Friday, April 20, 2012

The scene is not safe.

[Trigger warning for rape and BDSM abuse.]

I went to a sex party not long ago.  I talked to a bunch of the members and organizers of the group, and heard all around that they really value consent and they're super aware of feminist issues and the danger of abuse in sex-positive spaces.  I had a pretty good time, met a lot of people, hooked up with a dude, fit a humorous number of naked people people in a bathtub at the same time.

Days later I found out, almost incidentally, that one of the guys at the party had been ostracized from another scene for "some problems."  Some problems with boundaries.  I was a little ticked that no one had identified this guy to me.

Later still, I found out that the guy had raped a woman.

Oh, but, like, she only said he raped her and no one was there to see it and it was really confusing and stuff and anyway what do you want us to do, like, treat the guy like a leper?  He got kicked out of one scene already and that was like a couple years ago and we're trying to help him change and now he's okay as long as someone keeps an eye on him at parties.

Originally I had written a rant here.  I'm angry about this, is the short version.  I'm quite angry.  I'm angry because this isn't the first time I've been around a known abuser and nobody told me; I'm angry because I've been abused under the aegis of BDSM; I'm angry because so damn many of my friends have been abused in the scene; and I'm angry because if I used the guy's name in that story above, I'd be kicked out of the scene.

If you want the long version, Yes Means Yes spells it out here, in a post I think everyone in the BDSM/swinger/sex-positive communities should be reading.
The first step is admitting we have a problem.  And we do have a problem.  I’ll skip to the end: there’s no shortage of stories that start “I was abused” and end “when I tried to say something the community closed ranks around the abuser and I was frozen out.”  It’s happened to friends of mine.  It’s happened in communities where people insist that the community isn’t like that.  And almost always, you have to actually know the participants to know what happened because nobody talks about it.  It’s all secret, there’s no sunlight and no transparency.  You, you out there on the internet, can search blogs until you’re blue in the face for a record of some of these stories, or some indication that you shouldn’t play with some of these people, and you’ll never find it.  Even when “everybody knows,” the “everybody” is very narrow.
And much more.  Go read it.

In the meantime, I like the BDSM scene.  I like the sex-positive scene.  I love that spaces exist where I can be myself and spend time with people like me.  I don't want to leave.  I especially don't want to leave and let the abusers have it.

I also don't know how to fix it. I find the efforts to do so alternately inspiring and utterly frustrating.  I understand the problems that "expose and expel anyone with any accusation against them" would create and yet I hate the default solution of "therefore, keep all abuse secret and consequence-free."  And I also understand that anything framed in terms of accusations is only cleanup after abuse has already happened--a real "fix" would cut down how much it happens in the first place.

I have a few small suggestions that don't require involvement in the question of accusations*:

1. Let new people know the scene is dangerous.  Newcomers shouldn't be hearing "BDSM is all about consent."  Newcomers should be hearing "BDSM should be all about consent, but there are a few people here who won't respect that, and we don't know who they are."  We shouldn't be teaching new people to relax and take it all in stride; we should be teaching them to be wary as hell.  I'd rather feel like I'm scaring people off than feel like I'm luring them in.

2. But don't assume all newcomers are only potential victims; newbie education should also include teaching people how not to become perpetrators.  (I'm going to hopefully write my own thoughts on this soon.)  For three reasons:
a) It may, in fact, prevent some of them from becoming abusers.
b) Seeing things from the other side may make them better at recognizing abuse.
c) It takes away the "I didn't know that was a problem" excuse in a hurry.

3. Make audience-visible consent a part of BDSM classes and demonstrations.  I've seen this done right a few times and wrong a lot more.  Right is when the presenter negotiates with their demo-partner right there in public, or makes it explicit to the audience that they've negotiated privately.  Wrong is when the presenter just jumps right into throwing rope (or whatnot) on their demo-partner, and as far as the audience can perceive, the "consent" is that the demo-partner doesn't safeword or run away.  Wronger than wrong, and not at all rare: the presenter gets "playful" with their demo-partners (or audience members!) in ways that clearly weren't pre-negotiated even in secret.

Taking thirty seconds to make it clear that you always ask, you don't skip it because "it's just a demo" any more than you skip it because "I know they'll like it," would make a big difference in BDSM education.

4. Most parties have special rules that you have to talk to the host about before doing fireplay and bloodplay--the host will direct you to a location where you won't set the house on fire or ruin the carpet, or simply say "no, we don't have facilities for that, this is a no-fireplay party."  We need to have these same rules about resistance and "consensual nonconsent" scenes.  If you're going to do something that looks just the same as abuse, you should be required to run it by the host first.

That way, if a host sees something that looks just the same as abuse, even if they're afraid/unable to shut it down with a "hey, is that consensual?", they have an excuse to shut it down with "hey, you didn't get clearance to do that!"

5. Get survivors to real resources.  I don't think we should be creating internal, informal resources in our community for this.  The "we'll handle everything internally and informally" mindset is how we got in this mess in the first place.  What I do think we should be doing, however, is making a concentrated effort to connect abuse survivors with resources like the following:
The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center
The Network/La Red (GLBTQ- and kink-friendly organization against partner abuse)
The National Leather Association Domestic Violence Project
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
 The National Sexual Assault Online Hotline

And, frankly (although I know damn well the barriers there can be):
The Fucking Police

When people report abuse, we should be referring them to outside, professionally run organizations with trained specialists who can help them through the painfully complex process of decision-making and escape and recovery.  We should not be encouraging them to keep it in the community.  We see everywhere from churches to colleges to the military what happens when abuse survivors are told "we'll handle that internally," and it's always crap.  Let's handle this shit externally for once.

The first step is to admit we have a problem.  So in a way I'm glad to see my community doing that.  Even though it's upsetting and causes a lot of strife in the short term, I'm really happy to see all these conversations about the dark side of the BDSM community coming out in the open.  I just hope we can go from conversations to actual change.

*I really fucking hate saying "accusations," by the way, when I think it's "reports," and I fucking hate acting like it's a big tough question.  As far as I'm concerned I know the vast majority of these accusations are true and that not inviting someone to sex parties is such a mild goddamn punishment we should just fucking do it when we know damn well someone is a fucking rapist.  But I'm never going to sell that opinion to the community.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What am I?

I've gotten a whole bunch of emails lately that read like the following (with various combinations of gender/orientation/activity):
"Hi Holly, 
I'm a man who considers himself straight, but sometimes I imagine being tied up and sucking other men's dicks.  I don't want to date them or have sex with them; I just want to get tied up and suck dick and that's all.  Does this make me gay? Does it make me bi?  Does it make me kinky? Does it make me submissive?
Help me, Holly: what am I?"
So I'm going to answer these questions in one fell swoop here:
You are what you are.

You're a straight man who fantasizes about being tied up and sucking men's dicks.  What else is there to say?  What would a label add, what would it clarify?  Whether you'd like this in reality or leave it in the realm of fantasy, or whether you'd like to do other things with men or with BDSM, can't be answered with a label.

I'm not just telling you that I can't extrapolate from a letter.  (Although, seriously, I can't.)  I'm telling you that most likely you can't extrapolate.  Sexuality isn't symptoms that give you clues to your syndrome; sexuality is the symptoms.

I don't think words like "straight" and "gay" and such are completely useless.  But they're only descriptions.  If you're a man and everyone you've felt attracted to has been female, eh, you might as well call yourself "straight"?  But that doesn't "make" you straight.  It doesn't tell you anything about which women you'll be attracted to, or give you a guarantee you'll never be attracted to any men, and it sure as hell doesn't mean that you "should" be attracted to women.

The people who write me these letters seem very aware of what their fantasies, desires, and actions actually are--much more acutely aware, it seems, than most people who simply have a label.  Frankly, I'd hate to see them trade in this awareness for "I'm a kinky bi man."


I don't mean to just give this as advice from on high; it's something I'm wrestling with myself right now.  I've been trying very hard lately to hold the lines of:

-I play because I want to, and this makes me kinky; I don't make myself play because "I'm supposed to be kinky, better live up to it."

-I play with people besides Rowdy sometimes, and this makes me non-monogamous; I don't make myself play with other people because "what kind of crappy non-monogamist am I if I don't fuck this dude?"

Both of these have been struggles. Once you establish the persona as this kinky poly super sexy sex person, it's hard as hell to violate that and say "you know what, I'm just not feelin' it."  The pressure to live up to your labels is both internal and external.  There are times when I really want to relabel myself "kinkyfluid" and "polyfluid" or something, just to emphasize that these are things I do sometimes in some ways; they're not things I've made some sort of commitment to doing.

Fixing the label isn't the real solution, though.  The real solution is to fix the expectation that the label can ever speak for me.

I'm a person who sometimes likes some kinds of kinky play (list available on request) and sometimes likes to play with certain people who aren't my boyfriend (now accepting applications).  That's what I am, and trying to figure out what that "makes me" isn't a recipe for happiness; it's a tragic oversimplification.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Boiling Frogs and Family.

flickr user DonkeyHotey
I spent the weekend with my family.  It was not a pleasant experience.  It was an experience that made me wonder: "How did I ever live with these people for twenty years?"

Because I thought it was normal, of course.

The "boiling frog" experiment goes like this: throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, and of course it'll panic and immediately jump out.  Put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly raise the temperature, and the frog will boil to death while never noticing anything's wrong.  (This isn't actually true, by the way.  Frogs in real life will jump out when the water gets hot, no matter how slow you go, because frogs are sensible like that.  But it makes a great metaphor.)

And the "boiling family" experiment goes like this: visit a family where every mundane conversation is an emotionally charged battle of wills and passive-aggressive posturing is the only way to express emotions, and you'll think "these people are fucked up!"  Grow up in a family like that, and you'll think "I'm fucked up!"

For a long time, I thought I would never have any social skills.  I just wasn't good at people.  Couldn't make friends, couldn't figure out when or how to talk, kept creeping out or annoying people without understanding why.  Then this weekend I had a little mini-revelation: I was bad at social skills because I never learned any at home.  (I am naturally awkward, but nowhere near as much as I thought I was.)  I had to learn things like "how to make small talk that isn't grossly inappropriate references to suicide" and "how to say what you want instead of giving bizarre hints and then screaming when people don't read your mind" starting at about age eighteen.  No wonder I was in my twenties before I could have such a thing as a casual conversation.

When you're immersed in an environment, especially when you're immersed in it from childhood, it takes a lot of time and distance to realize it was an environment, and not "just life."

It sounds like a sad or angry discovery, but it's kind of a wonderful one, because when you're in the frog-boiler you honestly believe that you're never going to be any happier.  That every relationship you'll have as an adult will be like the ones you grew up with.  That every time, in your entire life, that you knock over a glass of water, you will be screamed at and sometimes slapped for it, and this is right and normal and the only way to avoid it is to never be clumsy ever.

Finding out that this isn't so, that in the real world most people just go "oh darn, I'll get a towel," is one of the giant ongoing joys in my life.  And reorienting myself so that I expect people to go "oh darn, I'll get a towel" is one of the giant challenges in my life.

It's work, and work I definitely have not finished, to shake the habits and ways of coping I learned growing up.  (I still have way too much of the "conflict means violence so hide or cower at the first hint of conflict" stuck in my head, and a little bit of "people only tell you what they want via secret signals so constantly evaluate everything as a signal.")  It's also a tremendous source of power and confidence when I get it right.

...Yeah, I can't really connect this post to sex.  I mean, it's got lots to do with sex, considering how much the shift from "people communicate by incomprehensible hints followed by hissyfits" to "people communicate with goddamn words" has improved my sex life.  But I don't think I can work "vagina" into this one.

My next post will be all about vagina.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Orientation speech.

[Oh God it's been too long since I last posted.  I meant to!  But then I moved into a new house!  It's not far from the old one but it's much nicer and it's also a kink-friendly space.

Which is something I didn't want to be important to me--hey, I'm not "a kinkster," I'm just a person who is kinky!--but it turns out to be huge.  The feeling of having nothing to hide, of being able to tell my roommate honestly about my weekend, of not needing to censor the contents of my room before opening the door, of not needing to constrain the way I interact with my boyfriend in the house... turns out that's not a silly whim.  It's something that takes a gigantic weight off my shoulders.  I feel safe in my home, and I'm just now realizing I didn't before.

...I also didn't feel safe in the old home because apparently my roommate was letting random people shoot up in the house.  I found that out as I was leaving.  Lovely. But not my problem anymore.

Anyway. I only just now got Internet in the new house.  So I've got some posting to do this week!]

This started as a joke.

"Welcome to Holly's vagina!  Please stay seated for this important briefing.
"Very little foreplay is required, but in the event that insufficient moisture is available, artificial lubrication is available in your seat pocket or beneath the seat ahead of you. Make ample use of this lubrication, as it greatly enhances the experience and reflects in no way on your performance or her enthusiasm, and can be used as a floatation device. 
"Roughly one inch above your seat you'll note the clitoris, illuminated with red and white indicator lights.  Tampering with the clitoris is a federal offense and may result in a fine or jail time.  Unauthorized clitoral stimulation will result in delay of our trip, and continuing to manhandle the clitoris and claiming 'but girls like this' may result in cancellation of your ticket. 
"Directly inside the vagina, on the front side, you will find our exclusive The Happy Place™ facility.  Feel free to enjoy The Happy Place™ throughout your trip, but please bear in mind that this facility is designated primarily for rubbing and massaging, and extensive or forceful thrusting in this area may not produce the desired effect.  If at any time during your trip you wish to thrust forcefully, please activate your call light for assistance and we will direct you to the most comfortable positions to do so. 
"In the event of an emergency orgasm, please assist those around you with their orgasms before securing your own, bearing in mind that the plastic bag may not inflate. 
"Enjoy your trip!  You may use approved electronic devices at this time."

Truth is, though, having an orientation spiel for my vagina is damn useful.  Simply sitting down and writing that, airplane jokes and all, clarified things.  To have good sex, it helps to know what you like--and to know what you like, it helps a whole lot to actually put it down in words.

Giving a little speech on The Care And Feeding Of My Vagina is one of those things that seems awkward, until you realize how awkward the alternative is.  Getting someone up to speed on my physical quirks makes the difference between constantly interrupting sex with "whoa no not that" (or worse, politely enduring "whoa no not that" things) and having things just flow.  It's not just about catering to my own needs, either; letting my partner know what's up with my body gives them an idea of where to start and relieves some of their performance anxiety, and it gives them an opening to tell me what's up with their body.

Obviously I wouldn't really do it flight-attendant style?  (Or I might.  Mixing "sexy" and "hilarious" is underrated.  This weekend I watched a couple have a pillowfight while having sex.  It was adorabawesomesexy.)  But I really would make a little speech out of it.  A breathy speech right in my partner's ear, given between deep kisses, with my hand running through their hair, maybe.  Or a cheery, matter-of-fact one over dinner.

...Or one posted on my blog, under the clever guise of talking about how to clarify sexual needs.

Sex for me is a three-step process.
1. Find out what you want.
2. Make sure your partner knows what you want, and you know what they want.
3. Dirty sweaty monkey love.

Step 3 gets all the glamor.  But it's rare chemistry indeed that makes Step 3 just work out without any planning.  The awkward, talky, using-the-word-clitoris-without-giggling process of the first two steps is where the real magic happens.