Sunday, May 31, 2009

What I Learned from the Gay Puppies

This past Memorial Day, Chicago hosted International Mr. Leather, a long-weekend festival and pageant for the gay-male BDSM community, which has already been written up by Dan Savage and by my partner over at the Geeky Sex blog. I have written of my fondness for puppy play before on this blog, but I had never been around many human-puppies. The concept was too enticing to pass up.

But beforehand, sitting in a bar with my fiancé and our friend, I realized that I was feeling socially anxious in a way that I haven't felt about play parties for a while now. Because I had never before been to a sexy-party where I was so likely to be the only woman present. In sexually-liberated communities, we often like to downplay how fundamentally different we are from people who fall into different categories of sexual liberation. But for all the warm fuzzies of confederacy and label-rejection, I realized over my Irish coffee around the corner from the IML fancy hotel that my tits and long hair still designate my body as unambiguously female, even femme, and it was safe to assume that most of the attendees of a butch-leaning gay men's convention would not find me attractive. I would only know the two people I came with, and at the very least, I was going to look conspicuously different.

And surely enough, in that very crowded hotel I spotted all of two or three other women without hotel-staff badges. But I sucked up my nerves and stripped down to my underwear, carefully folded my street clothes into a satchel, strapped on my knee-pads, and let my fiancé buckle on my collar. Honestly, part of my headspace was still waiting for someone to question what I was doing there. But my fiancé had brought my favorite squeaky monkey toy, and I went through the motions of biting and shaking it. And then I heard a nearby attractive man in a leather thong exclaim to his partner or friend that I was cute. I looked at him, and he smiled, so I crawled over and leaned against his legs. He pat my head and laughed in a welcoming way. And from that point on, I was home.

With my liberal-university-gender-studies background, I'm sure I could draft something very academic-sounding about the cultural variations between the "pansexual" (in practice, mostly straight with bi women) community and the gay community. I could examine the effects on our psyches from homophobia vs. from sexism, from male privilege vs. straight privilege. The pansexual kink community certainly owes a great debt to the gay kink community for initiating and organizing such large-scale projects as IML, not to mention the Leather Archives and Museum. But that night at Woof Camp, as soon as the first stranger pat my head, we were all just friends. The other puppies and I batted around a beach ball for a long idyllic time, and several bipedal men besides my fiancé and our friend grabbed my squeaky monkey toy, threw it, and exclaimed "Good girl!" when I brought it back in my teeth. One even rewarded me with a "treat" from a jar of chocolate puff balls. (Yes, I know that chocolate is bad for dogs. But it never seems to stop them, and I haven't shown any signs of poisoning yet.)

And while I also derive pleasure from gender-studies academia and debate, Woof Camp feels closer to why sexual liberation is a fight worth fighting. In the end, ideally, people of all genders and orientations should just be able to share simple joys like beach balls and chocolate-balls.

(Credit to Northbound Leather for making the tail-brief pictured, as well as a whole line of fantastic leather clothing.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

So why would you get married?

For the last going-on-three years, my lovers and I have identified as polyamorous. Although I had only learned the word "polyamorous" two years earlier when I found the BDSM community, and I find that most people outside alternate-sexuality communities still haven't heard it. And explaining my whole "weird" philosophy every time both of my lovers come up in conversation gets long-winded and awkwardly personal. So I've discovered that more people recognize the term "open relationship." Not everyone has read The Ethical Slut, but "open relationships" are "normal" enough. I'm in an "open relationship" and then the conversation can move on.

Which was simple enough - until my "primary partner" and I announced that we were going to get married.

(First, I have to admit that I've always disliked the technical sound of the terms "primary" and "secondary" partner. It's nicely convenient that now I can instead differentiate my "fiancé" and my "boyfriend.")

When I first started coming out as poly, the most positive reaction I got from an older relative was that I was very young and that I should enjoy getting to do such "wild" things while I'm still in my twenties: "while I still can." As my romantic love constitutes an adolescent rebellion, which I will surely outgrow. Few of my peer-acquaintances have been so blunt, but I have still picked up comments implying that my "open relationship" must be less serious than a monogamous relationship. After all, the assumption goes, everyone wants to find "The One." "Open relationships" are "normal" enough, sure, but they are temporary phases for people with commitment problems. Then my fiancé and I screwed that assumption by getting engaged. At least a couple friends - to our knowledge - who had previously understood our "open relationship" have asked, "If that's your arrangement, why would you get married?!"

With only this amount of space, I can't possibly answer that question with as much depth or brilliant research as lesbian writer E.J.Graff did in her 2004 book What Is Marriage For? - so I highly recommend reading this book. Most explicitly, E.J.Graff argues that her marriage to another woman deserves legal recognition, which is a point with which I assume most readers of already emphatically agree. Along the way, Graff unfolds the countless ways in which the legal definition and expectations of marriage have radically changed throughout the last couple hundred years of Western history. The phrase "traditional marriage" is meaninglessly vague, with no one historical precedent. Every generation re-inventos the laws and expectations, and every couple re-negotiates from there.

So, given our "open relationship" agreement, why would my fiancé and I get married? I don't think our reasons are all that uncommon, honestly. We've been together for several years, during which both of us have grown and changed significantly, and the changes keep bringing us closer together. We love each other and already enjoy seeing each other every day. Living together feels natural. I love that he's usually the last thing I see when I'm falling asleep and the first thing I see when I'm waking up. I want to spend the rest of my life with him. Then, on the logistical side of spending the rest of my life with him, having a joint bank account makes going out to eat together and paying our housing and utility bills much simpler. When the marriage is legal, we'll get perks on our taxes and potentially a discount on our auto insurance. I also love his family. The children related to him call me "Aunt," and I love knowing that I will still be their aunt twenty years from now, when we'll find out what kind of adults they become. Why else does anyone get married in contemporary America?

To ensure that our spouse never fucks another human being ever again? Is it really shocking or reckless of me to find that less interesting?

After all, one of the the characteristics of my fiancé that makes us so compatible - after our shared sense of humor, shared interests, and shared values - is that neither one of us has the slightest interest in Being Monogamous Forevermore. I suck at monogamy: The only time I've ever tried it for more than a year, I resented it and I cheated kind of a lot. Now that I have figured out what works for me and have two wondrously wonderful, stable men in my life, I have little patience for the idea that I should still aspire to marry monogamously. We are building a marriage on the lifestyle that we are happy living.

"If that's your arrangement, why would you get married?" acquaintances have asked us. Because monogamy is not inherently a criteria of love, or commitment. Because we agree on our definitions of love and commitment. Why does anyone get married?

(And - speaking of arbitrary and offensively restrictive definitions of marriage - what's wrong with this stupid country for not affording gays and lesbians the same legal choice?)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kink Reality vs. Kink Fantasy

A little over a week ago, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Laura Antoniou titled "Too Kinky for Words" - addressing kinks that are considered taboo even among most of the BDSM community. Specifically, at the very beginning, she had every single person present write anonymously on a slip of paper our most taboo sexual fantasy - one we've never acted out, one that frightens or shames us. Then she collected all the papers, and spent the next hour and a half reading every one of them aloud and, anonymously, making fun of every person in the room. With an explanation about how laughter liberates us from fear, be it fear of judgment or fear of our own darkness.

After hearing so different people's "taboo" fantasies - however they defined "taboo" - the questions I've been carrying for the last week concern how we discern between fantasies we can and should act out, and the fantasies that we really can't or shouldn't.

At the beginning of the spectrum, there are the kinks that are the first examples most people think of when they hear the term "kinky": your wrist-cuffs, your spankings and canes and paddles, your blindfolds, your uniforms or leather or high-heeled shoes, your threesomes. Certainly, a large segment of society still feels greater embarrassment asking a partner to engage in anything "kinky" than they would feel asking a sexual partner to engage in, say, oral sex. (Although in the 1950's oral sex was pretty kinky too - but that's a different article for another time.) There's a reason that the fetishes listed above form a basis of the "kinky" stereotypes: because they're pretty common, and mostly safe. Finding someone who enthusiastically consents to being spanked is not especially difficult. If you have a hard time telling partners about common fetishes, I recommend reading Dan Savage's column or listening to his podcast. The sex-positive movement is all about liberating people who want to actually play with wrist-cuffs or spanking or leather. Have at it.

But then there are the sexual fantasies that we actually can't act out - such as those that feature vampires, advanced robots, or supernatural powers. And the sexual fantasies that we actually shouldn't act out - such as non-consent, pedophilia, or the extremely dangerous. And for those categories, there is fantasy. No matter how much the thought turns you on, you will probably never be bitten by an immortal being, and it will never under any circumstances be ethical to play with a literal child. But a sexually adventurous adult partner may be perfectly happy to put on a costume and pretend to be whomever or whatever you like. Most sane kinksters will not consent to playing with a loaded gun, but more may consider consenting to play-pretend with a fake prop-gun. Every BDSM scene ethically necessitates the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality: We only pretend that the bottom has no control. With costumes and further theatrical make-believe, almost anything imaginable can plausibly be acted out ethically. The next steps are to find a self-empowered adult who wants to pretend with you, and to jointly research, discuss, and mitigate any safety risks to everyone's fully-informed comfort level.

But some fantasies work better as fantasies. For example, gang-bangs are a relatively common fantasy in the straight BDSM community. But in practice, straight-identified men often have a difficult time maintaining erections while waiting around a lot of other straight-identified men. Which is why there are fluffers and dildoes; such "problems" do not destroy the possibilities. But before bringing a fantasy into literal or even play-pretend reality, it's good to remember that reality is often messier and less predictable than the fantasy. And as a friend of mine likes to say, once a fantasy scene goes wrong, then the fantasy isn't good for masturbation anymore. Some fantasies really are more fun when they're only fantasies: when they can be controlled and perfect and cherished as ours alone.

There is some stigma to anything labelled "only a fantasy." And of course, people who express their fantasies as reality are usually ridiculous and/or creepy. But as long as we can discern accurately between fantasy and reality, I say we should celebrate fantasies and fiction and their astonishing power to move us emotionally or to enhance our orgasms. Only when we appreciate the inherent value of our fantasies can we intelligibly negotiate which to act out and which to leave as fiction.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where are all the poly writers?

Last week I attended a polyamory book club meeting to discuss All My Love, a play running in Chicago that will have closed by the time this article is published. Of course, all of us in the poly book club were thrilled to see a play with poly characters. Our organizer, Cunning Minx, also interviewed the playwright and actor Tony Fiorentino, and published it on her podcast, Polyamory Weekly. (Which podcast I highly recommend in general, and thank you Minx.)

But early in the meeting, we determined something funny about the poly book club discussing this play: The play showed a deeply cynical view of polyamory. And yet there we were, about a dozen active polyamorists, discussing it for three hours.

Now that the play has closed, this review will contain spoilers. Yes, the central character is a woman who claims polyamory as an integral facet of her identity, and she has two boyfriends, and she is a sympathetic character. But one of her boyfriends makes it very clear that he hates polyamory and is barely, painfully sucking it up to avoid losing the girl - and the other boyfriend turns out to be lying to his wife about very important things. Throw in our "heroine's" deeply disturbed teenage daughters and her metamour's infertility, and these characters spend most of their lives screaming and/or crying. New layers of dishonesty and heartbreak are revealed in every scene.

And as a polyamorist, that frustrated me to no end. ...Until someone else at the book club pointed out from Minx's interview with Tony Fiorentino that Mr. Fiorentino is not himself polyamorous, and he never intended to create converts. To quote him from Minx's podcast: "I was actually researching stuff for my previous play... and just came across the word 'polyamory' and started reading a little bit about it, and I thought... It would also make a great play, because... when you put a couple of people together who do not share the same ideologies but they happen to be in love, you have the seed of what could be a play with a lot of conflict." And there is nothing in that with which I can argue. Mr. Fiorentino is not obligated as a playwright to be our spokesman. And there's nothing untruthful about the implication that some individuals practice polyamory badly. Some individuals in his play also practice monogamy badly. We are all flawed, and melodrama ensues. Then a statutorily-raped teenager attempts suicide on prom night, and far worse melodrama ensues. That much is realistic enough.

No artist should be expected to speak for an entire community, especially if the artist's familiarity with the community is only from books. The unfortunate part is that plays like this do end up speaking for the entire community, because there are so very few artists saying the word "polyamory" at all - and none with any more fame or attention. Reviewer Alan Breslof called the play "educational." The depressed teenagers get at least as much dramatic stage-time as their polyamorous mother, but all the reviews focus on the novelty of polyamory. Fiorentino himself apparently had never heard of the concept until shortly before he decided to write the play. Whether anyone likes it or not, the play did create first impressions for a lot of its audience.

So why isn't anyone else producing poly fiction that's less cynical or tragic? I've heard the argument that good stories require a conflict, but Western writers seem to have an easy enough time writing romantically for monogamy. Hollywood and Broadway and bestseller book-lists have fed us plenty of emotionally engaging stories about couples in love. Where are our poly romantic comedies? Where are our stories about people in functional poly relationships battling external conflicts? Twenty years after the publication of Heather Has Two Mommies, where's the book for Heather's classmate with three?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reflections on Puppy Play

I originally went hunting for the BDSM community because I knew I wanted more impact play in my life. But as soon as I starting meeting other kinky people, my world burst forth with possibilities of kinks I'd never heard of to consider. One of the more intriguing of which was puppy play.

Most practitioners of puppy play feel it as an expression of power play: the submissive puppy and the dominant owner or trainer. Puppy play also lends itself as an excuse to design and to wear some fabulously imaginative fetish gear, made by top-brand fetish outfitters such as Mr. S, JT's Stockroom (pictured mitts), and Northbound Leather.

But honestly, when I first heard of kinky people pretending to be puppies, my first reaction was a flashback to being a little girl and fighting with other girls who wanted to play "House" but didn't want to let me play the dog. My grandfather was a veterinarian; my parents brought home my first dog when I was three; and strange dogs greet me enthusiastically as a friend in a way that strange humans don't. When I was young enough to play make-believe without raising anyone's eyebrows, my closest friends and I spent plenty of time on our hands and knees barking at each other. For me, it was a lot more fun than pretending that some doll was a baby. And now, as an adult, my more vivid memories of play-pretend still delight me.

I write this with some apprehension of unintentionally offending people who get off on the dominant/submissive expression of training, or by puppy fetish-wear. But personally, I'm not particularly submissive; I rarely find taking orders as gratifying as telling a top to "make me." Without training, I'm still attracted to puppy play for the same reasons that I liked pretending to be a puppy as a little girl: Because it's a little bit silly and a lot of fun. Puppies have joyous priorities: 1. Food. 2. Physical affection. 3. Playing. 4. Sleeping. Fifteen years after puberty, I re-discovered these simple joys. For some, it's erotic. For me, it's an excuse to spend some time naked, hump my fiancé's leg, bite, and eat "treats" (usually chocolate-covered espresso beans) without using my hands. It is entirely silly, and, to some degree, that's the point. It makes me happy - much like watching the movie Clue over and over again make me happy.

A couple years ago at the New York Leather Street Fest, I met a gay man on his hands and skateboard-padded knees, leashed to his master and panting. I smiled at them, and the human-dog scampered over and nuzzled himself against my legs. I never got either of their names, but I spent a lovely while playing fetch, rubbing his belly, and chatting with his master. We didn't know each other, and we weren't interested in each other sexually, but him playing a "puppy" freed us to play together.

This being my perspective, one could argue that puppy play isn't "really" my kink. Which comes down to semantics of whether or not "kinks" must be explicitly sexual. If so, then this article may be off-topic for this blog.

But there is something about kink that ends up liberating one to hedonism, sexy or not. At BDSM play parties, no one really reacts if I shed all my clothes and crawl around the floor with a squeaky-monkey toy in my mouth. Where else in the world would that be true? There is no rational explanation for a grown woman to find so much joy in a squeaky-monkey toy. But then, not coincidentally, I gave up rationally explaining myself around the same time I embraced the eroticism of having my ass beaten. Sexuality is not rational. And so, when we embrace our unique sexuality, we liberate ourselves from the duty to rationally explain ourselves. Sometimes the reward is orgasms, and sometimes it's just fun.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Different Loving

Over a year passed between the time I realized clearly that I am a masochist and the time that I found the BDSM community, with its social coffee gatherings and open-to-the-public play parties. It was a lonely year between my junior and senior years of college, during which I wasted entirely too much mental energy wondering if I was crazy. It did sound irreconcilable to be a sane, empowered woman and also really like men hitting me and/or calling me a whore. After a bad reaction from my college boyfriend, it took me a year to confess my "big dark secret" to a second person.

But in hindsight, blaming the college boyfriend was mostly a convenient excuse for my own confusion. Alternative sexuality scares a lot of people. I had to do a lot of reading and a lot of introspection on my own before becoming the sort of confidant woman who writes columns about BDSM for the world wide web.

Fortunately, I found Yes Means Yes by Kath Albury in my local feminist bookstore, which first introduced me to the idea that there's a kinky community. ...At least in New York City, home of The Eulenspiegel Society, and in San Francisco, home of the Society of Janus. Right, of course, sexually liberated people congregate in New York City and San Francisco. Unfortunately I live far from either coast, and at the time I had a year and a half of college left before I would have had an option of moving. Still, the awareness that the community exists was thrilling evidence against the notion that I'm just crazy - even if geography was working against me.

Knowing what I know now, the next stop should have been the Internet. I can't explain why it wasn't; over the last decade, most social organization has moved to cyberspace. Sadomasochists, yes, as the would-be censors like to yell - but also church groups, political movements, and everyone with whom you went to middle school. If you're reading this blog, it's probably safe to assume that you've already embraced the community-building wonders of the Internet.

But I am an incurable bibliophile/nerd, so I looked up "sadomasochism" in my school library catalog. The single result I got was Different Loving by Gloria Brame and William Brame, specifically in the library housed in the basement of the on-campus seminary. (To this day I'm not sure why the seminary had a copy of Different Loving and my regular university library did not, but it does give me a greater appreciation for seminaries.) Different Loving reads almost like a catalog itself, with each chapter highlighting a different kink or fetish. With more references to The Eulenspiegel Society in New York City, and the Society of Janus in San Francisco. Reading the names over and over brought mixed feelings: euphoria at their existence, and frustration that all the American kinky people live in New York City or San Francisco.

Spoiler Alert: If you live anywhere in America that anyone with a sense of imagination could call an "urban center," then you probably live near a BDSM or fetish social organization. If you're at least 18 (or sometimes 21) and know where to find them, you would probably be welcomed at their events. I finally learned the trick to from reading The Kinky Girl's Guide to Dating by Luna Grey: Google your hometown and "munch." You can throw in "fetish" or "BDSM" if "munch" is too vague. If you're between the ages of 18 and 35, there may even be a "TNG" ("The Next Generation") group for people your own age. The main difference to the New York City and San Francisco communities is the degree to which they're above ground.

Not all sadomasochists need the organized community in order to indulge their kinks, and not everyone who shows up finds what they're looking for. But the community exists, and it works as a social network as substantial as any "club" or religious group. I'm also grateful for everything I learned from the above books, and highly recommend them along with anything published by Greenery Press or Cleis Press. But making friends with other sadomasochists was, for me, the key to turning my "big dark secret" into a joyful social identity.

Bless the internet.