Archive for July, 2010

how to do everything – except…
July 22, 2010

A while back, I was sent a review copy of the TV series “Sex: How to Do Everything,” starring Em and Lo, former Nerve.com columnists who now host their own sex advice website and have co-authored several sex advice books. Now, I have a pretty strict policy about not doing product reviews. But I do like to write about films and books, so I figured, okay, TV’s not that much of a stretch.

But really, my big motivation for watching a ten-part sex advice series was that the title seemed to be making a rather outrageous claim, and I wanted to know if they came through on it. How to do everything? Like, everything? Really?

Okay, so the chances of a ten-part series actually covering everything one could possibly do in bed are slim to none, so I was seriously skeptical from the get-go. But I thought, okay, I’m relatively certain that “everything,” from the perspective of a pair of (not explicitly self-confessed but nonetheless conspicuously) heterosexual gals employed in the mainstream sex advice-u-tainment world, would not include things like felching or play piercing, so I gave them a fail on the title from the outset. But I decided that I’d set the bar for impressing me at something that’s fairly basic in my world: fisting.

Fisting is perhaps not one of the staple ingredients of dyke sex, but it’s definitely not on the outside edge, either. It shows up fairly regularly in dyke erotica; it’s mentioned, albeit usually briefly, in every lesbian sex manual I’ve ever read. You don’t need any special toys or training, although it definitely helps alleviate fears and improve safety if you take the time to do a workshop or read a book first. (Allow me a moment of shameless self-promotion: I am in the process of writing just such a book myself!) But really, the mechanics aren’t that complicated. Lots of dykes do it as a staple of their sex lives, and they don’t even have to be kinky. Thanks to the whole it’s-all-about-the-cock approach to heterosexual sex, in which anything bigger than a cock is perceived as threatening to manliness and therefore bad, I don’t think fisting is nearly as common among straight folks – because yes, fellas, your fist is necessarily bigger than your cock, or you wouldn’t be able to wank – but it’s not unheard of, either; every time I teach a fisting workshop there are at least one or two straight guys in the group, sometimes many more (and sometimes even gay ones). And anal fisting has its own subculture among gay men, as well as being common in leather circles.

With all this in mind, I set my expectations at medium-high – perhaps unrealistically, but I was being indulgent about the title already – and I figured I’d give Em and Lo’s series a good review if they included fisting. I’d settle for even a brief mention of it.

No big surprise: total fail.

Okay, so now we know that “Sex: How to Do Everything” doesn’t tell us how to do everything. What else?

Well, the show’s a mixed bag. Em and Lo may be popular writers, but as talk show hosts, they rely way too much on a script that sounds like it was lifted straight from the pages of a cheesy women’s magazine. Neither of them actually seems particularly comfortable in their TV roles – the interviews are strangely stilted, their narration sounds teleprompted and even their wardrobe is a bit too sweetly matchy-matched, with themed looks for each show (today it’s corsets and red lipstick and updos! and now it’s pastels and romantically curly hair!). For all that I really like their pleasure-based politics and I mostly like their mostly-feminist approach, all in all they come off as mouthpieces rather than as genuine experts. Which makes sense, I guess – the bios on their website don’t say anything about what qualifications either of them holds or who they are more broadly. I’m just not sure whose mouthpieces they are.

But beyond being mouthpieces, they also seem to imbue their work with very little personal touch. And at the risk of a bad double entendre, when it comes to sex advice, personal touch is really key. With Dan Savage, we know he’s gay, we know he’s adopted a kid, we know where his biases lie – he’s totally biphobic, for example – and we know he’s a snarky, hilarious writer. With Sasha, we know she’s a former stripper who’s strongly identified with sex work activism, a burlesque queen, and a scrappy grassroots political queer as well as being a sage and witty advice-giver. (And she’s not shy about claiming her lack of expert credentials, either.) But with Em and Lo, I don’t even know what their sexual orientation is, let alone how they met, what they did before or in addition to writing for Nerve.com, or where their personal biases lie. Perhaps this information is available elsewhere than their website bios and video, the intro to one of their earlier books that’s on my shelf, or their ten-part TV series, but really, I shouldn’t have to look that hard for it. This is doubly unfortunate in that I’d like to think that most people who make a career out of sexpertise probably do have some kind of interesting history and possibly have something interesting to say about themselves. I’d like to actually hear that stuff from them, but I feel like I can’t quite make it out through the scripted dialogue and the layers of production lacquered on top.

That said, there are elements of the show that really do work. Em is a New Yorker and Lo is an import from London, and the show’s on-the-street interviews are carried out in both metropoles, which makes for an unusual and fun mix of British and American flavour. The device occasionally trips up, though, in that at times the in-studio script was clearly written for one of them but assigned to the other to slightly awkward effect (do you know many New Yorkers who’d use the word “cuppa” when talking about tea?). “Sex: How to Do Everything” also features a gorgeous interracial couple who demonstrate various activities in soft focus while an official-sounding male narrator describes proper techniques with the help of diagrams – accurate ones, if a bit overly simple.

But the real reason to watch this show is the “roving reporters,” Georgie and Dougie, a fresh-faced young couple who get sent out to explore the latest in sexual trends and then try them out in the bedroom. Dougie starts out a bit uncomfortable, but he’s a good sport and he loosens up after a while. The big draw, though, is Georgie – she’s enthusiastic, incredibly genuine and really articulate about both the technical details of what she’s learned and her own likes, dislikes and feelings. And while she’s definitely beautiful, she’s not a manicured-for-TV type at all. While they don’t fall far outside the mainstream ideal of beauty, these roving reporters have real bodies, and they have real sex on camera. When their chemistry comes through, it’s actually pretty electrifying to watch. That, in combination with Georgie’s expressiveness, smarts and emotional honesty, kinda makes me wish they’d given them a show all to themselves! I really hope she goes on to do more work like this. She’s an absolute treasure.

Okay, the politics. You knew I was getting there.

Em and Lo do a good job at pushing a pretty progressive sexual agenda. They insist, for example, that oral sex is real sex because a woman’s pleasure organ is her clit and so pleasuring it “counts” as sex as much as pleasuring a cock does. They are explicitly gay-friendly and they don’t buy into the kind of body shame that’s often par for the course in the mainstream. So… they’re good, right?

Well, sorta. They’re kinda… surface-level, liberal mainstream good. It’s something I feel like we see a lot of these days. It came up not long ago when my friend, blogger and Montreal gay tourism pin-up boy Daniel Baylis, asked me for my thoughts on a question he’d been posed: “Is having a same-sex encounter part of living holistically?” My answer was, more or less, that if a same-sex encounter means that a heterosexual person does something mildly titillating with someone of the same sex to prove how open-minded they are but never gets thinking about their heterosexual privilege, then that’s not holistic at all; it’s just self-congratulatory. But that’s just one example. Self-congratulatory gay-friendliness comes up a lot of the time in today’s progressive social atmosphere. It’s practically a cliché to say that having a gay friend is trendy. But it goes further than that. It’s like the mainstream has recently discovered the advantages of expanding the parameters of what counts as acceptable in the realm of sex… by a few inches. But in no way does that mean there’s been a revolution.

It’s another example of Gayle Rubin’s concept of the charmed circle. In her brilliant 1984 article ‘”Thinking Sex,” she writes about the classification system that’s applied to sexuality:

“According to this system, sexuality that is “good”, “normal” and “natural” should ideally be heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, and non-commercial. It should be coupled, relational, within the same generation, and occur at home. It should not involve pornography, fetish objects, sex toys of any sort, or roles other than male and female. … Any sex that violates these rules is “bad”, “abnormal”, or “unnatural”. Bad sex may be homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, or commercial. It may be masturbatory or take place at orgies, may be casual, may cross generational lines, and may take place in “public”, or at least in the bushes or in the baths. It may involve the use of pornography, fetish objects, sex toys, or unusual roles.”

She makes the point that the boundaries of that charmed circle do move every once in a while to include things on the inside that were previously on the outside. Masturbation is one example – it used to be decried and pathologized, now it’s considered pretty much normal. These days, same-sex sex is another example (at least in some places and contexts). But only in very limited ways – in essence, nothing that challenges the primacy of heterosexuality or relatively conventional gender roles.

Em and Lo actually do a pretty darned good job of pushing the edges of that charmed circle outward, or rather, positioning themselves to buttress the edges that have been pushed out. They advocate porn-watching and sex toys, gamely mythbust about ass play, interview experts on female ejaculation, talk to polyamorous people, and bring in escorts to ask them how the business works – and they actually manage to do these things without turning the set into a session of “let’s look at the freaks.” Their episode on “kinky fetish play” features a very credible and articulate pro-domme who’s also a lifestyle dominant, an investigation of electro-stim toys (not your standard fare for a mainstream TV show!), and an interview with three furries that somehow manages to be both serious and absurdly ironic – Lo bonds with one guest, a gal who’s dressed head-to-toe like a cast member of Cats, over their mutual bewilderment about people who get off on wearing large-headed mascot costumes or having sex with others thus clad. “Frankly I think they look utterly ridiculous,” says the cat girl in a condescending tone as she preens her fur and bares her extended canines.

So, okay. They dare go to places that the mainstream often fears to tread, and they do it respectfully and with an eye to accurate information and down-to-earth pleasure advocacy. They manage to showcase some relatively maligned aspects of sexuality without taking a totally voyeuristic freak-show approach. On that count, well done.

But oddly enough, despite their stated politics (“We believe in gay rights!”), the place they seem to fall down the most is in their approach to same-sex partners and gender roles. They talk about women using strap-ons as a way for a woman to dominate her man – without noting that, by that logic, anytime a guy fucks a gal using his flesh cock, he must therefore be dominating her. (I’m not saying that strap-ons can’t be a tool for domination, but I definitely take issue with the automatic association, and even more so with the unspoken counterpart.) In their on-the-street interviews, they include commentary from gay men and bi/lesbian (?) women, and even drag queens, which is great on the one hand, but often it simply showcases how the occasional sound bite of queerness can make its way into mainstream discourse despite the poor fit.

The episode that made this the most uncomfortably clear for me was on the topic of sexual fantasy. In one of their get-the-public-involved gimmicks, Em and Lo set up a pair of curtained change rooms on a beach and display his-and-hers racks of matched fantasy role-play costumes outside; they ask couples passing by to pick outfits from the racks without showing each other their picks, change into them, and then unveil their new looks to one another in the hopes of a match. Y’know, hooker and pimp, French maid and aristocrat, dominatrix and gimp. True to their gamely gay-friendly attitude, they invite a gay couple to participate. Which is fine and good and all inclusive-like, except that of course the outfits are paired up based on presumed heterosexuality. So one of the guys picks from the “hers” rack and the other picks from the “his” rack – I’d have loved to see the conversation in which they figure that one out, but sadly it was left out of the episode. The guys then emerge as a French maid and a gimp, and much hilarity ensues, including a mock swordfight with a paddle and a feather duster.

Now, I’m all for cross-dressing, gender-bending, fantasy costumes, butch-femme pairings and all the rest. So in no way am I trying to say that getting a man dressed up in a French maid costume is a bad thing. It’s not. What I am trying to say is that this little vignette shows exactly how the whole happy “heterosexual but reeallly open-minded!” approach doesn’t always fit – in this case literally.

In this little scenario, two things are possible. The first is that Em and Lo (or their producers, writers, handlers, etc.) figured that gay people all have polarized roles in which one is “really the woman” in a gay male couple, and presumably (though we never see it) one is “really the man” in a lesbian couple, and therefore that his-and-hers costume pairings would simply transpose directly onto a same-sex pair. The second, and in my opinion more likely, scenario is that it never even occurred to Em and Lo (or their producers, writers, handlers, etc.) that a same-sex couple might have a hard time fitting into their preconceived role pairings, but when confronted with the possibility, their “we like gay people” philosophy prevented them from excluding the guys, so they went ahead with the poorly-conceived plan and ended up unwittingly setting the stage for a moment of subversion – which was probably not intentional on the part of the guys in question (it could have been a statement, but from what I could tell, they look like they’re just doing the whole thing on a lark).

To me, this whole scenario was a literal representation of how queerness doesn’t fit into the terms set out by heterosexuality. Subversion is an option in which the terms of engagement are turned on their head, but that doesn’t necessarily add any new terms to the discussion.

I suppose I could intellectualize about this for a while more, but really, I’m not sure it’s worthwhile. Predictably, in “Sex: How to Do Everything,” we do not learn how to do everything. We learn that mainstream sex advisors are giving us relatively mainstream sex advice. They might even be allowing the mainstream to rise higher than its usual banks, but it’s still not getting me wet.

10 principles for healthy 24/7 D/s and M/s
July 8, 2010

I recently taught a workshop called “Doing it 24/7: The Basics of Everyday Dominance and Submission.” It was an interesting experience—essentially it showed me that there’s a strong interest in the topic that goes way beyond what can fit into a 90-minute time slot. I’m seriously thinking of developing a workshop series on the topic and offering it on a weekly basis in Toronto somewhere. In the meantime, I figured I’d post some of the basic stuff I started with.

First, let me frame this. I’m not drawing a distinction between 24/7 D/s and M/s, because I find that different people use the terms in overlapping ways. So rather than say what I think each one is, I’ll just say that I’m talking about relationships that involve a full-time power hierarchy. For me, that means relationships in which the two (or more) people involved always relate to one another from a power-based dynamic, and that this dynamic extends outside the time that the people spend in one another’s presence. Certainly a lot of what I’m writing about will also apply to people who are in a consistent power dynamic that’s more time-bound—in which control on the dominant’s part does not extend past the time the two people are physically together or in direct communication—but my premise in writing this is to address the needs of D/s and M/s relationships that are in place and actively operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

With that in mind, here are the ten principles I’ve distilled for healthy 24/7 relationships.

1. Consent and strong desire.

This is the basic foundation for any relationship, but it becomes especially relevant in D/s. You are choosing because you want this, and you want it enough to make it an everyday thing rather than an occasional one. You are at choice at every point; if you are building trust, there is no need for shackles. And I’m serious about the idea of strong desire. It is possible to convince someone to dominate you or submit to you temporarily when they aren’t really into it. It’s not a great idea, but it happens, and it can work out okay in limited circumstances. Now, it’s also possible to convince someone to do that 24/7. But that is a very, very shaky foundation for a long-term relationship, and it won’t really give you the meat of what you’re looking for anyway; it will just give you the shell of it. Speaking as a dominant, I’ve realized that if I’m not 110% interested, I simply cannot sustain the kind of focus and effort required to maintain a 24/7 relationship, and that does not serve anyone well—myself or the submissive.

Also, on the topic of consent, there’s a persistent fantasy that in D/s or M/s, you give consent once and then it’s assumed forever. On the surface it may look like that, but believe me, it’s not that simple. Some relationships, after an extensive period (read: many years) of solidly established trust, will reach a point where the two people are so symbiotic that what we’d normally think of as “consent” doesn’t really matter anymore—but that’s not because it’s disappeared. Rather, it’s become an intrinsic part of the fabric of things. The partners know each other so well that they want the same things and move together seamlessly. You don’t get there overnight, or even in a few months. And depending on your personalities and how they interact, it may not happen at all, and that’s okay. So don’t see this as a goal or an ideal.

2. Distinction between fantasy and reality.

You are not extending your wank fantasies into your everyday reality; you will not be aroused at all times. 24/7 happens when you’re doing it for reasons beyond orgasm (even if arousal and orgasm are a big, or even essential, part of the draw). This is not a huge ongoing role-play scenario. It’s an intensification of the power-based parameters in which you live your everyday life. If you simply try to extend a role-play scenario into your entire relationship, you’ll find that the narrow parameters of a persona or character are simply not big enough to encompass who you are, and need to be, every hour of every day. 24/7 is not about restricting yourself to a specific set of characteristics the way you can for an hour or two in a scene; it’s about bringing all of who you are to the table and offering it within a full-spectrum relationship. That means you’re doing it regardless of what you’re wearing (leather, work drag, bunny slippers…) and where you are (bedroom, dungeon, airport, family dinner) and what you’re doing (fucking, working, eating breakfast, hanging out with friends). Yes, this means you may need to find ways to scale up and down the overt visibility of your D/s; no, it does not mean you’re turning t on or off at will. A lot of the classic “it’s just play” concepts that you might hear in a BDSM 101 workshop are going to go right out the window here because what you are doing is not a scene. It comes with a whole different – related, but different – psychology.

3. Clean motivation.

You are choosing from a place of strength. You do not need this, you just want it a lot. In other words, you’re not doing D/s because you’re dependent on a D/s dynamic to be able to function in life. You are not making up for dysfunction, and if you should discover dysfunction along the way, you have a…

4. Commitment to work on your own shit.

Intense power relationships will bring you face to face with whatever issues you need to work on; your ability to sustain your D/s relationship depends on your willingness to deal with them, and your partner’s willingness, and your mutual willingness to deal with theirs. Independently of the relationship you’re in now, if applicable, your progress in D/s and the success of future relationships also depends on your willingness to deal with your own shit—being eternally single or simply repeating the patterns you had trouble with in the last relationship will not help. Hint: if the same thing keeps going wrong in every relationship, you don’t just need to find the right person; you need to change yourself.

At the same time as you both need to commit to working on your shit, you also need to find a way to balance this with a commitment to taking each other as you are. While you can work on specific things, and while major change does take place sometimes, you cannot fundamentally change a person into something they are not, and you certainly can’t expect major change to happen quickly or exactly as you’d like it to. So don’t enter 24/7 if your happiness is going to be dependent on a radical or immediate personality shift on the others’ part.

5. Acknowledgement of equality.

You are choosing a relationship form that suits you because of your individual chemistry and fit, NOT because one of you is inherently superior, and certainly not because of gender, sex, race, age, financial situation, ability, community standing, etc.

I can’t tell you how grouchy it makes me when people blather about the “natural” superiority of a given group and therefore that group’s suitability for dominance, or the “natural” inferiority of another group and therefore their suitability for submission. (This mostly comes up with sex, by which I mean male and female—because there are only two options in this line of thought. And that often looks like “all women are goddesses” or the more classically sexist “all men are dominant.” But it also comes up with race, age and any number of other features.) For starters, don’t even start me on how riddled with fallacies the whole idea of “natural” is, and how easily any argument based on an idea of “natural” can get flipped to support its exact opposite, no matter what group you’re talking about. But most importantly, D/s is not about inferiority and superiority—it’s about the voluntary polarization of power roles, not a difference in quality between two human beings.

6. Acknowledgement of your humanity.

You will each make mistakes because you are human; neither of you is immune to fucking up. Build that understanding into your relationship, along with ways to deal with fuck-ups on either part. Hint: dominants can and do apologize when they fuck up. A powerful, dignified apology, when needed, is a building block for a solid relationship, and the very epitome of trustworthy dominance. But beyond the question of specific time-bound fuck-ups, even at the best of times, the intensity and polarity of D/s and M/s can place great pressure on each person involved. And we all have limits, even if those limits do well to be challenged at times. So if there’s something that doesn’t fit or isn’t working, that needs to be on the table and dealt with as it comes up, or the relationship’s structural integrity will crumble. Hint: remove the word “should” from your mental vocabulary and you will get a lot farther. For example, instead of “Dominants should always be stoic,” or “Submissives should anticipate a dominant’s every need,” you might say “I feel like my emotional expression is going to damage your trust in my stability,” or “I want to be able to better anticipate your needs.” Now you have the beginning of a real conversation.

7. Strong communication.

Double standards around communication are not a sign of dominance, they’re a sign of hypocrisy. Frame it however you will, but communication is essential—and that does not mean the submissive baring their soul while the dominant remains impassive. Communication works both ways. So regardless of your place in the D/s relationship, take a look at your communication patterns as they are, identify the places you need to improve, and work on them. Improving your communication skills is a lifelong project for most of us, and it is wise to see that as a good thing rather than as a chore. Then, do the same for the way your communication patterns intersect with your partner’s, and work on those too. Yes, it will be hard. Do it anyway. Learn to love it. Results will follow.

8. Restriction of D/s to the relationship.

Or at most, restriction to within a specifically agreed-upon community or an extended relational context—as in, ten people are all members of a group or leather family and explicitly agree that all submissives will behave a certain way toward all dominants, and vice versa; or, you are my submissive, Valerie is my fellow dominant, and we all agree that when she’s around you will serve her needs in the same way you serve mine. Failing an explicit agreement otherwise, this is a power hierarchy between you and your partner, not between you and your community, or you and every dominant or submissive you meet, or you and everyone in the world. Keep your D/s within its bounds. Otherwise you will turn into one of those nightmare dominants or submissives that everyone kinky wants to avoid (hello, consent!) and everyone else thinks is messed up in the head (which doesn’t do much to improve our image as perverts). Not to mention you’ll be exhausted.

9. Support.

D/s relationships are intense. Have I mentioned that? Intense, soul-searching relationships that affect every moment of every day do not exist in a vacuum. The kind of exploration and self-revelation that so often comes with D/s can make you go a bit nuts if you have no outside support. That support can take many forms:

  • Participation in a kink community can be incredibly helpful—it can provide relationship models for you to look at and learn from or discard as needed. Even if everyone around you does their kink differently than you do, that can help you better understand who you are (and are not) and what you’re doing (and not doing).
  • Reading (check out my annotated reading list here), workshops, discussion groups, and any number of other educational resources can similarly give you ideas to chew on, frameworks that may or may not work for you, and language to help you understand and express what you’re getting up to.
  • And last but not least, friends you can talk to about D/s. Non-kinky (but kink-friendly) friends are a great start, because the kind of challenges that come up in D/s are often similar to those in any other relationship. But frequently enough, D/s relationship issues will also have a character all their own, and even the most open-minded or well-intentioned vanilla friend may have a hard time truly getting it. It can be extremely helpful to build friendships with fellow D/s practitioners so you can offer each other a supportive shoulder when needed. Hint: Don’t wait until you need help… start building those friendships right away, and make sure you offer your own listening ear.

A brief caution: a classic warning sign that a D/s relationship is not so healthy is when one of the partners tells the other not to talk about it with anyone else, or not to participate in community. Of course you want to maintain basic respect for each other and your relationship – airing your dirty laundry for all to see, or trashing your partner loudly at a play party, is just not classy. But having one or two trusted friends to turn to in times of trouble can be essential, and a wise dominant will encourage the submissive to seek out support rather than discouraging it.

10. Patience.

This stuff takes a long time to build into great depth, and often a dominant’s job is to hold back, not to rush forward. Taking on responsibility for another human being in a polarized power situation is simply not something that’s wise to do quickly or carelessly. Take your time. Learn what you need to learn—about yourself, about them, about how to do this well and feel good about it. Don’t extend past your own limits because you feel pressure to do it all right-now-tout-de-suite. I do say that it’s often the dominant’s job to hold back, because I often see it happen that a submissive is totally gung-ho and champing at the bit while their dominant is feeling overwhelmed and struggling to hold tight. I liken it to the image of an enthusiastic dog who’s pulling on a leash so hard that their owner ends up running to keep up. Sure, it’s still technically D/s, but at some point you have to ask who’s actually in charge of it. And if you both want the dominant to be in charge, then the dominant sets the pace and the submissive heels. So in that sense, patience needs to come from the submissive too—metaphorically speaking (because no, I don’t think all submissives are like dogs), don’t yank on the leash. D/s does not come with a deadline, so don’t impose one unnecessarily.

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