Archive for the ‘sex geek teachings / speakings’ Category

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

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

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Three reasons people hate Fifty Shades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On coolness and community

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

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

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

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

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

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

On kink and consumerism

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

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

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

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

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

So… why is it sexy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crazy and criminal: the kinky characters of Fifty Shades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The charmed circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

On contracts and punishments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oppression: not so sexy

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

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

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

smutlets
June 19, 2011

Well, it worked. You guys are awesome. I got a steady stream of erotica theme ideas from you all of last week and they were definitely inspiring! Thank you for all the great ideas. I may well use more of them for writing fodder in the future. For now, though, this week I wrote up seven short-short stories which I am calling “smutlets.” They each took between five and fifteen minutes, no more. I read three of them tonight at the Boston launch party for Issue 2 of Salacious Magazine to some very kind applause. And money. I’ve never had money tossed at me at a reading before, but I could get used to it. And I didn’t even have to take off my clothes!

As promised, I’m posting all of this week’s stories below, each prefaced with the theme idea that inspired it and with thanks to the person who submitted that idea. Warning! They are explicit, at least some of them – so if you’re not up for reading smut, stop now. For the rest of you… I hope you enjoy. If you don’t like one, scroll down a paragraph or two and try the next one!

***

Innocence (Thanks Kitty!)

She’d never found innocence to be particularly sexy. It was always so much more interesting when the person she was currently pursuing was in fact older and more experienced than herself. That way, she could be relatively certain that he or she would be unlikely to find her exotic tastes entirely surprising; she would not put someone off by the sheer force of her imagination. Consequently, she’d never attempted to demonstrate any sort of innocence herself. In fact she had endeavoured, since age 12 or thereabouts, to be as worldly as possible. Even when it meant engaging in sexual antics that were not particularly to her immediate taste, she made a point of trying just about everything at least twice, sometimes three times, before deciding whether or not she’d add it to her growing list of proclivities. Knowledge, after all, was power.

But this one, the gray-haired dyke she’d spotted hanging out at the hotel bar at lunchtime, appeared to be of a different sort. In fact the woman looked oddly familiar, and Elizabeth realized it was because the woman’s face had appeared in the paper not terribly long ago. She was a private college teacher and had been brought up on charges of sexually harassing a young female student. Barely eighteen. It had all blown over fairly quickly, but not before her face had been plastered on the front page—turns out the girl’s parents were very short on tuition payments and, in a display of shameful cowardice mixed with the confidence that homophobia would still be effective in 2011, had concocted the whole accusation as a way of trying to get out of their debt. But Elizabeth sensed there might be some truth to the story.

Thank goodness she’d grown her hair. Thank goodness there was a secondhand store just down the block, where she’d managed to quickly find a kilt and a burgundy blazer. Thank goodness she could pitch her voice a little higher than it naturally fell, widen her eyes a bit, pretend to be young and shy. She was only 25, so it wasn’t too terribly much of a stretch.

She waited outside the bar. Innocent young things didn’t hang about inside places like that. She pretended to read a battered copy of The Catcher In the Rye she’d snapped up at the bookstore on the corner. She made sure her lipstick was shiny and pink—no blood-red today. She made sure her kilt revealed just enough thigh. She made sure to drop her book just as the grey-haired dyke stepped out of the bar.

The old dyke was innocent. But Elizabeth? Not a chance.

***

Unreachable (Thanks Matthew!)

I tried to call you. I swear I did. First your land line, two or three times. Then I realized it was Wednesday night so you might be at poker night with your friends. So I tried your cell phone. I left a message, but I know you don’t usually check them. I called twice more. Then I texted. “Met someone. Want to get to know them. Please call.” No response. By that time she was pressing herself into me, and my back was up against the bar. I broke the first rule, I let her kiss me, I knew you might be mad but her lips were chiselled and smooth like warm stone and her tongue just melted inside my mouth and I couldn’t stop myself.

I made an excuse, I went to the bathroom, took my phone with me. I looked you up on Facebook, waited the agonizing seconds as I pissed hard and hot and the app took forever to load. I found your profile, sent you a message there. “Situation dire. Please call. So turned on.” For good measure I also DMed you on Twitter: “Trying to respect our rules. Please call.”

By the time I got back to the bar, that song was playing, you know the one that really gets me going. And she was there waiting, with her mouth still wet and her fingers curling impatiently, waiting to dart under my skirt.  And they did. Right there at the bar, she slid them up under the fabric and fucked me, and I let her, I let her do it, and she did it fast and skilfully, and I moaned in her ear and came with her two fingers hooked inside my cunt and her thumb pressed just hard enough against my clit. She pulled out and licked my juices off before taking another sip of whiskey and kissing me with the burning liquid still in her mouth.

I swear I tried. I didn’t want to break our rules. But she was so damn hot, and I tried for seven whole minutes, and you were just unreachable.

***

Sexy male librarian (Thanks Tomasz!)

It was always especially nice when they came with specialized training. The carpenter had done wonders in her kitchen; the mechanic had her motorcycle purring like new after the first two visits. But she’d never expected to get the chance to enjoy the services of a hunky man with a master’s degree in library science.

Too bad he was gay. On extended loan to her from his master, who was working abroad for his straight job for a year and unable to justify bringing his boy-toy along. So, by all rights, hers to use as she pleased. But yes—gay as the day is long, and none too fond of women, either.

Still, that was hardly sufficient to deter her from fully enjoying her new toy. She told him he was expected every Sunday afternoon at four for two hours of service. His task? To design and implement a cataloguing system for her extensive and eclectic library on sexuality and gender. If he performed it to her satisfaction, she would reward him with a treat. That his “treat” was at least as much her own was none of his affair. His new mistress, of course, held the key to the cock cage imposed by his master that kept him from beating his meat the other six days of the week. So really, it was best that he concentrate.

He hated her.

The first time, after dealing with the biographies and autobiographies, he earned a half-hour of simple masturbation, under her watchful eye. The second week, working on the pre-1940 sexology section, he performed his task in nothing but a rope harness and a rather uncomfortably large butt plug, after which he was permitted an attempt at self-fellation. He failed, predictably. That’s what you get for including Kinsey, he snarled at himself later that night as he performed an online search for nearby yoga studios.

The third and fourth weeks, he did well enough with the French erotica and the Japanese bondage porn, and was permitted to masturbate to near-orgasm three times each before she allowed him, finally, a blessed explosion. The fourth time, thanks to his deft distinction between the traditional and the modern Japanese-American hybrid styles, she was even so kind as to carefully place clamps on his nipples and rip them off at precisely the moment he lost control, so the sweet pain sent him over the edge. He could almost begin to forget she was a woman, with that disgusting gash between her legs, so badly did he begin to crave the release she offered.

And then, one day, when he arrived, she had him strip, administered an enema (oh, the painful, delicious fullness, and the utter humiliation of having it provided by a feminine hand) and waited until he was clean and dry. When he reached the library, naked but for the cock cage, there were five other men in it already. Thick-bodied, muscular, dark-haired men.

His mouth began to water.

“Get it right, you’ll be fucked into next week,” she explained. “Make a mistake, and they’ll fuck each other while you watch, and you’ll be sent home untouched.”

And, with a grin, she set him to work on the female arousal and anatomy section, and settled in to watch.

***

Surprise! (Thanks Nick!)

Even if he knew it was coming, even when he’d done everything short of beg for it, the slap always felt like a surprise. It made his breath catch in his throat, his ears ring ever so faintly, his skin tingle and redden.

Malcolm was usually so reserved. When Jay had first met him, he’d been dressed in a grey suit, a pale blue shirt, a conservative tie. Their first few dates had been traditional almost to the point of being quaint—a Fellini film, dinner at the Carlton, the new season’s ballet. Jay never would have expected Malcolm to have a wild side. Well, he wasn’t really that wild. Not for him the whips and chains; the only leather he wore was his autumn coat, a rich chestnut brown lined in fine silk. But he was… well, something, all right.

His first surprise came a few months into their relationship. They were well on their way to moving in together. They were getting together for dinner and Jay, for the third time that week, had forgotten to bring the wine. Only this time, they’d had two conversations about it already, and Jay had promised he wouldn’t do it again. Not only that, but it was Emma’s birthday—Malcolm’s sister—and Malcolm had ferreted out her favourite grape, and asked Jay to pick up a bottle as a surprise for her. When Jay showed up empty-handed, Malcolm’s jaw set and those little lines formed between his eyes. Jay instantly felt terrible, and began to apologize profusely. Malcolm told him to stop. “I don’t want to hear any more apologies,” he said in a clipped tone.

Jay moved in closer. “I’ll make it up to you,” he said. “I’m so sorry, I—“

And he was abruptly cut off by Malcolm’s palm as it connected, quick and hard, with his jaw. Jay was so shocked he immediately fell silent. Malcolm’s face fell, and a look of horror began to dawn in his eyes. But Jay was at least partly in shock because, as the crack of skin against skin still reverberated in the air, he was realizing that his cock had sprung up so desperately hard it was almost painful.

“Oh my god,” said Malcolm. “Jay, I didn’t mean… I’m so…”

But Jay interrupted him, managing to choke out the word “Please…” before falling to his knees and fumbling at Malcolm’s fly. As he tongued the head of Malcolm’s cock and felt it begin to swell in his mouth, his thoughts raced. What the hell was this about? But all he could really focus on was his overwhelming need to swallow Malcolm’s cock, to take it deep down his throat where it belonged, to milk it of its seed, to atone. To atone.

Malcolm spurted against Jay’s palate, and the hot jet of fluid was met with a second one, as Jay’s cock convulsed in his pants without so much as a single stroke. Just then, the buzzer rang. Emma had arrived, and Jay escaped to the bedroom to change into a pair of Malcolm’s trousers before slipping out to the wine store for exactly the right bottle.

They never talked about it. Months went by. But it happened again. And over eight years, it kept happening. Sometimes twice in a month. Sometimes a year between. Every time, the sharp, lightning crack of Malcolm’s sure hand. Every time, Jay’s aching need to make up for a wrong, to please, to satisfy. The act became a ritual. But the slap always came by surprise.

***

Something accidental (Thanks Anika!)

It happened by accident. She ordered the coffee, the server spilled it in a moment of carelessness. There was fumbling, apologizing. The offer of a towel, a firm request for help, a trip to the bathroom. And now they were squeezed into a too-small, neon-lit box, uncomfortably close but still more awkward than the situation really warranted. A soaked shirt was removed, a black lace bra looked cheap in the bad lights. The scent of artificially floral soap was too pungent in the tiny space, the sink was too cramped. She caught the smell of the server’s sweat, nervousness. There was more fumbling. Another apology. And quickly, a kiss. The taste of a new mouth. A release of breath. A groan. A knee gently parting legs, hips coming together, denim against food-stained polyester, tongue stud clicking lip ring, tattoos brushing black and red and turquoise against one another. Smooth palm to shaved scalp, chipped nails against a hard back. A button released, a zipper peeling down like the sound of paper tearing. Brisk fingers sank into juicy flesh, past short-trimmed hair, deeper in, catching metal, plunging past. A groan climbed high near a sensitive ear. Fast thrusting. A word or two, just enough, and a flat, wiry belly clenched between a wall and a soft-curved hip. She didn’t leave a tip.

***
Hot wax (Thanks Aurora!)

The hot wax dripped against her back, burning like liquid fire, cooling instantly but leaving a tingling, wet sensation behind. Hot pain, trickle, breathe. Hot pain, trickle, breathe.  A rhythm began to take hold. She imagined that the wax would soon cover her entire body, a gradual, painstaking envelopment, like being slowly bound in a carefully woven cocoon. She felt the waxen coat begin to form. Hot pain, trickle, breathe. Each tiny flash of heat began to melt into the next one, with the piercing feeling of each new burn overlapping with the blissful relief as the last one dissipated, until her skin felt like a single exposed organ beating to the time of the drips. The melted-together sensations turned into a blur, a floating, a running together. Her body was being encased, bit by bit. Her waist, her arms. Drip after drip. Hot pain, trickle, hot, breathe, trickle, pain, hot. Breathe, breathe. Breathe. Elbows, wrists, fingertips. The soles of her feet. Her scalp, her eyes, the base of her throat, the backs of her thighs. Soon there was no more skin. No sound. Her body was coated, bound, encased, but the rest of her was reborn. Her wings unfurled, she broke free, she stretched. Stood at the edge and leapt. The blur of sensation was an ocean, an empty sky, it became nothingness. She soared, she swam. She left her hardened shell behind. When later on he peeled it off her, using the flat of a knife blade and the tip of a whip, all dominant and demanding, he discovered, much to his dismay, that she was no longer there.

***
Loud high heels (Thanks Ruth!)

The sound is kind of like a click, or a snap, or maybe a quick hard slap. She remembers when she first discovered the power of that sound, the authority it conveyed. She’d been all of eight years old, with brand new shoes, the kind with the hard plastic soles that made a noise when she walked, unlike the sneakers she was used to. She had left French class with a hall pass, and on the way back from the bathroom, the rap of her heels on the flecked fake-granite floor made another kid jump and look up from his locker with a guilty face. Oh, she realized. He thought I was a teacher. And he was afraid.

From that point onward she asked her mother for only the hard plastic soles. By ten, she’d taught herself to walk with firmer, more certain steps, to take up space in the hallway. At twelve, she stole her mother’s patent leather pumps—already a size too small—and practiced on the patio, learning to trust the heel, learning to flex her ankles, tuck in her belly, hold her shoulders back and her head high. At sixteen, she bought her first pair of three-inchers. By eighteen it was four. By twenty, those twin four-inch spikes had found their way down dark staircases and into dank dungeons, supporting her stride across lumpy concrete floors and, for a few months after she left home and needed some cash, the gleaming marble tiles of some of the most expensive hotel lobbies in the city.

By twenty-four, the heels that cracked the silence of a night-time sidewalk as easily as they clicked against the hardwood floors of the design firm office had also found their way into softer places, like the depths of a rectum, the wet pink of a willing mouth or two, and even, by twenty-six, the occasional dripping cunt. She became a collector. She built extra shelves into her closet. She learned to stretch her hamstrings. She forgot that she was only five foot three. She found the word “femme.”

The sound is kind of like a click, or a snap, or maybe a quick hard slap. It reminds her that she has every right—every fucking right in the world—to walk without fear.

happy 2011! and sorry for being a deadbeat.
January 2, 2011

Hey, friends and strangers. I hope the first day of 2011 has treated you well, and that the rest of the year does too! For me it has involved too much sugar and not enough yoga, but I’ll remedy that situation tomorrow.

So… I’ve missed you. I last posted here about three months ago, which kinda makes me cringe when I think about it. I have only two words to explain my absence: grad school. Y’know, while I’m super happy that I got into and am finishing an MA program, and even super happier that I got into and have started a PhD program, allow me to give you some unsolicited advice. If you ever have the chance to finish a master’s degree AT THE SAME TIME as you undertake a PhD course load? DON’T. Just don’t. Trust me on this one, ‘kay?

Also, if you know anyone who’s giving away free money these days, send ‘em my way. Holy crap does grad school ever = broke. Yowza.

Anyway. I still had some room for fun in the fall, and I hope you did too. Among other things, the fourth edition of An Unholy Harvest was a smashing success – and our fifth anniversary in October 2011 promises to be one helluva ride!  Also, I had my first turn as a fetish runway model in the most fabulous annual Northbound Leather fashion show yet. Check out the video here if you want a 17-minute taste of it! I admit that seeing myself in that much makeup and hairspray was more than a little terrifying, but the clothes were breathtaking. (In some cases literally… they tightlaced me down to a 22-inch waist for one scene!) And y’know, really, I could hardly complain about getting to wear a leather librarian outfit. Whee!

I still have enough schoolwork left to finish to employ a small village, within deadlines that are, to quote Jeff Bridges in Tron, “really messing with my Zen thing, man!” (Tron is, by the way, remarkably pretty and pleasantly plot-free, in case you were wondering. Great turn-the-brain-off fodder.) So you may not see me here again for another month or so, but I’ll do my best to get back to the usual rhythm ASAP. In the meantime, I just updated my workshops schedule for 2011 – click on my Workshops tab above to check it out. The coming few months will take me to Toronto, Ottawa, Kinkston – uh, I mean, Kingston!, Los Angeles, San Francisco (twice!), Berlin, Amherst, possibly Boston, possibly New York, Vancouver (twice!), Victoria, and possibly Seattle, just for starters. Drop me a line soon if you want to book me for a speaking gig while I’m in or near your town!

Beyond that, if all goes well, my plans for 2011 also include getting at least one book ready for publication, possibly two – one about fisting, and another about the politics of non-monogamy. If you’re an interested publisher, drop me a line and let’s talk! veryqueer3 at yahoo dot ca. I swear, I can TOTALLY do this while working on a PhD, traveling the world, keeping up with two partners and getting enough sleep. For real.

Okay, I’m off to work on a paper. On that note, I bid you Happy New Year. May your 2011 be full of deep delight.

 

“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.

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

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

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

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

1. Consent and strong desire.

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

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

2. Distinction between fantasy and reality.

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

3. Clean motivation.

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

4. Commitment to work on your own shit.

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

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

5. Acknowledgement of equality.

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

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

6. Acknowledgement of your humanity.

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

7. Strong communication.

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

8. Restriction of D/s to the relationship.

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

9. Support.

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

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

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

10. Patience.

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

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