Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

2009 9 Apr

[storytime] Switching — have I always been a domme?

I spent last night (that is, Tuesday) at the very first Chicago Pleasure Salon, which went incredibly well! I had an amazing time, and from the feedback I got, lots of other people did too. Pleasure Salon will continue on every first Tuesday, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Planning all these sex-positive events keeps me busy, and my non-activist life is eventful, too. Lately, that’s made it hard for me to find time to actually … you know … have romantic encounters and process what’s going on in my head. (I guess that’s ironic, huh?) But although keeping up with myself has been challenging, there’s been an unmistakable shift. Namely, I’ve gone from being “pretty sure” that I’m “mildly” interested in topping, to “dead certain” that I love topping. I thought I might be a switch; now I’m sure. And the way that’s playing out is making me rethink all my previous relationships. (For those unfamiliar with BDSM terms: “switch” refers to a person who feels comfortable either as a top — that is, a dominant and/or sadist — or a bottom — that is, a submissive and/or masochist.)

I’ve written before that I always had sadomasochistic fantasies — since I was very, very young. Apparently, I was wired for BDSM since day one. (I don’t think everyone who practices BDSM feels it as quite such an intrinsic identity, but there are a number of us who do. I’ve had the “you mean, you tied up your Barbie dolls when you were a child too?” conversation many times!) In my early teens I had a bit of a freak-out and repressed it all; then BDSM came and found me almost a decade later. With a vengeance.

I came back into BDSM as a bottom, and it was a crisis. It was impossible to deny how much I wanted it, but I hated it too. On some level, I thought, “Well, this makes perfect sense” — it felt right. But on another level, I was horrified. I couldn’t reconcile my integrity as an independent, rational feminist with my need to be subordinated and hurt. It was a confusing, incredible time. I cried a lot, and I drank a lot, and I didn’t sleep much. I hated how fulfilled my bruises made me feel. It took a while for me to find some semblance of balance.

I adjusted: I took ownership of myself as a bottom. I believed it, accepted it, and gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. Let me say that again: I’ve gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. I love feeling agony I can’t escape; I love feeling as though I’m enduring shocking brutality; I love being hurt until I cry …. I love it. I love it.

And yet. I’ve always been a bit controlling, a bit fierce, a bit challenging. (More than a bit, really.) As I began to think of myself seriously as a bottom, I needed a way to mentally slot those personality traits into my new identity. Thus I concluded that I’d “always” been a bottom, but that part of that had “always” been challenging people in an attempt to get them to smack me down. The “bottom” label helped me adjust and figure out what I wanted, but perhaps it limited me, too. I decided that the dominant parts of my personality had always been an attempt to find strength in others; to provoke viciousness; to encourage others to lash out at me and subdue me. I did do some minor topping — but it was very minor. I never saw it as important, as necessary; I didn’t recognize that need the same way I felt my masochistic urges, which were a desperate near-overwhelming craving. I never thought of it as serious.

Still, at the same time, the energy between myself and my significant male partners was always such that outsiders were routinely shocked if they found out that I was the submissive. I guess it was evident that I took on a lot of power in my relationships. When I fell in love, it was with men who focused on me; who poured energy into me; who put a lot of thought into what I wanted, listened closely when I talked, admired me as much as they wanted me. The biggest thing I’ve sought in my lovers has been vulnerability, openness. To feel like they craved me, needed me. To feel like I could shape them. Arguably — to feel that I had a significant measure of actual control.


Recently, I met the first male submissive where the energy between us felt compelling. He got my attention by offering me the gift of his fear … simply saying that he was scared of me. Intrigued, I focused on him, started to watch. Over the course of months we would see each other occasionally at social events; every time I saw him, I felt him more strongly. All we did was talk, but magnetism hung in the air around us like heavy perfume. I remember one conversation we had — our words were so charged that several people around us at the dungeon stopped talking and just watched. When I finally set my nails into him weeks later, it was like I’d been holding my breath. He closed his eyes and flinched against my hands; I finally exhaled.

It was so intense, so different. But as I got into it more, I started seeing how similar it is to the way I’ve acted in the past; and as he started telling me how he thinks about submission, I felt my viewpoint on my own power shift. He told me about how he thought of some childhood fantasies — dreams of being controlled by women in apparently powerless positions … and I thought about some of my own fantasies, of being a captive or a courtesan or in some other overtly powerless position where I nonetheless would have emotional dominance over my captor. He mentioned that he’d thought about dominating, but only as a submissive — taking control only because his partner wanted him to … and I thought about one of the most affecting BDSM encounters I ever had, where my partner reduced me to tears and then put his arms around me and said he’d done it only because he loved me.

You have to be careful with these after-the-fact realizations about selfhood. It would be easy for me to go back and edit all my memories and say: “Ah, I see now; at all these points, I thought I was bottoming, but really I was in control. I thought I dreamed of submitting, but really I wanted power.” I still think I’ve always been a bottom, but I wonder at some of the dynamics I’m remembering now. Perhaps one could say that I have also, on some level, always been a domme.

Bottoming is heavy, deep. When I’m doing a good scene as a submissive, I go under. I can barely speak …. Everything blurs into darkness. Doing a good top scene is so different. It sparkles. I laugh. All my words are precise as scalpels. Everything is clear. It’s true that both topping and bottoming make me lose myself, go blank, in a similar sensual-sexual way, and I see commonalities between them. I don’t act the same in both roles, but I want similar things: as a bottom, I dream about bleeding; as a top, I crave blood on my hands. Still, the difference in how I feel when topping vs. bottoming is significant.

So, yes, of course I see why we’ve come up with the top/bottom breakdown. I feel no need to question its existence, or call it unnecessary. Most gender and sexuality theorists these days acknowledge that sex and gender exist on a continuum, rather than as black-and-white absolutes, and I bet there are people out there asserting that there’s no reason for the black-and-white top vs. bottom; but I think that the black-and-white top vs. bottom is useful even if we can’t quite parse it all out. The distinction helps us draw the map, create these acts, decide what exactly will happen between us.


He makes me cry because he loves me. Is he the dom or the sub? I’m a princess locked in a tower, with a strong knight defending me. Does he serve me, or do I belong to him? I’m a beautiful courtesan with haunting eyes, charging fabulous prices for my favors. Am I bending men’s hearts, or doing their bidding?

I still think it’s true that my provocative tendencies can be submissive. That I sometimes seek to create a combative dynamic in the hopes of losing. Craving to fight and be defeated. Craving to be broken, tormented, enslaved — to belong to him ultimately and completely. But I also crave his devotion — I want to own my lover. I crave power over his desire, the agony he endures for me, his ultimate submission. And I crave a shifting dynamic. I pull his head back, laugh low in his ear, I smile as I hurt him until he — overwhelmed — breaks out of my hold and takes control.

Top. Bottom. Switch. Both. All.

I want it all.

2009 25 Mar

[storytime/advice] On Collars

I received a lot of really great positive feedback after I gave my BDSM Overview presentation at the Museum of Sex. One of my favorite letters was this one. I swear, I should start an advice column ….

Her letter (posted with permission):

Hello Clarisse,

I attended your lecture at the Museum of Sex on Friday and I just wanted to say that it was very helpful for me. I’m very new to the BDSM scene and I guess I’m being mentored by a dominant who I am dating. He’s very patient and understanding with me, but I’ve had quite a difficult time accepting even the fact that I am submissive. As I once told him, to me submissive equates weak and helpless. I’ve always wanted to think of myself as a strong, independent, feminist woman so I am having a hard time with this. It definitely made me feel better to hear you talk about your similar struggle. I am not being coerced, or lured into anything I don’t want — I am definitely submissive and interested in BDSM and exploring that whole path — but it took me a while to accept that I am submissive, and I do have issues with it a little still. I just want to make sure you understand that it’s not an issue of being forced or asked to do anything I don’t want to do.

But I did want to ask about the use of collars. I don’t know if this is more of a personal preference, but he is interested in buying me a collar and I just can’t shake the association with pets, slaves, a.k.a. degradation! He is the most charming man I know and treats me better than any “vanilla” boyfriend I’ve had, so I know he would never want to degrade me, but I just can’t shake those associations and a collar means a lot to him. Do you have any advice?

I answered:

Of course I can’t tell you whether it’s right for you to let your boyfriend collar you. Of course only you can make that decision. You already know those things, I hope! What I can tell you is about my own experience.

First, though, a side note. You might consider trying to find a different mentor, rather than relying on someone you’re romantically involved with. I mean, you might want to have this man stay your lover, but find a separate person who can mentor you.

For one thing, it’s a really good idea to have a mentor who is of your “type” — so for instance, as a bottom, I’d advise you to find a mentor who has experience bottoming. For another thing, it’s a good idea in any relationship to make sure that you have resources for advice and assistance other than your partner. And this is especially true of fledgling BDSM relationships, where there’s so much new to learn and understand! Of course, part of seeking an outside advisor is that you want to feel sure that you’re getting unbiased input. But it’s also worth noting that it can put a lot of strain on your relationship for your boyfriend to be, not just your lover, but your major source of BDSM information and understanding. That’s a lot of roles for one person to fill. That might feel okay now — it sounds like it’s a new relationship and you’re both excited — but after a while, being so dependent on one person could become a real problem for one or both of you. Or it might not. Again, I don’t know what’s right for you. This is just some general tried-and-true advice from mentoring groups I’ve encountered.

On to your actual question! There are lots of different feelings on collars, in general. There are people in the BDSM community who simply use collars to demarcate temporary roles. A while ago, I played with a man where we agreed that once he put the collar on me, I would obey him unquestioningly for the evening; then, at the end of the evening, he took it off and the encounter was over. That was just for one night, and in that case, the collar might be considered like a symbol, or a costume — putting us in a certain kind of space together for that time. But collars are also sometimes seen as a deep sign of love and commitment. I know people who consider collars to be as strong a statement as a wedding ring. They wouldn’t even think about wearing a collar just for one night, or for someone they met recently.

Personally, I have evolved a bit on my preferences, and collars mean something different for me from what they meant several years ago. When I first came into BDSM, I was very uncomfortable with it; I needed to take small steps to keep myself comfortable. Also, I was doing BDSM with a man whom I felt emotionally uncomfortable with — I think that I wanted to distance myself from him emotionally whenever we did BDSM. As a result, I believed (that is, I told myself) that I was only interested in the physical sensation: pain. I said that I wanted nothing to do with submission or ownership. I remember that I even told one friend, very emphatically, that I’d never ever wear a collar! Never!

Later, when I had my first BDSM-flavored relationship with someone I loved and trusted, I realized that I did want to wear his collar. I wanted to feel like he owned me and could do whatever he wanted with me. I started to understand that I did want aspects of ownership in my BDSM — I recognize now that I even want aspects of degradation. But I had to come into that slowly, because those things were emotionally very hard to accept for an independent, rational feminist such as myself. And it can be confusing to work out in practice, too, because I don’t want those things from everyone! For instance, I’m willing to do some BDSM with people I don’t know very well — but I need to trust someone a lot before I can enjoy a degradation scene with them. And obviously, since I top sometimes, there are some BDSM partners where it wouldn’t even enter my head to wear a collar. Every relationship has its own texture.

As for the statement, “You own me” — I don’t say that to someone unless I’m totally into them. It feels dark and a little scary, but it also feels real and important. It feels like I’m saying something even stronger than, “I love you.” If I were with a man who wanted to put a collar on me, and if putting a collar on me meant saying to him — whether aloud or silent — “You own me,” then I would have to be totally in love with him to do it.

Desires change over time. Sometimes people don’t like things that they’ll like later. Sometimes people stop liking things. But of course, sometimes people always like certain things … or never like certain things. Maybe someday I’ll wear collars casually. Maybe someday I’ll decide never to wear a collar again! Maybe I’ll even get bored of collars and wear them as nothing more than jewelry!

So maybe you’ll never want to wear a collar, and that’s fine. Just work on it slowly. Don’t rush. Certainly, if wearing a collar feels like degradation to you — and you don’t want to be degraded — then don’t do it! I know you don’t want to ignore your lover’s needs, though. So if this is so important to him, try asking him why it’s important. Does he want to degrade you? Or does he want to feel like he owns you? Or does he just want some kind of mark on you? Or does he just want you to carry a symbol of his? Once you know why he wants to collar you, maybe that’ll help you work out a compromise. For instance, if what he really wants is for you be marked by him or carrying a symbol, then he could give you another piece of jewelry that you always wear.

Hope this is helpful, or at least illuminating!

2009 16 Feb

Coming out BDSM: upsides and downsides

A lot of us kinksters use vocabulary similar to the kind of thing people are accustomed to hearing from LGBTQ folks. “Coming out” is a great example of this: a lot of BDSM people struggle with the question of whether to come out to our employers, our friends, our parents … all the people we love. And BDSM is stigmatized and frowned upon enough that most kinksters never come out.

Some professional fields are more BDSM-friendly: for instance, kinksters who work in computer science frequently don’t have any problem with coworkers knowing about their sexual identities. Some fields are less BDSM-friendly: schoolteachers who are into BDSM have to be incredibly careful. Likewise, some subcultures are more BDSM-friendly: kinksters in the goth subculture, for instance, don’t tend to have any problems within that subculture. But again, some subcultures are less BDSM-friendly: not just the obvious ones like religious evangelicals … there are also some feminist groups that are very intolerant of BDSM, and many liberal groups still exhibit prejudices.

When I came into my BDSM identity, it was a very sudden realization for me, and my circumstances effectively outed me to most of my friends. (It’s a long story.) I think that this was ultimately a positive thing, in my case — for the most part, my friends were totally cool about it, and I was able to talk to some of them about the panic and horror and shame I was feeling. (“I’m so screwed up! I’m such a bad feminist!” … that about sums up how I felt.) It was still really hard for me to deal with it, but thank God I didn’t have to do so in strict secrecy. (I really like hearing people’s personal stories of how they got into BDSM, by the way, so if you’ve got any — leave a comment, or send them my way by email!)

Later, I came out to my parents, and I was terrified when I did it … but I’m lucky: they were both really awesome and supportive about it. As for my boss … well, my boss likes me a lot, but I’m not sure his affection would survive if he learned that I’m such a sexual deviant. He might be okay with it, but he also might be horrified and fire me. I’ve never told him and I don’t plan to.

As I’ve gotten into BDSM outreach, I’ve become a weird kind of BDSM “public figure” among my vanilla friends. A lot of them already knew I was into it, but now pretty much all of them do, because it’s such a huge part of my life that I can’t have a conversation about what I’m working on without BDSM coming up.

There are some obvious pros and cons here. For instance: I feel happy that I can talk honestly about my relationships and my work with my friends, and yet I live in fear that my boss is going to find out and hate me! But there’s one big Pro and one big Con that I want to talk about today.

1) Pro: I’m available for comment! People with their own BDSM desires, who know me or have heard about me, have a resource they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Multiple people I know from my everyday life have taken me aside — usually in very quiet, furtive, ashamed ways — and asked for BDSM advice. Some of them have an idea what they’re asking about: they say straightforward things like, “I might want to try some BDSM. Where can I learn more?” Others are more confused. They ask roundabout, contradictory questions or lapse into pauses.

A female friend of mine asked me out to dinner a few months ago, soon after the first time I gave my BDSM Overview presentation to a bunch of vanilla folks I know. She started by saying that she didn’t really know what was going on, but that she’d always had these crazy violent dreams. She said she wasn’t sure what she wanted but that she was scared to ask, sometimes even scared to think about it. She said that was afraid of what this meant about being a feminist, and that was when I spotted the tears in her eyes.

It was heartbreaking to see how much she was hurting, but it was empowering, too. I saw so much of myself in her, and I realized how much I was helping her just by listening … and how much more I could help her by sharing knowledge and experience. I immediately told her that she wasn’t betraying the feminist movement, and I explained how I’d had feelings along those lines. We talked for hours and afterwards I sent her my own coming-out story, as well as a few basic BDSM book references. I explained how the BDSM community functions and how she can attend BDSM meetups and discussion groups. *

(I’ve thought about publishing my coming out story. It’s all written up, and I’ve received some great feedback on it from both kinkster friends and “normal” friends. In particular, I’ve heard from BDSM people — some of them people who are just learning about BDSM from me — about how helpful it was to read about my own process. I’ll be honest, though: I’m scared about publishing, because my story is so personal that even publishing it under my scene name — Clarisse — feels like I’m greatly exposing myself and my inner world.

The idea of publishing it is also complicated by the fact that I’d really want to publish the story in a vanilla venue: that is, a magazine or webzine or other place that’s not devoted to BDSM material. It would be relatively easy for me to find a BDSM-related venue for my coming-out story, but I think it’s important for mainstream society to be hearing these stories … partly because it will forward the cause of BDSM tolerance … and partly because scared or repressed or latent kinksters are more likely to read my story if it’s in a vanilla venue, and they’re the ones who can benefit most from that kind of encouragement and insight. But what kind of mainstream venue is going to publish a BDSM coming-out story?

Later edit: Time Out Chicago would publish it, that’s who! end of edit)

It has really inspired me to know that there are people out there who are having a terribly hard time dealing with their sexuality because of all the stigma against BDSM — and I’m helping just by being public and available to talk.

2) Con: I am exoticized and othered. People — sometimes even my friends — make stereotypical assumptions about me, or harass me in minor but frustrating ways.

I remember once that I told someone in the BDSM community that I’d come out to most of my friends already, and he said, “Did people start hitting on you more?” I couldn’t help laughing because it’s so true — it’s such a known effect! For some reason, there are lots of vanilla guys out there who think that a BDSM girl is just the hottest thing … I mean person … ever. I don’t know why that is, but I am here to tell you that the fact that I’m into BDSM does not mean I’m some guy’s hot sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.

I’m just another person, you know? I like sex, but sometimes I don’t want to have sex; sometimes I don’t even want to do BDSM, amazingly enough. I like going out to dinner and getting chocolate from my lovers, and watching good movies together. An evening reading in my room, or hanging out casually with my friends, sounds just as good as an evening of hot BDSM sex. (Well, okay, maybe not quite as good. But really good.)

Plus, news flash: if you’re a vanilla guy, I’m not interested. You’re probably not into what I’m into. And no, I don’t feel like explaining exactly what I like to you. If you want to know about BDSM, I can recommend some books. If you want to know about me, you can become friends with me … just keep in mind that “being friends” means “having fun hanging out, maybe talking about science fiction or other interests we might share”, rather than “asking me questions about my sex life all the time”.

Some people seem to think it’s okay to openly speculate about my sex life or even ask me really invasive, personal questions, just because I’m into BDSM. I know people who comment about my sexuality at every opportunity … and I mean every opportunity. I’ll stub my toe and they’ll say, “Is that good pain or bad pain?” and leer. Or I’ll ask them not to do something and they’ll say, “Ohh, sorry,” throw up their hands in mock surrender, “I guess you’ll just have to beat me up.” This wouldn’t be annoying if it happened every once in a while … and hey, I make my own jokes about BDSM. But when a person literally mentions my sexuality multiple times every time they see me, and it’s always totally out of the blue … it starts feeling like I’m some exotic creature behind glass in a zoo. They wouldn’t do it to someone else; I know, because a lot of them didn’t do it to me before they knew I’m into BDSM.

I recognize that people who act this way are a blessing, compared to the people who think I’m a psycho in need of therapy … or the people who think BDSM people really ought to just go ahead and kill ourselves. I know it could be a lot worse, and I’m lucky it’s not. I just wish more people would be more sensitive, and would think about the stereotypes they’re applying to BDSM people.

It’s worse when people start judging the “reasons” they think I’m into BDSM. I’ve heard people suggest that I only talk about BDSM because it gets attention, or because I want to seem like everyone’s fantasy sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.

I’m not into BDSM because I want to appear edgy or dangerous or adventurous or sexy or scary. I’m into BDSM because that’s how I express my sexuality. That’s it. That’s all. I didn’t choose it and I don’t know why I am this way … but I am. I’m certainly not complaining … but I can’t help it.

I think that there are people who get into BDSM just because they’re curious and want to try new things, not necessarily because BDSM is a huge part of their identity … and there’s nothing wrong with that! I see these people as similar to — say — people who identify as straight but are totally willing to make out with the same sex. Personally, I’m cool with the fact that such people exist; as long as they’re having fun, more power to them. But I’m not like that. BDSM is an undeniable, overwhelming, central facet of my sexual identity. For me, telling me that I’m into BDSM just because I “want attention”, or because I’m “just in a phase” or “like experimenting”, or because I’m “dramatic” or “attracted to danger” … that’s like telling a gay person that she has sex with girls just because she “wants attention”, etc.

So that’s what I don’t like about being partly out: the way people judge me for my sexuality. But hey, that’s why I’m doing BDSM outreach in the first place, right? — because that’s the only way we’ll ever get away from these assumptions and stereotypes.

Note: I get that this post has an awful lot of whiny upper-middle-class white girl privilege in it. For a post that’s more political, maybe you’ll like this one.

* Hey Chicago people: if you think you might want to explore BDSM and you’re between the ages of 18 and 35, your best resource is The Next Generation Chicago. Join the mailing list — it’s right there on the webpage. And if you are older, don’t fret! There are groups for you too, including The Lost Generation. You can learn more about meetups, groups, and so on by looking at the Chicago Pansexual BDSM Calendar.

2009 19 Jan

Liberal, sex-positive sex education: what’s missing

It’s been a while since I posted something substantive; I’m so busy with my awesome upcoming sex-positive film series and discussion group (please attend!), it’s hard to find time! So, I’ll make up for that with a really long post.

I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into any number of sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype. As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

Edit: 1/20/09 — A really great comment from PAS led me to pull back and rethink a few of the things I said here. I edited this point a bit, to reflect that I’ve been trying to think through the biases he called me out on.

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies will be that it will help people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. If I ever create a sex education curriculum, I want to describe a bunch of good communication strategies. I’ll list questions that all sex partners should ask each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?” (Edit 7/2/10: As it happens, I later did exactly that. end of edit)

And I’ll talk about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I’ll take a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I’ll put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I’ll tell people that they should fill out those checklists and give them to their partners. I’ll suggest that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, if they feel uncomfortable talking. I’ll suggest that partners write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the book Yes Means Yes! (a book of sex-positive essays that I still haven’t read, but really really want to):

[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.

2008 26 Dec

Casual sex? Casual kink?

I have the benefit of a very sexually open, pro-sex, highly sex-educated upbringing. Perhaps as a result of this, I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It actually took me a while to register that the difference was emotional engagement: sexual acts with people I really cared about were dramatically better. This seems so obvious, I’m kinda shocked by how long it took me.

(For the record: I identify as very sex-positive! — but my issues with the general sex-positive message, or at least the way the message has largely been received, deserve their own post. I’m sure I’ll write one soon.)

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I not only was way more into sexual acts with people I was emotionally invested in; I was really not into sexual acts with people I wasn’t emotionally invested in. I personally dislike casual sex, even when the acts in question are as “mild” as heavy petting. So I pretty much stopped.

On some level, though, my preference against casual sex has always bothered me. For a while, it was because I just didn’t feel “liberated” enough. (I wish I could get every American child with a liberal sex education to write this 100 times: “It is a perfectly valid preference if you don’t want to have casual sex! It doesn’t mean you’re repressed, or warped, or should try to train yourself out of it!”) Anyway, after I got past the “liberation” trap, I started feeling depressed about the fact that this is a huge limit on my sexual experimentation.

I mean, ideally, if I want to explore my sexuality to the greatest possible extent, I need to be open to having sex with lots and lots of people, right? And I’m just … not. Which means that my sexual experimentation is limited to people I already care about, feel somewhat connected to, have built something with already. I find this incredibly annoying! But ultimately, I acknowledge that I feel much worse if I try to force/guilt trip myself into casual sex, than I do when I limit my sexual partners. I feel way better when I’m somewhat frustrated and not getting any, than I would if I tried to take the edge off by screwing some guy I’m not very interested in.

(Oddly, I’ve had one or two casual encounters that I enjoyed. I’ve never been able to figure out why those were different from the others — I’m working on it. Maybe it’s just that I connected emotionally more quickly to those guys than I do to most people? … For the most part, though, I recall my casual encounters with a wince — mostly because I felt so confused. “Why aren’t I enjoying this more?” I was asking myself. “I must be. Sex is fun, right?”)

So. I have established that I’m not into casual sex. I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries with people I’m not very sexually interested in. And I’m okay with that, albeit frustrated.

But what about casual kink?

I discovered my BDSM orientation a few years ago; I went through a period of adjustment, and then I went through a couple of monogamous relationships. Since the end of my last relationship I’ve played, BDSM-wise, with people I didn’t know very well — in a few cases, total strangers. I’m glad I did it, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot. But the encounters that rated as most enjoyable were ones where there was more effort put forth to emotionally connect, especially the ones that happened in private. (I think privacy really intensifies my ability to connect to my partner.) *

Not that it’s incredibly easy to connect to me! There’s this stereotype that tops are closed off and emotionally cold, and bottoms are emotionally open — easily taken advantage of. But when I look at my BDSM experiences, I see that I have often been less emotionally accessible than tops I’ve played with. I shut myself down, I don’t talk about what I’m thinking, I give only small wedges of information about myself and what I want. It takes a lot for me to tell a top much of what I’m feeling. This is a pattern I am working to break.

What all this probably means is that it would be good for me to take more time to get to know the tops I’m interested in, before I play with them. I should try to build care before going straight for the BDSM.

Yeah, half of me thinks I really should simply close myself off to casual kink, the same way I’ve pretty much closed myself off to casual sex. Yet the other half is screaming against that, because my BDSM urge is way stronger than my sexual urge. Not that I don’t love sex, and want it, and enjoy the hell out of it! However. I crave BDSM. Going without sex feels less like celibacy than going without BDSM.

It’s also easier for me to enjoy casual BDSM, than it is for me to enjoy casual sex. There’s a few reasons for this. One is that extreme pain can … blank me … much more easily than sex can. And I need to trust my partner way more to immerse myself in the right headspace for sex, than I do to get into the right headspace for masochism.

In conclusion, I’m not sure, but I think I’m coming to a place where I want to limit my casual BDSM. Which is even more frustrating than limiting casual sex! And it’s even worse at this moment in my life, because I got very badly burned in my last relationship — the passage of time just seems to make it more obvious how much further I need to heal before I’ll be ready for a new boyfriend. Am I limiting myself to celibacy until then? Damn it, I don’t want that!

Sigh. We’ll see.

… Of course, preferences do change over time. I’m open to having different feelings about casual BDSM (and even casual sex) now, from my feelings in the future. Also, I’ve been having some surprisingly intense toppish fantasies lately, too (surprising because — until now, anyway — I’ve identified mostly as a bottom). Those fantasies don’t seem to have anything to do with sex, and they feel somewhat … performative. I’m curious to see whether, in the course of exploring them, I’ll find myself interested in topping casually and/or publicly.

* Hey kids! If you are considering having a casual BDSM experience in private, then be careful! If you can, then ask your partner for references — call the references, and see what they have to say. Meet any potential partner in a public place and hash out the details of what you want to happen, before you go private with them. Be sure to look at their driver’s license, and text their real name and license number to a trusted friend before you leave the public place. Arrange to call the friend at a prearranged time later — and instruct the friend to go to the police if they don’t hear from you. (Incidentally, you should probably do the same thing if you go home with a stranger to have sex with them!) Please note that you are usually quite safe if you have a BDSM experience with a stranger in the middle of a community playspace such as a dungeon; if you do that, make sure that you know the house safeword (it’s probably “red”) so you know what to scream if you want outsiders to intervene. Please also note that even if you are a top, you are not totally safe with someone you don’t know or trust: for one thing, you could be risking assault charges if there is a communication failure and your partner ends up feeling violated … or if your partner is a sociopath and decides to screw you over.