d/s on the hybrid path

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.

16 thoughts on “d/s on the hybrid path

  1. I hear you.

    You should take a look at the crowd that shows up at SWLC (http://www.southwestleather.org/swlchome/). Very spiritual, very connected, very grounded, extremely serious… but rather silly as well (“we’re each going to close this session by reading a poem because we’re gay men and that’s what we do”; “when you want to hit with the intention of death, it’s time to move on”), very leather, very present… and very hot. Some of the people are in therapy; some are therapists; one of the presenters is currently a (now celibate) Buddhist monk. There are all sorts of genders and orientations, and even the self-proclaimed kinsey 1’s and 6’s seem awfully… flexible. This is my first time attending the conference, and I am still processing my experiences, but I think you might find the crowd there one that you resonate better with. Or at least worth checking out.

  2. I’m not exactly like you (duh), but I hear you on these two major points. I think the old guard folks are super hot but I really hate that “there are doms and there are subs” type of philosophy. My boyfriend is submissive to me, and that says absolutely dick all about his relationship to any other person anywhere.

  3. I know this isn’t really what your post was about, but I feel the need to riff a bit on your paragraphs about Mr. Man.

    I found this sort of behaviour, especially among bio-men, appallingly common in my few forrays into the Mtl. d/s scene. It’s a big part of why I have such a hate on for “Master” André, or those jerks at the Munch that K and Jacqueline took me to who kept wanting to spell my name with a lower case j, and it’s a big part of why even purportedly consensual full-time d/s squicks me out.

    It seems like a lot of doms seem to see their “Master” status as an idividual-level, rather than state-level property. What I mean by that is that they think Master is what they are, all the time, regardless of the situation, rather than something that exists only in a private reality that they have constructed with their partner(s). Even those who, unlike your Mr. Man, know better than to try and boss people they haven’t negotiated with still act like they’re doing you a big damn favour by repressing their Master-ness and refraining from bossing you. I don’t know if they do this to everyone, or only those who they’ve found out lean towards the bottom/sub side of things, but I know I caught a fair bit of it.

    What really bothers me about this is that, first of all, it seems like a person who is likely to be interested in a relationship with a stranger who started out by bossing them is probably going to have fairly low self-esteem (which the bosser is likely not to be sensitive to), and second, if a relationship starts out with an unnegotiated, quasi-consensual (or non-consensual) power differential, how could a properly consensual power differential ever be negotiated? This is what put the “purportedly” in the final sentence of my second paragraph. When I see a d/s relationship where the dom is behaving like this, I always find myself wondering how consensual the relationship really is, and that’s squicky.

    None of this is to say that all, or even most, doms behave like this; certainly I’ve never seen you try to pull this crap. But I’ve seen it enough that, absent evidence that the (especially male) dom *isn’t* like this, I worry about their relationships.

  4. You and I have discussed this many times, and we know we’re pretty much on the same wavelength, but spare me a few lines for an anecdote:

    I recently attended an “advanced” workshop on D/s. I was five minutes late arriving. I walked in, and the teacher turned to look at me. He was a dominant I know from the club where we both hang out. The conversation went like this:
    Him: Hi.
    Me: Hi, sorry I’m late.
    Him: Crawl over here on your knees and apologize, and maybe I’ll forgive you.
    Me: Don’t push your luck.
    Him: (Turning to the group) Well, I guess we have another dominant in the room, folks!

    I nearly walked out again.

    There was SO much wrong with this interaction, SO many assumptions on his part, that it got my hackles up enough that I sat there glaring through the rest of the presentation.

    I felt like he’d set up a structure where there was no space for me in less than twenty words: NO space for switches; NO space for bottoms who don’t do submission; NO space for dykes.


    Thank you for letting me vent!

    PS Jakie, sorry we dragged you to that Munch!


  5. Yes, yes, yes. Part of the issue for me is whether one views dominance/submission as a matter of individual identity, as in “I am a dominant” or a fundamentally a relational matter, as in “I am submissive to X.” I prefer the latter understanding but even if you think it’s a matter of the former, you’re still not a dominant simpliciter. You need to be a dominant of someone and that’s not on until someone says yes. And as you note there are real issues about the scope of the d-s dynamic within relationships that are also up for negotiation. One simply can’t assume much from knowing that a particular couple have this kind of dynamic until you know the details.

  6. Even those who, unlike your Mr. Man, know better than to try and boss people they haven’t negotiated with still act like they’re doing you a big damn favour by repressing their Master-ness and refraining from bossing you.

    I don’t really want to defend these folks, but perhaps some of them are just doing this as a form of flirtation. That is to say, they’re really fine, inside – decent normal folks who don’t believe their own PR – but they see this as a way to attract submissives.

    Never mind. I don’t even believe it myself.

  7. Not one for boxes, I’m in my own circle where other circles come into mine. Some may overlap each other, some not. My role-playing is done at the table or SCA venues.

    Though I find aspects of Old Guard appealing, if I wanted to “yes, Sir, no, Sir” everyone I’d have joined the military. The few fully Old Guard Leather folk I know became friends because they didn’t assume their dominance and now that I think on it, they are poly-pagans.

    Think I need more coffee…

  8. I was vaguely hoping I’d meet you in Providence, but now I’m glad I didn’t go to that class. I’d have stomped out fuming!

    2,000 people “just like you” — no, not so much. They were 2000 people who had an admission ticket in common with you.

  9. I continue to find your hate-on for the role play fascinating, and puzzling. Partly because you are someone who thinks a lot about play, but from a very different angle than I ever have. In my days a play therapist, working with families, play was also all about negotiating power. What was so amazing to me, is that in the ‘playspace’ real-life power could be left outside, and children were equal players in the drama. From there, power relationships could be negotiated, sometimes just for one session, or one game, and never necessarily disrupting the real life dynamic (bedtime was not negotiable just because the little T-rex ate the big T-rex). But within that space, the power is “real.”

    All this to say, I think that there are many more areas of overlap, and, as a (former) therapist, I find your perspective on this stuff relevant to areas of my life and work that I would never have expected by looking at the title of your blog!

    And if you ever are on bedrest, or playing lab-rat in another study that locks you up for days at a time, I recommend that you read something by Sue Jennings. She’s the dramatherapist who breaks down play into Embodiment play (fingerpainting & other sensory play — although floggers are never mentioned in her books. . . ), Projective play (miniatures, models, scenes outside of our own bodies), and Role play (‘becoming’ another, rehearsing what-ifs). Although we all have preferred styles, there is a developmental role for all three kinds of play.

    And, I’m so glad that you’re updating again! My brain was getting all flabby.

  10. I’m in my own circle where other circles come into mine.

    Excellent wording. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and you’ve come up with the perfect way to phrase it. That’s awesome.

  11. Ah, Mr Man is one of those individuals i’ve heard the ‘legends’ of, but avoided (yes, the actual person, not someone like him). Just ’cause you’re in the front of the room doesn’t mean you’re the top of the pile. bleck.

    This post really got me thinking muchly, not being Old or New Guard. Thank you kindly for it. I’ve much mulling to do.

  12. I just don’t cope with attitudes like this at all. The idea that submissives should submit to any dominant or that dominants should dominate every submissive…

    Trust me, there are plenty of submissives in the world I have no interest in dominating.

  13. Hear, hear. Thanks, everyone, for your stories and reactions. I feel so not-alone. 🙂

    Nice to meet you, Lillaurel, Bitchy and Devastating. How lovely to have you here!

  14. I posted (locked, sorry, but if you have an lj account I’d be happy to give you access) a synopsis of the Submissive Boys workshop that was, if possible, more scathing than yours. I am very glad to read yours because I came in a few minutes late and was told (apparently erroneously) that the intro contained a disclaimer that helped mitigate what I perceived as a lot of non-consensual badness. You might remember me as the person who came in late, sat down with friends on the floor, and *did not* take off her shoes.
    (Because of coming in late, I didn’t know the dom-sub floor-chair thing he was doing, I sat with my friends who were on the floor, but wasn’t following any other orders from some random stranger! I am a switch and yes, that was the first thing that angered me.)

    I know I don’t know enough about “Old Guard” stuff to parse this workshop as informedly as I’d like, but I can’t help but feel that “making” anyone into your sub without consent isn’t a generational thing, it’s a basic respect for human rights thing. Consent is what differentiates BDSM from geneva convention-violating torture.

  15. Hello, desiringsubject. I had brunch today with a mutual friend of ours, and he has lots of good things to say about you! 🙂 I’d love to see your post, and yes I have an LJ account, but I pretty much use it exclusively to read other people’s stuff, and rarely at that. In any case, if you’re willing to drop me a line at veryqueer3 at yahoo dot ca, I’ll send you my secret spy code name! Thanks!

    And yes… consent. Good lord, it’s so bloody fucking basic, isn’t it? And yet there are still cheeseheads who can’t seem to figure it out. Boggles the mind, it does. I am sorry to hear you were one of the non-consensual floor-sitters, but ignorance is an excellent defense, and good on ya for keeping your shoes on. It’s frickin’ January. Shoes are a GOOD thing.

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