Archive for December, 2008

some thoughts on dialogue that often isn’t*
December 27, 2008

*When I originally posted the piece “taking a trip down memory lane with anti-sm feminism,” which I re-posted here last week, a reader left the following comment:

“Hmm, I’ve gotta take issue with your take on Farley’s censorship argument. Her point (so far as I can tell) isn’t that anti-SM sentiments are being literally censored, but that whenever someone makes an anti-SM argument, she is immediately jumped on for supporting Dworkin/MacKinnon-style legal solutions even if she has never suggested such a thing. This forces the discussion onto a tangent about censorship and freedom of expression, instead of the substantive debate about SM and feminism.

“I’ve seen it happen. It doesn’t make critical dialogue impossible, but it does make it less likely. Prefacing anti-SM arguments with ‘I’m not advocating that the government get involved, but I’d really like to peacefully persuade you…’ doesn’t seem to help, either.”

The following post is my response to that comment.

***

On the point of censorship (dealt with in Lie #3), Farley’s article reads:

“Some liberal gay newspapers ‘censor’ ads for the KKK, but still publish personal ads for readers looking for Black, or Latino or Asian sexual slaves. Racism seems to be more acceptable to them if it is eroticized. Somehow, if eroticized, the humiliation, sadism and torture of racism and anti Semitism become acceptable. Torture always has a sexual component to it. If a radical feminist were to challenge the same newspaper on the issue of sadomasochism, we’d be called ‘censors.’ The whole issue of censorship is used to intimidate us and silence critical dialogue about sadomasochism.”

I think if this particular point is going to be addressed in depth, which I didn’t really do in my original post, there are a few things that bear mentioning.

First of all, Farley is conflating things in ways that just don’t hold up. Sadomasochists don’t simply go around eroticizing racism and anti-Semitism. That conjures up images of SMers standing around and watching, say, a person of colour getting beat up on the street, and jacking off to it. That would be pretty heinous, and while I’m sure there may be a few twisted fucks in the world who actually do such things, they’re hardly the same thing as a leatherman who likes a bit of role-play while he’s getting a blow job.

Some aspects of BDSM – because kink if anything is more mind-bogglingly diverse than even I can imagine, and I have one helluva good imagination – involve the eroticizing of consensual power exchange, the emotional and physical charge that can occur when someone willingly gives up control or takes it in a sexual situation. Within that portion of BDSM practitioners, there is a tapestry of “flavours.” Some people like to do power exchange in bed, with no trappings beyond sheets and skin. Some people like it with bondage or pain. Some people symbolize it with collars or rings or titles or behavioural protocol. Some people get in the mood by donning traditional “fetish gear,” things like leather and latex. And some people like to dress up and do role-play.

Of the portion who like to do role play, once again there’s a further tapestry. Every imaginable power pairing can occur – from the cliché (teacher and student, daddy and boy, drill sergeant and recruit) to the silly (pirate wench and captain, cop and speeding driver), even to the inanimate (people who like to be treated as furniture). One rare sort of pairing involves role-play along racial lines. Such play doesn’t even have to happen along the actual racial lines of the players involved; it’s the erotic charge of the role play that makes the difference. And in one of the very rare pieces of writing I’ve found on the topic, the author states that in her experience, the number of people of colour who want to do racial role-play is vastly higher than that of white folks (she is a person of colour herself).

It’s not that I don’t understand how race play could be upsetting to some. Certainly it is. To be honest I’m not sure I’d be comfortable watching it take place – though in my years in the SM world I haven’t ever seen it happen so you never know. But to equate a tiny portion of consensual BDSM role-players with actual Nazis or slave-owning plantation operators is not only inaccurate, it’s dismissive of the very real, very non-consensual and very un-erotic suffering that the victims of racial oppression have actually endured.

On top of all this, there’s an underlying assumption that all BDSMers must be white and non-Jewish (and thus, of course, ignorant of racial politics), or if they’re Jewish or a person of colour, they must be somehow brainwashed or otherwise traitors to their own cause. This position, of course, devalues their choices in much the way this same brand of feminism devalues women’s choices to practice BDSM – it’s profoundly disempowering and condescending. Luckily, groups like Kinky Jews and Dark Connections – BDSM for People of Color have come together to create community for themselves in addition to taking part in the wider BDSM world. (The latter’s history section is totally fascinating, by the way – well-written and thorough. Their links page too.)

Second, Farley has a very odd perception of racially specific personal ads. Of all the personal ads you see in your average paper, the number of racially specific ones in general (on both the “seeking” and “advertising” ends) far outnumbers the racially specific ones looking for sexual slaves – in fact in my many years of paper-reading I don’t think I’ve seen even one of the latter. (Note in December 2008: I did, in fact, see one in a Seattle weekly a couple of years ago, and if I recall it was from a black topman seeking white men to be pussies for him. Or something of the sort.) Of course I have no data to support this, but I read the back pages every time I pick up a paper, especially in cities other than home – that must count for something? I get the sense she may be talking about one or two ads she saw once, rather than anything resembling a phenomenon – especially given how unusual race play is in general within the Scene.

Second, she’s doing a remarkably crude job of comparing an ad for a sex slave – which, presumably, would only be answered by someone who was interested in such a scenario – with an ad for the KKK, whose ads are likely to either outright encourage mass racial oppression or recruit people who want to encourage it, most certainly without the consent (let alone active interest) of any racial minorities. I doubt I need to explain the KKK is not a benevolent sex-positive organization, and that it inflicts a helluva lot of very non-consensual damage on people.

Third, she intimates that these papers would accuse radical feminists of censorship if they challenged them on sadomasochism. Conveniently, her statement is hypothetical for starters, and even then she doesn’t explain what she means by “to challenge.” If a group of radical feminists wrote a respectful letter of disagreement to the editor, it would likely get published – I’ve seen lots of such letters on many sides of many thorny debates, SM included. Disagreement is kinda the point of the letters section in most papers, most of the time. If, on the other hand, they took the tactic of committing acts of property damage or defaming the paper – tactics that some radical feminists have used to make their points, sometimes most viciously against other feminists with different views – then it would likely be compared to censorship, and quite justifiably. (This happened not long ago in Montreal, when a fringe group of feminists defaced a bunch of posters advertising the international sex workers’ rights conference held here in May of 2005.)

So really, it all depends on how the question is approached. If she could actually point to a paper that refused to publish a dissenting view on SM on principle, this would be another conversation. (Unless of course it were a paper targeted at a BDSM community readership, in which case I think that choice is entirely up to them, unlike in a general-purpose community paper.)

Poor comparisons and hypotheticals aside, I’m all for critical dialogue as a general rule. The problem is that the vast majority of what I’ve read that calls itself “critical dialogue,” when it comes to SM, comes from people who either misunderstand or misrepresent the basic idea of what SM actually is. It’s like trying to talk about ethical choices of clothing brands and manufacturers with someone who believes the very existence of clothing is oppressive, or talking about your relationship troubles with someone who has a hate-on for your partner. It doesn’t end up feeling like dialogue at all – more like the same old misunderstanding and prejudice we’ve heard a hundred times before.

Even the idea of “peaceful persuasion” is creepy – I mean, someone can phrase it as politely as they want, but if they think I’m a rapist, oppressor or potential murderer because of my consensual and mutually desired sexual practices, I’m not going to be very interested in hearing their peaceful persuasion. Much like I’m not interested in entertaining a friendly conversation with an evangelical Christian who’s going to try convincing me I shouldn’t be queer. Too bad, buddy – you’ve lost me before you’ve even begun your speech. The question is not up for debate.

If someone were able to start such a conversation with the message that they understand SM is one form of sexual practice among many, that they’ve genuinely taken the time to see what it’s about and see how many people do it in non-damaging ways, that they know that it’s not considered a mental illness anymore, that they understand the basic differences between SM and abuse, that they might not engage in the practice but that they respect others’ choices to do so, etc., that would be a good start. Even if they had some leftover misconceptions or questions, or places that made them uncomfortable – we’d still be off to a good start. Then we could enter into dialogue about the specifics of certain acts, the way some particular practices may be questionable, the way some people might be vulnerable to the less scrupulous people that hang out in the BDSM community (like in any community), or the politics of representation. And I’d be much more interested in hearing their criticisms.

Debating my right to exist and feel the desires I feel, and act on them in consensual and non-damaging ways with other people who feel the same way, is not going to get anyone very far with me because it devalues my side of the debate as part of the very premise of it, and possibly even devalues my right-minded ability to enter such a debate. I would never presume to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do in bed, no matter what their political convictions and turn-ons might be, as long as it’s consensual – and I don’t appreciate anyone trying to do such a thing to me. On the other hand, debating the ways a community is constructed, the codes of conduct we follow, the places we need to improve or change – now that’s a conversation I can get into. Unfortunately Farley doesn’t hold up her end of it.

kink in three studies
December 24, 2008

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I began a project to review every essay contained in a most intriguing book entitled Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, a collection of academic articles about SM edited by Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser. I posted reviews of the first five articles (links here for the curious: the intricacies of SM, arbitrary associations vs coherent conclusions: a study with a split personality, the hidden dangers of spanking, an exploration of 24/7: please, authors, may i have some more?, and pop culture kink: questions and critiques) but life got distracting, weeks turned into months, and it’s now been quite a long time indeed since I engaged with my project.

Luckily, I’ve now got a whole new opportunity to do so, since the book club I run, the Leather Bindings Society, has chosen to read the book and discuss it over two of our next four meetings. Yum. What better time to return to it and continue in my endeavour to savour and critique everything in it? Sheer succulent joy, I tell you!

(It bears mentioning that the book’s publisher, Harrington Park Press, is an imprint of Haworth Press, which has gone out of business. As a result, if you want to get a copy of the book, you need to either pay the takeover publisher an outrageous amount of money since it’s been reclassified as a textbook, or find the original softcover secondhand. Because major chain stores are evil, I recommend ABEbooks for secondhand stuff, but you can also get it through Amazon or Chapters Indigo.)

The next essay on the list is entitled “Understanding Sadomasochism: An Empirical Examination of Four Perspectives,” by Patricia A. Cross and Kim Matheson, both of Carleton University in Ottawa.

In general, I’m actually pretty darned impressed with their work. They conducted three studies to assess current understandings of sadomasochism. I’ll quote their abstract since it lays out their approach quite clearly:

“In Study 1 questionnaires testing four academic views of SM were administered to individuals who self-defined as involved in SM. The psychoanalytic, psychopathology/medical model, radical feminist and escape-from-self perspectives were not supported. Study 2 examined ‘virtual’ sadomasochism as a source of information about sadomasochists in the real life world. Cluster analyses indicated that real-life and virtual sadomasochists share unique sexual proclivities. Study 3 examined an alternative view that identifies power as the commodity of importance in SM play. Content analysis of online SM encounters indicated that both ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ role-players used several specific techniques to create a power differential. These studies suggest that, contrary to many academic theories, power, and not the giving and receiving of pain, is at the core of SM.”

I’ll break down my review by the same three studies they conducted because my critiques are particular to each.

The first one’s easy. Their analysis is bang-on – no big surprise. They used a number of recognized personality testing tools for determining people’s emotional and psychological conditions, personal characteristics and political stances on various points, and compared their results to the prevailing theories about SM. Psychoanalysis would have it that people engage in SM because of shame and guilt, psychiatry and medicine think kinksters are sick in the head, radical feminists think SM is necessarily misogynistic and patriarchal, and social psychologists think we’re either trying to escape from our overly burdensome and complex selves (masochists) or to shore up a precarious sense of self (sadists). Blech. Fortunately, none of the battery of tests indicated that there was validity to any of theories when run through a sample of actual sadomasochists. It’s amazing how work like this still needs to be conducted in order to prove something that should be so patently obvious to anyone who has an ounce of critical thinking skills, so in that sense I ended up rolling my eyes a few times while reading this portion of the article, but I certainly appreciated the researchers’ thoroughness and relentless logic in explaining how they went about conducting their work, and the diplomacy with which they state their conclusions. I doubt I would have been so nice about it if I’d been authoring!

They make a couple of interesting demographic observations:

“In sum, the sadomasochists in our sample were relatively more likely to be in ongoing relationships than our comparison group, relatively more likely to report bisexual or homosexual proclivities, and tended to report more partners in their sexual histories than the comparison group. Taken together, a tentative picture emerges of our s/m sample as individuals whose sexual experiences and tastes in sexual partners may be broader than those of our sample of non-sadomasochists.”

Yep. That’s fair. Later, in the article’s conclusion, they write, “One might wonder, on the basis of these findings, whether sadomasochists are simply individuals for whom sex and sexuality play a relatively important role. One might wonder whether SM ought to be understood best as a game explored by the sexually sophisticated and adventurous, involving the manipulation of power for erotic purposes.” Also fair. A friend of mine says that what makes her different from non-kinky people is that, for her, sex is a hobby – and therefore pursued with the kind of creativity and enthusiasm that some reserve for, say, fine watercolour painting, or building extremely accurate model trains. Makes much sense to me.

The second study bugged me a little bit because the researchers’ logic felt a bit funny. Online sadomasochism and real-life sadomasochism are pretty darned different, in my humble opinion – not that online is necessarily bad, but it’s certainly dismissed by many real-life SMers as being a paltry substitute for the real thing, a practice engaged in by people who are too cowardly to just suck it up and come out to an event or a club, and a poor fantasy-land imitation of actual power exchange, not to mention that the physical experience is completely, or nearly completely, absent from online encounters.

They write, “As a follow-up, we then sought to examine the alternative perspective put forth by SM practitioners that sadomasochism is primarily about power, and not pain.” They quote Califia as the source of this idea, which makes me raise an eyebrow. While I’m not going to dispute that he might have written such a thing, I suspect this might be an instance of quoting out of context, or failing to sufficiently frame that statement in light of his other writings – Patrick is usually too nuanced in his analysis to make a blanket statement like that and expect that it would apply to all sadomasochists, or even most of them. It definitely annoys me to think that a team of researchers would base a study on such a simplistic statement about such an enormous and complex range of practices without questioning whether, perhaps, the motivations for sadomasochism might be different across the spectrum of its participants.

They continue, “To do this, we wanted to observe SM activities in progress so as to analyze the importance of power and the means by which it is exercised, implemented and controlled. However, obtaining access to SM interactions in progress proved to be difficult.”

Really? Is it truly all that difficult? I’m fairly certain that if a researcher wanted to watch some people play, they could go to a fetish night and simply open their eyes. Okay, so that approach wouldn’t fall within the confines of research guidelines for human subjects, but it certainly isn’t access that’s the problem. And when it comes to consent to research participation, sadomasochists have agreed to be filmed for documentaries, interviewed on the radio and in the newspaper, filmed for porn… lots of people most definitely consent to having their sadomasochistic activity observed, sometimes in visually recorded format. A researcher taking notes surely couldn’t be more threatening to potentially closeted subjects than a documentary-maker.

When it comes to finding potential subjects, it’s really not all that hard go through a publicly accessible venue or group and ask nicely whether anyone might consent to being observed while they play at the next dungeon party, for research purposes. Some players might even eroticize such an experience, for crying out loud! (Exhibitionism, anyone?) If efforts didn’t pan out in the researchers’ hometown of Ottawa, where the kink scene tends to be more closeted thanks to all the players who are government workers by day, they could have made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Montreal, or taken a quick train to Toronto, for access to thousands more publicly active kinky people. So to hear their reasoning being that real-life SM scenes are difficult to access makes me wonder whether they really tried all that hard, and if not, why not. Or, conversely, it makes me wonder if they made all kinds of efforts, but were rejected because there was something about their approach that was off-putting or offensive to their potential subjects. It’s really hard to know without speaking directly to the researchers, but the question definitely lingers.

All this being said, I did appreciate that they recognized the potential problem of evaluating SM based exclusively on online observations and so carried out a comparison of online SMers with real-life ones who agreed to fill out a questionnaire. They carried out a triple-pronged analysis of the results. Their conclusion? “…it appears that the virtual SM group was similar to real-life sadomasochists and dissimilar to non-sadomasochists, including fantasy role-players, on the self-report indices of sadomasochistic sexual proclivities.”

Fair enough. However, I think they could have gleaned some valuable information about where the potential differences might lie between the two groups if they’d asked why the online people chose not to play in real-life, or why the real-life people chose not to play online – that would most definitely have been an illuminating angle to take, and could have informed their subsequent analysis. I mean, your average model-train-building aficionado actually builds model trains, rather than exclusively joining an online group to talk about or pretend to build model trains – and wouldn’t the latter be a bit weird, and as such, wouldn’t basing a study of model-train-builders on such a population be comparably skewed? I get that the interest (proclivity) might be the same, but if the practice is so radically different, some distinction must exist. Still, it’s good that they came to no negative conclusions about online SMers based on their data.

As for the last study, it aimed to “assess the importance and role of power in SM interactions.” Once again, the data doesn’t cast a negative light on SMers, so I have to appreciate the researchers for their lack of anti-SM bias. At the same time, it feels kinda funny that they would assess the importance and role of power in SM interactions that take place exclusively online because really, when you’re doing SM online, what could you possibly be playing with other than power? There is no way to cause sensation, other than by using a power dynamic to compel one or more participants to self-inflict that sensation in the privacy of their own homes in a way that is not verifiable by anyone involved, including the dominant who’s actively taking part in the scenario. Necessarily, online SM is about power exchange. Therefore, necessarily, that power exchange must have a significant role, in a way that in real-life SM it might not. This is not the sort of thing you can control for in the way you can for personality traits or sexual history; the difference is inherent to the medium of the interaction. As a result, drawing any conclusions about the importance of power in SM from a sample of this kind means that it can only be relevant to people in a very similar situation, i.e., people who take part in SM online only.

The researchers address this by writing, “Nonetheless, the fact that real-life sadomasochists themselves tend to describe their encounters in terms of a power exchange suggests that these virtual scenarios may not be so very different from the real-life versions after all. Further, if in fact online SM encounters represent sadomasochistic fantasies, then the virtual events that transpire can reasonably be expected to reflect the aspects of SM that people find most desirable.”

That last piece is a problem for me. There’s a common saying in the BDSM community: “‘Never’ means wait six months.” In other words, people frequently show up in the real-life community saying that they will never want to (insert SM activity here), but as they are progressively exposed to it by means of seeing it take place, hearing others’ stories about it, reading about it and so forth, they slowly, or not so slowly, change their minds. People who show up in the BDSM world because they want to get flogged find themselves stuck full of needles and loving it. People who find piss play gross find themselves greedily lapping up urine. People who start out as submissives find themselves exploring dominance. And so on, and so forth. And that’s not even counting the SM practices that people might not even know exist until they see it happen – it’s very hard to fantasize about something you haven’t thought of yet.

On the flip side, a lot of people show up in the BDSM world with intense and elaborate fantasies and very little practical information. It doesn’t take long to realize that the fantasy of 24/7 domestic servitude can be a lot sexier than the reality of it, or that activities that make for a great come shot during solo masturbation often don’t translate into real-life play with the same excitement charge. So real-life SM practice is often markedly different from fantasy SM precisely because it happens in real life, where things don’t always go according to a script, and the unexpected weaves together with the pre-existing to form a whole that simply can’t be experienced in a one-dimensional medium like the Internet.

All in all, “Understanding Sadomasochism” does some excellent work toward matter-of-factly debunking a lot of the prevailing myths about BDSM that poorly informed academics and professionals have turned into “expert” theory and diagnostic criteria, which is an excellent project and one that I haven’t seen undertaken by any other researchers in this way. My praise largely goes toward Study 1 of the article. I just wish they’d done a bit more work toward ironing out the problems in the second and third studies rather than explaining and justifying why those problems shouldn’t be too relevant. Unfortunately they are relevant, and although I’m very happy that the researchers didn’t draw any pejorative conclusions about SMers, the flaws makes those studies much less helpful on the whole.

taking a trip down memory lane with anti-SM feminism*
December 20, 2008

*I originally posted this on January 11, 2007. I followed it up with a second post, which I will re-post here next week as a continuation of the theme.

Oh, but before you read it, check out Inverted Eye, a new online boutique that is… well, I almost don’t want to spoil the surprise.  Suffice it to say that it’s a very different trip down memory lane, and one that’s dandy-delicious, deeply kinky and thoroughly original. Okay, so at the end of this post I’ll add Alix’s little intro blurb to the site and the concept, but I encourage you to go and take a look for yourself first. What a treasure trove! (Personally I’m lusting after the antique test tubes… so many possibilities…)

***

A couple of days ago, on an international BDSM list I’m on, someone posted the link to a 1993 article entitled “Ten Lies About Sadomasochism” by Melissa Farley. It was such a textbook example of reactionary anti-sex feminism that I read the whole thing through and was completely fascinated. It’s a fairly quick read – I totally encourage you to go take a look. I’m going to unpack it here a bit but it’s long enough that I’m going to post only highlights. It is, by the way, focused on lesbian sadomasochism, which makes it particularly meaty in my little world.

It’s funny – when I find these things I consider them to be almost like buried treasure. Clearly I disagree point by point with what Farley and her brand of feminism have (perhaps more like “had”) to say, but it’s such an intriguing glimpse into a sex-related thought process that’s so completely alien to me, I can’t help but enjoy the trip. Much like the book Against Sadomasochism, edited by Robin Linden et al. Classic!

These two texts are some of many, many examples I’ve seen of skewed thinking about S/M on the part of a person who clearly hasn’t actually taken the time to look past the “shocking” images and learn about the nuances of what’s really going on. This kind of thing used to bother me, but now it just kinda bores me – yeah yeah, another person getting all tied up in knots (or not, as the case may be!) about something they don’t really understand. Oh well. They can masturbate with a non-penetrative sex toy while listening to Helen Reddy, while I spell my name in needles on someone’s back and then ass-fuck them to the sound of loud multiple orgasms. To each their kinks. It’s unfortunate that they choose to be reactionary instead of considering the deeper meanings of things, but it certainly doesn’t make them right.

Since Farley makes it really easy by laying things out in a ten-point list of “lies,” I’m going to give a few responses to the points. Do go and read the article, though, if you want to see the meat of her arguments, some of which I’ll include for context, but not all because of length.

For starters, some general criticism: the piece reads like a tabloid article. People addicted to SM! Murders only whispered about but not openly acknowledged! The goal of SM being total annihilation! All SM including verbal abuse, and all sexual power dynamics extending to the relationship outside play! Oy. Hardly the stuff of considered, clear-headed analysis, works cited list notwithstanding. Fun from a pulp-novel point of view, mind you.

1. Pain is pleasure; humiliation is enjoyable; bondage is liberation.

Part of the reason that we are vulnerable to this lie is that many of us were raised with religious notions that punishment is love and that suffering is redemption. We’ve learned to “consent” to subordination, even become culturally enthralled by it.

True; some of us have been deeply damaged by repressive religious notions. Interestingly those are often the same notions that say we’re not supposed to enjoy sex or be queer – but Farley doesn’t seem to be telling us we aren’t really queer, that lesbianism is just a reaction to religious oppression. Also interesting that this supposed cultural enthrallment with our own subordination is so all-powerful that it eclipses our power of choice… and even more so that it only explains the submissive/bottom side of things. It does take two to tango, after all – would the reverse of this argument be that dominants/tops have become culturally enthralled with control and empowerment? Isn’t it interesting that there seem to be two polar-opposite cultures at work here, simultaneously, one of which would seem to predicate an awful lot of power and choice, if you choose to look at SM one-dimensionally in the first place? Of course it isn’t that simple in real life… which is exactly the point.

2. Sadomasochism is love and trust, not domination and annihilation.

Sadomasochism has to do with annihilation. Contrary to the popular legend that sadomasochism expands one’s sexuality, I believe that it restricts and ultimately destroys one’s sexual being. Subordination, humiliation, and torture are all means of deliberately destroying the self.

Hee hee. Annihilation? My goodness. There must be an awful lot of us getting annihilated. Honestly, if I were interested in that, it’d be a lot faster to just take a gun to someone’s head – all this painstaking study of proper bondage technique and blood safety protocol would be pretty much a waste of time. Awww, and I was having so much fun! Not to mention all those awesome orgasms my destroyed sexual being seems to be capable of experiencing and providing. Maybe I’m just making those up.

Farley then goes on to quote an article about infamous Texas cult leader Koresh, about how he “entwined ‘sex, violence, love and fear’” in order to control cult members. A rather hysterical comparison if you ask me – I have yet to encounter a BDSM cult, though I’d be intrigued if ever there was one. (Oooh! Crazy people with great accessories!) Unfortunately for Farley, though, BDSM is usually a lot more banal – it’s generally sought out by its participants and includes no brainwashing or kooky religious beliefs.

She also mentions (disgustedly) a 1990 article by Jan Brown entitled, “Sex, Lies and Penetration, a Butch Finally ‘Fesses Up,” where Brown writes: “Sex that is gentle, passive, egalitarian, does not move us. (…) We want to have the freedom to ignore ‘no’ or have our own ‘no’ ignored.”

Luckily I happen to have the article in its entirety because it’s included in Joan Nestle’s The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. The full article is not available online, unfortunately, so you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s basically a rant on the part of a sex-positive butch dyke former sex worker. She’s pretty much sick of all kinds of PC justifications for liking such things as penetration (it’s all about the nerve endings!), dildos (they’re a plastic tribute to our lesbian herstory!) and rough sex (we frame it with safewords and that’s why it’s hot!), and is trying to explain that really, we just like that shit because it’s deep-down hot all on its own. She is totally not advocating rape or nonconsent – she’s explaining that the desires running through sexual practice are not explainable in PC terms but must be understood for what they are. I love this quoting-out-of-context thing Farley’s doing. Notice Brown talks about the freedom to ignore “no,” not the obligation to. Yeesh.

3. Sadomasochism is not racist and anti Semitic even though we “act” like slave owners and enslaved Africans, Nazis and persecuted Jews.

Farley describes a race-play scene she saw once (Nazi torturer, Jewish captive). Don’t get me wrong – I totally understand how this kind of thing might trigger some people to anger. Much like a rape scene in a movie might trigger a rape victim. But it’s that very charge that makes race play (and rape play for that matter) a major erotic thriller for some folks. The emphasis being on “some” – I’ve probably seen two or three such scenes in my entire life, so they’re hardly emblematic of the entire community. I’ve only even read one article on the topic, and it’s by Midori, who’s a queer Japanese-American switch herself – hardly a spokesperson for the white male patriarchy.

But for those who go there, the whole point is that it’s risky emotional territory – not because the players are unaware of the risk, but because they are highly aware of it. I’d direct my real anger at the ignorant people who perpetuate racism in places outside their consensual fantasy life, not the ones who consensually and consciously explore the erotic power of race-related taboo in very specific and defined contexts.

Farley then goes on to say: If a radical feminist were to challenge (a) newspaper on the issue of sadomasochism, we’d be called “censors.” The whole issue of censorship is used to intimidate us and silence critical dialogue about sadomasochism.

Farley is taking a very odd view of censorship here. She seems to think all anti-SM sentiments are being blocked from expression. Um… proof to the contrary being the publication of her article, no? Cry me a river, honey – MacKinnon and Dworkin’s work, which you so dearly admire, was used as the basis for Canada’s customs laws, which Little Sisters queer bookstore in Vancouver has been battling for over a decade. Not to mention, just take a look at Canada’s laws… or the US’s recent FBI-approved clampdowns on SM porn and websites. It’s hardly the anti-SM dialogue that’s being squelched, even 14 years after this article was published!

4. Sadomasochism is consensual; no one gets hurt if they don’t want to get hurt. No one has died from sadomasochistic “scenes.”

Is it ever OK to consent to one’s own humiliation and victimization? I do not think so. Sadists pay lip service to consent, but ignore the power systems which create inequality and make meaningful consent impossible. In this culture we have no experience of equal power relationships.

Actually, it’s very much OK to consent to one’s own humiliation. I think the word “victimization” is not really the right one here because the word itself implies non-consent, but I do think it’s also OK to consent to one’s own torture. That OK-ness is the only thing that makes consent meaningful at all – the fact that we have the choice. If we’ve only got one choice, there’s no power in making it; it’s already being made for us, whether by the patriarchy or by feminism.

We don’t have to like all the choices in front of us, and if we think that some of them are being affected by lack of information or whatever, then we should provide as many alternative viewpoints as possible to make choices as meaningful as they can be. But the old feminist argument that there’s no such thing as empowered sexual choice in a sexist world is pretty defeatist and circular, all things considered – which is probably why it’s a lot less commonly heard these days. It’s no fun to have our ability to make sexual choices denied by the very community that’s supposed to be supporting our empowerment. Results in far fewer orgasms, too. I’m much more interested in feminism that takes a realistic look at the forces of society while also factoring in the realistic choices we each make to fulfil our desires.

Extreme violence sometimes occurs during sadomasochistic “play.” I have been informed of many instances where “safe” words were ignored during a sadomasochistic “scene.” I also know that women have died during sadomasochistic activities and that these deaths are only whispered about – they are not openly acknowledged.

Note the author stops short of naming names, providing case details and openly acknowledging any such deaths herself – hmmm, I wonder why? I’m sure some people ignore safewords, but that makes them abusers, not players. (Check out the differences between SM and abuse here if you’re interested in a really articulate breakdown.) Perhaps a few nutcases have even killed their bottoms, but then they’re criminals and possibly psychopaths, not SM players – no matter how they dress up. Those are the sorts of people who get ostracized by the kinky folks, and hopefully arrested; can’t say I’ve ever met one. But I highly doubt there’s a huge list of unsolved BDSM-related murders out there or the attendance at fetish balls would doubtless plummet.

5. Sadomasochism is only about sex. It doesn’t extend into the rest of the relationship.

Sadomasochism has everything to do with sexism, racism and class in the real world. It is very much related to internalized self-hatred.

That’s why we’re all enjoying ourselves so much…?

The sadistic sexual relationship sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.

Possibly, in instances of consensual D/s. Otherwise it’s abusive, and once again – abuse is not SM. (Key distinction: watch for the bottom’s orgasm, or failing that, their look of sheer bliss.)

Hitting someone is usually a sadistic act.

Wrong. Hitting someone (outside BDSM) is usually an angry act, not a sadistic one. Refer back to the article on SM vs abuse. Abuse is not nearly as much fun.

Assault and rape do occur in lesbian relationships – and they are normalized by the patterns laid down sexually.

Yes, assault does occur between women, and can indeed be supported by sexualized patterns. Once again, though: are they having fun? No? Probably abusive. Yes? Then what are we worried about?

6. Sadomasochistic pornography has no relationship to the sadomasochistic society we live in. “If it feels good, go with it.” “We create our own sexuality.”

We internalize sadomasochistic fantasies because it is the sexuality which has been shoved down our throats from the day we were born. As women we’re raised to be “bottoms:” lesbian “bottoms” tend to outnumber “tops” [sadists] by 10 to 1.

True – not in quite such a high ratio, but Trevor Jacques’ massive 1999 study on BDSM demographics (it’s fucking fascinating!) indicates that women are statistically more likely to be bottoms, lesbian or otherwise. We could speculate on all kinds of reasons for this, and doubtless some of them are society-related. However, the existence of such stats still doesn’t explain lesbian tops, switches, het male bottoms, or gay male bottoms – clearly there are other options than bottoming, and presumably the bottoms are there because they want to be. There’s always a huge number of male bottoms too, to the point where it’s a common in-joke in the SM world that female tops get mobbed by male bottoms as soon as they walk into a dungeon. So, uh, what’s the point?

7. Lesbians “into sadomasochism” are feminists, devoted to women, and a women-only lesbian community. Lesbian pornography is “by women, for women.”

While lesbians who are “into sadomasochism” define themselves as lesbian, their sadomasochistic practices are bisexual. I have no political criticism of bisexuality – what I am criticizing is sadomasochist posturing as devoted lesbian members of the women’s community.

Wow. Now that’s a huge unsupported and unsupportable blanket statement about an entire community’s sexual practice. Last time I checked, there really were SM lesbians out there. SM bi girls too. Some are devoted members of the women’s community, some not.

Sure, it’s unfortunate that some people keep their bisexuality in the closet, but they’re hardly restricted to the SM world – lots of vanilla women define themselves as lesbians and still boink the occasional dude. And if there’s no political criticism of bisexuality implied, why would its existence in the women’s community imply posturing or lack of devotion? Sure sounds like political criticism to me. Not to mention irrelevant to SM.

Pseudolesbian pornography, that is, pictures of women who are imitating lesbians’ sexual behavior, has been a favored element in straight male pornography since it was first published. It sells. Despite the fact that it is often advertised as being owned and distributed by and for women, “lesbian” pornography sells briskly to straight men.

Well, of course pseudolesbian porn would. I highly doubt the real stuff is nearly as interesting. The indie handicam stuff made by (hot) pierced and tattooed plus-size butch dykes in San Francisco has very little in common with the stuff you get on the late-night channel and doesn’t “sell briskly” to anyone; it costs $60 a video, gets stopped at the border more often than not, and is only available at independently run co-ops – which I dearly love and support as often as I can with my hard-earned cash, but really. Real lesbian porn is not exactly a massive moneymaking endeavour. But the main point being: what does all this have to do with SM?

Bottoms are seen as “generic, interchangeable, and replaceable.”  (Califia, 1992)

Now this is a quote out of context if ever I’ve seen one. I can’t seem to find the original article online in full either, but it’s reprinted in the book Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics and Practice, edited by Mark Thompson, which I also luckily have on my shelf.

The article itself is about the ways in which tops and bottoms bitch about each other within the SM community and make life difficult for each other. A classic example of the way Califia directs his acidic criticism at those he loves best – in a book intended for a readership of SMers, not as an educational tool for outsiders. In fact he contextualizes the entire thing in the first few paragraphs by writing:

“The dialogue within our community about how S/M works on a day-to-day level and how we can form healthy identities as radical perverts has to grow beyond the elementary information we offer outsiders who are still having a hard time making a distinction between rape and an erotic spanking.”

(And what sort of outsider do you think he’s talking about here, Ms. Farley?…)

In the paragraphs preceding the quote, Califia criticizes bottoms who objectify tops:

“I have yet to meet a top who didn’t feel they were frequently depersonalized and objectified by the people who cruise them. This is an odd sensation. You know that sombody wants you bad, but you’re not sure they know who the hell you are. (…) Some forms of masochism and fetishism are actually very sophisticated and complex forms of masturbation. Although the fantasy of a partner’s presence may be necessary to make the imagined situation arousing, that dominant has no more independent needs or feelings than a seven-inch high heel or a see-through plastic raincoat. (…) Autoerotic S/M is not inherently bad, immature, or oppressive. But it’s much easier to fulfill these fantasies by jerking off or hiring a professional than it is to persuade someone else to cooperate out of philanthropy.”

Then, and only then, does he turn his criticism against tops:

“It’s not just bottoms who treat their potential partners like things. Bottoms are even more likely to be seen as generic, interchangeable, and replaceable than tops. Dare I say that it would be healthy for tops to learn a little more respect and humility?”

And then he continues with other bitching: how the community doesn’t always make it easy for people who want to switch, for tops to learn how to structure a scene so it’s satisfying for them as tops, and so forth.

So… hardly an example of Califia telling the world that bottoms don’t matter. Crikey.

8. Since lesbians are superior to men, we can “play” with sadomasochism in a liberating way that heterosexuals can not.

I do not think that women are biologically superior to men. In fact, I see that notion as dangerous and reactionary. “Anatomy is destiny” is not exactly a feminist idea.

Thank goodness, there’s a bit of reason in here. At last, Farley and I agree on something!

Occasionally in the SM world there are people known as “female supremacists” who truly believe women are biologically superior to men. They tend to be hetero guys who eroticize this dynamic, and the hetero women that like such men. I have yet to meet a leatherdyke who thinks this way; outside certain specific kinds of hetero kink, this line of thinking is largely the province of essentialist feminist radicals from the ’70s, not of the modern leatherdyke. Just because we mugrunch doesn’t mean we manhate (even my non-bisexual sisters).

We delude ourselves if we think it is possible to “play” the rapist without becoming the rapist.

So there’s no difference between playing a role and becoming a criminal? Gee, all those gun-toting film stars must have crazy long murder rap sheets then…

9. Reenacting abuse heals abuse. Sadomasochism heals emotional wounds from childhood sexual assault.

A greater percentage of women “into sadomasochism” have histories of childhood sexual assault, than those women who do not participate in sadomasochism.

Really? What study shows this? Why is it not in the works cited list?

I just checked out page 22 of Jacque’s survey data (here’s the link again), which covers this very point for this specific demographic. If you average out the first three categories of childhood abuse – physical, sexual and emotional – it would seem that 44% of his female survey respondents reported being abused, and 22% of the male respondents. Specifically, for women: 34.7% physically, 44.4% sexually and 53.6% emotionally. And for men: 16.8% physically, 16.8% sexually and 32% emotionally.

Now, I’m not a statistician and I’m not an abuse researcher, but here’s the data that came up in the first few Google pages when I searched for the words statistics, abuse, women and Canada:

- “1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males in Canada experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.” (From the Safe Kids BC site, quoting the 1999 McCreary Adolescent Health Survey II)

- “Sexual abuse statistics vary between countries and reports, but are consistently alarming: One country’s research indicates that up to 36% of girls and 29% of boys have suffered child sexual abuse; another study reveals up to 46% of girls and 20% of boys have experienced sexual coercion (The 57th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights).” (From the statistics page of the Child Abuse Effects site.)

Basically, as Trevor himself has said at numerous presentations of this data (most recently, in my attendance at least, at the 9th International Bi Conference in Toronto last summer), this is pretty consistent with his data on BDSMers. At the very least, if there are percentage variations, they’re hardly enormous. In other words – we’re no more or less likely to have been abused as kids. So let’s get over this argument already!

Farley also engages in a twisted piece of psychological speculation about people’s motivations for SM that I’m not even going to try to unpack here because it’s so full of “may” and “might” and “does not seem” it might as well say nothing at all – and is utterly devoid of any real psychological data or even reference to psychological theory, even of the armchair variety.

Suffice it to say that a carefully constructed scene that allows someone to enter risky emotional territory can indeed be healing, but there are no guarantees, and most sane adults only engage in that sort of thing with a great deal of care and awareness of its risks. You’re highly unlikely to see someone at the local dungeon acting out their childhood abuse scenario to achieve psychological healing. I mean just for starters, it can be more than a little freaky for a top to be cast in the role of someone’s former abuser – you have to really trust your bottom if you’re going to enter that kind of scenario and come out the other end feeling good about it!

10. Sadomasochism is political dissent. It is progressive and even “transgressive” in that it breaks the rules of the dominant sexual ideology.

The posturing of sadists and masochists as “transgressive” can be confusing to those not familiar with feminist theory. By definition, the ultimate goal of feminism is to end sadomasochism.

Depends what kind of feminist theory you’re talking about – anyone who does know anything about feminist theory can tell you there are many many flavours of it! Try sex-positive feminism. It’s fun, and one of my personal favourites.

Our system is sadomasochistic to the core, how is celebrating it any kind of true rebellion? (Fritz, 1983). The political values of sadism are blatantly antifeminist, totalitarian and right-wing.

That’s why we have to fight censorship, risk losing custody of our kids and function at the edges of the law – because we’re right in keeping with the dominant system. Huh?

Sadomasochism is not a creative deviation from normal heterosexual behavior. It is the defining quality of the power relationship between women and men. Sadism is the logical extension of behavior that arises out of male power (Wagner, 1982).

Which explains why all those lesbians and fags are doing it together, and why there are female tops? Wow, does this ever show a simplistic view of power relations.

We live in a misogynist world, and women have so little political power, that it’s easier to fantasize about absolute personal power than to politically organize for change (Clarke, 1993).

Funny, the leatherdykes of my acquaintance are generally among the most politically active people I know. Much like a significant number of major feminist activists are lesbians (and historically have been too, perhaps even more so in the past than today). Maybe because when you’re a minority within a minority (or a minority within a minority within a minority in the case of leatherdykes) you understand just how much you’re fighting for?

Anyway – this article was published in 1993, so almost 15 years ago, near the tail end of the “sex wars” where this kind of rhetoric was common. Of course some people still feel this way, but in my experience at least it’s far less common now, thank goodness. Nonetheless… an interesting trip indeed!

***

As promised, here’s Alix’s blurb:

***

Dear admirer of the uncommon, enthusiast of the exceptional, appreciator of the unusual and fan of all things fetish.

I am thrilled to announce that the Inverted Eye online store launched today, just in time for the holiday season!  And for those not “in the know”, the Inverted Eye is a sophisticated vintage store offering subtly kinky items and discreet fetish antiques.

So if you were wondering what gift you could possibly buy your favorite sweetheart, friend “with benefits”, daddy, girlfriend, mistress, spouse, doctor, burlesque dancer, sailor, barber or equestrian-lover, look no further.

While the online store debuted with over 250 items of carefully hand picked inventory, I will be adding an additional 250 extraordinary pieces over the next few weeks, so be sure to check back frequently.

Also, be sure not to miss the movie on the Home Page that stars fourteen incredibly sexy models who are dressed thematically to correspond to the areas of merchandise offered on the site, which includes Medical, Barber, Equestrian, Domestic, Juvenile, Scholastic, Uniform, Kitsch, Vaudeville & XXX treasures!

Finally, as I am committed to making the experience as compelling and user-friendly as possible, I welcome all feedback.

With gratitude,

Alix Izen
Owner, Inverted Eye
InvertedEye.com

expectations of dominance: picking through the tangle
December 16, 2008

Lately, I’ve come across a number of instances that have made it really clear to me that people in the BDSM/leather world have a wide range of completely disparate ideas about what a dominant should or shouldn’t be. For all that dominant kinksters are, well, dominant, that doesn’t mean we’re any less affected by other people’s ideas of “should” and “shouldn’t,” so it feels like it’s worth laying out some of the expectations that are projected upon us by others within the kink world if only to show that there’s no possible way any human being could live up to all of them at once.

1. Role-play is where it’s at. All dominance is theatre.

One striking example happened during a facilitated discussion at a kink event I recently attended. We were talking about the nature of power and how that impacts behaviour in public kink space, and a dominant-identified guy spoke up to say that he just assumes everyone’s doing role-play. For him, that means that he can be Lord High Muckety-Muck with the person he’s playing with, but Joe Everyman to the other people in the room, even in the middle of play—as in, “On your knees, slut! … What’s that? Sure, Bob, you can borrow my handcuffs. Now, where was I? … Worship my boots, you lowly wench!” Which, of course, is all fine and good for him, except that he insisted that he would assume that about everyone in the room. When I spoke up and said that for some people, dominance and submission is a way of life, and a paradigm for full-time relationships, he still insisted that he’d assume it was role-play.

I can just imagine the conversations he might get into:

“What do you call her when you’re not in role?”
“We don’t do roles.”
“Okay, but what do you call her when you’re not playing?”
“The same thing I call her when we are playing.”
“You mean you’re role-playing all the time?”
“No, we aren’t role-playing. We live this way.”
“Sure, right, but when you’re at home and hanging out, I mean.”
“Yes. That’s what I mean.”
“But…”

…and so on, and so forth. For people like Muckety/Joe, there is nothing other than role-play, and therefore anything outside that paradigm simply does not compute, even when they’re faced with clear information that other ways of doing things exist.

Such people hold an opinion that stands polar opposite to…

2. 24/7 power exchange is where it’s at. All dominance is full-time, and full-time is the only real kind.

We all hate the Domly Doms who spread their domliness all over everyone who gets within ten feet of them. I’ve bitched extensively about this in any number of posts (like this one), and others, like the ever-sharp Franklin Veaux, have done excellent writing on the topic. Of course it pisses everyone off (many 24/7ers included) when people who engage in D/s relationships impose their power exchange on people around them who have not consented to it.

But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. While the evil Domly Doms are definitely all manner of irritating, those particular problem cases actually hold two assumptions: first, that all dominance is full-time, and second, that they don’t need to respect (or even ask about or notice) other people’s boundaries. The second one has most of us spitting tacks because it’s so bloody awful. But the first one can be highly problematic even when it’s not being expressed in the form of outright disrespectful behaviour of the misplaced-entitlement sort. The simple issue of expecting that all dominance is full-time (usually paired with the idea that all dominance is formal in flavour) is a lot subtler. It tends to come out in conversation…

Dominant: “I have my slave mow the lawn twice a week, polish the 200-piece silverware set every second Tuesday, and prepare a formal dinner for all the dominants in our leather family four times a year. How often do you do that for your master?”
Submissive: “Um, my dominant isn’t my master. He’s in charge in the bedroom, but we leave that separate from the rest of our lives.”
Dominant: (sniff) “Oh. I see.”

Similar conversations play out between dominants and between submissives—you get the idea. The problem here is that lots of people who assume 24/7 dynamics often end up creating a world in their heads in which anyone who isn’t doing 24/7 is somehow not really kinky, not really dominant, not really submissive, and most certainly not really worth giving the time of day. They don’t necessarily say so outright, but it comes through in attitude and demeanour, in tone and language, in a way that serves to bolster the impression, on the part of both kinky people and the general public, that 24/7 people are just people with control issues, balance problems and poor social skills.

This assumption also leads to deep and sometimes painful misunderstandings between people who are looking for different things. Sometimes such people don’t entirely know how to articulate what they’re after because they assume everyone else wants a full-time dynamic just like they do.

This is especially a problem when someone holding this assumption encounters someone who thinks that…

3. Extra-curricular power exchange is where it’s at. All dominance is part-time.

Then there are the dominants who do ongoing power-based relationships, but who still keep those at a distance from “real life.” I was chatting with someone not long ago who has a slave and a partner, and as the conversation progressed, it became really clear that we were using the same language to talk about very different things. It went something like this:

Him: “But of course, while my partner and I play sometimes, our relationship is fundamentally power-neutral.”
Me: “Oh, neat. I did that for a long time, and it was wonderful, but now that I’m with partners in a full-time power dynamic, I find it seems to be a better fit for me.”
Him (incredulous): “You mean they’re always your bois? And your partners? At the same time?”
Me: “Um, yeah.”
Him: “You mean you never step out of it? Wow, that’s intense! I could never do that! With me, I’m Sir Jack Nasty with my slave, but at home I’m just Jack.”

Until that point, we’d been using the same vocabulary to talk about our relationships—submissive, power, service, collars, training and so forth—but the extent of those relationships is vastly different for each of us. Jack’s power relationships aren’t role-play, in that with a given person the relationship is always the same. But the intensity of D/s partnerships is such that, for him, they can’t become full-time, while for me with my bois, full-time is what makes sense. He feels most fulfilled when he’s got a balance of at-home power-neutral stability and out-of-home power-based dynamics.

Again, there’s no problem inherent in his approach to things. However, if he were to become involved with a submissive who thought Sir Nasty and Jack were one and the same, and who really wanted a full-time dynamic, things would crumble. Eventually Sir Nasty would need a break, Jack would emerge, and the submissive would be dropped and confused. In theory, without careful management, the same thing could happen even in a part-time arrangement unless both partners were well aware that Sir Nasty is not a full-time identity, and therefore the submissive might at some point encounter Jack. They’d want to agree on an appropriate way of interacting in such a situation so that neither of them would wind up feeling weird about it.

A related, but not identical, assumption is that…

4. Playing with power is where it’s at. All dominance is about SM, and all SM is about dominance.

This particular paradigm is oddly one of the most dangerous, in my opinion. It doesn’t have to be, but it certainly can be, because when it comes to play, we often engage in short negotiations for intense experiences, sometimes with people we don’t know too well.

As with anything else, this paradigm isn’t inherently bad if you’re applying it solely to yourself, but the problem is that almost all SM play is done in pairs or groups. So if two or more people enter a situation with completely opposing understandings of what they’re up to in terms of power, no matter how well they negotiate the specific physical activities they plan to engage in, they’re likely to come out with widely divergent degrees of satisfaction with the encounter.

I’ve had experiences on both sides of the coin. It’s happened numerous times that I’ve agreed to top someone, we’ve negotiated what we’ll do, and then something clues me into their unstated expectations. For example, many years ago, a friend and I entered a scene that up until the last possible second—flogger poised for the first strike—I thought was a fun sensation scene, when he said, “Oh, wait! What do you want me to call you while we play?” The flogger dropped, and the negotiation started up all over again. He assumed I’d want to be called me Ma’am or Sir or something to indicate and reinforce a power differential, but I didn’t even realize a power differential was present or desired. All was well, we sorted it out and had a lovely time, but I came awfully close to taking up one end of a dynamic, however temporary, that I hadn’t consented to and wasn’t aware of. Had we not caught it at the last second, I would doubtless have unintentionally dropped that energy and left him feeling nicely beaten but ultimately unfulfilled. In theory, if not specifically with this friend, I might also have felt suckered into a power dynamic that I didn’t want and that I was now stuck with holding up so as not to hurt his feelings or be an irresponsible dominant.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve often negotiated with tops for sensation scenes—I am a greedy masochist—and then noticed that despite all assurances to the contrary, the top in question was unable to separate pain play from power play. For me, giving or taking a beating (or other intense physical experience) is not inherently about power exchange at all. Just as I don’t assume others want my dominance, I don’t generally want power exchange with a top when I grab the bottom spot. I just want to go on an intensity trip that’s about physical contact, sensation, breathing, connection, and enjoying an endorphin high (ideally shared). But it’s amazing how a person—myself, yes, but others too—can clearly state what they’re after and still have a top misunderstand and pull out the Domly Dominant attitude in the middle of what might otherwise have been a very enjoyable scene. There’s no buzzkill quite like it. Having had this experience with a few too many people, I’ve become really selective about who I bottom to. Even if I might personally like to get the beats more often, the grouchiness that I feel following inappropriate power-plays isn’t worth the price of admission.

Sure, it’s entirely possible to order a submissive to beat me, but then there’s still power exchange going on, I’m just on the other side of it. The point is that sometimes I just wanna fly, and neither be responsible for someone else’s well-being when I come down nor be expected to kiss someone’s whip handle.

Tons of people hold kinky desires that have nothing to do with power exchange, and for which an exchange between equals works best… but that can be oddly hard to find.

And now, in a completely mirror version of assumption number 4, we have…

5. Intense sensation is where it’s at. All SM is about sensation; dominance is disturbing.

Here we have the flip-side paradigm of the last one. In this one, people assume that nobody plays with power, or at least, that nobody should; that dominance and submission are freaky and strange and potentially dangerous (except maybe for role play, because that’s not really real). Folks who operate under this paradigm tend to see power exchange as that thing those weird people do over there. Or, even if they’re not uncomfortable with it or hostile to it, they certainly don’t engage in it themselves. For them, it’s all about the sensation trip; anything else feels irrelevant. Protocols are a waste of time, collars are just jewellery, and titles are pretentious.

Again, when you’re applying this paradigm only to yourself, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem lies in the potentially judgmental aspects that come into play when you’re filtering what everyone else does through that paradigm. The additional problem is that when whole sub-communities or social networks are created around this paradigm, people who do want power exchange, whether momentary or ongoing, can end up feeling like they have to be extremely careful—sometimes even more so than among vanilla folk—about disclosing or displaying their power-based relationships. To a sensation-only crowd, those relationships and interactions can be read as abusive (at worst), or off-putting (at best), even when they’re fully consensual and desired. Thus we wind up with kinky people who are alienated from their local scenes because nobody there really gets them, and instead of support and affirmation, or even just curiosity, they get a lot of funny looks and potentially even accusations.

And now we come to my favourite of all…

6. Dominance is where it’s at, and dominance is a public commodity. If you’re a dominant, you should take all comers.

Not long ago, I took part in a discussion on FetLife in which someone asked if people agreed that dominants should take on submissives (I presume he meant those who gravitate toward 24/7 dynamics) who seemed to be lacking a master, simply because they might otherwise fall into the wrong hands.

Needless to say, I strongly disagreed. One of the things I realized a few years ago was that no matter how compatible I might be with someone on paper, and no matter how much I enjoy the dance of power exchange, the right chemistry has to be present or my heart just isn’t in it. And when my heart isn’t in it, when my desire is not active and vibrant and strong, I can’t possibly do my job well. Earlier in my learning curve, I made the mistake of saying yes to people who wanted to serve me when I should have said no. Not only did I feel frustrated, disappointed or otherwise dissatisfied with the ensuing relationships, I hurt the people I was involved with along the way. Now that I’ve learned my lesson, that is a mistake I will not make again.

So with that in mind—do I feel responsible for taking on every person who wants to serve me? Hell no. I feel it would actually be irresponsible for me to do so. Besides, what submissive would want to be the one taken on just because a dominant felt obliged to? Icky icky. Not to mention the sheer impracticality of such a project. One only has so much time and energy to go around, and M/s or D/s relationships are intense. No matter how poly, there comes a point where you just can’t keep saying yes and still have anything of quality to offer. As well, I’m sure many dominants have encountered lots of people who petition for service relationships but who really just want to live out an extended sexual fantasy. It certainly isn’t my job to take them on one after another until they each figure out this isn’t what they were expecting based on all those erotic fiction novels they read.

The original question is one of the many instances in which I’ve seen the desires and limits of a dominant seen as being of secondary importance, even sometimes among dominants themselves. It never ceases to puzzle me when people place a huge amount of importance on the consent of a submissive, but pooh-pooh the idea that a dominant should hold their own consent to a similar standard.

In an interesting related point, a commenter on a fellow blogger’s site recently likened me to a rapist. The blogger’s post referred to my post entitled “the dominant’s consent” in which I talk about the many facets of meaning, both spoken and unspoken, that can be present in a negotiation. In it, I outlined a number of the questions that have come up for me in past encounters when people have wanted me to take up power beyond my own comfort level, and in which I have refused to do so because something didn’t feel quite right and I wasn’t willing to enter into a power-exchange situation that I felt wasn’t entirely healthy.

The blogger who reacted to my post felt that I was being overly analytical and taking the fun out of things, and that somehow that approach was creepy and paternalistic. I don’t entirely get why analysis is creepy, or why wishing to play with emotionally healthy people is paternalistic, but they’re entitled to their opinion, of course—and I’m still not going to consent to play with people if I think their expectations (especially the unstated ones) are a poor match for what I have to offer. What really shocked me, though, was the commenter, who took it a step further, saying that my approach, in negative image, would be much like a rapist’s approach to a victim – as in, deciding on that person’s consent on their behalf.

Wow. It amazes me to see the degree of expectation such a viewpoint places on a dominant to take all comers, even against their better judgment. But I gotta say, it doesn’t surprise me. If a dominant says “no” because they don’t feel competent to perform the sort of scene a submissive has in mind or hold up their end of the sort of relationship a submissive wants, that’s supposed to be good. Most of the time. But if a dominant says “no” because the submissive creeps them out, the chemistry is wrong, the submissive’s emotional health or communication skills are questionable, and so forth, apparently that’s… like rape? If you flip the power dynamics, nobody (or at least nobody the least bit progressive) would dare to argue, but when a dominant is uncomfortable with what’s being asked—all the more so when the reason for discomfort is a clear sense of unspoken expectations—refusal is suspect and resented. Double standard, anyone? Yikes.

I can’t help but recall a vivid example of this double standard. I was at a fetish event in Montreal many years ago, and was wearing a pair of knee-high PVC boots. I was talking with a friend and I shifted my foot a bit and it felt like it was catching on the floor, so I looked down, and I saw a guy lying on the ground licking my boot. I yanked my foot away and said, “Excuse me, but if you want to lick my boot, you have to ask first!” He looked up at me and said, “No, I don’t. You know you want it.” I was so grossed out I almost gagged.

Granted, most consent-ignoring submissives aren’t quite so obvious about it, but you get the point: dominants are often objectified, seen as fantasy-fulfilling machines, shat upon when we don’t come through as desired, and told we’re supposed to do our thing for anyone who wants it, except when it doesn’t work out right and then we’re supposed to take all the blame because we’re dominants so we’re expected to magically know everything and have flawless judgment, except of course when that judgment contradicts a submissive’s judgment, in which case we’re jerks for exercising it and erring on the side of caution. Gah.

And just to finish off…

There are many more contradictory assumptions and expectations that I won’t write out in detail. For starters, check out these pairs:

7a. Dominants should cultivate entitlement in their relationships
7b. What gives a dominant the right to behave with entitlement? That’s offensive!

8a. Dominants should learn to push boundaries, because otherwise the submissive is actually in charge and in any case, submissives will never grow and develop unless they are stretched.
8b. Dominants should never push boundaries, otherwise they may push too far and step over the line of consent and do deep damage.

9a. Dominants should hold authority with an iron fist. If they don’t, how can they consider themselves dominant?
9b. Dominants should be flexible and gentle, as the slightest disapproval they show can cause deep self-doubt and self-chastisement in a submissive.

10a. Dominants should expect their submissives to tend to their every need.
10b. Dominants shouldn’t become dependent on their submissives.

11a. Dominants should exercise shrewd judgment and take enormous care of their submissives.
11b. Dominants should stop thinking so much and just go with the flow. Risk is hot and that’s what we’re here for after all!

12a. Dominants should own their kink, be proud of it, and refuse to apologize for it or explain it to anyone. When you’re right, you’re right, and what you do is nobody’s business but your own.
12b. Dominants have a responsibility to the community to act as honourable representatives of the kink world, to be as outwardly “normal” as possible and to justify their relationship and play choices by all means available.

Really, the only solution I’ve found to extricating myself from all the tangles these 12 sets of assumptions present is to say, fuck ‘em. I’m going to do this as best I can, based on my own values and my own judgment, and that’s all I can hold myself accountable to at the end of the day. It can get to be a bit tiring to act as a screen upon which others project their expectations, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. But regardless of whether other people think I’m the “right” kind of dominant, that doesn’t make me any less committed to exploring my own path in the way that suits me best.

’tis the season: notes from the sex grinch*
December 12, 2008

*I originally posted this on December 19, 2006. Apparently I’m still a grinch today!

(A note for 2008: Read Barry Webster’s erotic short story “Jingle Balls” in the anthology Lust for Life: Tales of Sex and Love, edited by Claude Lalumière and Elise Moser, if you want a genuinely disturbing take on a Santa Claus fetish.)

***

Christmas is unbearably cheesy. And so very, very unsexy.

This is going to sound like a rant, but I swear it’s not – more like a genuine expression of complete cultural confusion and resulting disgust.

OK, I’m sure I’m going to offend dozens of people here, but really… Christmas is the central holiday for a religion that the vast majority of people, even the ones who are nominally Christian, don’t actually practice, or to which they pay lip service all year long. That right there is enough to put me off the tinsel and caroling – I really just can’t get into the idea of enthusiastically celebrating the high day of a religion I don’t believe in along with a bunch of other people who don’t either but who are willing to make like they do to keep up appearances. I don’t go to church and I don’t worship a guy on a cross, so why would I do this part? But more importantly, why would they?

The whole thing seems so irrelevant to religion. Or from another perspective, the mass insistence on a Christian celebration obliterates, or renders “other,” the option of anyone not being Christian (or playing at it the way many do). At least a third of my friends are Jewish, and at least another third Buddhist, Pagan, or otherwise non-Christian in their religious beliefs – yet they’re still expected to sit on Santa’s lap at the company Christmas party. Can anyone say “ethnocentric”?

Cue the consumerism, and all of a sudden the whole thing seems utterly drenched in hypocrisy. Why should I go off and spend hundreds of dollars on mass-produced merchandise in order to pay tribute to a god I don’t believe in, by means of lavishing overpriced gifts on people for a day that’s not necessarily personally meaningful to them either? It’s such a mockery.

When it comes to gifts, since unfortunately it comes down to a choice between hurting people’s feelings and sticking to my principles (and how ridiculous is that?), for the last six or seven years, I’ve chosen to hand-make a small item for each of my family members instead of buying things. At least then I can enjoy the creative process of crafting without busting the bank, something I rarely get time to do, and I can put some genuine thought into pleasing them rather than one-upping the next family member in how much money I spent on something. It’s the best way I can come up with to opt out of the cycle without coming off as a complete asshole.

Now, the part I can get into is spending time with friends and family members that I don’t get to see at other times, whether due to distance or time – the actual “holidays” part of the Holidays works for me. But I think we would all deserve an end-of-year break even if Christmas itself didn’t exist. I still find it irritating that we need to justify the human need for rest and quality family/friend time by cloaking it in pseudo-religious belief or red, white and green wrapping paper, but I can feel good about attending the parties and potlucks if I remind myself that Christmas has become a cultural celebration rather than a religious one, and just take the excuse to enjoy the fine company of people I love. This way I can at least somewhat partake in the cultural aspect of the season rather than subscribing to the reasons behind it, though I certainly won’t be the girl at the party wearing the antlers or the jingle-bell earrings.

But when it comes to sex… oy. When I look at the utter excess all around me in terms of decoration and music and so forth, the whole season’s just one massive turn-off. I’ve declared my apartment a Christmas-free zone for a full decade now – I’m attacked by Christmas every time I leave my house, so I need some breathing space when I’m on my own or with a partner.

I can’t stand it when kinky or otherwise sexual people try, somehow, to make the Holidays an occasion to sexualize the kitsch, or kitsch up their sexual practices. Kinky stocking-stuffer wish lists (a paddle with a candy cane on it! nipple clamps painted red and green!), cookie recipes posted on BDSM discussion lists, skimpy Santa outfits at the sex shop – oh god, it’s enough to make me barf up my fruitcake. Even the frickin’ WetSpots, whom I dearly love, have gone Christmas on our asses. Couldn’t they have done a fisting song that doesn’t have anything to do with holiday cheer?

Do we alternative folk – or anyone else for that matter – really have to make our sexual proclivities one more arena into which Rudolph can stick his shiny red nose? If I want to fuck someone senseless or beat them bloody, the last fucking thing I want is to do it to the sound of O Cum All Ye Faithful or have them wear a candy-cane-print corset.

Of course, as always, people are free to do as they please – there are already tons of kinks out there that don’t turn my crank, and their existence doesn’t offend me. Show me someone with a genuine Santa/wrapping paper/red-and-green fetish – a year-round one that’s deep-seated in their psyche and really gets their rocks off! – and I’ll show you a kink I can respect.

But it grosses me right out when I see alternative subcultures buy right into the commercial monolith that is the pseudo-religious consumer-frenzy celebration of Christmas. I have a hard time chalking that up to the standard “your kink is not my kink but your kink is OK.” It feels a lot more like “your kink sold out and you expect me to think it’s cute.”

I mean, is nothing sacred?

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