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Review: d.vice advice

d.vice advice

Ema Lyon & Wendy Lee

Penguin Books

Disclaimer: My copy of d.vice advice was given to me by Ema Lyon when we appeared together on the Lust panel at LATE at the Museum.

The subtitle of this book is “real questions and answers about sex, for adventurous everyday people”. And that’s who this book is for: people who, as Girl on the Net said about 50 Shades of Grey, say ‘maybe’ to anal sex. Not those who shudder at the suggestion, or those who are already practised hands. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. (Note: there is no way to say “there’s nothing wrong with that” without making it sound as though there’s something wrong with that. Neither my intention nor my fault.)

I did learn something from reading this book, though, and there’s so much breadth in it that I think most people would. Subjects like anal sex, g-spot stimulation and pregnancy sex are discussed without coyness or shame. There’s a lot of Science, which is presented without being condescending or (gods forbid) too dry. So it’s not just what to do, and what happens, but why it happens too, which is the kind of thing that makes me happy.

Most of each chapter is in the form of answers to questions the authors have genuinely been asked. Because of this, there’s some repetition of information, and perhaps it’s a better book to skim or dip and out of than go through end to end. Like d.vice’s shops, there’s an air of being couples-oriented, without being erasive of less-conventional sexual encounters.

The whole book is written with a breezy air of sex-positivity. There’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of communication. Most people, I think, would feel better and more comfortable about sex after reading it, and I can’t imagine anyone feeling worse. Unless, perhaps, they’re that woman with the cherry. She might be mortified. It gives a good idea of the range of “normal” for things like physical size, physical response, time taken to orgasm, etc, and in only one case did this make me go, “What, really? Shit…”

I will comment on the final chapter, on BDSM. Like other practices detailed in the book, BDSM is made to seem like a bit of unthreatening, fun experimentation. There’s some good advice on things to try just starting out. There’s no mention, however, of the profound emotional reactions – positive or negative – that BDSM can produce. While I wouldn’t want to put anyone off, I think it is advisable to warn people that this might take them apart, and I always do.

This is a great book for couples looking to add variety to their sex lives. It’d also be good, I think, for, say, your kid heading off to varsity. Okay, maybe someone else’s kid. I’ve given it to my (male) partner now, and when he’s done, I’ll add any comments he has.

Quickie: The NZ Herald hates sex education

Teenagers are being let down by sex education that doesn’t tell them it’s best to wait until you’re an adult and have one sexual partner for life, a visiting physician says.

No, our education doesn’t teach that, nor bloody well should it. Jesus.

In other news, anyone want to make a guess at which conservative, “values” organisation is having its conference? And is utilising what appears to be its free quota of advertising in the New Zealand Herald?

[Update: Previous writings on the Herald trying to whip up moral panic over sex education can be found from here. I’d seek out all the articles, but I need a drink now. Feel free to add what you think sex education should teach into the comments.)

[Update #2: The delightful Dr will be on CloseUp tonight. Watch!]

[update #3: our Coley has decided that Dr Grossman is her new best friend, and has found some of her columns. This one is a particular doozy. What girls want is an obsessive, controlling, creepy vampire to love them. Not careers or adequate healthcare or basic respect, but to avoid sexual behavior until a dude who will “protect” them comes along.

Guest Post: Your sexism was my Saturday Night

A guest post from the brilliant Constance. (Link NSFW)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but have kept putting off because I haven’t been sure exactly what I want to say (or how to say it). I’m still not sure, but I’m realising that this might be one of those topics I will never be sure about, and my feelings and thoughts will always be a fluid jumble, absorbing and evolving the more I learn and talk about it.

I am a feminist who is committed to sex positivity. I am constantly thinking about, analysing and ultimately hoping to help dismantle the saturation of misogyny that hurts women, men and folk who don’t identify with either of those genders. I think the media is a huge perpetrator of misogyny by (both overtly and subtly) reinforcing gender norms, gender roles, aesthetic desirability etc. I am also really interested in sex (academically and, uh, in practice) to the point that I like to try my hand at things people may consider left of centre. Namely BDSM.

Every now and again the media churns out something so overtly sexist that people are forced to (briefly, for most) acknowledge that we haven’t really come as far as we think we have in terms of “women’s liberation”. Today the White Ribbon Campaign’s Facebook page showcased some shockers from the past and present. Like this one.

Obviously talking about oppressive images of women is central and relevant to a campaign which works to stop violence against women across the world. However, a few of the pictures that they showcased have multiple layers, especially for those aware of, or engaging in, BDSM.

Now, this is possibly going to get me in big trouble, but I can’t say I’m offended by these photos. I can even see how people would find them sexy. I’m obviously conscious that people who have no idea about BDSM (and the heavy emphasis the community places on consent and negotiation) will see these photos as oppressive and violent, and not as a portrayal of alternative sexual preferences. But the thing is – how do we know that they aren’t?

There’s no context around either of these images to suggest that this isn’t a portrayal of consensual sexual play. There’s also no context to suggest that it’s not problematic sexual violence either. But when we default to yelling “sexism!” at images of women in submissive sexual positions, I would argue that we are actually being oppressive ourselves.

I’m not saying that we should assume all images of sexual male dominance are harmless. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t be discussing what exposure to these images without any dialogue about consent may mean. What I am saying is that we need to have that discussion, and we need to drop our assumptions.

At times (and depending on your internal head noise) it can be pretty shitty to be a female feminist who’s also a submissive to male dominant/s. I know dozens of women who are committed to ending violence against women and subverting oppressive gender roles, but who enjoy being a submissive, begging plaything to their male partners in the bedroom. And although all of these women are conscious that the second consent is negotiated these acts are not in any way violent, it can still be really confusing to want to dismantle the power men have over women everywhere…except the bedroom.

When our discourse around the portrayal of potentially consensual kink screams “oppression!”, it furthers the messages that female submissives get constantly. These messages range from “woah that’s a bit twisted” to “your sexual preferences are contributing to the rapes of millions of women and children across the world” (an actual sentence I’ve had thrown at me).

I am conscious that queer submissives are not in any way immune to sex shaming and internal conflict, but given that queer dominant/submissive relationships would be seen by many as subverting traditional gender roles and norms, and images of queer sexualities are sadly omitted from mainstream advertising, I am going to talk solely about women engaging in dominance and submission with men. I am deliberately not specifying cis women, as trans women are women and are not immune to feeling conflicted about acting out the very things they may be working to end in other spheres of their lives.

I would also like to state that by lamenting an issue some women have, I am not implying in any way that we don’t have privilege in many other interlinked and pervasive ways.

Sex positive feminists are of course aware that any sex involving consenting, informed and considerate parties is fine. And if the goal is to dismantle oppression and gender norms then these acts of submission to men are ultimately not reinforcing anything problematic because they are not manifestations of some deeper desire for the patriarchy to rule us all. The fantasies exist as play. And a lot of other BDSM is super subversive of gender roles.

But the thing is, when your kind of BDSM is actually a play on things that you see as problematic in other contexts, the sex positive mantra is not super effective or reassuring at times. Even if you know it’s right. And people taking images of things some people enjoy and labeling them as “sexist” is going to elicit a very exhausted sigh from pretty much every sex positive feminist sub everywhere.

I am not in any way arguing that images of male dominance should have a blanket classification as “fine” because they might be part of someone’s sexual preference. What I am arguing is that we can’t just assume that they’re not. Perhaps in a perfect world there would be a disclaimer in the fine print of the ad that says ‘this image is meant to represent consensual adult fantasy’. I think that would be great.

If advertising is adhering to normal censorship and age-appropriate regulations then why can’t alternative sexual preferences be portrayed? The only arguments against using kink in the same way we use vanilla sex to sell stuff are incredibly sex negative ones: “because it’s violent” (not if you establish consent either in the image or with a disclaimer as mentioned above. And while we’re fucking at it, why don’t we establish consent in vanilla images?), “because it’s vulgar” (define vulgar, and don’t tell me non kinky sex in advertisements doesn’t fit that bill at least half the time), “because it’s not everyone’s taste” (yeah well bikini clad ‘scientists’ selling me Tui beer isn’t my taste but I’m saturated with it), “because people might think that sort of stuff is okay to do without asking” (if you follow that line, then no sex should ever be portrayed anywhere in case someone tries it without asking).

Many things that fit on the BDSM continuum are fairly common. I was going to say “nowadays” but actually, none of it is new or more prevalent than it was 2000 years ago. And I bet you that even then, women who wanted their male partners to have power over them in the bedroom but not in any other way were just as fraught about it then as they are now.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that we get it. Any issue you have with female sexual submission to men has been thought about over and over by the submissive themselves. Why do I want this? What if there’s something wrong with me? Why does he want that? Does he respect me? What if this goes too far?

Chances are, if you’re into this sort of stuff and even vaguely aware of feminism, it’s been thought to death. And hopefully, fears and anxieties have been quashed by the knowledge that we can’t always explain why people are into things, and ultimately we wouldn’t be into them if it didn’t make them feel fucking amazing and strong and sexy and liberated. And that, as both sex positive feminists and members of the BDSM community, we think about consent and negotiation probably about a zillion more times a day than you do.

But no matter how staunch people are in owning and advocating their preferences, having messages that tell you something you may very well have done the other night is misogynistic, sexist and oppressive, just kind of makes people feel like shit. And really, people who are into BDSM get enough of that.

If a sexual image of two or more adults is ambiguous in its message and makes you feel uncomfortable, remember that anything conveying sexuality is going to have a multitude of layers.

Don’t assume that there’s no consent. Don’t assume that there’s not a bunch of people who do that for fun in your life that you may never ever know about. Don’t decide that you’re an expert on whether someone’s fantasy is harmful or not – they can decide for themselves.

Instead, have a discussion about it. I even have a mind blowing suggestion for you – you could do some research about something that you’re not personally into. That way, you can extricate yourself from the masses of uneducated sex-shaming voices that can get the fuck out of my bedroom.

—-

Here, I’ve even got some further reading suggestions:

Towards a Sex-Positive Utopia

Cross-posted from Public Address.

Back when I first started reading feminist bloggage, there was a question I used to see pretty often: the Feminist Utopia Question. Would there be pornography in your feminist utopia? Prostitution?

As a dirty filthy incrementalist, it always kind of annoyed me. What use was it, without considering the steps along the way? Didn’t the very question prioritise ideology over the effects on real people? Wasn’t it just, basically, a big pile of intellectual wank?

Now, though, having been in the game for a while, I’m tempted to give intellectual wankery a try. What would an ideal sex-positive society look like? What would be different, that perhaps is not so obvious? What would have changed along the way?

Before we begin, a word about what sex positivity is, and ridiculously more to the point, what it isn’t. This is my personal interpretation: everyone’s will be slightly different. See herehere, and of course the Chocolate Manifesto.

Sex positivity is not the belief that all people everywhere should have as much dirty dirty sex as possible. The essence of sex positivity is embracing the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity. It’s about actively seeking to remove both shame and privilege from particular kinds of sexual activity – or a lack of sexual activity. It’s about everyone being able to make the sexual choices that are right for them, free of stigma: having the knowledge and the social freedom to do so. It’s about being positive about all sexual choices and the biological bases we make those choices from. And, of course, celebrating the joy of dirty dirty sex.

For a start, in a Sex-Positive Utopia, the Period Planner app on my phone wouldn’t say “love connection”. It would say “sex”. With no stigma around sex, there’d be no need for euphemism. We wouldn’t have to pretend sex was love, or sleep. That wouldn’t mean the loss of magnificent figurative language around sex: rather the opposite. We’d have so many more sexual ideas to explore and discuss.

With the loss of its taboo, sex would actually become less important on a social level. You’d no more use sex to sell a car than you would golf. There’d be no point in policing people’s clothing choices, because no-one would care if you were trying to get laid or not. Worried about losing the specialness? Individuals would still be able to create circumstances that made their sexual experiences sacred, or sordid.

We’d talk openly about sex a lot more, but with less significance. Sexual mores in other times and places would be a simple, matter-of-fact part of History and Social Studies, just like customs of dress and diet. If you were studying Roman History, you’d actually know about this. (Link mildly NSFW – an acronym I wouldn’t need in this future.) Sex education would be about sex, not puberty, and focus on the reason most people have most of their sex: pleasure.

Speaking of school, you know what you wouldn’t find there? Gender-based toilets. Having done away with the assumption that absolutely everyone is either male or female and everyone is straight, there is no fucking point in having Girls’ Toilets and Boys’ Toilets. Ditto changing rooms. And good riddance too, to our earliest introduction to the idea that males and females are mutually-incomprehensible aliens.

Depending on the survey, somewhere between 5 and 15% of people report having experienced same-sex attraction now. Removing the stigma from non-heterosexual sex is hardly going to push that number down. Segregation by gender simply makes no sense at all.

We are never going to stop passing judgement on each other’s relationships. But after the Sexy Revolution, the gender and number of participants and the nature of their sexual practices will be irrelevant. We’ll have to stick to judging relationships by the content of their members’ character.

And yes, there would still be prostitution. Good sex is awesome, and not everyone can get as much as they would like, for many reasons. Some people are good at sex and want to make a living from it. In Sex-Pos Wonderland, we could treat those people with the respect they deserve.

There would still be sexually-explicit imagery. There always has been and there always should be. I just don’t know if you still call it “pornography” when it’s not stigmatised.

We would also have a completely different idea of ‘masculinity’. Our concept of what it means to be male would bear some resemblance to the men we actually know. We’d finally be free of the Masculinity Box. That doesn’t mean automatically rejecting traditionally masculine values. It means including the behaviour and values of all men, until the concept basically becomes meaningless. Having a cock would no longer require or excuse being a cock.

As a result of all of this, of living in a world free of sexual shame and repression, perhaps the two most significant benefits. One: teenage girls would be allowed to direct their sexual energy into sex, rather than One Direction concerts. There goes the screaming and fainting and incoherent babbling. Two: more people would be having more and better sex. Possibly with screaming and fainting and incoherent babbling.

Awesome.

Bollocks: Why the Guardian* Bad Sex Award is Essential

Thanks to my Twitter feed yesterday, I ran across this very angry and defensive piece on the Literary Review Bad Sex Award, which is a highlight of my year, along with the Bulwer-Lytton. So let me explain why I disagree with Roger Morris so very thoroughly.

To begin with, perhaps there should be an award for good sex scenes. That’s irrelevant, though, to whether there should be an “award” for fucking appalling sex scenes. The existence of the Oscars in no way precludes the existence of the Razzies, and they obviously do very different things. The existence of awards for good film-making did not stop anyone making Howard the Duck.

What the Bad Sex Award does is point out a curious phenomenon where otherwise perfectly competent writers suddenly have their abilities desert them when writing a sex scene. Morris points out one (fnar) passage from the winner and criticises the judges’ judgement on it, but oddly he ignores the other extract in the Guardian piece:

In the shower, Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap. After a while he shut his eyes, and Diane, wielding her fingernails now and staring at his face, helped him out with two practiced hands, one squeezing the family jewels, the other vigorous with the soap-and-warm-water treatment. It didn’t take long for the beautiful and perfect Ed King to ejaculate for the fifth time in twelve hours, while looking like Roman public-bath statuary. Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch.

I’m sorry. That’s a fucking terrible piece of writing. That’s a cringe-inducing smear of awfulness.

Why does this happen? Because of the way we treat sex as different, and separate from, everything else. We don’t write Meal Scenes, or Driving Scenes, but we don’t write a piece that happens to have sex in it, we write a Sex Scene.

We see this quite a bit at Bardic Web. People sit down to write a sex scene and start sweating with stress. Their writing style completely changes. Their characters cease to be characters.

I’ve run workshops on writing sex scenes, and the first thing you have to do is justify why you have sex scenes at all. The answer to this is actually pretty simple, but it depends on integrating sex as a part of life, not compartmentalising it as something either magically special or dirty and wrong – either attitude makes people awkward and uncomfortable with writing it.

If your story features a sexual/romantic relationship, then the actual sex is a really important part of both your plot and character development. The way someone has sex is an expression of their experiences and their personality. Are they awkward, sensual, hedonistic, mechanical, hide-bound, experimental? As Russell T. Davies had Ianto say of Jack on Torchwood, “bordering on the avant garde”? Even if you never write it out, as an author you should know.

And sex is an vital, central part of a relationship. What happens the first time a couple have sex? In real-world terms, not soft-focus, no dialogue, romantic strings. Who’s the aggressor? Who makes the ‘first move’, who takes control? Is it slightly awkward? Was it planned, was either party surprised, was it more or less pleasurable or emotional than anyone was expecting?

In order to express those things, you need a reasonable amount of detail. And yes, vocabulary can be a problem. Some writers tend to be either far too abstract and flowery ( we asked for a ban on “manhood”, and any metaphors involving plants or weather systems), or too clinical. You don’t want to be using words that make the reader do a double-take, and you don’t want to be using the same words over and over.

Yeah, it’s not easy. But writing’s not easy. As Michael Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That’s no excuse for churning out bollocks only in your sex scenes.

So yes, for as long as we’re this uncomfortable with sex, the Literary Review Bad Sex Award shouldn’t be going anywhere.

*I’ve had several conversations on-line about this award in the last couple of days, and everyone refers to it as the “Guardian Bad Sex Award”. Despite the strong association with The Guardian, the award actually “belongs” to the Literary Review. But, call it that and most people don’t know WTF you’re talking about.

Part of the Precipitate

People who know me will know how much I miss the Dux de Lux, and in particular the long conversations we used to have there. We would explore ideas, particularly about sex, in a way it’s often hard to do on line, where people are so intent on fighting their corner and only speaking from an already made-up mind.

So as an experiment, I want to try to do this here. It will involve people feeling safe about sharing their own experiences, and teasing out ideas they’re perhaps not sure of yet, so it will require patient reading.

What I want to talk about is sexual chemistry: the mythology we have around it as a society, and the way it’s actually played out in our lives. Because I know I have some experiences that don’t fit the narrative, and I’m thinking some of you do, too.

So let’s establish the story first. Chemistry (sexual or otherwise, actually) is immediate and instinctive. That obvious smack to the crotch is either there or it isn’t, straight away. You both feel it, and there’s nothing you can do about it, either its presence or its lack. Chemistry will lead, if you let it, to Sexual Awesomeness.

But chemistry is a function of newness. If you continue a relationship, then the chemistry will eventually fade away, it’s just a matter of time. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.

(Things worth noting about that article. Note the title in the tab: “Sexual Ignition ALWAYS Fails”. The headline, “Monogamy RARELY Works” is not what the column says, nor was it, obviously, the original headline. And that’s where Liz Conor falls down, because “monogamy always fails” is no less prescriptive, erasive and unhelpful than “monogamy always works”. Also I don’t think she realises that she’s describing an experience some people have simply never had. Although here we call that “Thumper Rabbit Foot”.)

So. Back to the Sexual Chemistry Mythology. Some anecdata.

Just before I got married, in my early twenties (alright, I was 21), I re-met the boyfriend I’d had between 13 and 15. And we still had some cracking sexual chemistry, despite (or because of) not having seen each other in years. He was my first experience of being completely out of control with desire. I’m still having conversations with people in their thirties or forties who are just having this happen for the first time, who are saying, “None of my other relationships were like this.” And I kind of wonder why, if you don’t have that, you bother having relationships. So that’s where I’m coming from, basically.

And the one time I decided to pursue a relationship with someone I felt no chemistry with, it was a complete disaster. (Here, also, Clarisse Thorn talks about having a chemistry-less sexual relationship.) My “decision” (and I use the word loosely) to pursue a relationship with someone I had nothing in common with BUT chemistry is still going pretty well.

And I’ve had chemistry fade in relationships, and it’s sad and awful. I’ve felt repelled by the touch of a hand that used to thrill me. Though generally, not for long.

But.

Chemistry is mutual, right? It’s a sparking between two people. Except sometimes it’s obviously not. I’ve been the subject of genuinely unrequited desire, and my lack of enthusiasm met with total shock.

I’ve had chemistry slowly fade, and then suddenly return. “Time” is one of the list of things that are supposed to put me off sex that has simply failed to, and that list includes “childbirth”. In Outrageous Fortune, Cheryl describes having this experience with Wolf, that their chemistry simply never faded. Because, if as Liz Conor says it can take years, or a decade, then surely for some people it can take two decades, or three…

It did fade in my “first” marriage, and I accepted that this was just the way things went, that this always happened over time. There was nothing wrong with the relationship, that was just as good as things got. That took two years. I’ve been in my current relationship for eighteen.

I’ve had amazing sexual chemistry with someone, and when we’ve finally made it to bed, the sex has been awful, just awful. What gives? Fuck knows.

Also, sometimes chemistry isn’t immediate. There was a guy I’d known for seven years whom I quite suddenly one day found compellingly attractive. It was mutual, instant, and strong enough to be a problem for both of us. Yet surely, if that was going to happen, it’d had plenty of opportunity. So what gives? Fuck knows.

I also wonder what happens with “chemistry” and different levels of sex drive. If you’re genuinely just not that bothered, do you ever get that gut-punch feeling? Has anyone ever only experienced that feeling with just one person?

So. Pull up a chair, pick the smoking or non-smoking end of the table, get a Bookbinder or Three Boys in you, and let’s talk. What, from your experiences, fits the myth? What doesn’t? Can we re-make the theory so it fits the reality?

Everything Is Sex

So I was right. Clarisse Thorn’s piece on BDSM vs Sex did climb inside my brain and crawl around for a couple of days, so I was thinking about BDSM while I was cooking and shopping and stuff, the irony of which should become clear shortly.

The question she was looking to answer was basically:

 Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual?

And I think the answer cuts to the heart of a question that seems simple until you start thinking about it, and then becomes completely unanswerable: what is sex? So even for those of you who are really bored with me talking about BDSM, there might be some interest in this.

I mean, given where we are (feminist website in a pretty liberal blogosphere), we can take for granted that “penis in vagina” is not a sufficiently broad definition of sex. But I think there is a default assumption, if we were going through a list of acts and considering how much they were “sex”, that penetrative acts (PIV, anal, pegging) are sex to a greater extent than non-penetrative acts. Then we take a moment to remember that lesbians can also have sex, and remember to include oral…

And things start to get a bit shaky. Frottage: is that sex? It fits our previously-proposed definition of “a situation where orgasm is appropriate”. So, touching? And there seems to be an unconscious, unthinking boundary in there somewhere – like the difference between touching someone’s outer thigh and touching their inner thigh – and it all gets grey and subjective and horribly complicated. Or, just the way I like it.

Clarisse’s articles include a quote I find quite useful:

 “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

Eros: eroticism. Here, I think, is the difference between the two parts of Clarisse’s question. It might not be sex, but could still be sexual. And this is where I think BDSM offers a useful perspective, on the borders of the erotic.

(A couple of little sidebars before we get into the meat of this. I use “Dom/me” because I am bisexual, and my Dominant partner could be male or female. I also capitalise the Dominant. These are simply conventions; I don’t really give a rat’s who follows them or doesn’t.

Also, and more importantly, I think we’ve done quite a lot towards acceptance of submissive sexuality, particularly female subs. But I don’t think we’ve made quite as much progress accepting Dominant sexuality, particularly male. Which is odd, because I don’t think it’s really possible to properly respect my sexuality without also respecting the other side of the coin, the person who, without cruelty, wants to hurt me. That’s one of the reasons that I’ll continue to be vague about my Dom/mes, and use a sort of fluffy conditional present tense to disguise when particular things happened. One of the reasons. Nobody signed up to sleep with a sex columnist, after all.)

There’s an awfully broad palette of practise covered by the term “BDSM”, and people don’t use all of it. For me, humiliation and verbal abuse has never been a turn-on. For me, it’s about pain and restraint, but also obedience. When I wrote about BDSM for Public Address, I very much concentrated on the pain response, because that’s easy to understand. But it’s a very long way from all there is. And in this context, sex/sexual/eros, we’re mainly going to talk about obedience.

It’s actually pretty challenging for me. I’m not good at doing what I’m told. It’s much easier for me to be tied down than to be told to stay still, and do it through sheer will. (Really challenging? Being told to shut up.) And in a non-sexual context, nobody gets to tell me what to do. Nobody. I’ve always been really shit at taking direction even from bosses and clients.

In a BDSM context, though, obedience is heavily erotic. There’s a bit near the end of Secretary where Lee says to her poor hapless fiancé, “Does this look like something sexual?” She’s sitting at a desk. She’s doing what she’s told. It’s not sex. It is sexual.

Now, I will admit that I’ve never actually “played” with a Dom/me I wasn’t also having sex with. Perhaps because of my history, I have Trust Issues. Strangers are not going to have access to that level of intimacy with me. And for all it might appear that you can’t shut me up about it, my response as a sub is an intensely private thing to me – far beyond my vanilla sexual response.

BDSM allows you to take that level of response out of a conventionally sexual setting. (Yes, we have a very strong idea of “conventionally sexual”, that’s why the word “kink” exists.) For instance, my safe word is a concrete noun. And I can’t ever look at a “one of those things” without it being a visceral reminder of my deepest response. But also there was a day when I was kneeling to sweep my kitchen floor, and I was simply and suddenly overwhelmed, just from being on my (admittedly slightly bruised) knees.

I’m pretty sure lots of people have particular touchstones – songs, scents, situations – that remind them of something sexual or relationshippy. I do. And here I agree with Clarisse that it “feels different”. The non-BDSM frisson is pleasant, warm and soft. The BDSM one is a knife-sharp catch of breath, straight to the core. It’s not sex, clearly. But it is sexual. There is eros.

So where I was seeing Clarisse’s “sex” and “BDSM” as heavily-overlapping circles in a Venn diagram, I don’t think it’s the most useful image. There is, for instance, a point where she says,

 I, Clarisse, can certainly attest that it’s common for people to have BDSM encounters that are “just” BDSM — “no sex involved”. For example — an encounter where one partner whips the other, or gets whipped, and there’s no genital contact or even discussion of genitals.

That seems to indicate to me that when she talks about “sex”, she’s using a narrower definition than I am. To me there’s an awful lot of sex that isn’t genitals. Mostly, though, I think the problem is that those mental circles have hard-drawn, mutually-agreed edges. And that doesn’t seem to be the case with “sex”.

The very concept of “kink” indicates something that “most people don’t find appropriately sexual”. And with BDSM it’s not just being turned on by pain that’s inappropriate. It’s also the concept of finding it arousing being told what dress to wear, or to have the salmon.

Anyway. When Clarisse says

 Part of me felt like, “If my desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s weird. If it’s not sexual, then it’s less weird.” … In contrast, I once met a couple who told me that it took them a long time to do BDSM that wasn’t part of sex. In their heads, the thought was more like: “If the desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s not weird. But if it’s not sexual, then it’s really weird.”

I’m definitely more of the latter persuasion. For me, it would feel really uncomfortable if my desire for pain wasn’t sexual. But if not all of my sexuality is kink (and it really seriously isn’t by a very long way indeed) then perhaps not all of my kink is sexual. That instinctively feels wrong, though. What feels right, is a broader definition of what “sexual” is. What’s the difference between “sexual” and “sensual”? Are they both to some degree erotic? And does it matter anyway?

Here’s why it matters, and why I would never pressure anyone to move outside their accepted personal idea of “sex”: because sex is Wrong and Bad. Even if not in itself, then in certain situations. Clarisse talks about having partners who wouldn’t condone her having sex with other men, but were okay with her doing BDSM with them. Ergo, BDSM is not sex. It’s not cheating. We might laugh at the “eating ain’t cheating” Southern philosophy, but if people genuinely believe that, then they make decisions and take actions on that basis. I think it does help to be aware, though, that we might all be fudging those judgements (“that doesn’t count…”) to some extent.

Quickie: Sex Education (Not the good kind)

The New Zealand Herald does a really good line in moral panic. We’ve seen it time and time again. This time, they have sex-education in their spotlight.

Because you would think this would be the key point of the article.

“I didn’t wind up pregnant because I didn’t attend a class. I know all about contraceptives and safe sex. It was purely the fact that I was drunk, it was New Year’s, and some older male thought it would be fabulous to take advantage of me.

So some asshole chose to take advantage of a drunk teenager, but it is sex education’s fault? It’s funny how she listened enough in class to get that anal sex is OK, flavoured condoms mostly taste disgusting and the importance of consent, but not that “pulling out doesn’t work”.

Also, she’s very concerned about the fact that she’s being taught about sex before the age of consent. Guess that doesn’t matter for the drinking age, right?

Look. Sex education is fucking important. I’m just thrilled that, based on 2 NZ Herald articles, albeit, they seem to be teaching about the concept of consent. This idea that “if you’ve asked her and she’s OK with it”, is pretty revolutionary, compared with I got back in the dark ages. Schools seem to be doing the right thing – getting parental consent, and giving as much information as possible. Because:

Amber-Leigh has spoken out in the hope it may help other young teenagers to learn about the importance of having protected sex – or preferably waiting until they are older.

Which, I am pretty sure, is exactly what she would have been taught in class, no? Oh well, that “putting a condom on a banana” trick will serve her well at hen parties.

The Joy of Sex-Positivity

Something a little more positive and up-beat today. I’d kind of like it if we never went a month at The Lady Garden without saying, “Sex is great!”

I wasn’t raised in a sex-positive environment. Now, that doesn’t mean that I grew up in an actively sex-negative environment, just like me describing as “sex-positive” doesn’t mean that I think everyone who doesn’t use the label is negative about sex. (Though, absolutely, there are feminists I would happily describe as “sex-negative”, no problems at all. If you think sex needs to be contained, that it’s only okay if it’s done in certain ways and in certain contexts, then your basic assumption is that Sex is Bad. IMO.)

The last few years on line, though, I’ve run across a lot of great sex-pos people and blogs. In RL, I have a whole lot more explicitly sex-pos conversations with friends in bars. I love it, it’s great. Note, I’m saying “great for me”, not “great for everyone”. I’d like to be able to talk about the joy that sex-positivity has brought into my life, without being told that I’m speaking for everyone, because I’m really not. This is my experience, okay? Do add your own in comments.

The absolute best thing is the lack of judgey-pants. I can talk about what I like, what I don’t like, what I fantasize about, what I think I might like to try, without seeing THAT facial expression. You know the one. The sudden square closed-face that says, “You just went down in my estimation as a human being because of what you get off on, you freak.”

That means I am much more at peace with myself. Because other people are accepting of me as I am, so am I. I think it’s probably hard to imagine with the apparent ease and pride I have talking about these things on line that at one point I loathed my own desires as sick and wrong.

And you know, there are still a lot of places and times I CAN’T talk about it. And I don’t mean “long graphic descriptions of Sex Acts I Have Performed”, because I never do that. But a couple of days ago, when a nurse asked me what my new tattoo meant? I told her the moons meant I was bisexual. I would not, could not, tell her the triskelion meant I was a BDSM practitioner. I didn’t have the trust that I wouldn’t see The Look from her, and it wasn’t worth the risk. But the contexts in which I can leave that tattoo exposed, happy to explain it, and even happier when someone doesn’t need it explained? Delightful. Precious.

And probably the simplest thing is the freedom from guilt. I don’t have to feel bad about enjoying sex. I don’t have to deal with people whose basic mindset is that sex is either Bad Unless Properly Contained, or that it just isn’t important (I don’t get this, much as I don’t ‘get’ people who don’t actively enjoy food), or that it should never be talked about.

I really enjoy not feeling like a freak because I’ve slept with too many people. (You know who thinks I’m a slut? Anders Breivik. Twenty does really seem to be the Slut Number.) Or the wrong people, or in the wrong way. It’s nice to be able to relax knowing nobody’s going to assume I’m weak because I “bruise easy”. (My doctor asked me what I did for stress relief. On balance, I decided not to tell her.) And even more than that, I enjoy knowing people will talk to me about stuff they’ve done, and know I’m not going to judge them, either. Even if they’ve cheated in a relationship, or been the other person, or slept with someone they utterly shouldn’t have, because we all understand how you get into those situations.

Basically, I love operating with the basic premise that Sex is Good. That sexually life is about getting what you want, more than about avoiding what you don’t want. Acknowledging as a basic “well fucking DUH” that the vast majority of sex is consensual and pleasurable and joyful, and that for the vast majority of people sex is a desirable thing to have in their lives. That we shift from talking about “sex” and “good sex” to “sex” and “bad sex”, because basically? Sex is Good.

Guest Post: Sex at Dawn, Patriarchy at Dusk – Max Rose

I finally got around to reading Sex at Dawn, and while I knew that some of its themes would resonate with me, and there’s enough interesting scholarship to make it a worthwhile read, the final chapters struck a strangely discordant and disappointing note. Without wanting to make this a full review, here is my response to what I think is a potentially liberating but ultimately problematic book.

You probably know the outline by now. The “standard model” of human sexuality in evolutionary psychology is that humans are naturally monogamous, but that men cheat on their wives and spread their seed with young fertile women whenever they can, and that while women generally have no sexual desire, they’ll occasionally shag young studs when ovulating, thus cheating their good-provider husbands into providing for genetically superior offspring. Familiar, depressing and self-serving.

In contrast to this, Ryan and Jethá posit that until the invention of agriculture, our nomadic foraging ancestors were promiscuous and egalitarian, using sex for pleasure and social bonding, with group parenting, multiple stable sexual relationships and occasional guilt-free invigorating dalliances with strangers from other tribes. Then we settled down to farm, which provided surpluses and required the definition of private property, leading to economic and sexual inequality, monogamous or polygynous marriage, possessiveness and the suppression of female desire. In other words: patriarchy.

There may be as many leaps of faith and plausibility arguments as in standard evolutionary biology, but the combination of anthropological, archaeological and anatomical evidence is enough to convince me that we may “naturally” be more like our randy, carefree bonobo cousins than the guilt-ridden failed monogamists that we’ve become. And they’re also clear about the failure of monogamy: adultery exists in every culture, as does its punishment, and why would we need social stigma, guilt trips and even stonings to enforce a monogamy that is supposed to be natural to us?

Along the way, they take some surprisingly bold potshots at other cornerstones of “civilised” culture, including the idea of progress and the flawed Malthusian logic behind neoliberal economics. It all seems poised for a clear call to dismantle the dismal infrastructure of a social and economic system that inflicts the misery of sexual guilt and/or denial on so many men and (even more so) women.

But then … they seem to lose their nerve. The final chapters swerve into bisexual erasure, unsubstantiated essentialism about the male need for novelty, kink-phobia (either they’re lazy or they seem to equate BDSM and mild fetishes with paedophilia) and end up with hazy self-help talk about “confronting the sky together”. They talk in a vague yet resignedly practical way about couples negotiating their own boundaries of fidelity, but while they flirt with advocating polyamory (including one brief example of a MFM triad), in the end there’s a distasteful emphasis on dealing with powerful middle-aged white men’s need to have affairs with younger women. The message seems to be: “Ladies, don’t take sex so seriously when you have the love of a good man, just let him have his affairs (and maybe take a lover too if you feel like it, but we’re not going to say that out loud).”

That’s very much a parody, based on one reading, but even if their closing examples had been more even-handed, there’s still a fundamental problem with this couple-by-couple approach. The trouble of “negotiating boundaries” is that negotiations come down to power, and in a patriarchy men and women do not have equal power. In most cases, it’s not enough to advocate couples to make their own changes, but to change society as a whole.

Just for a start, here are some things we’d need before we can even start to see an equal expression of sexual desire among all people (in no particular order, and if my feminism were beyond pre-101 stage I’d add others):

  • an end to slut-shaming
  • an end to rape
  • an end to cissexism and homophobia
  • pay equity
  • easy, cheap and guilt-free access to contraception and abortion
  • frank, non-judgemental education on sex, relationships and sexual health

We might even need to discuss whether it’s possible to have truly free, pleasurable and equal multi-partner sexuality without returning to some sort of anarcho-syndicalist pre-agrarian society with shared parenting and no private property. Without that, while their cute talk of Socio-Erotic Exchanges (S.E.Ex for short) “forming a durable web of affection, affiliation and mutual obligation” might sound delightful and achievable for an affluent childfree subculture (and it does sound a bit like parts of my social circle), it presupposes a whole lot of privilege.

I get the feeling that they’d want to say more. As well as using an often cutesy, folksy, jokey tone throughout (as if “writing for non-specialists” requires “writing for 10-year-olds”), they often seem to be defensive of their way-out wacky ideas: “before you think we’re Marxists”, “no, we’re not hippies!” But of course, they’re writing for a mainstream, largely American audience, and perhaps a more radical book would not have had the same impact. Maybe it has helped open up the debate about the universal expectation monogamy as part of a web of social oppressions to people who would otherwise run a mile, but I think it’s time to move the debate on further.