Friday, 28 September 2007

People != Magnifying Glasses

Mandolin's long-awaited post to Alas, A Blog on BDSM is finally up now.

It's quite long and quite thoughtful. I'll excerpt here, but you really should read the whole thing. I first got wind of it being up from a friend who excerpted only parts of it, and the parts ze chose made it sound really demeaning and obnoxious. So just in case I do the same: read it all.

First, the background. She had a friend, who ended up in a profoundly harrowing abusive relationship:

He had given her a collar, which she was to wear at all times. When he came home from work, she was to present herself naked for his inspection, on all fours and acting like a dog until he gave her permission to be upright and human again. He would examine her body, and then examine the house. If everything was not as he preferred, he would beat her.

My friend told me, “I asked her to stop telling me about it. He bashes her head into the sink, over and over again. She won’t stop it. She won’t let me help her. I can’t bear to hear her anymore.”

I saw Christina once after the abuse started, when she stumbled back to her home state for a brief vacation, after which she returned to her abuser. She was pained, and tired. Before, she had been mercurial and childish. Now, she flashed between moments of intense childlike pouting, and a kind of hard-used suffering when she would suddenly become still and talk about her life in a halting, labored tone.

....They called their relationship BDSM.
And now for the thoughtful parts of the post:

Increasingly, I think this is an important point. Abusive men who would never frame their desire for control in terms of BDSM are still experiencing a desire for control. Submissive wives who are too timid to protest rape may not be thinking of themselves as sexual masochists, but they may be acting in ways that are consistent with submission.

On television, we see sexualized rape scenes. We see the torture of women framed as titilating. We see women wilting from abuse who are still being filmed as sex objects.

This is *unacknowledged* sadomasochism — it’s sadomasochism divorced from the safety rules of BDSM culture and unleashed into the mainstream. It’s BDSM without honest discussion or contemplation. It’s BDSM without the name BDSM. It’s BDSM that isn’t a game.

....BDSM culture frightens us because it shows us, naked and acknowledged, the sadistic behaviors that exist elsewhere. Sadism is scary. It can be very problematic. But proper use of BDSM culture is itself the salve. BDSM is a game. It has rules and escapes. It has limits and safe words. It defines boundaries. It stimulates articulation of power dynamics which otherwise fester unacknowledged. If everyone who fetishized control acknowledged it, and respected the rules of BDSM, probably the world would be a safer place.

My own comments over at Alas, reposted here:

I first saw an excerpt of this post that mentioned only the “unacknowledged sadomasochism” bit and I was really uneasy. Reading the whole thing… I’m still uneasy, but not quite in the same way. What happened to your friend is chilling and horrible, and you are in fact right that there exist people who use BDSM as a cover for their abusiveness.

Well, “cover” isn’t quite the word. I think it’s being used as more than that, as legitimation. I don’t know too much about your average abusive man, but I get the impression that a lot of them are aware on some level that the relationship they’re in is fucked up. I may be wrong, but I suspect that some “honeymoon period” expressions of guilt may have some sincerity, even if the person has no ability or desire to actually stop.

Where with a guy like this, he never has to feel guilt (or at least doesn’t have to acknowledge it) — he can tell himself that that’s what a harsh “Master” does and feel no guilt — as well as have permission to get off on behaving that way, as well.

And yes, knowing someone in a situation like that, especially meeting them before you’re aware of the community and the safeguards present in it (which, as should be obvious from this post, don’t always work — especially not when people become fascinated with the fringes and decide that the people who keep it “too safe” are pansies, which does happen), would make one really suspicious of BDSM. It should.

But I still feel profoundly uneasy with “the unacknowledged sadomasochism in everyday life” type thinking. It’s been very common in anti-SM feminist circles, and it very often takes on a life of its own and grows to the point where it’s no longer clear what “sadomasochism” is supposed to mean. Any social power dynamic becomes a less obvious “form” of “SM,” such that looking at us is a “useful tool” for understanding “hidden” social dynamics. We’re no longer a group, a subculture that deserves respectful ethnographic study. Rather, we’re treated as a tool, a handy magnifying glass for theory-making.

Which is how you get, for example, the absolutely endless heterocentricity in the theory. Any and all SM that’s worth talking about becomes male dominant/female submissive. No gay folks, and no femdom, because that’s not useful for the theory. That doesn’t provide your handy blown-up Patriarchy Microcosm.

And what people are missing there is that gay leather, lesbian leather, femdom, etc. are not funny little outliers that don’t give you information about the patriarchy. They’re integral parts of the whole. If you look at the history of sadomasochistic subcultures in the US, you’ll find that a lot of what exists now in terms of community come from gay leather. The “feminist” focus on M/f dynamics is heterocentric in the extreme, and seeing feminists erase and neglect queer subcultures makes me very uncomfortable.

I’ve also talked incessantly, and I’m sure you’ve seen it from reading sm-f, about the way someone like me — a female who prefers the dominant role — gets ignored completely as some sort of rogue data point. Since I don’t square with the theory, and since people like me are rarer than the reverse, I get treated as someone who it would be derailing or tangential to bother to listen to at all.

I don’t have any problem with critiques of socially compulsory forms of male dominance over women. I share the worries you have about that. I don’t even have a problem with critiques of the heterosexual and pansexual (which reads, more often than not, “het men and bisexual women”) BDSM scene for not doing more to challenge these norms.

But I do object, and object strongly, to the “these people show us something about everyday life!” memes. I am not a magnifying glass. I am a person.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Authority (not in the sense you think...)

On a mailing list I'm on, someone mentioned old school radical feminism and brought up Ti-Grace Atkinson on BDSM. I haven't read much of her on it, just whatever was in Against Sadomasochism, and eve there I don't remember what exactly she said as opposed to the others. But what the person brought up was her idea that BDSM exposes, lays bare, shows up in stark contrast the power dynamics under patriarchy.

And I was just thinking about that, about how at least among anti-BDSM feminists, statements and theories like those are assumed to be authoritative. They're assumed to tell the real truth about us and what we do and its meaning.

The curious thing is that they're assumed to do this even when we, people who actually do BDSM, say that's not so, or even claim the opposite.

What that means is that the voice of the theorist ("feminist theorist?" "radical feminist theorist?") gets privileged over the voice of the members of the community. The theorist's voice, the voice of Analysis and "Neutral" Examination, is taken to be a better representation of truth than the voices of the people within the particular subculture/doing the activities being examined.

And that strikes me as a real problem with a lot of theoretical analysis. People get so hung up on theory, on coming up with a theory, on Having An Explanation, that they never stop to consider whether their explanation at all hooks up with the lived experience of those they describe.

It happens all the time. I lurk in various body modification communities, and some people (not everyone) do a lot of things that others consider incomprehensibly painful or strange. Fleshhook suspension. Subdermal implants. Tongue splitting. Cutting and branding. Castration. Voluntary amputation. Even genital piercing is strange to some people.

And of course, the reaction of these people -- some of whom are professionals; just have a look at the random bad editorial articles written by shrinks in magazines -- is to look not at the people's explanation, but to assume that the people must be deluded or have false consciousness to do such strange and drastic things to their bodies. There's little or no attempt to square theory with practice.

And to me, well, yes, it is possible for someone to be deluded about whether something is good for her. Of course. We all are sometimes. But the idea that an entire cultural identity can be ignored and written off simply because a particular theory of false consciousness or social dynamics is internally coherent has always struck me as very odd, if not downright dangerous.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Update on the UK 'extreme pornography' ban

Thanks to verte for the introduction. Here’s a brief-as-possible summary of the current status of the British government’s proposals to ban the possession of “extreme pornography”.

These proposals have been included as Part Six of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007, which is due for its second reading in the House of Commons on 8 October. If the bill is passed as is, people will be at risk of entry on the Sex Offenders’ Register, and up to three years in jail, just for owning an “extreme image”.

As for what on earth an “extreme image” might be, the bill has become even vaguer on this subject since the consultation stage. It states:

‘An “extreme image” is an image of any of the following—
(a) an act which threatens or appears to threaten a person’s life,
(b) an act which results in or appears to result (or be likely to result) in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals,
(c) an act which involves or appears to involve sexual interference with a human corpse,
(d) a person performing or appearing to perform an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal, where (in each case) any such act, person or animal depicted in the image is or appears to be real.’

Categories c and d are not relevant to consensual sexual activity in the SM community. However, a and b are likely to have extremely serious consequences. No distinction is made between images of real or staged sexual violence, and it appears not to have entered the heads of the drafters that there could be any distinction between sexual assault and consensual rough play.

A rigorous interpretation of the law could make pictures of everything from breathplay to fisting illegal. A really aggressive interpretation could make even images of vanilla sex without a condom illegal, as the participants could contract a life-threatening disease. How the law is interpreted will depend entirely on the investigating authorities.

Most ridiculously of all, it will become illegal to “extract an [extreme pornographic] image” from a “classified work”. This means that you can still buy James Bond: Casino Royale from WHSmiths, but if you take a still from the ball-busting scene you will be a violent pornographer!

Now the proposals are at bill stage, the government has also abandoned the emotive waffle about ‘protecting’ women and children that characterized the earlier stages of the process. Instead, in note 803 to the bill, they specifically refer to the footage in the Spanner case, describing it as ‘the type of activity covered by the offence’. Such material, it says, is ‘abhorrent to most people’.

The UK government, which has prided itself on its support of gay rights, is using one of the most notorious recent miscarriages of justice against gay people as a foundation stone for a new wave of sexual repression. They are doing so in the name of ‘protecting’ women, even though they have not bothered to produce a single concrete example of how women or anyone else will be served by a law that eradicates the distinction between actual sexual assault and photos of kinky fun.

To find out more about the Backlash campaign, visit

Saturday, 22 September 2007


.... Purplepenny!

Latest contributor, UK based switchy type, lapsed member of Feminists Against Censorship and 'women's representative', if you like, for Backlash's campaign, as well as general skivvy. I've written about this myself in brief, but as we're in the run up to the second reading of the Criminal Justice Bill the proposed law banning possession of 'extreme' material is contained in, commentary here is important, I think.


As for me, I've had a hell of a summer and been quiet. Reading, of course.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007


I was just having a peek at an LJ community I used to frequent with regularity (actually, I was once a mod. heh.) and found this. A young radical feminist who is anti-BDSM had this to say (don't bother with the non-bolded bits, really):

This essay will focus on violence in the forms of prostitution, pornography, and sadomasochism because I think that through an exploration of these, one can find the roots of violence against women. In arguing this, I’m not saying that violence against women is a recent phenomenon. I’m saying that prostitution and sadism have existed for millennia. For example, pornography is not a phenomenon of the twentieth century—for example, ancient Greece had “art” depicting gang rape of prostitutes, sexual abuse of boys, and so forth. This also raises a contentious question: what constitutes “violence against women?” As a radical feminist, I include the ejaculation industry , also known as the “sex industry”, as being part of it. This includes prostitution in all its forms, including pornography, stripping, escort services, and, in ways, women who are in relationships with men for economic security, as well as sadopatriarchy, generally known as BDSM (bondage, domination-submission, sadomasochism).

If one is doing exactly what one’s oppressor does, for example gay male pornography that eroticizes gay bashing, child sexual abuse, battery, and rape, how does that change anything? How is self-hatred and/or hatred of others suddenly revolutionary when sexualized?

[When asked by me why she's a member of a BDSM related community on LJ]

I want to be more assertive, but not aggressive. I'm not interesting in harming or humiliating my partner. I don't fantasize about it [BDSM] anymore (haven't for years--but have still had unequal fantasies a few times, about pedophilia).
And I just wanted to say to this person (still may, actually) that... there's a difference between what we think and what we do, and a difference between what we do and what we mimic.

I think there's a lot of emphasis in anti-BDSM circles (or other circles that are "sex-critical" (in quotes because it's only one phrase I've heard to describe people, and some don't identify with it)) on what you think about. What fantasies go through your head, and how and why. It's all about whether what's in your head is "what the oppressor does."

And if you do play, or you do like the rough sex or the D/s, or whatever, there's no possibility of it being playful or mocking or subverting the actual violent experiences. (By "subverting" I'm not here arguing that doing scenes by itself is politically meaningful/destabilizing of norms. I'm meaning "change/remap the meaning of this particular experience. Mock it, be a send-up of it, etc.)

And that just strikes me as strange, because I think back to childhood, and... kids play all the time. Kids re-map, think about, toy with their experiences through play all the time. It's a part of what play does and is about for a child: practice for adult life, attempts to experience or at least mentally visualize experiences they've not had (whether that be being a parent, having a job, or being a fairy princess astronaut rockstar. ;)

And... kids' play is not always innocent. Kids who have experienced abuse will often try to work out what happened to them in play, copy behaviors they've seen, etc. Some kids also just like to play naughtily. I remember best friends of mine burning the ends of toothpicks with candles, then putting the charred picks in our mouths, pretending they were cigarettes. I don't think any of us went on to smoke, and I know I for one thought cigarettes were Very Bad News.

But it was fun to pretend to be bad. And we had lots of games in which we did: Bonnie and Clyde-style, criminals on the run, with glamorous lives. Did it mean we wanted to steal, fight, rape? No.

(the following may be triggering/upsetting)

Actually one thing my friend in that particular game often wanted -- which leads me to wonder now if anything did ever happen to her as a kid, but I have no idea -- was play rape. We didn't actually know what the word meant, as you'll see in a moment, but we were playing "bad people" -- and how would a Bad Guy and his moll have sex? It would be Bad People Sex, and Bad People raped.

We didn't really gather that rape meant nonconsensual, just that it meant Bad + Sex. So my friend would climb onto my parents' bed and writhe, crying out "Rape me, Jack! Rape me!" while I looked on dumbly, knowing too little about the mechanics of sex to even know how to ape it and feeling nervous and scared and like I shouldn't play at *rape*, whatever it was, because it was something horrible in the real world, though I didn't know what or why.


I don't know. Some play can definitely hurt too, whether it's kids playing darkly or adults doing edgy BDSM. But playing with difficult things is a part of life. Imagining yourself in unjust situations, wondering what you'd do, wanting to feel the power or the awe of another person. And surely there's no reason to curse people for what they think about rather than what they do. The whole idea of not having or not wanting fantasies any more is so odd to me. Who cares what you thought about today? Why do you?

And yes, I get that some anti-BDSM people think that doing BDSM at all counts as "doing" exactly what you're thinking of doing -- but I don't buy that. I don't see how doing something in a consciously playful context as an adult is any different than playing as a kid. I don't even see why it's assumed that adults shouldn't play -- clearly kids need more play as a developmental thing, but it's never seemed to me that we completely change as we move from one stage of our lives to another.

I mean, the "play" defense doesn't defend long-term D/s by itself because those power roles are real. But even there -- how is a consensual contract/dynamic that's constantly re-examined and re-negotiated (as it is in the case of anyone I know who has a successful relationship) the same as slavery, when the concept of one is a working intimate relationship and the concept of the other is an unpaid laborer (yes, even in the case of a sexual slave) with no rights?

People have a very odd definition of sameness.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007


I occasionally notice some people getting all wound up over the term "vanilla," angry because they don't like what they look like through deviants' eyes. Here's one particularly over the top example:
The term itself is hardly used as often as it is in circles devoted to Bondage/Discipline/Sadomasochism (the acronym “BDSM” seems overly benign compared to its long form, perhaps by intention), who often employ it to describe anyone outside of their preoccupation and the capitalist webs that serve as a backdrop for their fixation: Vanilla, always referring to others, is a way of focusing on the insider-outsider dynamic and to privilege the group in conceptual space. Accusations of Vanilla do not at all rely on factual evidence of what others do in the bedroom but what one group needs to imagine them doing in order for the insiders to shore up their own sense of identity. Thus, the very idea of hypocrites tends to be elided. While exposing the kink of the God Fearing might be good for a giggle, the amusement is its own end and political implications remain unexplored; outsiders must forever remain Vanilla, just as adherents must remain “otherwise,” even if their own acts begin to mirror the very worst aspects of mainstream culture. If, on one hand, Vanilla Sex is indicative of pre-feminist consciousness and inextricably linked to subjugation (hypothesized as inherent to the missionary position), and is therefore suspect, that the new and improved alternative-sexuality to Vanilla actually includes the word “bondage” in part of its acronym is a galling admission.

To be Vanilla is not just to be normative, it is to be banished wholesale from the new process of identity-politicking that favors choice: Vanilla people have none and are forced to derive their class-based identity from outside opinion, whether they are receptive of the outcome or not. Whereas identities that resulted in nonstandard or exotic “flavors” were once a liability (as it continues to be for those existing in, and under, traditional minority categories), today they are more often than not the result of privilege as it is upwardly mobile and highly educated whites who are most able to carve out for themselves a non-Vanilla identity while simultaneously working to buttress the myth of Vanilla to and append it to their social competitors.
On one hand I can almost understand the butthurt: "Vanilla" means boring and dull. No one likes to hear or wants to hear that the way he fucks (recall that this article writer is that most infuriating of creatures, the pompous feminist man telling us all how it is) is dull. Sex and sexuality are very personal, and most people leap to defend our sexual practices.

Then there's the added wrinkle of the political as well. Most feminists subscribe, to a greater or lesser degree, to the idea that sexuality is affected by culture and cultural norms. If a certain sexuality is stressed, promoted, expected by the culture around you and you rebel against it, you're even more invested in that fight.

Of course this guy and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what we believe the status quo actually looks like with respect to sexuality. He's subscribing to the radical feminist "sadomasochism (I hate 'BDSM' too, actually) is an exaggerated version of standard, compulsory sexuality under patriarchy" view, and I'm subscribing to the view that SM is nonstandard, deviant, the kind of thing that lands you out of jobs, losing custody of kids, in jail if you're unlucky, etc.

Which leads me to the part of me whose response is "oh PLEASE honey." "Vanilla" is a term chosen by people outside the mainstream to describe those in it. It's true that SM is in fact gaining more and more acceptance in mainstream society (at least in the US). More people are joking about it, trying it in the interest of being "GGG," etc.

But the people who really do identify with it, invest themselves in the community, experience it as orientational? We're still rare. We're still not taken seriously. We're still a counterculture, a community, a sub-society with its own culture, language, and traditions.

And whenever you have one of those, you generally have some term for people who aren't a part of the community. Often the word is, indeed, somewhat disparaging. I'm not disputing that "Vanilla" is often said scornfully or sadly by people who never fit into the mainstream and want to distance themselves from it.

But... what you have there is merely the obverse face of subcultural pride. It's "we as a counterculture feel downtrodden and scorned, so we'll spit in everyone else's eye a little. You think we're violent or sick or antifeminist or whatever else? Well, we know how boring you are..."

It's a piece, perhaps a somewhat ugly one, of reparative pride by a small and downtrodden community.

And yes, I said "downtrodden." I know it's a big fad for people to claim that the SM commuinity is all whiny and drama llamaful claiming we're "oppressed" and all. I can see the rolling of eyes begin.

But we are. Our conventions get shut down. Our names get published in the paper. We lose our jobs. We lose custody of our kids. Mental health care professionals decide that our sexuality is the source of our distress, regardless of what the DSM says (in the US; I believe it's the ICD-10 elsewhere, and I don't know how it's worded). We get raided, busted. Kicked out of feminist circles or conventions, some of us (consider all the recent messes in the UK.)


Which makes the whole idea that we're the darlings of the system... quaint, to me. Where's the muscle that we flex when no hotel will take us? I've never seen it. Maybe I'm just not good enough at spotting cloak and dagger dealings.

"Vanilla" is a counterculture's way of reframing the mainstream, for purposes of reparative pride. It's not a profound insult.

If you don't like being part of the mainstream, don't be.

Just know that you don't get to clap your damn hands and claim you're not, and then we get to be and you get to feel good.

There is no mirrorshaded, leather-clad Illuminati of tops, sitting around waving sceptres or nightsticks while a harem of bottoms in slave bells sets in motion our evil plots to quash the vanilla. Or even to skillfully seduce the usually egalitarian into trying the terribly seductive fuzzy handcuffs.

We don't run this world. YOU DO. Wake up.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Power and pity

(n/b: this started off as a not-particularly BDSM-related post at FMMA, but it occurred to me at the end of it that it might be worth discussing over here as well, as it might take some different directions than from on FMMA).

There was this great blogswarm the other day, the "Protest Pity" anti-Telethon marathon. Really an eye-opener if you, like me, hadn't given this particular matter much thought before beyond something like "well, I'd rather stick flaming hot needles in my eyes than watch or listen to Jerry Lewis for five seconds in -any- circumstances, and I expect he probably is icky and mawkish about it, but I suppose it's all for a good cause."

For example, to pick one entry (of many) at random, New Mobility highlights some classic Lewis quotage:

This quote is from a May 20, 2001 interview on CBS News Sunday Morning.

"If it's pity we'll get some money. I'm just giving you the facts. Pity ... if you don't want to be pitied for being a cripple in a wheelchair, don't come out of the house."

The following quotes, archived on, come from Leslie Bennetts' article, "Jerry v. the Kids," Vanity Fair, September 1993:

About activists who criticize him for using pity to raise money:

"It just kills me to think about these people getting publicity. These people are leeches. They all glommed on to being Jerry-bashers. What did they have before that? They're disabled people who are so bitter at the bad hand they've been dealt that they have to take down somebody who's doing good. There's 19 of them, but these people can hurt what I have built for 45 years. There's a million and a half people who depend on what I do! I've raised one billion three hundred million dollars.

These 19 people don't want me to do that. They want me to stop now? [censored] them. Do it in caps. [censored] THEM."

...During the 1991 MDA Telethon, Lewis said that if a person is diagnosed with the disability called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis:

"You might as well put a gun in your mouth."

I liked the way Rettdevil's Rants put it, also, focusing on the infantilization of PWD in general as well as the exploitation of the actual children:

Raising kids to believe that who they are is less than satisfactory really sucks, people. In fact, it'd be abuse if they were typical children. Then putting them on TV to talk about how their lives are sooooo miserable because they're defective? Or videoing them or interviewing their families to talk about how their condition makes their lives soooo impossible? HELLO!...

...It's also interesting to note that children are the only ones they ever ask about things, and parents. It is easier to get children to agree that they are sick and damaged I suppose. Plus adults just aren't as cute on the posters for the most part. It isn't like we die off in vast swathes for most conditions (MD isn't usually deadly, mito can be but often isn't IDed till adulthood even, autism isn't deadly unless your parents off you, Rett only has a slightly increased risk of death, et cetera et cetera...). Adults just don't bring in the money.

Why not make disability something that socially IS instead? We're all going to be disabled someday unless we are struck by a truck or lightening or a flying gymnast who was previously invisible (oh wait. my foot won't let me do that anymore. THAT risk is taken care of...). Making issues medical that aren't makes people feel defective when they aren't-they're just different. It also takes financial advantage of vulnerable populations, and takes up resources from actual medical issues.

Treat medical problems medically. Treat social issues socially. Being different isn't medical. It really is that simple.


Much more at the blogswarm HQ.

What strikes me is how diverse the crowd talking about this is--there are people coming at this making parallels with autism, with deafness, with all manner of conditions. It occurs to me, looking at all this, that while the issues may be different there's a note that's rather eerily familiar to me as well:

The word of the day is objectification, brethren and cistern.

Here on this blog, and at linked conversations elsewhere, we've been talking a lot about the various blind spots of people who supposedly know all about what this means (feminists, progressives) and how that affects various people who don't fit into slot A -or- B. And how goddam frustrating the whole thing is. It's not all about sex, people. It's about -dehumanizing.- Seeing someone as a cardboard cutout rather than a full three-dimensional being with agency and an inner life of hir own, thanks very much. And -one- of the methods for that is, ayup, pity. (Which is to be distinguished from empathy). And no, I don't guess it IS all that harmless: Look at some of those Jerry Lewis quotes. Look at the extraordinary selfishness and callousness revealed there: It's not about the people he's supposed to be helping, it's about his image of -himself- as a great and bountiful Savior. Compare and contrast with...well, regular readers may have an inkling of where I'm going with this.

The way some professionals behave toward their supposed proteg├ęs. What happens when someone who -should- fit the to-be-pitied demographic doesn't follow the script. Who isn't properly -grateful-.

Then, oh then, do the fangs come out. And in defense of what, exactly? All those other poor helpless cases that the bad ungrateful freak anomaly is clearly out to harm? Or the suggestion that in fact more of the poor helpless dollies and poster children and pillow angels might not in fact be all that helpless or passive after all?

And while I'm thinking of that, I'm reminded, funnily enough, of this great and hilarious post of Kim's: Poor Li'l Loveblossom. Seriously, I can't possibly do it justice: you'll just have to see for yourself. At the end of it though, she makes this observation:

In this way, maybe Ol' Vanilla Girl me gets the BDSM thing somewhat. There is something visceral in the need to rescue, to nurture after hurting.

This is very astute. Yep, absolutely: there IS a power dynamic here. What I love about Kim is that she cops to this, doesn't necessarily see it as a -bad- thing, that surreptitious toppiness in the "rescuer" role. Because, look, it isn't. It's just part of the human condition, as are all power dynamics. If you're conscious of it, you can do terrific things with it: You can rescue the people or creatures or situtations who genuinely -want- and -need- to be rescued. You can do it as a career; you can do it as a (consensual) game, you can do it in all sorts of ways.

What ISN'T cool is when you -don't- cop to it. When you've convinced yourself that it's -only- about your selfless, selfless, self-sacrifices for all the poor poor poor things who just -couldn't make it- without -your help.-

How you know the difference is, how pissed off it makes you when some of 'em start showing signs that they CAN make it without your help.

Or, in another context, as the woman says:

Because we are NOT the world’s special case, or pet issue.

We are not to be recruited, convinced, or calmed down. We are not here to be enlightened, uplifted or “bettered”.

We want to live. And it’s not about cool or fun or hip . It’s about

Our lives ,Our rights, Our terms.

h/t Arthritic Young Thing and Sly Civilian for the reminder.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Safer Communication Practices

EthylBenzene on the Interesting Posts post writes, largely quoting:

    I mean, I came across this quote the other day clicking around the interwebs:
    "Some even have "safe words," they can use to pull the plug on a "scene" if it gets too - I dunno. Intense? Demanding? Whatever? Safewords. I kid you not. Kind of like a veto power over what is happening that pretty much cancels any illusion some dumb soul has about being dominant.

    I don't play at D/s. I don't use "safewords." And fuck the bdsm mantra, "Safe, sane and consensual." It's just a simpering, forelock tugging attempt to convince the vanilla folk that bdsm players are really just like them - it's just a game, see, and we aren't really serious, we're just playing dress up."

    I mean, yikes. Imagine you're just clicking around, trying to learn about this stuff, you run into this. How're we supposed to distance ourselves from this CDD crap when people who identify as "one of us" write such things? Oy. I dunno. Maybe I need more coffee to make more sense or something, but I'm just horrified that some lost submissive woman will find herself in an abusive situation because the silent majority of the "community" isn't speaking up and saying "um, no."

There are these words that get tossed around subculturally, like "safeword" or "safe, sane, and consensual". And sometimes they're tossed around as some sort of talisman to ward off evil, and sometimes they're tossed around as contemptible nonsense, and neither of these things gets into the reasons that the concepts exist, why they were created, what they're attempting to express.

So a little examining is in order.


I would like to start out by noting Eileen's post at A Place to Draw Blood Laughing, "Traffic Light Colors", because it means that I don't have to write, well, basically all of that about what the purpose behind a safeword is. I will then quote Trinity, saying something very similar:

    I got into some arguments with them about safewords, I remember. Inw hich I came up with an analogy I still use today: Say I'm performing in a play. Does it become the audience's "performance" rather than mine if someone yells "Fire" and I stop performing as we all make our way to the exit?

Okay, so. Now that we're all on the same page about what safewords are, positing that I agree with Eileen and Trinity, I'll go into my perspective on the concept.

I will start out by saying right out: I do not have an official safeword, in the sense of 'verbal stoplight'. This is not because I disagree with any of the previous material, but because I am not personally equipped to use one. I suspect if I ever bottomed, I would pick up the usage, because in that context my limitations would be less likely to come into play.

When I get into a subspace state, my boundaries become intensely fluid. Things which I would not have consented to in advance, and indeed would not be happy with having done, become okay, or at least not sufficiently uncomfortable for me to register them as potentially problematic. This made parts of my life very educational the first time I put d/s stuff into practice, as my partner of the time was much more wide-ranging than I, and we were young and inexperienced enough that we weren't good at negotiation.

It was probably something like in the first week of our actual relationship -- well before we did any discussion of power exchange stuff -- when my liege dropped me down deep into subspace for the first time. And he looked at the state and realised he could get consent for anything he wanted at the time there, and hauled me back out again to ask for consent. (I told him that what he wanted to do would have been okay at the time, but I'm not sure it would have been okay afterwards; he said that that was what he'd thought.)

I'm also one of those nonverbal subs. It's entirely possible for me to get into a state where I am both in a substate altered consciousness and capable of speaking, but these states are fairly fiddly and also not very deep, for the most part. Generally, I can communicate gesturally, and have done so in cases where I needed something; actual language use is not functional for me.

I get stymied on complex or precise subject communications when I'm nonverbal. (Last night, I wound up in a state of trying to figure out if it was worth it trying to express 'geckoes' nonverbally. I waited until I came up.) At this point I have a regular gesture symbolset for expressing limitations and needs -- 'could I have some of the water', or stuff about the one of my shoulder that has sharply limited range of motion and thus cannot be tied or pinned in a particular range of positions, or 'you're bruising my collarbones again'. But the first time, say, the collarbone-bruising issue came up, I just dealt with it until it was verbal (it wasn't safeword-out-level pain, but the bones were bruised for several days afterwards), explained it later, and now it's a known gestural thing. Explaining at the time was outside of my range.

The thing is, strictly speaking, that gestural library is basically a bunch of yellow-level safewords, communications about body limitations and discomforts that have been built up over time and awareness of the range of stuff we do, and as we shift around our interactions to include more and different things, we work out the library further, with a little trial and error. (I still haven't got a good gesture for 'You stopped talking to me! Waaah!' Heh.)

The thing is, knowing my limitations around verbality and communication, we tend to take things very carefully. The first time he pulled my hair during sex, I was completely unable to communicate with other than just the response to sensation; we talked about it afterwards, and I conveyed that no, he had been nowhere near a boundary with that, in fact he had been a touch frustratingly far away from it and could he go a little closer next time maybe? But the cautious approach to new thing. For things where he needs me to be able to give him verbal feedback, we make sure I'm in a state where I'm capable of giving it; I imagine as we get more experienced with those things, we will be able to start from deeper substates.

The critical thing to me with the concept of safeword is being able to communicate critical status information by some means, and to be able to expect that that status information will mean that one's partner will attend to the relevant needs. This can and should be built up from verbal signals, gestural signals, previously expressed boundaries, and familiarity with one's partner and their responses, in the proportions that are appropriate to the situation. I consider it to be my responsibility, as someone who goes boundary-fluid and nonverbal, to express baseline hard and soft boundaries in advance and have some ability to communicate within my limitations to warn about reaching them or actual crises. Someone in a different situation will have to do different work to establish their stuff.

"Safe, Sane, and Consensual"

This is a funny one. My understanding on the background of it is that it was originally coined by David Stein in about 1983, to distinguish BDSM from "criminally abusive or neurotically self-destructive behavior"; he notes that 'safe' and 'sane' originated in a public PR campaign that he interpreted as "Have a good time, but don't be stupid and burn the house down or blow your hand off". The phrase was not originally a slogan, but part of a preamble to a longer piece; Stein regrets the loss of nuancing from the sloganising effect. (For the source on my quotes, read the PDF Safe Sane Consensual: The Evolution of a Shibboleth. In fact, go do it now, I'll still be here when you're done.)

Quoting Stein:

    The "safe, sane, and consensual" formula was originally put forward as a minimum standard for ethically defensible S/M, because that must be the basis for any defense of S/M rights. Today, however, and especially in the hetero and pansexual communities, S/M itself (or "BDSM", which some find more palatable) is frequently defined in terms of SSC, while the SSC slogan is treated with quasi-religious reverence and even explicitly referred to as a "credo" or "creed". instead of asking people to think about what it means to do S/M ethically, and to make the hard choices that are sometimes necessary (if only between what's right and what's right now), many organisations today act as if these issues have all been settled, assuring us that sadistic or masochistic behavior not deemed SSC isn't S/M at all but something else -- abuse, usually, or domestic violence or poor self-esteem.

Remind anyone else of "the personal is political"?

    As a result, some people use simplistic conceptions of SSC to beat anyone whose limits go beyond there, while others think mere lip service to the SSC idol absolves them of any responsibility to act with decency or compassion. The idea has taken root that whatever is safe, sane, and consensual is good, and whatever isn't is bad. [...] ... a well-planned scene may fizzle rather than sizzle. On the other hand, an extremely risky, "lunatic," or dubiously cosnensual scene might provide peak experiences that neither party -- assuming they survive it -- would want to have missed. Being SSC alone is not enough, because it says nothing about why we do S/M in the first place.

    Or maybe it says too much? The idolisation of SSC occurred during the same period that S/M activity came to be almost universally referred to as "play", S/M practitioners as "players", and the tools we use as "toys". [...] But even while conveying that good S/M is more than SSC, the amended formula -- "safe, sane, consensual, and fun" -- reinforces not only the mistaken notion that SSC is a criterion of value at all, but also that S/M is something you do merely "for fun" and without serious intent.

Actually, a lot like reading the original "The personal is political" essay, reading this gives me a lot more sympathy for the origin of the terminology. He talks about the original concepts of why they used those words -- and brings it pretty much into line with the 'slogan' I prefer, RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink). (RACK is, so far as I can tell, more popular among edgier folks; I prefer it just because I don't feel that someone with my intense kink for altered consciousness is necessarily in a good position to evaluate 'sane'.)

So the original intent for SSC was to open up grounds for discussion, to raise the question of examining what was going on and expressing reasonable understanding of consequence. "Safe" was intended to contain discussion of boundaries and limits, reasonable levels of risk, evaluation of consequence and circumstance; "sane" to distinguish between the real world and fantasy; "consensual", which is in both phrases, to acknowledge agreement and chosen participation rather than coercion. (And he acknowledges that it was coined in the absence of knowledge about things like how difficult it is to leave an abusive spouse.) The idea was to say, "Look, we're doing this stuff within these defined, reasonable bounds; can we get you people to stop conflating us with abusers?", with perhaps a bit of sex-pos activism. To paraphrase: If we break away the conflation, will people face up to the sex-negativity of their actual opposition to S/M?

According to Stein's essay, at the time SSC was coined, pretty much all available BDSM imagery was edgy, at least bordering on non-con, and had this aura of the dangerous; the concept of the SSC question was in part intended to start a dialogue that would start developing a language that accepted the possibility of consent. Everything was edgy, or portrayed as such, and part of Stein's group's intent was to create a less fear-driven culture.

From the conceptual revolution of SSC came a strongly consent-based culture which has started to have the dialogue about these things. In the process, though, many people have forgotten that it was started as a dialogue term, something that asked the questions rather than answered them. While it's no longer reacting to non-con stuff, coercion as the absolute staple of the porn because that's the only way people know how to conceptually frame their kink, it's still seen as pushing for something more reasonable, quiet, and not edgy than the default. But the defaults have changed wildly.

So the questions still remain: What is within your sense of what is safe and reasonable, and what precautions are necessary to push those limits? Where is the boundary between fantasy and reality? And, going back to the section on safewords, what is agreed to?

These are dialogues we still need to have.