Archive for the ‘non-monogamy’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murphy writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what should we do instead, then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

the problem with polynormativity
January 24, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of new section! —

***

In sum, I have three key problems with polynormativity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

what are we doing, here, exactly? or, conceptual frameworks for d/s relationships
July 11, 2011

The theme of D/s and power relationships has been at the forefront of my mind of late. Not too long ago, I put out a post about what I call This Thing—a particular sort of ownership-based D/s dynamic that some people call M/s (Master/slave). I realized, after writing it, that I haven’t ever attempted to lay out the other types of D/s relationships or dynamics that exist out there. But recently I’ve been having some thought-provoking conversations that have made it clear I need to develop a broader model in which to insert This Thing, so that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

I want to make a couple of disclaimers before diving in. In fact, there are five, but I’ve placed the last three at the end of the post in order to avoid weighing down this intro too much. Scroll to the bottom if you want ‘em now, or just read them at the end!

First, I’ve laid this post out in the form of a list, which necessarily ends up looking like some kind of hierarchy. But creating hierarchy is not my purpose. For starters, I’ve personally engaged in relationships at pretty much every point on this list, sometimes simultaneously with different people, so I’m hardly one to argue that any point is better than any other. I’m much more interested in engaging with people in precisely the way that best suits a given pairing than in trying to judge what kind is best. I hope you read this list with the same philosophy in mind. But also—and I discuss this more later—different kinds of pleasure can be taken at different points on the list.

Second, for all that I realize I have no control over what you do with this once you read it, I want to add a caution as to how I’d like to see this list to be used. I see it primarily as a way of describing what exists between two people—not as a way of either setting goals (“I’d like us to get to number 7”) or setting limits (“I can’t really handle much more than a 2, so let’s stop there”). As I discuss in more detail later, I don’t think we can really decide what kind of power dynamic exists in any given relationship; we can simply decide whether or not to act on it, and how. Being more conscious about what these different points might look like can help us to make wise decisions about whether to deliberately take action to deepen a dynamic or choose to avoid taking action in order to keep it lighter, but I don’t think you can will a dynamic to be 24/7 if it doesn’t truly suit the pairing of people involved, and I don’t think you can carve down a broad dynamic fit into a scene or two if it’s meant to be much more.

Okay, on with the show!

***

1. Vanilla. There are plenty of power dynamics in vanilla relationships, they just aren’t articulated or engaged with in quite the same way, or using the same vocabulary, as I’m about to do here. So I’ll just pick one of many examples of how power dynamics might work in a vanilla relationship, just to have a point of departure for comparison purposes: Person A likes Person B’s shirt and says so; Person B starts to wear it more often.

2. Scene-based D/s. The people engage in a power dynamic that starts when they say it does or when the SM play begins, and ends when the SM play or a prescribed amount of time comes to an end. Person A tells Person B what shirt to wear or what shirts not to wear, or Person B asks; but once they’re done, Person B can change back into the shirt Person A hates.

3. Temporary or short-term D/s connection. General parameters are set that apply between the people even if no SM play is taking place. Person A tells Person B what shirts to wear all weekend, say. This has no particular bearing on what next weekend will look like between them. You might consider it an extended scene, in which the players aren’t necessarily engaged in full SM acts at all times but in which the power dynamic is in place the whole time.

4. Occasional regular D/s connection. General parameters can be set; the power dynamic is in effect any time the people are together. Sort of like Point 3, only repeated on some sort of regular basis such that it can be assumed that the dynamic will happen this way whenever they spend time together, until someone calls it off. They may have contact in between times that is not framed in D/s terms, and they may, in some instances, see one another without engaging in D/s, for instance if they run into each other at a grocery store. But their primary purpose in spending time together is for D/s. Person A tells Person B what kind of shirts to wear and not to wear whenever they’re together as a general rule, rather than negotiating it each time.

5. Regular but not ongoing D/s connection. Basically, Point 4 with the addition that the “together time” during which the people engage in their power dynamic includes types of contact outside physically being in one another’s presence. So the dynamic extends to telephone calls, e-mails, essentially any interaction between the two people. Person A tells Person B what kind of shirts to wear whenever they’re in contact. Still, it has no bearing on what Person B does when not in contact with Person A.

6. Limited ongoing D/s dynamic. General parameters apply even when the people are not together. So Person A tells Person B what kind of shirts to buy, and Person B never wears shirts that Person A doesn’t like. The power dynamic is always in effect, but its territory may be limited—for example, Person A has full control of Person B’s wardrobe, but has no say over Person B’s job decisions or workout routine.

7. 24/7 power dynamic. Parameters always apply, with a view to all-encompassing or very minimally limited authority. It’s not just about shirts anymore; it’s not just about shirts, pants and workouts. Person A and Person B both want Person A to have authority in most of Person B’s life. Component by component, Person A and Person B work to extend Person A’s authority and Person B’s submission. Still, for any number of reasons, there may still remain areas in which Person A does not have authority—family visits, say, or jurisdiction over Person B’s job decisions.

8. This Thing. Some people call it M/s. I laid out how I see this type of relationship as different from others in a recent post, which describes seven key features. Here, areas of authority are no longer seen individually, as components to be added as appropriate. Rather, the baseline framework is that Person A owns Person B, and therefore has authority over everything; the particulars are then navigated and discussed from that standpoint.

***

Bleed between one of these types into the next, or a jump from one to another, can happen either on purpose or by accident. For instance, a temporary or short-term D/s arrangement can turn into a regular one by default, simply by the people doing it more than once. It’s a lot clearer and healthier if they discuss this—“I realize we’ve done this twice now and I really like it. If you feel the same, is it safe to assume we plan to continue doing it until one of us says otherwise?”—but it certainly can happen with no discussion. As another example, Person A puts a collar on Person B in a scene but then leaves it on once the scene is done. If the collar retains its meaning or symbolism and continues to support or induce a submissive headspace in Person B even after she goes home, then they’ve effectively jumped into a limited ongoing power dynamic, whether or not that’s what Person A was trying to accomplish.

Bleeding and jumping can be regulated to some extent. Partly this is about carefully thinking about what you’re doing, making decisions that recognize what might cause you to move around on the list, and doing so only when that kind of movement is precisely what you want. Partly this is about discussion—in this respect, it is always a better idea to lay something on the table than to leave it unsaid. For instance, if Person B thinks they’re doing a temporary or short-term D/s thing but Person A thinks they’re doing an occasional regular D/s dynamic and therefore starts assuming that anytime she and Person B are together they’re going to be behaving as dominant and submissive, they’re both likely to be offended at how the other behaves. Person B will wonder why Person A is being so pushy, and Person A will wonder why Person B is being so disobedient. This can easily move into non-consensual territory, so this is me making yet one more push in the direction of clear, direct conversation.

Influence, however, is harder to regulate than behaviour. So if Person B realizes that she’s only wearing blue shirts ever since Person A said she liked them, then it’s Person B’s responsibility to tell Person A that, otherwise they can’t discuss the meaning of it. Person A also shares the responsibility for noticing the areas of her influence and asking Person B questions about the meaning of that influence. Clearly, the more observant, self-aware and communicative you are, as a pair or group, the more likely this is to all go smoothly.

Once it’s on the table, Person A can then decide if that’s comfortable to hold, and if so, how best she wants to do so. (Weekly shirt guidelines that change seasonally? A wardrobe evaluation and a twice-yearly shopping trip? A basic “no yellow” or “all shirts must have some blue in them” rule?) When I talk about Person A “holding,” I mean holding up her end of the bargain as the dominant—remembering the rule or parameter, sustaining the expectation that it will be met, providing appropriate support in making sure that this is possible, consistently enforcing clear and appropriate consequences if it is not met, and following up on some sort of regular basis to be sure that the parameters are still working and feeling good for all involved. This is a dynamic process, not a one-time decision; it requires investment to sustain.

If Person A decides she doesn’t want to hold that, that’s a different story. Person B can change her behaviour by wearing other colours of shirts. Sometimes, a simple change in behaviour effectively short-circuits the power dynamic in a given area. But there’s no guarantee that will work. Behaviour change or no, it is very difficult to “make” Person B stop wanting to wear only blue shirts if she deeply desires to please Person A and knows this is a way to do so. It’s also very difficult, if Person B’s inclined to submit to Person A, for Person B to see wearing other colours of shirts as anything other than obeying Person A’s wishes that she no longer wear only blue shirts. In short, a behaviour change should not be confused with a change in power dynamic; it can be purely cosmetic.

What direction this goes in is dependent on a host of factors—personalities, circumstances, the nature of the dynamic, and so forth. I am of the opinion that the two people involved in a power dynamic are only minimally in control of their desires; those desires organically create a power dynamic between them, whether it’s discussed or not. They are much more in control of whether, and how, they act on those desires. Even then, though, I caution that when one or more people discipline their behaviour to make it look as though they aren’t doing D/s, they’re essentially investing a lot of energy in denial rather than in simply trying to do the power dynamic in a healthy way. Any relationship that spends a lot of energy avoiding talking about things or trying to make them not happen strikes me as inherently not so healthy. At the very least, if they have the discussion, Person A, knowing how her influence seems to affect Person B, can then decide whether or not to say anything about shoes, pants, cars, or Person B’s job; she can also make it clear (if applicable) that she will not be holding up her end of the deal no matter how much Person B would like her to, so that there is no cause for a break in trust or the development of resentment.

The good news is, you get to decide what to do at every step. The bad news is, that statement is only sort of true. You can choose to act in ways that deepen a power dynamic, that extend its realm, or not. But it is extremely hard to go back to a less intense power dynamic once you’ve already gone deep, unless you break it—as in, drop the person and break their trust (from either end of the dynamic). This is true even when you’ve gone deep by accident. If ever there were a reason to get really good at noticing shit and talking about it, this is it!

On the up side, when you have decided you want to go somewhere deeper, the deliberate cultivation of the dynamic is the fun part. The process of noticing, discussing and deliberately extending the spread of the dominant’s influence is how a 24/7 dynamic is built, and how ownership is articulated into meaning.

Note that all of this is awfully hard to do when you’re just starting out. You don’t know what to look for, or what to ask about; you don’t necessarily understand and can’t necessarily predict the impact of an action or statement. You don’t know what will feel good to give over or to hold, or what will make you feel overextended. You will fuck up. For that matter, you will fuck up even if you’ve been doing this for a really long time. So it goes. We are human. (My five steps for fixing a fuck-up might come in handy here.) And there is no road map for this kind of relationship, or only the most minimally useful ones (hey, I have no illusions; this post is not going to make everyone’s D/s happier and healthier). Some stuff you have to learn on your own and make your own. Everything I’ve figured out about this shit has come at the expense of my own pain and the pain of the people I’ve hurt. My best promise is to try not to make the same mistake twice, and to fix my fuck-ups as best I can. I would wish the same for you.

Let me be clear that I’m not trying to lay out a hierarchy of validity in relationship here. Different items in this list involve different kinds of intensity—not necessarily different degrees. The further away from the real, everyday “you” your dynamic takes you, the better it is suited to a short-term scene. Most people can’t, and don’t want to, inhabit a “not-me” or “very narrow facet of me” persona at all times. Similarly, the intensity of activity / play / protocol that you can have in a two-hour scene is usually not sustainable 24/7. A scene can be a break from real life, but the longer the time you spend in your dynamic, the more likely that real life will happen, and you need to deal with it as such. If you ignore real life for too long in order to engage in D/s, you will end up with some version of emotional burnout, or facing other, more practical consequences.

As such, if you do want to sustain your dynamic 24/7, the more you can imbue your everyday activities—sleeping, eating, washing, dressing, working, and so forth—with qualities that reinforce the D/s dynamic, the more solidly and soundly it can be lived. It’s much harder to try and create a 24/7 situation that requires a person to leave aside the everyday in order to do the dynamic. Thus: “My Mistress chooses all my clothes for me because she wants me to be pleasing to her eye when she sees me and to reflect her good taste everywhere I go” is much easier to sustain in a healthy, integrated fashion than “My Mistress requires me to be naked at all times, so I had to quit my job.”

Of course, this kind of dynamic does not have the same type of intensity as a scene does; there is no arc of warm-up and release and cool-down, no catharsis, no aftercare. It is a different beast. On the flip side, a 24/7 dynamic allows both people to always be in the kind of headspace they thrive in—if, indeed, they do thrive there—and the all-the-time character of it is its own kind of intensity.

I realize that I’m discussing 24/7 here as though it were different from ownership—two separate points on my list. I do think this is true, or at least that, regardless of the specific vocabulary you use to discuss these topics, that there does exist a type of relationship that I call This Thing, which is focused on ownership and as such is different from any number of other types of otherwise full-time power dynamics. Some people do 24/7 relationships that they don’t articulate as being about ownership. I’m not necessarily the best person to discuss them as I am very ownership-oriented and I don’t think I am likely to ever do 24/7 that didn’t turn into ownership. But others do. I’d actually be curious to learn more about how they work—it’s not like we have a ton of resources laying this stuff out. One form I can think of is the Daddy/boy relationship and its related types, where the dynamic is to varying degrees a parental one. Jack Rinella describes a few other power relationship types in his book Partners in Power. But there isn’t much to refer to.

The one thing that’s true of both This Thing and other types of 24/7 relationships is that they are emphatically not just a super-long-term scene. It is in fact entirely possible to have such a relationship in which no SM play or sex ever take place at all. That said, in the context of 24/7 and This Thing, SM play may happen, and when it does, it may look a whole lot like a regular scene between any other people. The difference is that when these players go back to their everyday lives, those lives are infused with D/s.

The two key lines I see here, within my list, are between 5 and 6—when the dominant’s influence extends beyond the time of actual interaction between the partners—and between 7 and 8—when we shift into an ownership-based model rather than one of two independent entities. These are both key conceptual shifts, and they are the places where things most often get sticky. I think a lot of people engage in D/s that fits somewhere in the 2 to 5 range without ever laying out clearly what they’re trying to do. Two people in the same relationship can be on slightly different points in that range for weeks, months, even years and while it will certainly cause misunderstanding and friction, it’s not necessarily going to break a relationship. But it’s much harder to be at differing points when one of you thinks you’re at a 5 and the other at a 6. And the leap in mindset between 7 and 8 can also take a lot of mental and emotional work to make, with attendant possibilities for difficulty.

I could probably go on musing about this list for quite some time, but I’ll rein myself in for now. I hope it provokes your own musings, and perhaps helps you articulate what the hell it is you’re actually doing (or what you want to be doing, or what you don’t want to be doing!). Above all, if you’re doing D/s at all, I sure as hell hope you’re having a good time with it. Joy is, after all, the whole bloody point. So while I believe we need to take power seriously and discuss it clearly, I also think we need to make sure we don’t forget how to have fun with it along the way.

***

And here are those last three disclaimers:

Third, you might notice that I don’t say much about switches in this post. This isn’t for any lack of respect for switches and the beautiful, complex ways in which they manage D/s dynamics. It’s for the simple reason that I’ve never been in a relationship with someone in which the power dynamic switched, so I am really poorly placed to say anything about how that might work. That said, while I know that some switches like to switch with the same person, I also know that some switches like power dynamics to be constant with each person in their lives but to engage in D/s dynamics with more than one person at once, such that they get to be submissive to one person while dominant to another, for instance. This latter type of switching is perfectly compatible with the list I’m putting out here. For switch dynamics within a given relationship, I will leave the floor to more competent thinkers than myself.

Fourth, you might also notice that I don’t say much about groupings, or poly, or multiples. This is again not an attempt to slight anyone. Rather, I would argue that the points here should simply be multiplied to account for larger groupings. A D/s triad is still made up of three dyads, for example, and each dyad can be located at a point in this list.

Fifth and last—and this is especially relevant in points 2 and those nearby—I’m in no way aiming to imply that all SM play involves D/s. It doesn’t. This list applies only to pairings in which a power dynamic is present and makes no assumptions about any other kind of pervy enjoyment you might like to take outside that framework.

privilege, guilt and the global politics of the sexually different
September 11, 2010

The following is a comment that was just left following my post “‘It’s Not About Sex’ and Other Lies.” It’s incredibly thought-provoking and so I wrote a long response to it, and then I realized that really this should be a post in and of itself.

So, for starters, here’s Marissa’s comment.

***

Thanks for sharing this speech; I was sent the link by a friend.

It expressed a lot of what I didn’t even know I’d been ruminating about!

I guess all I would like to add would be this, which of course goes without saying in some sense, but by the end of reading your post I felt it’s what I needed to comment.

I agree that we who are concerned about these things are doing beautiful and valuable work. Where I struggle, at times, is to see this work as _essential_, in the face of other shit going on in the world that is eroding people’s perhaps more basic (?) rights to food, shelter etc.

Now to hierarchy the needs of humans isn’t that useful. And we need serenity to accept the things we cannot change. I guess the least I can do is acknowledge my incredible blessings/fate/grace/luck that in my world, one of the most difficult things right now is coming out as poly to my family and friends. Not, what to eat or how the fuck to access drinking water.

How do queer, kink, poly etc communities place themselves into the global community which includes: pogroms, malnutrition, all kinds of real exploitation?

I spoke recently to a woman who has been working for over a decade at the local women’s refuge. She takes a zero-tolerance approach to violence. She sees where people allow other people to be violent to them as the beginning of the end; opening themselves up to the risk of non-consensual violence. I know this to be true, but I choose to take the risk. Am I willing to jeopardise her work and message by making my point?

One of the things I struggle with is how to prioritise my own commitment to breaking this shit down, for myself and in the way I live my life, over other kinds of “goods” (e.g. being quiet when it’s not the right time to bring this shit up). How tolerance to the mulitvarious expressions of self that we predominantly see in the relatively affluent part of the world connects with those communities of people who simply don’t have the energy to care about this shit right now.

I don’t think that the kink etc some of us experience is a “more advanced” form of civilisation. I don’t believe, for example, that once societies have a guaranteed basic income, they will as a matter of course, in the fullness of time, have and want the kinks that other societies now have and want.

Meaning to say, I do not expect that societies of people that do not obviously include people who express kinkiness, queerness, poly-ness, whatever either (a) actually do have people who are “like me” / “like us” about these things already in secret, or (b) include any people who will ever want to embrace my understandings of these things.

And despite that non-expectation, the “beautiful and valuable” work of which you speak here I think can resonate and connect with those who don’t even care or want to be queer or poly. Because what we’re really talking about, as you say, is having the room to explore the possibilities of whatever the fuck we want in a base-line consensual level (i.e. at the level that it counts, for us).

In that sense, we commune across kink, across cultures. We find this other community which includes straight / non-kinky people, people who don’t particularly want marriage for love let along sex for kicks, people who are too tired or thirsty for any kind of non-necessary physical activity, but who are nonetheless open to being tolerant… even if not actually tolerant at the time.

I’m not sure what my point is. Just teasing some of my thoughts out, I guess. More or less a variant of a t-shirt slogan I would love to paint up one day: “My family emigrated to a western county and all I got was this lousy white liberal guilt.”

***

And here’s my response…

***

Hi Marissa,

Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

I totally hear you on the questions you’re raising. Sometimes as a sexuality activist and thinker, I find myself wondering if everything I do is all just a form of Western indulgence brought about by my comparatively huge amount of privilege.

And yet… it’s also not that simple.

You asked, “How do queer, kink, poly etc communities place themselves into the global community which includes: pogroms, malnutrition, all kinds of real exploitation?”

I don’t necessarily think there’s one simple answer to this. Except that I know so many queer people, as well as (and overlapping with) kinky and poly people, who are super attuned to social justice here and internationally and who actively work toward making the world a better place way beyond the bounds of sexuality-based communities. Queers are often at the forefront of anti-oppression and international solidarity work, among many other areas. Is it because of their sexuality? Probably not in any direct way, but I can’t help but think that for people who have a really embodied, personal sense of justice and injustice—as sexual minorities often do—it is not a stretch to forge links between that and wider understandings of justice and injustice. I’m not saying all queers are heroes by any stretch, nor all poly or kinky people, but it’s worth thinking about these links nonetheless.

Beyond that, it’s also worth noting that while the terminology, history and social context may be quite different in different countries, same-sex desire and practice, multiple partnerships and non-normative sexual behaviours are not “white things” or things that only happen in North America. I do understand that when someone’s in the middle of a war or a famine, they probably are more interested in escaping violence and getting food than in debating the merits of polyamory or practicing their bondage knots. But from there to thinking that the rich tapestry of human sexual possibility only ever unfolds in peaceful, well-fed and privileged contexts is far from accurate, and to think otherwise denies an essential component of humanity to people from non-Western countries. (It’s not that I think you’re doing this, Marissa, I’m just on a roll here…)

Same-sex-loving and gender-transgressing people (who are sometimes one and the same, and sometimes not) face severe persecution all over the world. Non-monogamous partnerships are common in some cultures, sometimes in ways that are oppressive and sometimes in ways that are not, and (more often than not I suspect) sometimes in complex layers of the two within a given situation; also, a wide range of different types of non-monogamy are often present within a single geographical or social context. (We see that here in North America too, with hip urban swingers’ culture existing a short flight away from hyper-strict Mormon polygamist sects, for example.) For that matter, resistance to both enforced non-monogamy and enforced monogamous marriage is also present in all sorts of places and cultures—the essential piece here being about the right to choose the kinds of relationships that suit us each best regardless of what a given society prescribes.

And while the imagery and language of kink (as it is more or less formally understood) has evolved in a very specific context here in North America, and thus has taken on specific and recognizable forms here, I can’t imagine that we’re the only ones enjoying a wide range of intense bodily sensations, engaging in emotional experiences of vulnerability and control, or eroticizing objects and body parts outside the narrow range of what’s socially approved in any given culture, time and place. It’s entirely possible that in many places across the world, such practices take on extremely different forms, and may be subject to more, less or different types of social opprobrium.

I like how you put it when you wrote, “I don’t think that the kink etc some of us experience is a “more advanced” form of civilisation. I don’t believe, for example, that once societies have a guaranteed basic income, they will as a matter of course, in the fullness of time, have and want the kinks that other societies now have and want.” And I definitely like how you expressed, “I do not expect that societies of people that do not obviously include people who express kinkiness, queerness, poly-ness, whatever either (a) actually do have people who are “like me” / “like us” about these things already in secret, or (b) include any people who will ever want to embrace my understandings of these things.”

But I’d take it a step further even. I’d say that societies all over the world already do include people who transgress the social norms for sexuality and relationships—and those transgressions may not look, in the sense of surface-level visual or linguistic cues, much like the ones we engage in here (though certainly some do). So maybe in those cases we just don’t know what to look for, or can’t see them. Or maybe those transgressions have not led to the development of subcultures dedicated to their practice (though certainly some have). So it’s not so much that people from “other” societies will ever want to embrace “our” understandings—I bet (and in some cases I know) that they’ve already got their own.

I’d venture to say that regardless of geographical location and specific cultural context, a few common themes come up all over the world. The powers that be—and in this day and age, after centuries of colonialism all over the planet, what part of the world is truly free of Western influence in this regard?—generally value certain kinds of genders, certain kinds of sexualities and certain kinds of relationships more than others, and punish those who fail to live up. Violence, coercion, repression, censorship and the like are still tools of oppression used to enforce those norms. People all over the world are told how they’re allowed to love, desire and partner, and what is okay to do with their own bodies vs what is not. These aren’t the experiences of the privileged; they’re overwhelmingly common, and they often come hand in hand with the cultural responses to war, famine and other forms of adversity. Times of war are often times of greatest fear, control and repression at home.

Here in North America, I’m articulating how I think about these things using references and language common to a specific set of subcultural communities, but the message I intend is simpler and, I hope, much more broadly applicable than that. So yes, I do think that doing the work to untangle people’s fucked-up understandings about love, pleasure, pain, fear, vulnerability, power and so forth is essential work, and I think that work has far broader implications and uses than simply to shore up the existing privileges held by (some elements of some) Western sexual minorities.

As for the woman with the zero-tolerance approach to violence, I don’t think you are in any way jeopardizing her work by making your point (or living your kinks, as the case may be). The equation of kink with violence is a deeply flawed and laughably simplistic paradigm that shows a serious misunderstanding of the subject at hand and a refusal to engage in the most basic of critical thinking. Kink isn’t violence, and it isn’t a slippery slope toward violence either. It’s a way of experiencing pleasure, sometimes (though not always) via bodily stimulation. Her equation of kink with violence only stands if she’s also going to consider “violence” to include all team sports (football, hockey, rugby) and all other forms of physical exercise and recreation (hiking, surfing, running, swimming, bodybuilding, yoga, spending time in the sun or the cold), all body modification (tattoos, piercing), many kinds of physical therapy (physio, electro-stim, deep-tissue massage), all direct and most indirect medical intervention (dentistry, surgery, bone-setting and casts, stitches, all drugs), most (if not all) forms of employment (emergency response services, mining, road work, food service, anything that involves lifting, moving or typing), most forms of transportation (walking, cycling, driving, flying), many forms of food and drink (alcohol, dairy, wheat, sugar, hot spice), various types of spiritual practice (fasting, pilgrimage, kneeling), pregnancy and childbirth, and all types of penetrative sex. In short, anything that carries some risk of discomfort or damage to the human body but in which we engage for a wide range of perfectly good reasons nonetheless.

If anyone engages in these activities—any of them!—due to coercion or force, then by all means, condemn the coercion wholesale. Same standard applies to any kinky activity. But if that’s not the case, (your acquaintance should) get over it already, and focus on preventing coercion and force where it’s actually happening rather than inventing it where it’s not. Creating false connections between happy, healthy, mutually pleasurable activity and real-life coercive violence only serves to diminish the very real experiences of violence that some people have, and to dilute the focus that should be placed on ending violence in the world.

Marissa, you say you “know this to be true,” as in, that by engaging in kink practice you are opening yourself up to the risk of non-consensual violence. But this is not “true.” You aren’t putting yourself at risk of non-consensual violence by being kinky, any more than you would be by dating or partnering with someone in a completely vanilla way, or for that matter, making friends with someone at a cocktail party. People don’t need kink to become violent. They just do it. Vanilla people beat up their partners all the time. Date rapists don’t need to dress up in leather and batterers don’t generally carry floggers. Sure, you’ll find those same elements in the kink world like anywhere else, but no more so, and possibly less. You can’t protect yourself by staying away from the kinky people, and you won’t put yourself at risk by spending time with them. You certainly won’t keep yourself safer by denying your sexual inclinations. If you never engage in them, you’ll never get to pick apart or experience how your desires truly work, or to talk about them clearly or express them, or to develop a bodily knowledge of what pleases you and what does not. (I’m not suggesting you’re doing that – as you have said you make the choice to do so – but as a general point this bears saying nonetheless.)

You can mitigate your risk by developing strong instincts about who to trust; by setting good boundaries; by acquiring strong communication skills; by working on the ability to say a powerful “no,” a meaningful “yes” and a detailed “maybe” depending on what you actually want; by learning how to avoid, and confidently defend yourself in, situations of physical assault (get comfortable with leaving a risky situation without apologizing or worrying that you’re not being “nice,” and get comfortable with screaming and hitting if you can’t leave!); and by participating in efforts to change the world’s consciousness about how it’s not acceptable to rape or sexually assault people. None of this will protect you from being attacked (anywhere!), but it sure will give you some valuable tools in interpersonal relationships and help you get out of sticky situations.

I totally get the temptation to get swallowed up in liberal white guilt. And yet, I think there are richer, more productive ways of engaging with the questions you so clearly articulate. The common theme underlying all your questions, I think, is agency. And I think that, if we bear in mind the broad range of realities, cultures and experiences that exist in the world, and act with as much consideration for that as we can at all times, we can both recognize agency, and the struggles for agency, in “other” societies and claim agency for ourselves in our own society without worrying that somehow our sexual and relational proclivities are somehow inherently oppressive to others. They’re not. There is room for all of us here.

“it’s not about sex” and other lies
August 23, 2010

The following is the talk I gave this afternoon at the closing banquet for The Floating World, a supercool (and absolutely massive) sex-positive annual weekend conference in New Jersey. The teaser for the talk read as follows: “This is a talk about the lies we tell ourselves and the rest of the world. It’s a talk in which bullshit will be called, hierarchies challenged and strong statements made. It’s a talk about polyamory, and BDSM, and queerness, but above all, it is most definitely a talk about sex.”

***

Hello everyone. I’m very happy to be here, and I’d like to thank the organizers of Floating World for inviting me to come and present both tonight and throughout the weekend. You are an incredible group of people and I’m honoured to be among you. And I want to extend my congratulations to the people who make events like this happen. They are one helluva lot of work.

One of the things that makes this event unique is that it caters to such a wide variety of people on the sexual fringe. Of course that also makes it a little complicated to come up with a speech that will resonate, or potentially resonate, with everyone. But I like a challenge. So today I’m going to speak to you from my various perspectives all at once. Let me lay those out for you so that you know where I’m coming from.

I’ll do this in the order they showed up for me. So, for starters, I’m a kinky fuck. I’m sure that’s also true for many of you in the room. Me, I’ve known this since I was about two years old. I don’t necessarily buy into the “born with it” story, but at the same time, the first thing I ever knew about my sexuality was that my turn-ons were inextricably bound up with questions of power and pain. I’m not saying this to create a hierarchy in which I must be kinkier than you if I was masturbating to thoughts of torture when I was a toddler and you only figured out your kinks when you were fifteen or thirty or sixty. I’m just saying it because it means that to me, kinky came first, and I don’t know how to have sex any other way.

Next up? I’m queer. But I’m the kind of queer that sometimes upsets other queers. A lot of people use the term “queer” as a sort of 2010 version of “gay and lesbian,” maybe with a bit of genderfucking thrown in to mess with the binary (thank you Judith Butler). For me, queer is a question of mindset. I’m not particularly picky about the genitals of the people I’m drawn to—that’s just plumbing. It means that I tend to not find people attractive when they’re invested in the institution of heterosexuality (as separate from the practice, which can be lots of fun), or in a system that only includes two genders. I find the institution oppressive and the binary reductive and that shit gives me a limp dick.

Concretely, that means that both my gender and sexual practice are all over the map. And that map, in addition to all sorts of gorgeous people who identify as female or as somewhere on the vast and beautiful trans spectrum, also includes male-bodied individuals who still identify as male. For some people, the boundary of queer still stops at homosexuality. As in, you no longer really count as queer if you have sex with someone who’s of the “opposite” sex. But believe you me, when I’m in bed with one of those, what we’re doing is still deeply, deeply queer. And not only if I’ve got my cock down his throat or I’m dressing him up in my lingerie, although that’s fun. Even if we’re in the missionary position.

I’m also a trans ally. For me that does not mean automatically seeing trans people as a subset of the queer population. Why? Because some trans people are straight. In Ontario, the Canadian province where I live, a survey was recently carried out that collected 87 pages of data each from nearly 450 self-identified trans people, which is the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind. You wanna hear a fun figure? It showed that 35% of trans people identified as straight or heterosexual. That tells us two things. First, it tells us that one-third of trans people, at least in Ontario, aren’t queer. They’re your average straight person who happens to have been born in a body that didn’t match their sense of themselves. But it also tells us that 65% of trans people do identify as something other than heterosexual or straight—gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, questioning and more. This becomes relevant when we look at the kind of transphobia that still comes up in the queer world. You know, the one that likes to call itself GLB…T. I wrote an article on the initial results of the survey for Xtra, the national queer newspaper. And the reader comments that came up after the article—I just read them this morning—and they made me incredibly sad. One woman wrote, “Perhaps the trans community could come up with their own media so there can be some refocusing on our issue of sexual orientation.” I guess she missed the fact that 65% of trans people are, broadly speaking, some sort of queer. That makes “them”—or at least two thirds of them—into “us.”

I’m polyamorous. I am a member of a queer triad. For me, poly is a worldview and even a spiritual perspective, not just a way of doing romantic relationships. It informs the way I approach my friendships, my work, my community. But in addition to being polyamorous in the sense of having multiple loving relationships at once, I also engage in a broader kind of non-monogamy, meaning that I happily (very happily) play with and fuck people I do not love.

Now that last one brings me to the title of this talk, which is “‘It’s Not About Sex’ and Other Lies.” So the first thing I want to do here is unpack the idea of lies, because as a person who values honesty and trust above all else, I do not use that word lightly.

I think that when people lie, it’s generally for a specific reason. Omitting the compulsive liars out there, who simply do it because they always do, I think we lie because we think it will get us something more quickly or more easily than telling the truth. So when we say “that dress looks great on you” when it doesn’t, we’re doing it for a few benefits. First, it keeps a relationship smooth when a different answer to that little question might have made it rocky, in the moment; it allows us to avoid unpleasant conflict. Second, it allows us to make someone feel good. Third, it allows us to look good ourselves—“look, I’m such a nice guy, I’m giving a compliment.”

Now, I still don’t advocate lying about a partner’s dress, but even so, I can admit that it’s a relatively small matter to by lying about. But it still has consequences. It might keep a relationship smooth in the moment, but if the person who’s being lied to realizes there’s a lie going on, it erodes trust. If I look in the mirror after receiving a compliment of that sort, and I realize that there’s actually a chocolate stain on my dress, or the seam is straining because I gained some weight, I will start to wonder why my partner didn’t just say so—I asked because I wanted their opinion, not because I wanted to have my ego coddled. What else might they be lying about, if something so small and simple is approached that way? And how will we ever learn to deal with our conflict points if we avoid them? Beyond that, while that lie may have made me feel good in the moment, it’s a very hollow kind of way to feel good; and if it made the liar look good in the moment, well, that only lasts as long as the lie isn’t exposed.

If we take that model for the benefits of lying, we can start to see why some of our lies are a tempting strategy, but we can also see why that strategy starts to fail.

So what are the lies I’m talking about?

Well, let’s start with a simple one, and one we’ve probably heard a lot: “Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, queer people are just like everyone else.”

Okay, on some level this is true. We’re just like everyone else in that we’re human, we eat food and breathe air and drink water and shit poo, we work and play and rest, we have dreams and ambitions and challenges like anyone else. Fair enough. But when people say this, they’re usually trying to make it seem as though you could just take the average nuclear family photograph, remove the male half of the couple, insert a female replacement, and proceed, with all other assumptions intact.

And I argue that we absolutely can’t do that. Doing that, or trying to, erases all the realities we live in. For starters, we live in a culture that’s heavily weighed down by misogyny—by the hatred of the feminine and the female. This doesn’t mean we have seen no progress, because we certainly have. But just listen to the way we talk. You throw like a girl. What are you, a sissy? That’s so girly. You’re such a pussy. This language is available to us because no matter how individually progressive we may be, our culture still devalues the feminine.

Our culture devalues the feminine and sees it as the necessary counterpart to the masculine; the feminine is the background against which masculinity defines itself. A man is only a real man when he’s nothing like a woman. The people who hate queers hate us because our very existence challenges that little set-up. If a woman can be substituted for a man in the picture, or a man substituted for a woman, then the whole precarious structure starts to fall over. Which should have us asking: if the structure is that fragile, why are we buying into it in the first place?

Any strategy that tries to pretend we’re all alike is a strategy that only works in a vacuum, and ignores all the many issues that we face, as queers, which make our lives and our experience extremely different from the rest of the world. I come from Canada, where same-sex marriage has been a fact of life for several years now, and you know what? It didn’t solve all our problems. It just made certain privileges easier to access for people who generally had a lot of privilege in the first place.

Kids still show up at the queer street youth drop-in that my boy runs because they’ve been kicked out of their homes for being queer or trans or both. Doctors are still under-educated about some of our most basic sexual practices and the risks they may or may not include, like, say, cunnilingus. Queers, alongside many other groups with legitimate political agendas, are still brutally assaulted by cops and jailed for peacefully protesting, as we saw in the recent G20 mess in Toronto which featured the country’s largest mass arrest in decades. Our health is still affected by the strain of living in a homophobic world, with queer people facing much higher rates of smoking, depression and other issues. Written words and images that depict our sexualities are still censored, underfunded and suppressed. We’re still harassed at work and bashed on the streets.

And that’s just the bad stuff. As a grad student working in the realm of history, I can attest to the incredibly rich and textured past of queer people and queer cultures. It’s a mistake to look into the past, see evidence of same-sex experience and simply equate it with the stuff we get up to today. But at the same time, that history represents the precedents of a culture that many, if not all, queer people still participate in today. The current renaissance of butch-femme identities among dykes, for example, is exactly that—a renaissance. It’s not new. People have been doing it for decades, if not centuries. And we take what we know of our pasts and we blend that with the cultures and technologies and ideas we have today in creative ways every day; that past merges with the present and informs how we understand ourselves and how we create new ways of being. Today’s butch and femme are not the butch and femme of 1942, much like today’s drag queen is not New York’s fairy from 1890. But our identities in 2010 could not exist without the ones that came before us. We have a complex history that informs a complex and evolving culture. And while that history and that culture may not resonate with every person out there who’s interested in having same-sex sex, we can’t dismiss it as the realm of just a few isolated people, either.

When we say that “queers are just like everyone else,” we erase that history. And you know, if you’re not into history, that’s your prerogative. But in saying such things, we also erase the present. We erase the fact that our health, our families, our work situations, our communities really do have distinct characteristics and distinct challenges. And in erasing those challenges, making like they’re not important or notable or worthy of mention, we’re doing the homophobes’ job for them. We’re buying into their system—a system into which we can only truly fit if we erase enough of ourselves that we don’t even really exist anymore.

I’m going to move on to some other lies now. I’m going to talk a bit about the lies we tell in the BDSM and leather communities.

One of the lies I hear a lot, particularly in intro-level BDSM books and classes, is that “BDSM is not about pain.” That one comes hand-in-hand with a couple of others, so I’ll try to tackle them as a package. That package includes the lie, “It’s not really real, we’re just role-playing.” And there’s also my perennial favourite, “Everything we do is consensual.”

Now let me say up front that I definitely know people for whom BDSM really isn’t about pain. They don’t like pain, and not even in that I-like-what-I-don’t-like sort of way. And I also definitely know people for whom BDSM is all about the role-play. They want to be puppies and ponies and dirty uncles and little girls and nasty mobsters and pirates and wenches and Catholic schoolgirls and nuns, and all kinds of other crazy shit. They’re awesome and beautiful and sometimes they’re absolutely the life of the party.

But I would argue that even if these things are true for some of us, the fact that they’re not true for all of us means that using those statements is a problematic way of explaining ourselves to the outside world. It sets up a situation where we take the most palatable forms of kink—the kind that doesn’t really hurt, that isn’t really risky, and that’s all just a big game of let’s-pretend—and we put that forth as an explanation of how really, in the end, we’re not actually perverts, we’re just, y’know, creative types. Who like to dress up in shiny things sometimes, and play, like theatre, and isn’t that fun?

That means we’re setting up a hierarchy in which the people who are the furthest out on the fringe—the full-time master/slave couples, the people who get off when they’re being tortured or humiliated, the people who do heavy body modification or highly risky play, are the bad guys. The weird ones over in the corner there, who make the rest of us look bad.

I know that when I see a 101 manual that tells the rest of the world, and even the freshly hatched kinksters coming into my communities, that we don’t really enjoy pain, I feel erased. I feel as though I’m being told that my kinks are things I should be ashamed of. They’re not fit for public consumption. They’re weird and dangerous and they’re most certainly not good PR.

I call bullshit. I want it to be up-front and centre that while some of us are not interested in pain at all, some of us definitely are. That we’re working to dismantle the emotional, cultural and even medical and legal understandings of pain and hurt and harm, that we’re exploring and disentangling and recoding the meanings we place on the experience of pain, that we’re doing that work with our minds and our bodies and our spirits and our sexualities, and that this is beautiful and valuable work.

Same goes for this question of role play. For some people, getting to be someone they’re not, for a little while, is a great relief. Or hell, it’s just fun. Plus, the costumes are fabulous. For some of us, though, our kink is not about escapism, or about taking on a persona that’s an exaggerated or narrowed version of ourselves; it’s about intensification, deepening of who we are. It’s about broadening that into our daily lives. It’s about everyday power management inherent in ongoing D/s and M/s relationships, and the challenges of doing that ethically, humbly, in relationships with people with whom we take our power dynamics well outside the container of a focused scene space.

Those of us who do full-time M/s relationships are often both admired and reviled in the kink scene. Some people see full-time M/s as the be-all and end-all of what it is that we do; the pinnacle, the thing we all dream of and fantasize about. Others see it as inherently unhealthy, codependent, abusive, dangerous and probably a little bit crazy. Or maybe a lot crazy. Now, I am the last person who’ll try to convince you that there’s no abuse in the kink scene. There is, absolutely. There’s also a lot of simple ineptness, and human error—which of course has increasingly serious consequences depending on how intense the risks are. But that’s not the same thing as saying that M/s is bad.

At the same time, I’m not interested in creating a reverse hierarchy, where the cool kids are the pain sluts, and the more you can take the hotter you are. I’m not interested in making fun of the non-pain people as lightweights or as not really kinky. Not in the least. And I’m also not interested in saying that the M/s people are better than the D/s people who are better than the role-players. This isn’t a question of worth. It’s a question of each of us having our own perfectly valid kinks, that bring their own perfectly valid challenges with them, and their own perfectly valid pleasures.

What I am saying is that as we intersect with a world full of people who don’t yet understand what we do and who we are, we aren’t doing ourselves any favours by putting on a good face and only trotting out the kinks and the people who are easiest to digest. No real understanding can come of it. Much like if I went out in a dress with a chocolate stain on it, someone will eventually notice that something’s not quite right. People will notice that they’re not getting the whole story. It makes us look duplicitous and insincere. It alienates people from each other within our communities as much as it misrepresents us to others. It doesn’t build trust.

I think we also fail to build trust, both within our communities and outside them, when we insist that everything we do is consensual, and stop the discussion there. I’ve often said that for me, consent is the baseline, the sine qua non of anything I do—and I’m not talking about kink. I’m talking about life. I’m not going to drive someone’s car without permission and negotiation any more than I would have sex with them or spank them without permission and negotiation. I bet most of you feel the same way. So now that we’ve all established that we’re human beings with generally good intentions, let’s talk about reality.

In reality, consent is messy and complicated. We communicate to the best of our ability and there is still misunderstanding, unexpected circumstances, emotions we couldn’t have predicted, sensations that feel different than they did last time. Relationships shift, words don’t mean the same thing to everyone, risks come up that we hadn’t accounted for. I am not bringing any of this up to justify non-consensual behaviour. My point is that we hide behind this idea that what we do is consensual when it’s actually a really poor shield. So rather than talking about consent, I’d rather talk about communication skills, listening skills, awareness, education, informed choice about risk. These are human concerns common to any kind of relationship, and in that sense, BDSM is not different.

Beyond that, I take issue with the idea that we insist so strongly on the concept of consent BDSM because I think it puts us on the defensive and lets the vanilla world get away with appearing to be problem-free. The reason we have grasped onto consent so strongly is because we’ve been told that our practices are hyper-risky and freaky and frightening. It’s almost like we’re seen as monstrous, so we must need to build extremely strong cages to contain ourselves. And you know, in some cases, that’s accurate. Some of us do engage in pretty risky play, and I absolutely support the idea that as your risk level goes up, so should the care you take toward safety and the intensity of your negotiation and the depth of your awareness and the weight of your consent.

But you know what? The real monster is way, way bigger than the blood players and the erotic asphyxiation fetishists. The truth is that plain old body-to-body sex is risky. If I flog someone, I do not run the risk of getting them pregnant. If I tie them up, I am not going to transmit hepatitis C. Face-slapping and verbal humiliation are highly unlikely to infect anyone with HIV. But having standard-issue penis-to-vagina sex—now that shit can kill you! And it’s often some of the most poorly negotiated, least talked about and questionably consensual sexual behaviour out there on the market. So why, exactly, is the onus on BDSMers to be more consensual than everyone else?

So I’m interested in having realistic conversations about what we get up to, both within our communities and when we’re doing our PR. I’m interested in turning the tables when people think what I do is terrifyingly risky and that it requires special skills to navigate well. I’d rather challenge the whole world develop the kind of skills we spend so much time working on in the BDSM world, because what the rest of the world does can itself be terrifyingly risky, it’s just not acknowledged as such. I’d rather tell everyone having any kind of sex or play or relationship to engage in the kind of risk assessment and safety approaches we think are important, rather than holding that feature of our communities up to justify why we’re not actually really scary perverts after all.

I’m interested in putting out the kind of message that embraces the diversity of what we do and finds ways to communicate about it without being defensive. It’s about acknowledging that the BDSM, leather and kink communities encompass a full spectrum of people’s relationships to power and pain, and that we’re each on our own journey, and that we come together as a community—a loosely affiliated web of many sub-groups and sub-sub-groups—to help each other along on those journeys. I’m not interested in being admired for the extremity of my kinks on the one hand while being sanitized out of existence on the other. I am a whole person. I am a human being, like every one of you out there, who’s just trying to get it right, to live in a way that’s true to myself, to understand concepts and practices and people who aren’t like me, and to learn what I can from them and offer what I can in return. And I would challenge us, as a bunch of perverts who often do fetishize good communication, to find ways to communicate that to the outside world as such, rather than picking the easy things to explain and sweeping the rest of it under the rug.

Here’s another lie that’s been coming up a lot lately: Polyamory is not about sex.

Now, I can understand that on some level, there is a distinction between having sex outside the context of an ongoing romantic relationship, and having sex within that context. And of course, I would generally agree that it’s probably unhealthy to pathologically pursue empty, meaningless or compulsive sex with strangers that leaves you feeling used or worthless.

But once again, this kind of thinking is all about a weak defence tactic. People often seem to think that the only way to deal with clueless non-poly folks’ assumptions—i.e. that poly is ALL about sex, that sex must be the only reason to do polyamory—is to go too far in the other direction and say “it’s not about sex at all.”

In truth, poly relationships are as much about sex as any non-poly romantic relationship is—which is to say, a lot! This is not to diss the asexuals out there. But most of us are hardly making a claim to asexuality.

Beyond that, we’re certainly not having problems with anti-polygamy laws, multiple-partner immigration cases, child custody and society’s general prejudice for all those multiple *non-sexual* relationships we get into. The whole reason polyamory bothers people is that we’re having sex. Otherwise we’d just be a bunch of friends hanging out, and everyone does that.

Further, what bothers people about polyamory is that we’re having sex with multiple people and telling the truth about it. Because don’t you know, we’re supposed to be ashamed of it? We’re supposed to do it behind closed doors, when we’re working late or when our partner is out of town. The very concept that sex with multiple partners could be a shameless, accepted, encouraged part of our lives is terrifying to anyone who wants to keep it hidden.

Of course sex may or may not be the first or even the most important thing we seek out in a romantic relationship. Real life does happen, and partnerships don’t last if they’re built on sex alone; we are, of course, whole human beings. We want to spend our lives with people who get us, with whom we can share a home harmoniously, and with whom we can enjoy dinner and a movie and a good conversation and maybe a vacation once in a while. But from there to saying we’re not here for sex is simply not true. And it’s a very shaky tactic to be employing when we are trying to explain ourselves to the world.

Another related tactic I’ve seen is when poly people (and non-poly people, for that matter) dress up sex in spirituality as though somehow that makes it less dirty. This is not to say that spirituality is bad. I truly believe that sex can be sacred, that sexual energy moves through our bodies in ways that can open us to the divine, that the body can be a path into the spirit. At the same time, I am often uncomfortable with the messages that I hear in sacred sexuality circles. I hear language that’s about honouring and embracing and celebrating, when in fact it sometimes feels more like it’s about excluding and judging and refusing to see the diverse ways that people engage with spirituality in their sex. Janet Kira Lessin is a leader within the World Polyamory Association, and a tantric sex coach. I’ll quote an essay she wrote about three years ago, just to give you an idea of what I mean:

“Even though we respect & embrace our sensuality, we are not swingers or polysexuals, so we don’t focus on the sexual or disrespect the very essence of sexuality & all its glory. We aren’t swingers, so we don’t use swinger terms & for the most part, most polyamorous people would never use the words… slut, whore, queer, fag etc. These are derogatory & demeaning to a person’s character plus in no way to these words have a positive meaning behind them. We use the words “love”, “long term relationships” & commitment when we talk. We aren’t crude, rude & talk about sex 24/7.”

To me, that sounds incredibly holier than thou. That tells me that she and many people who think like she does really want to draw a line in the sand in which the sluts, whores, queers and fags are on the outside, and the spiritual and loving polyamorous people are on the inside. It’s okay to talk about love and relationships, but it’s not okay to talk about sex. It’s okay to use words like “share” or “sacred” or “spirit” but not to use words like “fuck” and “beat” and “suck.” It’s spiritual to commit to someone, and profane to cruise. I’ve heard that kind of hierarchy in other places and I don’t trust it for a second. My relationships are sacred and my sex is spiritual, but my polyamory does not happen on the other side of a fence with the freaks and sex radicals safely at a distance. I am a queer. My community is made up of sluts and whores and fags. Those people are not “them,” they are “us.” And whatever our sexuality looks like, it’s just as legitimate as that of the people who choose to follow traditional Tantra or any other sex-positive spiritual path.

Beyond the question of spirituality, it seems like there’s a subset of poly folks who are so intent upon the “purity” of poly that they forget—or would like to forget—the natural human instinct to fuck, committed relationships or no. Sometimes sex is deep and meaningful, sometimes it’s superficial and fun. Sometimes it happens in the context of a 20-year-long marriage, sometimes it happens with a person you’ve known for 2 hours and will never see again. Sometimes it’s rough and fast, sometimes it’s sweet and sensual. Attributing validity to only one kind of it, and only then behind closed doors and closed mouths, only serves to alienate the people who are proudly poly and do their sex in other ways (often in addition to, not instead of, the long-term committed kind), and to dismiss the incredible richness and power of other kinds of experiences.

Speaking for myself, I can say that some of the most amazing, affirming and life-changing sexual experiences I’ve ever had have been with people who were not my committed partners. The first woman I ever kissed, I spent one night with and never kissed again. (Of course we’re dykes, so we’re still in touch on Facebook ten years later.) I learned to ejaculate because a guy I had a one-night stand with told me he could feel that my body was ready to do it, and explained how he could tell. I found out just how much I love the attention of foot and shoe fetishists because of an exquisite one-time-only scene with a male submissive—the first person to ever treat my body from the knees down as though it were the most beautiful part of me rather than focusing on my tits and ass. I had my first taste of D/s service in a scene I did with someone I’d just met while I was on vacation in a different country, and that set me on a path of D/s and M/s relationships that has continued ever since; today I have a wonderful leather family made up in some part of my former submissives and their constellations, and I’m the owner of an amazing boy in an M/s dynamic that, ten years ago, I never even dreamed was possible.

I can think of much more productive conversations to be having. Rather than talking about how non-sexual and committed and really non-threatening we are as poly people, I’d rather talk about the kinds of ethics we try to bring to our relationships. From there, I’d like to talk about how to extend those ethics to every kind of relationship we have—how to treat a casual sex partner with as much respect and care as we would a long-term lover, how to take all those amazing communication skills we try to develop and put them to use in navigating temporary connections with as much grace as we do multiple-partner living situations.

I realize that I come to my poly from a place of queerness, where because of a long history of oppression, of being told our sex is bad, many of us hold onto and defend the beauty of our sexuality with great ferocity. I come to it from a place of kink, where we spend tons of time talking about how to play and have sex in ways that feel good to us. But whether you’re kinky or queer or poly, all of the above or none of the above, I invite you to join me in refusing to buy into any variety of “sex is bad” or “sex is less than,” no matter whose mouth it comes out of. Whether it’s conservative lawmakers, or our intimate partners; the American Psychological Association or our community leaders; the Religious Right or the sacred sexuality proponents.

When we sanitize who we are and try to present the “best” face, we’re actually creating a hierarchy that doesn’t reflect who we are and that pits us against each other instead of against the people who try to tell us that how we live is shameful. When we do this as a community, it’s the same thing as when we do it individually—de-gaying your house when your aunt visits, or pretending your second partner is just your roommate when the neighbour’s around—and it hurts us individually just as much.

I think if there’s anything I want you to take away from this talk, it’s to question the easy defensive statements we sometimes make, to avoid slipping into those lies, and to convey a richer and more complicated truth instead.

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