Archive for the ‘language’ Category

if trans women aren’t welcome, neither am I
September 20, 2013

The question of whether or not to include trans women in women’s sexuality-based events is old and tiresome, but it still comes up with some regularity. I recently responded to a discussion on this topic and I realized that it might be useful to post my thoughts here, as I don’t know that I’ve ever done so in full.

I see a few main underlying assumptions come up in these discussions, and I’d like to counter them. Some of these arguments are stated outright, while others seem implicit in the language people tend to use. Most counter-arguments I’ve seen focus on the stated arguments, but I’d like to incorporate the underlying ones too, which makes the discussion a bit broader.

Comments are welcome, as always. That said, I realize that comments on posts like this often veer into the territory of flame-war pretty quickly. As a result I’m going to keep a tight rein on the comments here, and I may shut down comments fairly early in the game if only because so much of what might come up has already been said and I don’t think it’s worth rehashing lots of it here. This post is a position statement, not an invitation to a grand debate.

***

Assumption 1. There exists such thing as a “safe space.”

I feel strongly that the idea of safe space is a really dangerous one, no matter who’s claiming it for what space. It seems like there’s an underlying assumption in some comments that safe space does indeed exist or that it’s something worth striving for. For me, as soon as the concept comes up, whether this precise term is used or it just seems to be implied, I immediately become super uncomfortable and feel very concerned about how people will behave in whatever space is being discussed. I’ve seen this idea used as a battering ram, essentially, in way too many contexts, usually as a way to police behaviour in a mean-spirited manner or to exclude people or create an “in-crowd” of people who “get it.” Doesn’t really matter whether it’s an activist space, a party, a conference, whatever. Almost universally, it’s about people buying into a fantasy of safety that simply does not match reality—and making a lot of people quite unsafe by using policing-style behaviour.

In reality, you are only “safe” from things that might make you uncomfortable or triggered if you stay at home where you have absolute control over everything that happens (and even then, not always). Each person’s idea of “safe” is different, and therefore a group space cannot possibly be “safe.” “Safe” isn’t real, and as such I believe it’s not worth investing energy in. It’s much better, in my opinion, to create spaces where there are a few clear rules for acceptable behaviour (which does *not* depend on identity or status of any kind, gender or otherwise), a stated expectation of kindness and goodwill, and one or several people who are in charge of smoothing things out if they go wrong.

Assumption 2. We all have the right to expect to be comfortable in sexual space.

Speaking as someone who’s spent well over a decade attending group sexual events large and small in dozens of cities all over the world, I can say that no matter what the gender rules are for a given space, it is best for me to go into them not expecting to feel comfortable, *ever*. I’ve felt horribly uncomfortable at “women-only” events, and super comfortable in totally gender-mixed spaces. And vice versa too. The factors in that comfort level include people’s attitudes in general, the vibe and layout of the space, the level of alcohol consumption, temperature, the level of privacy, the loudness or nature/content of a scene or sex happening nearby, the organizers’ style, whether or not there’s pressure to play or fuck, the music, how high or stoned people are, what kind of porn is screening, the racial or age or body size or gender mix of the crowd, the presence or absence of one or two specific people… all of these things come into play in terms of my own comfort level, and they are not things I can know or expect going in.

I think we need to stop expecting sexual spaces to be comfortable in the first place, and understand that a thing that makes one of us feel right at home might make someone else feel sick to their stomach. (An intense blood play scene in the middle of the room… the presence of lots of butches… the opportunity to get high… Can you guess which one of those make me feel comfortable and which I find hard to handle? There is at least one of each. Do you think I would accurately guess your response to the same criteria?)

Most crucially, we need to remember that the exclusion of trans women is not the primary standard of comfort for everyone, or even for most people, or even for most cisgender dykes. When we expect a given space to make us feel comfortable in the first place, and then we reduce this question of comfort to a question of whether or not trans women are there, we are functioning from a very skewed picture of what actually makes a space comfortable for anyone outside our own selves, and making a lot of really unfounded assumptions about what works for everyone else around us too.

Assumption 3. One person having a trigger is a legitimate reason to exclude someone else from an event.

Here’s a list of some of the triggers and squicks I’ve encountered among the people I’ve met in the last few years as a travelling sex educator and event organizer: seeing someone taking off their belt; being touched on the belly; seeing porn; hearing the terms “fat,” “ugly,” and “stupid”; seeing blood; hearing a deep voice; seeing a masculine-presenting person fucking a feminine-presenting person doggy-style; seeing testicles (though a penis would be fine); military uniforms; finding out someone is bisexual or not a “gold-star” lesbian or gay man; watching age play or being in the presence of “littles”…  I could go on. The thing about a trigger is that it’s deeply personal, by its very nature. Sometimes it’s about past trauma, sometimes not. I know that for me, if I saw someone do a food play scene, I’d have to either leave the room or vomit, and I couldn’t tell you why—that’s just how it is.

Regardless of what it is, it’s super important that we take responsibility for managing our own triggers and squicks rather than expecting spaces to be set up to accommodate us, and all the more so when our trigger is about someone else’s looks, presence or behaviour. Outside basic rules of good behaviour, or specific event attendance rules for specific purposes—for instance, this event is only for people in full-time M/s relationships, or this is an event where everyone is expected to dress head-to-toe in red—it’s really not fair to ask others to curtail their behaviour or hide pieces of themselves in order to be welcome. I would never think of asking someone not to do food play in front of me. My squick, my responsibility to manage.

Assumption 4. Trans women have penises, and I will see those penises if they’re at a sex party.

***Added 2013/09/23: I want to preface this bit by stating in no uncertain terms that the configuration of a person’s genitals is none of my/your/anyone’s business unless you are about to engage in some kind of sexual touching that would require that knowledge. It’s also not a legitimate factor in whether or not someone should be considered to “really be” the gender they say they are. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health takes a strong stand against requiring any kind of surgical modification for someone to “qualify” as their stated gender, and everyone from governments to party organizers should take a cue from them. As well, I want to make it clear that many (most?) trans women don’t refer to their pre- or non-op genitals as “penises.” Some say clit, some say girl-dick, some say strapless – there’s a long list. Women’s individual choices about what they call their bits take precedence over any externally imposed words. Mostly, though, as with the question of what someone’s genitals look like, what they’re called is also none of anyone’s business unless you’re getting sexual together. The following paragraphs cover some basic information about genitals that you can find in a range of trans-101 resources, as well as in the zine I link to in point 9. I’m putting it here purely to counter the misinformation that this particular assumption is based on – not to imply that it’s anyone’s actual business to know what’s going on with any individual trans women’s genitals. ***

I think that a lot of people who are triggered by the idea of penises are *very* unlikely to be upset by most of what they’d see at an event that includes trans women. For starters, a lot of trans women get bottom surgery—I’d say at least three-quarters of the ones I’ve met in dyke contexts, though that’s anecdotal of course. It is much more common for trans women to opt for, and prioritize, bottom surgery than for trans men to do so (which is surely at least in good part due to cost, but also due to expected results).

The women who don’t have bottom surgery yet, but who are planning to, rarely want to show off or use their genitals in public space the way some cisgender men might. For them, the whole point of surgery is that they don’t want to have a penis at all, let alone wave it around in public, even less so among people who may be uncomfortable with that.

Among the trans gals who haven’t had bottom surgery and don’t plan to, the vast majority don’t have genitals that look like what most people would understand or immediately recognize as being a penis—the use of hormones makes the genitals much smaller and softer, and it’s usually not easy to get an erection or ejaculate. If you’re basing your idea of trans women as “chicks with dicks” you may have been watching too much shemale porn—and understand, please, that even in that kind of porn the trans women in question often have to use Viagra to get it up at all, and still often can’t come or ejaculate, and are in many cases keeping their penises for the moment only because porn is a way to earn enough money for bottom surgery. So it’s a bad place to judge from, even though it’s the easiest and quickest place to go if you want to see images of trans women’s non-surgically-altered bits.

Last but not least, there is the rare trans woman who has a dick and who understands it as such and is both capable of and interested in using it in typically “male” ways. All I have to say about that is that if I had one—a dick, that is—so would I! I think a lot of women feel the same if the popularity of strap-ons is any indication, to say nothing of the well-known dyke fascination with gay male porn. I’ve never actually seen this happen at a sex party, in all my travels, and as such I might be a bit surprised if I did. But if I can handle watching countless cis-dykes pound away at each other with dicks they’ve purchased at a store, surely I can handle watching a dyke use one she happens to have grown. We “allow” trans men the freedom to use the parts they were born with to achieve pleasure—surely we can extend that same acceptance to the very rare trans woman who wants to do the same. It seems a very strange thing to start judging, especially when we’re a community of people who gets off on a rather stunning variety of sexual practices to begin with.

And for people who equate “penis” with “ability to rape or assault” and are therefore triggered by the possibility or the reality of seeing one… first, see point 3. Beyond that, maybe your parents were a lot more specific about this, but my mom always told me to watch out for men, not for penises, if I wanted to avoid rape. But this same logic meant that nobody really told me to watch out for women who assault and rape. I know it’s a shitty thing to have to face, and I know a lot of dykes don’t like to talk about it because it damages their sense of safety in community… but I have met plenty of women who have had experiences of sexual assault or domestic violence with other women (cisgender and otherwise). At play parties and sex parties and bars, at home alone with a partner, with someone they’ve dated for a little while, with someone they’ve married… it happens, and way more than we’d like to think. Pretending that assault and rape are only perpetrated by men, or only done by people with penises, allows women and people with vaginas to get away with it that much more easily.

Rape and assault are not about penises. They are about someone’s sense of entitlement to touch another person’s body without consent. We need to stop projecting our fears onto a body part (regardless of who’s sporting it) and start looking at how people actually behave. It will make us *feel* less safe to acknowledge this, but I think it will make us actually *be* safer if we can talk about it openly.

Assumption 5. Trans women are aggressive in a way that makes people uncomfortable.

To me this sounds a whole lot like “black people are all so angry!” or “women are so over-emotional and hysterical!” or even “gay men are so effeminate!” It’s a stereotype, pure and simple. It’s especially similar to those other examples because it’s a stereotype that focuses on the way someone expresses themselves. We expect these behaviours or expression styles because we fear them – oppressive white people are scared of angry black people, men who are taught not to feel or deal with emotions are scared of women expressing emotions, people who are taught that masculinity is precious and fragile and absolutely necessary to their survival are terrified to see how easily someone can “lose” their masculinity, and so forth. From there, if we see these things happen in real life once or twice, we believe them to be true of everyone in a given group all the time. Then it becomes really easy to *only* see those things, and to miss or simply ignore—or, in this case, *deprive ourselves of the opportunity to see*—people in that same category behaving in other ways too. Which they/we do, because we are human. We need to get past this, plain and simple.

Assumption 6. Trans women are all the same.

We need to make sure, when we’re talking about trans women just as with any other group, that we aren’t speaking as though they were all the same. Trans women are as different from one another as any other people are. Some are aggressive, some soft and sweet. Some big, some small; some butch, others femme, others genderqueer, and so forth. Some lesbians, some straight, some bi, some queer. Every imaginable racial and ethnic background. Every imaginable profession and economic status (though statistically more likely to be poor and underemployed, regardless of their education level, due to rampant systemic transphobia). Some pre-op, some post-op, some non-op (bottom surgery). Some on hormones, some not. Some who “pass” easily, some who don’t and won’t ever. Some who have breast implants, some who don’t. So anytime you start a sentence with “trans women are…”, think carefully about what you’re going to say next and whether it’s true all the time or not.

Assumption 7. The term “woman” or “women” is by definition about cisgendered women.

In my world, when we talk about women, that includes trans women, because trans women are women. If we’re trying to say something specific about women who were assigned female at birth and are still happy to be referred to that way today, we call them cis or cisgendered women. If we’re trying to say something specific about women who were assigned male at birth but later transitioned, we call them trans women, or possibly women with a history of transition. But “women” on its own doesn’t imply anything about how someone was born. There’s nothing offensive about any of these terms unless they’re applied to someone inaccurately or with intent to shame or hurt.

For me personally, I don’t love being called a cis woman, not because there’s anything wrong with the term or because I think it’s pejorative, but because I am actually not always comfortable living in a female body and I feel like I float in a middle space between several genders. “Woman” I’ll accept, though only barely, and I wish I had another option than either that or “man.” But when someone calls me “cis,” to me that makes me feel they are making some very mistaken assumptions about me, and *that*—not the term itself—can be offensive. (Same as being assumed straight, or femme, or able-bodied… nothing wrong with those terms, they’re just inaccurate when applied to me.) But even then, I can still recognize that most of the world, most of the time, sees me as a woman, and that I get certain privileges because of that. So being *perceived* as a cis woman still gives me advantages, even if I don’t apply the term to myself. As such it’s still a useful term.

Assumption 8. Trans women aren’t really women, because they weren’t socialized as women.

This one falls apart on several levels.

First, it assumes that all women were socialized the same way. This makes no room for the vastly diverse types of socializing we each go through. A past butch partner of mine, for instance, refers to her childhood as being a “boyhood”—she played sports, spent time with her dad learning about woodworking and was never forced to look or dress girly. I, on the other hand, was very much socialized to be a girl, with all the expectations and prohibitions that come along with that. This is a pretty stark difference in childhood gender-socialization experiences despite how we were both raised in white, Ontario-based, heterosexually-parented, middle-class families with religious mothers and multiple siblings. As soon as we start adding on other differences—race, economic status, geographic location, age, number and configuration of parents, sexual orientations within the family, religion, schooling and so forth—we multiply the ways in which our gender socialization might change.

Second, it assumes that the way we are socialized “sticks” the same way on everyone. I would argue, for instance, that probably none of us who are queer were socialized as children to be queer. Most of us who are gender-independent weren’t taught to be that way by our parents. And I’ve only rarely met people who are what I’d call second-generation poly—as in, they had openly non-monogamous parents and are themselves non-monogamous. Possibly even more rarely than that have I encountered people whose parents were openly kinky such that they were socialized from childhood to be perverts. (And certainly, I was never taught, as a girl, to be a dominant or a top!) I could say similar things about feminism—I don’t think, for instance, that I’m any less “real” or “legit” a feminist because my mother and father most certainly aren’t feminists. And I can assure you that I was never socialized to work primarily at night, or have a freelance career, or to do a PhD—I’m the only one in my entire family doing any of those things, and they are huge pieces of how I understand myself as an agent in the world and of how I live my everyday life. And so on, and so forth. So it’s very odd to see people who’ve made life decisions that for the most part radically depart from what they were taught to do as children try to argue that on this singular point—the question of gender—socialization trumps choice, trumps our innate sense of who we are and trumps all the efforts we make to do about that. It just doesn’t work that way. Of all people, we should know.

Third, the socialization argument dismisses and disrespects the enormous challenges that trans women have to go through to understand themselves as women, and to assert themselves as such in the face of huge social forces that tell them they are not and cannot be what they are. There are plenty of trans women who never felt like men in the first place, for whom existing in an assigned-male body was a horrific experience of dysphoria and disconnection, for whom being raised and socialized as male was deeply damaging to the point of leading them to depression and suicidality, or for whom the presence of a penis and the lack of a vagina (for those who haven’t had bottom surgery) is an ongoing source of trauma, not a free pass into male privilege. If we can understand our own struggles to self-define, to make sense of our desires and identities and bodies, surely we have it in us to understand others’ when they are arguably even more complex and more strongly discouraged by the world around them.

Last but not least, this argument also assumes that trans women are not treated as women by the world at large. It is true that some trans women are not read as women by the world around them. In those cases, they are often shunned, assaulted and disrespected—as “failed” women, as “failed” men, or as freaks in general. In this sense, trans women who don’t “pass” are punished in much the same way as cis women are punished when they fail to do “woman” right. For being too fat, or too hairy, or not passive enough, or too smart, or too capable, or not straight enough, or too slutty, or too frigid, or not curvy enough, or whatever else.

Trans women know exactly what it’s like to be told they’re not doing it right, and cis women know exactly how much that hurts because it’s done to many of us too. Trans women who do “pass,” on the other hand, are subjected to the same kinds of bullshit that many cis women are just for being women, even when we are doing “woman” right—essentially, lots of misplaced entitlement. People, especially but not exclusively men, feel entitled to comment on or touch or fuck our bodies, to expect our sexual interest, to measure their masculinity by how different it is from our femininity, to get paid more than we do, to be aggressive and active to our receptivity and passivity, to be physically strong to our weakness, and so forth. And beyond all this… trans women who sometimes “pass” and sometimes don’t get the unenviable privilege of being on the receiving end of *both* these kinds of bullshit, both of which are clearly linked to being a woman, if from different angles.

So I call bullshit on this socialization question. It just doesn’t hold water.

 

Assumption 9. The “cotton ceiling” is a way for trans women to bully cis women into having sex with them.

The idea of the “cotton ceiling” is intended to draw attention to how even in spaces that are politically and socially welcoming of trans women, transphobia often retains its influence on how we understand who is sexually desirable and who isn’t. It’s no different from other politicized criteria for desirability—people who are, for instance, fat or disabled are also often welcomed into queer women’s space but not seen as desirable compared to those hot slim, muscular, able-bodied sorts. This isn’t our fault—our entire culture tells us what’s sexy and what’s not, 24 hours a day, and that definition is terribly narrow. But it is really easy to forget how much influence advertising propaganda and social pressure can exert on what gets us wet and hard, and to let the mainstream’s terms dictate our desires.

It is possible to read the idea of the cotton ceiling as being about pressuring people to change who and what they desire. And that pressure can feel unwelcome. With that in mind, I would challenge those who feel it that way to look very carefully at the message that’s being delivered. Is it actually about you being told you need to go out and fuck people you’re not attracted to? Or is it about someone asking you to think about how much of your attractions are based on an underlying assumption of cissexism? Or perhaps, might it be about challenging women-centred sexual spaces to talk openly about trans women’s bodies and how to safely and enjoyably have sex with trans women—a topic about which it is ridiculously difficult to find solid information? (Try Mira Bellwether’s awesome zine, Fucking Trans Women, if you are in search!) Or perhaps it could be about challenging the producers of dyke sexual representation to include trans women as objects of desire—in porn, in art, in erotica—which is only barely beginning to happen?

This is a difficult line to walk in terms of messaging—there is a subtlety to the argument that can easily be misunderstood. And to be fair, some people delivering the message about the cotton ceiling may not be doing it in a skilful way. But I think mostly the misunderstanding here comes from people who are very attached to a body- or genitals-based understanding of gender and very threatened by anything that comes along and challenges that.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t do anyone any favours for a person to fuck someone for political reasons without genuine attraction. I really hope nobody goes out and fucks anyone just to prove a political point or make a statement about how wonderful and open-minded they are. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of such false desire, and I would feel pretty disappointed in myself if I noticed I’d started to collect a list of sexual partners who conveniently belonged to stigmatized minority groups so that I could brag about it.

Fundamentally, it also doesn’t do anyone any favours for a person to pressure anyone else to have sex, for political reasons or otherwise. So if a trans woman cruises you with a line like, “Hey, you should have sex with me to prove you’re not transphobic,” you have every right to say, “Uh, no thanks.” Failing that highly unlikely situation, though, I think a lot of cis and otherwise non-trans gals need to ratchet down the defensive reaction and take the opportunity to really examine how much of our desire rests on cissexism, and how much of the sexual culture we create and consume excludes trans women, even if we’re not doing it on purpose. That thought process may never change our physical attractions, and it doesn’t have to. But on the other hand, it might, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. For a bunch of politicized people who are committed to resisting the patriarchy, fighting racism and advocating for accepting our bodies at any size, and then going ahead and representing those various bodies in all their delicious glory, this one really shouldn’t be a big stretch. And at the bare minimum, whether it changes our sexual practice or not, it could possibly help us to change a culture of exclusion such that the people next to us at that sex party—cis, trans and otherwise—can more easily access the kind of sex they’d like to be having.

 

Assumption 10. Trans men are a lot like women.

This one comes up as a counterpart to the “socialization” argument, specifically when people argue for the inclusion of trans men in women’s spaces as a counterpart to arguing against the inclusion of trans women in those same spaces. This is especially unhelpful to trans men.

A significant percentage of trans men are, well, men. They look like men, smell like men, identify and move through the world as men. If they’re told they’re allowed to attend a women’s event because they’re not really men, that’s pretty insulting.

Of course, *some* trans men are gender-fluid, or strongly attached to their history as dykes or as women, or see their transition as an extension of their former or current butch-ness and still prefer to date queer women, or what have you. So as such, some of them feel at home in queer women’s spaces, and it would be very sad and hurtful to exclude them. I totally get this. But let’s be clear that we are not talking about all trans men here. It’s a very specific range of trans men, and there’s a whole other range of trans men out there for whom such inclusion would be unwelcome at best and outright damaging at worst.

There are lots of trans men who never felt like women in the first place, for whom existing in a female-assigned body was a horrific experience of dysphoria and disconnection, for whom being raised and socialized as female was deeply damaging to the point of leading them to depression and suicidality, or for whom the lack of a penis (for those who don’t get bottom surgery) is an ongoing source of trauma, not a free pass into women’s space. Please let’s not disrespect these guys by assuming they’re “one of us” because they have vaginas. That’s what the rest of the world has been doing to them forever and sometimes it quite literally kills them.

***

This post is mostly about analyzing a set of arguments, sometimes in ways I’ve seen done by others, some less so. But in addition to the argumentation piece, I’m writing this to publicly say, in no uncertain terms, that as a woman who’s not trans, I fully support events that include trans women and tend to feel personally way more comfortable when trans women are welcome than when they’re not. For me, events that include trans women create a baseline of respect for people’s chosen gender identities—my own included—where I can breathe at least somewhat easier, instead of worrying about people making misguided assumptions and applying them to me and others. It’s a statement that clearly says “who you are is important, not who the world tells you to be.” This isn’t just symbolic. It makes a real difference in the vibe of a space, in my experience, and makes a lot more room for me too.

***

P.S. Adding this a day after first posting: I want to acknowledge an additional assumption that underpins everything I’ve tried to challenge here. This is the assumption that there is an “us” made up entirely of cis and otherwise non-trans women who are in charge of all women’s sexuality-based events and who get to make the decisions about including “them,” the trans women who’d like to attend. In fact my experience has been quite different from that. Trans women have been around for decades – “they” aren’t a sort of perpetually new part of “our” community, but rather a part of the fabric of it, of its history and its present and absolutely of its future. Several generations of trans women, and their contributions, long predate my own organizing efforts, for instance – so it’s a testament to the persistence of transphobia that somehow I, when I started organizing events in my early twenties, still understood that it was my job to “let” the trans women in (or bar them access). To me this feels like the height of disrespect – that some parts of the dyke world are still stuck on whether or not to include people who’ve been around since, y’know, the middle of last century. Many of the trans women in my community are older, wiser and more experienced than I am. I am fortunate to have many smart, powerful trans women as my elders – as scholars, as SM players, as dykes, as organizers, as role models, as writers and artists and activists. I’m grateful for their presence, their persistence in the face of discrimination, and for *their* willingness to let *me* in, to whatever extent they have.

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.

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.”

 

why rape jokes aren’t funny, even if you’re kinky
January 2, 2012

You’d think that given that kinky people are universally more enlightened about sexuality than the general population, nobody would have to explain this one. But from recent discussions I’ve seen go by online, it appears that we can throw that little “superior enlightenment” theory out the window (no big surprise there), and that a post laying out the basics of this is in order.

I will, for the curious, attempt to shoot down a few of the most common responses I’ve seen to women who’ve posted on similar topics, by means of a footnote at the end of this post. So if you are about to say “You’re just a humourless feminist,” “You’re missing the point,” “You’re just a man-hating lesbian,” or “You’re just bitter/triggered/biased because someone raped you,” or simply curious about how I’d respond to any of those dismissals, scroll down.

All righty. Moving along.

Point 1. Kinky people can be, and are, sexist. Rape jokes are one form that sexism is expressed.

Despite what the research says about how kinky guys are generally pro-feminist (see part 1 of the footnote for that), the research (at least, what little research there is) still indicates that in the public pansexual BDSM scene:

  • women are more likely to identify as submissives and men are more likely to identify as dominants;
  • women are generally presumed submissive and men dominant (and whether this is a cause or an effect of the first element is a question well worth debating, and one which I seldom see discussed);
  • women and submissives are treated with less respect than men and dominants; and
  • this disrespect generally takes forms along classically sexist, essentialist lines.

Thomas Macaulay Millar deftly links “domism,” role essentialism and sexism and sums up the key related points from two major (kink-positive) scholarly studies of the pansexual BDSM scene in this brilliant post. Please go read it, it’s really quite impressive.

In short, despite any claims to enlightenment or feminism, standard-issue sexism is still clearly present in the pansexual BDSM scene.

One of the many ways sexism plays out in the BDSM scene is rape jokes, and other kinds of all-too-common comments intended to humiliate or reduce women or submissives (because of the significant overlap, both work here) within the pansexual community but outside the context of negotiated scenes or relationships. Millar’s post quotes a few specific examples from the two studies he refers to, but you can find many more if you read either one in full. They are remarkably familiar for anyone who’s spent time in pansexual scene space.

Point 2. Rape jokes aren’t funny.

I don’t mean in that in a finger-wagging way. I just mean they aren’t actually funny. They fail to get a laugh most of the time (with some notable exceptions I detail in the next point).

You know what always kills a joke? When you have to explain it, or explain why it’s funny. I often see people trying to explain why rape jokes are funny, so that tells me right away that they pretty much aren’t. There are a few classics, like “Can’t you take a joke?” or “You have no sense of humour,” both surefire lines of defence for people who don’t know how to make good ones. And then we also have a few more righteously principled defences. One I often hear goes something like, “Well, if I can joke about murder, why not rape? Are you saying it’s okay to laugh about murder but not about rape? Do you think murder’s okay, but rape isn’t?”

I don’t know why it comes up so often, but it really does. And it’s particularly relevant because answering those questions tells us a lot about precisely why rape jokes aren’t funny.

If we look at some yummy Stats Can data, it tells us that “Police reported 605 homicides in 2006 … a rate of 1.85 homicides per 100,000 population.”

Meanwhile, also according to Stats Can, “Quantifying sexual assault continues to be a challenge, since the large majority (91%) of these crimes are not reported to police. According to self-reported victim data from the 2004 GSS on Victimization, approximately 512,200 Canadians aged 15 and older were the victims of a sexual assault in the 12 months preceding the survey. Expressed as a rate, there were 1,977 incidents of sexual assault per 100,000 population aged 15 and older reported on the 2004 GSS.”

Do we see a difference here? Fewer than two murders per 100,000; just under 2,000 sexual assaults per 100,000 and that’s only counting the 12-month period right before the survey. Let’s keep in mind that a person can be sexually assaulted numerous times in a lifetime and most of us rarely answer Stats Can surveys, whereas murders by definition happen only once and, with some notable exceptions, are pretty reliably reported, what with, y’know, dead bodies to deal with and such. I’d say the scale difference here is rather evident.

What am I getting at? Well, we—many of us, at least in non-war-torn North America—can joke about murder because we’ve never met someone who got murdered, or murdered someone, or met a murderer, or been murdered. Most of us will never encounter that reality in our entire lives, so it’s distant, and that makes it easy to be callous about, to treat as banal. I’d be willing to bet that if 2,000 out of 100,000 people had witnessed a murder in the last 12 months, we likely wouldn’t be laughing much about that either, not to mention there would be 2,000 fewer people around per year to make the jokes. Rape is a concrete reality for many of us, and it’s much harder to find anything funny about it as a result. So the comparison to murder doesn’t hold up. It’s not about one being more right than the other, or more PC. It’s just about how difficult it is to find humour in serious trauma that directly affects many of us all the time.

When people are challenged about making rape jokes, I also hear a lot of them cry “censorship,” start talking about the PC police, or beat the tired old argument that we should be allowed to discuss anything we want within the realm of kink because it’s supposed to be this safe place where anything goes as long as it’s consensual. And y’know, far be it from me to tell you what you can and can’t talk about, unless of course I’m moderating the group, in which case I’d be well within my rights to shut down inappropriate topics as outlined in the rules.

But will I tell you what I think you should and shouldn’t talk about or say? Hell yeah. For instance I think you shouldn’t use racist terminology, make fun of fat people, joke about people with disabilities, or sling around homophobic slurs. Challenging people—kindly, without personal attack, and with the benefit of the doubt, until such benefit is clearly no longer warranted—when they’re being douchebags is itself dialogue, not censorship; it is a really valuable form of activism. It contributes to creating a group climate where dissent is an option, where people have the opportunity to learn about what hurts and marginalizes people who aren’t like them, where people outside a narrow range are more likely to feel welcome and included (and then everyone gets laid more). Who said it’s okay to make some people feel rotten (by making rape jokes) but not to make others feel rotten (by calling out bullshit)? I’d say it’s pretty even as far as deals go, though if I had to pick whose feelings I’m more concerned about, I’d definitely be more likely to worry about those of a possible rape survivor than those of a guy who wants to make a tasteless joke. I know, that privilege is a hard thing to look at, but really, guy, you need to get over it. I’m not much one for playing the Oppression Olympics, but for what it’s worth, on the scale of oppression, you lose.

Does that mean we shouldn’t talk about rape fantasies in the context of kink? Nope. I think we should talk about them as much as we like. It’s a helluva charged-up topic for all kinds of good reasons and that makes it well worth discussing. But talking about our individual kinks is not the same as joking about what person we’d really like to rape, how much so-and-so really needs to get raped, how rape is probably the only sex so-and-so gets, or any other similarly stupid, boring tripe. These things are not thoughtful discussion, exploration of a taboo kink, genuine engagement with an edgy form of fantasy or play. There is a world of difference between saying “I fantasize about doing a rape scene” or “my partner wants to do a rape scene and I’m not sure how” and “Jill really needs to get raped in a back alley, haha!” If you’re not enough of a grown-up to be able to tell the difference, you probably shouldn’t be playing this game at all.

We could get into a big debate here about how things are different if a woman, and not a man, makes the joke, or laughs at it, or if the joke is about a female rapist, or a male victim, and so on, and so forth. I’m not really interested in debating it much though. Sure, it might be different on some level, as many things are depending on who’s saying them. Okay. Fair enough. It’s still not particularly funny to make a rape joke. It might be less directly reflective of the reality of rape out there in the world, but really, does that make it therefore hilarious and/or justifiable? Seems to me it simply creates an environment that makes it acceptable for people who are not in these “more justifiable” categories to also make rape jokes. And really? Meh. I can think of better things to stand up for than my right to make unfunny jokes about my own possible sexual assault perpetration or victimization. They’re a bit clunky, and they still play into the fact that…

Point 3. Rape jokes directly support and encourage rapists.

For this one, I’ll refer you to yet another brilliant post, this one by Organon.

Here’s a quote that sums up the post:

“6% of college-aged men, slightly over 1 in 20, will admit to raping someone in anonymous surveys, as long as the word “rape” isn’t used in the description of the act—and that’s the conservative estimate. Other sources double that number.

“A lot of people accuse feminists of thinking that all men are rapists. That’s not true. But do you know who think all men are rapists?

“Rapists do.

“They really do. In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again.

“Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.”

So basically, if you make a rape joke, casually banter about doing non-consensual things to that hot woman or submissive over there, or treat rape as though it were something banal and normal and nothing to get terribly upset about, well then sure, you might be triggering the one in four women sitting nearby who’s been raped. And sure, you’re making yourself look like a complete douchebag (no, sadly, you don’t come off as a super-sexy “edgy” kind of kinkster, despite how desperately you might like to—if you are that edgy, surely you can come up with a more creative strategy). But mostly, what you’re doing is inviting the one guy of the proverbial twenty, who is also sitting nearby, to rape someone, quite possibly someone in that same room. Because he doesn’t think you’re joking. He thinks you’re completely serious, and that it’s completely okay to do that.

And you know what? Even if you’re not sitting near that one-in-twenty guy? The women sitting nearby? They might think you, yourself, are that one guy in twenty who might actually rape them, given the chance, considering how completely blasé you’re being about the topic.

And even worse? Maybe you actually are that guy. You sure do exhibit all the signs. Really you’re kinda advertising it, wouldn’t you say? This, right here, is about the only reason I can think of why you might want to continue making rape jokes, or laughing at them—at least now your targets can see you. So if you are that one in twenty, please, make all the rape jokes you want. Because if all the non-rapists in the room stop making them, and stop laughing at them, but you keep right on keeping on, then we’ll know exactly who to avoid. In the meantime, there’s a degree of mistrust that sorta has to be extended to everyone, because it’s sometimes hard to tell which one of every twenty is the one-in-twenty who’s truly dangerous.

And with that in mind…

Point 4. The BDSM community does not keep anyone safe from rape.

The research doesn’t talk specifically about the BDSM community on this point, but the statement applies there as much as anywhere else. In fact, no community, network, or set of trusted friends and acquaintances keeps anyone safe from rape. Why? Because 70% of rapes are committed by someone who knows the victim.

That figure, or higher, is repeated all over the place—the Toronto Police Service, the Rape Victims Support Network, Victims of Violence (with research funded by the Department of Justice Canada), and even good ol’ Stats Canada.

Some of those perpetrators are relatives, colleagues or neighbours. And some of them are friends and acquaintances. In other words, even if we drop all the husbands, boyfriends, dads, work colleagues and so forth from the list and focus exclusively on the “other acquaintances” category, the simple fact of knowing people—like, say, from attending the same munch a few times or seeing each other at the occasional play party—is no guarantee of protection. Quite the reverse. The people habitually found in a given social setting are the ones most likely to rape the other people in that same social setting.

So please, let’s stop with the idea that we police the SM world and magically make it safe for everyone because of our focus on consent. If 19 out of 20 guys (and yes, I am focusing on guys here, because the studies above also note that around 97% of sexual assault perpetrators are male) believe in consent-only activity and practice it 100% of the time, that still leaves the one guy out of twenty who doesn’t and who is still happily ensconced within the community. And let’s recall that many of those 19, along with a few gals, may be making that one guy feel perfectly justified about what he does, because while not being rapists, they may still be helping to create an environment in which rapists can flourish, or at least get by relatively unnoticed. So if you’re one of those folks who thinks that if you say “consent” often enough, you’ve paid your dues and can now also make or laugh at a rape joke, think again. These things do not cancel each other out.

Point 5. People vastly under-report incidences of rape and sexual assault, mainly because of fear of repercussion or ostracization.

If you were an oppressed sexual minority—say, a kinkster—all your life, and you finally found a community where you could meet like-minded people, and explore this very deep and compelling part of yourself with people you find attractive, wouldn’t you want to make sure your membership in that community wasn’t jeopardized? And if that community distrusted the cops because the cops had been known to arrest them for their enjoyable consensual activity, and possibly even take away their kids or get them fired from their workplace, wouldn’t you be unlikely to bring the cops’ attention their (your) way? And if you knew that because you were a pervert, the cops might think you were really asking for it anyway (much like if you were a sex worker, or a gal with a short skirt, and so forth), wouldn’t you be less likely, in the midst of your own trauma, to risk adding the further trauma of being disbelieved and your charges dismissed? Yeah, well, layer all that on top of the existing reasons why 91% of your average not-kinky people who get sexually assaulted don’t report it to the police, and you have the perfect storm.

I don’t think we will ever know how many people get raped or sexually assaulted within the pansexual BDSM scene because those people have a whole fuckload of reasons why not to ever tell—way more so than their non-kinky counterparts.

Conclusion: Reality bites.

We can talk about consent, safewords, negotiation and safe calls, and we can trot out the existence of female dominants and male submissives all we want. None of this makes reality go away:

  • The pansexual scene both displays the idea that men are in charge (dominant) and women are not (submissive) and reinforces that as a norm.
  • Discourse about the proper roles of dominants (men) and submissives (women) within the pansexual scene commonly steps way outside the bounds of negotiated relationships or scenes, which is not okay.
  • Rape jokes (which are not okay even outside the scene) are made within the pansexual BDSM scene directly or indirectly as part of that discourse.
  • Rape jokes in any context reassure rapists that what they do is normal, okay and approved-of; in BDSM spaces, they reassure rapists that even here, regardless of a parallel “consent” discourse, rape is still okay.
  • So-called community self-policing does not erase the occurrence of rape and sexual assault.
  • The pansexual scene’s internal community codes as well as the pansexual community’s relationship to the dominant society may directly act as deterrents to the reporting of sexual assault, whether to the police or within the community itself.

Consider this: a rapist walks into a pansexual BDSM event. He looks around and sees that mostly, the men are dominant and the women are submissive, and there’s a whole complex language around consent. But then he also notices that people aren’t really practicing what they preach, or at least they seem to do so inconsistently, because clearly sexist dynamics are playing out outside scenes or ongoing D/s connections. And the people joke about rape in a way that makes it seem like that’s just as cool here as it is anywhere else—and not only that, but they’ve got fancy things like collars and cuffs and rope to make it all even easier! All he needs to do is learn the “in-crowd” language to avoid being easily detected. Cuz really, once he’s got that down, he’s not very likely to encounter much resistance, and even if he did, she’d never take it to the cops. And she wouldn’t risk saying anything in the community either, cuz she’d get snubbed. Sweet deal.

It’s a bit sobering, isn’t it?

And that’s why rape jokes aren’t funny, even if you’re kinky. They are only one part of a larger system in which many other things happen that are not funny, but they are also one of the easiest to simply stop. So let’s stop making them. We’re a creative, intelligent bunch, or at least we sure like to think of ourselves that way. I’m sure we can find plenty else to laugh about.

***

And here is that promised footnote on my response to classic dismissals.

  1. “You’re just a humourless feminist.” Feminist? Yes, and honestly, unless you are a frothing idiot, you are too, or at the very least, you believe a lot of the same things feminists classically believe whether you label it as such or not. In fact, most kinky guys do, according to this article by Patricia A. Cross and Kim Matheson. In their research, they found no appreciable difference between sadomasochists and non-sadomasochists in terms of their attitudes and beliefs regarding feminism. (Though it sure is interesting that their findings also indicate that, while still well within the range of pro-feminist, men in SM communities generally have a higher belief in traditional gender roles than women do, regardless of kink role.) Humourless? Well, I make no claim to stand-up comic prowess, but I think I’m pretty funny, and by all accounts most of the people I know would agree, but I guess that’s up for argument. While we’re at it, shall we debate the equally subjective notions of “attractive” or “smart”? I’ll pencil you in for that discussion sometime in 2080, ‘kay? Call me.
  2. “You’re missing the point. This discussion isn’t about rape, it’s about (insert stated topic here).” If you made a rape joke, guess what? Now the discussion is about rape. Oopsie for you. Next time, stick to the topic at hand and you will not have a much-deserved shitstorm on your hands.
  3. “You’re just a man-hating lesbian.” If by the word “lesbian” you mean “woman who likes to fuck women,” you’re bang-on. Mmmmwomen. But I’m not a lesbian, properly speaking, because I also have a long history of dating, playing with and fucking men, as well as trans folks who identify all along the gender spectrum, the latter of which includes my partner of five years. I suppose it is possible I could have done all that and still hated the men and other non-female-identified people I’ve been with, but that would be an awfully significant waste of time. And also? I have three brothers who are the awesomest guys in the world, so anytime I’ve been even remotely tempted to say “I hate men,” I have always caught myself, because seriously? These guys would give hope to the most man-hating of man-hating dykes. (On a side note, most dykes who don’t sleep with men don’t actually hate them. It’s more that most men are just kinda irrelevant to them, which I suspect gets some guys’ knickers in a knot way more than any actual hating would.) More important than my sexual history, though, is that I don’t really think hating anyone is the most productive of places to put my activist energy. I’d much rather invest in coalition-building and avoid grossly stereotyping groups on the basis of a single shared characteristic given that, y’know, that’s kinda what gets done to me, and I don’t like it. Also, I was born at least a decade too late to get caught up in the Sex Wars. Hello from the third wave.
  4. “You’re just bitter/triggered/biased because someone raped you.” Actually, no. I’ve never been raped or sexually assaulted. I am one of those fortunate women—and how awful that one should have to be fortunate in living to their mid-thirties without being raped. Hey, I’m not saying nobody’s ever tried. If you have a spare day or two, I could list you the many, many times I’ve had guys (always guys) attempt to get me drunk, try to corner me in a room alone, or flash me in a subway station. There’ve been so many I’ve lost count—and I’m hardly exceptional in that regard, and my stories are hardly the most dramatic. Certainly I’ve had plenty of non-consensual touch inflicted upon me, including in kink spaces. But nobody’s ever managed to get it any further than a single unwelcome move. Whether because my big bad scary dominance has given them pause, or my strategic escapes have left them in the dust, or my physical self-defense has been enough to show them there be dragons there (or just really sharp fingernails), or I’ve just been plain lucky, I don’t know, but suffice it to say I have no directly personal triggers in relation to the topic of rape. That all being said, if you’re going to disqualify someone from speaking about rape precisely because she or he has been raped, I’m seriously not impressed. If you follow that logic for a step or two, what topics of significance to you are you no longer qualified to speak about? I bet the list would get long awfully quickly, so let’s quit while we’re ahead, hmm?

words fail, or, trying to talk about power (part 2)
June 5, 2011

(Read Part 1 first!)

Now, the next question is, why do I feel the need to write about what these relationships are, and make a distinction between that and what they’re not? The answer is a multiple one. One of the big reasons is that within the vastly complex world of consensual power dynamics, I often notice that people have conversations, write blog posts and even author entire books using the set of terms as I’m deliberately avoiding here (master, slave, submissive, dominant, etc.), but meaning completely different things. (I detail some of the ways this can play out in another post, whose topic is mainly the ways in which contradictory expectations are placed on dominants but which nonetheless addresses this question in a few examples.) I think a lot of misunderstandings occur within our communities as a result—never mind the vast amount of misunderstanding that happens outside them.

Unfortunately these misunderstandings, and even the attempts to rectify them, often end up becoming acrimonious. It’s incredibly difficult, in the English language, to talk about difference without implying hierarchy. So if, for example, I talk about these relationships as being “full-time” as opposed to “part-time,” it’s very easy for that to come across as, or be understood as, “real” versus “fake,” or “serious” versus “just for fun,” or “meaningful” versus “silly,” or any other number of things. It’s difficult to talk about the specific concerns or experiences that come with engaging in a full-time power dynamic (which sometimes resemble those that come with part-time or occasional dynamics but are sometimes completely different), without being perceived as somehow elitist—or, on the flip side, being judged as sick, unhealthy or wrong, even (and sometimes especially) by fellow kinksters.

Why is this the case? Well, I believe that it’s because the concept of a full-time power dynamic is very charged. It is fraught. It is frightening, and in some way all the more so the more personally interested one might be in such dynamics—and with reason. Most people, avowedly kinky or otherwise, have feelings about this topic, or would quickly discover they have feelings about this topic if you were to ask them.

Before I go on, let me make a quick disclaimer. Many people engage in occasional or part-time power dynamics and are perfectly happy with that; their desire for power-based interactions or relationships is easily satisfied in the context of an occasional scene, a weekend contract with a mistress, a session with a pro-dom/me, or an ongoing relationship where power is enacted only when the partners are in direct contact.

However, I believe—and I recognize that in saying this I may upset some people—that many of the people who do part-time dynamics actually would like to do full-time ones, but cannot for one reason or another. They haven’t met the right person yet (and may never). They are too frightened of what it would mean—of who they would be if they gave up ownership of themselves to another human being, or of who they would be if they took up ownership of another human being. They don’t believe it’s possible to do this and still be healthy and whole. They’ve seen others do it, or at least something that looked like it, and they didn’t like what they saw (and if you’ve spent any time in the BDSM/leather community, this is probably true for you). They were hurt from a bad experience (and when it comes to power relationships, who hasn’t been?). They don’t know where to start. They don’t know who to ask, or even what to ask; they might simply not have the words. They can only bear to be that vulnerable in small bursts, even if they secretly—or not-so-secretly—wish they could sustain that vulnerability and take up that degree of responsibility 24/7. (Note that I’m NOT talking about vulnerability as being the exclusive province of the POA, or about responsibility as being the exclusive province of the PIC.) Often, they simply don’t have anyone in their worlds who would have the interest in holding up their end of the deal, or have the ability to do so in a healthy manner even if they were interested. And perhaps most often of all, they don’t even realize they’d like to be in a full-time dynamic because it doesn’t even register as a remote possibility—it’s quite simply beyond their wildest dreams.

Now, some people for whom this is true are perfectly nice about it. Others, however, deal with it in fully human ways we’ve seen a thousand times over. They scoff. They judge. They say it’s impossible, it’s unhealthy, it’s wrong, it’s inherently abusive, it’s the stuff of delusion and fantasy, of narcissists and doormats. As soon as I hear this kind of discourse, it makes me wonder: What are you so scared of? And how badly do you want it? How far do you have to distance yourself from it before you will feel safe again? How many times have you seen oozingly unhealthy power relationships that are ultimately destructive to one or both participants, and how has that perception dashed your own perhaps not-fully-formed hopes of happiness in power? This is much like the world’s general attitude toward SM as a whole, only in microcosmic form: desire and fear come together in the form of loud, vehement rejection.

On the flip side, some practitioners of these relationships hold them up as being the be-all and end-all of kink. The apex of perversion. The coolest, sexiest, edgiest, most Real True kind of intimacy you could ever possibly experience. As soon as I hear this kind of discourse, it makes me wonder: If you’re really doing this Totally Awesome Thing, why are you so insecure about it that you need to boast? When you make this much noise about how great something is and how great you are for doing it while implying (or outright saying) that anyone who’s not doing it is therefore not as great, it usually means you’re trying to convince yourself of the truth of your own statements. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say that talking about these relationships is a bad thing. For all that we live in a power-soaked culture and power gets talked about all the time—in the form of management strategy, personal empowerment motivational lectures, leadership theory, social justice, feminism, government policy, self-help books, and any number of other areas—there is a dearth of intelligent discourse about intense, chosen and pleasurable power-based relationships. But self-aggrandizement does not solve this problem. It only serves to make the speaker look like a bit of an ass.

I certainly don’t think everyone in the world wants to or should do this kind of relationship, nor that everyone who’s doing it has a corner on The Real Bestest Kink/Relationship/Sexual Proclivity/Spiritual Practice Ever. But it’s clear to me that the things people say about these relationships usually tells me a lot more about what their fears are than about what they are actually doing.

Perhaps that’s part of why I’m putting this post out there. But mostly I think I’m laying out a basic set of parameters because I think that if the people who do this kind of relationship want to be able to talk to each other or share resources, it helps to have some common ground to start from.

In addition, while the BDSM/leather communities are sometimes good places to find like-minded individuals and resources, lots of people who do this kind of relationship don’t gravitate toward membership there because the activities that bind BDSM (and at times leather) community members together—SM play, enjoyment of fetishism, cruising for new play partners, and learning new play techniques, among others—aren’t necessarily of primary interest. By definition, people oriented toward this kind of relationship don’t end up looking for a new partner every weekend, or at least not for these purposes; and when we are looking for new partners, the way the BDSM and leather communities employ terminology and engage in power connections can be confusing and difficult, as we lack the language to easily make clear what we’re after and how it differs from play-based connections.

Beyond that, the people who start out with a BDSM play-based connection and discover that they have fallen into a power dynamic that’s more ongoing and binding than they had expected often lack the language to frame that dynamic in their own minds, let alone discuss it with their partners, because the ways that power is most commonly discussed in BDSM assume a temporary or play-based connection.

Put it all together, and this makes it very difficult for us to find each other. Written resources are scarce to help us learn how to build, sustain and, if necessary, gracefully end these relationships.

I don’t presume that a single blog post will do much to change that situation broadly speaking, but I do think that it’s worth laying out my own ideas in case they resonate with you. Anything that can help us begin to better frame and discuss what it is that we do is a step closer to getting what we want—and figuring out when we’re not getting it.

So… let the discussion begin.

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