Archive for the ‘books’ Category

review: some gay fiction for a change!
February 12, 2015

The book review blitz continues! I rarely get asked to review fiction, so this one was a treat for me.

The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux

There’s a particular sub-genre of historical fiction that attempts to imagine the inner worlds and intimate experiences of great real-life historical figures. In The Medici Boy, John L’Heureux has chosen Renaissance sculptor Donatello as the great central figure upon which to build a (mostly? entirely?) fictional tale of forbidden homosexual passion and the tension between Renaissance society’s quasi-worship of artistic genius and its vicious persecution of sexual deviance. Even the most homophobic society gives some leeway to the privileged deviant, whether that privilege is based on money, family connections or respected talent. But the space of permission is terribly conditional. L’Heureux’s novel spins its tale almost entirely in that liminal space between permission and punishment, lending an aching, urgent quality to even the most banal of everyday activities in its characters’ lives.

The Medici Boy tells the story of Donatello’s life through the eyes of one of his devoted assistants, Luca Mattei. This set-up creates yet another liminal space: the space where a man stands when he works closely with a genius for decades, knows his moods and preferences like his own flesh, sees all his terribly human flaws while still admiring his superhuman abilities, loves him with a multifaceted kind of love, and yet never quite touches or fully understands the artist’s inner experience. The story conveys a kind of intimacy between the two men, not exactly sexual but hardly lacking in erotic energy, and a kind of utterly unbridgeable distance all at once.

Donatello does turn his amorous attentions to Luca, once, as well as to other assistants, some for a long time, some fleetingly. But the object of his long-term affection is Luca’s younger step-brother, a shallow, shady layabout who uses his good looks as currency, and lives off the goodwill of his older admirers. Oscar Wilde can tell us how this goes – although in this version of the tragic tale, the backdrop is the Black Plague, the Italian Church, and rich families’ political battles for control of Italy’s major cities.

The rich historical detail is immersive, and a reader could get lost in the lush descriptions of Donatello’s artistic practice alone. The sweaty task of pouring boiling metal into moulds feels both hellish and heroic at once, with loyal assistants straining to complete the raw grunt work that makes the genius’s role possible. You can almost smell the sharp stink of effort and fear and liquid bronze. But the novel’s real strength lies in its ability to convey the nuance of a tale that’s in some ways heartbreakingly predictable and in other ways utterly unique to its time and its people. In this story of love and persecution, overflowing wealth and brute labour, adulation and imprisonment, L’Heureux succeeds in bringing us deep into the past and showing us just how far back our history of great injustice goes, showing us exactly what we expect to see while also demonstrating just how much we can’t know. While spinning his own kind of myth, he still conveys how different real people can be from the legends that grow up around them.

 

a blue review
January 23, 2015

Another review to amuse you as I get back into the swing of this blogging thing. Enjoy! I’ll be posting a handful more over the coming three or four weeks, and then we’ll see about some other stuff. :)

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The Ultimate Guide to Sexual Fantasy: How to Have Incredible Sex with Role Play, Sex Games, Erotic Massage, BDSM Play and Much, Much More by Violet Blue

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guide to sexual fantasy. I sort of figured it would be about how to navigate the psychological depths of fantasy – learn how to describe the details of your fantasies, discern your motivations and turn-ons within them, decide how you feel about them, and figure out which ones you want to bring to life vs which ones are best kept in the realm of your own personal fictional world. Maybe sections on writing (diaries, memoir, erotic fiction and fanfic, for instance) or making art about your fantasies, or choosing erotica or porn films that might best tap into them, or dealing with negative feelings such as shame or guilt that may be attached to some fantasies. Maybe stuff about how best to find people or communities of people who share your fantasies, or tips on discussing them with your lover(s). Maybe some woo-woo visualization exercises.

But Blue’s latest book is more of a survey course in sex play outside the one-on-one missionary think-of-England sort. It might be more appropriately titled A Primer on Sexual Adventure. Fantasy plays a role here, for sure, but the book is more about ways to explore your sexual desires – which may or may not be the same thing as your fantasies, a distinction the book does not draw. When she does write about discussing fantasies with your lover, she sets it up as a thing that might be challenging, but spends just a few paragraphs on basic ways to work through those challenges before jumping right to “Ready to play now?” It’s a bit jarring. Hurrying to the action seems like an odd choice in a book that in theory would be focusing on the psychological.

Okay, so let’s talk about the action. Unfortunately, because it tries to cover so much ground, this book ends up being kinda… watered down. Each section is mostly made up of lists of things one can try – essentially, of popular (read: other people’s) things to do. The lists themselves are for the most part pretty clichéd. The concept of the “naughty schoolgirl,” for instance, comes up at least three or four times in different sections. I can’t help but wonder whether, in focusing outwardly, on the most well-known, and therefore necessarily a bit wilted, ideas about sexy play, this guide might in fact serve to restrict and discourage readers from having and exploring their own. A sort of “here is how to have fun” approach instead of a “how would you most like to have fun?” one. At worst it could even be shaming – if one’s own fantasies are so outside the pale as to be unmentionable in a guide to fantasy, does that mean they’re really truly evil?

As well, the book’s section on BDSM is almost indistinguishable from the one on role play, with amendments for a bit of very un-scary pain and what almost sounds like mandatory power play – in the bedroom only of course, and with plenty of “funishment,” except she just says “punishment” because of course this is all fantasy, not reality (sigh). Given how much literature is out there about BDSM these days, I’m surprised to see it given such a slap-and-tickle treatment here, with no mention that for some people this goes way beyond bedroom play, and no acknowledgement that Leather culture even exists. The chapter reads as though it were written by someone imagining what BDSM is like rather than knowing it from the inside. Which is fine if BDSM isn’t really your thing, but then perhaps it would be wise to call for reinforcements when writing about it.

Given all this, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the scenarios are also almost exclusively geared toward heterosexual monogamous couples, with the possibility of bisexual exploration noted every once in a while. And the element of surprise is suggested uncomfortably often. (Pro tip: sex-related surprises are only a good idea if you’re already pretty darned sure your lover will totally adore what you have planned, *and* has already consented to being surprised. Outside that framework, you’re taking some pretty big risks.) All in all The Ultimate Guide reads a lot closer to a Cosmo-style grab bag of straight sex tips than I’d have expected from either Violet Blue or Cleis. At the very least, it would have been nice for them to explain in the subtitle or the back-cover blurb who the book is intended for – cuz it’s very much not Cleis’s usual readership of porn-loving queers.

Speaking of which, for a book ostensibly about fantasy, it bizarrely skips any real discussion of people’s most common sources of fantasy material – regular old books, TV and films, and their pornographic cousins. I would have really liked to read a guide that would accompany people through that!

Anyway. If you’re straight, very new to sexual exploration outside the box, pretty sorted-out around whatever shame or other baggage you might have, and in search of a basic tour of what’s out there in sexyland, check out this guide as a starting point. If that’s not you, here’s what I’d advise instead: If any of the topics in the guide really appeal to you – threesomes, BDSM play, erotic massage, whatever – go find a book devoted entirely to that topic, possibly from Blue’s extensive resource guide at the back. You’ll doubtless come out with a more satisfying level of detail. Do check out other works by Violet Blue – I gave her Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Sex Toys a solid review last year, for instance. She really shines when she’s talking about how tech and sex intersect, and it’s high time we saw an extensive book about just that from her. Don’t take The Ultimate Guide to Sexual Fantasy as a prime example of the work she’s capable of. Sadly it’s just not.

do your homework (or, what goes wrong when writers don’t… and then write about kink)
March 9, 2013

Today, I have a few things to say about two articles on BDSM that have come across my feed these past couple of days: “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status” by Meghan Murphy for Rabble.ca, and “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted” by William Saletan for Slate.com.

They’ve got it wrong. They’ve got it so far wrong that frankly, their authors are making public fools of themselves, if nothing else than for sheer factual error, but also because of a remarkable failure to demonstrate even the most basic ability to construct a logical argument. Beyond that, they’ve been published on otherwise relatively well-regarded websites, which indicates a failure of clear thought along two entire publishing chains of command, and this makes me seriously raise an eyebrow at their editors. If this is the level of discourse that writers are engaging in, in 2013, when the topic of sadomasochism comes up, I fear we are about to descend back into a blow-by-blow replay of the 1980s Sex Wars, except played out on the interwebs among much bigger “armies” than the diminutive, if vociferous, ranks of radical feminists.

How do they get it wrong, you ask? Mostly, it’s about conflating ideas that are in fact quite separate, and failing to provide any justification or logical explanation for those conflations. Again: super basic stuff. Stuff that, if they weren’t operating with some sort of willful ignorance (or failing that, actual lack of intelligence, so I kinda weirdly hope it’s the first option), they’d be able to figure out quite easily. This isn’t rocket science. Perhaps these writers are so dazzled by the spectacle of kink that they simply lose their critical thinking faculties. If this is the case, I’d invite them to come spend a few weekends at a kink conference or twelve. Once the “oh my god people actually do that?!” wears off, perhaps they’ll be able to approach this topic in a somewhat more level-headed fashion.

I have created a three-part breakdown for your reading pleasure, followed by some suggestions of how to do the job properly. (Yep. Long post. Necessarily.)

Problem 1. The conflation of kink with domestic violence, assault and murder.

Let’s take Meghan Murphy’s Rabble article, “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status,” as the perfect example of this. She discusses the “cannibal cop” case that’s recently made the news, and then goes on to package that with an attack on kinksters’ self-understanding as sexual minorities. It’s a twisted, deeply flawed argument. I will try to take it apart here.

Okay, so we’ve got this cop who likes to look at pictures of dead bodies and videos of women being roasted on spits. So far, a bit gross, potentially, but y’know, if you don’t want to see depictions of dead bodies (real or staged), don’t watch the news or action movies or TV or, well, yeah. Images of people roasting on spits are a little less common but the first time I saw one was in a Robin Hood film when I was about six, and don’t even start me on the weird shit in Indiana Jones or Star Wars. These ain’t specialized fetish websites, folks. Torture scenes are par for the course in mainstream cultural productions to which we all have access. And, lest we get upset about misogyny when it is not warranted, please note that in all cases I’m mentioning here, we’re talking about male victims. So let’s bracket this out unless we want to tar pretty much everyone in North America with the same brush.

Do we want to get into the realm of specialized fetish websites? Okay, let’s go there. Without actually using the term “snuff,” Murphy relies heavily on the spectre of snuff films for her argument. “Snuff” is basically the idea of porn in which someone is killed at the end. Like, for real killed. But she misstates the facts as reported. Her article contains the following paragraph:

“The officer, Gilberto Valle, had been visiting a ‘fetish sites’ (because murdering women is a ‘fetish’ donchaknow) which “show[ed] women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive.” There was a cannibalism element to his ‘fetish’ and “the FBI analysis of Valle’s laptop yielded a video of a naked woman hanging over an open flame and screaming in agony.”

Pretty disturbing, right? Except that the article she links to twice in that paragraph in fact reads as follows:

“Jurors appeared uncomfortable Monday as prosecutors showed a video of a screaming woman made to appear as if she were being cooked alive over an open flame and other disturbing images from websites devoted to torturing and eating women – evidence prosecutors say proves Valle was involved in a cannibalism plot.

“Valle frequently visited websites showing women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive, FBI computer forensics examiner Stephen Flatly testified at Valle’s kidnapping conspiracy trial.”

Do you see the difference? If we go by Murphy’s conflation, we’d think the woman was being actually roasted alive. If we go by the original article, we see that she’s made to appear that way (refer back to Robin Hood). If we go by Murphy, the cop was visiting fetish websites presenting snuff porn—footage of real women being killed. If we go by the original article, the cop could have been looking at any pictures of dead women (refer back to watching the news), or possibly pictures of women made to appear dead. The original article isn’t terribly clear—what does “forced duress” mean? How is it split into “stages”? Are we supposed to understand that these women “did not survive” that “duress” or just that they are dead? And is all that imagery of things that actually happened or are they pictures of women being “made to appear” to go through these things? Those are pretty key distinctions to make, and if the recent Montreal special-effects artist case is any indication (the artist was acquitted, by the way), disturbing imagery is by no means an indication that anyone was harmed, even when it’s extreme. Despite lack of clarity, though, the person who wrote this article—y’know, an actual reporter who has to be careful not to state things that aren’t true—didn’t explicitly conflate all this stuff. But Murphy sure did.

Listen, I don’t know what this cop was looking at or what websites he was visiting. What I can tell you, though, is that according to the numerous books and articles I’ve read on the topic, snuff films are largely a thing of pure imagination. Actual snuff films are incredibly rare and excruciatingly hard to find even for people who are actively seeking them out, ranging from both independent investigators on a personal quest to major law enforcement teams. And when posted on the internet, such videos usually lead pretty quickly to the arrest of a perpetrator who was stupid enough to film himself murdering someone. Because hello! Filming yourself committing a murder is a pretty clear giveaway! (Luka Magnotta, anyone?!) So the chances of this guy watching footage of actual murder are very, very slim. The closest he likely came was viewing documentary footage of accidental death, or other such potentially gruesome and disturbing but not exactly pornographic stuff. More likely he was entertaining himself with “turkey”-roasting fetish porn (which, from what I’ve seen, is so wholesome-looking as to be almost silly), gore-film special-effects footage and “Faces of Death,” which half the kids in my high school watched on weekends to upset their parents. You can argue that his taste in entertainment is disturbing, and you might be right, but that is a whole different discussion than one about a guy who watches films of actual women being murdered, roasted on spits and eaten. If such films exist, we are dealing with a way bigger problem than a cop watching them, but since I am seeing no news articles about snuff porn rings with a penchant for cannibalism, I am forced to assume this isn’t the case.

Murphy: get your facts straight. This is deliberate misinterpretation. When presented in context of an article whose (confusing!) aim is to simultaneously dismiss kinky sexuality as boring and tar it with the brush of murder, you are making some very dangerous conflations indeed.

Moving on from the question of what he was watching… Next, this cop decides he thinks it’s a good idea to discuss killing and eating his wife with some potential accomplices. Okay! Now this is a BIG problem! He’s probably not the nicest guy! He’s seriously plotting to do something very violent, very real, VERY non-consensual, and that is explicitly and intentionally aiming to result in someone’s death. HELLO! These are BAD THINGS! This, not his taste in websites, tells us that we are talking about a potential murderer here. Psychopath? Maybe. Some other sort of mental illness? Possibly. If he’s not mentally ill, then what? Do sane people ever take steps toward killing, dismembering and cannibalizing other people? Frankly, I don’t know. I have no idea how I’d deal with this guy in a court of law, but one thing I can tell you is that there is no place for him in the diverse realm of consensual joy- and pleasure-seeking self-actualizers of the world who play with other people who also wish to play with them. He belongs in the ranks of, well, pretty much every other person out there who plans and executes the un-desired, non-consensual torture and murder of people.

Murphy asks the question, “When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?” The answer is in the question. When it becomes actual. Next question, please.

I would propose that a more interesting question would be, “How do we tell the difference between plans to enact a fantasy and plans to commit a crime?” That, too, has an easy answer, but that answer doesn’t appeal to the likes of Murphy, who seems bent on creating a parallel where none exists.

Let’s look at the case. The guy didn’t commit the actual crime of murder. What he did do, however, was make extensive plans to commit the actual crime. Please note the difference between plans to commit the crime of murder and cannibalism and plans to play out a murder and cannibalism fantasy (and yes, this fetish does exist, and fantasy websites do exist about it). The distinctions might be lost on folks like Murphy, but I’ll walk us through it as an exercise in the obvious, just in case.

In the planning to enact a fantasy that involves two people, both people are involved in that planning to whatever extent they agree they will each be involved (everything from “I trust you to surprise me, honey!” to “You pick the apple to put in my mouth, and I’ll polish it so it’ll look good in the pictures”). In planning to commit a crime, one person is involved, or possibly one person and a partner or partners in crime, and the victim of the crime is unawares, because if they were they would run like hell.

In the planning of a fantasy enactment, roles are discussed, safety is considered, limits are negotiated. (“If I squawk twice, that means this ‘turkey’ needs to come out of the ‘oven’!”) In the planning of a crime, nobody is role-playing, the very idea of safety is by definition not part of the game plan (unless maybe you count the perpetrator’s plans to get away with the crime himself unharmed?), and limits are by definition disregarded because HELLO SOMEONE DIES AT THE END.

Do I really need to go on here? Is Murphy actually arguing that she can’t tell the difference between these two things?  If not, I must ask: what exactly is making Meghan Murphy link this guy to anything in the realm of kink?

I’m going to throw her a bone here, and acknowledge that Murphy’s main source of upset here seems to be misogyny and violence against women. And y’know, I get it. Misogyny and violence against women upset me too. I’m not sure how she makes the leap from a murder-plotting cannibal cop to your local spanking fetishist or what have you, though. She fails to actually lay out the connection she sees, and given the rather vast divergences (orgasm versus murder, say), that is a significant element to omit.

I absolutely acknowledge that we live in a culture in which male violence against women is seen as normal, is permitted both subtly and overtly, and is even encouraged (take the example of rape jokes, which I wrote about here). I absolutely think we need to work to end misogyny. But come on. Let’s actually target misogyny and violence, then, not the people whose sex lives Murphy herself seems to see as dull.

Murphy writes:

“There are a couple of issues surrounding ‘kink’ that do concern me. The first is the unwillingness of feminists to call out misogyny when they see it simply because we have to protect the sensitivities of the fetish folks. The second is the delusion that ‘kink’ is an identity that designates ‘kinky people’ as some kind of oppressed minority group. Kink and BDSM can certainly enter misogynist territory and it isn’t your right to force the world to pretend that it doesn’t in order to defend your sex life. … The real life rape and torture of real life people isn’t just a sexy game; but when presented as ‘kink’ it becomes innate part of our sexualities, completely divorced from larger culture.”

I think Murphy is trying to construct a link between the “cannibal cop” and misogyny, and a further link between misogyny and kink, and then a link between kink and the employment of “sexual minority deserving of protection” logic as a tool used by evil kinksters to undermine feminism. But she doesn’t employ any logical means to make that chain of links strong enough to lean on. So let’s consider it broken, all right?

This doesn’t mean we can’t address the separate, non-cannibal-cop-related question of misogyny in kink. The problem with Murphy’s take on it is fourfold.

First of all, Murphy seems to assume that “fetish folks” are not, themselves, feminists. Her phrasing belies her bigoted understanding of kink as necessarily un-feminist or anti-feminist. She’s free to misperceive as much as she likes, but in doing so she’s ignoring a rather colossal amount of literature produced in the last thirty years of feminist discourse (both scholarly, such as Gayle Rubin among many others, and popular, such as Clarisse Thorne), as well as the existence of countless self-identified feminists within kink communities and privately engaging in kinky activities. This doesn’t speak highly of her research skills but does speak volumes about her bias.

Second, Murphy thinks “kink” as an identity designates a group that falsely considers itself an oppressed minority. And Murphy takes pains to point out, repeatedly and condescendingly, that she finds us boring:

“Now, before the ‘don’t kink-shame me’ folks start railing on me, I will reiterate that, I really don’t much care about whether or not you want to dress up in latex costumes and play silly games in the bedroom. It isn’t particularly interesting. The only people who really care about ‘kink’ are people who care about ‘kink’. So get over the idea that you’re so bad and the rest of the world is just too ‘vanilla’ to get you. You like role-playing, other people don’t. So what. Move on.”

Okay. I’d be happy to move on, except that Murphy herself is simultaneously telling me my sex life is uninteresting and conflating it with the practices of a would-be murderous cannibal. I don’t feel the least bit oppressed by liking to dress up in leather and hit people for mutual enjoyment, but yeah, I admit, I do feel pretty keenly misrepresented by articles like this one which try to tell me that places me on a continuum with a dude who wants to slit his wife’s throat, bleed her out, and eat her dead body for lunch. Murphy, you are doing some pretty nasty oppressing here. An eye-rolling comment about latex outfits doesn’t obscure that little trick. It’s precisely this sort of egregious conflation that has psychiatrists chemically neutering foot fetishists and courts revoking custody because Mom has a riding crop tucked behind the dresser. And those consequences are bona fide oppression, the threat of which very much does hang over practicing perverts. If people like you would leave “boring” folks like us alone, we would have no reason to call oppression.

Third, Murphy’s perception that feminists are unwilling to call out misogyny completely ignores the extent to which self-identified kinky feminists are doing precisely that: calling out misogyny in kink. And no, it’s not about pictures of women in bondage or whatever. It’s about actual, not fantasized, assault, and the people who try to close ranks around the perpetrators. The community-wide discussion of non-consensual behaviour within the pansexual scene, mostly perpetrated by men and mostly targeted at women, is reaching epic proportions, as well it should. Fetlife, for instance, is practically melting down with controversy after controversy in which perpetrators of assault, non-consensual outing, stalking and more are being protected and victims being blamed within the confines of the site, which of course reflects what happens beyond it too. The reason the meltdown is happening is because feminists are calling bullshit in discussion after discussion. Loudly. Repeatedly. That discussion isn’t happening only on fetish social networking sites—it’s happening in workshops, on panels, online, via support groups, in books. (GoodReads.com even has a shelf entitled Abuse and Assault Sold as BDSM! Brilliant. And yes, Fifty Shades is on it.) I, for one, am intrigued to see where it will all go. One thing that’s most certainly not happening is silence. If someone like Murphy were at all educated about what happens among actual kinksters in actual kink community spaces, she wouldn’t make such ridiculous assertions—assertions which only serve to perpetuate the very silence, or “forcing the world to pretend,” of which she accuses kinksters. In short: misogyny absolutely does happen in kink. And when it does, much as it does pretty much anywhere else in society, feminists call it out, the way we do everywhere else we are.

Fourth, this real-life rape and torture of people that Murphy thinks is being presented as a sexy game? The only person I see doing that here is her. And maybe Gilberto Valle and Luka Magnotta, who are, y’know, in jail. On the odd occasion that I’ve seen someone present real rape and torture as anything even close to “sexy games” in kink community settings, they tend to get shouted down by—you guessed it!—feminists. Pervy feminists. Feminists who, fer fuck’s sake, can tell the damn difference between a fantasy and a rape, between a joyful experience of intense intimate connection and the terrifying and damaging experience of non-consensual violence, sometimes precisely because we’ve experienced both, sometimes because we haven’t and don’t ever wish to. Take, for instance, Mollena Williams’ article in this week’s New York Times, which is doing a much better job than Rabble of publishing clearly written and logically argued pieces about kink. (Even their rather predictable essay about the mainstreaming of BDSM, which kicked off all this discussion, is at least well-researched.) Join the club, Murphy. Have at least a modicum of respect for sexual assault survivors and their basic ability to know when they do and do not want something to happen. I’d like to think you have the intellectual chops to do this. If you don’t, well, then I’m really glad you’re not the great hope of today’s feminism.

Problem 2. The conflation of porn production with personal kink practice.

For this section, let’s take a look at William Saletan’s recent Slate article, “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted.”

Saletan falls into the same trap that Murphy does of conflating criminal violence with sexy fun times, in that his article features several links to articles about middle-aged men who kidnapped and tortured teenage girls against their will and called it kinky. Seriously, guy. Seriously. You can do a better job than this. Please tell me that your critical thinking faculties have not completely atrophied. Would you high-five a hockey player who beats the crap out of an opposing team member if he says “Hey, man, this is how hockey works, it’s all part of the game, I had to send a message”? Would you nod sagely upon hearing the Catholic Church defend and protect priests who sexually assaulted young kids, essentially saying “This is between them and God, and the best thing to do is to transfer them to another parish and pray some”? I certainly hope not. I think we can all acknowledge that violence and abuse happen in a variety of settings, and that the settings themselves do not provide either reason or excuse for that abuse. I think we can further acknowledge that abusers do their best to grab onto whatever justification or obfuscation they can come up with. So for crying out loud, put that brain to work a bit, and recognize the difference here.

Beyond that, Saletan conflates porn production work with the personal pursuit of kink: “Women who do S&M porn scenes have described electrical burns, permanent scars from beatings, and penetrations that required vaginal reconstructive surgery.”

Okay. Guy, did you actually read the whole article you link to in that sentence, entitled “Gag Order: Sex Workers Allege Mistreatment at Kink.com”? The title explains the gist of it, and the article explains the rest in fairly clear detail. We are not talking, here, about women pursuing BDSM for their sexy fun times pleasure and getting carried away and abused as they float in happy subspace. We are talking about porn performers who allege they were were mistreated on the job in a variety of ways. This is a workplace safety issue. This is a labour issue.

The Kink.com situation is similar to the kind of workplace safety issues that sex workers all over the world face when they are doing their jobs, from the freakiest kinkiest sort to the softest, sweetest vanilla. It is on par with sex workers who are pressured to push past their limits on camera or off, because someone’s got them between a rock and a hard place financially or because someone’s physically intimidating them or both. It’s about being pushed to do double anal in your first porn shoot when you didn’t really know the risks. It’s about being told one day that you’re the company’s top performer and the next day that you’re being dropped or paid less because your sales are down, and the emotional and financial roller coaster of maintaining a career in a profit-hungry industry where that kind of headfuckery can be par for the course. It’s about being pressured to do full-contact when you were supposed to do no-hands, to pay dancer’s fees to the club when you’re the one bringing in the business, to give your client a blow job when you negotiated for a massage with a happy ending. Yes, it is about unethical practices at Kink.com.

And all of this in the very specific context of people trying to make a living. Don’t equate this bad shit with the things people do in interpersonal situations that are purely for pleasure. Money changes everything. Even people who enjoy their jobs sometimes put up with shit they don’t like in order to get their paycheques, or are subjected to treatment that’s absolutely uncool and speak out about it afterward. Unethical employers of all kinds regularly expose their employees to practices that can have grave physical consequences, from food-industry-specific lung diseases to electrical shock and backbreaking labour at online shipping warehouses. A bad employer in kinky porn may do bad things to their employees just like a bad employer anywhere else. Of course that should be called out, but let’s be clear that the situation doesn’t involve the same range of decision-making factors that come into play when you’re planning your Saturday-night date.

This is, in short, about manipulative labour practices, coercive and sloppy employer behaviour, and the stigmatization that makes it extra hard for sex workers to be respected on the job and on any other job if they decide not to do sex work anymore. I’m not saying we can’t have this conversation, or that we can’t look at the particulars of kink-related porn performance and sex work that might create a different set of risks than other kinds. But if you’re trying to make a real point about risk in recreational BDSM practice, you can’t just slop a story about shoddy porn-industry labour practices into the middle of the article as though they were one and the same.

Problem 3. The conflation of risk and shock factor with harm, and the use of a fallacious slippery slope argument.

When he gets through conflating BDSM play with the kidnapping, rape and torture of minors on the one hand and bad porn-industry labour practice on the other, Saletan gets very caught up in the sensationalism of certain BDSM practices. In so doing, he clearly shows his limited understanding of the subject as a whole.

First of all, he fails to demonstrate any familiarity with the basic realities of kink. Power, sensation and fetish are three key areas of human sexuality that get mixed together in kink. The specific mix is totally individual to each person, and it is very difficult to tell from the outside what particular mix is motivating a given practice, even if it seems obvious to you. Further, practitioners understand terms and concepts slightly differently depending on their location, experience level, social circles and so forth. A picture of an activity gives you only a very limited range of information about what’s going on in it, and a given person’s story about their particular practices is only ever that one person’s story. And on top of all that, unless you have sufficient technical knowledge to understand what’s risky and what’s not, and what steps can be used to mitigate those risks, you can’t possibly judge the safety of what you’re seeing. Until you can acknowledge all of these truths, and understand the complexity they lend to any discussion on the topic, you have no business making any judgements about this whole vast range of practices some people call “kink” (or “SM” or “BDSM” or “leather” – see what I mean?), or about specific practices within it.

Yes, absolutely, some people in SM communities explore practices that, to an outsider, might seem extreme. But until we are discussing this with as neutral a level of judgement as we apply to the physical risks of any and all team sports, of heterosexual vanilla penis-in-vagina sex, of working in construction, of childbirth, of scuba diving, of shoveling your driveway past age 40, of religious fasting, of martial arts, of eating cheeseburgers at McDonald’s three times a week, of living in tornado country, of tanning beds and Botox and waxing and pedicures, of cycling to work in a city run by Rob Ford, and so forth, I’m afraid I just can’t take the “oh but that’s scary risky!” thing very seriously. Yes, some SM has risks. Just like many other things we do, no more and no less. I mean actually, for real, no more and no less. Get over it. Or talk about it level-headedly and with correct factual information.

Saletan refers to SM as “consensual domestic violence,” which is about as accurate as calling polyamory “consensual cheating.” Hmmm, would he do that too? Quite possibly. Okay, let’s instead compare it to calling a public mural project “consensual vandalism,” or calling a juice cleanse “consensual starvation.” I don’t really care what dictionary definitions he throws at the idea. He’s conflating ideas that simply don’t go together. Connotation, not denotation. It’s a thing. You’re a writer. You know this. Do it right.

He also writes that “S&M, by its nature, hurts people. Mild bondage is no big deal. But for sadomasochists, pain is the whole idea. Some stick to spatulas and wooden spoons, but others move on to electric shocks, skewers, knives, and butterfly boards.” (Beware, that last link is going to show you a pic of a pierced penis.)

There are multiple problems with this bit, not the least of which is Saletan’s persistent throwing together of links to articles about violent crime with links to images of safely performed SM practices. Leaving that aside, though, as I’ve outlined, the “nature” of SM (at least when used as a stand-in for the whole package of kink, which Saletan seems to be doing), is not that it hurts people. Plenty of SM doesn’t hurt a bit. Some of it hurts some. Some hurts a lot. Some of it feels like not-hurt even if it looks like hurt. Some of it is hurt that is actual hurt but that is rewarding for other reasons. What, precisely, is the SM he’s referring to? I don’t think he actually knows.

Beyond that, Saletan sets up a dichotomy between kink that’s “no big deal” and kink that, to him, is apparently a big deal. But who gets to decide that? Let’s take his example of “mild bondage.” Who says what that is? I’m not being needlessly relative here. My boy comfortably wears a non-removable chain collar full-time, without even really noticing it. I regularly can’t even stand the feeling of a turtleneck touching my throat. Which one is “mild”? Is “mild” bondage the kind you do with cheap sex-shop handcuffs that are made of crappy metal and might slice open your wrist, but that let you think you’re not all that kinky cuz you’re just playing around? Or is it the much safer kind using scarier-looking thick leather restraints which represent a financial investment and maybe a bit of thinking about your identity? Is “mild” bondage the kind that involves a skinny piece of rope and minimal knowledge of technique, such that you might accidentally cut off your partner’s circulation? Or is it the kind that involves more rope, and probably a workshop or two, but that envelops them in a cozy cocoon of warm safety? Is it bondage you only do once a year, when your spouse isn’t there to see you with the dominatrix you pay to help you live out your fantasies, or is it the weekly practice of wearing a shoestring wrapped around your testicles on the way home from work?

Where is Saletan’s line between “mild” and “not mild”? Is it about frequency, intensity, psychological significance, pain, marks left on the body? Is it between coerced bondage and desired bondage? Note that he doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the latter two, so I’m guessing this isn’t how his line is drawn, which is a serious problem. In any case, I strongly suspect his line is different from mine, but it’s probably also different from yours, and hers, and theirs. Who gets to judge? This isn’t a small question. If you’re going to construct some sex as okay and other sex as not, who gets to decide where that line lies and what falls on each side of it? Are we to assume this line is the same for everyone? Are we to accept Saletan’s line, when he can’t even tell us what it actually is?

Saletan further constructs exactly the kind of slippery-slope type of argument that so many hand-wringing critics of SM like to get caught in. It goes like this: SMers start with paddles and floggers but for some of them, paddles aren’t enough! They move on from there! They go deeper and deeper, like a heroin addict who needs a bigger and bigger hit! They end up slavering lunatics, chasing after the next big thrill, without regard for life and limb! They engage in bloodshed and arson!

Well, no. That’s not how it works. I’m afraid it’s far more pedestrian than that. If you come into BDSM with a lot of damage, little draw to self-preservation and a tendency toward addiction, I suppose maybe this might be your story, but then that would also be your story if you did pretty much anything else, like, say, drive a car or drink a beer or have some regular old sex. Most people who show up in BDSM community take a little while to nose around and figure out what they like and how to do it, and they stick with that, or expand their range as they come across new and interesting ideas. Kinda like a film buff who one day discovers Fellini after years of being mostly into Hitchcock. Gasp! Maybe people like to try something new every once in a while! How shocking.

The down-to-earth truth is that, for many of us, BDSM community events and practices are thrilling at first, but after we’ve been around for a while, they become simply a part of how we live. This doesn’t mean we enjoy them less, though that can happen too (and some people do get bored and stop showing up). Regardless, this is not about needing a bigger hit. It’s just about integration. The thrill of new possible partners every weekend settles into a choosier approach. We go to the party if it falls on a night when we’re not having dinner with the in-laws. We have creative pervy sex, yes, but we aren’t out to prove ourselves to the world by dint of our extreme practices. Sometimes, a simple gag-inducing blow job and a little smacking around does the trick. The needles come out on special occasions. The submissive makes the dominant some tea. The dominant picks out the submissive’s shirt. Ho hum. Life as usual. It’s not the way everyone does things, but it’s how we do them (in whatever combination we each do), because it feels right and good to us, and it’s really not that freaky unless you have an unhealthy fascination with other people’s sex lives and a penchant for sensationalism.

Leaving aside the links to articles about the criminal sexual coercion of minors (!!), for reasons I hope are utter no-brainers, let’s just look at his linked picture of the butterfly board as an example of Saletan’s leanings in said direction. To someone who doesn’t do any needle play, the sight of a penis connected to a corkboard by means of needles might cause a case of genital-clasping panic. To someone who does needle play, this picture is hardly shocking. Look carefully. Do you know how to judge what’s going on? As someone who’s been playing with needles for a decade now, I’ll walk you through it.

When I look, I see, oh, a handful of high-gauge (meaning slim) needles, say in the 23-gauge range, which means they are quite mild in terms of the pain levels they’re likely to cause. (A standard IV drip is considerably more hardcore, in the 18-gauge range.) I see them inserted carefully into the top couple of millimetres of the skin surface, so they don’t penetrate the spongy and blood-filled erectile tissue or the super-sensitive nerves at the head of the penis—not that those can’t be done safely, but they’re more intense. With these factors in mind, this is not a piercing scene that’s likely to draw much blood, and in fact, we see none. I see a gloved finger—I can’t tell for sure, but judging by the texture, it looks like black nitrile to me, which means this top is careful to avoid latex in case of allergy. I see the end of a Prince Albert piercing, which is pretty heavy. Those are usually installed by a professional, and this tells me we’re dealing with a person who’s pretty comfy having big metal put through his most sensitive bits, such that this particular scene wasn’t likely wicked intense for him from a pain perspective. I see the creative use of a needle to tack down the PA without touching the skin, even though that dick is clearly not going anywhere; this speaks to me, possibly, of a certain tongue-in-cheek humour on the part of the top, like sticking a victory flag into your bottom’s bondage harness when they’re too trussed up to move. Or possibly it was just a practical way to avoid the penis rolling in the wrong direction. I also see a clear liquid stain beneath the head of the penis, which means he’s probably leaked some pre-come, which means he’s likely having a good time.

Honestly, the riskiest thing about the activity as pictured is that it’s not really possible to sterilize the corkboard, and when the needles are pulled back through the skin upon removal, there is some chance they’ll leave tiny bits of cork behind such that the skin becomes irritated or mildly infected. Which is, y’know, generally not life-threatening, and the risk can be greatly reduced by swabbing with alcohol after everything’s done. This, to me, is a picture of a pretty darned safe scene done by people who know what they’re doing. It’s not especially physically edgy—though it could have been, and that might also have been perfectly okay. The only “harm” it’s likely to cause are a few tiny dots on the skin. You’d do worse actual damage if you nicked yourself shaving. But it sure does look shocking to someone who doesn’t have the knowledge to see the elements I just described. And call me crazy, but I’m guessing Saletan’s never affixed his cock to a corkboard.

So what’s the point of this picture? I’m not upset at seeing it because it’s shocking. I’m upset at seeing it because it’s Saletan’s way of trying to be shocking, himself, while pinning (ha!) that accusation on perverts. In using it to try and make a point (ha! jeez, sorry, folks), all he really does is give himself away as lacking basic knowledge of his subject matter. It’s like saying “Holy shit guys, in boxing, they actually hit each other! Like, in the face!” or “Jeezis, I went to the circus and these acrobats, like, jumped through hoops! Hoops that were on fire!” or “Ohmigod there are surgeons who cut people open! With scalpels! And then, get this, they take their organs out!” Yup. Those things happen. They are risky. The people who do them learn how, practice, and mitigate those risks. So?

Saletan brings up, but never attempts to resolve—either in his original piece or in his response piece to the criticism the first one provoked—the question of when the “severity of the harm overrides the sanctity of consent.” He seems to think that examples which are visually or conceptually shocking to a non-kink audience speak for themselves, but at no point does he actually discuss how we should go about judging the severity of harm, or whether there even was any harm. He simply acknowledges that “fortunately, most BDSM falls well short of that”—severe harm, I’m guessing he means—and discusses how “kinksters who comment in Slate have worked so hard to distance themselves from ‘edge play’ such as blood, fire, and asphyxiation—which they call ‘nuts,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘extreme.’”

So, okay, I’ll take the bait. I’m one of those people who engages in edge play such as blood and fire. Asphyxiation isn’t my particular kink but I do think it’s fun to play with telling someone how and when they can breathe. While we’re at it, I engage in full-time M/s dynamics with my partners, meaning we consider ourselves owner and property. I am not the least bit interested in distancing myself from these practices in order to make anyone feel better about kink. Fuck that.

Am I the bad guy now, Saletan? You wouldn’t know, because you don’t actually discuss what harm is or indicate any understanding of how risk is assessed and kink practices are done with safety considerations in mind. As a rock climber, I double-back all my harness straps and tie my double figure-8 and finish off with a safety knot before I get on the climbing wall or hit a sheer rock face, and I check my partner’s gear too, every time. If I’m about to stick needles in someone or set them on fire, you bet your fucking ass I’ve taken great pains to learn how to do that safely. Do you know what a person needs to have in their kit in order to pierce with minimal risk? Do you know anything about the direction of needle tips, about sharps containers and disinfectants and surface protection and gloves? Do you know anything about competency, about a steady hand, about how a top might back out of a scene because they’re too tired or took too many Advils that afternoon or they just feel funny about this scene, in this place, tonight, and about how all that builds trust? Do you know anything about trust? About the intimacy that this level of careful, intricate work creates? Do you care? Or are you more interested in the shock value of a dick pinned to a board, which to you, inherently conveys the idea of over-the-top harm? If you’re going to open up the question, be a responsible writer and follow the fuck through. If not, you’re taking wildly inaccurate cheap shots and frankly I have no respect for that, or for you.

So what should we do instead, then?

Well, a response from BDSM practitioners, along with some education work, is a good start. This kind of education is tedious fucking work, I must say, and it’s especially tedious because we’ve done it all before and writers like these are just too lazy to look it up. But what else do we do? We could ignore it, I suppose, but that has its own dangers. We’re not talking about someone’s dumb LJ post here. We’re talking about major publications like Rabble and Slate which present themselves as progressive. With friends like these… sigh.

To effectively respond, rather than just go in circles, though, we have to get some of our politics sorted out. So this last part of my post is directed at perverts who want to speak up when this kind of claptrap gets published, as well as at writers who want to do it right from the get-go.

Unfortunately, some of the practitioner responses to Saletan’s sloppy pieces of writing are also problematic, such as this one at The Frisky. Not because Jessica Wakeman’s post is awful—it’s not, in fact it’s by and large pretty great. I especially love that she expresses the same frustration I feel at the tedium of countering these lazy characterizations. But she relies in part on a distancing strategy that leaves some pervs out in the cold (I’ve written about this here and here).

The argument here cannot be about the “extreme” vs the “average” kinkster and what these fictional people do and don’t do. If we go down that road we’ve already lost, because we’re essentially saying it’s okay to throw the next person down the pervy line under the bus, and I absolutely promise you that one day the person getting thrown will be you as soon as your level or style of pervy is the one currently out of fashion or under scrutiny. If we want to have the conversation about what is and isn’t over the line, let’s have it. Let’s discuss and debate that line in great detail. But any statement that assumes a common line for everyone, or even a commonly understood spectrum of okay-ness, is automatically a mistake. And if we’re going to discuss the line, it makes no sense to simply draw it between X practice and Y practice. We must, must, must talk about the why and the how, not just the what.

It’s also crucial that we refuse to engage in the “born this way” argument. Listen, the first thing I ever knew about my sexuality was that it was about power and pain. Like, when I was a toddler. And I still wouldn’t seriously argue that I was “born kinky.” This idea relies on a logic of genetics or other pre-social formative influences that simply cannot hold up under investigation, because the meaning of “kinky” is only ever social, and there cannot be a gene for high-heel fetishism or the enjoyment of invasive dental work. Human evolution simply does not work that fast or that specifically. And genetics have zero bearing on the legitimacy of a sexual practice anyway. If we understand an orientation to be a fundamental and relatively unchanging set of internal parameters through which we experience our desires and sexualities, then my kink is an orientation as surely as my queer and my poly are, but none of them require a biological basis for being valid and deserving of respect. “Born this way” is used willy-nilly as though it were the argumentative equivalent of no-fault insurance, but it’s not. It’s just inaccurate. It fails to pay out when the accident happens. Let’s please drop it. We don’t need it anyway. Just like the boxers and acrobats and surgeons, we are perfectly legit without it.

If we really do want to engage in questions about the acceptability of or risks related to kink—real, genuine questions that do away with shock value, inaccurate conflations, hysterical hype and flawed defense strategies—I can suggest a few pathways into the discussion. If you still don’t know the difference between a murder plot and a hot date, go back and do some 101 before you approach these questions. For those who are with me in the grown-up world, here we go.

I suggest a triptych of criteria to help us evaluate what is going on in a given situation, whatever that may be. (Yes, they apply well beyond kink, not surprisingly.) If we need to draw lines at all, I’d like to suggest we draw them with these concepts in mind.

1. Motivation. Why is a person doing what they’re doing? Completely independently of the next two criteria, this one is key because it focuses on mindset, intent, emotional state, and so forth, all key elements of strong decision-making. I could sleep for ten hours because I’m super tired after an intense workout, or I could sleep for ten hours because I’m depressed and avoiding the world. I could have sex with a complete stranger because I hate myself and feel my body is worthless, or because the attraction was off the charts and I expect to be walking on air for two weeks afterwards. In some ways this question is the most crucial of all, because it is entirely possible to make very un-shocking, responsible-looking decisions from a place of terrible motivation, and because that’s where you started you may still come out the end facing miserable consequences (say, getting married to someone you don’t love and having kids you don’t want because your parents pressured you so hard). It is equally possible to make shocking, risky-looking decisions that are very well-thought-out and solid (say, quitting your high-paid lawyer job to become a nomadic volunteer on organic farms because you well know you’ll burn out and jump off a bridge if you don’t do something to relieve the pressure, and also, you really like world travel and spinach). So, why is someone doing their kink? Is that man submitting because he  can’t bear taking responsibility for anything, or because it connects them deeply with his partner, who desires and honours the gift of that vulnerability? Is that guy spanking his wife because they both find it wicked sexy, or because they believe women are naturally meant to take punishment from men and also God says so?

2. Process. Let’s think about recklessness versus responsibility. How is a person doing what they’re doing? Have they acquired the skill and knowledge to do it safely? Do they have an accurate perception of their own competency? Do they have the appropriate tools? Do they have a plan for what to do if things go terribly wrong, and a sense of what the possible fumbles could be? Are they attentive to the well-being and safety of the person or people they’re playing with, whether that’s expressed via a written contract or a clear verbal negotiation or simply many years of trust built such that Person A knows the second Person B breathes funny that something is going wrong? (Yes, this applies to both bottoms and tops.) Do they have enough information to make fully informed consent? If they don’t, and this is an information-gathering type of scene (à la “let’s try this, I don’t know if I like it yet”) do they have a support system set up in case it goes badly, and a plan to evaluate and discuss what they’ve figured out?

3. Result. What’s the upshot? Did it all work out hunky dory? Did they have fun? If something went wrong, how was it handled? Did the players or partners deepen their trust and communication by repairing things? Do they want to try again? Did they simply decide this wasn’t an experience to repeat? Was it meh, mediocre, all right but not great? If so, did everyone concerned learn something at least? If there was a severe consequence of some kind—with the understanding that proper attention to the first two criteria makes this highly unlikely—how was that dealt with?

There. Simple enough. Let’s drop questions such as “why are they like this” or “how unusual are the things they do” and focus on these ones instead as we each try to establish what our lines are, and work toward having real discussions about those lines if and when that’s even needed. If you’re stuck in look-at-the-freaks mode, you are holding back the whole class. Go do your homework. Drop your assumptions. Talk to some real people, and not just one or two. Read a book or two or ten. Think a little, and then think a little harder. Use your logic and your analysis skills. Do real research. Make tenable connections. Above all, don’t be lazy. Then come back and write a thoughtful article that’s worth reading, and let’s actually move this discussion forward.

 

the problem with polynormativity
January 24, 2013

Polyamory is getting a lot of airtime in the media these days. It’s quite remarkable, really, and it represents a major shift over the last five to ten years.

The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.

Ten years ago, I think my position was a lot more live-and-let-live. You know, different strokes for different folks. I do poly my way, you do it your way, and we’re all doing something non-monogamous so we can consider ourselves to have something in common that’s different from the norm. We share a certain kind of oppression, in that the world doesn’t appreciate or value non-monogamy. We share relationship concerns, like logistics challenges and time management and jealousy. So we’re all in this together, right?

Today, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have much stronger Feelings about this. I mean Feelings of serious squick, not just of YKINMKBYKIOK*. Feelings of genuine offense, not of comradeship. Fundamentally, I think we’re doing radically different things. The poly movement—if it can even be called that, which is debatable for a number of reasons—is beginning to fracture along precisely the same lines as the gay/lesbian/queer one has. (You could argue it has been fractured along this fault line forever, but it hasn’t always seemed quite as crystal-clear to me as it does right now.)

(*Stands for “your kink is not my kink but your kink is okay,” a common phrase used among perverts to basically say we don’t all have to like doing a thing in order for that thing to be acceptable.)

At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.

The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms. I’ll refer to this as polynormativity. (I don’t think I’m quite coining a term here, but not far off, as most of the paltry seven hundred-ish Google hits I can find for the term are about obscure legalese I don’t understand. I kinda wish it was already a thing, frankly. So, uh, my gift to you.)

Here are the four norms that make up polynormativity as I see it.

1. Polyamory starts with a couple. The first time I came across the term “poly couple” I laughed out loud. It seemed to me the most evident of oxymorons—jumbo shrimp, friendly fire, firm estimate, poly couple. But lo and behold, it’s really taken root, and nobody seems to be blinking. Polyamory is presented as a thing that a couple does, as opposed to a relationship philosophy and approach that individual people ascribe to, as a result of which they may end up as part of a couple but—because poly!—may just as well be partnered with six people, or part of a triad, or single, or what have you. With this norm, the whole premise of multiple relationships is narrowed down to what sounds, essentially, like a hobby that a traditionally committed pair of people decide to do together, like taking up ballroom dancing or learning to ski. So much for a radical re-thinking of human relationships. So much for anyone who doesn’t come pre-paired.

2. Polyamory is hierarchical. Following from the norm that poly begins (and presumably ends) with two, we must of course impose a hierarchy on whatever else happens. Else, how would we know who the actual real couple is in all this? If you add more people, it might get blurry and confusing! Thus, the idea of primary relationships and secondary relationships emerges. This is what I call hierarchical poly.

“Primary” implies top-level importance. “Secondary” implies less importance. Within this model, it’s completely normal to put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course. Let me say this again. It’s completely normal, even expected, that one person’s feelings, desires and opinions will matter more than another’s. It is normal for one person to be flown in first class and the other in economy as a matter of course, based on their respective status alone. And we think this is progressive?

Of course this plays out differently in different situations. This model is more likely to work out relatively well if the people involved are super kind, considerate, consistent, emotionally secure and generous, and less likely to work out happily if the people involved are mean, inconsiderate, inconsistent, insecure or selfish. It’s sort of like how you’re more likely to keep your job in a recession if your boss is a really nice person than if they really are mostly interested in the bottom line. Either way, this structure ensures that secondaries are dependent on the goodwill of primaries, and that they don’t have much say.

This is precisely what gives rise to things like Franklin Veaux’s controversial (?!) proposed secondary bill of rights or a recent post that went viral outlining how to treat non-primary partners well (note how these are not mainstream media articles). These posts make me sick to my stomach. Not because there’s anything wrong with what they’re saying, but because—according to secondaries, who are exactly the people we should be listening to here—it means that a lot of polynormative people actually need to be told how not to treat other people like complete garbage. These posts are a crash course in basic human decency. That they are even remotely necessary, to say nothing of extremely popular, is really fucking disturbing.

I’m going to digress into a note about terminology for a moment here. I take serious issue with definitions of “primary” that go something like “the primary relationship is when you live together, have kids, share finances, etc.” No. Wrong. Disagree. This is a deeply flawed definition. Any of the elements that go into this type of definition of “primary” can just as easily be had in a relationship that isn’t “primary,” or, for that matter, that isn’t even romantic or sexual. People can live with a roommate, share finances with a platonic life partner, have kids with an ex they never speak to; and on the flip side, a person can consider another person to be a “primary” partner even without living together, sharing finances or reproducing. “Primary” and “secondary” are about a hierarchy-based relationship model, not about specific life circumstances.

“Primary” and “secondary” are not especially ambiguous as far as terms go. With that in mind, I will add a plea here directed at poly people: if you don’t mean to create or imply a hierarchy, don’t use “primary” and “secondary” as shorthand. Many of you are geeks, so accuracy must be important to you, right? Think of this as sort of like not mixing up Star Trek and Star Wars or Mac and PC. Instead of “primary,” talk about your domestic partner, your long-term partner, the person you spend most of your time with, your husband or wife—whatever applies. Instead of “secondary,” talk about your occasional date, your casual lover, your boyfriend or girlfriend or secret agent lover man, your annual long-distance affair, your new squeeze with whom you’re just figuring things out, or whatever other terms explain what you’re up to. None of these are about hierarchy. They’re just relationship descriptors. (I’ll postpone my rant about how some people think “husband” and “wife” are more real than “partner” or “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.”) On the flip side, don’t just drop using the words “primary” and “secondary” in order to look less hierarchical while still making relationship decisions in a very firmly hierarchy-based manner. No false advertising in either direction, okay?

Let me clarify my position here just in case. There is nothing wrong with serious, long-term, committed domestic partnership. There is also nothing wrong with dating casually, and feeling just fine about hanging out with a sweetie way less often than that sweetie hangs out with their spouse, say. Sometimes, a relationship is just not destined to be long-term, or domestic, or local, or involve meeting each other’s parents. This is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s also not the same thing as being “secondary.” I am not playing with semantics here. I’m talking about frameworks for viewing relationships, making decisions, coming up with rules—more on that in the next point—and treating real, live human beings.

3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules. If we start out with a couple, and we want to keep that couple firmly in its place as “primary” with all others as “secondary,” well, of course we need to come up with a bunch of rules to make sure it all goes according to plan, right? Right. (And there is most certainly a plan.)

This is a control-based approach to polyamory that, while not exclusive to couple-based primary-secondary models, is almost inevitable within them. Rules are implicitly set by the “primaries,” the “poly couple”—at least that’s how most discussions of rules are presented. Some books and websites will tell you (“you” presumably being someone who’s part of a currently-monogamous, about-to-be-poly couple) that it’s really super important not only to have rules, but also to set them out before you go out and do this polyamory thing. If ever you wanted confirmation of the very clearly secondary status of “secondary” partners, this is it: the rules get set before they even show up, and they have no say in ‘em. Again… we think this is progressive?

Here’s the thing. Rules have an inverse relationship to trust. They are intended to bind someone to someone else’s preferences. They are aimed at constraint. I will limit you, and you will limit me, and then we’ll both be safe.

When two people are well matched in their values, and have strong mutual trust, they don’t need a rule to know how they’ll each behave. I mean, how many times do you hear “I’ll agree not to kill anyone if you agree not to kill anyone, okay? That’ll be our rule. No killing.” Of course not. Psychopaths aside, this kind of thing need not be said; we can assume that everyone shares the value of “killing people is bad and I will not do it.”

But it’s not the least bit uncommon for “poly couples” to create elaborate sets of rules to keep each other strictly bound to only behave in ways that are not scary, not dangerous, and not threatening to the primary bond. We won’t kiss anyone without asking each other first. No overnight dates. If you want to see her more than three times, I have to meet her. If you want to see her more than three times, don’t tell me about it, it’s too much for me to handle. No falling in love (this one cracks me up in its sheer absurdity). Love is okay, but only if you love him less than me. Anal sex only with me. Anal sex only with others. You have to date exactly the same number of people as I date. No going to our favourite restaurant together. No sleeping in our bed. You have to text me by eleven. I have to call you when I’m leaving her place. And the crowning glory, the holy grail of poly rules: we have veto power! (I’ve got a whole other post about this one, called Against the Veto, in which I lay out exactly why veto rights are a rotten idea.) The crux: secondaries are secondary, so very secondary that a person they’re not even partnered with can decide if and when they’ll get dumped.

You know, when true danger is involved, I’m all for rules. Rules like, say, you must be at least five feet tall to board this ride… you cannot perform neurosurgery without a medical license… no unprotected anal sex with strangers (note that this kind of rule isn’t about a couple, it’s about protecting your own precious health!)… no fire play at this event as the ceilings are low and hung with paper streamers. But extensive rules around polyamory are essentially the equivalent of saying that love (or sex, or dating) is dangerous and must be severely regulated so as not to harm anyone. To my mind this is a very strange way of approaching the possibility of great joy and human connection—as though it were a bomb that might detonate if not handled by strict protocol. The more rules you put into place, the more you are indicating that you don’t trust the person subject to those rules to operate in a considerate fashion with your shared values at heart. Or, on the reverse, you are indicating that you need to be under strict supervision, failing which you will shit all over your partner’s well-being. If you have to legislate something, it’s because you don’t expect it to happen sans legislation. This is a sad state of affairs in what are ostensibly supposed to be loving, possibly long-term relationships.

Are rules never a good thing? I wouldn’t go that far. They can be a necessary evil, a temporary measure to get you through a rough time during which you are presumably working on a better solution. Which you are. Like, right now. Right? From a completely different angle, rules can be pleasurable, or erotically (etc.) charged, like in a D/s or M/s relationship—although those too, when imposed from a place of fear or agreed to as a way to avoid penalty, can be a form of unethical binding designed to shore up one person’s insecurities at another person’s expense. But aside from these very specific and circumscribed instances, rules are best when they are used quite sparingly, and even then, only when other solutions are unavailable.

What other solutions am I talking about? Trust. Plain and simple. Trust is the soil in which polyamory should grow, much like any other kind of love. Say what you mean, always, and all of it. Follow through on your commitments. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Assume positive intent. Ask questions. Listen, listen, listen. Ask more questions and listen some more. Soothe fears. Work on your own insecurities at the location from which they spring—inside yourself. Be kind. Be consistent. Be generous. Ask explicitly for what you want. State clearly what you need. Apologize when you fuck up, and try to fix it. Find strategies to compensate for your shortcomings, such as forgetfulness or anxiety or lack of emotional vocabulary or whatever else gets in the way of you being able to do all this stuff skilfully. Yes, this is going to be a lot of work. Do it anyway. Better yet, do it because the work itself brings you joy and makes you feel like you are moving through the world in a way that is profoundly right. If you’ve messed up on one of these counts, or any other, and it has hurt your partner(s), heal it. Do the work together. Get couples therapy. Practice new communication skills together. Invest your time, energy and effort to make the soil healthy and nourishing rather than in building fences around the garden.

From there, you can request all kinds of behaviours without needing them to be rules. You know, like “I’m really keen to meet your new lover! Can we have tea next week?” or “Hey, will you text when you’re on your way home so I know what time to get dinner ready for?” or “It would make me feel cherished and special if we had a brand of wine we drink only with each other” or even “I’m terrified I’m going to lose you and I need some reassurance.” Again, this isn’t just semantics. These other ways of relating aren’t “just like rules.” They are about generosity and joy and care, not control and limits and fear. Intent counts here.

4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy! This element of polynormativity doesn’t relate directly to the other three, but since we are talking about media representation here, it’s well worth mentioning. Polyamory is resolutely presented in the media as a thing heterosexuals do, except sometimes for bisexual women who have a primary male partner and secondary female partners. It is exceedingly rare for lesbian, gay or queer poly configurations to be included in mainstream representations of polyamory, even though LGBQ circles are absolute hotbeds of polyamorous activity, and LGBQ people have a long and illustrious history of non-monogamy, recent enthusiasm about marriage notwithstanding. Go to just about any LGBQ gathering—even the most mainstream—and you can’t swing a cat without hitting at least half a dozen people who are doing some sort of non-monogamy, from regular “monogamish” bathhouse adventures to full-on poly families. It’s so common that it feels (gasp!) normal.

But if the mainstream media were to give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, then people might think poly is a gay thing, and that wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines. So the typical polynormative hype article goes something like, “Meet Bob and Sue. They’re a poly couple. They’re primary partners and they date women together.” Or “they each date women on the side” or “they have sex parties in their basement” or sometimes, though more rarely, “Bob dates women and Sue dates men.” Mainstream representations rarely break the “one penis per party” rule, which is exactly as offensive as it sounds. You don’t get Bob dating Dave, or Sue dating Tim and Jim and John while Bob stays home with a movie. Because whoa! That’s just going too far. I mean, playing around with women is one thing, but if you bring a second man into the picture, don’t the two guys need to, like, duke it out? Prove who’s manlier? Because evolutionary psychology! Because nature! Because when there is a penis (and only one penis) involved it is real sex and that means a real relationship and we must have a real relationship to have a primary-secondary structure and we must have a primary-secondary structure to be a poly couple! (Hmm. So maybe this part does relate to my other three points after all.)

All of this creates a situation where polyamory is presented as a hip new trend that edgy straight folks are trying out, and boy, are they ever proud of it. Needless to say this whole framing varies from clueless about queers to downright offensive.

Add the mainstream media’s desire to show images of poly people who are cute, young and white and we are getting a very narrow picture indeed. The magazines want to showcase people who are as conventionally attractive as possible, aged between 20 and 40, and almost never anything other than Caucasian (unless they’re people of colour who are really, y’know, exotic and sexy, like smoldering black men or gorgeous Asian women). It’s a crying shame, because the stories of poly people who are in their sixties and seventies would be amazing to hear. And no, not all poly people are white, but when white is the only image people see of poly, it sure does create a barrier discouraging people of colour from understanding themselves as potentially poly.

The media is also mostly interested in the sexy factor. The deep impact that a given person’s camera-friendliness has on the media’s willingness to showcase them cannot be underestimated. And with that comes the push to sexualize as much as possible. I will never forget, for instance, what happened when I was featured in Châtelaine magazine with a partner about ten years ago. The photographer pushed hard for me to take my top off for the shoot, assuring me it would be tasteful. When I asked him why he wanted to take the showing-skin angle, he said “because you’re not ugly. It’s really hard to photograph people who are ugly.” Um, thanks? My blouse stayed on, but apparently young, white and cute were still the order of the day, because they still had my picture take up way more space than the other people who were featured in the article. You know, the “ugly” ones. Yechh.

Don’t get me wrong. Sex and attraction are significant forces in poly relationships. This isn’t a bad thing, and I feel no need to get all “it’s not about the sex” on you. It is about the sex, at least for most of us. But it’s not only about the sex. If it were only about the sex, it wouldn’t be polyamory—it would be sleeping around, which is awesome, but not usually committed and romantic. If it were never about the sex, it also wouldn’t be polyamory—we’d just be a bunch of friends, which is also awesome, but also not usually romantic, though possibly committed. But the media is really bad at striking that balance. The mainstream is really interested in orgies, and who sleeps with who, and how often, and wow threesomes! And did I mention young, cute and white?

These articles are looking to present a fantasy of conventionally good-looking people having delightful transgressive (but not scary transgressive) sex while remaining as firmly within the boundaries of conventional couple-based relationship-building as humanly possible under the circumstances. That fantasy sells things. It does the rest of us no favours.

— I’m adding this section now (a week after the original post) because a few people have now raised the question of why I am using the acronym LGBQ without including the T for transgender/transsexual. In trying to keep a tight focus on the topic of polynormativity as being about media representation of a certain relationship model, and the problems with both the representation and the model – with “tight” already being a bit of a stretch given the length of this post – I didn’t go into the broader list of ways in which polynormativity supports other kinds of omissions and normativities. In making that editorial choice, I may have perpetuated several of those omissions myself. So, clarification is of course warranted. (Some of the following appears in the comments section, so you will see it repeated if you read through that too.)

So here it is: I am increasingly uncomfortable with the acronym LGBTQ, as the inclusion of a T for “transgender” (a gender identity) at the end of a list of letters standing for sexual orientations (not genders) bears some implicit inaccuracy. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people may be trans or non-trans; and transgender people may of course be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or straight (and beyond) in orientation. Not all trans people feel an affiliation with gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer politics or communities, and not all people with a history of transition feel a need to overtly identify as transgendered, even if they do identify as gay, lesbian, bi or queer. I don’t take any issue with using LGBTQ to describe, for instance, a magazine or a group or a committee or what have you, provided the entity actually serves the people represented by that entire acronym and isn’t just trying to look extra-progressive. In this post, I’m talking about orientation, not gender identity, so it felt (and still feels) inaccurate to throw the T into that specific list.

But that doesn’t mean trans people have no place in this discussion. Quite the opposite. The polynormative model also perpetuates cisnormativity, in two ways. (Cisnormativity is the idea that all people who are assigned a given sex at birth still identify with that sex and express an “appropriate” gender identity as a result, and that anything else is weird or bad.) One is the media representation element – trans people rarely show up in mainstream media representations of polyamory. So this is cisnormativity by omission. The other, more complex piece becomes evident when we dig a little deeper into the “one penis per party” rule, and into how we understand sexual orientation. “One penis per party” relies on the idea that “penis” can be used as shorthand for “man,” because men always have penises, and only men have penises. This, of course, erases the experiences of a lot of trans folks for whom genitals and gender don’t match up, whether because they are men who weren’t born with penises or because they’re women who were (regardless of what a person’s genitals look like at this point in their life, or what words they use for them).

“One penis per party,” more broadly, also relies on the idea that men and women are naturally different in some sort of essentialist, fundamental, biology-based way, such that having a (in this case secondary) relationship with a man is going to be substantively different because man than it would be with a woman because woman. This idea ends up pre-determining how people think a relationship is going to go – how “real” the sex is going to be, how intense the emotions are likely to get, and therefore how “safe” it is to “allow” one’s primary partner to engage in that relationship. This doesn’t account for the possible presence of trans people in the equation. But even if that’s a non-existent possibility in a given situation for whatever reason, it speaks to a viewpoint in which women and men are naturally like this or like that because of their anatomy. This, as a conceptual model, keeps trans people – even if you don’t know any (to your knowledge!) and don’t have any occasion to meet any – in the boxes they were assigned to at birth. It implies that the gender they have moved into is somehow less real or valid. It also keeps the vast spectrum of people who are not trans – whether cisgendered, or, like myself, gender-fluid or somewhere else in the non-binary range – tethered to the boxes they were assigned at birth, insisting that those boxes determine who we are, who we can be, how we can fuck, and what it’s like to be romantically involved with us. Ultimately, cisnormativity hurts everyone. The people most egregiously damaged end up being the people who are the most visibly different, which often means trans women. But cisnormativity isn’t “just” a trans issue. This is about creating space for all of us to exist as we wish.

Like with any normative model, polynormativity works in concert with a range of other normative models to create a full, if rarely explicit, picture in people’s minds about How the World Works, about who counts and who doesn’t, about what’s real and what’s not worth considering. As such, in addition to questions of race and age and orientation, as I mentioned earlier, and of gender, as I’ve fleshed out here, it holds hands with other problematic ideas. Ideas of what family is or should be, and of how kids can or should work into the equation; questions of illness/health and ability/disability, including STI status; questions of class and economic position; and a range of others. But, as a commenter pointed out, this is a blog post, it isn’t a book. Yet…

End of new section! —

***

In sum, I have three key problems with polynormativity.

First problem: the polynormative model is kinda sucky. Perhaps it might work well, maayyybe, for some people—I won’t go so far as to say it never does. But it comes with a host of problems for everyone involved, most notably for those who are in the least empowered place within the relationship structure, but also in more subtle and insidious ways for those who are in the more privileged place within the structure. Gee, whaddaya know, that’s a lot like pretty much every other privilege/oppression system, ever! I’m going to stop short of saying to polynormative folks, “hey, you’re doing it wrong,” but, well, honestly? Not far off. Maybe closer to “you’re missing the point.”

Because of this stance I suspect I may get irate or defensive comments here from a lot of polynormative folks who feel just great about their model. To them, I will say the following. If you are a member of a “primary” pair in a polynormative model, and your “secondary” partner(s) can provide just as spirited a defense of your model as you do, or even more so—not a defense of you as individuals, nor of your relationship, but of the polynormative model itself—without leaving anything out or fibbing even a little bit so they don’t risk creating conflict or possibly losing you as a partner, then you fall within the minority of polynormative folks for whom the model works really, super well for all concerned. (And I do mean all. If it’s only working really great for the primary couple, the model isn’t working.) If you’re one such bunch, there’s no need to get defensive—I’m not really criticizing you anyway. If, however, that’s not the case for you, please hold off on your defensiveness and think really seriously about the critiques I’m raising instead.

When I start seeing a plethora of mainstream media testimonials from happy, fulfilled secondary partners about how awesome the primary-secondary model is… when these secondaries start writing the latest hit poly books, giving the advice, having the lead roles in the reality TV shows, and doing all this as secondaries (not as people who happen to be secondary to someone but it’s all okay and balanced and fair because they’re also primary to someone else)… when they show their faces in photos, use their full and real names in articles, and just generally feel not the least bit weird about their position in these poly structures right alongside the primary partners who are showcased this way… when this is not an occasional exception, but the main kind of representation I see by and of secondary partners… then maybe I will amend my stance here. I’m not holding my breath.

Second problem: The media presents these poly norms as, well, norms. As The Way to Do Poly. At best, there’s a brief mention that some people do some other sorts of poly, over there, and we don’t really understand them, or maybe those forms are way too complicated for us to summarize in a 1,000-word article. (Triads! Quads! Families! Ws and Xs and Greek alphabets and constellations and ecosystems! It’s all so scary. Also, math is hard.)

But most of the time, “other” (ooh, look at that construction!) kinds of poly aren’t mentioned at all. There is this one way, and here it is! Isn’t it grand? So brave! So unusual! Really quite cutting-edge, don’t you think? … Well, whether intentionally or otherwise, this approach ends up flattening the picture of poly, depicting it in its simplest, most dumbed-down terms. It’s no coincidence that this version of poly is the one that most closely resembles the one-man, one-woman, marriage-based, nuclear-family kind of relationship we’re all told we’re supposed to aspire to. All we’ve done is relax the rules around sex a bit, and unlike (but not that unlike) swingers’ ethics, we’re also “allowing” the emotional end of things to actually exist, in the sense that we have relationships and are not “just” schtupping. But not the kind of relationships that actually “threaten” (?!) the “primary” couple. Not with people who, God forbid, make demands on one or both of us, or challenge us, or want to have a say in how things go. Then, well, they get the boot, because primary comes first! We can all agree on that, can’t we? Of course. That’s the essence of primary relationships. It’s pretty clear in the terminology. One person comes first, the others do not. This is why the mainstream can wrap its head around poly at all: because understood this way, it’s really not that fundamentally different from monogamy.

Third problem: This whole state of affairs screws over the newbies. Because of this overwhelming slant in media representation, a lot of folks who are new to poly are operating at a great disadvantage.

I’m not really much one to idealize the past, but boy, was it different ten or fifteen years ago. Back in my day (ha!), if you wanted to learn about poly, there was one source: The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt (as Janet Hardy was known at the time). It was all right. Not perfect. Heavily slanted toward sex-party-attending Bay Area granola types, and written at such a basic language level that it wouldn’t go over anyone’s head, but overall pretty solid, and nicely thought-provoking. Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits was never nearly as popular or sexy, but it did become a quiet classic, and provided another angle. And, well, that was it. Beyond that, there were a few online discussion forums and potentially, if you lived in a big city, real-life local poly groups. This meant that if you wanted to learn about how to “do” polyamory, you pretty much had to make it up by yourself (which can be a good thing, though extra-challenging); talk to people in your local community, which was probably relatively small but also probably pretty warm and supportive; or attend a conference somewhere far away that brought together a bunch of people. And those people might be doing poly in any number of ways, primary-secondary being just one. (Even then, it was a pretty darned common one, so I’m not saying that polynormativity is entirely a new problem—it’s just worse now than ever.)

Right now, though, you can google “polyamory” and get a whole lot of nearly-identical polynormative hype articles, and you can meet up with locals who’ve read the same articles you just did, and you can all get together and do polynormative poly exactly the way the media told you to. And if that’s all you ever bother to do then essentially you are selling yourself short. You are trading in the monogamous norm for polynormativity, which relatively speaking isn’t all that much of a stretch, and stopping there because you may very well think that’s all there is (and you already racked up a whole bunch of cool points anyway). You aren’t encouraged to really think about this stuff without any imposed models at all, which means you never get to figure out what actually might work best for you. As such, the most fundamental element of polyamory—that of rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and practice love, sex, relationships, commitment, communication, and so forth—is lost in favour of a cookie-cutter model that’s as easy as one, two, three. The deepest and most significant benefit of polyamory has become increasingly obscured by media representation, and as a result, is getting farther and farther out of reach for anyone who’s just starting out.

***

I feel the need to reiterate, one last time, that my problem here is with the polynormative model and the mainstream media’s insistence on it—not with a specific relationship structure or with any people who happen to practice it. Yes, the polynormative model and the primary-secondary relationship structure do happen to overlap often, but I can’t tell by looking at you what process, values or circumstances brought you to your current structure, or why you chose your terminology, so I can’t and won’t criticize or judge individual people or poly groupings on the sole basis of having a primary-secondary structure. If this post provokes a sense of defensiveness in you, I invite you to sit with that and think about why.

The key distinction here is between philosophy and current situation or practice. This is similar to how sexual orientation and current sexual practice are not one and the same. You can, for instance, be gay and currently celibate; or bisexual, but these days having sex with only women; or fundamentally straight, but involved with someone of the same sex (though I know some folks would debate that last one). When it comes to polyamory, sometimes, regardless of your philosophy, you may end up being in one big significant live-together kind of relationship and have one or more less-serious or less-committed or less-intense relationships as well. It’s the polynormative mindset I have a problem with, and its prevalence—not the form a given poly relationship constellation may actually take.

***

If you’d like to expand outside the polynormative model, I have some recommended reading for you. First, read Wendy-O-Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships. Then, check out Deborah Anapol’s new Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners. (I haven’t read it in full yet myself, but the excerpts I’ve seen lead me to believe Dr. Anapol has a lot of really wise shit to say about non-polynormative models, though I don’t think she uses that term specifically.) Spend some time reading Franklin Veaux. Read my 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy. If you’re doing D/s or M/s relationships, read Raven Kaldera’s Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic (full disclosure: I contributed an essay to it). Look for information, ideas, works that challenge you to think hard, build your skills and stretch your heart. It’s out there. Your move.

a theory of power
November 14, 2012

As regular readers might have noticed, in the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly written about the nature of full-time power dynamics. It’s a theme that takes up a lot of space in my mind, as I move through the joys and challenges of my own power relationships over time. This post is an addition to that thread of musings.

In recent months I’ve found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the discussions and resources about power that I encounter through the BDSM/leather community/ies. There’s nothing wrong with them, per se, they’ve just been speaking to me personally less and less. It’s not hard to figure out why. Let me digress into the directly personal for a moment in order to explain.

I’ve spent the past few years in steadily worsening chronic pain. I found out in May of this year that I had a rare, slow-growing tumour directly on my spinal cord that had basically been keeping my pelvic nerve company for easily a decade, possibly up to twenty years. By the time the doctors finally figured out what the fuck was wrong with me, my body was in a terribly fragile state—any kind of impact, including movements as simple as stepping down a stair or being brushed against in a crowd, would cause me to seize up in pain. Most kinds of SM play became impossible for me, or became pleasures I could indulge in only rarely or within strict limits. A seven-minute demo scene in a workshop this spring had me out of commission for days. When the pain it reached its worst, in the weeks prior to the surgery I had in July to remove the tumour, I stopped being able to enjoy even the most careful sex. Anything approaching orgasm was agony. Now, following surgery, the pain is mostly gone, but there are parts of my bits that I can’t feel at all, and I’m feeling tender and tentative when it comes to either initiating or receiving any kind of sexual touch. (I’m working on it.)

And yet, despite sex and play becoming increasingly rare and challenging, and eventually grinding to a complete halt, and despite my very low levels of erotic and sadomasochistic desire in recent months, at no point did I stop desiring and enjoying the power dynamics I have cultivated with my partners. If anything, they deepened.

This really drove home the point that power-based relationships, for me, do not live in sex or eroticism. There is a gigantic overlap, yes; I am rarely drawn to, and find it challenging to feel truly satisfied within, power dynamics that don’t veer pretty heavily into the erotic. But there’s nothing quite like having no erotic desire and no ability to enjoy sex to make it abundantly clear that erotic charge is in no way at the root of what I’m doing. Power, for me, doesn’t live in sex. It just likes to hang out there a whole lot. But its roots are elsewhere.

Over the course of my journey into and out of debilitating pain, I realized that it was extremely difficult to find discussions of power, in BDSM settings, that do not take as a given that power is a sexual kink. I know I’m not the only one for whom power doesn’t live in sex, but it’s unbelievably hard to find a place to learn about that or talk about it when your primary point of reference is the BDSM/leather world. Over and over, I found myself in situations where I was very much hoping for insight or new perspectives, and then realizing that for the people I was talking with, it all came down to, or revolved around, or was sourced within, sex. And each time that happened, I felt more isolated. A freak among freaks. A dominant sex pervert who wasn’t sexing or perving, but for whom the dominance hadn’t slowed down one iota. Honestly, I started to feel like maybe I should turn in my pervert card. I sure wasn’t feeling very pervy.

I discovered, though, that one place where I could find some glimmer of hope was within discussions of M/s relationships and what’s sometimes known as “the path of mastery”—a term I think lends itself to Darth Vader-like intoning quite well, which kind of makes me cringe, but I haven’t found something better. So that’s what I’m reading about these days (I’ll be updating my annotated reading list soon!), and that’s the kind of gatherings and conferences I’m budgeting to attend, and that’s what my brain is grinding away at. It’s not an entirely new line of thinking for me, but I think having sex and play forcibly removed from the equation really compelled me to find some way of understanding what the fuck it is I’m doing, since clearly it’s happening even completely outside those contexts.

So, of late, I’ve been doing a lot of chewing on this idea of “mastery.” Thus far, in my blogging about power, I’ve mostly discussed 24/7 relationships, but I haven’t written a heck of a lot about the more individual aspects of this path. I’ve also never been especially comfortable with the term “master,” as applied to myself. But for a number of reasons, I’m realizing that I have to swallow some of that discomfort and just bloody own that this is the path I’m on, mastery is probably the best word to describe it, and my task is to become comfortable with that, not try to wiggle out of it. As an exercise in comfort-building, I tried to develop a definition of mastery that makes sense and feels right to me, and I figured it might be worth sharing, again because there is precious little out there on the topic, even among people who’ve been doing this forever and a day. So…

Mastery, for me, is a radical commitment to acknowledging, recognizing, and profoundly knowing my privilege and power both in classically political ways (gender, race, etc.) and also in terms of less tangible, describable and theorizable/theorized areas such as leadership skill, charisma, intuition, emotional intelligence, attractiveness, persuasiveness, command presence, and so forth. A key piece of this is to extend that acknowledgement, recognition and knowledge to the pleasure that can be and is taken in that power (even though holding power and privilege is not always pleasurable). This is the stuff that often gets dismissed or ignored in academic and political discussions of power, but that utterly changes the game at every small interpersonal moment in a way that can only be ethically dealt with through acceptance, clear sight and responsible management. Alongside that, mastery is a radical commitment to using that privilege and power for good (mine, my partners’, others’, the community’s, the world’s) in as explicit, conscious and consensual a way as possible in every moment.

This concept of mastery relies on a pursuit of deep self-awareness, and a commitment to right and ethical use of power, which presupposes the establishment of an ethical system. But this ethical system is not an institutionally-based one. Most people who work within pre-established or institutionalized ethical systems (religion, law, professional codes, academia, military, martial arts, whatever) don’t pursue mastery in the sense that I’m talking about here, though the two types of code are not mutually exclusive. But institutional frameworks on their own don’t generally encourage the kind of individualized understanding, personal moral code and introspective approach I’m talking about here. Also, unless you are fanatically devoted, most outside-originating systems (even when chosen) give you much more room to deviate or get away with shit, whereas a strong inner-sourced moral code does not.

I guess a short way of saying this would be that for me, mastery begins and ends with self-mastery, so in that sense it doesn’t in any way depend on the existence of a relationship—and thus in no way is defined by or limited to the erotic. But when someone shows up who wants to enter into a power relationship with me, then I govern that dyad by my self-mastery code.

I’ve written in the past about describing “This Thing” (my preferred term, for the moment, for what others might call M/s or Master/slave relationships). The further writing I’m doing here isn’t intended to replace those ideas, but rather to add to them. In that earlier post, I was trying to describe the key features I’d been able to pinpoint—the elements that seemed, to me, to be common to all or at least most relationships that were This Thing, both my own and those I’d seen around me. (If you want even broader context, I also wrote about conceptual frameworks for D/s relationships, because This Thing is at one extreme of a scale that includes a range of other power-inflected relationship types.)

I have wrestled before with how to explain what’s different between This Thing and any other kind of relationship, and my earlier attempt, while trying to be definitive, was mostly descriptive. But recently I came up with a two-step system that I’d like to put forth as a definition.

First step: to count as This Thing in my personal conception of things, the power dynamic must fit both of the following criteria. (Note that PIC = Person In Charge and POA = Person Obeying Authority. These positions can only exist in relation to one another. Someone who is on a path of mastery, or on that of what’s often known as “slavery,” can be on that path whether they’re in a relationship or not; that part is about self-understanding and identity, not relationship.)

1) It must be 100%, by which I mean not time-bound (i.e. limited to the bounds of a scene or a specific time frame of any other kind) and not bound by the limits of a specific “territory” or area. As such, an ongoing relationship in which the PIC’s authority is limited—say, their territory includes the POA’s sexual practice, dress habits and school pursuits, but they have no say over the POA’s health or parenting or finances—doesn’t count in my framing of things, even if such relationships may have a lot in common with This Thing, and may be far more common than This Thing, and may even happen between two people who are each on their respective paths. Just because one person in a relationship is on the path of mastery and the other on the path of “slavery” doesn’t mean they are master and slave to each other, any more than two dancers who fall in love must necessarily dance together.

2) It must be deliberate and self-conscious, in that both participants explicitly acknowledge that they’re doing an ongoing power dynamic and they agree to engage in it on purpose. So no implicit relationships here. Of course power suffuses plenty of relationships in implicit ways, including many relationships that fit some of the second-step criteria, but I don’t think it can truly be This Thing if you don’t actually ever talk about it.

These two criteria, though, are not enough to make a relationship into This Thing. The first criterion, for instance, is present in parent/child relationships and in other relationships of dependence, consensual or otherwise (state/prisoner, say, or institution/mental patient), but those aren’t This Thing. And lots of cases exist where both criteria are present, such as when people join certain religions (especially as nuns, priests and the equivalent) or the military, but those too aren’t This Thing because they don’t hit any of the second-step criteria.

So, those second-step criteria, then. In addition to the two first-step criteria, the relationship must meet one or more of the following three criteria, any one of which is sufficient. In other words, they are often all three present, and more rarely two out of three (any two), and more rarely still just a single one, but as long as at least one of them is present, it fits into my definition of This Thing.

1) It is erotic. The power dynamic produces and sustains arousal.

AND/OR

2) It is power for power’s sake. The power dynamic is desired for its own sake and is cultivated as an end unto itself, rather than as being a means to an end, a practice in service to a goal. Not to say that goals of another kind can’t be present—they often are, and This Thing is an excellent framework to support goal achievement (for both partners). But the primary purpose isn’t to achieve an outside goal. The goal is to experience and enjoy the power dynamic. If all you wanted were X other goal (spiritual enlightenment, earning a PhD, losing twenty pounds, etc.) then you could easily take another path to get there (monasticism, grad school, personal trainer, etc.) and that way may involve a power dynamic, but the dynamic is then bound by the elements related to the achievement of that goal.

AND/OR

3) It is done in the context of a leather, M/s or BDSM tradition or community context.

As a “proof” of my criteria set, I went at this backwards and tried to eliminate two out of three second-step criteria at every turn to see if what was left still held up. I’m not eliminating the first-step ones; they remain the foundation piece for the second-step ones.

So, if we eliminate the arousal factor, you can still have a non-erotic power dynamic that is deliberately enjoyed for its own ends, whether it is or is not done within self-consciously leather traditions. Non-erotic dynamics in This Thing are rare, but by no means unheard of. One well-known pair on the M/s teaching circuit, for instance, is made up of a gay male master and a female slave who aren’t sexually involved.

If you eliminate the power-for-its-own-sake factor, say by making it a goal-oriented dynamic, then it might be time-limited in the sense that when the goal is achieved the relationship dissolves, but it may well still be a full-time and ongoing This Thing relationship while it lasts, if it is also either erotic and/or happening within the context of leather traditions. I admit I’ve rarely seen this—for most people, a relationship that’s based on a specific goal doesn’t tend to become as all-encompassing as This Thing, but it’s theoretically possible, particularly, I suppose, if the goal were a pretty gigantic or long-term one. A couple of the M/s couple profiles in the book Ask the Man Who Owns Him discuss a specific goal as a key element of the relationship, the accomplishment of which could signal the end of the M/s dynamic in at least one case, so I know this does exist. On the other side of the coin, for some pairs who are heavily spiritually oriented, they may see their dynamic as serving a spiritual purpose such that they wouldn’t say they’re doing power for its own sake; it’s all in service to a higher calling or at the command of their deity. This stretches my idea of “for its own sake” somewhat, but for the purposes of this definition, I’d still count spiritually-framed M/s relationships of that type as This Thing as long, of course, as they still hit the initial two criteria of being 100% full-time and full-spectrum and explicitly acknowledged as such.

If you eliminate the leather tradition element, you can still have a fully functional and happy power dynamic, but you may lack a language with which to discuss it or a set of concepts to start from, and you may lack support structures and a community, which—when you’re going into an intense and unusual kind of relationship like this—can be crucial in helping you find support as well as balancing, deepening and understanding what you are getting up to. Still, there are other kinds of communities and traditions to work from—people find inspiration for This Thing in an array of places. (Note that I do NOT count as This Thing frameworks that are based on institutionalized conservative or fundamentalist strains of organized religion and are coercive as such—so if God tells your religion that men are in charge and women must submit, and two people believe this and enter a relationship based on those parameters, to my mind one or possibly both of them are actually in a non-consensual power dynamic with an institutional third party and as such the entire idea here is moot.) And some people are really into making it all up for themselves, without using any models whatsoever. Bonus points for creativity! Also, if you’re not into kinky sex per se, or you find the BDSM/leather/fetish community/ies off-putting for some reason, or the resources you’ve found within leather/BDSM don’t speak to you even if you do like kink, or you’re geographically isolated, or you’re not especially sociable or community-oriented—well, for all these reasons and many more, then leather symbolism and traditions might be of no interest to you.

A side note about this last criterion. In BDSM and leather communities, there often are traditions and symbols—the use of a collar, the wearing of leather, the employment of etiquette and protocols, and so forth—that can serve really well to help frame This Thing, and the visibility of that symbolism in the outside world draws people seeking This Thing to the BDSM/leather community. But it can be a bit of a minefield once you get there.

Two arcs often intersect here. First, the BDSM or leather community is often where people end up when they are drawn to the eroticism of power and/or the exploration of power for its own sake, because there isn’t really another place where this stuff gets engaged in and discussed as such. Especially the erotic part. You can certainly find self-conscious explorations of power in various places, particularly religions, but it is very rare to see those places address the erotic in any meaningful way. They are usually invested in denying or controlling the erotic, often setting it up as a threat to the belief system itself. Second, people who are drawn to BDSM sometimes discover that their interest in power goes beyond play, after exploring the scene for a while and getting the nagging feeling they want something deeper.

The fact that the BDSM world acts as a vector for full-time power-oriented people in this way—both people who start out wanting a full-time dynamic and look for opportunities through BDSM, and people who start out being interested in BDSM play and end up realizing they want a full-time dynamic—is in fact the source of a lot of confusion and pain. Many folks oriented toward This Thing feel frustrated and alienated in BDSM communities where the focus is squarely on play or time-bound power, because when everything is framed that way, and these are the terms of all conversations, it can be really difficult to talk about how This Thing isn’t play (but is often still kinky and/or erotic, and play does still often happen within This Thing), and it can be super challenging to find resources and perspectives, even though you’d think this would be precisely the place to find them. Often in these same settings, BDSM players are suspicious of ongoing power dynamics because they frame their BDSM practice as being okay precisely because of its temporary or role-based character. So a lot of players pooh-pooh This Thing, or any other kind of ongoing arrangement for that matter, as taking itself too seriously, or see it as inherently abusive or just “going too far,” much like any vanilla community would.

The situation is an odd one. The place where people are most likely to gravitate in order to find This Thing, or through which people are likeliest to figure out they want This Thing, is a place where wanting it may be actively discouraged and finding it might in fact prove very difficult. So close, yet so far away! I have written about this from a slightly different angle in the past, and I may return to the topic in future writing.

For now, back to the task at hand. If you eliminate all three of my second-step criteria—if it’s not erotic, power is not engaged in for its own sake, and you’re not doing it through leather traditions—then whatever you’re doing is not This Thing.

Of course, all of this still leaves room for the existence of plenty of power-based relationships that aren’t This Thing by this definition, but that are nevertheless profound, ongoing, and very real. This definition effort isn’t a value or validity judgement. But of late I’m realizing that honing in on the particularities of This Thing is really helping me think through some stuff in helpful ways, in terms of understanding who I am, how I operate, how I’m oriented and what feels good to me. From there, I can and do engage in power relationships that aren’t This Thing because they don’t hit all the criteria, even if no matter what kind of relationship I’m in, or not in, I am still on this path of mastery that begins and ends with self-mastery.

I don’t pretend to have a conclusive understanding here, and I don’t expect my definitions or perspectives to resonate with everyone who’s doing This Thing or any other type of ongoing power dynamic. But I am committed to an ongoing exploration of ideas and to sharing concepts as they jell in my head. If nothing else, perhaps I can help provoke a proliferation of ideas and conceptual models so that we can all benefit from having a broader range to choose from. Onward and upward!

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