the happily half-assed fetishist* and other stories

Today I give you a loosely related collection of thoughts about kink – brief paragraphs that don’t seem to be developing into full posts of their own, but that make for a fun little grab bag of sadomasochistic musings.

But first, a bit of news…

I wrote an article about bisexuality and queer identity for the March issue of Outlooks magazine, my first-ever national publication. Check it out on page 9 here. Next month, look to the same mag for a thoughtful interview with RuPaul – who, I must say, is one smart cookie with some very intriguing analysis of drag, American politics and the role of gender transgression in society.

A little piece of personal good news: I’ve been accepted to grad school at York University. Yay! Back in August 2007, I had a revelation that I needed to write the history of Canadian leatherdykes. Well, I’m gonna make good on that intention – that’s the project I pitched as an MA thesis, with every intention of extending it into PhD work. And apparently the academic world is interested. So if all goes well, sometime shortly before I’m 40, I’ll be Dr. Zanin, and you’ll have some history to sink your teeth into. Wish me luck, folks.

What else… well, tonight I got an e-mail asking me to step up on stage as a bidding item in the International Ms Leather Celebrity Charity Auction. When I got over the weirdness of being called a “celebrity” I said yes, because the proceeds are going to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Leather Archives & Museum and the IMsL and IMsBB Title Holder Travel Fund. With two out of four beneficiaries directly related to leather and queer history, I kinda felt like it would be appropriate to help out. So if you’re in San Francisco for IMsL, do come place a bid. Among other things I’m offering to talk nerdy to the winning bidder, potentially while committing terrible acts of sadomasochism upon them. Y’know, you work with what you got.

I’ve got a number of fun projects in the works – among others, a number of intriguing articles for Xtra, a couple of new workshops and talks to add to the calendar (in Toronto, Florida and Vancouver, for starters) and more. I’ll post details as I get ‘em. Oh, and I’ll soon be reviewing a couple more essays from Kleinplatz and Moser’s Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. Stay tuned for more nerdiness.

In the meantime, here’s that grab bag. Enjoy!

The happily half-assed fetishist

*This short piece was originally posted on June 1, 2006.

In a workshop last weekend, Midori said something about arousal that I’ve never heard before, and that really clarified a few things for me.

Specifically, she talked about the concepts of “sexual arousal” and “system arousal.” I’ve never heard that distinction made, or the latter explained, but the concept makes so much sense! For me personally, it applies most distinctly to my experience of my fetishes.

In my mind, a fetishist has always been someone who feels sexual arousal with regard to an object (shoe, corset, whatever) or body part that’s not generally considered to be sexual (elbow, hair, etc.). I’ve never in my life become sexually aroused by a shoe. And yet… I love shoes. I like to find the perfect shoes, purchase them, collect them, display them, ogle them on myself, ogle them on other people, choose the perfect ones to wear, wear them, walk in them. The feeling on my foot, the sound when I walk, the look with a given outfit – there’s some strangely intense satisfaction in that entire spectrum for me.

But have I ever wanked with a shoe? No. The thought would never even occur to me.

As a result I’ve considered myself a “sort-of fetishist,” like not really the real thing but a little more than your average shoes-look-nice kind of girl. But with this idea of “system arousal,” now all of a sudden I get it. System arousal, according to Midori, is more of a holistic sort of arousal – a general excitement, as opposed to a genitally or erotically specific one. And that, I definitely do experience.

I don’t know if most fetishists make this distinction or not, but all of a sudden I feel an odd sort of legitimacy. At the very least, if I’m a half-assed fetishist, there’s a word out there that can describe me, and if that exists, then I must not be the only one. I certainly never had a fetish inferiority complex or anything, but it’s kind of nice to know that it’s possible to shed a bit of light on the strange little nooks of my sexuality (and others’, of course).

Negativity and pain

We normally associate pain with negative emotional experiences and therefore our Pavlovian response is to assume it means a negative emotional experience (accident, abuse, assault, illness, etc.). But, totally apart from sadomasochism, we also have positive emotional experiences with pain—deep-tissue massage, waxing, athletic efforts and the resulting soreness, fasting and other physical challenges as part of meditative or religious practice, and of course the kind of hard stimulation (biting, scratching) that many people enjoy as part of sex without necessarily seeing or experiencing it as kinky. Funny how people pathologize the seeking of good-pain experiences in sex even when we celebrate the seeking of them in other contexts. Amazing how much shame around sex skews our ways of seeing the world.

Sadism: learned art or innate to one’s being?

A reader sent me this question some time ago, and my answer was, both. The enjoyment of sadism may come naturally, or it may be arrived at only once societal messages are unlearned, which can take a lifetime; it all depends on the person. The art of it is definitely learned—I don’t think most people are born with a sense of how to inflict pain safely, although for the most part safety is a question of common sense, observational skill and basic information. I think most, even perhaps all, human beings have the capacity to be sadistic, but we bury it very deeply because really, outside BDSM, there just aren’t very many contexts in which it makes any ethical or emotional good sense to take it out and play with it. And even in those contexts it is risky territory both for the person on the receiving end and the person faced with the reality that the capacity for taking joy in sadism exists inside them. So in most ways I think it’s probably for the best if the practice of sadism is arrived at through a very thoughtful process of self-evaluation and rigorous examination of one’s motives.

Active and passive receptivity

A friend brought this up with me a few weeks ago. She was playing with several different dominants and tops, and she noticed that some of them wanted her to be still while they did things to her, and others wanted her to be active. She wondered if there was a “right” way to receive sensation. The question about active versus passive physical receptivity is very similar to the question of how much a submissive is being asked to think for themselves (anticipatory service, observing the way things are done and fitting into that, etc.) versus how much they are going to be directed (i.e. do what I say, and only what I say, and exactly as I say it, and when you’re done, do nothing but wait for further instruction). They’re simply different takes on submission/bottoming/providing service and on dominance/topping/receiving service.

Of course, there are no right answers, but here we engage with questions of match. In play, if a dominant fully expects a submissive to react and the submissive’s past experience has been with dominants who want them to hold still, or if the submissive’s natural inclination is to hold still, then the two of them may need to clarify what’s going on. The dominant may feel like the submissive isn’t properly appreciating their efforts, while the submissive may feel that response would be rude or overstep the bounds of their role. In service, if a dominant expects that the submissive will catch on to what’s going on and make themselves useful with minimal direction, but the submissive spends a lot of time kneeling and waiting for orders with eyes downcast, the dominant may end up feeling frustrated and burdened while the submissive may end up feeling inadequate because they’re pissing off the dominant despite following protocol perfectly. The flip side of each situation is equally painful: a responsive bottom who gets told to be quiet and hold still might feel shut down and under-appreciated; a service submissive who takes pride in their intuitive ability to serve may feel rejected and useless if told to stay out of the way and wait for orders. Still, this doesn’t indicate that anyone’s doing things wrong. It just means they’re each sending out signals with the best of intentions but that aren’t quite lining up. As always, clear communication is essential—when we attribute meanings to each of these modes and their many related flavours that may not match up with the person’s intent, we risk hurt feelings and misunderstanding.

I personally enjoy having people in both states depending on the circumstances and the chemistry, and I consider it my job as a dominant to make it clear which one I’m after in a given moment, either verbally or by providing legible indications in other ways. It certainly helps to know where your partner’s natural tendencies lie so that you know how to properly approach things with a minimum of hurt feelings and maximum enjoyment all round. And it can be wise to have a “status quo” or default mode that both partners expect unless told otherwise—for example, responsiveness in play is expected unless the dominant indicates that the submissive’s job is to keep still. (Or perhaps something like “Shut up, hold still and take this, bitch!” … y’know, flavour and style being important and all.) Of course, having the ability to move from one mode to the other, for both tops and bottoms, is certainly a good thing, because it expands the range of experiences you can enjoy and the range of people you might enjoy them with.

And a few links, just for fun

Last fall, Graydancer – RopeWeekly podcaster extraordinaire – came to Toronto and led a GRUE, or Graydancer’s Rope Unconference Extravaganza. One of his activities was called a fishbowl. The concept is great – he asked everyone in attendance to pick whether they were dominant, submissive or switch, just for the purposes of the activity, and then he unleashed his concept. The ensuing discussion was quite intriguing, and Graydancer recorded it, smart fellow that he is, so you can listen to the whole thing right here if you are interested. Do enjoy! … Yes, I’m in there somewhere, but none of us said their names, so you’ll just have to recognize my dulcet tones.

Apparently I’m terribly out of date. I found out not too long ago that the photo shoot for my first article for the Toronto Xtra, a cover story about Toronto’s sex club scene back in the fall, raised some ire among the big cheeses (or maybe little cheeses?) at our favourite Big Brother outpost / social networking site. Apparently the cover was too sexy for Facebook! How fascinating. Read about it here. (It was a pretty hot cover, I’ll give you that. But seriously, a pair of naked breasts is hardly the stuff of gross indecency. ‘Sides, they’re nice breasts.)

5 Responses

  1. What fantastic news! Congratulations on getting into grad school, ProtoDoctor Zanin! You have what it takes to kick scholastic ass (smart, articulate, a questing mind, and a willingness to work *and* play hard). Best of luck to you at York. I know that you’ll do well.

    I wonder if some of your shoe arousal isn’t linked to your knowledge that “the other half of the fetish-ass” is kicking around out here (so to speak), taking note of noteworthy shoes and having wank-like and service-type thoughts about them. Would your love of fabulous footwear have the same kinky connotation without the (at least abstract) existence of bootblacks and (trad) shoe fetishists, or would it be “just” a love of beautiful shoes, much like the love of fine pots and pans or pen nibs or … oops, actually, those things really turn me on, too! I once had the most amazing sex dream about some of my dip pen nibs! Okaaaaay, I’d best get back to work now.

  2. Congratulations on your grad school acceptance. Another pervert infiltrating academia – sweet :-)

    See you at IMsL!

  3. I totally get that system arousal thing. Like you, there are things that get me riled up but not in that tingling genital kinda way. Leather and denim, for example, or chain mail. Makes sense! Thanks for sharing!

    And congrats again about grad school. As you’ll discover, or as you might aleady know from your circle of geeky friends, grad school is a whole other plane of pleasure mixed with pain :) But so gratifying and stimulating.

  4. Congratulations again about grad school. And great auction idea! Nerdy stuff *is* hot!

    I also agree with you about active and passive receptivity. It really is a matter of communication to know which kind of behaviour is expected. Otherwise, both (++) parties end up being frustrated or unsatisfied.

    See you in Berlin!

  5. Congratulations from me (done with my doctorate) and my partner (almost done—really)! Very cool dissertation topic. And yeah, the nerdy talk scene sounds, um, pretty hot, actually. (But grad school will do that to you.)

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