Archive for May, 2013

“BDSM” is to kinky sex and play as “polyamory” is to negotiatied non-monogamy.

Which is to say: It’s a small, narrow, rigidly defined subset of a much larger and more diverse set of activities, yet its related identity-community considers the term to be all-encompassing. The “community” internally maintains an image of itself as “diverse” by hyperfocusing on small differences within a fairly homogenous population rather than noticing larger ways that their group, as a whole, differs from others who engage in similar activities.

One of the classic indicators of this kind of perceptual distortion is what I’ll call “The 99% Fallacy.” It’s the notion that the issues being worked on by a particular privileged subset of a population are issues universal to all members of that population — and people who lack interest in the community or movement because it is addressing issues irrelevant to them are invited to “come on down” and join up, in order better understand how the dominant group’s issues should, in fact, be a priority for everybody.

I used to be very involved in a well-attended, popular polyamory discussion group that met once a week. At some point, I remember asking some of my lesbian friends who were in non-monogamous relationships why they never came to the group. The response I got was essentially, “Polyamory is for straight people.” I remember being shocked at this, “No, it’s not! I’m not straight and I’m polyamorous! Queer folks are totally welcome in the group!” What my friends told me is that they just weren’t interested in attending, not because they felt unwelcome in the group (“everyone seems very nice”) but because it just had nothing to do with them. The topics that were most frequently discussed had little relevance to their relationships or their lives. The people there didn’t move like them.

At the time, I didn’t understand. I believed that ANYBODY doing negotiated non-monogamy was “polyamorous” and could of course benefit from having conversations about jealousy, and veto power, and whether or not to be out at your kids’ school. In retrospect I realize that my friends already had plenty of community. They didn’t need this group, or the “polyamorous” identity structure, to build relationships that worked for them. They were doing fine on their own. Their showing up, and even encouraging us to talk about queer-specific issues, would be nothing more than a favor to us, an effort to make the group feel more inclusive and diverse. What defined the group as “polyamorous” was not simply that we were doing non-monogamy and other people weren’t. It was also that we were overwhelmingly hetero-centric and other non-monogamous people weren’t.

Similarly, I find the BDSM scene’s insistence that they are “not a monolith” — that they are simply a loose collection of diverse “kinksters” with only their “kinkiness” in common — particularly galling, because lumping a bunch of disparate and largely unrelated intimate/erotic practices into one monolithic identity is BDSM’s entire modus operandi. Pony play, and casual-sexy scarf bondage, and serious mathematically-oriented nautical rope bondage, and authority-fetishization, and bloodying someone’s back with a single-tail are all fairly unrelated activities unless you choose to do some of them simultaneously. The claim that what these activities have in common is that they’re all “kinky” is a circular argument. That’s not what “kinky” means.

I have a serious mind-control fetish. I like to tie people up and be tied up. Spanking turns me on. So does blood. I’m into super-intellectual experimental rolequeer authority play. Doing these things doesn’t mean I’m “doing BDSM” any more than having multiple simultaneous intimate relationships means I’m “polyamorous.” Because what actually distinguishes “BDSM” as an identity structure is not simply that it means enjoying kinky sex/play when others don’t. It also means being overwhelmingly invested in rape culture when other kinky people aren’t.

“Polyamory” is negotiated non-monogamy for straight people, and “BDSM” is kinky sex for rape apologists.

(This, incidentally, is why BDSM is evil while polyamory is just kind of inane.)

The effective response to rape culture in the BDSM scene isn’t to try and reform the scene. “BDSM” isn’t even a thing without rape culture — getting rid of rape culture is tantamount to getting rid of the scene itself. Why not save yourself the headache and just stop “doing BDSM” right now? This doesn’t mean stop having kinky sex. It means stop buying into a monolithic identity-based framework that claims that rape-based kinky sex is the only kind of kinky sex there is.

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Intuitive eaters march to their inner hunger signals and eat whatever the choose without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma. The intuitive eater is an unaffected eater. Yet it is increasingly difficult to be an unaffected eater in today’s health-conscious society when you consider the bombardment of nutrition, food, and weight messages from commercials, media, and health professionals. — Intuitive Eating, Tribole and Resch

Let’s talk about consent. No, not like that. There’s a way of talking about consent that’s currently dominating the conversation about rape culture and I think it’s…flawed, to say the least. Let’s call it the “consent-as-permission” model.

The consent-as-permission model defines “consent” as the act of communicating to someone that it is okay for them to interact with you in a particular way. I “consented” to sex if you asked me, “Do you want to have sex?” and I said “yes.” (Or, under the Enthusiastic Consent variant, if I said, “YES!”) It’s essentially a legalistic model that asks questions like, “What counts as a ‘yes’?” “Under what circumstances is a ‘yes’ inadmissible?” “In the case of a dispute, what kinds of documentation are required to prove the presence or absence of a ‘yes’?” The consent-as-permission model makes consent very much about what we say or don’t say to each other. It treats rape primarily as the violation of a contract. It has very little to say about how our erotic experiences feel.

But think about this: I’ve had my boundaries violated in the past. You probably have, too. If that experience was traumatic, where did the trauma come from? Did it come from the fact that someone broke a rule? (Maybe. A trust violation can be traumatizing even if no other harm occurred.) Or did it come from the fact that someone interacted with me in a way that made me feel unsafe, hurt, and violated? Have you ever said, “Yes” and still come away feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated? I have.

How ’bout a situation where you set a boundary but it wasn’t a super big deal when it got tripped over? Or it didn’t feel like a big deal then but it felt like a HUGE deal later? Maybe because you got some new information about the violator that you hadn’t had before? Have you ever had an encounter when you didn’t say ‘yes’ OR ‘no’? Did you have a good time? Were you drunk? I have a friend who tells a story about meeting a boy at Occupy, making out with him in the bathroom and, with no conversation whatsoever, him putting his hands around her throat and forcing her to suck his cock. She thought it was fucking hot. Was that consensual sex? Is the guy a rapist? If he’d done the same thing (and he probably has) to a girl who also didn’t say no but didn’t think it was hot, would that be different? In what ways?

My point is not simply that consent is complicated. It’s that communication about consent and consent itself are two separate things. And it’s hard to communicate well about something when so few of us are even totally sure what it feels like. Especially in the moment where we’re being asked to make a decision. Especially those of us who have a history of emotional or psychological abuse and have trouble trusting our own feelings. When you ask me if I want to do something and I say, “Yes…?” I’m usually kind of only half-guessing.

But it’s not just abuse survivors who struggle to know whether or not we actually feel consenting when we say ‘yes’. We are all raised in a culture that teaches us from a very young age that our bodies are not our own. My extremely prolific friend A.M. Biguous points out in an unfortunately unpublished essay that we force our children into an oppressively ordered school system as soon as they can walk, praise and reward them for enthusiastic participation in that system, and then somehow expect them to have clear intuitions about the difference between coercion and desire. Technically, I said ‘yes’ to math homework through most of middle and highschool. Does that mean I was voluntarily doing pre-calc problems instead of hanging out with my friends? Even earlier and more intimately than that, though, we learn not to trust our feelings when it comes to food:

Toddlers have an innate wisdom about food if you don’t interfere with it. They don’t eat based on dieting rules or health, yet study after study shows that if you let a toddler eat spontaneously, he will eat what he needs when given free access to food. […] A landmark study led by Leann Birch, PhD, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that preschool-aged children have an innate ability to regulate their eating according to what their bodies need for growth. This holds true even when, meal by meal, the little tykes’ eating appears to be a parent’s nightmare. Researchers found that at a given meal calorie intake was highly variable, but it balanced out over time. Yet, many parents assume that their young children cannot adequately regulate their food intake. Consequently, parents often adopt coercive strategies in an attempt to ensure that the child consumes a nutritionally adequate diet.

A few days ago, I picked up my old copy of Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA. I first read this book in my early twenties, when I was trying to recover from years of disordered eating; I bought it for myself as a reward for going eleven straight days without food. I haven’t fasted like that since I read the book. Tribole and Resch argue that humans are born with the same innate capacity as any other animal to sense what kind of nutrition our bodies need, but that this capacity is buried by modern parenting, coercive media messages, a paranoid medical system, etc. We lose our ability to know what’s healthy for us based on what we feel like eating, and it is replaced by complicated systems of rules — diets, health plans, etc — about food that, by-and-large, actually make people less healthy than we would be otherwise.

They also argue that we can recover our intuition.

A parent who feeds a child whenever a hunger signal is heard, and who stops feeing when the child shows that he’s had enough, can play a powerful role in the initial development of intuitive eating. […] We have found this to be true for adult dieters as well. Only for adults, the intuitive eating process has been buried for a long time, often years and years. Instead of having a parent loosen up the pressure, this loosening of pressure has to come from within. And against society’s myth of dieting and distorted body worship.

Since all our somatic experiences of choice are so buried, the way we talk about “consent” often devolves into a conversation about permission and rules instead. Certainly, it’s important to teach people not to do things to other peoples’ bodies that they haven’t been given permission to do. Absolutely. But that’s not really enough to generate the kinds of fulfilling, pleasurable, whole human experiences that I think most of us would like to have in our sex, in our play, in our learning, in our work, etc. Intuitive Eating has developed a concrete and, in my experience, effective methodology for helping people get back in touch with their somatic sense of what they do and don’t want to eat, what is and isn’t healthy for their particular bodies, etc. I wonder what a similar methodology would look like in other arenas of consent?

Messages about eating healthfully are everywhere, from nonprofit health organizations to food companies touting the health benefits of their particular product. The inherent message? What you can eat can improve your health. Conversely, take one wrong move (bite) and you’re one step closer to the grave. […] While there is no doubt that what you eat can have an impact on your health, the exponential increase in media coverage has served as a conduit to building food paranoia in the consumer, especially the dieter.

Are we saying that you should ignore the virtues of healthful eating? Of course not. […] We have found that establishing nutrition or healthy eating as an initial priority in the Intuitive Eating process is counterproductive. In the beginning we ignore nutrition, because it interferes with the process of relearning how to become an intuitive eater. Nutrition heresy? No. It’s possible to respect and honor nutrition. It just can’t be the first priority when you’ve been dieting all your life.

The first step of the Intuitive Eating recovery process is to eat whatever you want. That’s it. Just eat whatever you want. Whenever you want. As much as you want. For as long as you want. Seriously. Like, actually as long as you want. You can stay in this stage for the rest of your life, if you want. You can lapse back into it occasionally for as long as you live. (I still do.) That’s fine. Everything is allowed. You can imagine how this might’ve felt to someone for whom nothing had been allowed for the past eleven days — and who lived with very strict, although frequently broken, food rules generally speaking. I ate cupcakes! I ate strawberries by the box! I consumed nothing by Nacho Cheeiser Doritos for three whole days. Oh my god, it was amazing. And kinda gross. Neon orange toxic cheese-flavored cheese flavoring everywhere.

I won’t get into the entire recovery process. You can read the book yourself. If you have a challenging relationship with food, I highly recommend it. In short, it goes something like this: Reject the repressive rules-based mentality about food that controls your life. Don’t just reject it a little bit. Reject it dramatically, in ways you never would have imagined possible, so that you realize even that won’t kill you. Then, only once you have a robust, embodied confidence that you really can eat whatever you want, start paying attention to your body. Eat when you’re hungry, eat what you’re hungry for, and notice how you respond to different kinds of food, different amounts, at different times, etc. Take good care of your body more generally by giving it things like exercise and sleep as well as food. Eventually, once you and your body have a good somatic rapport, you can start adding in more intellectualized decision-making processes. (For example, you probably won’t ever specifically crave fish oil supplements, but those might be good for you to take. Or maybe you can swap out light creamcheese for the regular kind, because it turns out your cravings for Philly are about some enzyme in the cheese and unrelated to the fat content.) Also, realize that this process will probably take a long time with lots of fits and starts because years of dieting will have thrown your body’s self-regulating systems way out of whack.

As I was re-reading this and thinking about consent more generally, I found myself pondering YKINMKBYKIOK. “Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is OK” is the BDSM doctrine that, as long as everyone involved gave everyone else permission, absolutely anything you want to do sexually is allowed, period. I have railed against YKINMKBYKIOK elsewhere. An unconsidered application of it to play that reinscribes oppression can be harmful — and a whole industry devoted to encouraging that is horrendous. But it’s probably also the case that indulging in one scene that depends on some shitty domist or racist or misogynistic trope for its erotic spark probably won’t kill you. In a way, when it comes to erotic consent, YKINMKBYKIOK might be the equivalent of three days spent eating Nacho Dorito’s.

The thing is, eating all those Dorito’s didn’t kill me but, like I said, it was kinda gross. I was groggy and had a stomach ache by the end of it and felt like my veins were full of sludge. It wasn’t my body that wanted all that orange slime. It was my brain — which had no idea yet how to talk to my body — going, “Omg! Dorito’s! Dorito’s! Dorito’s aren’t allowed! I’m gonna eat ALL THE DORITO’S!!!” I wouldn’t want to do it forever. Even though I’m “allowed” to, it wouldn’t feel good to do it forever. (Although Frito-Lay would be thrilled if I did.)

I suspect, given the repressive rules we have to counterbalance, that this holds true in other arenas of consent as well. Some amount of totally uncritical disembodied self-indulgence is likely a necessary part of moving towards a more intuitive, somatic, felt relationship with consent. But I wouldn’t want to get stuck there.

So, what’s the next step?

. . .

In my next post — which I’ll get around to writing god knows when — I want to talk a little bit more specifically about topping and some specific ways that Dominants are taught to distrust their intuitions about consent.

Foreshadow: We’ve all heard that “the bottom really controls the scene” but what if that were true? What if it were standard practice for a scene to continue until the bottom decided it was over, and the only way for a top to get out early was to safeword? How would that change your play?