“You know, when my friends ask me what my kids do, it’s really easy to say what my three sons do… one is a filmmaker, and one is a systems analyst, and one works for the government. But it’s not so easy to tell them my daughter is a sex geek!”
“I know, Mom. I haven’t exactly been easy on you in that respect. And it’s not like you can just tell everyone that your daughter’s a lesbian and she’s married her girlfriend and they bought a house in the suburbs. My story is not a simple one, and you didn’t choose it, but it’s yours anyway.”
– excerpt from a conversation between Andrea and her mom, late 2007. There was much laughter and some tears.
I mentioned this little situation a while back and fully intended to get around to writing about it again. But I’m shy. No, really. Not so much about giving my opinion, but about talking about other people in this blog… well, yeah. It’s one thing when I can refer to them by a nearly anonymous initial, like S or B or whatever. It’s quite another when it’s a member of my family who’s really hard to keep anonymous, given that there’s only one person occupying the position of “mom” in my world and she shares my last name.
At the same time, I’m loath to avoid a topic of interest, especially one that involves books.
Okay, I’ll stop being so cryptic. When I visited at Christmastime, my mother, following eight years of rather chilly silence on the topic of my sexuality and relationships, started a conversation. Not just any conversation… a capital-C Conversation that lasted three hours, involved lots of tears and hugging, and covered kink, trans issues, non-monogamy, marriage (or rather, lack thereof), childlessness, safer sex and queer. It was a little overwhelming to both of us, I think, but it tentatively ushered in a new era in our relationship. Not long after that both my parents met both Boi M and Boi L when they visited Toronto and dropped in to see the new apartment. It was a 20-minute visit but it was also just as overwhelming, to me at least, given that in the last 12 years or so my parents have set foot in my apartment(s) all of, um, twice. And they’ve categorically refused to meet any of my female partners in that whole time, too. So to have them shaking hands with both my life partner/submissive and with my lover/submissive, one of them a trans guy and one of them a butch gal… well, it left me with my head spinning.
So what did I do?
I went out and bought books.
I know! I know, it’s the geekiest possible reaction one could have. It’s almost silly. I had to laugh at myself.
Especially since it didn’t work so well last time. When I came out to my mom, I gave her a copy of Free Your Mind. Over the following eight years, it moved from the centre of the bookcase… to the side of the bookcase… to a spare bookcase in the basement, the same one that contains my dad’s grade-9 Greek mythology textbooks, some torts books from when he went to law school when I was six, the VHS player that constantly flashes a bright-blue 12:00, and the circa-1982 Nintendo – y’know, the one with controls that only have four buttons (A, B, Select and Start) and an arrow pad. To this day I don’t think there’s a crack in the spine. Of course I could be wrong – my mother is, after all, the person who drilled it into me that books require these handy little things called bookmarks, and that bindings are not to be bent – but given the utter lack of noticeable difference the presence of said book made in the whole coming-out debacle, I can’t help but think it wasn’t the most useful tool in my particular situation.
But hope springs eternal, and now that my mom has pronounced the word “sadomasochism” in my range of hearing, I couldn’t help but gravitate towards yet more tomes of helpful advice and knowledge, only this time for the freshly outed kinkster. Will I choose to make gifts of them this time, like a combination peace offering / plea for understanding? I dunno. I think I may need to wait a bit and gauge whether they’ll be useful or simply gather dust in turn – one conversation does not a new relationship equal.
Nevertheless, I felt I needed to bone up on my kink coming-out literature. Not that there’s a ton of it out there. In truth, most 101-level SM books don’t say much about coming out at all, and the discussion is woefully absent from the majority of kink groups, both online and real-life. To an extent, I understand; to at least some degree, in many circumstances at least, you can be kinky and completely invisible about it, and not really suffer too badly as a result. As long as you keep it in the bedroom or at private parties, and order your paraphernalia online, nobody ever needs to see it.
Unless your kids find your floggers, or your mother-in-law pops by for an unexpected visit and you haven’t taken the cuffs from where they hang on the eyebolts in your doorframe, or your friend notices your copy of The New Bottoming Book on your dresser, or you realize that you feel really good in your leathers and want to wear that sexy jacket every day instead of just every second Saturday, carefully, on the other side of town. Unless you find yourself drawn to dominant/submissive dynamics and you realize that you’re putting enormous efforts into not behaving in the way that feels most natural to you with your significant other, and evaluating every time you have a social engagement whether or not it’ll creep people out to notice your honey is wearing a collar even though nobody else expects their wedding rings to creep you out, and finding that it’s exhausting to maintain a double identity and put emotional energy into relationships with people who can’t handle this element of who you are and what you do. Unless you find yourself taking on a fake name, à la Bruce Wayne, to socialize with the people with whom you connect most profoundly because you’re afraid your work colleagues might accidentally find you online under your birth-certificate moniker having conversations about proper bondage techniques. And so on. And so forth.
Oddly, the discussions you’re more likely to find in kink communities are about how to keep kink a secret – scene names, alternate e-mail addresses, faceless photos, very heavy hanging plants, locked doors and locked boxes and “discreet” jewellery in the shape of locks and keys, hidden tattoos, separate outfits, don’t ever tell anyone else because it might make them uncomfortable and we certainly can’t have that.
And yet at the same time, I get it. There is a certain reasonableness to the idea of discretion. Not because I think it’s okay to be ashamed of one’s kink, or because I think leading a double life is okay, or because I think it’s good to have to hide who we are and how we love, but rather because I want to maintain good boundaries. There’s a difference between being out and oversharing.
As a queer, when I’m walking down the street holding hands with a trans person or a woman, it clearly says something about my erotic desires in a way that’s pretty unavoidable. But I don’t spend a lot of time waxing poetic to corner store clerks about the joys of cunnilingus or how lovely it is that my girlfriend and I just picked up a new bottle of lube so we can get back to fisting one another, or whether or not my boi has had genital surgery.
As a poly person, my multiple relationships are quite visible; I’m not shy about being affectionate with more than one partner in the same social situation or referring to them all as partners rather than passing all but one off as my “friends.” But unless you’re a really close friend of mine, you probably won’t know what I do in bed with them, or how many I do it with at once, or whether they do it with each other (unless they are just as publicly affectionate with one another as I am with them individually), or who gets to do what to whom first or how often.
As a kinkster, I’m also pretty easy to see. I wear my leathers, and I have visible piercings and tattoos that mark me, for anyone who has the faintest clue what to look for, as a member of an alternative subculture. I am absolutely not shy about telling people where I’m going dressed like that, what’s in that big bag of mine, and what the topic was of that workshop I taught last week – provided I think they actually want to know and are capable of processing what I tell them. And I use my full and real name everywhere I go. But I’m not going to go on at length about how wonderful it feels to get flogged, or how good my boi’s thighs look with cane stripes on them, or how I managed to get four fingers and the bridge up someone’s butt the other day.
How do I draw these lines? Well, I’ll talk about pretty much anything in the right circumstances, but I don’t believe there are many circumstances that actually justify the in-depth revelation of the gory details of my sex life. That just feels crass and disrespectful, as though I were turning the beautiful experiences I share with my lovers into shock-value gossip fodder for the greedily curious outsider. No thanks. You want education? I can talk technique ’til the cows come home. But no, I won’t kiss and tell. It just ain’t classy. And I won’t give a bunch of juicy details when really, what most people want – when they’re asking at all – is to understand who I am, not how I orgasm.
So with that in mind, what do I actually want to share with my mom about my existence as a kinkster?
Honestly, not much. I want her to know I’m safe, and that the things I do with my partners, however far outside the norm of conventional sexual practice, are done consciously, consensually, and with caring and love. I want her to know that I am loved and supported, and that my kink, far from isolating me and marginalizing me, has in fact brought me into wonderful and fulfilling relationships with kind and thoughtful people. I want her to know that I’m happy and centred, not lost and casting about for self-definition. I want her to know that who I am and what I do has not reduced my options in life or caused me woes in my career or my professional world, but rather, that the people I’ve met through this aspect of my orientation have in many cases turned into valuable contacts and are respected and accomplished in their own right. I want her to know that my choices are not a form of childish rebellion but rather a way of being true to who I am and what works for me, my own sense of rightness and ethics and morality, my own values. I want her to know that the symbols of my subculture are not markers of hatred for what everyone else does, but rather are markers of pride and pleasure and personal significance.
Do I want her to know the specifics of what makes me come? Well, if you can find me a good reason why that information would help her understand and respect me, I might consider it. Until then, that’s quite simply none of her business.
With that in mind, I’ve looked at all the SM books on my shelf and a few new ones, and I’ve come up with all of two that might – just might – actually be relevant and helpful in this particular aspect of coming out.
One is a classic: When Someone You Love Is Kinky, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. I read it cover to cover in a single sitting – yes, it’s that accessible. But in all honesty, it’s actually not that impressive. I return to my usual criticism of the Easton and Liszt oeuvre… they definitely know what they’re talking about, but they tend to err on the side of accessibility with the result that their tone often feels overly basic to the point of bordering on condescending. Now, take this with a grain of salt; I read the world-famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey, when I was 14 and I just about tore my hair out because I felt its tone talked down to the reader so strongly. And yet countless thousands of well-educated businesspeople swear by it. So really, this might be a personal bias against that excessively patient, step-by-tiny-step approach that pervades the self-help industry rather than anything specific to this particular pair of authors.
An additional criticism, however, is that the book spends very little time actually addressing the questions that I would find most important. If I go back to that list of what I’d want my mom to know, I find remarkably little ink devoted to those items, and a little too much devoted to making kink seem really normal. “None of the activities we’re discussing in this book are as scary as your imagination might make them seem,” they write on page 4. And on page 97, “Our play involves the pretend thrills of kids’ cops-and-robbers games, and the occasional mild bruise or scrape of kids’ playground sports – nothing more.”
Except that’s not true. Even for experienced kinksters, and even for people who are very familiar with the concept of consent taken to its most exquisitely complex and nuanced extent, the idea of being pierced with a needle or entering a full-time slave contract are scary, and rightfully so. They should be. They come with risks and dangers and must be done carefully to be done well. While imagination and fantasy and theatre certainly play a part in some of what we do, that’s not where it ends. Some kinks involve risky shit, and we – the responsible we, that is – take part in them after getting a lot of education and taking a lot of precautions. If it were all just make-believe, then we wouldn’t need all the safety precautions we do take! (Of course, for those for whom it is all just theatre, hey, more power to ya. Maybe this book would work better for your parents than for mine.)
Safety is mentioned, of course, but not in great detail; they talk a lot about negotiation and consent, which is great, but they say very little about the physical end of things and how it is that someone can actually swing a whip at someone or cut them with a knife and have that not be a deeply damaging or harmful act. They don’t mention much about safer sex approaches or universal precautions or the sort of educational resources available to kinksters to help us play safely. They don’t talk about HIV transmission and why so much of kinky practice does not put people at risk for it, and how we protect ourselves when the risk is present. They mention the issue of domestic violence and how some outsiders get that confused with kink, but they don’t actually lay out solid information as to why that’s not the case, how to make those distinctions if you’re a concerned person looking in from the outside, or how the trappings of BDSM can be used by an abuser – that the presence of floggers and leather restraints does not, on its own, mean that there’s no abuse going on, any more than it means there is abuse going on.
They talk about mental health, but only so far as to criticize the early Victorian sexologists. They don’t talk about the current status of sadism and masochism in the DSM and why that’s problematic, and what’s being done to change that. They do propose excellent definitions for mental health, focusing on a person’s functionality, but they don’t mention anything about how kink is not necessarily a symptom or result of ill health even if there is ill health present (I know plenty of kinksters on Prozac just like any other population), or back up their functional definition with any sort of reference to how that’s in keeping with a generally approved clinical take on things.
In their chapter entitled “What If It’s Your Partner?”, they aim to help people deal with their partners’ newly confessed kinks. They lay out a list of options, all of which are pretty solid. But nowhere on that list does the option “break up with them” appear. Not that I think this should be the first option by any stretch. It just seems odd to me that they wouldn’t even mention how the presence of a major potential incompatibility such as vanilla vs. kink could leadi to a couple breaking up, and how that might in fact be the best option for both people. The partner of a kinky person should certainly approach that option with consideration and care, and preferably aim for any number of other options with breakup as a last resort, but it does remain a very valid possibility, and one worth devoting a few paragraphs to.
Last but not least, they’ve included a whole bunch of letters from kinky people to the people in their lives they have not dared to come out to. I understand that in principle this might be a really interesting approach to help show what it is that people would like to be telling their friends and family and feel they cannot. But honestly, just about every single one of them felt like it gave way, way too much information. I’m not sure how they managed to find twenty or more people who all wanted to confess the intimate details of their sex lives to their parents and friends rather than simply explaining how their lives are happy, healthy and safe this way. Am I the only loud, proud and unashamed kinky person out there who thinks you just might not want to tell your family all about the intricacies of what gets your dick hard or your cunt wet? I’m not avoiding telling my parents this stuff because I wouldn’t dare, but because I respect good boundaries about personal sexual information. Yeesh. I feel downright conservative.
Okay, so those are my beefs. But the book is not all bad. For example, they do talk about pain, and actually do a very good job of explaining how and why pain can feel good. They talk about dominance and submission in helpful terms, too, particularly this paragraph:
“Often, people find the experience of giving up power for a pre-negotiated period of time, then taking it back afterward (or being given power and learning to handle it responsibly and give it back intact) leaves them feeling more powerful, not less; it’s as though handling the ‘currency’ of power actually makes us better power-handlers, wiser in the ways of power and how it can be used or abused.”
They do an excellent job of describing kinky culture to people unfamiliar with it. And they describe the idea of a spectrum of sexual diversity very well – check it out:
“Some people want to eat familiar food – what Mom used to cook feels most satisfying. Others seek out exotic foods from distant parts of the world. Still others choose fast food, and like to get their needs met without a lot of fuss. Others want health food, as natural as possible, to celebrate in their diet a oneness with nature. Gorumets invest a lot of attention into what they eat, collect specialized kitchen equipment, go to fancy restaurants, seek out obscure and rare ingredients, spend a lot of time perfecting a particular taste. Truth is, all these forms of nourishment are just fine, and there is no reason to think that a Tarte aux Demoiselles Tatin is any more or less satisfying than Mom’s apple pie.
Yet we often make judgments about other people’s preferences: gourmets may find traditionalists too conservative, traditionalists might think that gourmets are decadent and waste too much time and money on eating. Natural food fanciers are often disdained as ‘health nuts.’ But in food, as in sex, there is really no reason not to honor each other’s choices, and celebrate the joy we all take in our sex lives (and our nourishment) without labeling anybody less than okay. All our pleasures are brilliant.”
Conclusion? I don’t think I’ll be buying a copy of this book for my mom, but if she ever expresses an interest, I might reconsider. It’s good enough to help start the conversation, and I can surely make up for what it lacks if she’s willing to ask me questions about the missing bits. It might not help as well as I’d like it to, but for the most part I don’t think it would harm, either, assuming I framed it with my criticisms.
The other book I read was actually not one I picked up with a view to giving it to my mom, but I was pleasantly surprised and realized upon reading it that it might in fact make for an excellent choice in that respect. That’s Jack Rinella’s latest, entitled Partners In Power: Living In Kinky Relationships.
Not long ago, I wrote a post about Rinella’s The Masters’ Manual, which I found to be somewhat interesting but largely disappointing – he had some great ideas and based his work on solid values, but the writing ranged from decent to sloppy, the copy editing was downright awful, and the book jacket copy gave an inaccurate idea of what the book was actually about. So it was doubly pleasing to note that this book is way, way better than TMM. The writing still occasionally dips into the garbled, but clearly he’s either gotten better at it with time or benefited from the assistance of much more skilled editors this time around. The copy editing, much like most Greenery Press titles, is not the greatest, but it’s also not nearly as awful as some of the Daedelus titles I’ve recently read (i.e. Rinella’s other books).
Now the cool thing about this particular book is that while it’s ostensibly aimed at kinksters who are looking to find, define, maintain and enjoy their kink-based or kink-flavoured relationships, it does an absolutely stellar job in giving a down-to-earth, commonsense approach to relationship as a whole, and Rinella relies on a lot of plain old everyday wisdom to make his points. In other words, even if you’re not the least bit kinky, you’ll recognize that his sage relationship advice applies across the board. Yes, certain sorts of kinky relationships may require an advanced skill set to function well, but really most relationship problems come from the same places whether you do ’em in collars and chains or in pearls and sweater-vests… communication difficulties, unrealistic expectations, poor self-knowledge, unresolved childhood baggage, and so forth.
Rinella lays all this stuff out with frequent references to classic works of literature, philosophy and psychology and, as the book jacket says, “aphorisms as real as Mom’s apple pie” (what is it with kinsters and apple pie today?). Together, this all serves to demonstrate (rather than say) how kinky relationships, and by extension kinky people, are still basically human in our desires and foibles… we just take our pleasures in different ways. And he manages to do all that without ever falling into the “don’t worry, we’re all really normal and not scary and what we do isn’t weird” trap. Very, very impressive. My feeling is that this book is one of the few that could be just as appealing and helpful to a non-kinky person trying to understand why their friend / partner / child is “this way” and what it all means, as it could be to a longtime kinkster looking for a dose of common sense to help them recalibrate their approach to relationship-seeking or maintenance.
For starters, he insists on the humanity of kink in no uncertain terms, which I feel really points out the ways in which we’re “just like everyone else” without watering it all down to something that’s just about fuzzy handcuffs and lingerie. He phrases it best on page 16:
“(…) leather is first and foremost a human subculture. It may differ in many ways from the dominant culture in which it is found, but it always and everywhere retains the reality that the relationships found within it are human ones.
How can it be otherwise? Leather is the sum of its parts and those ‘parts’ are human. It is based on human experience, human action and interaction, human structures, mores, norms, and thought patterns. So don’t be surprised that much of what I write sounds mundane, ordinary, and as familiar as the rest of human society. It is. Under the black cowhide, the role-playing, the eroticism, the fetishistic activity, and even the counterculture, you still have humans acting humanly, which can be emotional, rational, physical, erotic, defensive, willing, greedy, rude, polite, and any other number of ways that homo sapiens naturally acts.”
He then extends that very solid logic to help explain the draw of kink for the people who partake in it. Take the following paragraphs (p. 59) as an example of how he describes the kink community, with a total lack of apology and yet a strongly wholesome flavour:
“In fact, leather is a fine vehicle for experiencing our uniqueness. It is a welcoming, tolerant and diverse community where exploration of one’s fantasy life is encouraged and shared. We support each other in becoming who we want to be: slave, pig, master, mommy, daddy, bondage bottom, queen, thrall, boy, you name it.
In return we only ask for safety, sanity and consent. Those tenets work well. Safety means we won’t injure each other or spread disease. Sanity means that we will use sound judgment and good reason in our dealings with one another. Consent means that there is no deception or unwanted force used to convince or coerce another to do our will, and that what we do, we have agred up on doing. Within that broad framework we are free to be whomever we aspire to be. (…)
This leather exploration, then, is ultimately one of self-exploration, of knowing yourself, the inner self that is reflective of your soul’s intentions and goals. The self that answers the question ‘When you are your freest self, who are you?'”
Now, that sounds like a fine advertisement for kink, and an accurate one. But he’s not all about making us sound good. One of the things Rinella does best in this particular work is critique the community, and refuse to settle for the easy answers that many kinksters can recite by heart. Even in these areas, I think this book would be a valuable read for a non-kinkster – it provides a window into the thought processes many of us engage in at one point or another along our kinky paths, and shows that we’re human and face challenges in our path much as anyone else does, without those challenges necessarily indicating that the path itself is wrong. To wit, on page 158:
“Not all evil comes from without. From another point of view we might consider our own sadistic activity, as it can move from a technique that induces pleasure into one that causes harm and injury. Where do we draw the line between what is right and wrong? How far do our experiments and explorations take us beore we have crossed into dangerous territory? How hard can we beat our slaves? How much blood dare we draw with our whips and needles? How much raunch does it take to put us outside of acceptable bounds of safety and sanity? (…)
Simply put, how do we deal with our dark sides? (…)
One of the goals of leathersex is to find ways to explore our dark sides and come to terms with evil while not engaging in it. Jung said: ‘How can I be substantial if I fail to cast a shadow: I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole; and inasmuch as I become conscious of my shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other.'”
Well done. Wow. This is a book that engages with the real questions, and while never becoming overly heady or theoretical, it never sounds condescending either. I would give this to my mom, even if I think she may find some parts of it harder to handle than others. It takes her, and my, intelligence seriously; it doesn’t try to explain things away with over-used platitudes, but rather it provides a coherent, thoughtful framework within which to better understand the desire for kinky relationships (or kink in relationships) and the relatively banal manners in which a person might engage in finding and enjoying them responsibly, consciously and for the benefit of all concerned.
Now, will I ever actually give this book to my mother? I’m not sure. I think it might be premature. Not because I think she’ll never be ready, but because I want to make sure that I don’t push my agenda on her. I don’t want to push her to learn more than she really is able to take in; rather, I want her to approach me when she’s actually ready to hear the answers to whatever questions may be percolating in her mind. It took eight years for the first ones to surface, but when she finally did ask, she was genuinely open to hearing my responses in a way that previously she may not have been. I’m a patient kind of gal. If it takes another decade for her to be brave enough to ask about the next level of detail, I’ll provide it. I don’t think she’ll ever want to know what I actually do in bed, and I’m not convinced I’d truly want to tell her if she did. But at the very least, in a perfectly sex-geeky fashion – i.e. with books in hand – I can now feel a little better equipped to explain who I am.