Archive for April, 2008

the challenge of entitlement (or, entitlement 201)
April 29, 2008

I think for me the most difficult challenge I faced in my journey of accepting and learning to enjoy my dominance has been that of entitlement. I’ve seen, and been on the receiving end of, horrendously entitled behaviour on the part of men for my whole life – entitlement to comment on women’s bodies and clothing and appearance (negatively or positively), entitlement to touch women’s bodies (though I have never been raped or seriously sexually assaulted, like most women I’ve fended off hundreds of gropers and breathers and jerk-offers and stand-too-closers over the years), entitlement to take up physical space (on buses, couches, sidewalks, dance floors), entitlement to take up energetic space (in conversation, in meetings, in workplaces, in volunteer groups), entitlement to anger (in difficult situations, both emotional and physical explosiveness without consideration of the consequence for others) and entitlement to knowledge (assuming they know more than others do, especially women, even when not necessarily better educated on the matter at hand).

My experience is that when challenged, the guys who do this react with offense – “I’m not a bad guy! How dare you suggest I’m doing something wrong! What’s your problem? Fucking bitch!” – that sometimes makes things worse than they were the first time around. Women sometimes display entitled behaviour too, and it irks me just as much and sometimes more, but it happens less often, in fewer areas, and far less predictably. Interestingly in discussion with Ariel, the guy with whom I’m teaching a BDSM and abuse workshop this coming weekend at International Ms. Leather (details in the workshop section!), he mentioned that entitlement is one of the things that domestic violence support services listen for when they’re screening for abusive situations. I didn’t know that in so many words, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Now bring this entitlement issue into the BDSM world. I find that the place where most dominants mess up, when they do, is exactly in this realm. It’s as though a lot of people figure “I’m dominant, they’re submissive, of course I’m entitled,” without stopping to think about how a person’s role in kink does not on its own constitute permission or invitation for just anyone to take up that entitlement. I’m not sure why it’s such a hard conceptual leap to make – but bad male-dom behaviour in this realm fits right in here, much like general male entitlement in the everyday world. Again, female dominants do it too, but not as often or as predictably. These are the women who’ve reclaimed their right to entitlement and then taken it too far. But if I go into mixed play space, I can absolutely guarantee that there will be at least one guy every time who will behave with entitlement towards me or someone female or trans that I’m with. Sometimes this happens in ways that mean he gets kicked out of the event, sometimes it means we roll our eyes and ignore him until he goes away. Okay, I’m sure I’ve attended a handful of events in the last decade where this has not happened, but they are the exception, not the rule. Also, gay men tend to have way less of the women’s-bodies entitlement than straight ones do (although many of my butch friends who pass as men get groped too), and are often somewhat more sensitive to entitled behaviour than the average guy, but many can be just as bad with regard to space, energy and knowledge.

I’m queer and female so I have the privilege of spending a lot of time in women-and-trans-only spaces where this sort of energy and behaviour is simply absent for the most part, or so rare as to be highly exceptional (and boy, does it ever stand out when it happens – gah). This is good on the one hand; on the other hand it means I’m all the more sensitive to the difference in dynamics when I’m in pansexual space. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see so many queer women self-segregate for this exact reason. I make the political choice to remain deliberately in contact with pansexual kink spaces and groups, and to maintain friendships with straight men, because for all that the entitlement thing crops up consistently, it’s essential for me to continue to expose myself to all the many guys out there who do not behave this way – otherwise I’d end up doing that “reverse sexism” thing and tarring all the guys with the same brush, which just isn’t fair or accurate.

Now take this entitlement question from the larger BDSM context and bring it down to the context of individual relationships. In addition to generalized male entitlement, in my younger years I was also on the receiving end of such behaviour in the context of two different significant relationships that together spanned about six years of my life. They were very destructive to me, but they taught me a helluva lot about what not to do. In that sense I’m glad I experienced them; I wouldn’t wish abusive relationships on anyone, but they certainly served to educate me about what abuse looks like and keep me deeply and intimately aware of how such things work.

Needless to say, given all this background, the thought of any kind of entitlement being encouraged, welcome, desired was completely baffling to me for a very long time. Like years. And yet there was always some part of me that understood that to authentically take up power in a D/s situation, a certain entitlement was both welcome and necessary. This messed with my head. I had a little breakthrough in 2006, which I wrote about here in “entitlement 101”, and the experience of having three really significant D/s relationships over a period of several years has made it much clearer. I’ve finally wrapped my head around it, and it finally makes sense on a gut level too, in the realm of the emotional – in that if someone craves to be owned and used and useful, entitlement and expectation is exactly what they need to from their partner as a counterpart to that mindset, which to them is good and satisfying and positive. (Add structure and discipline and correction and reward to that, of course, but that’s another post.)

If every time I took up power with one of my bois, I asked if it was okay first, then it wouldn’t be very powerful – that would undermine the value of the consent that was given to have the relationship exist along D/s power lines in the first place. It would be like saying, “I know you said this was okay, but I don’t really believe you, so I’m going to ask again each time and make sure.” This is great when you’re playing with someone on occasion, but it sucks the essence out of things if it’s done within an ongoing D/s relationship; it’s like saying the gift of ownership hasn’t really been given, or the desire or consent isn’t really valued, and it recalibrates things as being equal when the entire point is to create and sustain a deliberate inequality for mutual enjoyment and benefit. If we take this out of power exchange concepts and frame it in standard relationship terms, it would be like checking with your wife every morning if it’s okay to wear your wedding ring that day – that implies that maybe she’ll change her mind overnight, which is hardly an indication of trust in the depth and solidity of a relationship. In this way, behaviour that indicates an entitlement to the use of power is the only thing that truly validates what’s going on.

For example, Boi L once told me that if I were to take off my jacket and let go of it without even looking behind me to see if she was there to take it – if I assumed her to be paying attention, without feeling a need to check and make sure – that would be a high compliment, because it’s an indication of my trust in her service. In a way it’s like a trapeze artist swinging into the void, and letting go, and expecting that their partner will make the catch. The flyer is responsible for holding themselves in a way that makes that catch possible, for being timed and tuned with the catcher, for communicating through body and motion what needs to happen. But it’s the trust that makes it possible for the catcher to do their job. If the flyer doesn’t really expect the catcher to be there, and behaves accordingly, either she’ll mess up the move or she’ll never let go and fly at all. And a catcher who’s constantly at the ready but never gets to actually perform will get awfully frustrated with the situation too.

Part of what makes that entitlement okay is that it’s not only consensual, but deeply desired. That said, desire and consent aren’t enough to make it okay; you can see why I’d be so careful (see my recent post entitled “the dominant’s consent”) about making sure that the people with whom I do D/s are coming from a healthy place in their consent to, or pursuit of, that entitlement. I think for me the trick to holding dominance in a person’s world is to find ways to take exactly what they want to give, feel entitled to that because that’s what’s desired, and yet still somehow make my entitlement as much about them as it is about me. Not in the sense of disavowing my own dominance, but in the sense that if I get so wrapped up in what I feel entitled to that I stop considering what it means to them or what it costs them to give it, that’s no longer okay.

Part of this is about understanding where D/s takes the people on the submissive end of it. The trust that someone gives when they say “you own this piece of me” is enormous. In a sense, it becomes safe for someone to give over control of something when they know the person holding it will only make a decision that keeps their health and happiness in mind. But once that ownership is given over, no matter how true it is that the person can still take it back and walk away, the psychological and emotional cost for doing so becomes extremely high. There’s a huge grey zone between “I trust that she will only ever make decisions that are good for me” and “hey, that’s such a shitty abuse of my trust that I have to walk away,” and that’s the grey zone within which it’s up to me, as the dominant party, to hold to my principles and not get drunk on the power I have in someone’s life.

It’s that whole “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” thing. I can wake Boi M up in the middle of the night to fuck even if he’s got to work the next morning. I am most definitely entitled to. Should I? Every once in a while, yes, because the thrill of being rudely awoken for sexual purposes is pretty darn good, and goes a long way to making him feel desired and used in that satisfying happy way. Should I do it every time I’m awake in the middle of the night (which is often) and in the mood for a roll in the hay (which is just about as often)? No. That would be disrespectful of his needs for sleep and to be alert at work.

But where is the line between what feels good and what’s got unhealthy consequences? Waking him once every six months? Once a month? Once a week? Every second night? Every night for a week but never again? At what point is it a special treat versus an expected part of how we operate? At what point does it become a chore instead of a thrill? Conversely, at what point does it become something that hasn’t happened in so long he starts to wonder if I’m still interested in taking him that way? This discernment is up to me – which is not to say that he has no part in it, because he very much does. But there’s a difference between expecting someone to call you out on bad behaviour or poor choices, and making sure you don’t behave badly or make poor choices in the first place. This is the responsibility I take on as a necessary counterpart to my entitlement.

As part of that responsibility, I assign certain expectations of my bois. They are, for example, responsible for letting me know the salient details of their well-being. We often refer to this with a smile as “protecting the property” – as in, because we are talking about human beings here, and not an item of furniture or clothing, their well-being may shift in different circumstances and I can’t be the sole person watching for that; that’s simply unrealistic. This is not like owning a t-shirt, where a cursory examination is enough to make sure it’s in good shape and if it’s really falling apart you toss it in the rag bag. 

I need to know if a headache is coming on, there’s a big day at work tomorrow, the old knee injury is acting up, there’s a doctor’s appointment tomorrow so big bruises are a bad idea. I need to know if they’re having a bad day or need me to be gentle. I also need to know if they’re full of energy and want a place to direct it, if they’ve been feeling neglected, if they’re ragingly horny, if they’re lonely, if they’re having a hard time at school, if they want more structure or more tasks or more explicit direction on a given point. If I’m going to assign a new task, I need to know how performing it will affect their everyday lives – are there enough time and energy and resources for them to perform it well, or will it be taking those things away from other important endeavours? If I’m going to require a change in habits, I need to know everything about the context into which those habits were born in the first place, and what purpose they served. An order to quit drinking coffee, say, is not a bad one in principle, but doesn’t exactly equip the person to carry it out or recognize the needs that bad habit fills which will now need to be met in new ways. These things are all factors in how I deal with my bois and the degree to which I take up my entitlement.

Not only that, but I need to trust that the guiding principle for all of us is well-being whether I am present to enforce it or not. In other words, I need to trust that they won’t continue to perform a service to me if it’s detrimental to them; I need to know that in my absence, the prime directive is “do yourself no harm,” so if I told them to finish cleaning the bathroom but they realize they haven’t eaten and are feeling faint, food comes first. I will not accept self-destructive behaviour in the guise of obedience to me.

Entitlement on its own pisses me the hell off. Entitlement that’s conscious, chosen, desired and responsibly maintained is a different story entirely. It’s an ongoing journey to find my way through what that means to me and to the people with whom I share that path.

some words i just can’t reclaim
April 27, 2008

Every once in a while, my happy little alternative viewpoint hits its limits. It makes me feel downright conservative at times, but what can I say? I’m a stickler for things like accuracy in language and good spelling and grammar. No, I’m not as much of a nitpick as some; if I were, this blog wouldn’t sound nearly as conversational as it does, and y’all’d be stuck reading perfectly correct but utterly bland sentences with no quirky personality at all. 

As it stands, then, some of my views on the acceptability of certain terms are based more in questions of accuracy than in questions of political correctness. I’m not talking about dictionary accuracy necessarily; I’m talking about the ways in which words are commonly used. So while I’m all for taking words that are accurate but used pejoratively – such as, say, “queer” – and reclaiming them in their still-accurate but neutral or complementary use, I’m not such a fan of some other related practices.

Queer. Queer is a lovely word. It uses the letter “Q” in such a charming fashion. It means things like “odd” or “strange,” words which have always struck me as denoting things mysterious and intriguing and quirky and cool. I like queer. I am queer. Queer suits me just fine – I am odd and strange, at least if you compare my sexuality to the mainstream ideal, and that’s a good thing in my books. If others want to hurl it out open car windows at me along with a beer bottle, well, that’s awfully rude of them. But it doesn’t make me any less queer or feel any less happy with the term. The degree of insult inherent in the use of the word “queer” is proportional to the degree of desire the person on the receiving end of it wants to be, or be perceived as, normal. I don’t the least bit care about normalcy so the word has no power to hurt my feelings. Yes: queer is good. And it is accurate.

Not so much for certain other words. The word “slut,” for example, which some people have made valiant efforts to reclaim. Me? I just can’t get behind it. Slut is, first of all, an inherently sexist term. It’s applied in vastly disproportionate fashion to women and girls; this is evidenced in the use of the term “male slut” when “slut” needs to be qualified by a gender other than the one it’s assumed to be referencing. A simple Google search suffices to prove my point: 52,100 hits for “male slut” and only 16,400 for “female slut.” To me, this is a clear indication that sluts are presumed female until explained otherwise. (The term “slut” on its own gets nearly 57 million hits.)

“Slut” also carries with it a connotation of indiscriminate sexual availability. It’s used as a pejorative term for people who’ll pretty much do anything with anyone, who aren’t picky, who don’t have much self-esteem so they’ll let anyone use ’em for pleasure. It’s an unfortunate reality that such people exist – that there are women, and some men, out there who really truly believe they’re not worth much unless someone’s groping them or sticking a hard cock in one of their orifices, and so will abase themselves to get that sort of attention from as many people as possible. Sluts are the ones who get used and tossed aside. They really are out there. Lots of ’em. It’s a terrible state of affairs and I would love to give those people a shake and tell them they deserve way better.

I am not a slut. No matter how much Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy would like me, as a non-monogamous person, to reclaim the term “slut” and wear it proudly as they do in the title of their famed book, I just can’t love that word. Why? Because it’s not accurate. I am extremely discriminating in my sexual tastes. I deserve nothing but the best. I am willing, and fully able, to be single and celibate for long periods of time if partners of sufficient quality are not available. I do not want mediocre sex. I want top-of-the-line gourmet sex and I will not lower my standards to make anyone else happy. I’m not against one-night stands, but unless they’re with highly exceptional people or in situations where the chemistry is excruciatingly mind-blowingly strong, the chances of such adventures being truly satisfying are minimal, so my pursuit of them is correspondingly minimal.

I am also not a body to be used for another’s pleasure. I can provide pleasure in buckets, for sure, but I do so by my own agency and at my own choice, not because I’m expected to as the owner of a female body. I do not take all comers, and I do not get used and tossed aside; if I get sexual with someone at all, generally they want to come back for more. The only thing that makes me remotely resemble a slut is a mere technicality – I have sex with multiple partners. But the common ground ends there. And I am not willing to take up the use of a term that would equate my carefully chosen and highly valued sexual relationships with the indiscriminate rutting of desperate people who are fucking to fill up an emotional void inside themselves. There are sluts out there, and I’m not one of them, so that word is not for me.

Here’s another word, and one that’s perhaps even more loaded: “slave.”

Now, I don’t follow a path of submission in my kink life, but I am honoured by the presence in my world of people who do. One of those people is proud to be considered my property, and another is on the way to holding that status in my world. They both serve me, and do so with exquisite care and attention to detail. In turn, I take up authority in their worlds, and hold the role of chief decision-maker in a number of very significant areas of their lives. Their service and their submission to me are gifts of the highest quality, and I do not take them lightly.

Are they my slaves? No. A slave is someone who has been stolen or purchased and then coerced, whether by brute force or the power of terrible circumstance, to serve a master they may or may not respect. There is no honour there, no generosity, and above all no choice. Slavery is a cruel institution that’s been visited on people all over the world, and the hallmark of slavery is that it is completely non-consensual.

Sure, we can bring in the race card – and it is true that there’s a long and bloody history of slavery in many countries, where countless people, almost always people of colour, were subjected to horrendous abuses at the hands of colonizers, usually white. I don’t discount the validity of that argument. But unlike some people, I’m arguing against the term “slave” not for political reasons, but again for reasons of accuracy. My bois have chosen to be in this sort of relationship with me. They choose it actively, and with great desire and great enthusiasm. They regularly come to me with ideas and suggestions for how to reinforce our dynamic. I may be an owner, but I am an owner of treasured property, property that has agency and input and that takes great satisfaction in their position. These people are not slaves. They may be owned but they are absolutely free. I have no claim on them beyond that which they give me. If they want to leave, there is no penalty; they can simply walk away. If I want to keep them around, it’s my job to hold up my end of the bargain and be a responsible and caring owner.

Of course there are lots of people in the BDSM world who use the term “slave” in ways that hold a completely different meaning than the standard one. In no way do I want to tell these people that they don’t have a right to use the word exactly as they please. But I feel we need to be clear on what’s happening here. This is not a case of reclaiming a controversial word. This is a case of redefining one, which is a completely different project. Nobody in the BDSM world, at least not that I’ve ever encountered, purports to do slavery in ways that resemble the true, coerced slavery of past generations of African slaves in the USA, for example. No, BDSM slavery is entirely different. In many cases it looks a whole lot like what I do with Boi M and Boi L.

People can redefine words all they want, and I won’t dispute their right to their choices. But as for me, I’m not really all that enthusiastic about taking terms that carry a strong negative charge and using them in completely new ways. We kinksters have a bad enough time as it is trying to convince the outside world that what we do is not abusive or coercive – why the heck would we take a term that connotes exactly those things, and then get all huffy when people misunderstand us? Why insist that the word be redefined, instead of using or coming up with one that already means what it should? No thanks. I’d rather express myself accurately in the first place, and tell people that my bois are in a state of consensual servitude to me, with varying degrees of ownership on my part. They are not my slaves, and I don’t want them to be.

I very much understand that language is permeable, that words have multiple meanings, and that human beings are endlessly creative in coming up with new ways of expressing and conveying messages through vocabulary. One might percieve the perspective I’m taking as being overly rigid or hopelessly mired in linguistic traditionalism. I would posit, though, that what I’m doing is actually a far more radical act. I am suggesting that instead of stubbornly trying to apply new meanings to words that already have plenty of meaning in their original sense, and meaning we don’t want them to have, that we should come up with entirely new ones ourselves, or use ones that already exist but do convey the appropriate meaning.

Instead of slavery, how about consensual erotic servitude? Hey, we could even get really hip and go for acronyms: CES, which could be further abbreviated to CS if the relationship isn’t of the erotic sort. Hey, the world of alternative sexuality already has tons of those, so it’s familiar currency – BDSM itself, for starters, not to mention its component parts BD, D/s, and SM. And don’t forget M/s, AB/DL, TPE, 24/7, DD, TS, TG, TV, GLBTIQQ, SSC, RACK and CBT. As for “slut,” well, if I had to describe my approach to things, I’d simply say I’m non-monogamous, or if someone really wanted to hear something less generic, perhaps I’d say I’m a sex-positive ethical hedonist who enjoys multiple relationships, some of them loving, some of them just for fun. Really, the way I do my sex life can’t be summed up in a single word, so I’m not going to try.

In the end, people will do exactly as they please, as well they should. I’m not advocating for the community to frown on terms like “slut” and “slave”; if those words feel right to the people using them, more power to ’em. I think I’m simply stating that while some folks may stand behind a particular usage, not everyone will, and mine is just one (nitpicky language professional’s) way of choosing against the words that don’t quite fit and adopting ones that do.

tease and deny: cross-cultural erotics
April 25, 2008

San Francisco is just full of fun things to do. In one day, I went from exploring 17th-century Japanese erotic art to learning about the history of burlesque and the art of twirling one’s nipple tassels. Wow. Quite a town.

I spent the afternoon wandering through the Asian Art Museum with a couple of friends, and it was absolutely lovely. Being people with certain, ahem, priorities, we ignored the bulk of the museum and concentrated on the Floating Worlds exhibit, which featured an amazing array of Japanese works – mainly hanging scrolls, screens and hand scrolls – from the 1600s to 1800s. The exhibit is split into two rooms, one of which felt to me like foreplay and the other which felt like getting down to business, though the museum itself doesn’t explain it that way of course. The foreplay section provides all sorts of context about the ways pleasure was experienced and constructed in ancient Japanese society – dress styles, hairstyles, areas of town set up for entertainment of every variety. The exhibit features many well-written panels explaining various intricacies of Japanese society and cultural symbolism, very helpful for the culture-hound sex geeks among us. 

The other section is where the erotic art itself is displayed. All things considered there’s not a lot of art that’s explicitly erotic in nature, but what’s there is incredibly revealing (ha!) of a finely tuned and highly knowledgeable culture of eroticism. First of all, the scenes depicted are set up to tease the viewer and emphasize the voyeuristic aspect of looking at such images – nearly every erotic scene is painted so that we as the viewers are peeking around a screen, looking through a sheer curtain, or standing across a river from what’s going on. The scenes themselves are highly detailed, with the genitals painted larger than life (how typical of erotic art from any culture!), and they show an array of sex acts. Aside from the size question, the anatomy is perfectly correct – women (gasp!) have clitorises, for example, and the men actually play with them! And on top of all that, the artists went so far as to paint with mica to add shine to the “important” bits – basically, to indicate the presence of bodily fluids. Even that was done with incredible precision. The mica was used to add drops of pre-cum on the tip of a penis, women’s juices dripping down men’s fingers, and more. Fascinating.

The further interesting bit is that while we were there exploring on our own, a guide was leading a public tour of the exhibit. The group went through the foreplay section while we were in it, and arrived in the sex section as we were there too, but a few moments behind. We circled the rooms and looked at each piece; the most explicit works were directly in the centre of the room, hand scrolls in glass cases. Beyond the exhibit itself, I was almost more intrigued to hear the way the tour guide handled explaining the art. She circled as we had done, offering information about each work, and my friends and I waited nearby to see what she’d say about the explicit stuff. Information about the mica technique? Analysis of the voyeuristic elements?

Nope. None of the above. “The official tour is over, but I strongly encourage you to take a look at the works in the centre of the room, which are not included in my tour because it’s difficult to see them all at once with a large group.”

Umm… what? You get the group to stand around the long glass case and you speak from one end of it. Not that complicated, really. The guide’s – or perhaps the museum’s – decision to leave out any explanation of the explicitly erotic works was a telling reminder of how uncomfortable people still are when it comes to talking aloud about sex, even when in a context such as a museum exhibit on that very topic where such speech would be perfectly appropriate. It was also funny to think about how in some ways 17th-century Japan was more at ease with the expression of sex than contemporary America, even in a city as progressive and sex-friendly as San Francisco.

After the exhibit, I headed for the Center for Sex and Culture to help staff a couple of classes led by the lovely Miss Indigo Blue, a burlesque queen and teacher from Seattle who’s in town for, among other things, Midori’s Bang 4 the Buck play party which I am heading to this evening. She taught two classes: one entitled “The Art of the Tease,” which gave a history of burlesque performance and a crash course in techniques for a tease, and the other one aimed mainly at performers and focusing on the techniques for choosing nipple pasties and getting those tassels to twirl.

I learned all sorts of fun things from her. For example, apparently the word “burlesque” derives from the Italian word “burlar,” to joke or make fun of. Burlesque began in 1800s in the form of variety shows, with pretty women thrown in every once in a while for interest. As time went on, the pretty ladies took up more and more time in the shows, such that by the era we understand as “classic” in burlesque terms – 1930s to 1960s – the comics were on as relief for the strippers, not the reverse. And the women were taking off more and more clothing as years went by; in the 1860s it was scandalous to reveal legs, even though they were clothed in tights.

By the ’60s burlesque was on a major decline because people could go to strip clubs and see the whole shebang. I wonder what that means about present-day neo-burlesque – perhaps we’ve rediscovered the ways in which not exactly seeing everything can be more arousing than splayed legs? I don’t know, but I do know I’ve loved virtually every burlesque performance I’ve ever attended, so there must be something to it. Then again I’ve always enjoyed strippers too. Maybe I’m just an equal-opportunity perv.

Indigo also spoke about the ways in which bodily movements that are considered erotic have changed over the years. In the 1950s, she explained, a “bump” motion – pushing the pelvis forward – was considered very provocative, and shaking the breasts was as well, because clothing was designed to constrict and constrain and so such free movements were unseen. Nowadays, what’s considered provocative is to exaggerate the ass-to-tit ratio by arching the back, raising the butt and pushing the breasts forward. I didn’t think, at the time, to ask what cultural factors she thought might be responsible for that shift in the perception of what’s exciting to look at, but I’d be very intrigued to know.

Most interesting of all, Indigo gave step-by-step instructions on how to manufacture desire. It was very strange to be sitting in a class about erotic performance and all of a sudden feel like I was in the middle of a marketing seminar. That’s not the energy she brought to it, of course, but nonetheless it occurred to me that much of what Indigo was talking about resembled the ways in which the art of marketing takes place, though I’ve never seen it laid out so clearly. (Of course I’ve done quite a lot of marketing writing without ever having taken a marketing class per se, so my perspective is an odd one.)

So, step one: create an object or area of desire. It can be anything; whether or not this object (in this case a body part) has any actual value is not the point. Indigo demonstrated this by covering her neck (which until then had been exposed, as she was wearing a simple t-shirt) with a boa, and using it to demonstrate her points. Step two: draw attention to it. In burlesque terms, this is done by using hands, large motions, facial expressions. This is also done by alternating between making eye contact with the audience and looking at the object itself, which creates tension between the audience’s desire to make eye contact with the performer and to see what’s being so tantalizingly hidden. Step three: withhold it. Demonstrate that effectively, you, the performer, have access to this wonderful thing, but the audience does not. Step four: remind the audience that object is there. Step five: show a bit, cover it up; show it, cover it up; repeat three or four times. This builds anxiety, anticipation, desire. Perhaps, maybe, the audience will have the chance to see. Step six: start to reveal it. Acknowledge that what’s happening in the audience is the impending release of that built-up tension, and perhaps insert a little humour to help lessen the shame because hey, if you can all laugh together it can’t be that bad, right? And step seven: reveal the object, and make a really big deal of it so they feel like they got what they were waiting for that whole time.

Wow. So simple, yet so effective. As an audience member, the tease works on me every time, and when it’s missing I feel like I’ve been cheated. Anytime I’ve attended any kind of striptease performance where that element of tease was missing, it’s been disappointing, whether I’m at a burlesque show a standard gentlemen’s strip club. I’m not there for the costumes and the bare skin; I’m there because I want the engaging emotional experience of being drawn in and entertained by a performer who cares about creating that flirty energy with me. Not me personally, of course, but me as the audience. To see someone simply get on stage and drop their drawers is boring. And, by Indigo’s logic – which makes perfect sense – that would be an indication that the performer does not value the object that is being revealed… so why, as an audience member, should I? Really, what I’m interested in is sitting back and being drawn into a pleasant illusion by someone who’s skilled at creating it, in a context where we all understand it’s an illusion and we’re just playing. (From this perspective, perhaps I understand role play a smidgen better – but that’s an entirely other post.) I want someone to make me believe that their naked or semi-naked body is the most exciting and wonderful thing I could possibly imagine, and aren’t I lucky to get to see it. I want to walk out feeling lucky.

I certainly did feel lucky in the second class, where I watched Indigo show a room full of topless women – from cute tiny small-breasted gals to gorgeous voluptuous ladies – how to twirl their tassels. I wasn’t participating, but boy did I pick up some neat tricks. Amazing how the female body can be so expertly manipulated by its owner to pull off such an oddly mesmerizing party trick. But it’s a lot harder to convey boob-bouncing technique in a blog post, so I think I will leave that one to the experts. You’ll just have to take Indigo’s class sometime if you’re curious…

The thing I found most amusing about all this is the absolutely crystal clear demonstration that effectively, erotic desire is very often bound up in the concept of what is forbidden, and always has been – it’s a cross-cultural and trans-historical fact. If in the same day I can see 17th-century Japanese scrolls that make a point of showing me, the viewer, that I am looking in at something desirable and forbidden, and then take a class on how to make a contemporary performance audience feel they are looking at something desirable and forbidden, clearly this is a theme that works and has worked for people in competely different temporal, geographical and cultural situations.

Of course, this simple little fact is surely not news to most of us; I think it’s simply that I haven’t seen it demonstrated in such a stark way by exposure to facets of that one precise concept in two completely different contexts in the same eight-hour period, in completely different institutions not a ten-minute walk from one another. The human mind is such a strange thing.

On that note, I’m going to go get ready for tonight’s entertainment: Midori’s Bang 4 the Buck women-and-trans play party. It begins with an amateur butch-femme strip lesson by none other than the lovely Indigo Blue, followed by a striptease performance contest. Hey, if a bevy of hotties wants to practice their newfound art of the tease, who am I to deprive them of an appreciative audience? Really, it’s the least I can do!

the ethics of sadism
April 24, 2008

I went to a Perverts Put Out erotica reading at the Center for Sex and Culture on Saturday night, and it was excellent. What a great line-up of readers. Highlights included Lori Selke’s piece “Cocksucking” in which the female protagonist’s boyfriend gets really into the idea of sucking cock (hers and others’), and Greta Christina, editor of Paying For It, who read a piece (which can be found in the Best Sex Writing 2008 anthology) about her experience paying for a session with a professional submissive.

But the piece that stood out the most, for me, was the very first one, read by Steven Schwartz. It was an untitled non-fiction piece about his experience at a bear gathering. Bears, for those not already familiar with these fine creatures, are the hefty hairy gay (or bi) men who are eroticized for that type of appearance; they often eroticize one another. Sometimes they pair up with non-bears. There’s a whole animal-metaphor culture out there – otters and the like – that I don’t know enough about to really explain, but that’s the gist of it.

The basic premise of the story is that the author hooked up with a bear couple and went home to bottom to them. When they got down to business, the guys tried to physically force him to have unprotected sex past his very clear “no,” by grabbing his head to immobilize him and trying to penetrate his butt sans condom. He reacted in self-defense, kicking one in the nuts and shoving the other one’s face into the bed’s headboard; once they’d backed off he told them to go into the bathroom and stay there until he was gone, and he gathered his stuff and left.

There were a number of interesting elements to this story, not the least of which being that it actually took place. Among other things I was very intrigued to note that he used the word “rape” but implied that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the term – I wonder why, and I didn’t get the chance to ask. 

The author spent quite a lot of time musing about his own relationship to violence enacted in self-defense. He is apparently someone with great strength and lightning-quick reflexes, who has defended himself from a skinhead gay-bashing at least once and took martial arts in order to, of all things, learn how to slow down.

In some ways, he has a problem I’d love to have – the ability to truly physically defend himself against attack and the attendant responsibility to know his own strength and manage it appropriately. Many of us with lesser strength have developed all kinds of intriguing ways to self-protect precisely because when push comes to shove, we’re physically outmatched. For me personally, I’ve escaped various classic “girl alone in the dark at a bus stop, big threatening man approaches” situations by learning how to quickly access a sort of dark rage that quite effectively scares them away – it’s worked numerous times and all I’ve needed to do is raise my voice and project that energy. My capacity to inflict physical violence in self-defense has never been tested, and I wouldn’t wish for such an opportunity – partly because I’m not sure I’d be successful, partly because I’m afraid I would be, and that I wouldn’t stop when the need for self-defense was past. I’d very much prefer to live out the rest of my life without ever knowing what would happen if my rage were legitimately triggered and I were in a position to mete out retribution past the moment of ensuring my own safety.

Now the twist to Saturday night’s story is that the author also happens to identify as a sadist.

Normally this is a part of himself that he indulges in during consensual play – so far, so good. But now, take the situation of an attempted rape, and fully justifiable self-defense, and place that in the hands of a self-defined sadist. Schwartz described the few brief moments of that self-defense as being a sadist’s dream – an officially justifiable free shot where it’s really okay to hurt someone, and not in a good way. To turn the tables and keep hurting them once they are no longer a threat to you, not so justifiable… but in the few seconds you have to defend yourself against a rapist, there’s a lot of leeway for the use of force. He described the way in which, in the moment, he defended himself and then got the hell out of there. (The attempted rapists got the hell out too – they were nowhere to be seen for the rest of the bear weekend.) But he then went on to describe how, for months following that experience, he would jack off to the memory of the crunching sound that happened when the man’s face hit the headboard, full well knowing that it wasn’t the wood that was breaking.

For all that I hesitate to qualify certain things as “real” in the BDSM world, as in “that guy’s a TRUE submissive” or “she’s a REAL top,” I think this is where we see the difference between a “sadist” in the sense of “a sensation top” or perhaps “a sensation top who likes to push a bottom’s limits for mutual enjoyment,” and a “sadist” in the sense of “someone who really gets off on others’ genuine pain especially when they really don’t like it, not even in that fun way.”

Speaking for myself, I can say that I enjoy both of those things. The vast majority of the time I play, topping is what I’m after – taking someone on a journey of sensation and / or submission, where I take my pleasure in their trust and openness and responsiveness. Sure, sometimes those scenes can be challenging for the bottom, and very intense for me too, but at their core they are still about a certain mutuality. At times during those scenes my Beast gets to have a little taste of what it likes, but those tastes are fleeting and not the focus of the scene.

But there have been a few precious times when people trusted me enough, and wished enough to give me pleasure that was solely about me, that they have offered themselves to me for an experience that wasn’t about their pleasure at all… that was purely about giving me a body to torture so that I could do what I liked. That sort of scene comes from a completely different place. It allows me to let go of the idea that this is in part for the bottom’s benefit, while nonetheless maintaining a basic attention to their well-being (i.e. nobody gets maimed). It allows me to cause them pain and fear and to feed off that energy in a way that’s entirely about the dark, freaky glee of just plain hurting the fuck out of someone, no build-up, no arc, just ow ow ow that fucking hurts and no I’m not going to stop. That’s when my Beast really gets to come out and feed. 

Sometimes the bottom wants to give me a gift, and feels they know me and love me well enough to love even that frightening, nasty part of me. Sometimes they want to see how much they can withstand when someone does their worst. In every case the trust required is enormous – they need to know that there’s a Beast feeding on their pain, but that I’m still there too right beside that Beast, and that I’m stronger than it is, and that I won’t let any true harm come to them. Needless to say, playing in this place is not something I do often, and when I do I have to be really goddamn sure that the person who wants it is deeply sane and very strong, and offering from a place that makes some sort of genuine sense. There are very few motivations for this sort of play on a bottom’s part that I think are really legit. I never expect this of anyone, and I never ask for it. I think it’s something that can only really be okay if it’s freely offered.

There was a time a few years ago when I wrote a piece stating how clearly I saw the difference between the BDSM understanding of sadism and the understanding of sadism as we usually apply it to psychopathic torturers and murderers. At the time, I felt that we were different breeds entirely; that our pleasures were simply on different planets, not sourced from the same place. But having met and acknowledged my Beast, I don’t think that’s true anymore, and haven’t for quite some time. I know a lot of people might disagree, but the experience of understanding sadism from the inside out, and the experience of meeting others like me, has made me rethink where I draw that line. We may be distant cousins, but we are definitely of the same species. Is that an uncomfortable thought? Hell yeah. But the things that keep us distinct are pretty enormous, and as such I’m not the least bit worried that a bunch of kinksters will wind up pulling Dahmers.

I think the distinction between criminal sadists and BDSM sadists of the Beast (true? real?) variety lies in three places: consent, competence and sanity.

Consent sort of speaks for itself. I know there are tons of discussions out there worth having about the idea of consent – having recently indulged in some musings on the matter myself, I would hardly argue that it’s a simple concept or one that’s entirely self-evident. However, for the sake of this post, let’s simply define the presence of consent as being about the mutual informed desire of all participants for whatever activity is taking place, even if that activity would normally be considered unorthodox or painful. The BDSM sadist requires consent before indulging in the pleasures of his or her sadism. Preferably, the BDSM sadist requires an extremely high degree of nuanced and thoroughly informed consent, and is quite sure that the willing partner is entirely healthy in their motivations for that consent.

Competence is about having the requisite knowledge and skill to inflict painful stimulus on a person, even when they don’t like it, without causing them undue harm or serious injury. The specifics are also a different discussion; the manners in which a sadist can cause pain can run from the banal to the extreme, and I’m not embarking on a post about technique. Suffice it to say that some of the most excruciating pain a person can experience can leave no injury whatsoever, or injury that’s barely visible and very low-risk. If you’re going to be playing with pain at all, you’d definitely better have learned how to do it safely before you subject anyone else to your ministrations. And as a bottom, you’d better know for damn sure that your sadist of choice is competent to carry out whatever actions you’ve agreed to explore together.

In the realm of sanity, of course that includes all the classic elements, which to me (without wishing to offend any therapists by my over-simplicity) means being free of major emotional or mental disorders. If someone schizophrenic also happens to be sadistic, they’re probably not the best choice of a sadistic play partner, unless they’re really good about taking their meds. If someone heavily addicted to a mind-altering substance happens to be a sadist, I would also wish to avoid placing myself in a vulnerable situation with them. And of course, if a person is psychopathic in addition to being sadistic, there’s definitely some sanity missing and you should probably avoid letting them aim their sadism at you.

Last year I read the book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare, and it rocked my world – it gave me a completely new understanding of psychopathy, what it looks like and how it plays out. It put words to the things I have noticed in a few people over my lifetime. The book includes a list of diagnostic criteria, all of which must be met for a person to be considered a true psychopath, but it sheds light on a lot of the behaviours and personality types I’ve encountered which, while not necessarily indicating full-on psychopathy, certainly lean in that direction. The basic idea is that a psychopath is a person who is lacking the element of conscience that operates in most people – compassion, empathy, a sense of connection to fellow human beings. (Read the book A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon alongside Without Conscience if you want a really neat picture of how all this works. It’s frickin’ fascinating and both books are absolutely excellent, two of the best I read in their respective years.) Not all psychopaths are sadistically or criminally inclined; in fact it’s quite a small percentage, all things considered.

What I’m getting at with all this is that sadism is not intrinsically linked to insanity, criminal behaviour, psychopathy, rape or any of the other things pop culture likes to attach it to. Sadism is the enjoyment of other people’s pain, period. There is a very narrow framework within which that enjoyment can take place and remain ethical. One of the very few places I can see that working is within a tightly controlled situation that meets high standards of consent, competence and sanity… of the nature one might find in the BDSM world. In the past, I would have said that this was pretty much the only framework within which a sadist could ethically enjoy their sadism. Until Saturday night, I might have continued to think that was true.

But one more narrow framework in which sadism might remain ethical is exactly the one the author described in his story: when a person needs to lash out physically for the purpose of self-defense. Inflicting a physically painful action upon a non-consenting partner is only acceptable if you truly have no choice – when that person has negated their right to consent by acting against yours, and your action is carried out with the purpose of escaping that situation. The ethics of it last as long as it takes to get yourself out of immediate danger, and not a second longer.

Taking pleasure in that very moment of inflicting pain also would make the situation unethical, in my opinion. The logic is that if you’re fighting for your safety, I don’t think there’s room for experiencing pleasure at the same time, so if you are experiencing pleasure at that moment, you’re probably no longer in a situation of immediate danger and necessary self-defense. Which of course neatly negates the ethical acceptability of the situation. In this kind of situation, if you’re able to think of what you’re doing as the indulgence of your sadism in the moment you’re doing it, it’s probably not ethical to be doing it at all.

But if you do encounter one of those incredibly narrowly framed moments, and you do act ethically, and you happen to be a sadist so you can eroticize or otherwise attach enjoyment to the experience once it’s already past – well, that’s a bit hard to argue against. I would never wish to experience that myself, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, but I can see why it would make for seriously interesting jerk-off material, and I’m grateful that Steven Schwartz shared it so some of us can experience some vicarious pleasure.

the dominant’s consent
April 22, 2008

More exciting discussion on the international BDSM list I’ve been referring to a lot lately. This time, the conversation is around deeper explorations of the concept of consent. Someone asked me for my opinion – mwahahahahaha! Again, I felt it appropriate to re-post here with some mild editing for context.

I think my point of view on the question of consent verges on the extreme, so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone, but here goes.

For me, the idea of consent is almost missing the point. Not so much because it’s irrelevant, but because it’s a basic first step. After the initial “yes” we get into a whole other list of considerations, and when I play with someone, those considerations become a matter of finely tuned and moment-by-moment personal judgment… which means the results are completely subjective.

So the questions I ask myself to determine a person’s consent by my own standards (not necessarily theirs) don’t stop with “Do they want this?” and “Are they competent to consent by the usual standards – mental health, intoxication, age, etc.?” Those are the first ones, the sine qua non. 

Then we get to the really important questions, and here the answers become much more about my gut feelings. I don’t necessarily ask a lot of these questions out loud, it’s more of a judgment call based on my read of the other person’s energy and approach. Here are a few…

– Why do they want this? Is that reason a healthy one in my opinion? Sometimes this is a huge question worth spending a lot of time on. I once negotiated a single scene with someone for many hours over several weeks – he was a complete novice and he wanted to be securely bound and then subjected to as much pain and torture as I could dish out, no warm-up, no breaks. He wanted to genuinely test how much he could take. It took a long time before I really felt this was an okay thing to do, and it very much was – one of the most memorable scenes of my life, and his too. But wow, did it take some work to convince me this was healthy.

– What assumptions are they making about who I am, what I want, and what I expect of them? This also is a big one. One of my bois badly wants to be a masochist because she knows I like to play with pain sluts, but she simply isn’t. We can grow this gradually, for sure, but she wants to take more for me than is really good for her because she wants to please me *right now*. As a result, in the past I have needed to calibrate and call her on it when she was struggling and didn’t want to let it show. We needed to get to a place where I could trust her to say “that’s too much.” She needed to know that I was more interested in her well-being than in satisfying my sadism.

– Are they approaching this with a sense of lack and need (big warning sign for me) or with a sense of strong, vibrant desire (yum)?

– If I were to back out or change the specific plans for our scene at the last minute because I felt tired or something, would they freak out at me, or be laid back and understanding about it? Even better, would they be kind and want to try some other thing that better accommodates my reality? In other words, how much of their desire for me is about wanting to connect with me in whatever state I’m genuinely in, versus wanting me to be the embodiment of their specific fantasy regardless of where I’m at? Is this about mutuality or about blind hunger?

– Who do they think I am? Am I their friend who gives a good flogging, their potential life partner, their hot new date, an embodiment of the Divine Feminine, a notch on their belt, a substitute for the person they really want, a curiosity…? Do I want to be that for them?

– What does it mean to that person to explore this with me? What will they expect of me during and especially afterwards? Can I, and do I want to, fulfill that expectation, whether it’s stated (or even conscious) or not?

– Are we on the same page about the eroticism, or lack of eroticism, in what we’re about to do? i.e. Is my understanding of “sex” the same as theirs? Is there any imbalance in our attraction to one another that places them in a more vulnerable position than me? Am I comfortable with that if so? What about if it’s vice versa?

– Will this scene (or relationship) take them to a place of feeling full and strong and beautiful (despite or because of the difficult things I’m doing to them) or will it make them feel diminished, weak, unworthy, ugly, or support their existing negative self-image? Am I contributing to their well-being, even if it’s through challenge and pain, or enabling a cycle of emotional ill health?

– Are they ashamed of what they want – and not in that fun hot way? Do they need to pretend to be someone else in order to do it and still feel okay? Do they need me to pretend to be someone else? (Needless to say this is another big warning sign.)

– Are they trusting me too much? In other words, are they valuing their own bodily and emotional well-being sufficiently highly to check and test me out first, to make sure I have the skills needed to play the way they want, to ensure I’m trustworthy and competent? Or are they simply throwing themselves at my feet and saying, “Anything, Mistress! I have no limits!” (Again those warning signs.) If I feel their trust is not calibrated to their knowledge of me, are there factors present that may explain this to my satisfaction? (Community references, for example, or observation of my play style at public events.)

– If we are exploring something new, especially if I’m more experienced than they are and have a sense of what doors it might open for them, do I think they can handle the places I think it might take them? Do they have the necessary emotional resources or community / personal support networks to lean on? If they don’t, am I prepared to provide that support myself?

– If the person wishes to be submissive to me, and to offer me elements of their life to control, are those elements truly theirs to offer? For example, if someone wants me to control their bedtime and waking time, what if their family situation has a claim on that time already? If they want me to take ownership of their style of dress, what if their workplace dictates that already? If they want me to own their sexual pleasure, what if they have other lovers who may not wish to have their interactions dictated by some other person? Of course this will be very different in a scene as compared to an ongoing relationship, but the question still stands. Can I take what they are giving me, or in doing so would I effectively be aiding them in stealing it from someone or something else?

– What’s their emotional state? Are they in pain and looking for some sort of catharsis? If so, do I think it’s wise to provide it? While catharsis can be good, I don’t want to serve up the BDSM equivalent of a self-mutilator’s release at a new knife cut, where stress leads to dependence on pain for release and I am just a stand-in for self-damage.

– What are their communication skills like, both verbal and non-verbal? In other words, can I trust that if something goes wrong, they will let me know in some clear fashion? Or simply: as a top, am I emotionally safe in trusting that this person will not turn me into a rapist by neglecting to keep me informed of their ongoing status of consent? Can I read their non-verbal signs well enough to know something’s up even if they’re not saying it by our agreed-upon signs?

I guess what it comes down to is that not only do the basics of competence to consent need to be present, but I need to have a lot of additional information that comes from just feeling out a person and a situation. It’s not enough for them to consent; I have to feel that consent is coming from a good, solid place by MY standards, whether they like it or not. There have been many times when I’ve heard a “yes please,” sometimes very insistently, and my answer has been “you are not ready” or “this is not what you need” or “I want to too, but I am not willing under the current circumstances.” If someone gets upset about me presuming to contradict their self-knowledge, so be it. I trust my own judgment and would rather be safe than sorry. They can be as pissed off as they want. I’ll still feel better than if I were to do something despite that nagging little voice in my head. So far I’ve never lived to regret listening to that voice. And so far, while I’ve dealt with the occasional grumble, nobody’s ever lived to hate my guts for saying no when my spidey-senses were tingling – some have even thanked me later, some of them months or years later. I would rather be accused of arrogance than risk damaging someone when some part of me knew better.

I know this all sounds really complicated, but it’s not like I go through this litany of questions in order every time I play with someone new. It’s more like a list of the problems my gut instincts have pointed me to in the past – a list of all the reasons why I might find myself saying “no thanks.” 

While it may appear that all of these questions are aimed mainly at determining the degree of “true” consent on the part of the bottom I may be playing with, in truth these are the ways I determine my own consent as a top and a dominant – consent which is mine alone, and for which I don’t owe anyone a justification.


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