Archive for the ‘spirituality’ Category

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!

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.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are the lies I’m talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pain is part of the process, or, some thoughts about trust
November 23, 2009

“You have to be willing to accept the fact that pain is part of the process of revolution. You have to take the field and stay on the field, the way we stay on the road.”

- Can’t find a source for this sound bite – it appears in a Buddha Bar CD and I’d love to know who the speaker is if anyone can tell me!

***

I’ve been thinking about trust a lot in the past little while. Figured I’d share a couple of observations.

We have to trust people to be what they are.

I know this sounds weird. What I mean is… well, it’s sort of a variation on the idea that actions speak louder than words. If someone consistently displays a certain sort of behaviour, it’s a fairly good bet they’ll continue to do so unless and until strongly motivated to do otherwise. Whether they’re objectively logical or not, we choose our behaviours for good reasons, and changing a behaviour is a complex process. I’d break it down into three main steps: self-understanding, motivation, and resources.

Self-understanding about the behaviour’s raison d’être is a big piece of making change. It’s not essential; certainly, we don’t absolutely have to understand the “why” behind a behaviour in order to make it go away if we are sufficiently motivated. But the lack of that understanding can act as a stumbling block in our process of motivating ourselves to change and can make it difficult for us to harness the appropriate resources to help that change take place.

This is dependent, to an extent, on the depth or scope of the change that’s being discussed. So, for example, it’s fairly easy to change a behaviour like leaving your dirty socks on the end of the bed, because chances are there’s very little emotional attachment to that behaviour in the first place; it’s likely just a habit of convenience, and therefore the depth of self-understanding required to attack the issue is probably negligible. Set up another habit that meets the “convenience” requirement, and allow a bit of time for adjustment, and chances are fairly high the behaviour can be altered without too much stress.

Logic and cognitive awareness can help here. So for example, Boi M had this very odd habit of folding his dirty socks together and throwing them in the wash like that. Totally annoying, because in order to actually wash them, on the occasions that I was the one doing laundry, I’d have to unfold them and peel them apart again. So I explained the illogic and asked him to stop, and he said “Hm, you’re right, that doesn’t make much sense.” I’m guessing it was a habit he picked up when doing canoe trips that carried over into apartment living. And within a couple of weeks, no more folded dirty socks. It happens on occasion now when he’s being absent-minded and reverting to old habits, but it’s rare.

For larger issues, though, cognitive awareness that a behaviour is problematic is rarely a sufficient motivator. So a person might know that smoking is bad for them, but that’s got absolutely no impact on whether or not they’ll stop smoking, because the choice to smoke was probably not made based on logic in the first place – or at least, not exclusively. For that sort of change, some deeper emotional work needs to be done, and the motivation to do that work and make the change need to be fairly strong. If a change is truly desired and internally emotionally motivated, rather than motivated by outside factors such as punishment or reward, then the change is likely to work. But if a person is being compelled to change by some sort of consequence, then the change is likely to either a) fail, b) be successful but only as long as the consequence is enforced, or c) be successful only when the enforcer of the consequence is there to observe the behaviour – in other words, the behaviour change will only last until the person finds a way to get away with the original behaviour and avoid the consequence. And when it comes to changes within relationships (romantic, D/s, friendship, workplace), all of this is predicated on the concept that a given person has sufficient influence or authority to effect a consequence in the first place – definitely not always the case, and certainly not without creating resentment and other problems.

Consequences that don’t involve human intervention – such as, say, a lactose-intolerant person getting sick from eating cheese – can work a bit better, but even then, it depends on the degree of attachment or pleasure the person has to the behaviour in the first place. I know plenty of lactose-intolerant folks who like the cheese, eat the cheese, and deal with the indigestion because for them it’s a price worth paying.

Back to the question of trust. With all this in mind, I feel that unless I can observe a person’s internal motivation and genuine desire to make a change, I don’t generally expect that change to happen, regardless of what they say about it. “I promise I’ll never yell at you again,” say, doesn’t work – whatever reason the person had for losing their temper in the first place won’t be eradicated by a promise alone. Anger management takes a lot of work and emotional patterns are hard to change. A promise combined with some serious inner work, that I take a lot more seriously. And that’s when the person has the resources required to do that work – the desire to do it is also not enough if the means are not available. Resources might include introspection skills, self-knowledge, external assistance or support as needed, and practical resources (money, time, supplies, space, etc.).

I know this sounds like it’s veering off the course of a post about trust. I think what I’m getting at is, if you trust someone’s word alone, you may be disappointed. If you trust their actions – observable patterns of behaviour – you’re more likely to get a clear sense of what you can expect of them, of what you can trust them to be and do. For me, that isn’t about distrusting people’s word. My feeling that this is how human nature works simply means I’m more realistic about what I believe when it comes out of someone’s mouth. If someone makes a promise about a change and I don’t see the rest of the change mechanism (self-understanding, internal motivation, presence of resources, etc.) in action, I’m more likely to ask questions to find out what’s going on, whether their promise is realistic, whether there’s something I can do to support a change, and so forth. It means I’m less likely to just want to hear what someone thinks I want to hear, and I’m more interested in the actual truth, even if I don’t like it as much as my fantasy world.

I’ll give an example of my own. Until about five years ago, I was one of those people who absolutely hated doing dishes. My whole house would be spotless, neat, clutter-free and nicely decorated… but a pile of dirty dishes resided in the sink just about all the time. It used to drive my roommates nuts. I fondly remember one roommate who tried every trick in the book to get me to change this behaviour – politely asking, cajoling, getting mad, and so forth. I felt bad about it, but even still, anytime I put a dish in the sink, I just couldn’t bring myself to wash it. Her last-ditch effort was to say, more or less, “Okay, I get it. You’re simply not going to change. With that in mind, is there any way we could come up with an alternate place for you to put the dirty dishes so that I can still get to the sink? I’m even willing to purchase a rubber bin or a shelf or something. Whatever it takes.”

That she finally resorted to such a practical and non-judgmental way of addressing the problem took off all the pressure. But it also made me realize just how stubbornly I was clinging to a behaviour that, by all rights, should have been no big deal to change – the motivation might have been mainly external, but the resources were certainly available (time and dish soap). But my internal motivation was nil. I asked her to give me a couple of days to think about it, and I aimed my brain at the question: “What the heck makes me so resistant to doing dishes?” Here’s where the self-understanding piece comes in; and because I’m generally pretty introspective and this wasn’t, in theory, a complex question, I had the resources to do the work.

The answer didn’t take long to arrive. When I was a kid, I was the oldest of four children, and the bulk of household chores tended to fall to me. At one point when I was 12 or so, my father decided that because I was the reliable one, it would be my responsibility to do the dishes every night for the whole family. Period. No taking turns, never mind if I’d eaten dinner with the family or not, no matter if I was vegetarian and scraping meat scraps and juices off pans made me want to hurl. Dishes were my responsibility. So I did so for years under duress, resenting every second of it. And I’d simply imported that resentment into adulthood. Leaving a pile of dishes in the sink was my way of saying “Piss off, you can’t make me!” in a way that I couldn’t when I was a kid.

As soon as I realized this, all of a sudden, it became really simple to reprogram the experience of dish-doing. I just decided that doing dishes would be about my own desire for a tidy home, the end. Not because anyone else was pushing or pressuring; not because of an unfair division of labour. Just because I wanted them clean. And since then, dishes have not been an issue for me. Self-understanding + availability of required resources + internal motivation = change. Up until that point, though, no matter what promises I made on the topic, I’d break – even if I really felt bad about doing so, and even if there were unpleasant external consequences (roommates hating me).

 

Trust is a choice.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s sometimes a very wise thing to choose not to trust someone. For example, if someone repeatedly violates your boundaries and repeatedly promises not to do it again, you’d be well within your rights – based on my earlier point about trusting people to be what they are – to stop trusting them to respect your boundaries.

In addition, there are plenty of circumstances in which your spidey-senses tell you “don’t trust this person” or “don’t trust this situation” and y’know, I say, listen to that little inner voice. It usually knows what it’s talking about. Too many people – women especially – convince themselves that unless someone actually does something bad to them, they are unjustified in mistrusting them. I disagree. If some creepy guy sits next to me on a subway and leers at me and covers his lap with his jacket and puts his hand under it, there is no universal law that says I have to stay sitting next to me until he grabs my breast or visibly starts beating off. I am well within my rights to get the fuck up and leave. I don’t owe anyone the benefit of the doubt when all signs point to the strong likelihood that he’ll do something that violates my boundaries.

But that’s not really the kind of trust I’m talking about.

What I’m getting at here is that we can choose to view the world as a place where people are likely to fuck with us, disrespect us and hurt us; and that will be accurate. In this case, we are choosing not to trust the world and the people around us, and the world will comply. In other words, if you decide that you’re going to view everyone with suspicion, you will doubtless be right about their bad intentions – or at least about their failure to live up to your expectations – at least some of the time, and possibly lots of it, which will justify your ongoing suspicion.

On the other hand, we can choose to view the world as a place where people are likely to be kind to us, respect us and help us; and that will be accurate. In this case we are choosing to trust the world and the people around us, and again, they will comply. Why? Because people feel good when they’re trusted. Trust is a gift. People will strive to keep our trust because it feels good to have it.

The trick is, if we decide not to trust the world, we will always find good reasons to feel that way. Why? Because people are imperfect. They will fuck up. They will hurt us. They will forget, or do it wrong, or say something painful, or their priorities will not match up with ours. There’s no question about it and there’s no avoiding it. This is true in every single relationship. Every friend will hurt us at some point. Nobody will get it right 100% of the time. But if we use that truth to justify a lifetime of mistrust, we’ll never benefit from all the good stuff that happens along with that hurt. We can go an entire lifetime in self-protection mode, which means we don’t reach out, don’t accept kindness, refuse to allow anyone to become intimate with us or to know us. And it doesn’t work. All our self-protection won’t stop people from hurting us. But it does is rob us of the chance to find comfort.

On the other hand, if we decide to give the world the benefit of the doubt, we may discover all sorts of circumstances that create opportunities for connection. If we assume positive intent and ask questions when a given behaviour doesn’t seem to line up with that assumption, we open the door to understanding.

So if a friend stands me up, I can assume she’s a jerk who doesn’t respect my time and is selfish and inconsiderate, and with that framework in mind, I can call her up and leave a message saying “Piss off, bitch.” Or I can think about all the many things that might have happened to prevent her from showing up, and I can call her up and say, “Hey, are you okay? I’m kinda grumpy about being stood up, but I’m also concerned that something’s gone wrong with you.” In the first instance, she’s necessarily going to be on the defensive, and anything she says is necessarily going to be coming from a place of hurt and mistrust because I’ve just attacked her. In the second instance, she doesn’t need to defend herself because I’m not attacking; she has lots of room to apologize, to explain, to say “thanks for understanding,” to reassure me of her good intentions. And I’m in a place to hear that explanation and accept that apology. It’s awfully hard to hug someone when they’re wearing a suit of armour.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that we can choose to trust the world, or we can choose not to. In either case we need to balance that trust with respect for our instincts and with a consciousness of our own patterns and flaws. But regardless of which one we choose, there is no way to avoid pain. It’s just a question of what we do with it when it shows up. I think if we can accept that pain is part of the process no matter what, we can stay on the field – and the project of building and sustaining trust is a revolution indeed.

growth in kink
November 11, 2009

Tonight I’m answering Diane’s question:

After years of going to kinky workshops and events, I’m starting to feel vaguely dissatisfied by most of the offerings today. A lot of them are 101s or cover topics I’ve already learned about or am not into. The most interesting part for me is often the discussion amongst participants, not the topic.

What can I do to continue to learn and grow?

(I think it may be out of chronological order, but I’ll answer the other one soon too!)

I find that a lot of people end up in this sort of headspace after a number of years in the leather/kink/BDSM community. It makes sense: as we get to know ourselves better as kinksters, for all that there’s still room for growth and diversification, many of us find ourselves “specializing,” or developing particular areas of interest that we’d really like to pursue in greater depth, more like following a personal path than enjoying a general experience of learning whatever we don’t know yet about kink. As a result, because event organizers and seminar leaders aren’t inside our heads and tailoring their offerings to us, we may find ourselves disenchanted with the standard line-up of educational opportunities in kink settings.

I can offer a few ideas about what to do here, but of course, your mileage may vary based on what “learning and growing” really means to you.

First, design an interview questionnaire for someone who’s facing this situation. Ask all sorts of open-ended questions. You might start with things like, How do you best learn new things – what’s your learning style? What topics are you interested in exploring? If you could design your very own kinky curriculum, what would be on it? What sort of growth would you like to experience? And what sort of people inspire you to do that growth? Where do you want to be challenged? What still scares you about or within kink? What sort of kinky person would you like to be in five years, or ten years? How do these desires and hopes tie into your other desires and hopes (in terms of relationships, career, health, etc.)? … and so forth. Then, answer all those questions yourself as the interview subject. See what comes up. See if you can list off two to five goals or desires.

From there, brainstorm all the ways those goals or desires might be attained – and don’t let “reality” limit you. For example, just because there’s no existing “kink 301″ university where you can do graduate-level classes in all the topics of your choosing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write that down. And just because you don’t have a leather family right now doesn’t mean you couldn’t end up in one if you put the right vibes out into the Universe and created one for yourself. Just lay it all out. Entertain your wildest dreams.

Then, once the brainstorm part is totally finished, take each of those possibilities and evaluate how realistic it is. Each time you come across something you could do easily, that’s within reach for you – as in, you have the appropriate resources, time, energy and availability – highlight it in one colour. You can go back to that later and come up with plans to make ‘em happen. Each time you come to the conclusion that something is not realistic, put it aside, but don’t toss it.

For each item that’s not realistic, do a second brainstorm to generate ideas about how you might meet that same desire using means that are within your reach. No kinky grad school? Fair enough. But what programs are out there, somewhere else, that you could potentially use for inspiration? For example, the Journeymen program out in San Francisco is an 18-month commitment to one weekend a month of intensive work with a specially selected group of kinksters. Sure, you might not be able to commit to a full weekend in another country once a month for a year and a half, but you might be able to gather a group of people together to do intensive work around a specific topic for a full weekend once every two months close to home, in a less formal setting. Or hell, you might find yourself moving to San Francisco for a time! Granted, some possibilities might be more attainable than others, but there’s no reason not to think about them.

I’d encourage you to think outside the box. If you want a mentor and can’t find one, what ways could you go about looking for one that you haven’t tried yet? Perhaps a personal ad, a discussion group post, or an intensive inquiry among your kinky connections might work; perhaps you could ask for temporary or trial mentorships of a month each with three or four older leatherfolks who might have something to offer. If you want to do advanced readings in a given area and you don’t know where to start, perhaps you could make a list of who you could ask or what discussion boards you could post to for suggestions. If you’d like specialized training in a certain area, perhaps specialists do exist and you could make time to spend with one when you next take a vacation. If you want to do intensive spiritual work, you might be able to find a spiritual community to do that outside a kink-specific setting, but bring other leatherfolk with you and meet up after each community gathering to discuss how that work relates to kink. If you want to read and reflect about power exchange but you can’t find sufficiently advanced kink books to start with, perhaps you could look outside the relatively small field of leather publication and ask people for their recommendations to build a reading list sourced from more general fields of spirituality, self-help, psychology, history, world politics, philosophy and so forth. If you want to learn more on a given topic, you might consider starting to teach – it’s amazing how much teaching teaches the teacher, not to mention you are guaranteed to find a group of people who are interested in the same topic and might know of further resources that you don’t.

Similarly, I’d encourage you to think about the possibilities of creating the resources you don’t yet have. If you want the satisfaction of regular discussion with like-minded kinksters, you might found a discussion group like the D/s Salons in Vancouver, a regular informal dinner hosted by a local leatherdyke with a selected topic for each meeting. If there is no book about the topic you want to learn more about, perhaps you could put out a call for submissions and edit one! Same goes for lots of things – researching film databases and creating a list of films to see and then blogging about them so others can find out about them, making art when you can’t find images to your liking, starting an online discussion group, and so forth.

I’m certainly not accusing you or anyone else of being lazy, but I do find it unfortunate that some kinksters seem to think that all the knowledge we might want to acquire is out there and ready for the taking, if we can just find it. I would argue that the kink world is still very young and very marginalized, and we simply don’t have a rich enough literary canon or a sufficient number of solidly established institutions to provide all that knowledge. Not to mention that even if we did, kink is so much about individuality and personal pathways that I’m not sure we’ll ever have canons and institutions that will truly meet all our needs; so much of what we learn comes from relationship and life experience rather than any sort of activity that’s deliberately geared toward learning. Deeper knowledge and growth in leather really does need to be pursued one tiny little morsel at a time, from any number of sources, some of them very unlikely. Kink is the very epitome of independent learning, and if we can conceive of it as such, while the challenges are considerable, so are the opportunities to make amazing things happen.

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