Within the realm of sexuality politics, where does the rolequeer perspective on sex lie with relation to other ideologies? I was thinking about this the other morning and, when I broke various common ideological frameworks down into component parts, I realized something interesting. In order to sketch it out quickly, I’m going to reference some extremely oversimplified binaries here (for example: the two strains of feminism I describe are largely a polarity within white feminism only; my sense is that there’s a much broader and more complex conversation going on among feminist Women of Color), so feel free to blur these categories as is appropriate to your experience and context. Obviously, this is only one narrow subset of the variables we can use to analyze the landscape of sexuality politics.

Since we started developing some nascent ideas around rolequeerness, consent as a felt sense, and other positions that fall under the umbrella of an emerging third-wave of queer theory, we’ve received flak from surprisingly diverse quarters. So-called “Men’s Rights Activists” hate our work because they view it as a threatening extension of feminism. Meanwhile, both sex-positive feminists and radical feminists also hate our work, in spite of its explicitly feminist roots and, most curiously, in spite of the fact that they typically hate each other.

In short: Nobody loves us, everybody hates us. But before I go eat worms, I wanted to think a little bit about why — and, more specifically, about who hates what.

What is it that a rolequeer sexual politic suggests? We argue that, regardless of their origins, our erotic desires and behaviors are inextricably intertwined with our complicity in oppression culture. That’s the descriptive aspect of our position. The prescriptive side of rolequeerness is an exhortation to engage that tangled relationship between oppression and eroticism in a deeply critical and fiercely compassionate way. In short, when it comes to sexuality, rolequeers want people to own their shit — in all its beautiful and challenging and liberating and disturbing complexity. This return to agency is a core component of rolequeer theory.

When I look at the landscape of sexual politics, two axes stand out to me. The first is the emotional axis: At one end, the idea that our erotic desires (whatever they might be) are shameful, ugly, dirty, wrong, and ought to be rejected or stuffed under the rug. At the other end, the belief that our erotic desires are nothing to be ashamed of and ought to be embraced, engaged with, and shared. The second axis is the political axis: One extreme of this axis says that what we do “in the bedroom” is inherently apolitical and that received wisdom about sexuality should be immune to political critique; on the other end, the argument that our sexual behavior is a subset of our behavior as political actors, and that we should be willing to analyze the ethics of what we do “in the bedroom” through whatever critical lens we also analyze our actions outside of it.

Rolequeer’s position on this graph is obvious: As I described above, we believe that we should be unashamed yet critically engaged with our erotic behavior. We are positive on critical engagement and negative on shame.

Radical feminism has a deep critical engagement with the politics of eroticism, and also a famously strident sex-negative moralism about what kinds of sex are “good” (lesbian, vanilla, not for profit, possibly no kinds of sex at all) and what kinds are “bad” (heterosexual, kinky, part of the sex industry, possibly any kind of sex that ever occurs in rape culture). They share one axis point with rolequeerness: Critical engagement with sexuality. But they are opposite us in their emotional response to politically problematic sex. They are positive for critical analysis and positive for shame.

Sex-positive aka liberal feminism, on the other hand, is a double negative: They advocate no shame about our sexual behaviors and desires and, also, no political analysis of them. Liberal feminism, with its shmoopy uncritical embracing of anything and everything you can slap a “sexy” label on, is summed up by the BDSM mantra “Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay.” They share rolequeer’s compassionate embracing of complicated, messy, weird, inexplicable, unpredictable, diverse human sexual desire, but they oppose our willingness to look at that desire through a politically or ethically discriminating lens.

So, neither radical sex-negative nor liberal sex-positive feminism is the clear opposite of rolequeer theory. Instead, they are opposites of each other, but their opposition exists in a space between rolequeerness and its true cultural opposite. What sexual politic is negative on critical engagement and positive on shame? What sexual politic claims that you should feel bad about your sexuality but that you shouldn’t think too hard about it? Welp, stock-standard conservative religious puritanism comes to mind.

sexpoliticsgraph

Rolequeers aren’t here to fight with sex-pozi’s or radfems. Each of those feminisms, along with its attendant strain of queer theory, was an attempt to reject religious puritanism around sexuality — and each, in taking one step out of that abusive relationship, rejected equally important but different aspects of it. Sex-positive feminism rejected the shame and closetedness of puritanical sexuality, while radical feminism kept the purity politics but rejected the claim women should just do what they’re told and not think too hard. Rolequeer theory has deep roots in both these resistance movements and we wouldn’t be where we are today, theoretically or personally, without them. But, while they will continue to fight each other into Tumblr oblivion, we have bigger fish to fry.

Rolequeer’s actual “enemy” in the sexuality culture war is a mindlessly moralizing sex-negative white conservative religious puritanism around sex. The kind of sexuality politics that, right now today, is still sending queer children to “conversion therapy” and telling young women that their “modesty” is their premier selling point on the marriage market. The same oppressive, rape-loving, life-destroying bullshit we’ve all been fighting all along, except that rolequeers are determined to work against it harder and better and with more strategic and embodied clarity than our queer and feminist predecessors have so far. And the rolequeer return to agency is a key component of our ability to dismantle a society whose sexuality, even edgy-feminist-variant sexuality, is still ultimately rooted in the cultural worship of a totalizing authoritarian God.

More on that to come…

FRIEND: Hey, can I bother you with personal shit? I feel like asking a smart kink critical person this and I’m reluctant to do it publically:

So, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately analysing the relationship between my submissiveness and the fetishization of oppression. Because I assumed that it would go like “realizing I get off from oppressive shit -> being horrified -> no longer finding that shit sexy and only getting off on non-problematic kinky shit”.

And well, the mind is a weird place and the result was the exact opposite. It went more like “realizing I get off from oppression -> getting off harder and getting of from kinds of oppression I never even found sexy before”. Which is not what I wanted. So now I’m kind of stuck. And I’m kind of embarrassed about it.

Any thoughts on how to sort that out? Or am I just missing the point by trying to get rid of my problematic kinks?

. . .

Hey there!

“Because I assumed that it would go like “realizing I get off from oppressive shit -> being horrified -> no longer finding that shit sexy and only getting off on non-problematic kinky shit”.”

Yeeeeeah…that is so not how it goes. :/

At least, not in my experience. What you’re describing about your kinks getting even weirder and more complicated sounds much more familiar to me. I really appreciate you sharing this with me, because it helps me to understand that my own experience isn’t abnormal, and also helps me think through it more consciously.

Hm. So, I’m gonna kinda ramble and think aloud here. I hope that’s ok. First of all, obviously, I don’t really have any answers to this. I feel like all of this kink critical, rolequeer, etc. stuff is such a new landscape that right now I’m just kinda stumbling around, exploring, and seeing what happens. It turns out that what happens is often not what we might’ve immediately expected. Well, that’s a useful thing to discover.

So, here’s one idea. When I read your message, oddly enough, the first image that came to mind  was fascia — the layer of thin, fibrous connective tissue that encloses your muscles (and almost every other structure in your body) and holds them in place. It’s kind of like plastic wrap, in that it can bunch up and wind up and get stuck to itself, and over time it will do this in ways that sort of limit your range of motion by restricting your muscles into only the movement patterns that are habitual for you. Often, these patterns are somewhat asymmetrical, because we’re humans and we don’t use our bodies in symmetrical ways all the time, or because we’ve suffered some injury or trauma that causes us to move in a weird way or compensate for an injured limb, etc. But having your muscles locked into an asymmetrical structure can eventually cause a lot of wear and tear on your skeleton and other problems over time. We call these “postural distortions.”

I’ve been thinking about fascia a lot recently because I’m learning a bodywork technique called myofascial release, which is all about correcting postural distortions by manually releasing fascial restrictions. (You do this with various stretching techniques, application of heat, etc.) Here’s what’s interesting about this: Sometimes, when you release the fascia that’s holding a postural distortion in place, the distortion actually becomes even *more* exaggerated for a time. So, to start with, someone might’ve had a right shoulder that was half an inch higher than the left shoulder. But when you release the fascia, the right shoulder ends up being two inches higher than the left, although you would’ve expected it to come down so the shoulders could equalize. The reason this happens, it turns out, is because the bunched up fascia doesn’t just automatically go straight back to neutral — it actually has to unwind slowly backwards through all the stages it went through in order to get into that distortion. (Think about pulling apart a piece of plastic wrap.)

Anyway, because we do weird shit with our bodies all the time, fascia gets wound up in all kinds of unexpected, complicated ways — and so the unwinding process is equally complex and unpredictable. Of course, I have no idea what’s going on with your brain, or anybody’s brain including my own, but I think it’s interesting that this image of fascia unwinding is what automatically came to me as an analogy. In other words, it’s possible that our erotic desires get kind of shaped and restricted and habituated in certain ways as a response to the environment we live in (and the traumas we experience in that environment)…but then, on some level, we notice that those erotic habits seem extreme or out of balance, so we try to compensate in some way, to “tone them down”, without actually exploring or resolving them. If, at some point, we then decide we are actually going to try and resolve the “knots” in our erotic psyche, it makes sense that the unwinding of those knots might not be quite as simple as them just “relaxing”…they might actually have to unwind backwards the same way that restrictions in our fascial tissue does.

That’s sort of a long-winded way of saying “it might get worse before it gets better” — but I think the specific analogy is apt because of the backwards unwinding concept, and also because of the fact that most fascial restrictions are ultimately the result of either chronic or acute trauma to the body. (Even though some of that trauma is just, like, the inevitable result of being a biped dealing with gravity.)

For what it’s worth, since I started analyzing the relationship between my kinks and oppression culture, there have only been two things that have meaningfully changed what I get off on:

1. Having a partner who gets off on stuff that it had never occurred to me to explore before because I was “submissive” and “submissive” people weren’t into that sort of stuff.

Getting together with Maymay caused me to really deeply re-evaluate and reconstruct the boundaries of what I was aroused by because, ultimately, I was aroused by *them* and in love with them and wanted to be with them and if, as two “submissives” we both continued to hew to the party line of what “submissives” liked we’d never be able to figure out how to have sex with each other. To be honest (although maybe this is obvious), a HUGE motivating factor for all the theorizing around rolequeerness etc. was the result of hours and hours of May and I sitting around, frustrated as all hell, trying desperately to figure out how to have sex with each other. (And, similarly, the “dominants are rapists” stuff came out of trying to work through the masses of sexual-violence induced trauma Maymay was dealing with that made them feel unsafe and scared about being intimate with anybody.)

Ultimately, however, the changes to my erotic sensibilities that have come from my relationship with May have still mostly been additive. I find stuff hot now that I didn’t before. But, honestly, I also still find almost all of the stuff from before hot, too. And even that additive process wasn’t as simple as us just reasoning our way through it. We did a lot of stuff in the effort to hack our D/s-programmed brains, including taking ecstasy and some other drugs together, allowing a beloved ex-partner of maymay’s guide and counsel us through some of our early sexual interactions, and so, so, so much trial and error and incredible frustration and breakdowns and breakthroughs and crying. Even with all of that, it probably took almost a year from when we first started trying to be intimate until we reached a point where it reliably felt like we knew how to safely have sex with each other in a way that honored both our “submissiveness” without requiring either one of us to play “dominant” — and, over the course of that year, there were a lot of moments where I almost gave up in total despair because it seemed impossible. So, y’know, it’s complicated.

And we’re not even close to done yet. Almost three years into our relationship, we still go through periods where one or both of us has a shift in perspective about what our kinks mean to us, what they’re rooted in, where they’re taking us. Something that felt really hot before suddenly feels scary, or gross, or just kinda boring and weird. Something that felt scary or unapproachable before begins to feel accessible, inspiring, sexy. Sometimes this happens simultaneously as part of our sex with each other, and sometimes it happens separately as part of our individual processes.

In either case our ability to be intimate sometimes breaks down. We have to start over again at square one and ask, “Okay, what does sex even mean? What feels safe right now? Maybe we should try this…oh, whoa. No. Holy shit, let’s NOT do that. Okay, how about…” Over time, a few things have gradually aggregated. At the beginning, when something shifted, we’d often lose the ability to be intimate at all. Like, we couldn’t even figure out how to physically touch each other in a non-sexual way. By now, I think we’ve gotten pretty reliably to the point where we can be like, “Okay, sex is obviously not working right now. Let’s cuddle and watch a movie. We can try and figure out sex again later.”

Incidentally, one of the tricks we used to use a lot when we were first figuring things out was just to name our problematic kinks as problematic, in the context of playing with them. “I’m having this super hot, really problematic fantasy. Can I tell you about it?” “Omg, that thing we did last night was SO hot and SOOO problematic.” It was almost a kind of inside joke, but in a certain way just acknowledging that our kinks were problematic — that, in fact, some of the hotness was *in* the problematicness — and not making too big a deal out of that sort of…took some of the erotic power out of the more problematic stuff. I’m not sure why. Maybe it removed the taboo in a way that helped those kinks…unwind.

2. Therapy.

There are a few things that I used to find really hot that I’m pretty sure would now turn me off — at least, in a partnered sex/play situation. They still sometimes turn me on in fantasy land. But these are things that I can directly relate to specific sexual traumas from my childhood, and I went to therapy to deal with them specifically, and did a bunch of somatic work and EMDR and, like, went to massage school. 😛 And the reason I did all of that wasn’t because I found those fantasies particularly wrong or more oppressive than other fantasies, but because I experienced them as viscerally disturbing, and they were fucking up my ability to be intimate with people I loved because I kept having panic attacks during sex etc.

And here’s the thing…resolving those fetishes did actually make me less “submissive” in a way that made it almost impossible to continue to be intimate with my D-type partner. In fact, even though it was the result of trauma resolution, my changing sexuality kinda totally freaked them out, and I suspect that was one of the factors that ultimately led to our breakup. So, that sucks.

Aaaaaaaaaaanyway, sorry, I’m totally rambling.

“Any thoughts on how to sort that out? Or am I just missing the point by trying to get rid of my problematic kinks?”

I mean, I guess, y’know…This shit is complicated. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to get rid of your problematic kinks if you don’t want them. I also don’t think doing so is, like, necessary in order to be an ethical sexual person. Rolequeerness, or whatever you want to call it, isn’t about reprogramming ourselves to have a different set of non-problematic kinks; it’s about investigating and being curious about the kinks we do have, and looking the ways they are problematic in the face, and exploring them and understanding and unwinding and deconstructing them, and then seeing what’s left. That’s what I think, anyway. YMMV.

Maybe indulging in your oppressive kinks (or your kink for oppression) is a form of self-destructive behavior. Maybe it’s a form of self-liberatory unwinding. Maybe it’s a little of both. It’s worth thinking about, which is what it seems like you’re doing. It’s also important to acknowledge, while thinking about it, that you can’t reason your way out of trauma. Trauma resolution is a *lot* of work, and it’s complicated, and nobody should be expected to do it overnight or on their own.

I will say this: Probably 80 – 90% of the orgasms I currently have, I have while fantasizing about incredibly problematic shit. I don’t want this to be the case. I also like orgasms. And what excites me more than anything is that, now, maybe 10 – 20% of the orgasms I have are while fantasizing about stuff I *don’t* find incredibly problematic — and that is SO MANY MORE “non-problematic” orgasms than I was having five years ago. They’re still rare enough to make me sit up and take notice when they happen. But when they do happen, I feel *really* good about myself and try to take that as a moment to feel encouraged and celebrate.

TL;DR: I do think there’s merit in trying to resolve our problematic kinks. (Especially if they’re linked to personal trauma; because there’s just merit in trying to resolve our personal traumas, for our own sakes.) But rather than treating non-problematic kinks as the baseline and feeling bad about our lingering problematic ones, I think it makes more sense to treat problematic kinks as the baseline and feel good about ourselves for whatever progress, even if it’s “backwards” progress, we make towards unwinding them. Because that shit is not easy.

Anyway, that’s my 3c.

(Also, I don’t know if you saw this, but possibly relevant re: Maymay’s process: How to have hot, kinky sex with other Submissives without inviting a Dom)

About a week ago, I took a trip and had to go through airport security. When I fly, as long as I have the time, I always try to “opt out” of the backscatter x-ray and go for a manual pat-down instead. There’s no pressing reason why I can’t go through the backscatter, but I have the right not to, and so I exercise it. In part, this is because “the right to say no” is not a right if it only exists hypothetically; the right to say no becomes real if and only if there are examples of people actually saying no successfully. I “opt out” at TSA screenings so that if there is someone watching who does have a strong desire not to be x-rayed, their ability to say “no” is strengthened by watching me say “no” and come to no harm. I acquired this ability by watching friends of mine “opt out” in front of me numerous times for the same reason. And I was incredibly nervous the first few times I did it, especially considering some of the horror stories about abusive TSA agents. But I have never come to any harm.

The other reason I opt out is that, by and large, performing a pat-down makes TSA agents uncomfortable. I don’t really have a personal beef with TSA agents as individuals; they are like the mildest form of cops. Some are seriously abusive power-tripping assholes, but most of them are young working-class people, often people of color, just trying to pay their bills — and at least they decided to pay their bills by becoming airport security, not actual cops. I don’t enjoy their discomfort. I’m not trying to “stick it to the man” by requesting that some nervous 23 year old woman with a job she hates come stick her fingers in my waistband and touch my ass. But, compared to the alternative scenario — where I am herded into a giant metal tube and some bored 23 year old (usually a dude), fully clothed, hits a button and blithely gazes at my naked bod — it at least humanizes the experience when both people involved acknowledge that it’s fucking awkward for a stranger in uniform to be touching my ass.

I have never gone through an airport x-ray machine and felt that the person behind the x-ray screen thought twice about what they were doing. But in almost every case, even though they never verbalize the word “sorry”, I have had TSA agents apologize for having to pat me down. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

TSA screenings are non-consensual. Sure, I didn’t have to go to the airport; I could’ve driven halfway across the country instead of flying; I could’ve paid $100 for TSA Pre; blah blah blah. But I would hope anybody reading this has a nuanced enough sensibility about consent to understand that TSA screenings are non-consensual. And that TSA pat-downs are non-consensual touch.

The reason this is important, and super relevant to conversations about consent as a felt sense within a culture of compulsory sexuality, as well as conversations about complicating the victim/abuser binary, is because touching passengers non-consensually is part of a TSA agent’s job. And some people really need those jobs. Including people who really don’t like touching others non-consensually. So, paying attention to how TSA agents (particularly young women and other people who may have a somatic understanding of what it feels like to have their own boundaries violated) negotiate a situation in which they, themselves, are being non-consensually forced (by threat of starvation) to non-consensually touch another person’s body — and are not allowed to verbally acknowledge that’s what’s going on — is a powerful microcosm of understanding the mechanisms by which we somatically navigate consent.

When I went through the TSA checkpoint last Sunday, the agent assigned to pat me down was a young white woman, probably in her early to mid-twenties, with a friendly smile and a speech impediment that suggested a disability. Already, we have a complicated power dynamic here. Because of the ways that our overall positionalities and our specific institutional positions within this situation intersect, each of us is both powerful and vulnerable. As a TSA agent, she officially has the power to make me miss my plane and, in an extreme scenario, to accuse me of “terrorism” and possibly detain me. As a “customer” I have the power to get her in trouble with her supervisor and, in an extreme scenario, possibly get her fired if I claim that she touched or talked to me inappropriately. If she is a person with a disability, the threat of losing her job is likely even more dire than it would be for most young people trying to work in this economy. We are each entering this encounter in some ways afraid of the other. But bracketing off larger institutional and social contexts, for the purposes of the “scene” in which I am being patted down by a security guard, the security guard is the “top.”

There is a verbal script that agents have to follow when they pat you down, and she follows it meticulously. (Not all agents do.) The TSA knows very well that this interaction is non-consensual and has high potential to feel like an intimate violation, and so they cover their asses by requiring the passenger to give verbal permission twice for each touch. She begins by describing exactly where she’s going to touch me, in what order, and with her hands in what position. “When I touch your inner thigh, I will use the back of my hand. Okay?” I nod. She asks if I would prefer to be screened in a private room. I would not. “I’m going to touch your back now, ma’am.” “I’m going to put my fingers inside your waistband, ma’am.” “Ma’am, please spread your legs apart.” (How rolequeer is a scenario in which the person topping you repeatedly calls you “Ma’am”.) She uses clinical, distancing language to describe my body. “Touching your buttocks, ma’am.” Whatever she is doing, she is certainly not “putting her hand on my ass.”

This is extremely detailed, ongoing, verbal communication about consent. It is not exactly “enthusiastic,” but I’m pretty certain that if any point I said, “Stop. I’m just going to go through the x-ray machine,” she would withdraw her touch instantly. I’m sure that, legally, this script exists to keep the TSA from getting in trouble for making agents stick their hands in peoples’ crotches. But some agents also genuinely use it as a way to communicate with the person they’re touching; to check in, comfort them, share information with them, and give them space to ask questions or say “no.” Others do not. Some smile, and shrug, and make little jokes, and express co-conspiratorial amusement at the awkwardness of the situation, and gently convey apology through their body language and tone of voice; some try to make smalltalk in an effort to initiate a casual, friendly, normal, chatty, human-connection layer alongside the weird “I am wearing rubber gloves and rolling up your pants to look for a weapon” layer; some try to create a feeling of safety by taking on an extremely intentional, professional, detached, almost doctor-like persona that brooks no possibility of intimacy or innuendo; different people have different ways of trying to communicate non-verbally that they, too, feel it’s weird they’re having to do this to you and that they hope you’re okay. Others do not. Some act bored or irritated or distracted or pushy, like it’s “just their job” to violate my consent and that if I have any problems with that, I’m a nuisance, a troublemaker, an annoying customer who’s fucking up their day. And some, although I’ve fortunately never been a victim of this so far (in part, probably, because I have almost always been patted down by women) take advantage of the situation to make themselves feel powerful, and to intentionally touch passengers in ways that make them uncomfortable and violated and that they cannot reasonably say “no” to if they want to make their plane.

And this is my point. Even though every TSA agent uses the exact same words and touches the passenger in the exact same places, some of those encounters feel more consensual than others. According to a legalistic definition of consent as permission, every encounter I have had with the TSA pat-down has been identical in terms of consent. But there is absolutely no question in my mind that this is not the case. “Consent” is an experience much more nuanced and rich and complex than a simple question of whether I said “yes” or “no.”

So, what got me thinking about that on this trip was that the woman who patted me down last Sunday was so good at making the encounter feel consensual — or more consensual than usual, or perhaps “minimally non-consensual”, anyway. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was she did, how she moved, how she inflected her voice and when and where she made eye-contact specifically, to inject a sense of non-violation into the situation. But it was something about her own gently expressed awkwardness in combination with her unquestionable competence and professionalism that did the trick. She made me feel like we were both humans stuck in a bad situation that neither one of us was happy about, but that it was also sort of funny in a sad way, and that it was a worse situation for me than it was for her, but we were agreed on the point that we mostly just both wanted to get it over with and get on with our lives without either one of us causing the other undue hardship. And my response to this, to my felt sense of consenting, was to be respectful of the fact that she was working and try and interact with her in ways that made her job easier, too. I smiled, and was friendly, and followed directions quickly without intentionally playing dumb (which I sometimes do), or asking annoying questions about the procedure that I already know the answers to (which I sometimes do), or exuding a petulant aura of pissed-off “this is some bullshit and I don’t want to be here and you should be ashamed of your participation in this security theater” (which, tbh, I sometimes do also). I anticipated her needs and moved my body in ways that would give her easier access, so that she wouldn’t have do more uncomfortable things like ask me to spread my legs further.

Basically, I was a hella good “bottom”, because she was a hella good “top”. What made her a good top was that she wasn’t trying to control me; she was just trying to get me through Security — in a situation where she’d been given control over me, and knew it, whether she wanted it or not. And the effort she put in to respect my consent actually made the encounter feel more consensual, which made me want to actively participate and collaborate with her.

Now, sure, we can have a whole ‘nother conversation about how it’s not actually a good thing for there to be nice, competent, professional cops (or TSA agents) out there, because that deludes people into believing that cops always have the capacity to respect peoples’ consent — and they don’t. Violating consent is a cop’s job. Cops don’t violate peoples’ consent because they could’ve been nice but the person did something wrong and deserved to get beaten up; cops violate peoples’ consent because that is their job. But, like I said, that’s a whole different essay.

I just wanted to use this one to talk about my experience with consent as a felt sense in a non-erotic touch context. Because I hoped it might resonate with others who have similar examples of having diverse experiences of embodied consensuality within a relatively narrow range of permission-states. (For example, with different medical professionals. Or maybe, for athletes, in different sporting or training scenarios.) And I feel like talking about those experiences in ways that don’t always involve sex is important. Because all of this can be extrapolated back to erotic intimacy. But the sex conversation is so complicated, and peoples’ relationships to their own sexualities are often so messy, it sometimes kind of obscures the felt part of the consent equation, because sex involves feeling so much other stuff besides just your own consent.

But, ultimately, the way this particular TSA agent touched me is the way I want people I play with to top me, or people with more institutional power than myself to fuck me (and the way I want to top and/or fuck people who are in more vulnerable positions than me): With an acknowledgement like, “It sucks that we can’t negotiate perfect consent because we’re trapped in a system that’s institutionally pressuring and threatening both of us in different ways right now, and that legitimately makes both of us a little scared of each other. But, on some meaningful level, we’re both choosing to be here anyway. I realize that what’s happening is complicated and I’d like to work together to get through that in the least traumatizing, most humanizing, most consensual way possible. And since you’re the more vulnerable party in this particular context, let’s focus on making sure you feel as okay as you can about what’s happening. But I want to feel okay about it, too.”

BDSM and “kink” are not interchangeable terms. Webster defines “kinky” as “marked by unconventional sexual preferences or behavior.” That’s a HUGE umbrella including basically any erotic desire or activity not considered normative in your cultural context. “BDSM” is an extremely narrow subset of kink.

And this is important: The BDSM subculture is defined and controlled by a tiny minority of sociopathic humans whose kink is acting out rape, torture, and abuse fantasies “for fun” i.e. without any meaningful consideration for what it means to enact those fantasies on human minds in the context of a world where rape, torture, and abuse are already broadly normalized.

In fact, the sheer blitheness with which BDSMers — both “tops” and “bottoms” — treat sexual violence as No Big Deal is part and parcel of their fetish. It’s not just that they find rape arousing. (Lots of people get turned on by thinking about rape. Truth.) It’s that they find it arousing *that* rape turns them on; instead of being turned on by rape and finding that, say, disturbing, or confusing, or at least worth asking questions about. Their kink is not for rape-play itself. Their kink is for rape apologism.

Here’s where you come in: This sociopathic sliver of wannabe (and often actual) rapists are not the majority of kink-loving people. They are not even the majority of the BDSM Scene. But they do tend to be very powerful, influential people in both the world and the Scene, and they have a lot of control over how people understand “alternative sexuality.”

The fact is that most of the erotic activities lumped together under the “BDSM” label have almost nothing to do with one another. But by co-opting a vast diversity of unrelated kinks and fetishes and calling all of them “BDSM” — as if that is a single way to play — the abuse fetishists have created a fiendish cover for themselves. They’ve suggested that BDSM is all one thing, and thus if you criticize anybody’s kinks, you’re criticizing EVERYBODY’s kinks.

There are lots of kinky ways to play that don’t involve apologizing for rape or trivializing abuse. My classic example is puppy play in which all of the players are puppies. Teasing your partner with ice cubes. Rope bondage for the comfort of constriction and the joy of knots. There are even erotic ways to (very, very carefully) explore themes of rape, torture, humiliation, slavery, gaslighting, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse without apologizing for or downplay the severity of horror and trauma involved when those things happen in real life…

But the BDSMers have convinced their flock that if anybody questions them jacking each other off to the fantasy that “Sexual Violence is No Biggie,” then those critics are also threatening every person’s right to get their rocks off in whatever other kinky ways feel fulfilling to them. That it’s either an 100% abuse-trivializing no-holds-barred free-for-all or vanilla sex in the missionary position with the lights off forever — and that you’ve already chosen a side, because you let someone blindfold you and fuck you with a strap-on once and you really liked it, so it’s only a matter of time until you’re a gibbering desperate perverted mess of uncritical rape-loving jelly.

How have a handful of abusive sociopaths convinced thousands of otherwise thoughtful and compassionate people to stick up for them?

As an astute friend once pointed out to me:

“The pattern I’ve seen with BDSM’ers is *all about* exaggerating costs of failure; they want to believe they’re playing a higher-degree game than they are, and so they do all sorts of things to make that *appear* to be the case, even and especially when it’s not. This makes sense: the formalized BDSM structures are designed to put people who consent to uncomfortable experiences into uncomfortable situations, but not to the point of putting them in dangerous ones. Which means that BDSM’ers have a fantastically well-honed ability to dress up lower-degree games in the appearance of higher-degree games.”

They’re using you, kinksters with ethics, to protect themselves by convincing you that you and they are the same kind of people. But you’re probably not.

Meanwhile, the “kink shamers” have fallen right into the BDSMers’ trap by decrying ALL kinky eroticism “shameful” and making the BDSMers’ whisper campaign into a reality. By attacking “kink” as a whole and making it about random individual peoples’ sex lives, rather than specifically targeting the rape apologism and abuse denial of BDSM’s priesthood, they’ve pushed people with kinky desires but some skepticism towards the BDSM Scene, people who might otherwise be on the fence, right into the lion’s den. They’ve made the abuse-denying sociopaths’ prophecy self-fulfilling: “Anyone who’s a threat to us is a threat to you.”

Of course, I understand the desire to push back against anyone who is shaming and limiting your sexual expression. Erotic fulfillment is a core human need. But when you push back against the “kink shamers”, make sure you’re standing up for YOURSELF, not someone else. And stop enabling sociopathic abusers by describing your healthy, thoughtful, and ethical kinks as “BDSM”. Unless what you gets you hot is trivializing others’ experiences of abuse and violence, they’re not.

Originally posted on Tumblr.

ETA: Case in point, this bit of Tumblr exchange illustrates exactly the dynamic I’m describing:

survivorsofkinkunite: Do people think that the similarity between “sub drop” and the responses to trauma are actually all that different?

OP points out that there are similarities between “sub drop” and PTSD. Legit.

loli-ass: except bdsm participants consensually involve themselves in particularly rough scenes CONSENSUALLY very well knowing afterwise they will experience subdrop.

I can eat Burger king knowing I’ll get sick after, does it mean eating Burger King is wrong? NO. It just means I pay a small price in order to involve myself in something I love.

Kinky Teenager responds by saying she knows what she’s signing up for when she engages in “particularly rough scenes”. Also legit. The Burger King analogy is pretty apt, actually. She acknowledges that she is “paying a price” for the sake of something that matters to her.

hostilehottie: because abuse is hunky-dory as long as you consent to it, even if it causes lasting psychological damage!!!! are you fucking lost

Kinkshamer drops the institutional critique of BDSM and begins attacking Kinky Teenager’s individual sexual choices instead.

loli-ass: i dont think im lost but im like 900% sure your sex life is boring as fuck

Kinky Teenager accuses Kinkshamer of having a “boring sex life” — illustrating that Kinky Teenager has likely been told that people who critique BDSM are “anti-fun” rather than anti-rape.


hostilehottie: you’re a teenager and you already can’t conceive of amazing sex without literally traumatizing your partner. you are so, so fucked up

Kinkshamer makes the same point I did above but then continues to personally attack Kinky Teen, calling her sexuality “fucked up.”

anymphetaminegirl: If you have never been involved with the BDSM community, then please do not make comments on it. Ever. I don’t comment on your style of having sex, please do not comment on mine. I’m a very happy sub, who is very okay with dealing with the effects of sub-drop. It’s MY CHOICE. NOT YOURS. So please realize, just as if I were choosing to have homosexual sex, it is none of your business, I am not forcing you into it, and you have no right to comment on whether or not it is okay. Thanks.

Kinky Teen, now bullied beyond the point of continuing to stick up for herself alone, falls back on “the BDSM community” for support. Another “kinkster” steps in in Kinky Teen’s defense and, using standard BDSM Scene rhetoric (“if you’re not part of our club, then what we do in here is none of your business”) winds up, instead, defending BDSM as a whole — including a bunch of sociopathic abusers who would probably be thrilled to take traumatizing advantage of a young teenage “very happy sub who is very okay with dealing with the effects of sub-drop” given any opportunity.

Sad face. 😦

Part 1 is here.

HIM:

7.16.13

Right.

What you said.

I’m glad you’re getting what I’m saying. The thing that fucking bugs me is original “Schroedinger’s Rapist” isn’t really very “Schroedinger-y”, (see:Ironic,Alanis Morrisette) and then at the same time there’s this other interpretation that is both VERY Schroedingery and much more interesting and relevant.

I have more to say about this, but I’m concerned about crossing some line.

I am convinced that when SAFE GUY/NO POTENTIAL gets in over his depth, loses his head and ends up in court when some woman accuses him of rape, he will wave a printout of that article around and argue, “yer honor, I held her down and didn’t really listen when she told me to get off her, but it wasn’t rape because I’M NOT A RAPIST. Look at this thing I wrote! Would a rapist write that?” I’m also convinced that when that thing happens (all the fucking time) where some college dude drinks a bit too much and goes too far with some girl, in the moment he’s not even considering the fact that the thing he is doing is rape. Why? Because his whole life everyone around him has been telling him he’s a good, stand up guy, implicitly incapable of doing wrong. Sure, rapists are out there but there is NO WAY you could be one, my sweet innocent golden-child darling. Your role in the discussion around violence against women will be an ally, a protector. Because that’s who you are.

There’s a goofy comparison to be made here with writing in education: Kids take language arts and the curriculum is be creative! Write whatever you want! The sky is the limit! Then you start writing papers in middle school and they’re crap but don’t worry about it. We’re going to help you with the structure and the grammar and everything and we’re all such very good writers, and then composition comes along and all of a sudden IF YOU WRITE THE WRONG THING AND STEAL SOMEONE’S IDEA THAT IS PLAGIARISM AND WE WILL FAIL YOU AND RUIN YOUR LIFE. This was a very jarring moment for me, stepping from a space of nothing but positive, supportive messaging into a space of responsibility-or-die. I think this is the exact thing that happens to young men who go off to college, and it’s a huge part of why rape happens in that circumstance. I’m absolutely not trying to suggest that both rapists and plagiarists shouldn’t be held accountable. I’m saying they do those things because they aren’t induced into a culture of adult responsibility.

What does this have to do with Schroedinger? Realizing that I’m in that rapist/not rapist space is the ESSENTIAL first step to not actually raping anyone.

There is a way in which a lot of discourse actually contributes to this issue. That original Schroedinger’s Rapist article is a perfect example. In the first few paragraphs of that piece there is this embedded assumption that the men it is supposedly addressing are children: Uneducated juveniles who know not what they do but ALSO are implicitly incapable of committing actual violence. Don’t worry, we’re going to hold your hand through this whole “women-are-people” thing and spell everything out in 5th grade vocabulary so no one gets left behind.

It’s coddling, and It’s deadly.

I don’t think all sex is rape. But I do think all sexual activity is ethically bound to be aware of rape culture. Sort of like anyone takes friends to swim in the ocean has a responsibility to know what jellyfish and riptides are.

See you tomorrow?

 

HIM:

5.20.13

I have slightly off-topic feelings about [this article] so you will have to bare with me.

This guy is saying that because some men are rapists, and because it’s difficult or impossible to discern which are and which aren’t, it behooves women to be cautious around men. That’s fine. But Schroedingers Rapist (as it was explained to me) means something else: It refers to the idea that (because of a complex and highly contentious swirl of capital R Reasons) all men are potential rapists. Sort of like, even if you spent your entire life walking on the sidewalk, you could get drunk at your 45th birthday party, go outside, see a particularly good-looking ice cream truck across the street, and in that moment there is nothing tangible stopping you from becoming an actual jaywalker. It’s an uncomfortable thought and all the backlash is understandable to a degree.

All the stuff about behavior modification to make women more comfortable both in this article and the original post is nice and all, but to me, it misses the point because the perspective is misplaced. Discussions about making women comfortable are meaningless if you aren’t explicitly accounting for your role in their safety. In other words, before I invert my rape-joke t-shirt and start minding my eye contact, I better make damn sure I’m not ACTUALLY going to go assault anyone today.

I am the first to admit I don’t read too good sometimes. Let me tell you how I read this guy’s blog post: “Sexism-racism-string quartet-PhD-I am a SAFE GUY with NO POTENTIAL for violence towards women! My UPPER-CRUST background precludes it!”

I think Schroedinger’s Rapist ought to be about understanding your own potential to do violence, not some facile discussion about oppressive/not oppressive elements of things that are self-evident.

ME:

6.21.13

I think most people totally fail to grok the thing you’ve articulated here, much less articulate it this clearly and succinctly. (I may steal this at some point, ’cause I’m not good at articulating it succinctly either. :P)

For what it’s worth, I think the original Schröedinger’s Rapist article by someone with the pen name “Phaedra Starling” actually is a bit closer to the “SAFE GUY with NO POTENTIAL” for violence’s interpretation i.e. that all men are “Schroedinger’s Rapist” not because it’s unknowable whether or not any given man is a rapist until he commits rape but, rather, because it’s unknowable to any given woman whether or not a particular man is a rapist. Starling still hews to the emotionally-easier-to-deal-with idea that there are “good men” who would never rape under and circumstances and “bad men” who would happily rape with impunity if they thought they could get away with it, you just can’t tell the difference by looking at them. (And that one way to prove you’re a “good man” is not to get all het up about people not realizing you’re a “good man”.)

Whereas, I think the argument you’re making is closer to a more traditionally radical feminist position. (If we update that position to jive with contemporary gender politics instead of being stuck in the 70s — which contemporary “radical feminists” seemingly fail to have done, hence rampant transphobia in the “RadFem” community.) That argument is that any men (and, arguably, ANYBODY of any gender) always and already has the potential commit rape, possibly without even realizing it, because we’ve all been socialized in a culture that normalizes coercion and sexual violence.

(Actually, taken to its logical conclusion, I think the radical feminist argument is not only that everybody always-and-already has the *potential* to commit rape but, rather, that everybody who participates in sex within rape culture is, in some ways, perpetuating rape culture. Sometimes this gets bumperstickerized as “All Sex is Rape” although Snopes points out that nobody ever actually said that.)

Ethically and intellectually speaking, I tend to lean more towards the latter interpretation, too. But I think there’s some value in the former interpration, too, in moderation. Like, practically speaking, believing that we live in a world in which it’s impossible to be intimate without violating someone’s consent/having our consent violated — and that there’s just nothing we can do about that short of, maybe, taking the whole culture apart and starting from scratch — seems likely to cause most people to just throw up their hands and say, “Fuck it. If doing the right thing is logically impossible, I guess I’ll just be unethical then. Whatever.” Whereas a world in which there’s some formula for “how to be a good person,” even if it’s kind of a…rough approximation only…seems more likely to generate ethical behavior in practice. Maybe that doesn’t actually make any sense? I dunno.

There’s this thing that Sartre says about how, essentially, there’s no such thing as “free will” metaphysically speaking, since we live in a mechanistic universe, but we have to live as if we have free will anyway because the act of making choices is the only way to be ethical. Trying to find a balance between being honest with ourselves about the fact that we live in a mechanistic universe and yet taking the act of choicemaking seriously enough to be meaningful anyway is, like, the crux of the problem of being human. That’s probably a massive oversimplification.  That’s how I understand it anyway, filtered through [my favorite college Philosophy professor], and Cliff’s Notes, and a lot of rambling pseudointellectual conversations, beer, and the Internet. 😛

Okay, I shouldn’t do this all day. Thanks for letting me braindump at you and for writing awesome stuff that makes me think. Love.

Part 2 is here.

Cleaning out my inbox, I came across some of my earliest notes to myself when I started having the thoughts that eventually lead to You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense.

This is quick and dirty, not nearly as fleshed out as the final essay, but maybe its brevity will actually help make the ideas more accessible. This is from May 1st, 2013:

The idea that you could retroactively revoke consent terrifies ppl cuz the current debate hinges on legalistic arguments about permission, how it’s communicated and verified, and who gets to set the terms of the contract.

But consent isn’t something that can be given. It’s an experience. It’s a feeling. If you feel one thing in the moment and have a different feeling later, that’s legitimate. Don’t let anybody take your feelings away from you by claiming they weren’t documented w the proper forms.

For tops, what this means is that we don’t get to rely on bottoms giving us permission to harm them as a quick and dirty way to absolve ourselves of whatever complicated feelings we might have about doing that. Consent is not a get-out-jail-free card for interacting w humans in ways we never would w.o consent, cuz consent is legit fleeting. If what you really wanna say is ‘I’d never do this to another human w.o permission,’ that’s tantamount to taking some responsibility for that person, even if they were “consenting at the time.”

A friend of mine in highschool used to have a policy: never have sex w someone you don’t want to have a relationship w for the rest of your life. This sounds like excessive moralizing but his point was more subtle: kids. This feels apropos to me here. Don’t top someone if you don’t want to be at least partially responsible for their psychological well-being long-term.

This gets back to one of my major points which is that the BDSM scene, in order to be truly non-abusive, needs to be encouraging ppl not just to do consent stuff but also acknowledging the intensity and making mental health support available to practitioners who, perhaps, want not to come out in public and be supported in accusing a prominent community member of rape — but need a safe, supportive place to process the FEELING of having “consented” to rape w.o having to caveat, “It was rilly hot tho!” to protect egos.