Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Tulips: an interlude

Associating sexuality with flowers of various kinds seems to be an enduring cultural meme. For some elusive reason women’s sexuality especially has been represented via floral symbolism, from the chastity of the white lily to the entrancing rose and the seductive orchid. (I’ll refrain from harping on the annoying overtones of these representations and just note that the passivity implied is no better in the case of the orchid than it is with regard to the lily.)

Bybloemen, then, is also the name of a flower. Specifically, bybloemen are a variety of old English tulips that are “mauve to dark purple/black on a white base and generally appear elegant and restrained”. Whereas the color is often “broken” into feathered patterns (as in the mass market cover of Meyer’s New Moon), the base cultivar is a solid, sensuously dark and rich violet. This color, while not exclusive to the English tulips, is meaningful for me; and it is what makes dark or “black” tulips probably my favourite flower.

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I was just wondering… is it just me, or is there a rather remarkable correlation between the flamboyance of punishment and the exacting precision of discipline (as described in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish) on the one hand, and the practices of SM and D/s, respectively, on the other? So that it is not only the outward appearances that are different, but the very quality and dynamics of the power that is expressed/enacted?

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For nature has in all beasts printed a certain mark of dominion in the male
and certain subjection in the female, which they keep inviolate.

– John Chrysostom

Over the last year I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable in my kinkyness. However, there are a number of things that keep bugging me.

One of those things is the concept of female submission. Not that I have anything against submission as part of consensual power play; or any idea that submission should be in any way incompatible with feminism. The act of submission, of deliberately handing over power to a partner, is potentially a very powerful thing. I cannot see that kind of submission in anyone as weak or effeminate.

That last word, then, suggests my problems with the concept of female submission. I know there are a lot of people who like to frame dominance and submission as gendered, who get their kicks out of the dichotomy of vulnerable female beauty, subject to the male gaze, and the power and mascunility of the dominant. Unfortunately, this framing, while perfectly fine and appealing in itself, seems to come with a tendency to see the dichotomy of male dominant / female submissive as essential, natural and good.

I am sick and tired of it… though I think the framing is fine for them that likes the stuff, obviously.

I want to get rid of the view of that one framing as natural. In addition to denigrating and appropriating deliberate submissive acts by women, I think the framing of submission as essentially womanly also hurts submissive men, dominant men and women… all of us. There’s a lot of power in that framing, and I think we all should get to play with it in fun, whimsical ways if we want to, instead of being bound by obeying/rejecting it.

For myself, I think I should be able to choose whether to hand control over to my partner without getting tarred with the brush of some essentializing, gendered notion of specifically female submission. I feel ill at ease with a number of subtle assumptions that seem to come with the label of ”femsub”, and I wish I could be free of them without needing to take care how I represent myself. I’m a woman and I sometimes like to play submissively; those attributes are hardly enough to say anything meaningful about how I act or play, yet they are often taken as defining.

My problem seems to be that I’m partnered with a man, and along with the categorization of dominance/submission we get a hefty dose of heteronormativism. Sometimes it seems as if there’s only one model of dominance/submission play available to us: often, as soon as someone learns that I like to play in a submissive role and he in a dominant one, a lot of assumptions get made about what our play, interaction and relationship look like. Makes me cranky. And claustrophobic.

(By saying this, I do not wish to downplay the extent of privilege we enjoy by virtue [sic] of being young, white, more or less conventionally beautiful, outwardly heterosexual, and with appropriately pretty and conventional kinks…)

Curiously, the intersections of submission/femaleness and dominance/maleness seem to be more virulent and noxious than the social roles allowed for men and women would lead me to expect. It confuses me. Why would people, who participate in more or less radical sexual practices and communities, get attached to such strict categories of (cisgendered) female submission and male dominance? It is as if worn dreary stereotypes of culturally approved femininity / masculinity come to the fore in BDSM, and not all of it is deliberate gender play. I wonder… is it that something is needed to act as a counterweight to the sexualities that would otherwise be too bold and scary? Or are there just so many people who enjoy the oomph that deliberately (?) gendered D/s brings with it, and I’m just imagining the naturalization of that framing?

I’d have to answer that last question in the negative, I think. To me it seems that we produce the positions of dominant and submissive performatively, by repeating and reproducing them. And, like gender, they tend to get naturalized. The outward practices in which dominant and submissive are produced, also provide the tools for people to find their own identities, and the subtleness of the interaction of self and society is liable to make the process opaque.

That leads me to a lot of questions I’ll need to think about…

What are the signals and practices by which we shape female submission or female dominance or male submission or male dominance? How about genderqueer submission, or femme dominance, or however a person may identify zirself? Can I, as a cisgendered somewhat butchy mostly straight woman, produce dom or sub or switch without gendering them? Or are the positions ”necessarily” gendered? I should not think so, since if they were gendered to begin with we wouldn’t need to spend quite so much time and energy structuring them as such.

[Edited to fix typos.]

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Do you think…

… that the usages of the word ‘consent’ are gendered in various ways? Or is it just my ear that misleads me in this, not my native tongue?

It seems to me that there are definite differences in how the word ends up being used. The differences of the agency-emphasizing “zie consented to this and that” and the submissive-ish “zie gave hir consent to this and that”… and yet, the distancing “hey, it was all totally consensual!”

I can’t help but feel that they are all tied up with the ways the concept of consent itself is gendered. When you add in the surface neutrality and ‘naturality’ of the words, they take on a rather creepy cast.

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Just in the Bedroom?

Something I’ve been wondering about lately are the boundaries and differences of different BDSM relationships. A rather usual conception seems to be that there’s a definite difference between d/s or 24/7 relationships on the one hand, and ”just in the bedroom” relationships where the participants usually do their play in pre-negotiated scenes, on the other.

Let me lay out my cards right away: this differentiation makes me cranky, and, in my admittedly limited experience, it is rather artificial. While it’s probably necessary to have some terms for categories of relationships, framing these two as opposites may lead to dismissing the experiences of people in both kinds of relationships – as well as those whose preferences lie somewhere in between.

(The rest of this post consists of a rather disjointed attempt to sort out my thoughts on this supposed difference. Reader beware!)

I’ve been told that d/s or lifestyle relationships rarely if ever really carry the d/s dynamic on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, within all aspects of participants’ lives. People need to work and people need to sleep, and most people want to have some recreational pursuits, friends outside the relationship etc. My understanding is that there are people who choose to have nearly total power exchange in their relationships, but that they are in the minority.

So… Why label these relationships “24/7”?

If I’ve understood correctly the discussions I’ve followed, it is an important element of these relationships that there is always the awareness of dominance and submission. The power exchange is present in interaction in a way that would not be possible in “just in the bedroom” relationships (where the limits for such dynamics are much narrower?).

I know that for many people these elements are what BDSM is about, and that this kind of dynamic is deeply meaningful. I do not want to denigrate their experiences at all, even though I can’t grasp the meaning myself. YKINMKBYKIOK and all that. I also imagine I can viscerally touch the desire for these elements and the intensity that they bring.

But… just because those elements are so powerful, they are staples of BDSM erotica. There are nuances of fetishization there, I think: the perceived totality of the dynamic is appealing and raw and powerful even when a closer look would reveal many exceptions. The concept of total d/s dynamic lends itself very well to this kind of eroticization, and hey, I’m all for that… My only gripe is that I would like there to be room for other conceptualizations of d/s and BDSM as well. (I would also argue that linking d/s, tpe, and 24/7 in these ways may often contribute to a perception of these kinds of relationships as being something very different, more “real” than the “just in the bedroom” relationships, while obscuring their differences and the different ways people engage in them.)

What does it mean for relationship to be 24/7?

I would argue that those of us who engage in kinky activities “just in the bedroom” can also have 24/7 relationships. Sure, the d/s dynamic is only actualized part of the time – but wasn’t the point that a lot of people who consider themselves to be in a 24/7 relationship actualize it only part of the time as well?

I might be missing the point here, but I keep wondering where the crucial difference is. Is it that in lifestyle relationships the power dynamic is fundamentally more integral a part of the relationship? Or that the power that is exchanged is somehow more real?

Those kinds of explanations sound pretty dodgy to me, I’m afraid. It’s a difficult call to say what is an ”integral” part of any relationship; it may well be that the possibility of separately negotiated power exchange is one of the fundamental agreements of even an ”ordinary” BDSM couple. Real is what people make real. If it gives people more pleasure, more happiness, more self-determination and power in their relationships to label their power exchanges as ”real” — well, more power to them! It just does not make other ways of doing it any less ”real” for the others.

It’s a bit like in dancing (feel free to substitute something else if dancing doesn’t rock your boat). I dance – passionately, at times obsessively. For me, dancing is usually strictly delineated in time and space: I transition into dance class or a ball, dancing takes place there, and then I come out of there. But this does not mean dancing would be limited to that time and space! When I’m not in class or a dance, I remember what it’s like to dance, I pay attention to my body and my alignment, I hear the music in my head and get snatches of the choreography. It’s something very important to me, a way of existing in this world. Even though I only do it a few nights a week at most, it’s the way I live, a state of awareness.

Likewise, the pain and control and the energy exchanges I share with my partner do not take all that much time in a week. Sure, we usually mark the transitions in and out of scenespace deliberately, and it’s important to us to live in an egalitarian relationship in most ways. But… d/s or S&M are not something we do occasionally as a way to spice up our sex life (what a strange concept), they are an important part of this relationship insofar as they are important parts of ourselves. The things we do color and inform our out-of-scene lives. I suspect there are couples for whom this is even more true, who are further out in the borderlands between scene-based and ”24/7”.

Those borderlands and meanings can be hard to discuss. I’d like there to be words for experiences and dynamics that are not “just in the bedroom” but that do not take on the identifications of lifestyle d/s. Not because I’d oppose either of those activities, but because I’d like to believe they do not need to stand in opposition to each other.

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Well. Life’s been interesting again. In addition to the normal busi/yness of life, I’ve been reading a lot, playing too little, and participating in my second kink party ever. Our poly arrangement is going through a rocky patch, though I’m hopeful that things are getting better now.

At one point in the party I was sitting on the edge of the stage with my lover. We watched the scenes going on by the stocks nearby, and enjoyed the energy and feel of the place. So… in that mood of relaxation and awareness and arousal, what came up from our shared experience was something new to me. We were kissing and playing with sensation and light control (digging the nails in, biting, pinning the other’s wrists, gathering the other’s hair carefully into one hand to control the head… that kind of thing). At first we were tossing the lead to each other, playing with the transfers of dominance/submission. A bit later, the balance shifted to me dominating, which we’ve done rarely if ever when we play.

All of that was intense — surprisingly so, since it was so lowkey on the surface of things, and the loud music and certain restlessness of the party made contact more difficult than when playing in private. And it was lovely! The switchy play was fun and playful and fascinating, and the latter bit gave me an incredible rush of power.

(That rush was something I didn’t expect. I didn’t do anything much with it, since I was hesitant to do new kinds of play right then. I just enjoyed the feeling of getting my lover so easily and fluidly to subspace, and took care to return us back to what passes for surface. I figured there’d be time later to explore the depths more thoroughly and that I’d rather have less distractions and noise at first if I’m going to hurt someone so spaced-out.)

What I liked about both was the contact. While I like pain and bondage, the best part of all the play we’ve done is the deliberate transfer of power/control and the headspaces that it lets us reach… the sharing of that experience is intense. I’ve felt it from the submissive side of things, and I think there’s something similar in playing with sensation and pain. I think I’ll like it from the dominant side as well.

What I’m curious about is, what kinds of things can we do with that contact, that intensity?

I’ve also been thinking about dominance and submission, and how they’re constructed as opposite in most of what I read and see in BDSM. That’s a handy shorthand for naming the roles, but especially after the party I’d want to ask what comes after that.

I identify as a switch, I guess. I love submission, but the thing that makes it all work for me is the deliberate transfer of power we do, and what that means for me cannot really be summed up in the label of submissive. Or dominant, for that matter. So, I’m hesitant to adopt either identity.

Still, the identity category of switching seems problematic to me as well. It appears that  the concept of switching is most often built on an underlying polarity of desires and framed in terms of that “truth”. (The parallels with the conception of bisexuality are interesting.) A person presenting as both dominant and submissive at the same time can perhaps be labelled a confused newbie; and someone not presenting as either is probably a fetishist.

Is it disquieting not to know whether someone is a dom or a sub?

It is of course tempting to see sexual fetishes or people’s kinky selves as something deep and meaningful, something at the core of them.  (And, of course, they can be. I’m not saying anything about that.) And I realize the experience of discovering, acknowledging and integrating kinky sexuality into oneself can be deeply meaningful and liberating. But still… that does not mean that the deep or hidden self is the true self… or that someone not flagging as either a dominant or a submissive would be hiding their “true nature”.

My current thought is that dominance and submission are no more (and no less) true, deep-down or natural than any other identity category.  Instead, I’m thinking of the roles of dominance and submission as differently conceptualized selves. If what we call self is a conception of the self-aware, self-constructing psyche, then in building a dominant or submissive identity we are also shaping a self that encompasses the features that our social environment links to that identity. This is especially interesting to me when we narrow this down to non-lifestyle identities — where the self that plays, or the role that we take, is distinct from our ordinary self. And yet further: when we take different roles at different times, and conceptualize those as different (selves or) aspects of ourselves.

The question is, how much freedom do we have in shaping those selves? Do we have alternatives to the polarity of dominance/submission?

I think I need to read more theory.

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