venn diagrams of likelihood, or, the question of gender in play space

Thanks for the questions! I wasn’t online when they came in, so that means I didn’t approve the comments immediately, which means you didn’t see them, which means that you posted additional ones, so now I’ve actually got three questions to answer and not one. Which really isn’t a bad thing! Three days’ worth of posts – much appreciated.

I’ll start with Kim’s question:

I’ve been asked this alot since Harvest, so I’ll throw it out to you to get your take:

What do you think is the difference ‘feel wise’ is the difference between women’s only parties and parties where males and females both attend?

(the question is often asked from/because of bio males and refers to the energy/atmosphere/etc of the event(s) rather than the safe space aspect or obvious 24/7 hot girl on girl Girls Gone Wild type action so many are convinced occur as such events)

Based on what I know about the events that Kim organizes (though I have not yet had the pleasure of attending one), Kim’s events are inclusive of trans people, both male-to-female and female-to-male, as is An Unholy Harvest, the event I co-organize that she’s referring to. So I’m going to assume that’s what she’s asking about.

First I’d like to make a big disclaimer. The first one is that any general statement I make about the feel of a space based on gender balance is not going to be entirely accurate in all cases, or really even most cases. People are people, and gender is only one aspect of who we are. And y’know what? People of all genders can be jerks. And people of all genders can be totally awesome.

I’ve certainly been at lots of events that include non-trans men and that have had a great vibe, where people are considerate, respectful, joyful, with sweet and generous energy, and nary a rude wanker or leering lout in sight. For me personally, this includes two of my favourite regular sex parties in Toronto; the kinky book club I run, the Leather Bindings Society; the vast majority of the private parties and gatherings I host (explicitly sexual or otherwise); and a sizeable number of the larger public leather events I’ve attended all over the continent.

I’ve also been at many women-and-trans events where I felt distinctly uncomfortable – where people were disrespectful, or the vibe was off, or people behaved poorly, or I genuinely felt like I needed to keep my guard up. Some people have argued that even in those cases, the bad stuff is still a specific flavour of bad because of the women-and-trans gender composition, and that they prefer that type of environment regardless. I’m not one of those people. I have avoided certain women-and-trans spaces specifically because the vibe has been so unpleasant, or I’ve made a point of attending only under specific circumstances where my friends and I can create a sort of energy “bubble” to hold our play and keep away the bad vibes while we enjoy ourselves.

That said, I’d be a fool if I tried to tell you that there’s no likelihood of difference based on gender composition. There is. If you fling open the doors of a space and tell people of all genders they can show up and play, you will almost certainly attract a certain percentage – albeit a relatively small one – of ill-behaved non-trans men who really, genuinely feel it’s okay to see the women present as fodder for their own personal fantasies and not as full human beings who deserve consideration and respect in the full sense of the term. Starting from that premise – which rests on and is supported by the existence of a powerful, long-lasting and historically grounded patriarchal power system – their behaviour runs the gamut from basic impolitesse through to misplaced male entitlement, and all the way up to and including outright sexual assault (yes, that is what I said). And while of course the majority of cis-men are great guys who would never do these things, one bad apple really can spoil the whole damn bunch – as in, affect the vibe of an entire play party. This state of affairs is not particular to a given geographical location; I’ve seen and felt it at kink events literally all over the world.

In my experience, the best all-gender-welcome spaces get their good vibe from a few factors.

First, the guys on the organizing team, if any, are feminist-minded people with good listening skills and a highly developed ability to notice power imbalances and the operation of privilege. Even better if the guys who attend are the same.

Second, the guys who are invited to attend are just that: invited. It’s not that an open-door policy is necessarily going to create a bad vibe, but you certainly up your chances of creating a super-healthy vibe by specifically inviting guys who are vouched for by others in a given social circle who share a baseline idea of what acceptable behaviour and the “right energy” are.

Third, the organizers of these spaces are generally queer or queer-friendly and trans or welcoming of trans people. Because, as we say in French, qui se ressemble s’assemble (more or less, “birds of a feather flock together”), this greatly reduces the chances of people showing up who are really invested in a gender binary in which behaviours, appearances and sexual/kink preferences are necessarily (or even just mostly) ascribed on the basis of biology or gender presentation. In other words, these spaces are populated by cis-men who are conscious of diversity issues, privilege and power balances and invested in keeping their play spaces healthy based on those criteria – and unfortunately that does not describe all cis-men.

Yeah, I know, that was a long disclaimer, wasn’t it?

So to actually answer Kim’s question, I can’t really say what the “feel” of a women-and-trans play space is, because they’re all different. What I can say is that on balance, when you play the numbers game, it’s a lot easier to find women and trans people who are feminist-minded, queer or queer-friendly, and conscious of diversity issues, privilege and power balance, and who are invested in keeping their play spaces healthy based on those criteria; and because qui se ressemble s’assemble, the people who are invited to such events are more likely to think in similar terms and behave accordingly. Therefore, a women-and-trans-only play space has a higher chance of being a healthy, happy, joyous kink space in which people behave with consideration and respect. And I think that a lot of us gravitate toward women-and-trans spaces because we see that gender mix as a form of shorthand for “healthy, happy and safe-feeling space to play in.”

Even with all that, it’s crucial to remember there are no guarantees. We’d be foolish to think that a specific gender composition will necessarily result in a specific sort of vibe; there are too many other factors to consider. And unfortunately, because the shorthand exists, we can too easily fall into the trap of thinking in overly simplistic terms – assuming that we have no work to do within women and trans communities to make or keep our play spaces healthy, assuming that all men are disrespectful Neanderthals, assuming that no women or trans people are capable of disrespect or even assault, assuming that any place is actually 100% “safe,” and so forth.

On a slightly different but related note, it is worth mentioning that, again as a very general statement, the average “pansexual” play space is usually populated to a very high degree by heterosexuals and/or heteroflexibles (i.e. straight people who might dally with a same-sex play date on occasion). Though there is surely some overlap, this is not the kind of population I described above that is mixed-gender but with a strong emphasis on queer and trans folks. And, again from my observations at kink events all over the place, there is a high chance that pansexual play spaces will have a certain “feel” or “flavour.” It so happens that this feel is not one I find super-exciting.

I’ll use a friend’s rather stinging words to describe that feel: she calls them “the standard suburban whack’n’smack parties.” I know, it’s definitely a biting comment, but I get what she means. They’re the sort of parties where you might have a few interesting or creative scenes going on, but the bulk of the play involves a male top using one or more implements to hit a female bottom’s butt. Throw in some nipple clamps or maybe some bondage for variety, and maybe flip the gender pairing every once in a while, but you get the idea. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of play, but when it makes up the vast majority of what’s going on, it very quickly gets to be the same-old same-old, and thus makes for a pretty flat vibe. Add in the requisite presence of what another friend of mine calls “robo-tops” or “robo-doms” and voilà. I would add that as well, this type of party often features a lot of “tuned-out” submissives or bottoms, often paired with the robo-tops. The robo-doms take out the four toys they always use and go through the motions of using them with correct technique. The tuned-out bottoms close their eyes, bend over, and absorb the impact. And then they wrap up and go get a drink. It’s not uncommon for such people to interrupt their scenes to greet the people nearby, or to look as though they’re doing their grocery lists in time with the flogger. “Milk, one. Bread, two. Apples, three. Ow. Breathe. Mmm, endorphins. Where was I? Yeah, cheese, four.”

The climate this creates is flat and stale; it encourages people to think “this is kink,” and there is a way to do it, and you should do it just like them. I’ve also noticed that in these spaces, people are “raised,” or perhaps taught by omission, to think that there’s no particular headspace involved in play, and therefore that it’s no big deal if they interrupt other people’s scenes to say hi. Even if other people are in a different headspace, nobody notices, because they don’t know what to look for or how to recognize it. I’ll never forget the time I was at a pansexual play party in San Francisco with a totally sweet male submissive who was on the floor pleasuring my boots and feet with his tongue. We were both having a great time, really intensely connected and enjoying the power dynamic and flow. But in a 20-minute scene, we were interrupted no fewer than three times (!) by people – both male and female – who knew him and came over to chat, say hello, or make arrangements to share a taxi later that night. It’s as though they didn’t even notice the energy that was there or realize a scene was happening. In fact I believe they probably didn’t – I think they were disrespectful from a place of total obliviousness, rather than being mean people. I think they just genuinely didn’t know what they were looking at. It kinda boggled my mind.

Okay, so it’ s not like a boring scene never happens between dykes or trans people, and it’s not like all women and trans people know how to give appropriate space to a scene in progress. But I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the vibe I’m talking about in a women-and-trans space. It’s about percentages I guess; if 10% of the scenes at a party are boring or disconnected, no biggie, but when it’s 60%, that really changes the feel of things. If one or two people are oblivious to the energy of play, then okay, but when it’s twenty or thirty or when that’s the culture of the entire gathering, even with a few exceptions, that’s a different story.

I would love to tell you why this flat and oblivious vibe is so common in pansexual spaces, but all I can do is guess. And my guess is that it’s because so many of the people involved live their everyday existence within the institution of heterosexuality – if not necessarily the orientation – and that heterosexuality, as an institution, does not encourage creativity or transcendence in sex or play. It encourages titillation within very specific parameters appropriate to its goals of stable and more-or-less monogamous coupledom, social acceptability and reproduction, and that’s about it. I would further guess that a lot of these people are actually themselves understandably bored with their kink, but they don’t really know how to push it to a different level precisely because nothing in their social milieu has ever shown them they can be creative and think outside the box – and I’m not talking about blue rope instead of white, or a fancy new set of nipple clamps with a new design. I’m talking about relating to each other in a totally different way, not just an extension of everyday heterosexual dynamics, but on a plane of existence within a whole other universe of human connection where gender and biology aren’t even really the point, a place of spiritual transcendence, physical bliss and erotic ecstasy. Instead they’re stuck with standard-issue fetish imagery, a predictable toy bag, and a quest for endorphins by reliable means.

I don’t know how to go about changing that, and to be honest, it’s not really my mission to alter the face of pansexual (heterosexualish) kink. But it certainly means that there’s not often much of a draw for me to attend pansexual events on their own merits. They don’t upset me; I don’t hate heterosexuals, or straight cis-men, or boring play. I just don’t get very excited about participating. And I do have a beef with the institution of heterosexuality, with the misplaced entitlement and privilege, and with disrespect within kink spaces, whether it’s deliberate or oblivious. These things don’t come hand-in-hand with heterosexual individuals, or straight cis-men, or boring play, but they definitely have a Venn-diagram sort of relationship of likelihood.

And I do get very excited at participating in the types of events I talked about earlier. It’s not the gender mix; whether women-and-trans or queer-and-gender-mixed, it’s the vibe I’m after. I want to be in spaces where people are conscious of everyday power dynamics and diversity and privilege. I want to be with people who think about gender and sexual orientation and kink in ways that are about deep connection and creative exploration and openness and respect. And again, while these things don’t come hand-in-hand with women-and-trans or queer-and-gender-mixed play space, they too have a Venn-diagram relationship of likelihood. And while there’s always a real chance that things won’t line up in that Venn diagram, in the places where everything does line up just right, boy, can we ever fly.

Kim, I realize that this answer is long and complex, and that it wouldn’t be the simplest thing to explain if someone says, “Hey, what’s the feel of a women and trans play party?” especially given that it’s all about likelihood and percentages and politics, and not really about bodies and genders per se at all. And I also realize that as soon as you start treading into a critique of the institution of heterosexuality or of male privilege, many people instantly say “You mean you’re all man-hating lesbians! I knew it!” – because it’s so much simpler and easier to think in these terms than it is to address the real complexity of human relations in our society and communities, and because the people who are the most privileged are the ones most poorly equipped to actually see their own privilege or hear a critique of it without feeling personally insulted. So I don’t know if this is really helpful. But there it is.

6 thoughts on “venn diagrams of likelihood, or, the question of gender in play space

  1. I am grinning ear to ear as I read this. I think you have nailed it.

    The problem is that is sounds like a very simple question but the answer is anything but simple. For many reasons but one of the main ones is trying to convey the ‘no its not that but it is’ component.

    Since lots of us DO actually try, live and believe the ‘inclusive as possible’ thing , it requires a heck of alot of qualification to say what we mean. Acknowledging that the thing we wish werent turning us off in is in fact dong just that, we risk alienatating the people is would do everyone the most good if we could ‘educate’. I fear this can not be helped while staying true to core values.

    So basically,thanks for taking the time to write out what I have often been too lazy to do .

  2. Hey Kim. Glad it worked for ya. And yes, it is a helluva complex thing to try to convey. Sometimes it feels like it’d just be easier to say “cuz girls are hot and we want them all to ourselves” or something. Sigh.

  3. yeah, it would be easier.. and its darn tempting 😉

    but wow, i gotta stop posting at such ungodly hours. my apologies for the regrettable typos!

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