continue to operate without legal intervention, of course). BDSMers practically (and in some cases actually) fetishize the process of negotiation, but without signed contracts the accuracy of two different people’s perceptions of what has been agreed upon can become difficult to assess, not to mention what may happen in the context of a long-term relationship where certain things may be assumed as time goes on, or in the context of ongoing power exchange. In any case, no matter how hard we try, there are no universally evident and foolproof methods of determining consent among kinksters, and even if we came up with one it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.

RACK, standing for “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink,” is another acronym that’s grown more popular in recent years to get around the issues with SSC. But it too is not without its problems. Some people argue that you can only really be “risk-aware” if you are already an experienced player, which means that novices are shit outta luck. In addition, RACK doesn’t get around the question of consent any better than SSC does… and let’s not even try to figure out what actually counts as “kink” for the purposes of this discussion.

Nevertheless, the care that is generally taken within the BDSM community to determine consent and to approach the communication process with clarity and thoroughness are rather omnipresent. Certainly anyone who spends much time in the community will begin to see that these questions are of prime importance to the people there, and are discussed frequently and insisted upon vigorously. I’ve written about my own criteria for determining consent here, and in various other bits and pieces over the past few years, should you be curious. I’ve also written and taught quite a bit about the distinctions between BDSM and abuse—I’ll be re-posting some of my older writings on the topic in the near future.

Erotic and spiritual ecstasy

Spirituality in BDSM is a common theme for discussion in some segments of the kink community, and it has been for decades. Not so much religious theme play, but rather, the sense that SM is a path to spiritual communion, or is a spiritual path in itself. I often feel like I’m woefully inarticulate when it comes to discussing matters of spirituality, not because I haven’t read or thought about them, but because my own spirituality is so distinctly private and personal and so completely unrelated to any specific religious tradition with associated terminology, concepts and common understandings. So I’m an odd choice in terms of trying to articulate these things.

What I can do is point to a number of examples of how spirituality gets discussed in the BDSM world. For starters, there’s a remarkable overlap between the Neo-Pagan community and the kink community, and the Pagans are generally very kink-friendly even if kink isn’t their thing in particular. The Unitarians can be leather-friendly, though it depends on what specific group you’re talking about—there’s definitely some conflict between the more progressive and conservative forces within that tradition. Kinksters in many places have appropriated and reconfigured a range of tribal and shamanic spiritual practices such as sun dance ritual, piercing, tattooing and more; they’re typified by the Urban Primitive movement fathered by Fakir Musafar in San Francisco, who, by day, is actually an ad executive (I find this highly amusing). I do take some issue, personally, with the more evident examples of direct cultural appropriation in this realm, but I don’t think there’s any shame in learning from the rich history or spiritual practices created by people elsewhere in the world, in a more general sense, and applying that learning to how we understand ourselves today. North American cultural and religious traditions tend to separate body and spirit, treating the former as profane and the latter as sacred, and it does human beings good, in my opinion, to integrate those two aspects of our existence.

This same philosophy applies to Eastern-based understandings of energy work, chakras and ecstasy as played out in Tantric practices and other types of body work. Traditional Tantric culture is actually quite hostile to BDSM—it never fails to both offend me and crack me up when I read the following paragraph from the well-known Tantra manual Jewel In the Lotus: The Tantric Path to Higher Consciousness by Sunyata Saraswati and Bodhi Avinasha:

“It is unfortunately true that power can corrupt, and the powerful principles of Tantra have, in the wrong hands, been used in company with witchcraft, superstition, orgies, drinking blood, sado-masochism, black magic, human sacrifice and contact with evil spirits through decomposing bodies in cemeteries.”

Umm… wow. I am much more interested in the ideas about Tantra that are put forth in, say, Urban Tantra: Sex for the 21st Century by Barbara Carellas, or more generally in Radical Ecstasy by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton. These are recent books, but Purusha the Divine Androgyne wrote a manifesto on the spiritual dimensions of anal fisting titled The Divine Androgyne According to Purusha: Adventures in Cosmic Erotic Ecstasy and Androgyne Bodyconsciousness, in 1981, and ran a commune for people who wanted to engage in the practice, so the concept of energy work and spirituality are hardly new in the realm of radical sexuality.

Another interesting example is the way that Raven Kaldera and his boy Josh Tenpenny discuss the idea of servitude and 24/7 dominant/submissive or master/slave relationships as expressions of spiritual devotion along a monastic path. While I haven’t read it myself, I have it on good authority that Josh Tenpenny wrote a piece about BDSM and monasticism in Kaldera’s BDSM and spirituality anthology Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM and the Ordeal Path. They’re regular speakers at numerous BDSM conferences in various parts of the States; should ever you have the opportunity to hear them I highly recommend you take it! In the meantime, you can get a quick intro in this article and this interview, both by Sensuous Sadie.

A final suggestion: the website FetLife.com features numerous discussion groups about spirituality in BDSM, among them the 300-member group called Sacred Exchange, facilitated by a member of my leather family.

Conclusion

In short, BDSM bridges body and spirit with the help of intense physical and psychological stimulation in a way that often creates strong ties to spirituality among many who practice it. But regardless of whether or not individuals find explicitly spiritual meaning in their kink, the community encourages a very considered and ethical approach to BDSM play. The community’s ethics are complex and multi-layered and generally sex-positive, and so enter into conflict with religious beliefs that are less so, but in terms of values they are not as far divorced as one might expect from some spiritual traditions, and the community’s ethics are in some ways far more thoughtfully developed and articulately communicated than those of traditional sexual practice.

love vs. cake toppers*
October 17, 2008

*I first posted the following piece about gay weddings on March 2, 2006. I’m including it here with a comment from a reader and my response (read: rant).

Since then, I’ve been to several other same-sex weddings, most recently that of a femme trans woman and her very butch Syr, which I attended with both my bois as dates (oh! the handsome!). Their ceremony included explicit reference to butch-femme dynamics and leather. And I’ve got two more coming up next spring – a pair of leatherdykes and a pair of sweet trans guys, one of whom is my sometime-lover, and all four of whom are Jewish, each couple made up of one born-that-way Jewish person and one convert. I can’t wait to see the blend of traditions, and of families and friends, that’s sure to be present at each ceremony. A couple of weeks ago, one couple was discussing dinner arrangements in my living room and stated emphatically that they were not going to make their wedding a potluck (horror of horrors!), and the very next day, I got chatting with one half of the other couple, who cheerily crowed, “We’re going to make it a potluck!” So it appears that next spring’s weddings will be a study in contrasts.

Really, this marriage thing is extending well past the domain of heterosexual imitation… and it’s fascinating to watch. I especially appreciate watching people create new traditions and fresh ceremonies that represent who they are and how they move in their communities. Though I realize this is a subjective point of view, I have only experienced one same-sex wedding that had the flavour of assimilationism, and even then only barely, which means that queers are definitely getting creative when it comes to appropriating the institution and making it our own. Much fun indeed.

***

I’m going to my first-ever gay wedding this weekend!

Well, sort of. I’ve been to two lesbian weddings already. But this one is a ceremony for two men, and that part will be a first to me. They’ve been together for almost a decade, and they came together via an intensive selection process on the part of D, the half of the couple I’m friends with. Looks like his partner fit the bill, because since that first date – after D had apparently screened 40 or more other men – they’ve been together and happy.

So, the question is, of course… what do I wear? Do I go butch or femme? It really does seem to be pretty difficult to dress up somewhere in between. Maybe I should do what my ex does, and dress in a style resembling Prince. Yeah. Prince could be a good model for a queer girl’s dress-up occasion. Do I have to match my outfit to T’s, or do we do the independent thing? Is a tie too formal? Is an open collar not formal enough? Oh yeah, I’m a girl, we can get away with that. What about high heels? I never quite feel fancy enough in flats. But do those clash with the butch thing? And what about sandals vs. boots? Agh.

I think I’m going to make it an official policy to choose the gender of my formal wear based on temperature. On days where it’s minus 20, that wool blazer and buttoned-up shirt are just fine. In the summer, a slinky cocktail dress showing more skin than it covers works just dandy. Switch them and you’re miserable. Yes! Problem solved. Butch it is.

Oh, OK, so I didn’t start writing about this just to be able to agonize about my wardrobe.

Really, this whole wedding has just gotten me thinking about the whole same-sex marriage thing yet again. I’ve written fairly extensively about it over the past few years. The first time was an article on same-sex civil unions, which was published in the West Island Chronicle in 2002. The article basically said, civil unions are great and of course people of the same sex should be allowed to have them, but at the same time if we’re going for full equality, let’s just open up marriage to everyone who wants it and get it over with.

In 2003 I went to a conference and met a dyke in her forties who almost immediately became one of my favourite people in the whole world. She had some choice things to say about marriage – against it, to my great surprise. Wha…? This was definitely one of the more educational conversations I’ve ever had. She basically explained that to make marriage the focus of queer political action was to gun for inclusion in the mainstream instead of to open people’s minds to the existence and rights of people who fall outside of it.

At the time that gave me a lot to chew on. I finally decided that I do agree with her in many ways, and all the more so after reading the super-fantastic book The Trouble with Normal by Michael Warner. Truly one of my absolute best reads of 2005. I highly recommend it. He argues that marriage is a form of social legitimization, and as long as it exists as a mechanism for legitimization, by definition the relationships of people who choose not to marry are considered illegitimate. No matter what sort of alternative relationships married people have with one another, the fact of buying into the institution perpetuates its power.

That makes lots of sense to me. And yet, I can’t find it in myself to see my married queer friends as having done something wrong. I can’t help but feel all excited that two people who love one another are making a public commitment to one another, a statement of their devotion, an invitation for their friends and families and community members to share in that happiness. Political cynic though I can be, I just can’t bring myself to see this as a bad thing.

Maybe it helps that so far, all the queers I’ve known who’ve gotten married have done so in pleasantly alternative ways, and not in “traditional” ceremonies – now that’s a weird word to use in this context! And they haven’t all of a sudden become heterosexual imitators or started looking down on me for my alternative lifestyle. (For those interested, I wrote a pretty in-depth dissection of my politics around this a few years ago, an article entitled “I Do… I Don’t… I Don’t Know.”)

So just for the fun of it, I decided to log onto http://www.gayweddings.com and see what they had to say. I thought maybe a gay wedding site would have a few other viewpoints to share, more stuff to keep me thinking.

Instead what I got was this: “You and your partner have met each other, fallen in love, gotten engaged, and picked a date. Though you’ve covered great distances, you are now coming to find that you’ve actually only just begun and “square one” is staring you in the face. You are asking yourselves: We’ve come this far and know we want to build the gay wedding of our dreams, but what’s next? Where do we begin?”

Good God. Square one is the wedding? What happened to the relationship – meeting someone, discovering all the beautiful things about them, working on your communication, sharing your histories, building a life together? Since when did square one become the ceremony? To me, that’s square middle somewhere, or square irrelevant unless you want to be legally protected when you have a baby or when you want to bring your partner into the country from abroad. Maybe square lots of fun but not the basis for our existence. Like, yikes. Do gay people now have dreams of gay weddings? I mean really? Is this the new thing we’re supposed to be focused on? Gah. The whole thing started to feel kinda squicky to me.

And that’s before I even went into the boutique section, http://www.twobrides.com – because of course, this can’t possibly be just about love and legal protection, it has to be about products and sales! Like, for example, sales of the “African-American Butch-Femme Cake Topper.”

I giggled so hard when I saw that, I just about fell off my chair. It’s… so fucking cute! And so pleasantly inclusive of folks who are not lily-white! And so hilarious and significant that there’s actually a market for this. And yet… so absurd it’s almost disgusting! (Remind me again that this is not heterosexual imitation?)

Let’s not forget the heading to an article on the associated site http://www.twogrooms.com: “Can A Gay Wedding Be Complete Without Place Cards for a Seated Dinner?”

Um, I gotta say… YES. Yes indeed, a gay wedding can be complete without place cards for a seated dinner. In fact it can be complete without a seated dinner. Maybe without even food. What the fuck!

All of a sudden I’m starting to see this anti-marriage thing as pretty darned legit. I still wouldn’t take away anyone’s right to get hitched, and I will still get all teary when a buddy of mine tremblingly declares eternal love for their honey in front of an audience. But egads, is it ever gross to see queers buying right into the whole weird wedding industry. I thought it was gross when my het friends were doing it, but oh man, this is a bit harder to stomach.

To my great relief, the two lovely gentlemen marrying this weekend have emphatically requested that guests not give them any gifts. I like this idea very much. It says something about them.

But I do plan to give them a little something. Just a card, which I plan to adorn with some calligraphy. A couple of my queer-girl friends suggested some verse by Kahlil Gibran, from his book The Prophet, which he published in 1923. I found the following, which, oddly enough, is a very traditional piece to read at a wedding:

“Love one another, but make not a bond of love: / Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. / Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. / Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. / Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, / Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. // Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. / For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. / And stand together yet not too near together: / For the pillars of the temple stand apart, / And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

That’s what a wedding should be, in my books. Fuck the cake toppers and the new china. Fuck the place cards and the expectations. Let’s talk about love.

***

Here’s that reader comment:

“I’ve actually always thought of wedding presents as one of those cool tribal/community aspects of the whole ceremony. People embarking on a new life together often actually need shit. It’s the community of loved ones sending them off on a new future, blessing them dinnerwear that isn’t from the dollar store. Because really, if you’re a struggling young couple, are you really going to buy all that china yourself? But it’s still nice to have… Not giving wedding presents (as a theoretical policy, not as a response to a specific request on the part of the wedding couple) seems a bit classist. A rich young couple could just buy whatever stuff they want or need. A poor young couple might really rely on or benefit from the gifts given to them buy their community. Therefore, I think there is a good reason for this tradition.”

And my response:

I think my problem with the idea of wedding gifts – at least, wedding gifts of the medium- or big-ticket practical variety – is that they’re not actually related to need anymore. Fifty years ago, when you lived with your parents until you moved out to live with your spouse (heteros only of course), it was common for people to actually need all the stuff they got, and that tribal thing made a lot of sense – a community rallying around its members to celebrate their union and set them up for a new life together.

Nowadays, it’s much more rare for that to be the case. Much more common are people who leave home to make their way in the world five, ten, or twenty years before they ever get married – if they choose to get married at all. Why not have gift-giving traditions for that? For poor students who are in a strange new city with a minimum-wage job? For single women in entry-level positions and their first apartment? And so forth.

I find it a holdover from times past that people associate a wedding with those needs. It’s material reward for entering an institution of couplehood, whether or not you’re actually beginning a new life. I’ve been attending weddings at least twice a year for at least 12 years now and the vast majority of them have been between older (read: past their early 20s) people who are already financially independent. And I’ve known way, way too many people who have been in need of pretty basic things but who haven’t had access to them for lack of funds, with minimal or sporadic help from their tribes and families, and it irritates me to think people would all of a sudden shower them with gifts if they got married.

To me, that’s the height of classism – if you can afford to hire the people to perform a ceremony, a space in which to celebrate, and a lavish spread of food for 200 guests, then you get lots of gifts. But if you’re poor and just pay fifty bucks to the justice of the peace and invite five friends to come witness because you can’t afford to rent a hall and your apartment’s too small for a party, you get fewer gifts.

And that’s not to mention people who do start out a new life (or a new set-up at least) by living together as a couple but who choose not to marry or have a ceremony. The old gift-giving logic doesn’t quite hold up. I totally get the idea of wedding gifts as a marker of a happy occasion, but in that case it should be a “thought that counts” thing and not a “buy me a washing machine” thing – much like any other special occasion.

We haven’t yet invented traditions that respond to people’s actual life patterns of the past 30 years, and it would be really nice to see more creative approaches to helping out newly independent people, or people in need at any age and at any stage of their romantic life, rather than sticking with old traditions that are only sometimes and somewhat appropriate for people’s lives.

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