Why being in the BDSM closest sucks. Or. Am I a crazy person?

There is a group that has started in my city called Sexual Politics Now. I love that they exist. I back the work they do and I really believe that we need to be able to talk openly about porn, to critique and discuss the impact it has on our lives.

A few weeks ago, this group showed the Australian documentary Sex and Love in an Age of Pornography, directed by Maree Crabbe and David Corlett. I went along to it, and felt myself shrinking. By the time it came to the discussion I felt intimidated and marginalised. I kept quiet, and slunk out as soon as it was over, even foregoing the free wine and snacks. I’ve tried to forget this experience, because to be honest, I have been pretty up and down over the last few months and I’m learning how to rebuild my trust in my feelings. (Although, based on the fact that I didn’t stay for snacks, this is a pretty clear indicator that I felt sad and weird.)

But, I can’t let this go! And I so wish I had the guts to send this to the film directors, or to the organisers of Sexual Politics Now. But I don’t, at the moment, so I’m doing the next best thing and posting this on my (anonymous) blog. If you read this, it would be great to know if you think I’m completely out of line, or if you agree with my point of view. I kind of need that outside perspective right now, you know?

Okay, here goes.

My ass. Cane, bruising and photo courtesy of VanErotica. Yay for submission and degradation!

My ass. Cane, bruising, rope marks and photo courtesy of VanErotica. Yay for submission and degradation!

I do agree with Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography. We need this documentary. It is important. We need to be discussing porn with teenagers and young adults, and this documentary represents a way to do that.

However. While watching it I started to feel like my sexuality was not the RIGHT sexuality. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making shit up, so I tracked down an article the directors have written about the issues the film addresses:

there has been a marked shift in pornography content towards rougher, more aggressive sex—including, for example,

  • fellatio inducing gagging
  • heterosexual anal sex
  • ejaculating on women’s faces and breasts, and
  • double penetrations in which one woman is penetrated anally and vaginally at the same time.

Significantly, porn is normalising sex acts that most women in the real world don’t enjoy, and may find degrading, painful or violating. […] We are seeing young women internalising the messages of porn (Zwartz 2007). The porn erotic is so ‘normal’ that women may not see that this construction of sexuality is about appealing to men. It is not about a woman’s own dignity, respect or multidimensional nature—not to mention her pleasure.

Okay, okay, so can we pause a second please? Sure, the activities listed in the four bullet points are pretty much at the top of my fetish list, but I accept that I may be in the minority with this, and I accept that they’ve written ‘most women’ don’t enjoy this. That ‘most’ is important. But. I feel offended that after that innocuous ‘most’, they proceed to say I’m unaware how my fetish has been constructed by porn, my turn-ons are only about appealing to men, and my sexual activity does not allow me dignity, respect or pleasure.

I call bullshit. I feel that Crabbe and Corlett have a view of what empowered sexuality looks like, and this is decidedly vanilla. I can understand if you think I’m reading too much into the documentary and the article. I have thought that too. But it was impossible for me to ignore vanilla-biased discussion afterwards. There were about 50 people in the lecture theatre, including Crabbe and Corlett. Two thirds of the audience were women, and the majority in their twenties and thirties. At one point, someone in the audience said, “No woman likes having cum on their face!” There were murmurs and laughter in agreement, the directors up the front nodded sagely, and I shrank. I so badly wanted to stick my hand up and say, “Yes! I’m a woman and I think having cum on my face is the best thing ever! I would happily start every day with a rough blow job and a face full of cum!”

I didn’t, though. I’ve had one negative experience with a feminist group in June 2012, and since then I’ve been wary of being told my experience isn’t valid, that I’ve been “brainwashed by the patriarchy” (yes, that’s a direct quote). I’m afraid of being accused of sidelining the real argument, of distracting or being irrelevant. And, I knew my opinion would be unpopular.

At the end of the article, Crabbe and Corlett write:

While the porn erotic is normalised, it is possible to imagine an alternative vision. As porn demonstrates, it is possible to eroticise inequality, mere physicality, and even degradation and violence. But it is also possible for the erotic cultural sensibility to allow diversity and individual taste, and at the same time to promote equality, tenderness, communication, consent and mutuality.

The last sentence: Yes, oh my god, yes. I am so on board with this. I am so passionate about this! I want to become a sex educator to promote exactly this! But, are Crabbe and Corlett able to promote it in a way that actually IS about diversity? I feel they’ve completely ignored kinksters who are living proof of diversity and individual taste, who are highly skilled at respectfully communicating and negotiating consent, but do it in a way that EXPLORES inequality, physicality, degradation and violence.

Here is my ‘alternative’ alternative vision to the “porn erotic”. My vision would include: ‘your kink is not my kink and that’s okay’. My vision would replace the word ‘tenderness’ with respect. (Tender just alludes too much to a particular type of sex, which again, might be your kink but it’s not mine). My vision would not privilege one type of sexuality over the other.

At this point in writing, I pause and ask myself: “okay, it’s one thing having this alternative alternative vision, but how would I communicate this to young people?” Because I really do agree with the emphasis Crabbe and Corlett have placed on teenagers’ (particularly young womens’) sexual empowerment. So, since the only experience I can really speak of with any authority is my own, I think back to being a teenager.

I started watching violent porn when I was in my early teens, I actually would search for it, and feel very turned on, and then very guilty. I told myself I was a sick and bad for getting off on this sort of stuff, and I hated myself for it. In my alternative vision, I would have a sex talk with my teenage self. (And actually, it wouldn’t just be ‘a talk’. It would be an ongoing discussion throughout her teens and early twenties). I would tell her that what turns her on is what turns her on. I’d ask her WHY did this particular porn, erotic fiction, cartoon turn her on? How did she feel about this? What did she find appealing about the misogyny and unequal power relationship? What did she find problematic, what was it exactly that made her feel sick and bad?

We’d discuss whether porn actors can give enthusiastic, informed consent when faced with outside pressures (agents, fans, money), and can we ever really be sure whether porn is entirely consensual? I’d ask her how she felt about that. We’d explore how she could find a medium ground, recognising that she still wanted to watch porn, but discussing ethical alternatives (like feminist porn, porn with before and after interviews, erotic fiction for example).

I’d invite her to discuss her sexual desire, her inner erotic life, her fantasies. We’d talk about ways for her to explore her desire in a way that was safe, sane and consensual.

I would not try to ‘fix’ her. I would not tell her that her preferences were a phase. I would not tell her that she only thought she enjoyed these things because the porn she was viewing had manipulated her, or because she was a product of a patriarchal society.

Because actually, if our goal is support young women and men to a fulfilling, nurturing and empowered sexual identity, whether these things are true or not is irrelevant. I am far more interested in seeing young people as whole and highly functioning. What can we do to support them (and ourselves) to explore and make conscious choices about all the wonderful, complicated and contradictory sexual desires they may have?

Thank you to Maree Crabbe and David Corlett for making this documentary and to Sexual Politics Now for showing it and encouraging discussion. The very fact that I’ve spent hours writing this is testament to how thought-provoking this stuff is! Let’s continue this discussion, but please, let’s do it in a way that embraces all the beautiful complexity of personal sexual identity.

Can I let myself be a kinky, spiritual feminist?!

Me at the top of Tajumulco, a volcano in Guatemala

At the top of Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Central America. Guatemala, November 2012

Sometimes, I feel I am one giant contradiction.  Once again I’m pondering two core themes:

1) Can I be feminist and submissive?

2) Can I be masochistic, yet strive towards the practice of non-violence?

Oh tricky, tricky BDSM.

1) I know, intellectually, that I can. One of my favourite bloggers regularly teases this out:

Clarisse Thorn: I felt like: Goddamnit, I will show you that I can be an independent and rational woman who values voting and abortion rights and equal opportunity and consent — and be into S&M at the same damn time.

I’ve contributed to Fetlife discussions on this very topic, I can talk about this confidently with friends and partners, littering the conversation with words like empowerment, sex-positivity, choice and personal freedom. But. Honestly, I find the two things so hard to reconcile WITHIN myself. At the stage where I am at in my life right now, I feel proud and happy in my activism: working as a national union organiser, facilitating a network for LGBT* and questioning youth, part of a woman’s action group, and passionate about enthusiastic consent and sex-positive education. I love doing all these things, and when I’m in the thick of it, my future plans are full of leadership positions, brave travel and volunteer work, groundbreaking research, creative facilitation and radical activism. And this ‘future me’ is always transient, solo, strong and selfless.

When I picture this, I occasionally feel a “what about a partner and kids?” pang. But my pride in being so fiercely, successfully solo and totally bad-ass always trumps this.

And then. And then, as happened recently, someone comes into my life and forces me to address something else that I truly do crave, but hate (and I really mean that…hate) admitting to myself. I want to be anchored. I want to stop having to be brave and solo. I want to stop making all these huge decisions for myself and my life. I want to stop being so damn responsible and ambitious…it’s exhausting. I want to be taken care of. I want to submit to someone, and know that they will always have the final say. I want to be an ‘our’, rather than a ‘me’. I want to have someone else make the plan, tell me what to do, take charge. I want to be someone’s girlfriend, partner. I want to be a mum, and concern myself with my bubble and not gang rapes in India or shockingly low female literacy in Guatemala. I want to curl up to someone’s chest and know that they’ve got me, and I can relax. I want to be someone’s submissive, I want to be owned, I want to let myself feel pleasure in serving.

Ugh, it’s hard not to delete the above paragraph because I feel so…ashamed…at the woman it portrays. But I’m anonymous so far on this blog, and that offers an element of protection.

I … am nowhere near having the answers to this question. Of course I can write and talk about how I can be both, how a woman can be a strong in her submission, how I can easily find a partnership that will honour my submission and independence in equal parts, how I can wear a collar at home and hold a leadership position at work bla bla bla.

But, what it really comes down to, is will I let myself be both? Can I find a space in my life where I can be the ass-kicking feminist and the doting submissive? Do I need to look for a way to reconcile the two, or can I let them sit alongside each other, harmonious in spite of their contradiction?

2) I spent 2 months last year at a yoga and meditation retreat in Mexico. This immediately sounds wanky, I know, but it wasn’t. It was simple and cheap, filled with young travellers and teachers, full of love and energy and community. I blossomed there, and found much needed clarity and strength. I’ve been physically practising yoga (Iyengar and Hatha) for 8 years, but the two months I spent in Mexico illuminated my practice: I needed yoga to expand my consciousness, realise inner calm, meditate on the essence of who I am. Physical yoga was merely a crutch to higher things.

I was introduced to the yamas and niyamas, ethical guidelines by which to live a life of fulfillment while benefitting others. The yama that I resonated with the most was ahimsa, the practice of non-violence. After I left the retreat I took a tapas, which is like a spiritual vow, to fully apply myself to practising ahimsa for one month. In this month I was to end each day asking myself if I had caused harm in thought, word or deed to anyone, and if I had, extending warm and unselfish love to them. This was a beautiful time, it was challenging initially, but by the end of it I was shining.

However, I discovered in reflection that I hadn’t fully been practising ahimsa. Because, a core part of ahimsa is not thinking, saying or doing harmful things to yourself. And in that month I had a new partner, and we negotiated for him to hurt me- physically, emotionally, degrade me, verbally abuse me- again and again and again. And I endlessly fantasized about how he could satisfy my masochism, and all the different sorts of pain I could subject myself to.

So, my sexuality is in direct conflict with ahimsa.

Crap.

I can intellectualize this too. If I felt so happy practicing ahimsa in my own way for one month, what does it matter that I also engaged in deliciously nasty BDSM? But I feel uneasy, I feel that perhaps I’m only half-heartedly practising ahimsa. I feel guilty, and keep BDSM hidden from the yoga community I am part of.

Because, they just don’t fit. They are one big, fat contradiction.

This has been a pretty tough blog post to write, my brain is mushy, this doesn’t have the simple eloquence I would like. But I think it’s because this topic doesn’t lend itself to simple eloquence. BDSM contradictions are mushy and jumbled and tough.