Archive for the ‘sex’ Category

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assumption 6. Trans women are all the same.

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

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

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

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

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

This one falls apart on several levels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Assumption 10. Trans men are a lot like women.

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

the problem with polynormativity
January 24, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of new section! —

***

In sum, I have three key problems with polynormativity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

a theory of power
November 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND/OR

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

AND/OR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Three reasons people hate Fifty Shades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On coolness and community

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

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

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

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

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

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

On kink and consumerism

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

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

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

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

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

So… why is it sexy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crazy and criminal: the kinky characters of Fifty Shades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The charmed circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

On contracts and punishments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oppression: not so sexy

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

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

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

on ecstasy
March 12, 2012

Not too long ago, I wrote an instalment of my “Ask the Sex Geek” column for In Toronto magazine in response to a reader question about trying to find resources on spiritual approaches to sexuality, such as Tantra, that don’t rely on a classic gender binary. Such resources are remarkably hard to find, and as such a lot of them have been a real turn-off for me. For that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Carrellas’s book Urban Tantra: Sex for the 21st Century when it first came out a few years back, precisely because Barbara takes such a refreshingly non-gendered approach to the topic. So I called her up for an interview for the column.

While we were chatting, she told me about her newest book, Ecstasy Is Necessary: A Practical Guide, and asked if I’d be interested in taking part in her virtual book tour, in which she’s “visiting” a number of blogs over the course of a couple of weeks. Of course I jumped on the opportunity since the last one was such a treat! So today I’m posting my review of her book, and I’m weaving it together with her answers to some questions I threw at her. And Barbara’s hanging out here in the comments section, so if you have any questions for her, she’ll jump on in and answer. (Hi Barbara! *waving*)

The short summary: Ecstasy Is Necessary is a book about how to recognize ecstasy and how to cultivate it in your sexual life and relationships, but also in your everyday, mundane experiences of moving through the world. By “ecstasy” Barbara’s not talking about pleasure, per se, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s more like that blissful “something more” feeling you get when all the energies of the Universe are aligned and you are in a state of bliss and connectedness. What’s great about Barbara’s approach to this is that she’s not advocating the rabid pursuit of a particular sort of New Agey high, nor of a specific path to achieving ecstasy, Tantric or otherwise. It’s more like she’s trying to get people to understand how ecstasy is both mundane—in that we can find it anywhere, everywhere—and sacred, if we allow ourselves to take the risk of letting go in order to fully experience it.

***

Andrea: How would you relate this book to your other work, which is more explicitly on Tantra?

Barbara: It’s funny, I never considered Ecstasy is Necessary to be a Tantra book when I was writing it. But when Tantrika friends of mine read it they marvelled that I’d written a book about Tantra without ever having used the word. I didn’t really understand what they meant until just the other day when I was talking to my partner Kate Bornstein about binaries. I realized that one of the most powerful binaries in our culture—right up there with good/evil, black/white, male/female— is sex/god. Tantra is a word that breaks that sex/god binary because it contains elements of both sexuality and spirituality. Ecstasy is another word that breaks that binary. The word ecstasy implies a sexual orgasmic state but also make us think of nuns, saints, shamans and spiritual seekers in religious trance.

I also think Ecstasy is Necessary is Tantric in its approach because of its emphasis on conscious practices and mindfulness. Having written extensively about how those relate to energy and the body, I wanted to apply those same principles to thought and emotion. It’s my hope that Ecstasy is Necessary will be considered both a prequel and a sequel to Urban Tantra.

***

One of the first things that struck me about the book was how Barbara’s just so damn grounded about all this stuff. You could read this book as a goddess-worshiping crystal-wearing eye-gazer and still find something new and challenging in it, because the focus isn’t on the mechanics of any particular system—it’s about focusing deeply inward, to the essentials of how to build deep connection with oneself and with a sexual partner. You could read it as an atheist and still understand that our brains can produce ecstatic experience and that we can deliberately create the mental conditions for that to happen. Barbara, for instance, recounts her own experience of thinking herself to orgasm while in an fMRI machine that measured her brain waves and confirmed that yup, indeed, she was coming!

***

Andrea: On page 18 you make the rather bold statement, echoed in the book’s title, that “ecstasy is medically necessary to the health and well-being of the human body.” Now I know you weren’t writing a science book, so I wasn’t expecting a ton of peer-reviewed research to be cited here, but this statement has me awfully curious, especially since you clearly believe this on enough of a fundamental level to title your book with the idea. So – tell me more! I want some nerdy! In what ways is science beginning to acknowledge ecstasy as a medical necessity?

Barbara: Here’s the gist: this is based on Wilhelm Reich, who said that orgasm (the full, whole body kind, not the hiccups some people call orgasm) was physically necessary for health and well-being. Nothing short of full out orgasm could fully release tension. Long held, deep seated tension was the cause of much of the illnesses we suffer from. Orgasm is, so to speak, the human reset button. I take it a step further. Ecstasy, with its spiritual component, is, in my view as or more necessary. Not only does it release aforementioned tension, it never fails to create an Ah-Hah moment, in which we see possibilities we hadn’t seen before. It keeps us growing and striving. It’s the spiritual reset button.

***

I like this book because I think Barbara’s asking all the right questions. For instance, she has a whole section on figuring out what your values are. It sounds like a boring thing – y’know, like how are, say, “honesty” or “punctuality” really related to ecstasy? But what she’s getting at is that knowing who you are and what’s important to you is a first step in figuring out how to be able to most deeply connect—with yourself, with your partners, with the broader woo-woo energies out there in the world. I ask this same question in my 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy, but Barbara takes things several steps further, in that she provides practical homework-style exercises for figuring out the answers.

***

Andrea: You have a really great section on defining your core values. And you provide step-by-step instruction for figuring them out, which I’ve never seen before. How did you go about developing these steps?

Barbara: How nice to speak to someone who understands the importance of values in relationships!

The steps in the book are based on an exercise that Hayley Caspers uses in her corporate training workshops. Hayley is one of my oldest and dearest friends and has produced my work worldwide. We have been obsessed with the importance of values in relationships for years. I had a very personal reason for choosing to write about this now. Just before I began to outline Ecstasy is Necessary I went through a horribly painful breakup of a relationship I really treasured. I asked myself, “How did a relationship that was so ecstatic go so wrong?” I realized that my lover and I had radically different values regarding an issue that was deeply important to her. No amount of behavioral compromise will heal an issue when what are really being compromised are your deepest core values. When you aren’t consciously aware of your core values it’s easy to find yourself compromising them. I wanted to come up with a simple, accurate and effective way of arrive at one’s values. When we know what our values are, we know when they’re being violated. When we can talk about that, we can find ways to settle conflicts that are in alignment with our core values.

***

Now, for all that Barbara doesn’t spend time in this book teaching any formal system for getting at greater self-understanding and ecstatic experience, she nevertheless makes a ton of room for the vast range of systems that are out there—including Tantra, but also including, for instance, the highly varied collection of practices that is BDSM. Her earlier book, Urban Tantra, similarly made space for BDSM as a path to ecstatic experience, which is remarkably rare and which, for me, was incredibly validating.

I often find that people tend to grab onto the system that works for them and then preach it, and the loudest ones doing that also tend to pooh-pooh the other systems. So a lot of the Tantric and West-Coast-y spiritual sexual healing culture I’ve been exposed to tends to get very invested in all the technical details of their practice and look askance at sadomasochism. A speaker at a conference I attended many years ago went so far as to say that SMers were clearly not having deep and meaningful sex because it was all just so violent. And along that same continuum, I certainly feel like an outsider when I go to a yoga studio sporting a black leather mat bag, eleven piercings above the neck and a motorcycle jacket, not because I don’t know the yoga lingo or can’t do a downward dog, but because I don’t fit into the culture that has built up around the practice—I don’t have “yoga friends.” I show up, do my thing, and nobody asks me out for spirulina shots with the girls afterward, y’know?

On the flip side, SMers have a set of cultural norms too—certainly there’s a lot of room for spirituality within SM practice, but the average leather bar wouldn’t exactly know what to do with someone who showed up in purple robes and wanted to cast a circle. We may understand how you can achieve transcendence through a solid flogging or piercing scene, but eye-gazing and bottom breathing (no, not that kind of bottom! or that one either!) aren’t exactly taught at your standard SM 101 workshop.

And yet, these are all practices that focus on deep connection with self and others, and that use breath, pleasure and the body as routes to connect with ecstasy or wholeness. It’s about bloody time someone started articulating the connections in a way that’s accessible to people from several sides of the cultural divides, rather than simply trying to explain one of them to the other, or touting one system as The Way. Barbara explicitly makes room for both SM and Tantra without requiring that you buy into the trappings and cultures of either, or any other trappings or cultures for that matter, in order to find your own path to ecstatic experience. She speaks simply but without condescension; she recognizes her position of privilege as a professional sexual explorer without making the reader feel like they’re sitting on the bleachers while the cool kids get to play. It’s such a fucking relief.

***

Andrea: How do you see the relationship between energy-based, spiritually-inclined sexual practice and BDSM?

Barbara: Hah, speaking of binaries! Tantra and BDSM were once thought of as polar opposites—never the twain shall meet. Well, today they meet up in some variation in every play space I step into. Many people practice BDSM as an extremely spiritually-inclined, energy-based sexual practice. Personally, I find it thrilling and profound to consciously apply everything I learned in my study of Tantra to BDSM. And the most frequent request I get from the Tantrikas who sign for my Urban Tantra® Professional Training Program is for help in learning the “Dark Arts.”

Andrea: What do you think your readers will make of your frequent references to BDSM and various forms of non-monogamy? Would you say you’re doing political work by weaving those references into the fabric of your approach, or is it more of just your own particular worldview, such that it would be strange for you to suppress it? Who are you trying to challenge or make productively uncomfortable? Who are you trying to include or make comfortable?

Barbara: It really is hard for me to suppress any side of my life and my teachings—I feel so passionately about it all. I also feel an urgency to bring everyone to the erotic table, which in my world, is a smorgasbord. Take what you like, leave what you don’t, but be sure to try at least one new thing. Then let’s sit down and enjoy it all together. As for politics, I think of myself as very apolitical in comparison to so many of my friends and colleagues. But if the personal is political, then I do have a political agenda set on coalition building. I want to increase the breadth, depth and substance of sex positivity. It’s not my intention to make anyone uncomfortable, because I don’t find that works very well. Quite the opposite, it is my intent to make everyone as comfortable as possible, not just in their own sexual/erotic skin, but also when in the company of people of very different sexual persuasions, identities or preferences. We don’t all have to fuck each other, but we do need to do more than simply respect each other’s sexuality and identities. We need to embrace each other’s sexualities and identities—even celebrate them.

***

The book also has an excellent section on boundaries. For all that they’re fundamental to good relationships with both self and others, boundaries are a really challenging topic to tackle. Some of us need our boundaries to become less rigid; some of us need them to become firmer. Some of us need to test and stretch; some of us need to ground, root, take shelter. Sometimes our boundaries serve us and protect us; sometimes they limit us and sap our ability to connect. Again, Barbara navigates this territory with grace, and better yet, with a ton of practical tips on how to figure out your own boundaries, communicate them to others, and make sure you in turn understand theirs. On this count alone I’m likely to recommend Ecstasy Is Necessary when I teach both SM workshops and non-monogamy workshops, simply because these exercises are so useful for any kind of relational practice… well… anywhere.

***

Andrea: One of the things I liked best in the book is your idea of the “magic room” instead of the idea of a “safe space.” I’ve always had an instinctive mistrust for the idea of “safe space,” because who can really promise that anything will be safe, let alone for a whole group of people? And if someone’s promising something they can’t possibly know for a fact they can provide, then how can you trust them at all? Anyway, can you say more about this “magic room” idea? How do you create it? What are its key components?

Barbara: The term Magic Room was coined by my colleague, Swedish sex educator Carl Johan Rehbinder, during a discussion of so-called safe spaces at one of my Urban Tantra® Professional Training Programs. The minute the words fell out of his mouth we all realized that he’d nailed it. Not only could we never guarantee that any space would be 100% safe for everyone, but we didn’t even want things to be that safe. I love Jack Morin’s theory (from The Erotic Mind) that peak erotic experiences (and peak spiritual experiences as well, I think) are the result of just the right combination of safety and risk. Think about it—isn’t that what makes something feel magic? When you’re dancing on the edge of safety and risk? In Ecstasy is Necessary I wanted to give people an opportunity to find out precisely what they needed to feel safe, but not to encourage them to stay so safe that they never explored their edges. I also gave them guidelines on how to take an erotic risk that would save them from feeling so frightened or overwhelmed that they would retreat to their “safe normal.”

***

And then there’s Barbara’s grounding in a certain history, with her work hearkening back to a sense of infinite sexual possibility that first emerged, for her, in the heady 1970s, but that has since been filtered through the realities of AIDS and STIs, among others. When I read her book I can feel her sense of grief and loss and rage, as someone who lived through the waves of death that came with the early AIDS pandemic. And yet she hasn’t lost her capacity for joy or vulnerability, and that too comes through in her approach to sex and ecstasy. Hers is not a happy-go-lucky call to ecstasy and joy; it is not a privilege-soaked, product-driven form of trite sex-positivity designed to “spice up your sex life.” It is a fierce determination to reach for joy in sex through devastation, marginalization and pain, and an invitation for readers to join her in that purpose-driven journey not by painting over the challenges and pains that get in the way, but by embracing them and hauling them along for the whole wild and messy ride. The result is a flavour of sex radicalism that is more in-your-soul than in-your-face, but with plenty of grit behind the gentle approach. Her book reads a bit like the way it feels when your trusted best friend hauls you out of bed after you’ve been moping around for too long after something bad happens. A sort of “I love you, honey, now get your shit together. I’m taking you out for lunch.” Except lunch is sex. Or something. My metaphor might be falling apart here, but my point is that Barbara manages to strike just the right balance of firmth and kindness.

***

Andrea: As a historian (historian-in-training?), I want to ask you some more about the idea you talk about that the 70s were a historical blip in which sex was cool and okay, post-1950s repression but pre-AIDS. Do you think that was broadly accurate? Or was it specifically accurate for a subset of the population, of which you were a part? If it’s the latter, can you describe that population? Certainly we know there was all kinds of yummy stuff going on in gay men’s bathhouses, but you’re speaking about a group that obviously includes people outside gay male culture. Who was having all this crazy fun sex?

Barbara: The 70s were an historical blip in which sex was cool, and this went way beyond gay male subculture. Sexual freedom was everywhere. The youth revolution of the 1960s had become the adult sexual revolution of the 1970s. This was the decade that gave birth to porn chic. Films like The Devil in Miss Jones and Deep Throat were no longer playing only in seedy red light district grindhouses—they were at the local mall cinemas. In New York City, Plato’s Retreat, the legendary swingers club, was, in its heyday, regularly frequented by celebrities. And it wasn’t all porn and sex clubs. There was a ton of excellent material on sexuality published in the 70s. Much of it was published by collectives or by small publishers and are long out of print. Every once in a while I’ll find some incredibly astute and/or esoteric book on sexuality published in the 70s in a garage sale or used bookstore. But some of the books from that era are still on the shelves in new editions. For example, the first edition of the legendary book Our Bodies, Ourselves was published in 1970 and it’s still in print—3 million copies later! Betty Dodson started her women’s BodySex groups in the 70s. It was a wild, experimental time as sex became the most popular and powerful way to celebrate and support women’s liberation and gay liberation.

***

Ah, history! There are about a dozen PhD thesis topics in just that one paragraph. I will restrain myself from trying to tackle them all personally.

All in all, Ecstasy Is Necessary is gonna be a classic, and one I suspect I’ll be recommending to a lot of people and for a lot of reasons.

I’ll conclude this inter/re/view with a couple of sentences that really struck me on page 169 of the book, and which I think may become one of my own guiding thoughts for this year: “Surrender. You’ve worked hard to get here. Don’t miss a moment of the bliss.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 725 other followers