Archive for November, 2013

(This post co-authored by maymay and myself.)

Did you ever consent to something, but still came away feeling violated? Ever said “yes” to someone and then wished you could take it back? Well, you can.

Here’s the thing: it is possible to consent to having some experience and then, sometime in the future, not consent to having had that experience.

Put another way, you have “the right to retroactively withdraw consent” from any encounters you had, at any point in the past, that no longer feel good or safe to you.

Currently, the way we talk about consent leaves no space for people to re-evaluate their own experiences. Nevertheless, people frequently do re-evaluate their experiences—including and perhaps even especially their sexual experiences—based on a variety of factors. Newly learned information, changing circumstances, or the way they themselves have changed are all things that can and do alter people’s feelings about the past. Discourses about consent that don’t make space for such after-the-fact evaluations are flawed.

There’s a better way to think and talk about consent, one that honors peoples’ entire experience of a situation—past, present, and future—not just the tiny time-slices of that experience during which they were asked, “Is this cool with you?” Instead of understanding consent as “giving someone permission to do a thing,” we can and should talk about it as “being okay with a thing happening.”

In this essay, we begin an exploration into how current mainstream and even progressive feminist discourses about (specifically) sexual consent fail to address the lived experience of navigating consent within rape culture. We point out that a legalistic framing of consent as expressed rather than experienced ultimately centers the needs of would-be rapists over the needs of rape survivors. We also consider how our relationship to consent changes when we acknowledge that whether a person actually feels violated is more important than whether they expected to feel violated.

How does our relationship to consent change if we think of “consent” as a real experience people have of feeling that what happened to them was okay, and “violation” as more nuanced than simply committing an un-permitted action?

In such a model, if Bob and Andy have sex, and Andy says, “Yes,” “Sure,” “Okay, fine, whatever,” or even, “Ooh baby, do it to me!” but still wakes up the next morning feeling like he was raped, that means Andy was raped. Conversely, if Andy and François have a steamy make-out session in which no words are exchanged but they both go home feeling great about it, and they keep feeling great about it, that experience was consensual.

If our concern is with not violating a person, rather than not violating a rule, then “a violation” is defined by what happens when a person processes and continually re-processes their feelings about an experience. Likewise, if our concern is about behaving ethically and with integrity, rather than making sure we are not held accountable for coercive actions, then we should respect consent as an experience people have, not a commitment people make.

Consent does not equal permission; it is a felt sense.

Of course, this understanding of consent fucking terrifies people (mostly men and sadomasochistic “Dominants”), because it implies that consent (as they understand it) can be “revoked” retroactively. But this is only a problem for someone whose desire to understand consent is primarily focused on how to not get in trouble for violating consent, or at the very least on how not to feel bad about themselves for violating consent, rather than on how to not violate consent.

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?
Your Kink Is Not My Kink, but would you like some Dorito’s? by unquietpirate

Typically, we define “consent” as the act of communicating to someone that it is okay for them to interact with us in a particular way. In other words, people generally believe consent is synonymous with permission. Andy “consented” to sex if Bob asked, “Will you have sex with me?” and Andy said, “Yes.” They behave as if “consenting” means agreeing to do something.

If Andy says “yes” to sex with Bob but still winds up feeling like his boundaries were violated, Bob bears no responsibility for Andy’s discomfort as long as Bob stuck to their agreement. Bob can be a nice guy and help Andy process his feelings, if he wants, or he can be a dick and just tell Andy it’s not his problem. Later, Andy can choose not to play with Bob again because he had a bad time, but he is not “allowed” to call Bob a rapist—Andy would be making a “false accusation”—because Bob didn’t break any rules. We call this the “consent-as-permission model,” or “contractual-consent.”

The problem with this model is that it is fundamentally legalistic. It’s all about whether or not permission to perform an act was obtained; it asks nothing about peoples’ experiences after they say “yes.” Instead, the Consent-as-Permission model asks questions like, “What counts as a ‘yes’?”, “Under what circumstances is a ‘yes’ inadmissible?”, and “In the case of a dispute, what kinds of documentation are required to prove the presence or absence of a ‘yes’?

In recent years, new variants on this contractual-consent paradigm have emerged, but none address its root limitation. For instance, the “Enthusiastic Consent” variant says that a “yes” is inadmissible unless the answer to “Will you have sex with me?” is “enthusiastically” affirmed (i.e., not merely “yes,” but “YES!”). Similarly, the “Ongoing Consent” variant says that a “yes” effectively runs on a timer, and when the timer runs out consent must be re-acquired. But all of these variants miss the point; at their core, they treat consent like an exchange of goods, a transaction in which a nebulous, arbitrarily-defined set of sanctioned actions can or can not be taken under certain conditions that are themselves defined by the negotiating process through which “consent” is either obtained or denied.

This framing of consent (and violation) is wrong. It is tragically wrong. Regardless of how we tweak it, the consent-as-permission model retains a focus on the experience of the person receiving permission, not the person who is or is not consenting. Such a system encourages us to design “consent contracts,” negotiated agreements about what behaviors are permissible in what situations. In such a system, the most rational thing to do is also the least ethical: prioritize avoiding accountability for acts of rape over respecting another person’s consent.

Moreover, the current Consent-as-Permission model doesn’t even work in a number of common situations.

For the privileged few of us who are able to communicate freely and easily about sex, Consent-as-Permission increases the likelihood that we won’t have sexual experiences in which we feel violated. In cases where we are very clear about our own desires, as well as capable of articulating them safely to ourselves and others, it’s relatively straightforward to make our verbal expressions of consent align with our felt experience of consenting. However, there are a number of common situations where defining “consent” as “saying yes” can cause serious harm.

The Consent-as-Permission model deals very poorly with all but the most extreme versions of the following situations:

  • The Pressured Yes – When a “yes” is obtained through abuse or threat of violence.
  • The Compromised Yes – When the desire to say “yes” is the result of environmental influences such as drugs, emotional stress, or sexual trauma.
  • I Don’t Knows – When a person is unsure about what feels good or safe to them but still wants to “test the waters” of erotic intimacy.
  • Barriers to Verbal Communication – When people negotiating a “consent contract” have trouble talking about what they want or expect will feel okay.
  • New Information – When new information about others or personal realizations about oneself surface that change one’s perception of something that happened to them.
  • Gradated Consent Violations – When a “consent contract” is broken in a way that a person feels comfortable with, or in a way that they feel somewhat but not extremely uncomfortable with, as compared to a way that feels disturbing or traumatizing.
  • “Consensual Non-Consent” – When a person intentionally chooses to say “yes” to experiences that feel non-consensual to them.

Most of us are not taught to trust our own feelings and desires, which means many of us don’t know what we want or what will feel good, okay, or even safe sexually. We are constantly in the process of figuring that out. A model of consent that requires in-the-moment sexual self-awareness to be so reliable that you’re willing to make a contract based on it is inaccessible to most people.

Further, all these legalistic discourses essentially treat consent as a binary value: either it’s present, or it’s not. Putting aside literal legal definitions, if (“enthusiastic and ongoing”) consent is deemed present, then even some progressive feminist (“sex-positive”) discourses blanketly decree no “violation” can occur. But this inevitably also defines a consent violation in a black-and-white way without any space for nuance or gradation.

Conflating giving permission (to try something) with consenting (feeling okay about something) often leads to confusing situations where people feel traumatized or violated but tell themselves, “Well…I said yes, so I must’ve wanted it.”

Clinging to a legalistic model of consent is tempting for some people. For one thing, that’s what we’re familiar with.

For another, talking about consent in a way that over-emphasizes the breaking of rules (i.e., a form of legalism) makes it easier to interface with the legal system, since that system also uses a “rule breaking” framework to determine the “wrongness” of some act. It’s much easier to provide a prosecutor with evidence about broken contracts than to provide one with evidence about feeling violated. But it’s well understood that the “criminal justice” system is, at best, an ineffective last-resort for survivors of sexual violence. Making it more difficult to ask for help from an institution that isn’t helping anyway is hardly a sacrifice.

The consent-as-permission model is also attractive because it requires very little self-reflection. A permission binary—“they said yes” versus “they said no”—is more simply quantifiable than having to be conscientious about what people are actually experiencing and what responsibilities you might have in relation to that experience. People invested in the consent-as-permission model are therefore also highly invested in treating rape and abuse as something committed only by “abusers,” and thus, by definition not themselves or their friends, since they are “not that kind of people.”

Finally, it’s tempting to retain the consent-as-permission model because of the fear that “it’s all we’ve got.” Lacking alternative methodologies to discourage socially harmful behavior, we tend to rely on whatever methodologies we think will work—even if those methodologies prove ineffective. However, we do in fact have an array of tools that do not rely on the legal system, law enforcement, or punitive deterrents. For instance, we can make more use of tools such as social shaming, transformative justice, and other community accountability processes that have effected radical changes. Tools like the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook, which amplify the power of traditional self-protective mechanisms, offer a glimpse into what such systems could look like at scale.

Ultimately, support for a legalistic model of consent has no ethical foundation. The powers that be have demonstrated no ability or willingness to build effective systems to address sexual violence. Building our own systems as half-assed imitations of those powers does us no good.

What needs to change in order for an experiential model of consent to supplant a permission-based one?

Getting in touch with our felt sense of “consenting”

Just as traditional legalism conditions people to confuse right and wrong with legal and illegal, consent-legalism conditions people to confuse consenting and nonconsenting with allowed and disallowed. This obscures our felt sense of consent.

We are all raised in a culture that teaches us from a very young age that our bodies are not our own. 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, we said “yes” to math homework through most of middle and high school. Does that mean we were voluntarily doing pre-calc problems instead of hanging out with friends?

Tapping into our intuitive and embodied understanding of what “okay” feels like for us will be challenging, but it is necessary for an improved relationship to consent. Unquietpirate’s post, “Your Kink is Not My Kink But Would You Like Some Dorito’s?,” begins a discussion on what that recovery process might look like in the realm of sexual consent:

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. [One way to recover from “eating disorders” called] 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?

This process will look very different for different people, depending on their personal histories and positionalities, which is why it is important for this conversation to take root in a wide range of places.

We need to understand giving permission as a way of communicating about consent, not as consent itself. We also need to understand that giving (or not giving) permission is not the only legitimate way to communicate about consent.

As a way of sharing information about desires and expectations, premeditated “consent contracts” can be a useful communication exercise. But problems arise when they become a way for potential rapists to cover their asses in the event that they violate a partner. Miscommunications occur, including miscommunications about permission, but a miscommunication is never an excuse for rape.

Facing our own abusiveness

Both mainstream and numerous feminist discourses tend to treat violation through sexual violence as something committed by “abusers” (i.e., “them,” not “us”). Most often, people treat having raped or having been raped as a defining facet of who someone is, as a person; they don’t treat rape like something people do, they treat rape like it’s something people are. We don’t think that’s helpful.

Realistically, anybody who is having any kind of sex in the context of rape culture is likely to violate someone’s consent at some point. The most ethical response to this fact, obviously, is to not have sex—and, in fact, if enough people decided to opt out of rape culture by opting completely out of erotic intimacy, that would ultimately bring rape culture crashing down. But a “sexual hunger strike to bring about the end of rape culture” is an unrealistically high ethical bar to set for most real people who are trying to survive in a world where intimacy is a human necessity.

Instead, we need to take it as a given that if you choose to have sex in the context of rape culture, especially if you choose to have sex with people who have less power than you, and especially if you choose to have kinds of sex that explicitly play with that power differential, at some point you are probably going to violate someone’s consent—if you haven’t already. We need a process for dealing with that other than abject denial. We need to develop ways of regularly acknowledging, taking accountability for, and participating in healing work around the damage our coercive behavior causes.

When rape is framed as a piece of one’s identity rather than as an act one committed, the possibility that one could “be a rapist” is simply unconscionable for most people to stomach. Their terror at this prospect spurs them to justify or excuse their behavior. We’re going to have to come to grips with what it means to violate others in a way our justifiable fear of “being rapists” has so far prevented us from doing.

Slowing Down

If you accept the premise that someone’s experience of sexual violation “counts” as rape, regardless of whether they granted verbal permission beforehand, then in order to avoid being accused of rape you’ll have to shift your mindset from, “I’d better make sure I was told it was okay to do this first,” to “I’d better make damn sure this person isn’t going to wake up tomorrow and feel like I raped them.” The latter is a standard requiring much more communication, understanding, and compassion from the people involved than the former, especially in situations with near-strangers like one-night stands, hook-ups, or play partners you might meet at a club.

What would you change about your behavior towards others if you acknowledged that violating consent hinged not on what they said about how they felt, but on how they actually felt? What would change about your behavior toward yourself? What does consent feel like to you?

Understanding consent as something that is experienced, rather than as something that is “given,” addresses the problems caused by conflating permission with consent. Importantly, treating consent as a felt sense respects the agency of the person consenting; it enables them to consent to anything, and only things, that they feel okay about. This includes, ironically, situations that they feel okay not feeling okay about, yet without absolving non-consensual situations of their violative aspect.

This ability for layering, or meta-consent, means that it is possible to agentically consent to having your consent violated. This is the most important difference between the Consent as Felt Sense model and the two major current discourses about consent, both of which argue that it is impossible to consent to violation:

  • Radical feminists use a “false consciousness” model, which claims that if you appear to be choosing (i.e., contracting for) violation, you must not be authentically choosing. In other words, you have been brainwashed or are being threatened into giving permission.
  • In the sex-positive and BDSM scenes, a “performative violence” model is more common; it claims that if you appear to be choosing violation, it must not actually be violation. In other words, what might look like rape or violence is actually something else entirely, because you’ve given permission for it.

Both of these framings are wrong.

If I freely give you a signed and notarized piece of paper saying, “Do whatever you want to me,” that doesn’t mean I now magically can’t be raped. It might mean I can’t prosecute you for rape—but given the legal system’s track record, I probably couldn’t have done that anyway. It hopefully means I have a process for integrating rape into my experience in a way that makes it okay for me. But if you choose to take advantage of this carte blanche opportunity to rape me, what you’re doing is still rape.

The legalistic Consent-as-Permission model focuses on behavior, on the “doing” of sex acts. It addresses what a given person, in a given place, at a given time, with a given history can or cannot reasonably choose to allow to happen to them in a given situation. But it has nothing to say about how that person feels about the choice they made. It doesn’t even offer any guidance for answering questions like, “What if I don’t know what I want?” and “What if what I want, or wanted, changes over time?”

Legalistic approaches to consent are responsible for the cultural paralysis in addressing rape and other undesirable intimate violations. If we focused cultural resources on developing a compassionate discourse for understanding the ways that consent violations are gradated, that violations have degrees of impact informed by myriad factors, and that “consenting” is more about developing our own felt sense of an experience than strictly adhering to a set of cultural doctrines, we might finally be able to stop repeating these boring, immature, circular finger-pointing arguments we’ve been having since the “Sex Wars” in the 80’s.


Sometimes this happens:

  • You’re worried that you’ve done a bad thing.
  • Or that you’re going to do a bad thing
  • And you go to someone for help thinking through it
  • And they say “Oh, no, you’re not the kind of person who would do that.”

That’s not a good thing to take for an answer, because there aren’t kinds of people who do bad things and kinds of people who don’t. Everyone does bad things sometimes. It’s really important to keep that in mind, and to actively work on noticing and fixing it.

Doing right by others is a skill. One you always have to keep working on. Not an innate attribute.

If you’re worried that you’ve done wrong, don’t let someone tell you that you’re not the kind of person who would do such a thing. When you’re worried about the possibility of hurting people, what matters is to figure out what you are actually doing. It’s not a referendum on what kind of person you are. It’s about what you do, and how to make what you do good.


This is one of the ways that the BDSM scene trains new Dominants not to take Submissives’ consent seriously.

Often, especially when a person is first learning to top, they express a lot of concern that they might be harming the people who bottom for them. And, often, they instantly get reassured that BDSM is not abuse, that consensual domination doesn’t cause harm, that dominant desires are just a fetish — and that being confident in your dominance is attractive, by the way. In other words, “Don’t worry, you’re not hurting anybody. You’re not that kind of person.”

But a lot of people in the BDSM scene are “that kind of person” — by which I mean that a statistically higher percentage of people are non-consensually sexually assaulted in the BDSM scene than in the overall population. (Which is saying something, considering how often sexual assault is committed in general — an average of once every 2 minutes in the U.S.)

If you’re excited about playing in the risky psychosexual sandbox that is BDSM, but concerned about doing that in the most ethical way possible, it’s AWESOME to ask lots of questions, and keep asking questions, about whether the things you’re doing are really okay. And it’s not helpful, ethical, fair, or safe for more experienced people to respond by telling you not to worry your pretty little head about it.

Crossposted from Tumblr here.

Yesterday, I wrote that I want Dominants to spend more time with the parts of themselves they’re scared of. Like, for example, the parts that enjoy violating consent. Not because they should be ashamed of those parts, but because they need to be informed about them.

The person whose question sparked that post asked another interesting question on the same Facebook thread:

What does the/a performance of healthy submission look like, in any even an ideal model? Its hard to extrapolate an acceptable Dominance model, or rather the possibility of an untainted desire for Dominance, from what you are saying.

What does “healthy submission” look like? I could write a book about this, and maybe someday I will, but I’ll try to keep it simple for now:

If BDSM is the fetishization of oppression culture, and Dominance is the fetishization of being an oppressor, then submission is the fetishization of internalized oppression.

This article gives a great, succinct explanation of internalized oppression:

When people are targeted, discriminated against, or oppressed over a period of time, they often internalize (believe and make part of their self-image – their internal view of themselves) the myths and misinformation that society communicates to them about their group. […] When people from targeted groups internalize myths and misinformation, it can cause them to feel (often unconsciously) that in some way they are inherently not as worthy, capable, intelligent, beautiful, good, etc. as people outside their group. They turn the experience of oppression or discrimination inward. They begin to feel that the stereotypes and misinformation that society communicates are true and they act as if they were true.

The same article points out that internalized oppression functions in two ways: We direct it at ourselves (by believing lies and abusive stereotypes that are placed on us) and we direct it at other people like us (by treating others as if those lies and abusive stereotypes are true about them.) When vulnerable people become personally invested in our own oppression, when we tell ourselves our abuse it’s a good thing or that it’s deserved, that is both a survival skill for living in oppression culture and a way of perpetuating more oppression.

Consider how this typically looks in the context of erotic play. One person, typically a Dominant, voluntarily takes on the oppressor role and does things that in other contexts would be considered rape, abuse, violence, to another person, typically a Submissive. But the Submissive, who has voluntarily taken on the oppressed role, does not simply put up with the Dominant person’s abusive behavior, they appreciate it. Submissives often express gratitude to Dominants for hurting or controlling them, deeply enjoy the experience of being victimized, and even go so far as to build entire scenes, scripts, and relationships around the idea that they deserve it. Submission fetishizes not only receiving oppression but internalizing it.

So, when we ask what healthy submission looks like, what we’re asking is what it means to cope with internalized oppression in a healthy way. There’s no easy answer for this. Classic tactics include working to understand your own internalized oppression, prioritizing self-care, building community and solidarity with other oppressed people like yourself, reframing your identity as a source of pride rather than shame, taking action against injustice, opting out of relationships with oppressive people and institutions, resisting oppression whenever you can and, perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself when you can’t.

I have some ideas about how these tactics might look within the context of play. For example, understanding your own internalized oppression involves a very similar process to the one I encourage Dominants to undertake of investigating both the roots of your kinks, both their individual psychological sources AND how those kinks fit into a larger social and historical picture. Prioritizing self-care might look like putting your own needs and desires first to what feels like an extreme degree when setting limits with a Dominant partner. You could reframe some of your erotic experiences not in terms of being forced to do things by a Dominant but, rather, as a Dominant helping you get something you want. You might develop solidarity with other Submissives by building cooperative relationships between multiple Submissives into your scenes. And separatism could look like choosing not to play with people who identify as Dominant, or even choosing to play only with other people who identify as Submissive.

There’s more I could say about this that I’ll save for a later post, but I’m interested in your ideas, too. How could you map your everyday skills for coping with living in oppression culture onto your erotic experiences playing dress-up as Oppressed and Oppressor?

But as far as extrapolating an “untainted desire for Dominance” from the notion that BDSM is the fetishization of oppression culture: You can’t. And that’s sort of the whole point. I don’t believe there is an “untainted” way to oppress other people, which means the only “acceptable Dominance model” is one in which we are using our experience as Dominants to learn more about how not to oppress people in real life. And, likewise, an “acceptable Submission model” is one in which our Submissive experiences help us practice surviving and resisting real oppression — not simply capitulating to it.

My ideal model of BDSM is a bit like an erotic Theater of the Oppressed for two. (Or three or however many people you’re playing with.) BDSM is a sandbox in which to learn more about how oppression, discrimination, violence, violation, abuse, etc. feels — so that we can more easily recognize it when it happens to us, or when we are doing it to someone else, in the wider world.

. . .

See also: Maymay’s “Dominants are rapists” is making people ask, “So, what’s healthy D/S like?” for a quick round-up of all the posts in this series so far.

Maymay’s been posting a bunch of legit political theory this week about Dominance in the context of rape culture. Although they’ve been linking a ton of my work, I had a killer week at school, so I haven’t had much time to weigh in. But I did want to say something to address the emotional content of a question someone asked early in the week:

Is your concept here that [D/s relationships] should be transitory (ie when healthy become obsolete) and short or at least not permanent in their duration? Or is your concept that there is a transformative initiation between a dominant and submissive where these two emerge with different roles or identities (as with the other roles where the definite article replaces the article for parent/child, and the others could become just fellow citizens)

I guess my question is,during/after confronting the shadow self (Lacan?) Can/will these entities remain in loving and/or power dynamic relationships with one another. ..and furthermore will/should the dominant remain a/the dominant and will/should the submissive remain a/the submissive?

Maymay and I have been talking for a long time about the importance of investigating the roots of our own kinks. A lot of people seem to interpret this as being “told how to have sex,” rather than being asked to think critically about how they have sex, but what we’re suggesting really isn’t that dramatic. It simply involves asking ourselves thoughtful and honest questions about where our fetishes come from.

Because so much of BDSM skirts the edge of — and sometimes dives right down into — rape, violence, abuse, racism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression, it’s important to understand our erotic relationship to these things as best we can. It’s important not only to understand our kinks on a personal, psychological level; we also need to understand where they come from on a larger cultural and political level, and be conscious of which social institutions we are supporting and/or undermining when we act them out. The reason this kind of self-awareness is important is so that we can give our partners the opportunity for genuinely informed consent about getting involved with us.

In other words, I want my partners — be they Dominant, Submissive, Switch, Rolequeer, Vanilla, or something else entirely — to “know what they’re signing up for” when they choose to play with me. That means I’d better be damn sure I know what they’re signing up for, myself. Because that’s a thing about consent: If it’s not informed, it’s not consent. 

It’s especially important to be as transparent as possible when you’re playing with someone who is more vulnerable than you. That’s why Dominants have extra responsibility to do this work. Dominants typically have more power out in the world (due to Domism) AND more power inside a given D/s dynamic (because that’s how most BDSM scenes/relationships are set up) than people of other role orientations.

That’s all pretty much common sense. I imagine most people are on board with wanting to have authentically consenting erotic interactions. So, why is there so much resistance to the idea that Dominants might want to spend some time meditating on what their desire to play dress-up as rapists has to do with rape culture? And why is there so much resistance among Submissives to the idea that this might be a valuable practice for their Dominant partners to get into?

One possible answer: Fear of loss. What the questioner above seems to be asking is, “What if my partner and I do the work to better understand our kinks, including taking an honest look at the parts we’re not very proud of, and we wind up not being into each other anymore?”

It’s not so much a fear of being told not to have a certain kind of sex; it turns out nobody else gets to decide what kind of sex you have, not even people who are really opinionated about it. It’s the fear of a future in which you no longer WANT to have certain kinds of sex, or sex with certain kinds of people, that you find super hot right now.

That’s a legitimate fear. There’s always the possibility that if you look at yourself too closely, you’ll discover you want to change. You might investigate your kinks and discover that some of them are based in personal trauma or in a political belief that doesn’t gel with your sense of ethics. If you do, you might choose to work on healing some trauma, and potentially lose that erotic trigger in the process. Or you might decide you want to bring your sex and your ethics into alignment, which could result in choosing different partners or kinds of play than you currently do.

Of course, you might not do any of these things. Maybe you’ll look into the shadows of your erotic life and discover that you’re totally chill with whatever you find there — or that, while there’s stuff there you’re not 100% happy about, the cost of trying to change it isn’t worth the sacrifices you’d have to make. In either case, you still come out with more information about yourself. But that doesn’t make the potential unknown any less scary.

I don’t have much sympathy for peoples’ fear of losing their identity as “Dominant” or “Submissive” because, as broad terms describing the kinds of play a person enjoys, those words are so oversimplified that they’re essentially meaningless. But the fear of losing sex that turns you on and relationships with people you love is something I have a lot of compassion for.

So, let me say this: I have a history of some childhood sexual abuse. Of course, this has some influence on the way I have sex as an adult. I’ve also had a number of partners who I’ve loved and, when it didn’t devolve into panic attacks or crying meltdowns, I’ve loved the sex we had. For a long time, I resisted working on my childhood issues in therapy, even though they were causing me lots of problems in my life not limited to panic attacks and crying meltdowns, in part because I was scared that those childhood wounds were what defined my sexuality. If they healed, I’d no longer be the person I was. And I had no idea whether the person I’d become would still be attracted to the people I loved.

I finally went through therapy. It did change who I was and the way I had sex. With one partner, it actually made sex much easier and more fun. Ironically, this was the relationship that I’d been the most worried I might damage by going to therapy. With another partner, the ways I changed made it almost impossible for us to connect erotically, and we didn’t have sex for a long time. That was hard. It’s still hard sometimes. I miss how intensely they used to turn me on and I grieve for that part of our intimacy sometimes. But we still love each other. We’re still together. We’re learning new ways to be intimate. Generally, I’m healthier and happier in my life now than I was before. And going through my process around my sexual history has made some space for the people I love to work through their own.

Also, most of the stuff that turned me on before therapy still totally turns me on. I just have more complete information now about what’s going on when that happens. There’s some stuff I stopped doing because it didn’t feel good to me, and there’s some stuff I stopped doing because I decided I didn’t feel right about it even though it was still hot, but I’m still kinky as fuck. (As of this writing, I’ve had Maymay chained to my bed in puppy paws and pet collar for the past 24 hours.) And I’m still asking myself hard questions about what that means, whether it’s good for me, whether it’s good for the people I love, whether it’s ethically justifiable, and what the larger social consequences are of playing that way. I hope I’ll continue asking myself those things for the rest of my life.

So, to answer your question about what can or should happen to you, to your identity, to your power dynamics, to your loving relationships as a result of confronting your “shadow self“, the answer is: I don’t know. I’m not you. You’re the only one who can find that out. It’s scary. It’s hard work. You might not want to do it. I don’t want to do it most of the time and I don’t do it nearly as much as I could. But, personally, I think it’s worth it.