In the wake of my last post, which was basically a meditation on one relationship with bad sexual communication, I want to offer some positive examples of sexual communication from my life. [1]

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1) Low pressure and leather belts. Years ago, when I was pretty inexperienced in the community, I had a single BDSM encounter with a gentleman in his home. We met at a BDSM discussion group, arranged to meet later at a café, and went home from there; as we exited the café, I took his driver’s license and texted his full name and license number to a friend. (I think more people should do this, frankly — in fact, more non-BDSM people should do this when they go home with strangers from bars.)

We sat together on the public transit and quietly discussed the upcoming scene: he asked me many, many questions about what I was okay with and not okay with. Questions like: “What do you have experience with?” “Could you go into that more?” “What do you like?” “What makes that fun for you?” “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?” He asked a lot of the questions twice, too, which I think is a really great strategy especially with new partners. People don’t always have their heads together enough during these conversations to answer an S&M question properly the first time, especially if it’s a broad and open-ended question like “What are the things you really don’t want to do?”

I made it clear that I just wanted a BDSM encounter, that I wasn’t up for oral sex or vaginal sex or anything like that. He’d never had a BDSM encounter that didn’t involve orgasm, so it was a new concept for him, but he was cool with trying it.

After our long discussion of boundaries and limits, we made it to his apartment and settled in. He got out some equipment, including a collar, and he said: “While you’re wearing this, you will obey everything I say. Do you have any final boundaries to set? Anything you really want me to do? Anything else you don’t want me to do?” I said no, and he snapped on the collar. (We did have an agreed-upon safeword, though — so I had a way of interrupting the proceedings if I really needed to.)

It was an interesting encounter, partly because he was looking more for dominance (giving orders) than sadism (inflicting pain), whereas at the time I was looking more for masochism (receiving pain) than submission (accepting orders). So we started out with him giving me a bunch of orders (primarily to fulfill his kink), and then in the end he hit me a lot with a leather belt (to fulfill mine). At the time I was still figuring out where the boundary was for me: whether I identified as a submissive or only a masochist; how much submission and masochism were intertwined. That night showed me a lot about how one can create submissive energy within a pre-defined space, even with someone you barely know.

Afterwards, when I was done crying, he took off the collar and we went to bed. (By that time of night, I didn’t have a way back home from where he lived, so I had to sleep over.) We chatted about random things, neither of us quite tired enough to sleep. Within half an hour or so, he realized that there was no way he was ever going to get to sleep unless he had an orgasm, but he also understood that I didn’t want to have sex with him, so he didn’t try to push that. Instead, he said: “I really need to have an orgasm before I can get to sleep. I can either take care of that in the bathroom, or I can do it here. If I do it here, then you can help me along, or not. I’d especially appreciate it if you could talk dirty while I jerk off, but it’s your decision.”

Talk about low pressure! Yeah, I learned a lot from that guy.

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2) Scripts and Lists. I had one brief relationship last year with a gentleman who is really, really awesome — but we have very different approaches to S&M. We had a hard time communicating about it … honestly, if he hadn’t been such an awesome guy, I would probably have given up on the relationship after a couple nights together. We were great at having extensive theoretical conversations about sexuality, but when it came down to actually having sex with each other, things got puzzling. We had difficulty predicting, understanding, and initiating with each other.

I’m not sure what made it so hard. I think, mostly, we just brought really different assumptions to the table. I tend to take an “improvisational” approach to my encounters, whereas he tends to take a “scripted” approach. He’s into doing stuff like rearranging the furniture, taking on specific roles (e.g. teacher and student), using costumes and props, and knowing exactly what will be said beforehand.

Me, I like going free-form. I talk to my partner about hard limits (things we absolutely don’t want to do); I talk to him about things we really like; and we set a safeword. I’m usually okay with diving in from there. If he wants a more structured conversation, I’m glad to have one (and sometimes, especially when I’m dominant, I’ll ask for more conversation myself). But generally, I like seeing how things go based on a very loose set of guidelines, and making minor adjustments during the encounter, then evaluating the situation afterwards.

One of the reasons I like doing this is that unexpected things happen. On the flip side, there’s also more room for experiences that aren’t very exciting. I think I’m more likely to have disjointed or confusing encounters than a lot of other BDSMers I know, although maybe I’m just falling prey to the bias of assuming other people are doing better than I am. And Scripty Guy in particular really doesn’t like disjoint and confusion — he likes knowing what’s going to happen.

Late in the relationship, I suggested that we try going through a checklist: that is, a long list of every conceivable BDSM act, each accompanied by a rating scale (for example, there will be an entry for “flogging” where you can rate your excitement about flogging from 1-5). When people use these checklists, a lot of the time they just write their rating for each act, and give them to each other to read. What we did instead was go through the checklist together and discuss what we found hot, what was not, and whatever else came to mind.

This worked amazingly well — it totally bridged our theoretical gap and it was a turn-on in itself! (Seriously, by the time we were done going through the whole list, I could not wait to have sex with that guy.) The conversation also helped me figure out the scripted vs. un-scripted difference between us.

We stopped seeing each other for unrelated reasons soon afterwards, and they were good reasons, but it seemed like a shame; I felt like we’d only just started figuring things out. I’m not sure how well our S&M styles would have ultimately meshed, but I was curious to try. Oh well … win some, lose some.

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3) Transparent as Glass. Very rarely, I’ll end up with a BDSM partner where our brief in-the-moment communications — you know, like groans, or physical shifts, or facial expressions, or even jokes — function very well. We can get into intense, intimate S&M in a way that seems almost instinctive (although it helps future encounters if we talk it over and process what we did afterwards). This is really exciting when it happens, but I recognize it as unusual. A gift. [2]

The person I’m about to write about is totally going to get a swelled head because I write about him so much, but he’s such a good example, I have to. The first time I went home with him, I knew he wasn’t in the public BDSM community. We’d had one really vague conversation about BDSM previously, and he’d read a small sample of my work. [3] I didn’t expect anything much.

He kissed me, and then I think he gave me some kind of mild signal like a bite on my shoulder. It was a gentle bite, by my standards. So I took matters into my own hands and removed my shirt, preparing to give him some feedback. He leaned back and said, “Whoa,” and I thought, Oh damn, I’m totally going too fast for him, he’s probably not accustomed to a high degree of sexual directness, so I said, “Sorry, is this okay?” and he laughed and kind of threw up his hands and said, “Sure.”

That made me a tad nervous — if me taking off my shirt surprised him, what else would surprise him? — but I figured I’d see it through, see what happened. So I explained to him what kind of biting I really like, and showed where I like it on my back and my arms. I think I gave him a couple of other tips, too, but I honestly can’t remember; it didn’t take more than five minutes. I certainly didn’t give him an exhaustive rundown of my preferences before I said, “Does that all make sense?” and he said “Yes,” and put his hands on me.

Which is why it was so surprising that within a very short time, both of us were breathing hard and confused and maybe slightly dizzy and looking at each other with very wide eyes, and he was saying in an amazed tone: “I just — I’m a little shocked. That was really good,” and I was saying: “Yes. Yes it was.”

It went like that for a while. He’d go for it, and then pull back, and I’d drag myself out of my BDSM headspace long enough to explain one or two ideas, or reassure him that I felt fine. And then he’d go for it again. And by the end of it, I was — blazing.

Sometimes, it just works. You’ve never met this person before, you’ve talked for half an hour about something completely irrelevant like science fiction novels, yet it only takes five minutes of discussion about preferences and safewords, and then it just works. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how, but sometimes you find a partner who can just — read you, like an open book — or who seems as transparent as glass to you; or, if you’re really lucky, both.

(But I write about this with some hesitation, and I’m putting it at the end of this post after two other examples for a reason: because I don’t think it’s the standard, and I don’t think it ought to be seen as standard. Especially because, paradoxically, this kind of instinctive connection will sometimes throw me off guard, make me unlikely to communicate when I probably ought to, because if he can read me that well — it’s so tempting to assume that “he just knows” everything. But of course he doesn’t. I later had a couple rough moments with that particular guy, where I didn’t tell him about boundaries that were actually pretty important, because I thought he could just tell — and of course he couldn’t always “just tell”. Sometimes he could, but sometimes he couldn’t.)

The overall moral of the story is this. Even with him, even with this guy, who totally blindsided me with his ability to read me despite the fact that he barely knew me: even with him, I had to be able to talk directly about what I wanted. Our connection was established because I was able to say, “Okay, that bite was a tad gentle, here’s how I really like it, and here’s what not to do with your teeth on me.” All my most extraordinary sexual connections have benefited from everyone involved taking ownership of their desire, and talking about it directly at least a little bit.

I occasionally come across people who ask me how they can get their partners to do BDSM without talking about it directly. While I appreciate and sympathize with both their need to do BDSM, and their anxiety about talking about it — I just can’t get behind the premise of the question. The fantasy of a sexual relationship that is totally instinctive and perfect without any effort is just that — a fantasy. And moreover, while you might be able to get some BDSM experiences without actually having a conversation about BDSM, direct sexual communication is not a threat to your sexual experiences — it can improve them.

Do what you want, really, as long as it’s consensual. If you want to have sex that’s not communicative, that is your prerogative, as long as it’s always consensual. (It’s worth asking, though … are you so sure you can tell that it’s consensual, if you don’t talk about it?) Still. Learning how to talk about sex more directly and exactly might be hard or embarrassing or complicated, but it is seriously worth it. Not just BDSM; all sex.

It’s so worth it.

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* Footnote: That post scored me an awful lot of traffic. It also scored many comments in various venues, some of which helpfully informed me that [a] I was failing to express enough anger and that I was emotionally abused by my ex but am refusing to acknowledge it, or [b] everything I described is entirely my fault because I didn’t communicate straightforwardly enough. It makes me laugh, in my cynical and despairing way. I wonder if the people who say [a] are even remotely aware of how much they’re recapitulating [b]?

** Footnote 2: My working theory is that this is more likely to occur with men who have similar backgrounds, values, and interests to mine. Seriously, the older I get, the more convinced I am that screening men for these qualities strongly affects ease of sexual communication. A matter of shared sexual-cultural vocabulary, perhaps? (Point being, if you know what a d20 is and have detailed thoughts about NGO politics or grassroots activism, call me.) (On the other hand, I get my sexual assumptions questioned more by partners who are very different from me, which is differently awesome. Perhaps this is a microcosm of diversity issues in general.)

*** Footnote 3: Another good screening device, by the way, appears to be whether a dude enjoys reading my blog. I suppose this makes sense, but just for the record, that is not why I write.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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