Archive for the ‘books’ Category

do your homework (or, what goes wrong when writers don’t… and then write about kink)
March 9, 2013

Today, I have a few things to say about two articles on BDSM that have come across my feed these past couple of days: “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status” by Meghan Murphy for Rabble.ca, and “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted” by William Saletan for Slate.com.

They’ve got it wrong. They’ve got it so far wrong that frankly, their authors are making public fools of themselves, if nothing else than for sheer factual error, but also because of a remarkable failure to demonstrate even the most basic ability to construct a logical argument. Beyond that, they’ve been published on otherwise relatively well-regarded websites, which indicates a failure of clear thought along two entire publishing chains of command, and this makes me seriously raise an eyebrow at their editors. If this is the level of discourse that writers are engaging in, in 2013, when the topic of sadomasochism comes up, I fear we are about to descend back into a blow-by-blow replay of the 1980s Sex Wars, except played out on the interwebs among much bigger “armies” than the diminutive, if vociferous, ranks of radical feminists.

How do they get it wrong, you ask? Mostly, it’s about conflating ideas that are in fact quite separate, and failing to provide any justification or logical explanation for those conflations. Again: super basic stuff. Stuff that, if they weren’t operating with some sort of willful ignorance (or failing that, actual lack of intelligence, so I kinda weirdly hope it’s the first option), they’d be able to figure out quite easily. This isn’t rocket science. Perhaps these writers are so dazzled by the spectacle of kink that they simply lose their critical thinking faculties. If this is the case, I’d invite them to come spend a few weekends at a kink conference or twelve. Once the “oh my god people actually do that?!” wears off, perhaps they’ll be able to approach this topic in a somewhat more level-headed fashion.

I have created a three-part breakdown for your reading pleasure, followed by some suggestions of how to do the job properly. (Yep. Long post. Necessarily.)

Problem 1. The conflation of kink with domestic violence, assault and murder.

Let’s take Meghan Murphy’s Rabble article, “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status,” as the perfect example of this. She discusses the “cannibal cop” case that’s recently made the news, and then goes on to package that with an attack on kinksters’ self-understanding as sexual minorities. It’s a twisted, deeply flawed argument. I will try to take it apart here.

Okay, so we’ve got this cop who likes to look at pictures of dead bodies and videos of women being roasted on spits. So far, a bit gross, potentially, but y’know, if you don’t want to see depictions of dead bodies (real or staged), don’t watch the news or action movies or TV or, well, yeah. Images of people roasting on spits are a little less common but the first time I saw one was in a Robin Hood film when I was about six, and don’t even start me on the weird shit in Indiana Jones or Star Wars. These ain’t specialized fetish websites, folks. Torture scenes are par for the course in mainstream cultural productions to which we all have access. And, lest we get upset about misogyny when it is not warranted, please note that in all cases I’m mentioning here, we’re talking about male victims. So let’s bracket this out unless we want to tar pretty much everyone in North America with the same brush.

Do we want to get into the realm of specialized fetish websites? Okay, let’s go there. Without actually using the term “snuff,” Murphy relies heavily on the spectre of snuff films for her argument. “Snuff” is basically the idea of porn in which someone is killed at the end. Like, for real killed. But she misstates the facts as reported. Her article contains the following paragraph:

“The officer, Gilberto Valle, had been visiting a ‘fetish sites’ (because murdering women is a ‘fetish’ donchaknow) which “show[ed] women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive.” There was a cannibalism element to his ‘fetish’ and “the FBI analysis of Valle’s laptop yielded a video of a naked woman hanging over an open flame and screaming in agony.”

Pretty disturbing, right? Except that the article she links to twice in that paragraph in fact reads as follows:

“Jurors appeared uncomfortable Monday as prosecutors showed a video of a screaming woman made to appear as if she were being cooked alive over an open flame and other disturbing images from websites devoted to torturing and eating women – evidence prosecutors say proves Valle was involved in a cannibalism plot.

“Valle frequently visited websites showing women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive, FBI computer forensics examiner Stephen Flatly testified at Valle’s kidnapping conspiracy trial.”

Do you see the difference? If we go by Murphy’s conflation, we’d think the woman was being actually roasted alive. If we go by the original article, we see that she’s made to appear that way (refer back to Robin Hood). If we go by Murphy, the cop was visiting fetish websites presenting snuff porn—footage of real women being killed. If we go by the original article, the cop could have been looking at any pictures of dead women (refer back to watching the news), or possibly pictures of women made to appear dead. The original article isn’t terribly clear—what does “forced duress” mean? How is it split into “stages”? Are we supposed to understand that these women “did not survive” that “duress” or just that they are dead? And is all that imagery of things that actually happened or are they pictures of women being “made to appear” to go through these things? Those are pretty key distinctions to make, and if the recent Montreal special-effects artist case is any indication (the artist was acquitted, by the way), disturbing imagery is by no means an indication that anyone was harmed, even when it’s extreme. Despite lack of clarity, though, the person who wrote this article—y’know, an actual reporter who has to be careful not to state things that aren’t true—didn’t explicitly conflate all this stuff. But Murphy sure did.

Listen, I don’t know what this cop was looking at or what websites he was visiting. What I can tell you, though, is that according to the numerous books and articles I’ve read on the topic, snuff films are largely a thing of pure imagination. Actual snuff films are incredibly rare and excruciatingly hard to find even for people who are actively seeking them out, ranging from both independent investigators on a personal quest to major law enforcement teams. And when posted on the internet, such videos usually lead pretty quickly to the arrest of a perpetrator who was stupid enough to film himself murdering someone. Because hello! Filming yourself committing a murder is a pretty clear giveaway! (Luka Magnotta, anyone?!) So the chances of this guy watching footage of actual murder are very, very slim. The closest he likely came was viewing documentary footage of accidental death, or other such potentially gruesome and disturbing but not exactly pornographic stuff. More likely he was entertaining himself with “turkey”-roasting fetish porn (which, from what I’ve seen, is so wholesome-looking as to be almost silly), gore-film special-effects footage and “Faces of Death,” which half the kids in my high school watched on weekends to upset their parents. You can argue that his taste in entertainment is disturbing, and you might be right, but that is a whole different discussion than one about a guy who watches films of actual women being murdered, roasted on spits and eaten. If such films exist, we are dealing with a way bigger problem than a cop watching them, but since I am seeing no news articles about snuff porn rings with a penchant for cannibalism, I am forced to assume this isn’t the case.

Murphy: get your facts straight. This is deliberate misinterpretation. When presented in context of an article whose (confusing!) aim is to simultaneously dismiss kinky sexuality as boring and tar it with the brush of murder, you are making some very dangerous conflations indeed.

Moving on from the question of what he was watching… Next, this cop decides he thinks it’s a good idea to discuss killing and eating his wife with some potential accomplices. Okay! Now this is a BIG problem! He’s probably not the nicest guy! He’s seriously plotting to do something very violent, very real, VERY non-consensual, and that is explicitly and intentionally aiming to result in someone’s death. HELLO! These are BAD THINGS! This, not his taste in websites, tells us that we are talking about a potential murderer here. Psychopath? Maybe. Some other sort of mental illness? Possibly. If he’s not mentally ill, then what? Do sane people ever take steps toward killing, dismembering and cannibalizing other people? Frankly, I don’t know. I have no idea how I’d deal with this guy in a court of law, but one thing I can tell you is that there is no place for him in the diverse realm of consensual joy- and pleasure-seeking self-actualizers of the world who play with other people who also wish to play with them. He belongs in the ranks of, well, pretty much every other person out there who plans and executes the un-desired, non-consensual torture and murder of people.

Murphy asks the question, “When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?” The answer is in the question. When it becomes actual. Next question, please.

I would propose that a more interesting question would be, “How do we tell the difference between plans to enact a fantasy and plans to commit a crime?” That, too, has an easy answer, but that answer doesn’t appeal to the likes of Murphy, who seems bent on creating a parallel where none exists.

Let’s look at the case. The guy didn’t commit the actual crime of murder. What he did do, however, was make extensive plans to commit the actual crime. Please note the difference between plans to commit the crime of murder and cannibalism and plans to play out a murder and cannibalism fantasy (and yes, this fetish does exist, and fantasy websites do exist about it). The distinctions might be lost on folks like Murphy, but I’ll walk us through it as an exercise in the obvious, just in case.

In the planning to enact a fantasy that involves two people, both people are involved in that planning to whatever extent they agree they will each be involved (everything from “I trust you to surprise me, honey!” to “You pick the apple to put in my mouth, and I’ll polish it so it’ll look good in the pictures”). In planning to commit a crime, one person is involved, or possibly one person and a partner or partners in crime, and the victim of the crime is unawares, because if they were they would run like hell.

In the planning of a fantasy enactment, roles are discussed, safety is considered, limits are negotiated. (“If I squawk twice, that means this ‘turkey’ needs to come out of the ‘oven’!”) In the planning of a crime, nobody is role-playing, the very idea of safety is by definition not part of the game plan (unless maybe you count the perpetrator’s plans to get away with the crime himself unharmed?), and limits are by definition disregarded because HELLO SOMEONE DIES AT THE END.

Do I really need to go on here? Is Murphy actually arguing that she can’t tell the difference between these two things?  If not, I must ask: what exactly is making Meghan Murphy link this guy to anything in the realm of kink?

I’m going to throw her a bone here, and acknowledge that Murphy’s main source of upset here seems to be misogyny and violence against women. And y’know, I get it. Misogyny and violence against women upset me too. I’m not sure how she makes the leap from a murder-plotting cannibal cop to your local spanking fetishist or what have you, though. She fails to actually lay out the connection she sees, and given the rather vast divergences (orgasm versus murder, say), that is a significant element to omit.

I absolutely acknowledge that we live in a culture in which male violence against women is seen as normal, is permitted both subtly and overtly, and is even encouraged (take the example of rape jokes, which I wrote about here). I absolutely think we need to work to end misogyny. But come on. Let’s actually target misogyny and violence, then, not the people whose sex lives Murphy herself seems to see as dull.

Murphy writes:

“There are a couple of issues surrounding ‘kink’ that do concern me. The first is the unwillingness of feminists to call out misogyny when they see it simply because we have to protect the sensitivities of the fetish folks. The second is the delusion that ‘kink’ is an identity that designates ‘kinky people’ as some kind of oppressed minority group. Kink and BDSM can certainly enter misogynist territory and it isn’t your right to force the world to pretend that it doesn’t in order to defend your sex life. … The real life rape and torture of real life people isn’t just a sexy game; but when presented as ‘kink’ it becomes innate part of our sexualities, completely divorced from larger culture.”

I think Murphy is trying to construct a link between the “cannibal cop” and misogyny, and a further link between misogyny and kink, and then a link between kink and the employment of “sexual minority deserving of protection” logic as a tool used by evil kinksters to undermine feminism. But she doesn’t employ any logical means to make that chain of links strong enough to lean on. So let’s consider it broken, all right?

This doesn’t mean we can’t address the separate, non-cannibal-cop-related question of misogyny in kink. The problem with Murphy’s take on it is fourfold.

First of all, Murphy seems to assume that “fetish folks” are not, themselves, feminists. Her phrasing belies her bigoted understanding of kink as necessarily un-feminist or anti-feminist. She’s free to misperceive as much as she likes, but in doing so she’s ignoring a rather colossal amount of literature produced in the last thirty years of feminist discourse (both scholarly, such as Gayle Rubin among many others, and popular, such as Clarisse Thorne), as well as the existence of countless self-identified feminists within kink communities and privately engaging in kinky activities. This doesn’t speak highly of her research skills but does speak volumes about her bias.

Second, Murphy thinks “kink” as an identity designates a group that falsely considers itself an oppressed minority. And Murphy takes pains to point out, repeatedly and condescendingly, that she finds us boring:

“Now, before the ‘don’t kink-shame me’ folks start railing on me, I will reiterate that, I really don’t much care about whether or not you want to dress up in latex costumes and play silly games in the bedroom. It isn’t particularly interesting. The only people who really care about ‘kink’ are people who care about ‘kink’. So get over the idea that you’re so bad and the rest of the world is just too ‘vanilla’ to get you. You like role-playing, other people don’t. So what. Move on.”

Okay. I’d be happy to move on, except that Murphy herself is simultaneously telling me my sex life is uninteresting and conflating it with the practices of a would-be murderous cannibal. I don’t feel the least bit oppressed by liking to dress up in leather and hit people for mutual enjoyment, but yeah, I admit, I do feel pretty keenly misrepresented by articles like this one which try to tell me that places me on a continuum with a dude who wants to slit his wife’s throat, bleed her out, and eat her dead body for lunch. Murphy, you are doing some pretty nasty oppressing here. An eye-rolling comment about latex outfits doesn’t obscure that little trick. It’s precisely this sort of egregious conflation that has psychiatrists chemically neutering foot fetishists and courts revoking custody because Mom has a riding crop tucked behind the dresser. And those consequences are bona fide oppression, the threat of which very much does hang over practicing perverts. If people like you would leave “boring” folks like us alone, we would have no reason to call oppression.

Third, Murphy’s perception that feminists are unwilling to call out misogyny completely ignores the extent to which self-identified kinky feminists are doing precisely that: calling out misogyny in kink. And no, it’s not about pictures of women in bondage or whatever. It’s about actual, not fantasized, assault, and the people who try to close ranks around the perpetrators. The community-wide discussion of non-consensual behaviour within the pansexual scene, mostly perpetrated by men and mostly targeted at women, is reaching epic proportions, as well it should. Fetlife, for instance, is practically melting down with controversy after controversy in which perpetrators of assault, non-consensual outing, stalking and more are being protected and victims being blamed within the confines of the site, which of course reflects what happens beyond it too. The reason the meltdown is happening is because feminists are calling bullshit in discussion after discussion. Loudly. Repeatedly. That discussion isn’t happening only on fetish social networking sites—it’s happening in workshops, on panels, online, via support groups, in books. (GoodReads.com even has a shelf entitled Abuse and Assault Sold as BDSM! Brilliant. And yes, Fifty Shades is on it.) I, for one, am intrigued to see where it will all go. One thing that’s most certainly not happening is silence. If someone like Murphy were at all educated about what happens among actual kinksters in actual kink community spaces, she wouldn’t make such ridiculous assertions—assertions which only serve to perpetuate the very silence, or “forcing the world to pretend,” of which she accuses kinksters. In short: misogyny absolutely does happen in kink. And when it does, much as it does pretty much anywhere else in society, feminists call it out, the way we do everywhere else we are.

Fourth, this real-life rape and torture of people that Murphy thinks is being presented as a sexy game? The only person I see doing that here is her. And maybe Gilberto Valle and Luka Magnotta, who are, y’know, in jail. On the odd occasion that I’ve seen someone present real rape and torture as anything even close to “sexy games” in kink community settings, they tend to get shouted down by—you guessed it!—feminists. Pervy feminists. Feminists who, fer fuck’s sake, can tell the damn difference between a fantasy and a rape, between a joyful experience of intense intimate connection and the terrifying and damaging experience of non-consensual violence, sometimes precisely because we’ve experienced both, sometimes because we haven’t and don’t ever wish to. Take, for instance, Mollena Williams’ article in this week’s New York Times, which is doing a much better job than Rabble of publishing clearly written and logically argued pieces about kink. (Even their rather predictable essay about the mainstreaming of BDSM, which kicked off all this discussion, is at least well-researched.) Join the club, Murphy. Have at least a modicum of respect for sexual assault survivors and their basic ability to know when they do and do not want something to happen. I’d like to think you have the intellectual chops to do this. If you don’t, well, then I’m really glad you’re not the great hope of today’s feminism.

Problem 2. The conflation of porn production with personal kink practice.

For this section, let’s take a look at William Saletan’s recent Slate article, “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted.”

Saletan falls into the same trap that Murphy does of conflating criminal violence with sexy fun times, in that his article features several links to articles about middle-aged men who kidnapped and tortured teenage girls against their will and called it kinky. Seriously, guy. Seriously. You can do a better job than this. Please tell me that your critical thinking faculties have not completely atrophied. Would you high-five a hockey player who beats the crap out of an opposing team member if he says “Hey, man, this is how hockey works, it’s all part of the game, I had to send a message”? Would you nod sagely upon hearing the Catholic Church defend and protect priests who sexually assaulted young kids, essentially saying “This is between them and God, and the best thing to do is to transfer them to another parish and pray some”? I certainly hope not. I think we can all acknowledge that violence and abuse happen in a variety of settings, and that the settings themselves do not provide either reason or excuse for that abuse. I think we can further acknowledge that abusers do their best to grab onto whatever justification or obfuscation they can come up with. So for crying out loud, put that brain to work a bit, and recognize the difference here.

Beyond that, Saletan conflates porn production work with the personal pursuit of kink: “Women who do S&M porn scenes have described electrical burns, permanent scars from beatings, and penetrations that required vaginal reconstructive surgery.”

Okay. Guy, did you actually read the whole article you link to in that sentence, entitled “Gag Order: Sex Workers Allege Mistreatment at Kink.com”? The title explains the gist of it, and the article explains the rest in fairly clear detail. We are not talking, here, about women pursuing BDSM for their sexy fun times pleasure and getting carried away and abused as they float in happy subspace. We are talking about porn performers who allege they were were mistreated on the job in a variety of ways. This is a workplace safety issue. This is a labour issue.

The Kink.com situation is similar to the kind of workplace safety issues that sex workers all over the world face when they are doing their jobs, from the freakiest kinkiest sort to the softest, sweetest vanilla. It is on par with sex workers who are pressured to push past their limits on camera or off, because someone’s got them between a rock and a hard place financially or because someone’s physically intimidating them or both. It’s about being pushed to do double anal in your first porn shoot when you didn’t really know the risks. It’s about being told one day that you’re the company’s top performer and the next day that you’re being dropped or paid less because your sales are down, and the emotional and financial roller coaster of maintaining a career in a profit-hungry industry where that kind of headfuckery can be par for the course. It’s about being pressured to do full-contact when you were supposed to do no-hands, to pay dancer’s fees to the club when you’re the one bringing in the business, to give your client a blow job when you negotiated for a massage with a happy ending. Yes, it is about unethical practices at Kink.com.

And all of this in the very specific context of people trying to make a living. Don’t equate this bad shit with the things people do in interpersonal situations that are purely for pleasure. Money changes everything. Even people who enjoy their jobs sometimes put up with shit they don’t like in order to get their paycheques, or are subjected to treatment that’s absolutely uncool and speak out about it afterward. Unethical employers of all kinds regularly expose their employees to practices that can have grave physical consequences, from food-industry-specific lung diseases to electrical shock and backbreaking labour at online shipping warehouses. A bad employer in kinky porn may do bad things to their employees just like a bad employer anywhere else. Of course that should be called out, but let’s be clear that the situation doesn’t involve the same range of decision-making factors that come into play when you’re planning your Saturday-night date.

This is, in short, about manipulative labour practices, coercive and sloppy employer behaviour, and the stigmatization that makes it extra hard for sex workers to be respected on the job and on any other job if they decide not to do sex work anymore. I’m not saying we can’t have this conversation, or that we can’t look at the particulars of kink-related porn performance and sex work that might create a different set of risks than other kinds. But if you’re trying to make a real point about risk in recreational BDSM practice, you can’t just slop a story about shoddy porn-industry labour practices into the middle of the article as though they were one and the same.

Problem 3. The conflation of risk and shock factor with harm, and the use of a fallacious slippery slope argument.

When he gets through conflating BDSM play with the kidnapping, rape and torture of minors on the one hand and bad porn-industry labour practice on the other, Saletan gets very caught up in the sensationalism of certain BDSM practices. In so doing, he clearly shows his limited understanding of the subject as a whole.

First of all, he fails to demonstrate any familiarity with the basic realities of kink. Power, sensation and fetish are three key areas of human sexuality that get mixed together in kink. The specific mix is totally individual to each person, and it is very difficult to tell from the outside what particular mix is motivating a given practice, even if it seems obvious to you. Further, practitioners understand terms and concepts slightly differently depending on their location, experience level, social circles and so forth. A picture of an activity gives you only a very limited range of information about what’s going on in it, and a given person’s story about their particular practices is only ever that one person’s story. And on top of all that, unless you have sufficient technical knowledge to understand what’s risky and what’s not, and what steps can be used to mitigate those risks, you can’t possibly judge the safety of what you’re seeing. Until you can acknowledge all of these truths, and understand the complexity they lend to any discussion on the topic, you have no business making any judgements about this whole vast range of practices some people call “kink” (or “SM” or “BDSM” or “leather” – see what I mean?), or about specific practices within it.

Yes, absolutely, some people in SM communities explore practices that, to an outsider, might seem extreme. But until we are discussing this with as neutral a level of judgement as we apply to the physical risks of any and all team sports, of heterosexual vanilla penis-in-vagina sex, of working in construction, of childbirth, of scuba diving, of shoveling your driveway past age 40, of religious fasting, of martial arts, of eating cheeseburgers at McDonald’s three times a week, of living in tornado country, of tanning beds and Botox and waxing and pedicures, of cycling to work in a city run by Rob Ford, and so forth, I’m afraid I just can’t take the “oh but that’s scary risky!” thing very seriously. Yes, some SM has risks. Just like many other things we do, no more and no less. I mean actually, for real, no more and no less. Get over it. Or talk about it level-headedly and with correct factual information.

Saletan refers to SM as “consensual domestic violence,” which is about as accurate as calling polyamory “consensual cheating.” Hmmm, would he do that too? Quite possibly. Okay, let’s instead compare it to calling a public mural project “consensual vandalism,” or calling a juice cleanse “consensual starvation.” I don’t really care what dictionary definitions he throws at the idea. He’s conflating ideas that simply don’t go together. Connotation, not denotation. It’s a thing. You’re a writer. You know this. Do it right.

He also writes that “S&M, by its nature, hurts people. Mild bondage is no big deal. But for sadomasochists, pain is the whole idea. Some stick to spatulas and wooden spoons, but others move on to electric shocks, skewers, knives, and butterfly boards.” (Beware, that last link is going to show you a pic of a pierced penis.)

There are multiple problems with this bit, not the least of which is Saletan’s persistent throwing together of links to articles about violent crime with links to images of safely performed SM practices. Leaving that aside, though, as I’ve outlined, the “nature” of SM (at least when used as a stand-in for the whole package of kink, which Saletan seems to be doing), is not that it hurts people. Plenty of SM doesn’t hurt a bit. Some of it hurts some. Some hurts a lot. Some of it feels like not-hurt even if it looks like hurt. Some of it is hurt that is actual hurt but that is rewarding for other reasons. What, precisely, is the SM he’s referring to? I don’t think he actually knows.

Beyond that, Saletan sets up a dichotomy between kink that’s “no big deal” and kink that, to him, is apparently a big deal. But who gets to decide that? Let’s take his example of “mild bondage.” Who says what that is? I’m not being needlessly relative here. My boy comfortably wears a non-removable chain collar full-time, without even really noticing it. I regularly can’t even stand the feeling of a turtleneck touching my throat. Which one is “mild”? Is “mild” bondage the kind you do with cheap sex-shop handcuffs that are made of crappy metal and might slice open your wrist, but that let you think you’re not all that kinky cuz you’re just playing around? Or is it the much safer kind using scarier-looking thick leather restraints which represent a financial investment and maybe a bit of thinking about your identity? Is “mild” bondage the kind that involves a skinny piece of rope and minimal knowledge of technique, such that you might accidentally cut off your partner’s circulation? Or is it the kind that involves more rope, and probably a workshop or two, but that envelops them in a cozy cocoon of warm safety? Is it bondage you only do once a year, when your spouse isn’t there to see you with the dominatrix you pay to help you live out your fantasies, or is it the weekly practice of wearing a shoestring wrapped around your testicles on the way home from work?

Where is Saletan’s line between “mild” and “not mild”? Is it about frequency, intensity, psychological significance, pain, marks left on the body? Is it between coerced bondage and desired bondage? Note that he doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the latter two, so I’m guessing this isn’t how his line is drawn, which is a serious problem. In any case, I strongly suspect his line is different from mine, but it’s probably also different from yours, and hers, and theirs. Who gets to judge? This isn’t a small question. If you’re going to construct some sex as okay and other sex as not, who gets to decide where that line lies and what falls on each side of it? Are we to assume this line is the same for everyone? Are we to accept Saletan’s line, when he can’t even tell us what it actually is?

Saletan further constructs exactly the kind of slippery-slope type of argument that so many hand-wringing critics of SM like to get caught in. It goes like this: SMers start with paddles and floggers but for some of them, paddles aren’t enough! They move on from there! They go deeper and deeper, like a heroin addict who needs a bigger and bigger hit! They end up slavering lunatics, chasing after the next big thrill, without regard for life and limb! They engage in bloodshed and arson!

Well, no. That’s not how it works. I’m afraid it’s far more pedestrian than that. If you come into BDSM with a lot of damage, little draw to self-preservation and a tendency toward addiction, I suppose maybe this might be your story, but then that would also be your story if you did pretty much anything else, like, say, drive a car or drink a beer or have some regular old sex. Most people who show up in BDSM community take a little while to nose around and figure out what they like and how to do it, and they stick with that, or expand their range as they come across new and interesting ideas. Kinda like a film buff who one day discovers Fellini after years of being mostly into Hitchcock. Gasp! Maybe people like to try something new every once in a while! How shocking.

The down-to-earth truth is that, for many of us, BDSM community events and practices are thrilling at first, but after we’ve been around for a while, they become simply a part of how we live. This doesn’t mean we enjoy them less, though that can happen too (and some people do get bored and stop showing up). Regardless, this is not about needing a bigger hit. It’s just about integration. The thrill of new possible partners every weekend settles into a choosier approach. We go to the party if it falls on a night when we’re not having dinner with the in-laws. We have creative pervy sex, yes, but we aren’t out to prove ourselves to the world by dint of our extreme practices. Sometimes, a simple gag-inducing blow job and a little smacking around does the trick. The needles come out on special occasions. The submissive makes the dominant some tea. The dominant picks out the submissive’s shirt. Ho hum. Life as usual. It’s not the way everyone does things, but it’s how we do them (in whatever combination we each do), because it feels right and good to us, and it’s really not that freaky unless you have an unhealthy fascination with other people’s sex lives and a penchant for sensationalism.

Leaving aside the links to articles about the criminal sexual coercion of minors (!!), for reasons I hope are utter no-brainers, let’s just look at his linked picture of the butterfly board as an example of Saletan’s leanings in said direction. To someone who doesn’t do any needle play, the sight of a penis connected to a corkboard by means of needles might cause a case of genital-clasping panic. To someone who does needle play, this picture is hardly shocking. Look carefully. Do you know how to judge what’s going on? As someone who’s been playing with needles for a decade now, I’ll walk you through it.

When I look, I see, oh, a handful of high-gauge (meaning slim) needles, say in the 23-gauge range, which means they are quite mild in terms of the pain levels they’re likely to cause. (A standard IV drip is considerably more hardcore, in the 18-gauge range.) I see them inserted carefully into the top couple of millimetres of the skin surface, so they don’t penetrate the spongy and blood-filled erectile tissue or the super-sensitive nerves at the head of the penis—not that those can’t be done safely, but they’re more intense. With these factors in mind, this is not a piercing scene that’s likely to draw much blood, and in fact, we see none. I see a gloved finger—I can’t tell for sure, but judging by the texture, it looks like black nitrile to me, which means this top is careful to avoid latex in case of allergy. I see the end of a Prince Albert piercing, which is pretty heavy. Those are usually installed by a professional, and this tells me we’re dealing with a person who’s pretty comfy having big metal put through his most sensitive bits, such that this particular scene wasn’t likely wicked intense for him from a pain perspective. I see the creative use of a needle to tack down the PA without touching the skin, even though that dick is clearly not going anywhere; this speaks to me, possibly, of a certain tongue-in-cheek humour on the part of the top, like sticking a victory flag into your bottom’s bondage harness when they’re too trussed up to move. Or possibly it was just a practical way to avoid the penis rolling in the wrong direction. I also see a clear liquid stain beneath the head of the penis, which means he’s probably leaked some pre-come, which means he’s likely having a good time.

Honestly, the riskiest thing about the activity as pictured is that it’s not really possible to sterilize the corkboard, and when the needles are pulled back through the skin upon removal, there is some chance they’ll leave tiny bits of cork behind such that the skin becomes irritated or mildly infected. Which is, y’know, generally not life-threatening, and the risk can be greatly reduced by swabbing with alcohol after everything’s done. This, to me, is a picture of a pretty darned safe scene done by people who know what they’re doing. It’s not especially physically edgy—though it could have been, and that might also have been perfectly okay. The only “harm” it’s likely to cause are a few tiny dots on the skin. You’d do worse actual damage if you nicked yourself shaving. But it sure does look shocking to someone who doesn’t have the knowledge to see the elements I just described. And call me crazy, but I’m guessing Saletan’s never affixed his cock to a corkboard.

So what’s the point of this picture? I’m not upset at seeing it because it’s shocking. I’m upset at seeing it because it’s Saletan’s way of trying to be shocking, himself, while pinning (ha!) that accusation on perverts. In using it to try and make a point (ha! jeez, sorry, folks), all he really does is give himself away as lacking basic knowledge of his subject matter. It’s like saying “Holy shit guys, in boxing, they actually hit each other! Like, in the face!” or “Jeezis, I went to the circus and these acrobats, like, jumped through hoops! Hoops that were on fire!” or “Ohmigod there are surgeons who cut people open! With scalpels! And then, get this, they take their organs out!” Yup. Those things happen. They are risky. The people who do them learn how, practice, and mitigate those risks. So?

Saletan brings up, but never attempts to resolve—either in his original piece or in his response piece to the criticism the first one provoked—the question of when the “severity of the harm overrides the sanctity of consent.” He seems to think that examples which are visually or conceptually shocking to a non-kink audience speak for themselves, but at no point does he actually discuss how we should go about judging the severity of harm, or whether there even was any harm. He simply acknowledges that “fortunately, most BDSM falls well short of that”—severe harm, I’m guessing he means—and discusses how “kinksters who comment in Slate have worked so hard to distance themselves from ‘edge play’ such as blood, fire, and asphyxiation—which they call ‘nuts,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘extreme.’”

So, okay, I’ll take the bait. I’m one of those people who engages in edge play such as blood and fire. Asphyxiation isn’t my particular kink but I do think it’s fun to play with telling someone how and when they can breathe. While we’re at it, I engage in full-time M/s dynamics with my partners, meaning we consider ourselves owner and property. I am not the least bit interested in distancing myself from these practices in order to make anyone feel better about kink. Fuck that.

Am I the bad guy now, Saletan? You wouldn’t know, because you don’t actually discuss what harm is or indicate any understanding of how risk is assessed and kink practices are done with safety considerations in mind. As a rock climber, I double-back all my harness straps and tie my double figure-8 and finish off with a safety knot before I get on the climbing wall or hit a sheer rock face, and I check my partner’s gear too, every time. If I’m about to stick needles in someone or set them on fire, you bet your fucking ass I’ve taken great pains to learn how to do that safely. Do you know what a person needs to have in their kit in order to pierce with minimal risk? Do you know anything about the direction of needle tips, about sharps containers and disinfectants and surface protection and gloves? Do you know anything about competency, about a steady hand, about how a top might back out of a scene because they’re too tired or took too many Advils that afternoon or they just feel funny about this scene, in this place, tonight, and about how all that builds trust? Do you know anything about trust? About the intimacy that this level of careful, intricate work creates? Do you care? Or are you more interested in the shock value of a dick pinned to a board, which to you, inherently conveys the idea of over-the-top harm? If you’re going to open up the question, be a responsible writer and follow the fuck through. If not, you’re taking wildly inaccurate cheap shots and frankly I have no respect for that, or for you.

So what should we do instead, then?

Well, a response from BDSM practitioners, along with some education work, is a good start. This kind of education is tedious fucking work, I must say, and it’s especially tedious because we’ve done it all before and writers like these are just too lazy to look it up. But what else do we do? We could ignore it, I suppose, but that has its own dangers. We’re not talking about someone’s dumb LJ post here. We’re talking about major publications like Rabble and Slate which present themselves as progressive. With friends like these… sigh.

To effectively respond, rather than just go in circles, though, we have to get some of our politics sorted out. So this last part of my post is directed at perverts who want to speak up when this kind of claptrap gets published, as well as at writers who want to do it right from the get-go.

Unfortunately, some of the practitioner responses to Saletan’s sloppy pieces of writing are also problematic, such as this one at The Frisky. Not because Jessica Wakeman’s post is awful—it’s not, in fact it’s by and large pretty great. I especially love that she expresses the same frustration I feel at the tedium of countering these lazy characterizations. But she relies in part on a distancing strategy that leaves some pervs out in the cold (I’ve written about this here and here).

The argument here cannot be about the “extreme” vs the “average” kinkster and what these fictional people do and don’t do. If we go down that road we’ve already lost, because we’re essentially saying it’s okay to throw the next person down the pervy line under the bus, and I absolutely promise you that one day the person getting thrown will be you as soon as your level or style of pervy is the one currently out of fashion or under scrutiny. If we want to have the conversation about what is and isn’t over the line, let’s have it. Let’s discuss and debate that line in great detail. But any statement that assumes a common line for everyone, or even a commonly understood spectrum of okay-ness, is automatically a mistake. And if we’re going to discuss the line, it makes no sense to simply draw it between X practice and Y practice. We must, must, must talk about the why and the how, not just the what.

It’s also crucial that we refuse to engage in the “born this way” argument. Listen, the first thing I ever knew about my sexuality was that it was about power and pain. Like, when I was a toddler. And I still wouldn’t seriously argue that I was “born kinky.” This idea relies on a logic of genetics or other pre-social formative influences that simply cannot hold up under investigation, because the meaning of “kinky” is only ever social, and there cannot be a gene for high-heel fetishism or the enjoyment of invasive dental work. Human evolution simply does not work that fast or that specifically. And genetics have zero bearing on the legitimacy of a sexual practice anyway. If we understand an orientation to be a fundamental and relatively unchanging set of internal parameters through which we experience our desires and sexualities, then my kink is an orientation as surely as my queer and my poly are, but none of them require a biological basis for being valid and deserving of respect. “Born this way” is used willy-nilly as though it were the argumentative equivalent of no-fault insurance, but it’s not. It’s just inaccurate. It fails to pay out when the accident happens. Let’s please drop it. We don’t need it anyway. Just like the boxers and acrobats and surgeons, we are perfectly legit without it.

If we really do want to engage in questions about the acceptability of or risks related to kink—real, genuine questions that do away with shock value, inaccurate conflations, hysterical hype and flawed defense strategies—I can suggest a few pathways into the discussion. If you still don’t know the difference between a murder plot and a hot date, go back and do some 101 before you approach these questions. For those who are with me in the grown-up world, here we go.

I suggest a triptych of criteria to help us evaluate what is going on in a given situation, whatever that may be. (Yes, they apply well beyond kink, not surprisingly.) If we need to draw lines at all, I’d like to suggest we draw them with these concepts in mind.

1. Motivation. Why is a person doing what they’re doing? Completely independently of the next two criteria, this one is key because it focuses on mindset, intent, emotional state, and so forth, all key elements of strong decision-making. I could sleep for ten hours because I’m super tired after an intense workout, or I could sleep for ten hours because I’m depressed and avoiding the world. I could have sex with a complete stranger because I hate myself and feel my body is worthless, or because the attraction was off the charts and I expect to be walking on air for two weeks afterwards. In some ways this question is the most crucial of all, because it is entirely possible to make very un-shocking, responsible-looking decisions from a place of terrible motivation, and because that’s where you started you may still come out the end facing miserable consequences (say, getting married to someone you don’t love and having kids you don’t want because your parents pressured you so hard). It is equally possible to make shocking, risky-looking decisions that are very well-thought-out and solid (say, quitting your high-paid lawyer job to become a nomadic volunteer on organic farms because you well know you’ll burn out and jump off a bridge if you don’t do something to relieve the pressure, and also, you really like world travel and spinach). So, why is someone doing their kink? Is that man submitting because he  can’t bear taking responsibility for anything, or because it connects them deeply with his partner, who desires and honours the gift of that vulnerability? Is that guy spanking his wife because they both find it wicked sexy, or because they believe women are naturally meant to take punishment from men and also God says so?

2. Process. Let’s think about recklessness versus responsibility. How is a person doing what they’re doing? Have they acquired the skill and knowledge to do it safely? Do they have an accurate perception of their own competency? Do they have the appropriate tools? Do they have a plan for what to do if things go terribly wrong, and a sense of what the possible fumbles could be? Are they attentive to the well-being and safety of the person or people they’re playing with, whether that’s expressed via a written contract or a clear verbal negotiation or simply many years of trust built such that Person A knows the second Person B breathes funny that something is going wrong? (Yes, this applies to both bottoms and tops.) Do they have enough information to make fully informed consent? If they don’t, and this is an information-gathering type of scene (à la “let’s try this, I don’t know if I like it yet”) do they have a support system set up in case it goes badly, and a plan to evaluate and discuss what they’ve figured out?

3. Result. What’s the upshot? Did it all work out hunky dory? Did they have fun? If something went wrong, how was it handled? Did the players or partners deepen their trust and communication by repairing things? Do they want to try again? Did they simply decide this wasn’t an experience to repeat? Was it meh, mediocre, all right but not great? If so, did everyone concerned learn something at least? If there was a severe consequence of some kind—with the understanding that proper attention to the first two criteria makes this highly unlikely—how was that dealt with?

There. Simple enough. Let’s drop questions such as “why are they like this” or “how unusual are the things they do” and focus on these ones instead as we each try to establish what our lines are, and work toward having real discussions about those lines if and when that’s even needed. If you’re stuck in look-at-the-freaks mode, you are holding back the whole class. Go do your homework. Drop your assumptions. Talk to some real people, and not just one or two. Read a book or two or ten. Think a little, and then think a little harder. Use your logic and your analysis skills. Do real research. Make tenable connections. Above all, don’t be lazy. Then come back and write a thoughtful article that’s worth reading, and let’s actually move this discussion forward.

 

the problem with polynormativity
January 24, 2013

Polyamory is getting a lot of airtime in the media these days. It’s quite remarkable, really, and it represents a major shift over the last five to ten years.

The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.

Ten years ago, I think my position was a lot more live-and-let-live. You know, different strokes for different folks. I do poly my way, you do it your way, and we’re all doing something non-monogamous so we can consider ourselves to have something in common that’s different from the norm. We share a certain kind of oppression, in that the world doesn’t appreciate or value non-monogamy. We share relationship concerns, like logistics challenges and time management and jealousy. So we’re all in this together, right?

Today, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have much stronger Feelings about this. I mean Feelings of serious squick, not just of YKINMKBYKIOK*. Feelings of genuine offense, not of comradeship. Fundamentally, I think we’re doing radically different things. The poly movement—if it can even be called that, which is debatable for a number of reasons—is beginning to fracture along precisely the same lines as the gay/lesbian/queer one has. (You could argue it has been fractured along this fault line forever, but it hasn’t always seemed quite as crystal-clear to me as it does right now.)

(*Stands for “your kink is not my kink but your kink is okay,” a common phrase used among perverts to basically say we don’t all have to like doing a thing in order for that thing to be acceptable.)

At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.

The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms. I’ll refer to this as polynormativity. (I don’t think I’m quite coining a term here, but not far off, as most of the paltry seven hundred-ish Google hits I can find for the term are about obscure legalese I don’t understand. I kinda wish it was already a thing, frankly. So, uh, my gift to you.)

Here are the four norms that make up polynormativity as I see it.

1. Polyamory starts with a couple. The first time I came across the term “poly couple” I laughed out loud. It seemed to me the most evident of oxymorons—jumbo shrimp, friendly fire, firm estimate, poly couple. But lo and behold, it’s really taken root, and nobody seems to be blinking. Polyamory is presented as a thing that a couple does, as opposed to a relationship philosophy and approach that individual people ascribe to, as a result of which they may end up as part of a couple but—because poly!—may just as well be partnered with six people, or part of a triad, or single, or what have you. With this norm, the whole premise of multiple relationships is narrowed down to what sounds, essentially, like a hobby that a traditionally committed pair of people decide to do together, like taking up ballroom dancing or learning to ski. So much for a radical re-thinking of human relationships. So much for anyone who doesn’t come pre-paired.

2. Polyamory is hierarchical. Following from the norm that poly begins (and presumably ends) with two, we must of course impose a hierarchy on whatever else happens. Else, how would we know who the actual real couple is in all this? If you add more people, it might get blurry and confusing! Thus, the idea of primary relationships and secondary relationships emerges. This is what I call hierarchical poly.

“Primary” implies top-level importance. “Secondary” implies less importance. Within this model, it’s completely normal to put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course. Let me say this again. It’s completely normal, even expected, that one person’s feelings, desires and opinions will matter more than another’s. It is normal for one person to be flown in first class and the other in economy as a matter of course, based on their respective status alone. And we think this is progressive?

Of course this plays out differently in different situations. This model is more likely to work out relatively well if the people involved are super kind, considerate, consistent, emotionally secure and generous, and less likely to work out happily if the people involved are mean, inconsiderate, inconsistent, insecure or selfish. It’s sort of like how you’re more likely to keep your job in a recession if your boss is a really nice person than if they really are mostly interested in the bottom line. Either way, this structure ensures that secondaries are dependent on the goodwill of primaries, and that they don’t have much say.

This is precisely what gives rise to things like Franklin Veaux’s controversial (?!) proposed secondary bill of rights or a recent post that went viral outlining how to treat non-primary partners well (note how these are not mainstream media articles). These posts make me sick to my stomach. Not because there’s anything wrong with what they’re saying, but because—according to secondaries, who are exactly the people we should be listening to here—it means that a lot of polynormative people actually need to be told how not to treat other people like complete garbage. These posts are a crash course in basic human decency. That they are even remotely necessary, to say nothing of extremely popular, is really fucking disturbing.

I’m going to digress into a note about terminology for a moment here. I take serious issue with definitions of “primary” that go something like “the primary relationship is when you live together, have kids, share finances, etc.” No. Wrong. Disagree. This is a deeply flawed definition. Any of the elements that go into this type of definition of “primary” can just as easily be had in a relationship that isn’t “primary,” or, for that matter, that isn’t even romantic or sexual. People can live with a roommate, share finances with a platonic life partner, have kids with an ex they never speak to; and on the flip side, a person can consider another person to be a “primary” partner even without living together, sharing finances or reproducing. “Primary” and “secondary” are about a hierarchy-based relationship model, not about specific life circumstances.

“Primary” and “secondary” are not especially ambiguous as far as terms go. With that in mind, I will add a plea here directed at poly people: if you don’t mean to create or imply a hierarchy, don’t use “primary” and “secondary” as shorthand. Many of you are geeks, so accuracy must be important to you, right? Think of this as sort of like not mixing up Star Trek and Star Wars or Mac and PC. Instead of “primary,” talk about your domestic partner, your long-term partner, the person you spend most of your time with, your husband or wife—whatever applies. Instead of “secondary,” talk about your occasional date, your casual lover, your boyfriend or girlfriend or secret agent lover man, your annual long-distance affair, your new squeeze with whom you’re just figuring things out, or whatever other terms explain what you’re up to. None of these are about hierarchy. They’re just relationship descriptors. (I’ll postpone my rant about how some people think “husband” and “wife” are more real than “partner” or “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.”) On the flip side, don’t just drop using the words “primary” and “secondary” in order to look less hierarchical while still making relationship decisions in a very firmly hierarchy-based manner. No false advertising in either direction, okay?

Let me clarify my position here just in case. There is nothing wrong with serious, long-term, committed domestic partnership. There is also nothing wrong with dating casually, and feeling just fine about hanging out with a sweetie way less often than that sweetie hangs out with their spouse, say. Sometimes, a relationship is just not destined to be long-term, or domestic, or local, or involve meeting each other’s parents. This is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s also not the same thing as being “secondary.” I am not playing with semantics here. I’m talking about frameworks for viewing relationships, making decisions, coming up with rules—more on that in the next point—and treating real, live human beings.

3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules. If we start out with a couple, and we want to keep that couple firmly in its place as “primary” with all others as “secondary,” well, of course we need to come up with a bunch of rules to make sure it all goes according to plan, right? Right. (And there is most certainly a plan.)

This is a control-based approach to polyamory that, while not exclusive to couple-based primary-secondary models, is almost inevitable within them. Rules are implicitly set by the “primaries,” the “poly couple”—at least that’s how most discussions of rules are presented. Some books and websites will tell you (“you” presumably being someone who’s part of a currently-monogamous, about-to-be-poly couple) that it’s really super important not only to have rules, but also to set them out before you go out and do this polyamory thing. If ever you wanted confirmation of the very clearly secondary status of “secondary” partners, this is it: the rules get set before they even show up, and they have no say in ‘em. Again… we think this is progressive?

Here’s the thing. Rules have an inverse relationship to trust. They are intended to bind someone to someone else’s preferences. They are aimed at constraint. I will limit you, and you will limit me, and then we’ll both be safe.

When two people are well matched in their values, and have strong mutual trust, they don’t need a rule to know how they’ll each behave. I mean, how many times do you hear “I’ll agree not to kill anyone if you agree not to kill anyone, okay? That’ll be our rule. No killing.” Of course not. Psychopaths aside, this kind of thing need not be said; we can assume that everyone shares the value of “killing people is bad and I will not do it.”

But it’s not the least bit uncommon for “poly couples” to create elaborate sets of rules to keep each other strictly bound to only behave in ways that are not scary, not dangerous, and not threatening to the primary bond. We won’t kiss anyone without asking each other first. No overnight dates. If you want to see her more than three times, I have to meet her. If you want to see her more than three times, don’t tell me about it, it’s too much for me to handle. No falling in love (this one cracks me up in its sheer absurdity). Love is okay, but only if you love him less than me. Anal sex only with me. Anal sex only with others. You have to date exactly the same number of people as I date. No going to our favourite restaurant together. No sleeping in our bed. You have to text me by eleven. I have to call you when I’m leaving her place. And the crowning glory, the holy grail of poly rules: we have veto power! (I’ve got a whole other post about this one, called Against the Veto, in which I lay out exactly why veto rights are a rotten idea.) The crux: secondaries are secondary, so very secondary that a person they’re not even partnered with can decide if and when they’ll get dumped.

You know, when true danger is involved, I’m all for rules. Rules like, say, you must be at least five feet tall to board this ride… you cannot perform neurosurgery without a medical license… no unprotected anal sex with strangers (note that this kind of rule isn’t about a couple, it’s about protecting your own precious health!)… no fire play at this event as the ceilings are low and hung with paper streamers. But extensive rules around polyamory are essentially the equivalent of saying that love (or sex, or dating) is dangerous and must be severely regulated so as not to harm anyone. To my mind this is a very strange way of approaching the possibility of great joy and human connection—as though it were a bomb that might detonate if not handled by strict protocol. The more rules you put into place, the more you are indicating that you don’t trust the person subject to those rules to operate in a considerate fashion with your shared values at heart. Or, on the reverse, you are indicating that you need to be under strict supervision, failing which you will shit all over your partner’s well-being. If you have to legislate something, it’s because you don’t expect it to happen sans legislation. This is a sad state of affairs in what are ostensibly supposed to be loving, possibly long-term relationships.

Are rules never a good thing? I wouldn’t go that far. They can be a necessary evil, a temporary measure to get you through a rough time during which you are presumably working on a better solution. Which you are. Like, right now. Right? From a completely different angle, rules can be pleasurable, or erotically (etc.) charged, like in a D/s or M/s relationship—although those too, when imposed from a place of fear or agreed to as a way to avoid penalty, can be a form of unethical binding designed to shore up one person’s insecurities at another person’s expense. But aside from these very specific and circumscribed instances, rules are best when they are used quite sparingly, and even then, only when other solutions are unavailable.

What other solutions am I talking about? Trust. Plain and simple. Trust is the soil in which polyamory should grow, much like any other kind of love. Say what you mean, always, and all of it. Follow through on your commitments. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Assume positive intent. Ask questions. Listen, listen, listen. Ask more questions and listen some more. Soothe fears. Work on your own insecurities at the location from which they spring—inside yourself. Be kind. Be consistent. Be generous. Ask explicitly for what you want. State clearly what you need. Apologize when you fuck up, and try to fix it. Find strategies to compensate for your shortcomings, such as forgetfulness or anxiety or lack of emotional vocabulary or whatever else gets in the way of you being able to do all this stuff skilfully. Yes, this is going to be a lot of work. Do it anyway. Better yet, do it because the work itself brings you joy and makes you feel like you are moving through the world in a way that is profoundly right. If you’ve messed up on one of these counts, or any other, and it has hurt your partner(s), heal it. Do the work together. Get couples therapy. Practice new communication skills together. Invest your time, energy and effort to make the soil healthy and nourishing rather than in building fences around the garden.

From there, you can request all kinds of behaviours without needing them to be rules. You know, like “I’m really keen to meet your new lover! Can we have tea next week?” or “Hey, will you text when you’re on your way home so I know what time to get dinner ready for?” or “It would make me feel cherished and special if we had a brand of wine we drink only with each other” or even “I’m terrified I’m going to lose you and I need some reassurance.” Again, this isn’t just semantics. These other ways of relating aren’t “just like rules.” They are about generosity and joy and care, not control and limits and fear. Intent counts here.

4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy! This element of polynormativity doesn’t relate directly to the other three, but since we are talking about media representation here, it’s well worth mentioning. Polyamory is resolutely presented in the media as a thing heterosexuals do, except sometimes for bisexual women who have a primary male partner and secondary female partners. It is exceedingly rare for lesbian, gay or queer poly configurations to be included in mainstream representations of polyamory, even though LGBQ circles are absolute hotbeds of polyamorous activity, and LGBQ people have a long and illustrious history of non-monogamy, recent enthusiasm about marriage notwithstanding. Go to just about any LGBQ gathering—even the most mainstream—and you can’t swing a cat without hitting at least half a dozen people who are doing some sort of non-monogamy, from regular “monogamish” bathhouse adventures to full-on poly families. It’s so common that it feels (gasp!) normal.

But if the mainstream media were to give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, then people might think poly is a gay thing, and that wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines. So the typical polynormative hype article goes something like, “Meet Bob and Sue. They’re a poly couple. They’re primary partners and they date women together.” Or “they each date women on the side” or “they have sex parties in their basement” or sometimes, though more rarely, “Bob dates women and Sue dates men.” Mainstream representations rarely break the “one penis per party” rule, which is exactly as offensive as it sounds. You don’t get Bob dating Dave, or Sue dating Tim and Jim and John while Bob stays home with a movie. Because whoa! That’s just going too far. I mean, playing around with women is one thing, but if you bring a second man into the picture, don’t the two guys need to, like, duke it out? Prove who’s manlier? Because evolutionary psychology! Because nature! Because when there is a penis (and only one penis) involved it is real sex and that means a real relationship and we must have a real relationship to have a primary-secondary structure and we must have a primary-secondary structure to be a poly couple! (Hmm. So maybe this part does relate to my other three points after all.)

All of this creates a situation where polyamory is presented as a hip new trend that edgy straight folks are trying out, and boy, are they ever proud of it. Needless to say this whole framing varies from clueless about queers to downright offensive.

Add the mainstream media’s desire to show images of poly people who are cute, young and white and we are getting a very narrow picture indeed. The magazines want to showcase people who are as conventionally attractive as possible, aged between 20 and 40, and almost never anything other than Caucasian (unless they’re people of colour who are really, y’know, exotic and sexy, like smoldering black men or gorgeous Asian women). It’s a crying shame, because the stories of poly people who are in their sixties and seventies would be amazing to hear. And no, not all poly people are white, but when white is the only image people see of poly, it sure does create a barrier discouraging people of colour from understanding themselves as potentially poly.

The media is also mostly interested in the sexy factor. The deep impact that a given person’s camera-friendliness has on the media’s willingness to showcase them cannot be underestimated. And with that comes the push to sexualize as much as possible. I will never forget, for instance, what happened when I was featured in Châtelaine magazine with a partner about ten years ago. The photographer pushed hard for me to take my top off for the shoot, assuring me it would be tasteful. When I asked him why he wanted to take the showing-skin angle, he said “because you’re not ugly. It’s really hard to photograph people who are ugly.” Um, thanks? My blouse stayed on, but apparently young, white and cute were still the order of the day, because they still had my picture take up way more space than the other people who were featured in the article. You know, the “ugly” ones. Yechh.

Don’t get me wrong. Sex and attraction are significant forces in poly relationships. This isn’t a bad thing, and I feel no need to get all “it’s not about the sex” on you. It is about the sex, at least for most of us. But it’s not only about the sex. If it were only about the sex, it wouldn’t be polyamory—it would be sleeping around, which is awesome, but not usually committed and romantic. If it were never about the sex, it also wouldn’t be polyamory—we’d just be a bunch of friends, which is also awesome, but also not usually romantic, though possibly committed. But the media is really bad at striking that balance. The mainstream is really interested in orgies, and who sleeps with who, and how often, and wow threesomes! And did I mention young, cute and white?

These articles are looking to present a fantasy of conventionally good-looking people having delightful transgressive (but not scary transgressive) sex while remaining as firmly within the boundaries of conventional couple-based relationship-building as humanly possible under the circumstances. That fantasy sells things. It does the rest of us no favours.

— I’m adding this section now (a week after the original post) because a few people have now raised the question of why I am using the acronym LGBQ without including the T for transgender/transsexual. In trying to keep a tight focus on the topic of polynormativity as being about media representation of a certain relationship model, and the problems with both the representation and the model – with “tight” already being a bit of a stretch given the length of this post – I didn’t go into the broader list of ways in which polynormativity supports other kinds of omissions and normativities. In making that editorial choice, I may have perpetuated several of those omissions myself. So, clarification is of course warranted. (Some of the following appears in the comments section, so you will see it repeated if you read through that too.)

So here it is: I am increasingly uncomfortable with the acronym LGBTQ, as the inclusion of a T for “transgender” (a gender identity) at the end of a list of letters standing for sexual orientations (not genders) bears some implicit inaccuracy. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people may be trans or non-trans; and transgender people may of course be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or straight (and beyond) in orientation. Not all trans people feel an affiliation with gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer politics or communities, and not all people with a history of transition feel a need to overtly identify as transgendered, even if they do identify as gay, lesbian, bi or queer. I don’t take any issue with using LGBTQ to describe, for instance, a magazine or a group or a committee or what have you, provided the entity actually serves the people represented by that entire acronym and isn’t just trying to look extra-progressive. In this post, I’m talking about orientation, not gender identity, so it felt (and still feels) inaccurate to throw the T into that specific list.

But that doesn’t mean trans people have no place in this discussion. Quite the opposite. The polynormative model also perpetuates cisnormativity, in two ways. (Cisnormativity is the idea that all people who are assigned a given sex at birth still identify with that sex and express an “appropriate” gender identity as a result, and that anything else is weird or bad.) One is the media representation element – trans people rarely show up in mainstream media representations of polyamory. So this is cisnormativity by omission. The other, more complex piece becomes evident when we dig a little deeper into the “one penis per party” rule, and into how we understand sexual orientation. “One penis per party” relies on the idea that “penis” can be used as shorthand for “man,” because men always have penises, and only men have penises. This, of course, erases the experiences of a lot of trans folks for whom genitals and gender don’t match up, whether because they are men who weren’t born with penises or because they’re women who were (regardless of what a person’s genitals look like at this point in their life, or what words they use for them).

“One penis per party,” more broadly, also relies on the idea that men and women are naturally different in some sort of essentialist, fundamental, biology-based way, such that having a (in this case secondary) relationship with a man is going to be substantively different because man than it would be with a woman because woman. This idea ends up pre-determining how people think a relationship is going to go – how “real” the sex is going to be, how intense the emotions are likely to get, and therefore how “safe” it is to “allow” one’s primary partner to engage in that relationship. This doesn’t account for the possible presence of trans people in the equation. But even if that’s a non-existent possibility in a given situation for whatever reason, it speaks to a viewpoint in which women and men are naturally like this or like that because of their anatomy. This, as a conceptual model, keeps trans people – even if you don’t know any (to your knowledge!) and don’t have any occasion to meet any – in the boxes they were assigned to at birth. It implies that the gender they have moved into is somehow less real or valid. It also keeps the vast spectrum of people who are not trans – whether cisgendered, or, like myself, gender-fluid or somewhere else in the non-binary range – tethered to the boxes they were assigned at birth, insisting that those boxes determine who we are, who we can be, how we can fuck, and what it’s like to be romantically involved with us. Ultimately, cisnormativity hurts everyone. The people most egregiously damaged end up being the people who are the most visibly different, which often means trans women. But cisnormativity isn’t “just” a trans issue. This is about creating space for all of us to exist as we wish.

Like with any normative model, polynormativity works in concert with a range of other normative models to create a full, if rarely explicit, picture in people’s minds about How the World Works, about who counts and who doesn’t, about what’s real and what’s not worth considering. As such, in addition to questions of race and age and orientation, as I mentioned earlier, and of gender, as I’ve fleshed out here, it holds hands with other problematic ideas. Ideas of what family is or should be, and of how kids can or should work into the equation; questions of illness/health and ability/disability, including STI status; questions of class and economic position; and a range of others. But, as a commenter pointed out, this is a blog post, it isn’t a book. Yet…

End of new section! —

***

In sum, I have three key problems with polynormativity.

First problem: the polynormative model is kinda sucky. Perhaps it might work well, maayyybe, for some people—I won’t go so far as to say it never does. But it comes with a host of problems for everyone involved, most notably for those who are in the least empowered place within the relationship structure, but also in more subtle and insidious ways for those who are in the more privileged place within the structure. Gee, whaddaya know, that’s a lot like pretty much every other privilege/oppression system, ever! I’m going to stop short of saying to polynormative folks, “hey, you’re doing it wrong,” but, well, honestly? Not far off. Maybe closer to “you’re missing the point.”

Because of this stance I suspect I may get irate or defensive comments here from a lot of polynormative folks who feel just great about their model. To them, I will say the following. If you are a member of a “primary” pair in a polynormative model, and your “secondary” partner(s) can provide just as spirited a defense of your model as you do, or even more so—not a defense of you as individuals, nor of your relationship, but of the polynormative model itself—without leaving anything out or fibbing even a little bit so they don’t risk creating conflict or possibly losing you as a partner, then you fall within the minority of polynormative folks for whom the model works really, super well for all concerned. (And I do mean all. If it’s only working really great for the primary couple, the model isn’t working.) If you’re one such bunch, there’s no need to get defensive—I’m not really criticizing you anyway. If, however, that’s not the case for you, please hold off on your defensiveness and think really seriously about the critiques I’m raising instead.

When I start seeing a plethora of mainstream media testimonials from happy, fulfilled secondary partners about how awesome the primary-secondary model is… when these secondaries start writing the latest hit poly books, giving the advice, having the lead roles in the reality TV shows, and doing all this as secondaries (not as people who happen to be secondary to someone but it’s all okay and balanced and fair because they’re also primary to someone else)… when they show their faces in photos, use their full and real names in articles, and just generally feel not the least bit weird about their position in these poly structures right alongside the primary partners who are showcased this way… when this is not an occasional exception, but the main kind of representation I see by and of secondary partners… then maybe I will amend my stance here. I’m not holding my breath.

Second problem: The media presents these poly norms as, well, norms. As The Way to Do Poly. At best, there’s a brief mention that some people do some other sorts of poly, over there, and we don’t really understand them, or maybe those forms are way too complicated for us to summarize in a 1,000-word article. (Triads! Quads! Families! Ws and Xs and Greek alphabets and constellations and ecosystems! It’s all so scary. Also, math is hard.)

But most of the time, “other” (ooh, look at that construction!) kinds of poly aren’t mentioned at all. There is this one way, and here it is! Isn’t it grand? So brave! So unusual! Really quite cutting-edge, don’t you think? … Well, whether intentionally or otherwise, this approach ends up flattening the picture of poly, depicting it in its simplest, most dumbed-down terms. It’s no coincidence that this version of poly is the one that most closely resembles the one-man, one-woman, marriage-based, nuclear-family kind of relationship we’re all told we’re supposed to aspire to. All we’ve done is relax the rules around sex a bit, and unlike (but not that unlike) swingers’ ethics, we’re also “allowing” the emotional end of things to actually exist, in the sense that we have relationships and are not “just” schtupping. But not the kind of relationships that actually “threaten” (?!) the “primary” couple. Not with people who, God forbid, make demands on one or both of us, or challenge us, or want to have a say in how things go. Then, well, they get the boot, because primary comes first! We can all agree on that, can’t we? Of course. That’s the essence of primary relationships. It’s pretty clear in the terminology. One person comes first, the others do not. This is why the mainstream can wrap its head around poly at all: because understood this way, it’s really not that fundamentally different from monogamy.

Third problem: This whole state of affairs screws over the newbies. Because of this overwhelming slant in media representation, a lot of folks who are new to poly are operating at a great disadvantage.

I’m not really much one to idealize the past, but boy, was it different ten or fifteen years ago. Back in my day (ha!), if you wanted to learn about poly, there was one source: The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt (as Janet Hardy was known at the time). It was all right. Not perfect. Heavily slanted toward sex-party-attending Bay Area granola types, and written at such a basic language level that it wouldn’t go over anyone’s head, but overall pretty solid, and nicely thought-provoking. Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits was never nearly as popular or sexy, but it did become a quiet classic, and provided another angle. And, well, that was it. Beyond that, there were a few online discussion forums and potentially, if you lived in a big city, real-life local poly groups. This meant that if you wanted to learn about how to “do” polyamory, you pretty much had to make it up by yourself (which can be a good thing, though extra-challenging); talk to people in your local community, which was probably relatively small but also probably pretty warm and supportive; or attend a conference somewhere far away that brought together a bunch of people. And those people might be doing poly in any number of ways, primary-secondary being just one. (Even then, it was a pretty darned common one, so I’m not saying that polynormativity is entirely a new problem—it’s just worse now than ever.)

Right now, though, you can google “polyamory” and get a whole lot of nearly-identical polynormative hype articles, and you can meet up with locals who’ve read the same articles you just did, and you can all get together and do polynormative poly exactly the way the media told you to. And if that’s all you ever bother to do then essentially you are selling yourself short. You are trading in the monogamous norm for polynormativity, which relatively speaking isn’t all that much of a stretch, and stopping there because you may very well think that’s all there is (and you already racked up a whole bunch of cool points anyway). You aren’t encouraged to really think about this stuff without any imposed models at all, which means you never get to figure out what actually might work best for you. As such, the most fundamental element of polyamory—that of rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and practice love, sex, relationships, commitment, communication, and so forth—is lost in favour of a cookie-cutter model that’s as easy as one, two, three. The deepest and most significant benefit of polyamory has become increasingly obscured by media representation, and as a result, is getting farther and farther out of reach for anyone who’s just starting out.

***

I feel the need to reiterate, one last time, that my problem here is with the polynormative model and the mainstream media’s insistence on it—not with a specific relationship structure or with any people who happen to practice it. Yes, the polynormative model and the primary-secondary relationship structure do happen to overlap often, but I can’t tell by looking at you what process, values or circumstances brought you to your current structure, or why you chose your terminology, so I can’t and won’t criticize or judge individual people or poly groupings on the sole basis of having a primary-secondary structure. If this post provokes a sense of defensiveness in you, I invite you to sit with that and think about why.

The key distinction here is between philosophy and current situation or practice. This is similar to how sexual orientation and current sexual practice are not one and the same. You can, for instance, be gay and currently celibate; or bisexual, but these days having sex with only women; or fundamentally straight, but involved with someone of the same sex (though I know some folks would debate that last one). When it comes to polyamory, sometimes, regardless of your philosophy, you may end up being in one big significant live-together kind of relationship and have one or more less-serious or less-committed or less-intense relationships as well. It’s the polynormative mindset I have a problem with, and its prevalence—not the form a given poly relationship constellation may actually take.

***

If you’d like to expand outside the polynormative model, I have some recommended reading for you. First, read Wendy-O-Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships. Then, check out Deborah Anapol’s new Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners. (I haven’t read it in full yet myself, but the excerpts I’ve seen lead me to believe Dr. Anapol has a lot of really wise shit to say about non-polynormative models, though I don’t think she uses that term specifically.) Spend some time reading Franklin Veaux. Read my 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy. If you’re doing D/s or M/s relationships, read Raven Kaldera’s Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic (full disclosure: I contributed an essay to it). Look for information, ideas, works that challenge you to think hard, build your skills and stretch your heart. It’s out there. Your move.

a theory of power
November 14, 2012

As regular readers might have noticed, in the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly written about the nature of full-time power dynamics. It’s a theme that takes up a lot of space in my mind, as I move through the joys and challenges of my own power relationships over time. This post is an addition to that thread of musings.

In recent months I’ve found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the discussions and resources about power that I encounter through the BDSM/leather community/ies. There’s nothing wrong with them, per se, they’ve just been speaking to me personally less and less. It’s not hard to figure out why. Let me digress into the directly personal for a moment in order to explain.

I’ve spent the past few years in steadily worsening chronic pain. I found out in May of this year that I had a rare, slow-growing tumour directly on my spinal cord that had basically been keeping my pelvic nerve company for easily a decade, possibly up to twenty years. By the time the doctors finally figured out what the fuck was wrong with me, my body was in a terribly fragile state—any kind of impact, including movements as simple as stepping down a stair or being brushed against in a crowd, would cause me to seize up in pain. Most kinds of SM play became impossible for me, or became pleasures I could indulge in only rarely or within strict limits. A seven-minute demo scene in a workshop this spring had me out of commission for days. When the pain it reached its worst, in the weeks prior to the surgery I had in July to remove the tumour, I stopped being able to enjoy even the most careful sex. Anything approaching orgasm was agony. Now, following surgery, the pain is mostly gone, but there are parts of my bits that I can’t feel at all, and I’m feeling tender and tentative when it comes to either initiating or receiving any kind of sexual touch. (I’m working on it.)

And yet, despite sex and play becoming increasingly rare and challenging, and eventually grinding to a complete halt, and despite my very low levels of erotic and sadomasochistic desire in recent months, at no point did I stop desiring and enjoying the power dynamics I have cultivated with my partners. If anything, they deepened.

This really drove home the point that power-based relationships, for me, do not live in sex or eroticism. There is a gigantic overlap, yes; I am rarely drawn to, and find it challenging to feel truly satisfied within, power dynamics that don’t veer pretty heavily into the erotic. But there’s nothing quite like having no erotic desire and no ability to enjoy sex to make it abundantly clear that erotic charge is in no way at the root of what I’m doing. Power, for me, doesn’t live in sex. It just likes to hang out there a whole lot. But its roots are elsewhere.

Over the course of my journey into and out of debilitating pain, I realized that it was extremely difficult to find discussions of power, in BDSM settings, that do not take as a given that power is a sexual kink. I know I’m not the only one for whom power doesn’t live in sex, but it’s unbelievably hard to find a place to learn about that or talk about it when your primary point of reference is the BDSM/leather world. Over and over, I found myself in situations where I was very much hoping for insight or new perspectives, and then realizing that for the people I was talking with, it all came down to, or revolved around, or was sourced within, sex. And each time that happened, I felt more isolated. A freak among freaks. A dominant sex pervert who wasn’t sexing or perving, but for whom the dominance hadn’t slowed down one iota. Honestly, I started to feel like maybe I should turn in my pervert card. I sure wasn’t feeling very pervy.

I discovered, though, that one place where I could find some glimmer of hope was within discussions of M/s relationships and what’s sometimes known as “the path of mastery”—a term I think lends itself to Darth Vader-like intoning quite well, which kind of makes me cringe, but I haven’t found something better. So that’s what I’m reading about these days (I’ll be updating my annotated reading list soon!), and that’s the kind of gatherings and conferences I’m budgeting to attend, and that’s what my brain is grinding away at. It’s not an entirely new line of thinking for me, but I think having sex and play forcibly removed from the equation really compelled me to find some way of understanding what the fuck it is I’m doing, since clearly it’s happening even completely outside those contexts.

So, of late, I’ve been doing a lot of chewing on this idea of “mastery.” Thus far, in my blogging about power, I’ve mostly discussed 24/7 relationships, but I haven’t written a heck of a lot about the more individual aspects of this path. I’ve also never been especially comfortable with the term “master,” as applied to myself. But for a number of reasons, I’m realizing that I have to swallow some of that discomfort and just bloody own that this is the path I’m on, mastery is probably the best word to describe it, and my task is to become comfortable with that, not try to wiggle out of it. As an exercise in comfort-building, I tried to develop a definition of mastery that makes sense and feels right to me, and I figured it might be worth sharing, again because there is precious little out there on the topic, even among people who’ve been doing this forever and a day. So…

Mastery, for me, is a radical commitment to acknowledging, recognizing, and profoundly knowing my privilege and power both in classically political ways (gender, race, etc.) and also in terms of less tangible, describable and theorizable/theorized areas such as leadership skill, charisma, intuition, emotional intelligence, attractiveness, persuasiveness, command presence, and so forth. A key piece of this is to extend that acknowledgement, recognition and knowledge to the pleasure that can be and is taken in that power (even though holding power and privilege is not always pleasurable). This is the stuff that often gets dismissed or ignored in academic and political discussions of power, but that utterly changes the game at every small interpersonal moment in a way that can only be ethically dealt with through acceptance, clear sight and responsible management. Alongside that, mastery is a radical commitment to using that privilege and power for good (mine, my partners’, others’, the community’s, the world’s) in as explicit, conscious and consensual a way as possible in every moment.

This concept of mastery relies on a pursuit of deep self-awareness, and a commitment to right and ethical use of power, which presupposes the establishment of an ethical system. But this ethical system is not an institutionally-based one. Most people who work within pre-established or institutionalized ethical systems (religion, law, professional codes, academia, military, martial arts, whatever) don’t pursue mastery in the sense that I’m talking about here, though the two types of code are not mutually exclusive. But institutional frameworks on their own don’t generally encourage the kind of individualized understanding, personal moral code and introspective approach I’m talking about here. Also, unless you are fanatically devoted, most outside-originating systems (even when chosen) give you much more room to deviate or get away with shit, whereas a strong inner-sourced moral code does not.

I guess a short way of saying this would be that for me, mastery begins and ends with self-mastery, so in that sense it doesn’t in any way depend on the existence of a relationship—and thus in no way is defined by or limited to the erotic. But when someone shows up who wants to enter into a power relationship with me, then I govern that dyad by my self-mastery code.

I’ve written in the past about describing “This Thing” (my preferred term, for the moment, for what others might call M/s or Master/slave relationships). The further writing I’m doing here isn’t intended to replace those ideas, but rather to add to them. In that earlier post, I was trying to describe the key features I’d been able to pinpoint—the elements that seemed, to me, to be common to all or at least most relationships that were This Thing, both my own and those I’d seen around me. (If you want even broader context, I also wrote about conceptual frameworks for D/s relationships, because This Thing is at one extreme of a scale that includes a range of other power-inflected relationship types.)

I have wrestled before with how to explain what’s different between This Thing and any other kind of relationship, and my earlier attempt, while trying to be definitive, was mostly descriptive. But recently I came up with a two-step system that I’d like to put forth as a definition.

First step: to count as This Thing in my personal conception of things, the power dynamic must fit both of the following criteria. (Note that PIC = Person In Charge and POA = Person Obeying Authority. These positions can only exist in relation to one another. Someone who is on a path of mastery, or on that of what’s often known as “slavery,” can be on that path whether they’re in a relationship or not; that part is about self-understanding and identity, not relationship.)

1) It must be 100%, by which I mean not time-bound (i.e. limited to the bounds of a scene or a specific time frame of any other kind) and not bound by the limits of a specific “territory” or area. As such, an ongoing relationship in which the PIC’s authority is limited—say, their territory includes the POA’s sexual practice, dress habits and school pursuits, but they have no say over the POA’s health or parenting or finances—doesn’t count in my framing of things, even if such relationships may have a lot in common with This Thing, and may be far more common than This Thing, and may even happen between two people who are each on their respective paths. Just because one person in a relationship is on the path of mastery and the other on the path of “slavery” doesn’t mean they are master and slave to each other, any more than two dancers who fall in love must necessarily dance together.

2) It must be deliberate and self-conscious, in that both participants explicitly acknowledge that they’re doing an ongoing power dynamic and they agree to engage in it on purpose. So no implicit relationships here. Of course power suffuses plenty of relationships in implicit ways, including many relationships that fit some of the second-step criteria, but I don’t think it can truly be This Thing if you don’t actually ever talk about it.

These two criteria, though, are not enough to make a relationship into This Thing. The first criterion, for instance, is present in parent/child relationships and in other relationships of dependence, consensual or otherwise (state/prisoner, say, or institution/mental patient), but those aren’t This Thing. And lots of cases exist where both criteria are present, such as when people join certain religions (especially as nuns, priests and the equivalent) or the military, but those too aren’t This Thing because they don’t hit any of the second-step criteria.

So, those second-step criteria, then. In addition to the two first-step criteria, the relationship must meet one or more of the following three criteria, any one of which is sufficient. In other words, they are often all three present, and more rarely two out of three (any two), and more rarely still just a single one, but as long as at least one of them is present, it fits into my definition of This Thing.

1) It is erotic. The power dynamic produces and sustains arousal.

AND/OR

2) It is power for power’s sake. The power dynamic is desired for its own sake and is cultivated as an end unto itself, rather than as being a means to an end, a practice in service to a goal. Not to say that goals of another kind can’t be present—they often are, and This Thing is an excellent framework to support goal achievement (for both partners). But the primary purpose isn’t to achieve an outside goal. The goal is to experience and enjoy the power dynamic. If all you wanted were X other goal (spiritual enlightenment, earning a PhD, losing twenty pounds, etc.) then you could easily take another path to get there (monasticism, grad school, personal trainer, etc.) and that way may involve a power dynamic, but the dynamic is then bound by the elements related to the achievement of that goal.

AND/OR

3) It is done in the context of a leather, M/s or BDSM tradition or community context.

As a “proof” of my criteria set, I went at this backwards and tried to eliminate two out of three second-step criteria at every turn to see if what was left still held up. I’m not eliminating the first-step ones; they remain the foundation piece for the second-step ones.

So, if we eliminate the arousal factor, you can still have a non-erotic power dynamic that is deliberately enjoyed for its own ends, whether it is or is not done within self-consciously leather traditions. Non-erotic dynamics in This Thing are rare, but by no means unheard of. One well-known pair on the M/s teaching circuit, for instance, is made up of a gay male master and a female slave who aren’t sexually involved.

If you eliminate the power-for-its-own-sake factor, say by making it a goal-oriented dynamic, then it might be time-limited in the sense that when the goal is achieved the relationship dissolves, but it may well still be a full-time and ongoing This Thing relationship while it lasts, if it is also either erotic and/or happening within the context of leather traditions. I admit I’ve rarely seen this—for most people, a relationship that’s based on a specific goal doesn’t tend to become as all-encompassing as This Thing, but it’s theoretically possible, particularly, I suppose, if the goal were a pretty gigantic or long-term one. A couple of the M/s couple profiles in the book Ask the Man Who Owns Him discuss a specific goal as a key element of the relationship, the accomplishment of which could signal the end of the M/s dynamic in at least one case, so I know this does exist. On the other side of the coin, for some pairs who are heavily spiritually oriented, they may see their dynamic as serving a spiritual purpose such that they wouldn’t say they’re doing power for its own sake; it’s all in service to a higher calling or at the command of their deity. This stretches my idea of “for its own sake” somewhat, but for the purposes of this definition, I’d still count spiritually-framed M/s relationships of that type as This Thing as long, of course, as they still hit the initial two criteria of being 100% full-time and full-spectrum and explicitly acknowledged as such.

If you eliminate the leather tradition element, you can still have a fully functional and happy power dynamic, but you may lack a language with which to discuss it or a set of concepts to start from, and you may lack support structures and a community, which—when you’re going into an intense and unusual kind of relationship like this—can be crucial in helping you find support as well as balancing, deepening and understanding what you are getting up to. Still, there are other kinds of communities and traditions to work from—people find inspiration for This Thing in an array of places. (Note that I do NOT count as This Thing frameworks that are based on institutionalized conservative or fundamentalist strains of organized religion and are coercive as such—so if God tells your religion that men are in charge and women must submit, and two people believe this and enter a relationship based on those parameters, to my mind one or possibly both of them are actually in a non-consensual power dynamic with an institutional third party and as such the entire idea here is moot.) And some people are really into making it all up for themselves, without using any models whatsoever. Bonus points for creativity! Also, if you’re not into kinky sex per se, or you find the BDSM/leather/fetish community/ies off-putting for some reason, or the resources you’ve found within leather/BDSM don’t speak to you even if you do like kink, or you’re geographically isolated, or you’re not especially sociable or community-oriented—well, for all these reasons and many more, then leather symbolism and traditions might be of no interest to you.

A side note about this last criterion. In BDSM and leather communities, there often are traditions and symbols—the use of a collar, the wearing of leather, the employment of etiquette and protocols, and so forth—that can serve really well to help frame This Thing, and the visibility of that symbolism in the outside world draws people seeking This Thing to the BDSM/leather community. But it can be a bit of a minefield once you get there.

Two arcs often intersect here. First, the BDSM or leather community is often where people end up when they are drawn to the eroticism of power and/or the exploration of power for its own sake, because there isn’t really another place where this stuff gets engaged in and discussed as such. Especially the erotic part. You can certainly find self-conscious explorations of power in various places, particularly religions, but it is very rare to see those places address the erotic in any meaningful way. They are usually invested in denying or controlling the erotic, often setting it up as a threat to the belief system itself. Second, people who are drawn to BDSM sometimes discover that their interest in power goes beyond play, after exploring the scene for a while and getting the nagging feeling they want something deeper.

The fact that the BDSM world acts as a vector for full-time power-oriented people in this way—both people who start out wanting a full-time dynamic and look for opportunities through BDSM, and people who start out being interested in BDSM play and end up realizing they want a full-time dynamic—is in fact the source of a lot of confusion and pain. Many folks oriented toward This Thing feel frustrated and alienated in BDSM communities where the focus is squarely on play or time-bound power, because when everything is framed that way, and these are the terms of all conversations, it can be really difficult to talk about how This Thing isn’t play (but is often still kinky and/or erotic, and play does still often happen within This Thing), and it can be super challenging to find resources and perspectives, even though you’d think this would be precisely the place to find them. Often in these same settings, BDSM players are suspicious of ongoing power dynamics because they frame their BDSM practice as being okay precisely because of its temporary or role-based character. So a lot of players pooh-pooh This Thing, or any other kind of ongoing arrangement for that matter, as taking itself too seriously, or see it as inherently abusive or just “going too far,” much like any vanilla community would.

The situation is an odd one. The place where people are most likely to gravitate in order to find This Thing, or through which people are likeliest to figure out they want This Thing, is a place where wanting it may be actively discouraged and finding it might in fact prove very difficult. So close, yet so far away! I have written about this from a slightly different angle in the past, and I may return to the topic in future writing.

For now, back to the task at hand. If you eliminate all three of my second-step criteria—if it’s not erotic, power is not engaged in for its own sake, and you’re not doing it through leather traditions—then whatever you’re doing is not This Thing.

Of course, all of this still leaves room for the existence of plenty of power-based relationships that aren’t This Thing by this definition, but that are nevertheless profound, ongoing, and very real. This definition effort isn’t a value or validity judgement. But of late I’m realizing that honing in on the particularities of This Thing is really helping me think through some stuff in helpful ways, in terms of understanding who I am, how I operate, how I’m oriented and what feels good to me. From there, I can and do engage in power relationships that aren’t This Thing because they don’t hit all the criteria, even if no matter what kind of relationship I’m in, or not in, I am still on this path of mastery that begins and ends with self-mastery.

I don’t pretend to have a conclusive understanding here, and I don’t expect my definitions or perspectives to resonate with everyone who’s doing This Thing or any other type of ongoing power dynamic. But I am committed to an ongoing exploration of ideas and to sharing concepts as they jell in my head. If nothing else, perhaps I can help provoke a proliferation of ideas and conceptual models so that we can all benefit from having a broader range to choose from. Onward and upward!

blog hop! also, i’m writing a book.
November 8, 2012

This post is a slight departure from my usual, because I was asked to participate in a blog hop—essentially, a sort of blog-to-blog self-interview chain letter (in a good way) linking writers to each other so you can bop along and discover new work. The person who asked me to take part is Clarisse Thorn, author of The S&M Feminist, among others. Thanks Clarisse! Do go check out her work if you haven’t already. And at the bottom of this post, I’m linking to a few bloggers I think you should watch.

It so happens that the timing of this is pretty good as… drum roll please… I am, in fact, working on My First Ever Book. So… on with the interview, then!

What is the work­ing title of your next book?

Radical Power: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Conscious, Co-Created Dominant/Submissive Relationships (with a side of sex-positive anti-oppressive feminist politics). Or something like that.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve spent a good ten years in one form or another of full-time power dynamic and actively seeking resources to help me think through some of the major challenges that come with such relationships, and those resources are shockingly few and far between. I feel like there’s a big hole in the literature just aching to be filled (heh) and it occurred to me a couple of years ago that with the amount of blogging I’ve done on this topic, surely I have the bones of a full-length book on hand, and some of the meat as well. So the idea has been brewing for years, but the time to write it is now. Partly because the idea of waiting til I finish my PhD before publishing a non-scholarly book just feels like way too long, and this winter is good timing for taking a short not-really-official break from my studies to write. Partly because all my sources—friends who run sex shops, publishers, fellow writers—tell me the market for kink-related books of all sorts has taken a major jump thanks to Fifty Shades (I am dubious in my gratitude here, but I’ll take it). And concretely, because a friend of mine who’s a longstanding fixture in the Canadian queer writers’ world decided to midwife the project by pitching pretty much exactly this idea to their publisher, unbeknownst to me at the time, and then pitching it to me once the publisher gave an enthusiastic response. So clearly I’m not the only one thinking this needs to happen already.

What genre does your book fall under?

How-to, I suppose. Maybe self-help? Possibly philosophy. Definitely relationships and sexuality and BDSM. I’m not sure what list I’m supposed to be picking from here… anyway it’s obviously non-fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your char­ac­ters in a movie ren­di­tion?

See above. If I had characters, which I don’t, I’d like them to be played by Crispin Glover and Ryan Gosling. In a sadomasochistic anal sex scene with lots of really hot kissing. Sorry, what was the question?

What is the one-sentence syn­op­sis of your book?

Read this book if you want to take your thinking about dominance and submission well past the 101 level and into your everyday life.

Will your book be self-published or rep­re­sented by an agency?

So far, it looks like a publisher is on board, but if this one doesn’t pan out for some reason, I’ll find another. It’s just a question of time. I’m not interested in self-publishing right now—I have way too much else on my plate to turn amateur publisher and distributor on top of it all. Much respect to those who pull it off!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your man­u­script?

Well, I can’t really answer that because I don’t have a first draft written. What I do have is a basic structure to write up, which I’ll then fill with six years worth of blog posts; then, I’ll sift through the material, merge things, edit things, update things, and then write all the new material that’s needed to fill in whatever gaps emerge during that process. I’d estimate I have about half the work already done, but since I’ve never written a book before I might be miscalculating. Guess I’ll find out soon! Gulp.

What other books would you com­pare this to within your genre?

Man, I only wish there were more other books I could compare it to. Really. I don’t relish trying to fill a hole quite this big, and frankly I don’t think I should aspire to—there’s room in this area for way more than what I’m going to create. Check out my annotated reading list on the topic of dominance and submission if you like, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s in need of an update, but even if it doubled it would be an awfully short list, and it’s pretty eclectic as it is. There is a LOT of room for it to grow.

I think one major flaw is that most how-to books on BDSM, including the relative few that focus on power dynamics, dominance, submission, mastery and so forth, don’t define their terms very carefully. (This is also true of a surprisingly high percentage of scholarly works on BDSM, sadism, masochism and so forth—a situation I continue to find baffling, given that scholars are in theory supposed to be trained to be thorough little fuckers and the whole “what exactly are you talking about” part seems like pretty basic element of that. But I digress.) The result of this is that every book takes its own set of definitions and conceptual foundations for granted, and you can’t really figure out what they are until you read the whole thing and deduce from the content. So basic elements—like, say, the distinction between “you are doing this as a fun way of spicing up your sex life” and “you are doing this as a full-time lifelong commitment because it is your spiritual calling,” to name just two—aren’t explicitly addressed. And I think those elements make crucial differences in the meaning and usefulness of a given work’s content to any given reader.

Maybe this happens because the writers are aiming to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and in a sense I don’t blame them. It may be that publishers have demanded broad relevance, for that matter. But I think it also happens because a good portion of the people writing about power relationships write as though everyone does them for the same reason. The control fetishists think everyone’s in it for the pleasure of power and control. The kinky sex perverts think everyone does it because it turns them on. The spiritual-calling folks write as though everyone’s following their divine path. Beyond that, the gay authors write as though all their readers were gay men, the straight authors write as though all their readers were straight, and the dykes… well, even though some of the best thinkers and teachers on SM right now are of the dyke persuasion and similar, they don’t seem to be writing books on the topic of everyday, ongoing power dynamics.

And take it yet another step further: the existing literature, for the most part, doesn’t even state those biases up front—and that would make all the difference. I don’t think taking a narrow approach to a topic is a bad thing, but you have to own that this is what you’re doing. Otherwise even the most well-intentioned and thoughtful material can come across as “here is the one true way to do this right, and if my work doesn’t speak to you, well then clearly this whole thing isn’t really for you.” It is really, really hard to step far enough outside yourself and your relationship philosophy to be able to look at them as a stranger would and explain them in a way that acknowledges your own biases. I’m sure I’ll fail, myself, on several counts when I try. But I will very carefully try.

The writer who’s currently doing by far the most interesting, thoughtful, targeted writing on power dynamics is Raven Kaldera, often in collaboration with his boy Joshua Tenpenny. Their works cover topics that just about nobody else’s even touch, such as M/s relationships and disability, polyamory in power relationships, the intersections of transsexuality/transgenderism and BDSM, and ownership-based power dynamics. I aspire to write work that’s as sharp, aware, ethically rooted and relevant as theirs. At the same time, I can already tell you that my approach differs from theirs. They’re heavily Pagan in their framework, while I’m spiritual in what I’d almost call a secular way, and I won’t be making spirituality per se a major focus. I don’t take the same tactical approach to internal enslavement as they do, and my writing will likely be a lot more self-consciously concerned with sexual and social politics thanks to my feminist background and the many heavily politicized topics I’ve been reading about for the past few years in grad school. I’m also a gender-fluid female, not a trans or intersex person; Canadian, not American; and resolutely urban, whereas they live on a farm. All of this will doubtless make a huge difference to what I produce, and probably in ways I can’t even know from the inside.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I think I’ve kinda covered this one already. Beyond my existing responses, I’ll just add that I feel a major debt of gratitude to the people who’ve been reading my blog and other writing for the past six or seven years, and giving me feedback. I’ve always been a writer, but there’s something about the experience of having an actual readership—one that has grown and morphed over time—that creates a sense of responsibility, a framework within which to develop, a sense of parameters and places to grow. At various points I’ve asked my readers for guidance: what do you want to read from me? What do you NOT want to see me write about? What questions would you like me to weigh in on? And the response has always helped shape what I produce. My readers hold me to a very high standard and I am grateful for how exacting they can be. I mean, haters are gonna hate, right? So I’m not talking about the people who get mean and stupid, those aren’t the ones I’m trying to speak to anyway. It’s the ones who take the time to critique, to ask hard questions constructively, to give the benefit of the doubt, to truly engage, and to hold me to a pretty high set of expectations—they’re the ones who motivate me to write in as thorough and thoughtful a way as I can. Every writer should be so fortunate.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s inter­est?

Ummm… I dunno. Clearly I have to work on my elevator pitch a little more. Or maybe I just already answered that question. I can tell you for sure it won’t be all the glossy photography or the sound advice on physical technique.

Here are the writ­ers whose work you can check out next:

For this I’m choosing to spotlight some rad women from four different Canadian cities who are doing new, exciting, fresh blogging on topics that are dear to my heart. Also it so happens they are excellent writers, which gets big points in my world!

Kaleigh Trace at The Fucking Facts – an awesome young voice, her writing takes a no-bullshit approach to a range of questions on sex and sexuality, including but not limited to dis/ability as it intersects with sex. To wit, from her About section: “I want to write about feeling good, about feeling bad, and everything in between. I want to write about what you should and shouldn’t put in your bum.”

The smartyskirts that is Cuntext – young, queer, femme, and super articulate, Cuntext writes about identity, sexual politics, racism, cissexism, anxiety and mental health, and all sorts of other brain-stimulating things, and she keeps it personal enough to be super-engaging.

Juliet November at Born Whore – This “angry revolutionary hooker” writes, “I’m not aiming for instant insurrection but to leave the ground we walk better for those who will follow us.” She doesn’t have a ton of posts up yet, but if her future work is anything like what she’s got so far, you can expect breathtaking, evocative writing that’s politicized in the best kind of radical way—a radicalism that’s focused on kindness as a necessary component of reaching justice.

Shelley at Pass the Herpes – Shelley’s the founder but not the only contributor to this young blog, which is “an attempt to create a space for people to share their thoughts about living with herpes, ideas for pain relief and virus suppression as well as the experiences of coming out, responses from partners, family and health care people.”

 

crazy and criminal: on those damn books, and why they matter
September 20, 2012

Plenty of ink has been spilled about E. L. James’s erotic BDSM romance trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey. I swore I wouldn’t do the same, but then the nice folks at Carleton University asked me to keynote their very cool Consent Is Sexy week on the topic of consent and Fifty Shades, and my book club, the Leather Bindings Society, had just finished reading the trilogy for one of our meetings, so it was fresh in my mind. As well, in the last few months I’ve gotten a ton of requests for my thoughts on the series. So I decided that as a pervy scholar and a critic of sexual culture, I should do my homework and say my piece so that we can then return to your regularly scheduled programming. As such, I’m posting the keynote I delivered tonight (with a few edits for clarity).

***

Three reasons people hate Fifty Shades

Anytime heterosexual representations of sadomasochism show up in the mainstream, perverts get up in arms, and with good reason. But even people who aren’t perverts hate Fifty Shades of Grey. Not everyone does, clearly, but the people who do hate it for three reasons: because it is bad writing; because it is writing about kink, which is bad; and because it is bad writing about kink. These viewpoints are taken by three sometimes-overlapping groups.

First, people who care about writing criticize Fifty Shades for its shitty writing. And yes, the writing is indeed terrible. But it’s kind of like going outside when it’s raining. You can spend the whole time complaining about the rain and getting soaked, or you can pick up your damned umbrella and soldier on while doing your best to let it roll off you. That’s what I chose to do when reading through the books, and yes, I did read all three of them, cover to cover. (The things I do for my community!) They’re no better and no worse, in terms of writing quality, than most other formulaic romance or genre fiction. Fifty Shades is not literary fiction. Don’t expect it to be, and you’ll be fine. Expect Shakespeare and you’ll be disappointed. We live in a world where consumer products are meant to be repetitive variations on a theme and are ultimately disposable, and the romance genre is no different. So I’m not going to spend any further time bitching about bad sentence structure and repetitive phrasing. I would like us to acknowledge, and move on.

Second, people who disapprove of SM are upset about Fifty Shades because it represents kink, period, and they think kink is bad. These people can be further split into two camps. One of those camps is arch-conservative; they think everything about sex is bad. These are the same right-wing nutbags who espouse abstinence-only sex education, anti-abortion measures, rank homophobia, the criminalization of HIV, and so forth. I don’t feel like spending much time analyzing them, frankly; suffice it to say they’re out there, and Fifty Shades is one of their latest targets.

The second camp is a bit more complicated, and I’m afraid I won’t do them justice here, but I’ll try. They fall along lines that are familiar to anyone who’s accustomed to seeing classic debates about porn, especially if you lived through or read about the Sex Wars—the period of time roughly stretching over the 1980s in which some feminists raged against porn and penetrative sex and SM, and other feminists raged back. They can be exemplified by a story I came across a couple of weeks ago. A domestic violence charity in the UK held a public book burning, inviting people to throw their copies of Fifty Shades into the flames. To them, Christian Grey—the male protagonist in Fifty Shades—is an abusive partner, a perpetrator of domestic violence, and he does all manner of horrible things to the female protagonist, Anastasia. By their logic, such representations must be stopped because they are harmful to women, and these people have positioned themselves as crusaders out to stem the tide of violence against women, thereby justifying a tactic that hearkens back to some of the most shameful periods in modern human history.

It’s possible that they read the books from a kink-aware viewpoint and that they have a nuanced critique of what Christian Grey does and how some of it does indeed fall into the category of abuse while still making room for the idea that BDSM is okay and not inherently abusive, and acknowledging that he’s actually a very safe BDSM player. But I kinda doubt it. I think their point of view is a lot more along the lines of throwing everything the character does into the “abuse” pot, and seeing the elements of his sexuality that are pervy as pieces of evidence proving that he’s abusive. In other words, some people—the UK book-burners among them—conflate SM with abuse, and some of those people think that justifies retaliation.

Speaking as a book lover, I find the chosen method of protest in this specific instance to be particularly horrifying. The merits of the literature aren’t the issue here; the destruction and suppression of literature are classic tactics for social control. Employed by a small charitable organization, I can’t say I find them especially threatening. But it wasn’t that long ago that Canada Customs was regularly seizing shipments of gay and lesbian books at the border—prominently including, but by no means limited to, books about SM—and destroying them. That was a state-sanctioned attack on alternative sexual cultures, and that is indeed very threatening, and the UK book-burning is a small-scale imitation of that approach. It is an approach that self-justifies abuse in the name of stopping abuse, and that self-justifies censorship in the dubious name of protection. In the 80s and 90s, that same attitude of anti-SM hatred made some feminists feel that it was fully justifiable to physically attack and verbally abuse women who practiced SM (see my 2009 post “The Mirror of Sadomasochism” for more on that). Perhaps the anti-SM rumblings I am seeing surrounding Fifty Shades are a pale shadow of past violence; or perhaps they are an early warning that worse is on the way. Either way, that Fifty Shades is inspiring anti-SM sentiments this strong in 2012 is worrisome. I admit I’m not feeling very afraid, given that we live in a different cultural context today than we did in the 1980s, but I am keeping a watchful eye on this sort of thing, because you never know what backlash will look like or how quickly it will manifest.

It does bear mentioning, though, that the people I know who were most upset about the book-burning idea were librarians, historians and archivists, independently of kink; and that a number of the perverts I’ve spoken with about this book-burning had a reaction along the lines of “Oh god, please burn them, they suck!” so not everyone’s as upset about this as I am!

Third, people who identify as perverts hate Fifty Shades because it features what they consider to be bad representations of kink. To an extent, I agree, and I’ll try to pick this apart a little bit shortly. What’s interesting to me, here, is that different perverts consider the kink representations to be bad for different reasons, and most of them aren’t the ones that I personally find most disturbing. I also find it noteworthy that, while a lot of real-life sadomasochists are righteously upset about the book, it is directly creating two phenomena that are changing the landscape of our communities. So let me digress into that for just a moment.

On coolness and community

The first phenomenon is a spike of newbies joining SM communities. I am not aware of anyone documenting this in a proper fashion, so I don’t know what kind of numbers we’re talking about, but I’ve heard murmurs about it from various corners—New York, San Francisco—and we’ve all started to see people pop up on, say, Fetlife with user handles like “InnocentAnastasia” or “MasterChristian.” How much of a spike this really is, and how we would be able to tell whether any surge in membership is due to Fifty Shades, I do not know. But it’s a thing.

I’m honestly not sure how people go from reading the books—which make very little mention of an SM-based community and do not show any of the characters partaking in SM community events or using SM community resources—to seeking out SM communities and resources in their towns. If they were simply imitating what the book shows them to do, they’d spend a lot of time arguing with their partners, using basic sex toys, and occasionally engaging in some spanking between long bouts of classic penis-in-vagina sex that magically always makes both of them come in a shower of hearts and flowers even though they never talk about what feels good to each of them. So I suspect there’s something else going on. It seems that, flawed though they may be, even the very mild representations of kink in the books are enough to spark people’s interest in BDSM, and a subset of those people—what do you know, they have minds of their own!—are realizing that they’d like to seek out community and knowledge based on that interest.

As always, I maintain that there is a huge difference between community and practice. The number of people in the world who engage in some kind of SM practice or another, whether they name it as such or not, is and always has been far bigger than the number of people who actually seek out a community as a result of their SM interests. So to me, it’s clear that if we’re starting to see new folks in SM communities as a direct result of Fifty Shades, that means there’s a corresponding swell of people playing around with SM whom we won’t ever see at a community event. Even a mild bump in community interest, by this logic, indicates a fairly significant one in the world at large. I can’t say what consequences this might have on, well, anything, but I’ll keep an eye out.

A lot of longtime perverts are seeing this spike in interest, both in the broader culture and within our communities, as a negative thing. And I can understand why, because sometimes, the mainstream representation of kink causes people to show up in our spaces with a really skewed idea of what to expect, and if we are to continue opening our spaces to new folks at all, that means those of us who’ve been around for a while have to engage in the repetitive and sometimes exhausting work of dismantling stereotypes and setting people straight about what this whole kink thing is really all about, and what it isn’t. Not everyone enjoys doing that work, but even for those of us who do, it is sometimes imposed upon us in circumstances we wouldn’t have chosen by people who aren’t doing their part to figure things out on their own. One manifestation of the legitimate irritation some SM practitioners feel about this fresh wave of cluelessness is to essentially roll our eyes (if not bite our lips) at the newbies who show up having clearly been influenced by Fifty Shades. More or less, SMers who’ve been around the block aren’t all being terribly nice to or about the Fiftiers who are showing up in our communities.

But before Fifty Shades of Grey, people figured out their kinks and joined SM communities thanks to any number of other sources of questionable quality. How many people figured out they were kinky from reading terrible Anne Rice novels like the Beauty Series or Exit to Eden, where the SM play is not only unrealistic but downright dangerous? (Kept in super-tight joint-bending bondage for days at a time! Forced to run while chained to five other people with your arms tied behind your back and blinders on! Gah!) How many people got turned on by superhero comics or Disney movies or pro wrestling or the film “9 ½ Weeks”? How many people found their kink as an offshoot of a Dungeons & Dragons role play scenario, or spent their first years as a kinkster trying on a range of shiny new identities in chat rooms before ever venturing out into the meat world?

Perverts sometimes have an odd attachment to some elusive idea of authenticity, as though we’re all supposed to be able either to track our kinks back to early childhood—the deeply flawed “I was born this way” idea—as though there were a genetic sequence to explain leather fetishism or a love of bondage—or to have come across a credible, acceptable, cool-enough trigger, such as reading the gritty queer pervert porn of Patrick Califia or being discovered in a San Franciscso back alley by a True Master who saw our potential and took us under his leathery wing. But I know plenty of proud, aware, competent, trustworthy BDSM players who started in each of the “uncool” ways I mentioned first, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. And I’ll give you a shot of history to make my point: according to Rob Bienvenu’s 1998 PhD thesis, “The Development of Sadomasochism as a Cultural Style in Twentieth-Century United States,” the whole gay leather aesthetic took off in the early 1950s because of the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One.” Yes, that’s right, folks—all those classic leather daddies in the boots and biker jackets and aviator shades started wearing that stuff because they wanted to look like a movie star. Because, well, it was hot. So let’s get over ourselves a bit, eh? This idea that there’s a “right” way to discover your perversion is irritating, and shaming, and doesn’t do anyone any favours. Rather than making fun of Fifty Shades-inspired newbies, I think that we perverts need to stick to critiquing the book itself.

On kink and consumerism

The second phenomenon, on the flip side, is that of perverts jumping onto the Fifty Shades bandwagon. I’m not talking about loving the book, necessarily; in fact, much of the time it’s quite the opposite. But I’m seeing dozens of examples of BDSM educators and organizers picking up the “fifty shades” meme and running with it for fun and profit. “Fifty Shades of Kink” workshops are popping up all over the place, an anthology titled Fifty Authors on Fifty Shades is about to be published—it’s not just the mainstream media that’s keen to use Fifty Shades to sell papers. Hopeful new kink educators are using these keywords to increase their visibility to mainstreamers whose main reference point is the trilogy, and even seasoned educators and writers are grabbing hold of it for a signal boost. I’m personally in the very odd position of having said I wouldn’t do this myself—using the “fifty shades” meme to get more people interested in my work—but then being asked to prepare a talk for you here tonight that critiques the book, which is indeed a timely and worthwhile topic, but which is awfully hard to do without mentioning it. So at least on that count, I’m as guilty as anyone else.

But what’s interesting to me here is that this situation points up the complex and troubled relationship between alternative sexual practices and consumerism. For many people, a key element of the appeal in BDSM, kink and leather cultures is that of the forbidden, the underground, the dark and secret, the edgy and unusual. But producing that culture requires resources. The porn, the clothes, the events, the fetish items, the toys with which to practice your kinks—to varying degrees, and they do vary greatly, being kinky requires an engagement with the material world, which means economics must come into the equation. Given that there is a demand, some people must provide the supply. Now, everyone needs to make a living, so inevitably, some people make that living, in part or in whole, by catering to the needs of BDSM practitioners or other kinky folks.

So what happens when the underground becomes mainstream, or the mainstream spills over into the underground, or however else you’d like to construe what happens when mass appeal is applied to edgy, underground, forbidden, secret sexual practice? Well, some people are of course going to try to get a piece of the pie. And it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. For an educator or writer, hooking onto the “fifty shades” meme can help pay the rent and put food on the table. Very few of us working as BDSM or leather culture producers make a basic living at it, never mind anything more extravagant, especially if we don’t take our clothes off. And even for those who do take their clothes off, with the rise of amateur porn sites and the ease with which content can be accessed for free, it’s harder and harder to make a good living in porn. Cultural production is rarely a major money-maker. E. L. James has in fact inspired a lot of resentment and jealousy among SM writers—justifiably, to a great extent—because she’s raking in the dollars for a schlocky, poorly written book series when some SM fiction writers have been labouring for a lifetime to create high-quality masterpieces of erotic literature that speak to and about perverts, without ever seeing remotely the kind of financial success we’re seeing with Fifty Shades.

It isn’t surprising to me that when the mainstream creates an opportunity, some of the perverts who are eking out a living serving a marginal population might jump at the chance to boost their income and enjoy new opportunities to do what they do best. And who knows? Maybe they’ll change the world for the better by doing so. It is a challenging set of lines to walk – between cashing in and selling out, between legitimately thinking of number one and continuing to think about the impact of one’s work on one’s community, between adopting a representation that doesn’t fit us and subverting it so that it does.

It remains to be seen what kind of longer-term impact all of this will have on BDSM and kink cultures. They are changing before our very eyes.

So… why is it sexy?

But let’s get back to the idea that a lot of perverts hate Fifty Shades. This stands in contrast with the fact that a lot of people love it—if the sales numbers are any indication, E. L. James has definitely tapped into something pretty huge. I don’t quite get why lots of people love it, but as a responsible pervert and as a scholar and critic of sexual culture, I owe it to myself to ask the question. So far I have come across a couple of answers that might combine to help it make sense. Let me share those with you now.

A friend of mine, the Control Enthusiast, calls Fifty Shades “fix-it porn.” The way he explains it, Christian Grey is broken. It doesn’t really matter that his particular brand of brokenness is portrayed as centring on sadomasochism. It could be anything. Other romances feature broken, troubled male protagonists with dark pasts—this is nothing new, it’s the classic bad-boy appeal. Correspondingly, the books set up Anastasia as pure, good and kind—while also being feisty and strong, a twist we get in such books in 2012 as a nod to feminism. And Anastasia’s aim is to bring Christian “into the light,” to repair his dysfunction and make him into a whole, happy human being by sheer force of her love. And you know what? She succeeds! She gets him to swear off being kinky (though they still play with kink) and to marry her. That’s the come shot. She suffers his bullshit and in doing so, she gets the payoff, and that payoff includes searing hot sex, marriage, colossal amounts of money, and kids. It’s a very passive, martyr-like way of approaching relationships, and it is precisely this approach that women are taught to take in the world at large. It’s an approach that caricatures both players—the man who is pathetic and broken, but also heroic and rich and hot, and the woman who is true and good and healing and inspires his change of heart, and has no selfish motives at all, but of course comes away with all the material rewards that don’t really matter (except that they do). In real life, this is generally a recipe for mutual resentment—nobody likes to be seen as the pathetic broken one in need of a hero to come along and fix them, and the martyr role rarely works as a tool for real change in anyone but it sure does engender a lot of bitterness. So: classic narrative. Terribly flawed, but very seductive to people of a certain mindset—a mindset very much encouraged in mainstream North American culture. I can see why it might appeal to a large crowd.

Maura Kelly, a writer for the Atlantic, gives another analysis: in her view, women want pleasure, and the mainstream does not know where to look to find out how to get it. Fifty Shades comes along, and all of a sudden people can read about how. There’s this guy who always seems to know exactly how to make his girlfriend come, and she always seems to enjoy herself, and they describe all kinds of ways to do it. None of this “and he plunged his throbbing manhood into her love canal… cut to the fireplace!” No, here we have details. Oral sex, Ben Wa balls, butt plugs, nipple play, necktie bondage—it is all laid out in clear order. Some of the sex scenes practically read like a sex education manual.

Given the amount of sexual information available out there today, I personally find the idea that Fifty Shades is doing anything new or revolutionary to be quite a stretch. But I’m speaking as a queer poly pervert who’s been immersed in sex-positive feminist and queer cultures since my late teens, and it’s hard sometimes for me to remember that I live in a bubble. It’s an awfully big bubble, and it features everything from fellatio how-to guides to leather events that attract twenty thousand people to same-sex marriage to cooperatively run feminist sex shops to the sex worker rights movement to porn made by and for politicized trans people and queers. But there are still lots of people outside this bubble, and who don’t know where the bubble even begins, or how to even start to look for it. These same people often don’t know how to critically evaluate the sex information that comes their way. I mean, we live in a culture where Cosmo magazine, The Rules and pick-up artist guides sell millions of copies. Clearly not everyone already “gets it.” If Fifty Shades has reached into that writhing morass of mainstream sexual culture, rather than standing outside it and waiting for people to come join us in our bubble, and said “hey, doofus, here’s how to please your woman”—well, it is perhaps doing work that I and people like me cannot, and that many of us quite legitimately don’t really want to do. And this work perhaps, by its very nature as mainstream, appeals to a huge number of people.

Combine these two types of appeal, and perhaps we can understand the potency of the books.

But all right, for real this time, back to the perverts. Now, regardless of everything I’ve said so far about Fifty Shades, I think the series provides a very accurate picture of how the mainstream understands consent, and how that understanding tries, with mixed success, to incorporate the ethics of consent that’s often espoused by BDSM communities. I’ve asked around a fair bit to find out what it is that the perv contingent is most upset about. Once you get past the rants about writing quality, most of the complaints seem to hinge on the idea that Christian Grey is doing bad BDSM, and that it makes the rest of us look bad. People are especially about two areas: the contract he tries to get Ana to sign and the play they get up to. These complaints are going to form the foundation of the rest of this talk, because they’re both right on the money and also off base. And the ways in which they are both of those things are in keeping with the books’ understanding of sex and relationships in general. So let me lay out that understanding and talk about how it is emblematic of a broader social framework that’s very problematic.

Crazy and criminal: the kinky characters of Fifty Shades

The first, and most important, layer of all this is the idea of health versus pathology, normal versus abnormal. In the book, everybody who’s interested in BDSM—with the exception of Ana, and I’ll look at that in a moment—is described as being some version of mentally ill or criminal, and by the logic of the book, those two things are almost one and the same. They do, however, split down gender lines—the women are more sick and the men are more criminal.

Christian Grey was born to a mother he refers to as “the crack whore” (and let’s not even get into the blithely normalized hatred of sex workers inherent in that), who died when he was four and whom he both hates and wants to please. As a result of her, he is damaged and can’t experience normal intimacy, so he substitutes for that by engaging in BDSM. He eventually discloses that he is exclusively interested in brunettes who look like his mother, and whom he then dominates as a form of revenge against his mother. Except that he’s also a consummate lover, and all of his skill is focused on pleasing his submissives, to the point where he includes nothing about his own pleasure in his BDSM contracts. In any case, he suffers from an extreme degree of self-hatred, and he’s also a pathologically jealous and controlling guy who throws around his wealth and goes to stalker-like extremes to possess Ana. He buys her a car she doesn’t want. He decides whether or not she gets to go to work, and buys the company she works for in order to have that say. He assigns security guards to her to report on her every move. He decides, on her behalf, what kind of birth control she’s going to use—Depo-Provera—because he doesn’t like wearing condoms. But he backs down on the contract question when Ana insists she’s not submissive, and he gets rid of half his SM toys because she’s not interested in them. To say he’s a mixed bag is an understatement. The book’s verdict: he’s sick, but not criminal, and so redeemable.

Christian is introduced to BDSM by a character known for most of the book as Mrs. Robinson, or sometimes “the child molester”—a woman who turns him kinky by having a relationship with him, with him as the submissive, starting when he’s a fifteen-year-old boy. She, too, is portrayed as a mixed bag. Christian considers her his best friend, even many years after they split up, but eventually Ana convinces him that she’s evil, and lo and behold she starts acting like it, mainly by propositioning Christian. But it takes her until the middle of the last book to actually do anything beyond trigger Ana’s jealousy by existing, and having had a consensual sexual relationship with someone who was fully physically mature but under 18 at the time. Now, don’t get me wrong—it is definitely not always okay for an adult to have a relationship with a teenager, and when you bring BDSM and power play into the mix you up the risk considerably. But according to all the current research, most people have sex well before they turn 18, so a fifteen-year-old having sex is hardly big news. And some of those people are kinky and want to play—I certainly was one of those. And some of those people will engage in play with people who are over 18—again, I was one such teenager. But here we see age deployed, right in line with the very problematic age-of-consent laws on the books today in both Canada and the States that are disproportionately enforced in racist, classist and homophobic ways, as an indicator of abuse regardless of all other factors. The book’s verdict on Mrs. Robinson: she’s sick and criminal, but she’s also a woman, so we’ll let her get away with it, mostly; we’ll just shame her in front of her friends.

When Christian turns dominant, he gets involved with a series of submissive women. One of his ex-submissives, Leila, appears in the book; she has gone off the deep end, bought a gun, and started stalking him and trying to kill Ana, because she’s jealous that Ana has what she always wanted: Christian’s heart. After a showdown at Ana’s apartment, she is shipped off to a mental hospital—on whose authority we are not told, though Christian seems to have a relationship with his therapist that features a distinct lack of professional boundaries, and the therapist is involved in this situation. And then when she gets out, Christian pays her tuition at an art school. The book’s verdict on Leila: she’s batshit crazy, and criminal, but money can make that go away; and she’s more sick and pathetic than criminal anyway, again presumably because she’s a woman, or maybe because she’s submissive.

Lastly, Jack Hyde, Ana’s employer, has a history of sexually assaulting his assistants, and filming or photographing the assaults. The book describes him as keeping this evidence as a way to silence his victims because—and this is not made especially clear—the assaults look like kinky sex and the victims wouldn’t want that to be made public. I think? At no point does the book explain how sexual assault looks like SM in a photograph, or how these photographs would be used as anything other than evidence of exactly what they are—rape—or why it is that a picture of actual kinky sex would have been so shameful in the first place. Anyway, Jack assaults Ana, tries to kill Christian several times, and eventually gets caught. The book’s verdict: Jack Hyde is criminal slime, and probably also some kind of crazy, but he deserves to go to jail (as well as get shot in the leg by Ana).

As for Ana—well, she’s completely innocent. She’s a 21-year-old virgin when she meets Christian, and she has sex only with him, and they get married. Ana is also pathologically jealous. She’s jealous of Mrs. Robinson, of Leila, of all Christian’s ex-submissives, of Christian’s female assistant (until Ana realizes the assistant is a lesbian, and so is nothing to worry about), of the architect they hire to build their new home, and of various random waitresses and so forth. And she attacks various women in the books using everything from glares to righteous diatribes about “keeping your hands off my man.” For Ana, any desire for kink is in the realm of exploration and play. She’s not submissive, she doesn’t want to sign a BDSM contract with Christian, and she likes a fairly limited range of kinky activities, nothing “too extreme.” By the book’s logic, she’s not really kinky at all, and therefore isn’t sick or criminal—but she sure does have a lot of fun playing at kink occasionally. In fact I’d say at least a third of the trilogy is devoted to describing just how much fun she has.

The thing that really gets me upset, and that I’m not hearing anyone else complain about at all, is the portrayal of a specific character who is not kinky. His name is José Rodriguez, and he’s a close friend of Ana’s. Early in the book series, he gets Ana very drunk and sexually assaults her—he brings her out into the parking lot of a bar and makes out with her despite her repeated protests. Christian shows up and saves Ana from him, brings her home and puts her to bed safely. After the assault, however, Ana remains friends with José and defends his behaviour to Christian, saying it was all just a misunderstanding and Christian’s just being unreasonable and jealous. Their friendship is still going strong at the end of the series. Without even beginning to address the fact that José is a sexual assault perpetrator and also happens to be the only person of colour who shows up in the books for more than a bit part, to me this whole sub-plot is one of the most disturbing parts of the series.

In short, the book portrays sexual assault, stalking, extreme possessiveness and control by people in non-kinky contexts as being no big deal; and it portrays kink as being an indicator of both mental illness and criminality in all circumstances other than heterosexual relationship heading toward marriage and reproduction. This, to me, is one of the places where Fifty Shades accurately, and very problematically, reflects mainstream understandings of consent and acceptable sexual conduct. The message is twofold: if you’re kinky and you’re not partnered in a heterosexual, monogamous fashion, you are mentally ill and criminally dangerous; and if you’re heterosexual and monogamous, then jealousy, stalking and control are indications of love, and playing with kink a little bit is hot as long as you don’t do it too much and you keep it in the bedroom.

I could spend a long time analyzing each of the characters, and each of the book’s many very messed-up scenarios, but I think this pretty much sums it up. The book tells us that being kinky means you are sick and dangerous, but that playing kinky, within a very limited realm, means you’re having awesome sex. Now, you could argue that this is one better than a lot of material out there—that making it acceptable and hot to enjoy kinky play because of the great orgasms is a step forward for perverts everywhere. To a limited extent, I buy that, and I think that very thing is what’s producing the surge of interest in SM and sex toys that the market is currently enjoying. But in truth, that little equation is not terribly new at all, and it comes at a very high cost.

The charmed circle

In her famous 1984 essay “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin discusses the value system that social groups apply to sexuality, which defines some sexual behaviours as good and natural and others as bad and unnatural. In this essay she introduces the idea of the “charmed circle” of sexuality, saying that sexuality that is privileged by society falls inside of it, while all other sexuality lies outside of it. The binaries of this “charmed circle” include paired sex versus sex done solo or in groups; monogamous sex versus promiscuous sex (and yes, the value judgement of the term “promiscuous” applies here); same-generation sex versus cross-generational sex; and sex that uses bodies only versus sex that includes the use of manufactured objects.

One of her key points is that sometimes the charmed circle changes. Things that were once outside it can be incorporated into it. Masturbation, or solo sex, is one of those things—a hundred years ago it was seen as sinful and medically dangerous; today in all but the most super-conservative contexts it’s seen as fairly banal. Same-sex relationships are also one of those things. Certain types of same-sex relationships—white, monogamous, non-kinky, middle-class, reproductive, married—are now incorporated within the charmed circle in many parts of the world, while other types are not.

The plot, characters and message of Fifty Shades line up directly with this charmed circle and contribute to extending the reach of that circle just far enough to include soft-core kinky play. But in order to do so, the books have to carefully describe the types of kink that should remain shut out of the charmed circle—kink that is full-time rather than occasional, that takes place in the context of a cross-generational relationship, that is outside the context of marriage or monogamy or love, or that is “too extreme” in terms of pain levels or technical complexity.

For this reason, if I had to say whether I’m for or against Fifty Shades, I’d say I’m against.

Not because the kinky play it portrays is done poorly, because it’s actually not—E. L. James did her research, and it shows. Just about every kinky act she describes in glorious detail could have been taken straight out of a workshop I might teach. Christian’s technique is beyond reproach. He really knows the rules, and when he breaks them, he even does that carefully. In one scene, he apologizes for having only handcuffs available as bondage toys, because they are known to cut into the wrists and leave marks; so he asks Ana if it’s okay to use them despite this, and she says yes. He’s definitely taken his BDSM 101.

Nor do I hate the books because the contract Christian Grey writes up is evil. In fact it’s really straightforward and includes plenty of very clear, easy outs for Ana should she dislike anything that’s going on. I happen to think, like many perverts who’ve read these books, that trying to get someone to sign a BDSM contract when they’ve never even had sex before, let alone experienced any BDSM, is a bad idea, but the contents of the contract itself aren’t scary or inherently oppressive and the conditions under which she’s being asked to sign it aren’t, either. The timing, in regard to her experience level and the short time they’ve known each other, is poorly chosen, and Christian admits this himself; and then Ana negotiates with him to change some elements of the contract to suit her better, to which he agrees; and then she decides she doesn’t want to sign the contract at all, and he says that’s okay; and so they continue their relationship sans contract, and there is no penalty exacted against her for refusing. So while the contract isn’t a great idea, it’s hardly an example of Christian exerting any kind of abusive power over Ana. And we don’t need to focus our critiques there anyway—there are plenty of other examples in which he does exert abusive power over her. (Remember the Depo-Provera? And the whole “buying the company she works for” thing? And the stalking? Yeah.)

On contracts and punishments

I will digress, for a brief moment, into the question of contracts. The books spend a lot of time on the will-she-or-won’t-she question about Ana signing Christian’s BDSM play contract, and a significant portion of the books’ pervy detractors focus on the contract as being the big problem. In another move that, perhaps surprisingly given where the critique is coming from, is thoroughly in keeping with mainstream sexual politics, all this focus on a play contract obscures what seems to be the unquestioned end goal of the books: a whole other type of contract, and one that is far more serious. Ana and Christian get married. The mainstream glorifies, idealizes and I might say even fetishizes marriage, so isn’t very interested in questioning or problematizing the nature and scope of the marriage contract; and the broad BDSM community doesn’t tend to spend a lot of time critiquing marriage, preferring to leave that to radical queers and (some) feminists. But I find it deeply disturbing that Ana enters into a marriage contract with Christian, the contents of which, unlike their BDSM contract, we don’t ever get to read—and how many of us even know the nitty-gritty of what a marriage contract entails, even those who are married?—but which assuredly cover far more ground, bind them to each other in far deeper material and social ways, and are far more legally enforceable than any BDSM play contract could ever hope to be. The hullaballoo around Ana and Christian’s unsigned BDSM contract stands in stark contrast to the silence around the colossal power of the state-sanctioned contractual agreement that is their marriage—and anyone else’s real-life marriage. But, y’know, critiquing the institution of marriage just isn’t that sexy or provocative. And marriage is normal. But BDSM isn’t. So clearly we need to focus our attention on the BDSM, right?

I will further detour, for another moment, into the question of punishment. This is the one area where I think the book gets the BDSM itself badly wrong, but again, that is in keeping with the way a lot of people get the BDSM wrong. Punishment is one of the first concepts people tend to associate with BDSM, but the erotics of punishment are complex at best, and punishment is one of the most frequently misunderstood and poorly executed types of play—which is exactly what happens in the book. So a few words of advice for those who are interested in punishment: if you want to do this, here is some stuff to think about.

For starters, there is a major distinction between punishment and what’s known as “funishment.” Punishment, in the context of an agreed-upon and desired dominant/submissive relationship, isn’t inherently sexy, even if the dynamic itself is. Two people come to an agreement about one of them having a particular range of authority over the other, and agree upon certain behaviours that are out of bounds; if the submissive behaves in a way that’s out of bounds, the dominant enacts the agreed-upon consequences which, ideally, motivate the submissive to change the problematic behaviour. It’s a behaviour modification method, and it’s not for everyone—even as a full-time D/s person myself, I find little appeal in a punishment-based approach, and I’ll say more about that in a second. Funishment, on the other hand, is more like, “You bad boy. (wink) You’ve gone and misbehaved again. (finger wag) Now come here and let me do sexy things to you, and you can pretend you’re being forced to endure them, and this little charade will turn us both on.”

Actual punishment is not an excuse to have sexy times. And funishment is not an activity to engage in when you’re truly upset about something or feel like a boundary has been crossed. They’re two quite different things, and in my many years of observing and playing within the BDSM community, I’d say that a not-insignificant portion of scenes that go wrong do so because the two people involved miscommunicate about what exactly they are trying to do in playing with punishment. Some key questions to ask if you do want to play with punishment are things such as, what is each of you hoping to get out of this? What is the realm of authority in which the dominant has license to act? Do your expectations match up? How will you know if it’s having the desired effect? What will you do if it isn’t?

For punishment to work well, there needs to be a high degree of consistency and predictability in the dynamic, so that the submissive knows and agrees to what’s expected of them. In most cases, real punishment is not a desired outcome at all—the submissive wants to follow the rules (otherwise, why get into a relationship where you negotiate rules and ask someone to hold you to them in the first place?), and the dominant wants to help the submissive follow the rules, and if punishment occurs at all it’s an indication that one or both of them are off track in holding up their end of the dynamic, which is far from the goal. Or, if you want to do things without any predictability and with inconsistency, that specific dynamic needs to be desired and agreed upon—for instance, if two people find it sexy that the rules keep changing so they’re never sure what’s okay and what’s not okay, that’s great, but they have to both like things that way, perhaps for the element of surprise or the pleasure of having one’s head messed with for no purpose but fun. Not surprisingly the latter model fits much better with funishment than with punishment, and comes with its own complexities (such as, how will you both handle things if the headfuckery actually goes to a place that makes one of the participants genuinely uncomfortable?).

There is also the question of extrinsic versus intrinsic reward as an approach to behaviour modification. Some people really enjoy extrinsic motivators. For instance, if you finish writing half your essay tonight, you’ll treat yourself to a chocolate bar; if you don’t finish half your essay tonight, you don’t get the chocolate bar. For some people, extrinsic motivators don’t work at all. I’m one such person. I hate rewards and resent punishments. If I’m going to put effort into something, it has to have inherent reward for me—in this example, I have to want to write the essay because I am interested in the topic or see the value in doing the work or at the very outside because I want to pass the class because it is of some value to me. And if I want the chocolate bar, I just want the damn chocolate bar, I don’t want to have to jump through hoops to get it, and I certainly don’t want to be deprived of it because I did or didn’t do some unrelated thing. You can learn this sort of thing about yourself by seeing what works for you entirely on your own—you don’t even need to try it out with a partner to figure out how you’re wired in this respect. So if you pair up someone who’s wired for intrinsic motivation with someone who’s wired for extrinsic motivation, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding, even if you’ve successfully dealt with the questions of punishment/funishment, realms of authority, and consistency/inconsistency.

This is just a brief aside about the complexities of playing with punishment—honestly, the topic is worth an entire book, and because it’s not really my thing, I won’t be the person writing it. The psychology of punishment goes well beyond the kind of thing you’re likely to learn in an SM 101 workshop, and it’s not easy to negotiate as many of us don’t have the language to figure this stuff out about ourselves, let alone set it up with someone else. But it’s high on the list of ideas we immediately associate with SM. In short, if you are going to play with punishment, you need to do it carefully and consciously.

Fifty Shades portrays exactly the opposite of that, even if all the physical techniques are perfect and all of the T’s are crossed and I’s dotted on the (unsigned) contracts. The scope of Christian’s authority is constantly in flux, and he often tries to exert it in ways that Ana does not consent to or desire; Ana sometimes asks for punishment, and sometimes manipulates Christian into punishing her; Christian sometimes threatens to punish her, sometimes seduces her into it; it’s never clear if the punishment is real or staged for pleasure; sometimes it upsets her, sometimes it turns her on; he sometimes does it to please her, sometimes to vent his rage. Their punishment play, in short, is a complete mess, and predictably it’s the site where a range of their relationship tensions and arguments play out. If you wanted to, you could use the physical techniques described in Fifty Shades to get up to some pretty safe sexy fun. But please, please do not ever use Fifty Shades as a relationship model. On that front it is outright dangerous.

Oppression: not so sexy

In part, I dislike the books because the charmed circle they aim to extend is deadly. I don’t want to be inside that charmed circle because I don’t think it should exist, and I don’t want to see its borders extend such that people inside it think they know what’s okay and not okay about kink. That will leave far too many SM practitioners both more exposed than ever and facing judgement that pathologizes and criminalizes them, all while other people get to have their sexy fun and feel all transgressive-like. It’s an equation I don’t buy and a form of acceptability I can do without.

I’m not against the idea that people might relax about the possibility that their neighbours engage in some spanking or bondage—really, the entire world could stand to relax some about this stuff. But if that acceptance comes at the cost of that same mainstream world understanding full-time, high-intensity or outside-the-bedroom kink as by definition being the product of abusive childhoods and mental illness, or as being likely to lead to criminal behaviour up to and including assault and attempted murder, or as being inherently abusive, then all it will do is reinforce a set of existing social prejudices that already harm BDSM practitioners plenty. I’m not talking about simply being misunderstood or having our feelings hurt. I’m talking about the outright criminalization of BDSM as exemplified, for instance, in the Spanner case in the UK, where men were jailed for their consensual play; about kinksters being labeled as mentally ill and dangerous according to the DSM-IV; about leatherfolk being excluded, verbally attacked and physically assaulted within the broader community; and about perverts losing their jobs, their safety, and custody of their kids. I’m not making any of these things up. They are not theories, they are real-life consequences to the skewed public perceptions of any kind of BDSM that’s not just a bit of spicing up a heterosexual marriage. The last thing we need is to strengthen the prejudices that are already a thorn in our collective side—and no, we don’t get off on that kind of pain.

But mostly I dislike Fifty Shades because it normalizes assault, stalking, the use of money as a form of coercion, jealousy, rage, “winning” arguments, men’s control of women’s reproductive choices, game-playing, manipulation, marriage as the end goal and as the great legitimizer of relationships, lack of honest communication, and the healing power of innocent virgins’ inherent goodness. None of this is the least bit kinky—it’s just plain old hetero-patriarchal power relationships, and sexing those up in a best-selling “edgy” romance trilogy does nothing more than perpetuate an entire culture where “consent” takes a backseat to “normal.” This isn’t kinky or sexy or cool. So no matter how well-researched the BDSM technique, the relationships and politics that forms the core of this story are deeply unhealthy, and I fervently hope that they’re not going to become erotic templates for a generation of people who think they’re being sexy and oh-so-wickedly perverted.

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