It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night. I’m in Providence, Rhode Island, sharing a hotel with my boi M and two hottie-hot friends. We’re in the middle of one of North America’s biggest gatherings of kinky freaks, the Fetish Fair Flea, hosted by NELA (the New England Leather Association). There’s a private party for women and transfolks two blocks away, an invitation to which is resting safely in my back pocket.
And what are we doing? Well, the boi is napping and I’m blogging (briefly). Frankly, we’re plumb tuckered out, enough so that I’m not even sure our plans for dirty fun will work out for the night.
Nonetheless, we’re having a most excellent time. I know that one of the biggest reasons people come to the Flea is to browse the huge vendors’ area, but as a true geek, I’ve been slavering over the workshop list for weeks now, and that’s all I’ve done so far – sit in rooms listening to other perverts explain how they see things. Nummy. I even went so far as to send the boi to catch a couple I couldn’t clone myself for, and take notes and give a report over dinner.
I will provide a full summary once I have a little more time to devote to it, but I figured I’d post about one of the big pieces I’ve been musing about thanks to today’s sessions. And that’s about boundaries and contradictions and fitting in.
So here’s the basic dilemma I’ve been facing for many years now, in places other than just the kink world, but perhaps most immediately and clearly among fellow perverts. Simply put, I don’t fit into much of what I see out there in the realm of D/s. Old Guard and New Guard turn me off in almost equal measures, though in completely different ways.
The protocols, the sense of honour and duty, the taking-seriously of dominance and submission, the sense of tradition, the strictness… all these things about Old Guard mentalities really appeal to me.
The problem? Well, let me give you an example from this afternoon. I attended a workshop entitled “The Traditional Training of Submissive Boys” which was run by “an elder in the community” who shall remain nameless unless you look him up. He faced the room, introduced himself, and asked all the submissives to stand up. They did; he ordered them all to go to the front of the room and stand against the wall. Then he told them to sit down. “You’re in my world now,” he said. “And in my world, submissives don’t use the furniture.” Everyone sat down obediently. He continued, “Now take off your shoes. In my world, submissives don’t wear shoes.” They obeyed once again.
I was so livid at his behaviour I very nearly walked out of the workshop. I’m honestly not sure what kept me there at all. If I were a submissive, I’d have been even more livid – who the hell is this stranger to give anyone orders without any negotiation of a power dynamic? What happened to the most absolutely basic element that makes all kink okay… consent?! As a dominant, I wasn’t being directly subjected to such extreme disrespect, but I was certainly sitting there watching it all happen, and the indirect disrespect to me was still enough to make me grit my teeth and fight to control my heart rate. It was a damned good thing that my boi was off at another workshop, because I most certainly would not have been interested in sending him off to sit across the room barefoot at some stranger’s orders; we would have sat exactly where we were, thank you very much, and I would have had choice words to say had Mr. Man challenged us.
I was actually quite appalled that nobody did say anything – such as, for example, “As person x’s dominant, I’ve decided they are perfectly entitled to sit on the chair next to me, and that’s where I want them to stay; I have need of their services during this session.” Not to mention, nobody raised the point that perhaps not everyone in the room identified along the dominant/submissive continuum at all, or that perhaps there were switches present, or people who hadn’t figured out their place yet. (One person who at first stood up then chose to go back to her seat, and explained she was a switch, but that’s the closest to challenge it got.)
Mr. Man proceeded to give a rather impassioned speech about his personal take on D/s. Interestingly, he didn’t say much at all about the nitty gritty of the “traditional training” (whatever that is) of submissive boys, other than to mention there were six levels of boy-ness.
I will definitely come back to this in a future post and bitch some more about the details of the workshop. Suffice it to say, for now, that anyone who does their D/s with such a flagrant disrespect for basic negotiation, simple consent and good relational boundaries – in other words, you are not a person’s dominant unless they say you are! – is not a person from whom I’m interested in learning anything about dominance and submission. And unfortunately, that weird boundary-less D/s, that sense of “I am dominant, therefore I dominate all those who identify as submissive,” is something that often seems to come hand-in-hand with Old Guard mentalities. They’ve got great protocols and lots of interesting approaches to things, but often I see them apply those in a framework consisting of way too much ego and entitlement and absolutely shitty boundaries. It makes me sick to my stomach.
Now, contrast that with the other workshops I took today, which were uniformly excellent, and all three of which were run by Raven Kaldera and his boy Josh Tenpenny. They’re a fine example of a D/s couple I can admire and respect; both have a fine sense of nuance, a gift for clear expression and explanation, and a wonderfully genuine humility about their place in the world. It’s especially refreshing to hear Raven talk about a dominant’s responsibility and the ways in which he serves a greater power – in his words, “I always try to remember that there is a food chain and I’m not at the top of it.” Their boundaries are strong and solid; they don’t throw their power around from either the submissive or the dominant end of things, and they are full of excellent information about how to engage in D/s from a place that’s whole and healthy.
The problem? They’re really, really into shamanistic and otherwise Pagan spirituality. And this doesn’t speak to me in the least. I’m really not into New Age or Pagan religions, rituals, gods and goddesses and myths and archetypes. I don’t really want to script out a scene based on Roman mythology or use magick and call on the four corners. I’m right with these folks on a lot of their approaches, but the spiritual aspect of BDSM for me has nothing to do with invoking Innana or burning incense. The philosophy’s great but the aesthetic holds zero appeal.
In addition, Raven and Josh are major exceptions in the poly / Pagan kink world in a number of ways in that their D/s energy is flowing, natural, unmistakeable and completely genuine. Unfortunately, a lot of the folks I meet in this particular sector of the leather world are really into fantasy role-playing, SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism)-style, where they pretend they’re dukes and warlocks and they wear velvet pirate shirts and do a whole lot of things that remind me of first-year theatre majors – talking loudly, taking up lots of space, using big words to make themselves sound smart, and just generally getting really into a lot of showy behaviour that ultimately looks and feels false and even silly to me. It’s really hard for me to take someone seriously as either a dominant or a submissive when it feels like they’re playing a part in a play, complete with flowery fake names, awkward and overblown dialogue, detailed scripts, and mildly ill-fitting costumes. If it works for them, hey, that’s awesome – they in no way offend me by existing (especially when compared to Mr. Man and his ilk). But lordy, do I ever not fit in with ’em.
On the up side, these folks are often people who are well-versed in poly theory, great at clearly communicating boundaries, super-respectful of widely differing relationship styles, genuinely kind and generous to the world around them, smart, sweet, trans-aware, queer-friendly, and with a strong anti-oppression approach – all very good in my books. I’m friends with many people like this and I think they’re wonderful. I just don’t seem to connect on a fundamental level where D/s between us might make sense. There’s a certain core element, some intangible thing that I can’t quite name but that feels like it’s missing.
So as a result of all this, I find myself feeling super-comfortable among the sort of New Age / Pagan / poly folks because we share ideas about relationship and respect and boundaries and communication, but rarely ever turned on by or attracted to any of them along power lines or even in basic sexual ways. And I find myself turned on by and attracted to Old Guard-style people, but totally not connecting along all those other important axes, so much so that I often find them patently offensive and even borderline abusive.
There you have it. I bet I’ve now managed to offend just about everyone reading this who identifies as either New Guard or Old Guard. Please accept my apologies if I’ve phrased anything poorly. Also, please read the above while keeping in mind that I in no way wish to tar everyone of a given group with the same brush; rather I speak in generalities to convey overall trends I’ve observed and experienced. I’ve certainly met some wonderful old-school leatherfolk (including quite a number of the gay leathermen I most respect) who have excellent boundaries and no patience for disrespect or lack of consent; I’ve also met some wonderful Pagan /poly folks with whom I’ve enjoyed significant friendships, amazing scenes and occasionally hot sex (including my best friend, former submissive and platonic life partner of five-plus years). So I don’t presume that everyone falls into one camp or the other with all the attendant possible criticisms.
Despite all this disclaiming, I suppose it’s normal that some might still be upset with me. I suppose in that case, we’d probably never end up sleeping together anyway, so perhaps we can just agree to disagree.
So back to the original question: where do I fit in? Nowhere, really. I seem to click best with other people who float outside the dominant groups or who find their place within them without adhering to their overarching paradigms and cultural trends. But of course that means it’s a helluva lot harder to find them. Not that I’m complaining; these days, my dance card is pretty full. I just find it endlessly fascinating that I can show up at a convention that draws nearly 2,000 leather-loving freaks who are theoretically “just like me” and find myself feeling like I must be the only person in the world who walks a hybrid path in the realm of D/s, with the ethics of one group and the aesthetics of another, and my values picked and chosen from both and many other places as well. It’s both alienating and highly thought-provoking – in many ways, more so than any individual workshop could ever be on its own.