Posts Tagged ‘communication’

2010 27 Sep

[porn] A Lone Villain working within an Evil Empire

I met Tim Woodman and his partner this past weekend at an S&M party. Tim — whose business cards style him a Professional Villain — produces and stars in porn, so we had an interesting conversation about consent and porn practices. Porn has never been my thing; I do emphatically oppose censoring porn, though. I’ve worked with and made friends with many sex workers, and sex workers’ rights are very important to me. And, of course, I’m an S&M activist who believes that there’s nothing wrong with BDSM (or any other kind of sex) as long as it’s 100% consensual — that BDSM deserves wider acceptance as a form of sexuality.

So it makes me sad when I hear stories and rumors about the fetish porn industry that imply that some actresses did not fully consent to the porn shoots they did. And I think that it’s important for porn consumers to push for responsible practices from the companies producing the movies they watch. It can be hard to tell whether a given company has responsible practices, though. I know that some porn companies have their actresses give interviews after the shoot, in which the actresses talk about what they experienced during the porn shoot. This seems like a step in the right direction to me, but Tim says some of those interviews are fake, which breaks my heart. It’s the kind of allegation I wouldn’t trust from an anti-porn idealogue, but Tim has real knowledge and contacts in the business — and he’s not pro-censorship — so he’s got a better perspective.

After listening to some of Tim’s thoughts, I asked him to do an interview with me. Here we are:

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Clarisse Thorn: Can you introduce yourself to my readers, and describe some of your feelings about working in the fetish porn industry?

Tim Woodman: As a self-defined “Professional Villain”, my life is a paradox. I produce fetish porn videos depicting rape, torture, and sometimes murder, but my career depends on my reputation within the industry as a good guy, whom women will enjoy working with and would be willing to work with again. Fortunately, I have been in the BDSM lifestyle even longer than I’ve been in the industry, and I already know the rules. If you want to play in the BDSM scene, you can’t break your toys!

The rules about BDSM porn are not different from the rules about BDSM in the real world. Consent is never implied, and can always be withdrawn. Negotiation is critical, and must be done thoroughly beforehand.

I know too many models who have been paid “hush money” to keep quiet about their injuries at the larger fetish porn companies. I know too many who have had their paychecks withheld until they do a positive interview. They are forced to lie on camera, telling how they enjoyed it and would do it again, when in fact the opposite was true. I know too many girls who have worked for these larger companies, and when they refused or even objected to activities that were beyond their limits, they were told that they were a “problem girl” and that they would not get much work with an attitude like that.

This kind of business practice is reprehensible. In the BDSM community, if you play like that, word quickly gets around that you are an asshole and are not to be trusted. But in the adult movie business, you can threaten and cajole women by withholding their pay. You can intimidate them by warning that nobody will hire them if they have self-respect, and are unwilling to bend or break their personal limits. That is rape. That is illegal.

We are actors. Admittedly, we are not always very good actors, but we are not getting paid to violate each other’s limits or do actual harm — we are getting paid to make it look like we are. You say you want to see a “real reaction” to breaking someone’s limits? Then you are a criminal. Would you do this in real life? Would you ask your partner what they are absolutely unwilling to do, and then once you have them tied up, do exactly that? Not twice you wouldn’t!

Admittedly, this would be easier if fetish companies only hired models who are actually into BDSM. Lifestyle fetish models know the lingo. If her wrist is numb, she says so right away. If what you’re doing is too painful or beyond some other limit, she knows to stop the scene and have it dealt with. Mainstream models don’t necessarily know this. When a mainstream model is pushed too far, she’ll usually say “How much longer are we doing this?” to which a bad director will respond “Five minutes.” Twenty minutes later she’s scarred for life. Save the intense shit for the professionals — for the lifestyle girls who love to be tied up and tortured on-screen.

On the other hand, I make a lot of my career hiring mainstream porn stars to appear in rape and torture videos. It’s not because I’m rich and can buy a good reputation. Honestly, I’m dirt-poor and can barely afford to hire models at all. Those same large companies have flooded the Internet with “free samples” of their porn, and are slowly but surely strangling smaller production companies like mine. Fortunately I have a good reputation, because I can assure even a mainstream model that she will have a positive experience with me, and I have the references to back it up.

CT: So how would you describe the way you negotiate with your porn performers? Why do you do a better job of it than others do?

TW: How do you negotiate a porn scene with mainstream girls for whom BDSM is not a lifestyle? Same as you would with a new girlfriend who has not been tied up before, or who perhaps has only a little experience. Do you start at a full-on fisting? Pine cones up the ass while setting their hair on fire? No.

Whenever I am working with a new model, whether she is experienced in fetish or not, my rules are the same. We sit and talk, and I find out exactly what she is willing to do, what she has never done but would be willing to try, and what are her hard limits. I assure her that she will be paid, regardless of what her limits are. I would much rather lose a day’s budget and get no footage at all than have even one model come away from one of my shoots with a negative experience.

CT: How would you advise porn consumers who want to make sure they’re watching porn from companies that treat their performers well?

TW: Okay, so as a good customer, you want to be responsible. You want to vote with your dollar and only support companies who treat their models well. How does a consumer like you know a good company from a bad one? The same way you would with any other industry — whether it is plumbers or car salesmen, the same principles still apply:

1) It often seems the more money a company spends on PR, the worse the company actually is. When an insurance agency spends millions on advertising, don’t you worry that they are not actually paying out their customers’ claims? When an attorney plasters his billboard all over town, does it make you think he’s a little too desperate? This can be said for BDSM porn producers as well.

2) The larger the company, the greater the chance it is owned and run by assholes who do not treat their employees well. If you have a day job, you already know this. The small guy who is struggling like mad to keep his doors open and put a quality product on the streets is far more likely to treat his employees and customers really well. He can’t afford a negative experience. He can’t just pay hush-up money, or threaten “You’ll never work in this town again!”

3) In the BDSM lifestyle world, we depend on our reputations. Thanks to blogs and Twitter and other social networking media, if something goes wrong in Los Angeles, they know about it five minutes later in New York. You want to know you’re spending money on legitimate, honorable companies? Do the research. Don’t trust their own advertising. Ask around, just like you would with a potential new play partner in the real world. You can ask absolutely any model I’ve ever worked with and she’ll say only good things about me. Can the bigger companies say the same? They can pay to keep most of the “problem girls” quiet, but the truth always gets out.

Do I mean to imply that absolutely every video produced by the “big companies” in fetish porn is despicable criminal activity? Of course not. I know a lot of models who do enjoy working for the big companies. I know some of the talent who do the “topping” [i.e., domination and sadism], and they’re not all irresponsible.

But if you want to know the company you purchase porn from is really good, if you want to know that your favorite porn stars actually enjoy working for them, then do a little research and find out for yourself. Judge the BDSM companies like you would judge anybody else in the BDSM community. Hold them to the same standards. Make them live up to the Safe Sane and Consensual guidelines that we demand in the real world, and we can all enjoy high quality entertainment that was produced responsibly.

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There is now a Lone Villain Part 2! Check out Tim’s responses to the comments below, and others.

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Thanks again to Tim Woodman for this interview. Tim runs two sites, ProVillain.com and BondageBlowJobs.com. Those two sites that I just linked to are porn sites! They are not work-safe in the slightest, and they are not intended for people who don’t like porn! If you don’t like porn or don’t want to see porn images right now, then don’t click the links to those sites! You have been warned.

2010 25 Sep

[litquote] How being good in bed is most of all about attentiveness

I would never deny that certain inborn qualities or skills can make sex a lot better. It’s true that size does, generally, matter. But I really do believe that these things matter a hell of a lot less than open-hearted and open-minded attention to one’s partner. And that’s why I love this quotation from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart.

The summer vacation of my freshman year in college, I took a random trip by myself around the Horuriku region, ran across a woman eight years older than me who was also traveling alone, and we spent one night together.

… She had a certain charm, which made it hard to figure out why she’d have any interest in someone like me — a quiet, skinny, eighteen-year-old college kid. Still, sitting across from me in the train, she seemed to enjoy our harmless banter. She laughed out loud a lot. And — atypically — I chattered away. We happened to get off at the same station, at Kanazawa. “Do you have a place to stay?” she asked me. No, I replied; I’d never made a hotel reservation in my life. I have a hotel room, she told me. You can stay if you’d like. “Don’t worry about it,” she went on, “it costs the same whether there’s one or two people.”

I was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward. I apologized to her.

“Aren’t we polite!” she said. “No need to apologize for every little thing.”

After her shower she threw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.

“Are you a good driver?” she asked.

“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so. Just average.”

She smiled. “Same with me. I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree. Which makes me average, too, I suppose. You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”

I nodded. She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.

“To a certain extent those kinds of things are inborn. Talent, you could call it. Some people are nimble; others are all thumbs …. Some people are quite attentive, and others aren’t. Right?”

Again I nodded.

“OK, consider this. Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car. And the two of you will take turns driving. Which type of person would you choose? One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”

“Probably the second one,” I said.

“Me too,” she replied. “What we have here is very similar. Good or bad, nimble or clumsy — those aren’t important. What’s important is being attentive. Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”

“Alert?” I asked.

She just smiled and didn’t say anything.

A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride. Being alert — I think I was starting to get it. For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.

The next morning after we ate breakfast together, we went our separate ways.

2010 30 Jul

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #3: Journal-Keeping

I’d like to thank all the brave pioneers of the BDSM community, for plumbing the depths of human sexuality, and coming back with maps.
~ an unsourced quotation provided by commenter Motley on my gigantic manliness thread

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I’ve already written about S&M checklists and S&M safewords, and how both those things can set really great examples for everyone’s sex life — not just us BDSMers. This entry will be about journal-keeping!

Some BDSMers play with really, really strong power dynamics. A good example of this is couples who choose a “24/7 dynamic”: one partner is dominant and the other is submissive … all the time. I attended a workshop once with Sir Top and slave bonnie, two wise BDSM educators, where I learned that slave bonnie was only ever allowed to disobey orders of two kinds:

* Suicidal orders,
* Orders that would cause financial ruin.

The rest of the time, bonnie obeyed Top — all the rest of the time.

Obviously, relationships like this are totally cool with me as long as they are — say it with me, everyone — 100% consensual! Such relationships can also encourage the use of interesting communication tactics, because many of the usual tactics don’t feel right to the participants. For example, these relationships often take place between people who feel such a strong power dynamic that it would be almost impossible for the submissive to feel comfortable safewording — safewording can feel disconcertingly like a form of resistance.

One way of dealing with this problem is for both partners to keep journals that are open to the other partner. (With some couples, only the submissive keeps an open journal.) They talk about their romantic feelings, they process their sexual encounters, they articulate anxieties, etc. Here’s an example of some great submissive journaling prompts. The idea is that it’s easier to express these things when there’s a designated space for it outside the relationship; the journals mean that partners (especially submissives) can talk about what they need without fearing that they’re undermining the power dynamic.

I find the concept of simultaneous journals intriguing for a number of reasons. One is that I’ve used similar tactics myself; I kept a private journal for many years, and once in a long while I’d give entries to my partners when I needed to explain something complicated about my feelings. I only did this a few times, ever, but it was really effective when I did.

Later, I took to writing love letters that I noticed were very similar to both my journal entries, and to the simultaneous relationship journals suggested for Master/slave couples. I realized that I was writing letters because, at the time, I felt more comfortable writing about my desires than talking about them. I’ve gotten a million times better at talking about my sexuality honestly and shamelessly since then; but back then, there were definitely things I wrote to my partners that I couldn’t have said aloud. I also wrote because — just like Master/slave couples — I wanted to communicate my feelings outside the anxiety-inducing frameworks of the “serious discussion”, the bedroom, etc.

So when I developed my sexual communication workshop, I encouraged love letters. I gave two suggested points of departure for a love letter:

1) Describe what happened during a sexual encounter you had together, with particular emphasis on what your partner did that you really liked — and what you liked about it. (“I love it when you fuck me” is a great thing to say, but you give much more information to your partner if you say “I love it when you fuck me from behind,” or even better, “I love it when you fuck me from behind and it feels amazing when your balls hit my clit.” This blog does not necessarily reflect the desires or encounters of Miss Clarisse Thorn.)

2) Describe a fantasy you have. Bonus points if you explicitly put your partner in it. (“I like to imagine you sinking your teeth into me until I scream.” This blog does not necessarily … oh, who am I kidding.)

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Check out the previous posts in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists and Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins.

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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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2010 14 Jul

[litquote] Hot vanilla sex scene includes checking in

For a sex writer, I’m surprisingly indifferent to sex scenes. Predictably, I’m quoting this one from Kate Furnivall’s novel The Russian Concubine for a theoretical reason: because it gives not one, but two instances of checking in with one’s partner to ensure their continuing sexual consent … and the sex goes on afterwards just fine. One of the most frequently-heard complaints about ensuring consent is that it will supposedly “ruin the moment”. But if that were really true, then you’d never find check-ins being glorified in hot romance novel sex scenes!

Note: the main character has never had penis-in-vagina sex before.

It was as if her skin became something other than skin. It grew so alive it leaped out of her control, rubbed itself against his body, her hip pressing against his, her hands touching, searching, stroking, seeking out each bone of his back, his flat wide shoulder blades, the curve of his buttocks. Her lips opened to his and the unexpected sensation of their tongues entwining sent such a shiver of delicious shock through her body that it made him stop, lift his head, and gaze at her with concern.

But she laughed, almost a purr, and wrapped her arms around his neck, drawing him back to her once more. …

[make-outs, make-outs, make-outs]

Abruptly she could hold back no longer and she took his good hand, placed it between her legs. Instantly he lifted his head so that his mouth and her tongue could merge with her own, and his fingers started to caress the moist heart between her legs, gently at first, then firmer, harder. She moaned, and under it she heard a low breathless growl that was him. She lost track of time. A minute or an hour, she had no idea. She wrapped a leg up over his hip and felt his penis tight against her cleft, the pulse of it hot and needy.

And suddenly he was above her. His lips kissing her eyelids until she opened them and found his dark gaze looking down on her with an expression so tender and so full of longing that she knew she would carry it with her till her dying day. His mouth moved against her own.

“My sweet love,” he breathed. “Tell me this is what you want.”

For reply she bucked her hips so that the tip of him slid inside her and she heard his quick intake of breath. His teeth bit down on her lip. Slowly, gently, with infinite care he entered her. A one point a sharp pain made her cry out but he held her close, murmuring, whispering, eating her up.

Quick analysis:

One of the check-ins in this scene was totally non-verbal, and the other one involved only one partner speaking. Moral of the story: if you think check-ins aren’t hot or can’t be done without ruining the moment, then maybe that’s because you have a very narrow idea of what a check-in looks like. If you’re interested in more on this, try reading my post on safewords and check-ins.

(Final note: I don’t know if the author would call this a “romance novel”, which some would say is a scornful term. The Russian Concubine is definitely better-written than your average romance novel, and it also features Chinese history during the Communist revolution, and stuff. My point is that I’m not meaning to insult it or anything, but, like. It’s pretty freakin’ romantic.)

2010 3 Jul

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins

Everyone knows about BDSM safewords … or at least, everyone thinks they know about safewords. But one of the initial moments that really impressed me about my current boyfriend was when I asked him, many moons ago, if he knew what a safeword is. He paused, then answered, “I think I’m familiar with the idea, but I probably don’t know much more than a stereotype, so I’d like to hear you define it.” Humility and open-minded curiosity are so incredibly hot!

Righto. Hot boyfriend aside, I’m here to explain safewords and check-ins, and how those concepts can exemplify excellent sexual communication for everyone — not just S&Mers — in a world that doesn’t do a good job teaching anyone how to communicate sexually.

When two (or more) people have a BDSM encounter together, generally they set a safeword — a word that anyone can say at any time to stop the action. (Sometimes people don’t use safewords. This is their choice and I totally respect it. I would not recommend going without safewords for anyone who doesn’t know their partner extremely well, and I would be seriously sketched out by anyone who pressured a partner to go without safewords.)

When I give advice about setting safewords, I usually offer the following:

A) Some people like to say that it’s good to use a safeword that’s jolting, and is likely to make your partner feel totally unsexy. Isn’t there a “Family Guy” episode in which Lois & Peter’s safeword is “banana” or something?

B) In my experience, the generally accepted safewords in the S&M community are “safeword” and, more commonly, “red”. I consider it useful to go with the “public standard” because that means that in the future, you’re likely to be attuned to the correct word if you practice BDSM with other partners as well. (It also means that if you ever do S&M in a public space such as a dungeon, everyone in the place will recognize your safeword if you scream it.)

C) At first I wasn’t that excited about this, but I’ve grown to love the fact that the safeword “red” also sometimes encompasses “green” — and “yellow”. That means that if I’m in the middle of an S&M encounter, I can say “red” and my partner will stop; I can then catch my breath and say “green”, which means “by God keep going!” Or, if I’m a little uncertain about the territory but don’t actually want my partner to stop — if I just want my partner to be a little bit cautious — then I can say “yellow” (and, of course, I can move to “green” if I become really psyched, or shift to “red” if I really want my partner to stop).

I know that this probably doesn’t sound sexy at all, but it totally can be! Consider the following example: during my last vacation to America, I had an S&M encounter with a dude I’ll refer to as Klark. (It’s not my fault. He requested the pseudonym.) At one point, Klark was experimenting with hurting me, and I had my eyes closed and was whimpering / crying out in a totally glorious way. (The poor overnight desk clerk. He was only one short flight of stairs away from us.) I think Klark was legitimately having trouble detecting whether I was enjoying myself, though — understandably, because we had only just met, and I enjoy sinking myself into dramatic masochistic misery — so he leaned over me and said, in a low dark voice, “Red, yellow, green.” Immediately, I gasped back “Green”. Because he spoke in a gritty and dominant voice, and the check-in was quick, we were able to maintain the mood — and it was actually kind of hot in itself.

Which brings me to the other thing: check-ins. Sometimes, you want to check in with your partner. Which can be easy: you can just say, “Hey, how does this feel?” or, as a more precise example, “Give me a rating of 1-10 on how good this feels (or how much this hurts).” But if you want to do it quickly and without shifting the mood, you can do it as I outline above in the Klark example. Or even quicker, as for example with the hand-squeeze system, where the participants agree ahead of time that you can squeeze another person’s hand twice and expect two squeezes back — and if there aren’t two return squeezes, it’s time to stop and figure out what’s going wrong. (Squeeze system: also very helpful when gags are involved.) (And here’s a literary example of check-ins in a vanilla encounter.)

Sometimes submissives will have a hard time safewording — whether out of pride, inexperience, or eagerness to please — and that’s another reason check-ins can be good even when there’s a set safeword. If you aren’t sure how to read your partner’s reactions and you suspect ze may be uncomfortable with what you are doing, then you might consider checking in even if ze hasn’t safeworded, because your suspicion may be right.

What I love about safewords and check-ins:

1) Hypothetically, mainstream society acknowledges that anyone could say no at any point during sex, but in practice, this is really hard. A variety of forces — girls socially pressured not to be so-called “cock-teases”, boys socially pressured to supposedly “prove their manliness”, and everyone anxious to please their partners — work against people’s capacity to say no; and while there is a vague understanding that “no means no”, that vagueness is as far as it gets. There’s no explicit framework in place for how to say “no”, and no understanding of how to continue an encounter (or relationship) after one’s partner says no. Even worse, there’s an assumed linear progression of sexual activity — the best example is the “base system”, which places sexual interaction on a metaphorical baseball diamond where “first base” = groping and “home base” = penis-in-vagina sex. Have I mentioned that I hate the base system?

So anyway, the biggest moral of the story with safewords and check-ins is that consent does not only happen once. Consent is always happening, and can always be renegotiated or withdrawn. Adapting my understanding of sexuality to reflect this — even in my non-BDSM sex — might have been the best thing that ever happened to my sex life.

2) On a related note: Good sex is not about entitlement. If we acknowledge that anyone can safeword out of any sexual act at any time, then we acknowledge that no one is entitled to any kind of sex from a partner — ever. If your partner loves you but doesn’t want to have sex with you? That’s a respectable choice. If you’re really turned on, but your partner can’t stand the idea of having sex right now? That’s a respectable choice. Those two are easy, I think, but how about these?

+ If your partner used to do something with you a lot, but doesn’t want to do it anymore? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you are married to your partner, but ze doesn’t want to have sex? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If your partner performed a sexual act with another partner but would prefer not to do it with you? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you know your partner likes a certain kind of sex, but they don’t want to do it right now? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you think a certain act is “mild” and “taken for granted”, like kissing or tickling, but your partner doesn’t want to do it? That’s a respectable choice.

By the way, if you (like I once did) feel as though your partner is entitled to sex of any kind, I encourage you to re-examine that feeling. Ditto if you’ve got a little voice in your head telling you that you “ought to” be up for sex all the time just because you don’t get it very often … or that you “ought to” be up for sex if you’ve done it with your partner before … or whatever. The other best thing that ever happened to my sex life was when I finally, finally, finally internalized the idea that my partners don’t ever “deserve” sex for any reason — that there’s no reason I ever “should” be having sex — and that the only reason I should ever, ever, ever do anything sexual is because I legitimately want to.

Of course, if you truly believe that you need a certain kind of sexuality in your life, then you’re absolutely entitled to ask your partner to consider it — and you’re entitled to leave the relationship if ze isn’t up for it. But this doesn’t mean that you “deserve” to do that act with that person, or that your partner “owes” you a certain act.

And hey, if your partner isn’t down with one specific sexual act, then that means you’ve got the chance to explore all kinds of other sexuality. Another other best thing that ever happened to my sexuality? Quite possibly, it’s my current boyfriend — whose religious adherence has drastically limited our physical sexual options.

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Check out the previous post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists, not to mention the next post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #3: Journal-Keeping.

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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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2010 14 Jun

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists

I’ve often written that the BDSM community encourages really excellent sexual communication, and I’ve been meaning to write further about specifics for … um … years. (Oops.) So I’m finally getting around to describing one of my personal favorite sexual communication tactics: checklists!

S&M checklists are long lists of different acts that sexual partners can use to discuss different acts and measure each others’ interest in those acts. Here is an excellent example. Each act on the checklist usually looks something like this:

FLOGGING — GIVING __________________ O O O O O
FLOGGING — RECEIVING ______________ O O O O O

Each partner rates each entry by filling out 1-5 bubbles, with 1 darkened bubble meaning “Not interested” and 5 bubbles meaning “I crave this!”

I think this concept is brilliant because:

1) Too often, it’s assumed that “sex” encompasses certain acts, and if you’re interested in a sexual relationship you must be interested in all those acts. Or there’s assumed to be a kind of linear progression, as exemplified in the “base system” — you know, where “first base” is groping and “home base” is penis-in-vagina sex. (Man, I hate the base system.) Talking about each sexual act as its own self-contained idea short-circuits those problematic ideas about sex and makes it easier for couples to turn down some of the “assumed” acts (e.g., if I don’t want oral sex but I do want penis-in-vagina …).

2) It provides an easy way to communicate desires — if a person is nervous about saying, “Hey, is it okay if I flog you?” then the couple doesn’t even have to talk about it right away. They can just sit down, fill out their checklists and compare results without getting too worried about how to bring up certain desires. I mean, at some point of course they’ll hopefully talk about it, but hopefully the checklist framework makes it easier and lower-pressure.

3) Concurrently, it provides an easy way to turn down acts — it’s much harder to reject a lover’s proposition when ze says, “Darling, can I flog you?” than it is when you simply fill in one bubble on the “Flogging — Receiving” section. In the past, I’ve certainly felt a lot of anxiety when I wanted to turn down partners, and it’s nice to imagine a set-up that would have made me feel less anxious.

In fact, I love the checklist concept so much that when the University of Illinois at Chicago had me design my sexual communication workshop, I created a “vanilla” version of the checklist that had entries ranging from “oral sex” to “sex in public” to “tying up / being tied up”. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely vanilla … well, I wanted to encourage people to voice things they weren’t sure about!) You can download my vanilla-ified checklist here. Also, Scarleteen has their own version of a vanilla sexual checklist, which is way more comprehensive than mine!

I just love the principle of the thing — the principle that a couple can have a lot of fun just by sitting down and talking about every conceivable sex act, being presented with some options that they maybe haven’t thought of before, and honestly describing how into each idea they each are.

If you want to learn more about how I’ve actually used checklists, here’s my article about sex communication case studies.

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Check out the second post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins.

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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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2010 28 May

[advice] Sexual Openness: 2 ways to encourage it

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the factors that went into my sexual evolution. People have always seen me as sexually open-minded, and I had an extraordinarily liberal upbringing … but at the same time, I think I spent a long time surprisingly buttoned-up. For example: I didn’t explore S&M properly until my twenties, and I didn’t figure out how to orgasm until after that.

Part of it was the men I fell in love with, the partners I had. Monogamy felt right to me, and that effectively meant that once I was in a relationship, it was hard to explore sexuality beyond what my lovers were comfortable with. I’ve often looked back in frustration at sexual shame and inhibitions that I feel were imposed on me by some past partners. But at the same time, there’s no denying that — even when my partners were relatively inhibited — I was with those men partly because I felt comfortable with them. I recall conversations in which I felt frustrated at a lover’s unwillingness to explore or discuss certain things … but I also recall times when I felt relieved that they were willing to leave those things alone.

How did I evolve through that balance and come into the place where I am today, where my sexual boundaries have shifted dramatically? I’m up for trying things just to see what they’re like; I routinely have fantasies that would have appalled me in my teens; and I routinely have orgasms as well …. But why is it that, for example, I’m very interested in having multiple partners now, but wasn’t at all interested a few years ago? Why did I initially swear I’d never wear a collar, then end up associating collars with profound sexual love? How is it that I initially considered myself solely a submissive but later transitioned into an enthusiastic switch (i.e., both a sub and a domme)?

Here are the two factors that, I think, facilitate sexual evolution and openness:

1) A pressure-free environment.

This is key! A person can be pressured into sexual exploration, but in my experience it won’t “take”. Many people (though not all) who feel pressure react by becoming defensive and unwilling to change; even if they do try the experiment, they’re less likely to enjoy it. And someone who has a bad sexual experience will often have trouble enjoying that kind of sex in the future.

Take me, for example — there were a lot of reasons why I felt less willing to experiment with polyamory (multiple relationships) when I was 20, but one of the big ones is that I felt lots of pressure to be poly. Because I ran in highly “alternative” social circles, I was meeting “polyvangelists” who argued that polyamory is the “best” kind of relationship and that anyone who doesn’t want to try poly is just being selfish or close-minded. General social pressure exerts an influence, so it helps to have open-minded friends who accept different forms of consensual sexuality — which doesn’t just mean that “vanilla” people would do well to accept those of us who are “non-standard”, but also means that even people in “alternative” circles have to accept “mainstream” sexuality.

But in my experience, the actual sexual relationships are the most relevant aspect of life that must be sexually pressure-free. They’re also one of the most difficult, especially when the stakes are high: if one or both parties are helplessly in love, if they are married, if they have children, if they live together … then it becomes very hard to make the relationship pressure-free. A husband who is afraid that his wife might leave him is more likely to do sexual things for her that make him uncomfortable because he wants her to stay, for example — even if she doesn’t ask him to. A girl who is totally in love with her boyfriend is more likely to acquiesce to sex that she’s not really into, because of course she wants to please him — but she is simultaneously unlikely to tell him outright that she’s not into it.

And then there’s the fact that what feels like “pressure” for each person will be different depending on that person’s triggers, the relationship, and the time in their life. Today, I feel totally comfortable setting limits and clearly telling my partner “no” if he asks me to do something I don’t want to do … but it wasn’t so long ago that I’d feel anxiety-inducing pressure to do something if my boyfriend merely mentioned that he liked it. Which brings me to my next point: there’s a fine line between sharing and pressure. One must be careful when bringing up one’s own preferences and desires — which isn’t to say one shouldn’t bring them up! Merely that it’s important to recognize that these are difficult topics, and when we discuss them with people we love or admire, there’s lots of potential for accidental anxious pressure.

Okay, I’m talking pretty theoretically, right? So here’s some actual concrete advice on how to avoid imposing sexual pressure:

* Don’t demand that people explain their preferences. A person doesn’t have to explain, examine, or “figure out” why they’re gay, straight, kinky, polyamorous, or whatever if they don’t want to. Even your sexual partner doesn’t have to explain why they don’t want to do something if they don’t want to.

In fact, it may be very helpful if you merely make it clear that your partner doesn’t have to explain from the beginning — because they may feel as if they ought to, even if you don’t ask. I so clearly remember an encounter I had a few years ago in which my partner asked what I was up for and I said, hesitantly, “Well, I’m not really up for sex tonight … I can’t really explain it, I –” and he held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain it,” he said — and I was totally shocked at the gratitude, relief and comfort that poured through me.

I later felt proud and thrilled to “pay it forward” when I had my first serious encounter as a dominant. Towards the end of the encounter, I asked, “Do you want me?” and my submissive stiffened, saying awkwardly, “Yes, I do, but … I don’t want to have sex so soon, it’s just one of my own boundaries, I –” and I saw how much the words were costing him. Saw the same anxiety I’d felt once. And immediately I covered his mouth and said, “Shh, it’s fine, you don’t have to explain it,” and I saw him relax with the same terrible relief I’d once felt. And then we made out for many hours and it was unbelievably awesome.

… Of course, sometimes people will want to examine their own preferences, which is obviously fine! But if your partner or friend is examining for their own mental well-being, that’s very different from demanding that they examine to satisfy you. Bottom line: they don’t owe you an explanation, and asking for one may just make them tense up and feel totally unsexy in all ways.

* Express preferences gently. I once attended an incredible BDSM workshop by the author Laura Antoniou in which she offered an outline for bringing up your filthiest, scariest fantasy with your partner: “Buy ice cream. Sit down at the kitchen table and describe your fantasy. Then say, ‘Don’t say anything now. I’ll give you some time to think about it — now let’s eat this ice cream and maybe go out for a movie.'” I love this advice because (a) everyone gets ice cream and (b) it’s so perfect for lowering tension. And as Laura said, “The worst thing that can happen is that they’re not into it.”

It’s important to emphasize from the start that, “This is something I’m interested it, but it’s not a requirement and I don’t want you to do it if you’re not into it.” In fact, it might help to begin by saying those exact words.

And if your partner doesn’t want to do something now, it’s often worth giving time for them to grow into the idea. Perhaps by exploring other sexual angles, they’ll come around to yours. I remember that when I was in my late teens, one boyfriend asked me if I’d be up for a certain kind of sex, and I refused. (He asked very gently, and didn’t pressure me when I said no, which made me feel much safer and happier with him!) At the time I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do it. Then a few years later — after I’d gained a lot more sexual experience — I ended up asking my boyfriend to try it! I’m convinced that if my previous partner had pressured me, I wouldn’t have come around to it so easily years later — and if he and I had still been together, then maybe we would have even done it together.

… But of course, the difficult part here is that sexual needs are important, and can’t be put on the back burner indefinitely. If you have sexual needs that are being routinely ignored — or can’t be fulfilled — by your partner, then it’s obviously not desirable to keep gently saying, “Don’t worry, I can do without this.” Still, I think that if you’re approaching ultimatum territory — for example, if you are tempted to say that “If you can’t satisfy this need, then I need an open relationship so I can find someone who can, or else we have to break up” — then it’s best to at least state the ultimatum gently, emphasize that you care about your partner and this is difficult, and steel yourself to act quickly in case you have to go through with your ultimatum. And, of course, to understand that this could make sexuality with your partner more difficult if you keep trying to date through ultimatum territory.

Sadly, sexual pressure can sometimes be simply unavoidable. Sometimes the best we can do is be gentle, understanding, and prepared to face the consequences.

2) Exposure to new conceptions of sexuality, sexual mentors, and sex education

Many gay people say they’re “wired” for a certain approach to sexuality, but there’s also others, such as some BDSMers, who consider ourselves to be innately kinky. And we often say that we would have come to those sexual conclusions and practices whether we had examples before us, or not. (Even so, it’s really helpful to have a community sharing tips and emotional support, especially when it comes to alternative sexuality. It might seem like sex will come naturally and obviously, but sometimes non-obvious things can really trip you up!)

Still, there are lots of sexual ideas are worth exploring and wouldn’t necessarily occur to us if we didn’t have examples before us: erotica, pornography, friends and mentors, workshops and educational materials. Here’s some concrete advice on how best to emotionally access those:

* Find a good mentor, or at least a friend or social group, to talk about sex with — who you don’t want to have sex with. Being able to honestly discuss turn-ons in a neutral environment is invaluable, as is someone who can guide and advise without inserting their preferences and desires into the conversation. Naturally, it’s entirely possible to have a good sexual relationship with a sexual mentor — and sometimes, mentor (or friend) relationships evolve in unexpectedly sexual ways. But it can be very useful to take that element out of at least some relationships.

One piece of advice that I love is for mentors to be the same “type”. That is, for example, if you’re a heterosexual female submissive, it’s awesome to have an experienced heterosexual female submissive mentor if possible. edit 5/31/10: Commenter Ranai pointed out that it’s not always a great idea to have just one mentor, though — and I agree with her. I think it’s helpful to have a range of voices who can give advice, if possible — not that there’s anything wrong with trusting one person above others, but all humans have their blind spots, and mentors are human too. This is one thing I love about the BDSM community, by the way (or at least, my experience with the BDSM communities I have been part of — not all BDSM communities are the same …). In many BDSM communities, there are many café meetups and other low-pressure gatherings that make perfect environments for getting this kind of advice! end of edit

* Not all BDSM — or porn — or whatever! — is the same. If you don’t like (or are even revolted by) something you see, then you can try watching (or reading, or talking about) something else. Me, I got really excited when I first learned about Comstock Films, because they’re so much more realistic and comfortably sexual than mainstream porn. And I really didn’t like mainstream porn. But then I found that I wasn’t that into Comstock Films themselves, even though I love the idea so much that I screened one of the movies at my sex-positive film series. So I concluded that I’m just not into porn at all, and that I’d be better off to focus on written erotica.

But then I finally saw some porn that turned me on at CineKink — and I hadn’t even expected it to turn me on! I’d just been watching out of academic interest! And these days, I find that I’m sometimes turned on by watching the mainstream porn I tried so hard to avoid in the first place. The moral of the story is obvious.

The bottom line is that mere exposure to new ideas about sexuality can bring personal sexual evolution — and that’s awesome. So if you’re interested in facilitating your own sexual evolution, the first thing to do is learn about sexuality by whatever means possible.

* * *

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.

* * *

2009 5 Nov

Withdrawing consent

While waiting for the firestorm over my three masculinity posts to die down (I’ll post a followup soon, promise), I want to parse out some recent thoughts on — you guessed it — consent!

I’ve been dating a guy here in Africa whom I will henceforth refer to as Chastity Boy.* I recently wrote a piece on my southern Africa experience that included descriptions of my relationship with him. I texted him, asking permission to write about him — which he granted — and then the next time I saw him in person, I had him go over the writing and specifically give consent for the piece itself. I warned him that the writing would almost certainly end up in a public place, though it would be under my scene name Clarisse.

This step accomplished, I sent the piece to some friends for feedback. One of those people was a mutual friend. Chastity Boy heard that she’d read it and wasn’t happy; he asked me about it, saying things like, “Well, it wasn’t quite a red flag, but close …” Naturally, with him talking about red flags, I felt scared that I’d transgressed a serious boundary. My ears perked up, I sat straighter and I tried to figure out why I’d failed to sense that boundary.

We talked for a while. “I don’t understand,” I eventually said. “You knew those pieces could end up in public. That’s why I thought it was okay to send them to her.”

“Well, but that’s different … I knew it’d be in public, but I didn’t expect people I know to see it,” he said. He thought about it some more. “I guess it just took me by surprise.”

“Do you want me to edit some parts of the pieces, or not post them?”

“No,” he said. “You can keep writing whatever you like about me.”

I asked if he was sure. He assented. I asked if he was really sure. He assented again. I asked if there was anyone in particular he didn’t want knowing about my identity as Miss Clarisse Thorn. He told me, and with that understanding, we closed the topic.

The whole incident got me thinking, though. Eventually, if I publish those pieces, he won’t be able to withdraw consent. I myself won’t be able to, either: after all, once published, it’s published. Even if circumstances change drastically, even if I’m outed, etc. etc. etc. … it’s out there: end of story. Especially in today’s highly backed-up and mirrored world, it’s nearly impossible to bury something once it’s been tossed into the public arena.

The ability to withdraw consent is one of the cornerstones of BDSM communication. (In a hypothetical world that did a good job of teaching vanilla relationship communication, I’d think it would be one cornerstone of that, too.) Hence our most basic tactic — safewords, which even most mainstream folks have heard about by now. There are some tricky aspects of using safewords well: you want to ensure that the safeword is easily pronounced, for instance; you want to ensure that both parties have access to some kind of safeword-signal at all times, even when (for example) gagged. Most importantly, you want to ensure that all parties feel comfortable safewording. This is often the hardest part, since (for example) bottoms can have a ton of pride wrapped up in not safewording, or be so desperate to please the top that they’ll feel guilty for safewording. (And tops may feel as though, since they’re “in charge”, they have no “reason” or “right” to safeword.)

Ultimately, I think all those issues come down to mastering good communication tactics and learning to read one’s partner. For instance, I’ve had a number of tops stop the scene before I safeworded because they accurately sensed my distaste before I was sure we should stop (and I’ve done the same myself, while topping).

But the situation with Chastity Boy isn’t like that. His consent is bounded by factors beyond my control, which any amount of good mutual communication can’t change. Past a certain point, he can’t withdraw consent.

It reminds me of a situation I once saw outlined on a FetLife discussion board. A fetish model who’d had a relationship with her photographer was posting. She said that she’d signed a model release (that is, a document giving up all rights to his pictures of her), and that they’d taken photographs together for years. Now they’d broken up, and she wanted him to take down the pictures, but he wouldn’t do it. She was asking the group if she had any recourse.

My initial reaction to her question was to feel indignant on her behalf. Obviously, I thought, her ex was being an ass! She might have no legal recourse, but I figured that at the very least she might be able to ruin his reputation in the BDSM community, and I said so. Then, however, I read some of the other comments, and I reconsidered. It’s true that her ex was perhaps being a jerk, but he also might not have been; it’s impossible to tell without his input. As a photographer, those photos were part of his livelihood, and was it reasonable for her to demand that he lose that money just because they’d broken up? Too, there’s the fact that models who sign model releases with other photographers would never be able to “take back” the pictures: those photos aren’t theirs and never will be. It might arguably be different for a fetish model than it would be for, say, a Nordstrom model, because leaving fetish photographs public could affect her future relationships in ways that a Nordstrom photo shoot wouldn’t. But the basic commercial framework is the same.

So here’s the question that came out of this, for me. What are my responsibilities in a situation where consent, ultimately, will have to be permanent? What were the photographer’s responsibilities?

Hmm. But maybe I should back up a bit! Maybe the situation of the model and of Chastity Boy can be compared, if not to a heated BDSM encounter itself, then to a BDSM encounter that has lasting effects: for instance, one that leaves bruises or scars. In such a situation, I think the top has the responsibility to ask the bottom ahead of time where it’s okay to leave marks (and what kind of marks are acceptable). A top who deliberately marks a bottom in a place where the bottom doesn’t want to be marked has violated that bottom’s consent. But if a bottom gives permission — with full understanding of what the marks will look like and how long they could last — then there’s no way to withdraw consent once marked.

True, the bottom could have “morning after” regrets, just as the model had regrets upon breaking up with her ex. But those regrets do not a violation make. The only potential violation would arise from a top’s (or photographer’s) failure to clarify the consequences of their acts. I do think that it’s incumbent upon all partners to be open to feedback, of course! The good tops I know are open to discussing a bottom’s morning-after regrets, if the bottom has any. But it’s also incumbent upon a bottom to take ownership of their own responsibility for those regrets.

One might argue that the responsibilities of a writer are different from the responsibilities of a kinkster. Must I as a writer be as careful as I am during BDSM, in gaining consent? After all, there are plenty of writers out there who aren’t anywhere near as cautious with their muses as kinksters try to be with our partners …. Still, I think any artist who plans to portray a sexual partner explicitly should observe the same care with that person’s boundaries as they would while actually having sex with them. Other personal information (for instance, writing about how my boyfriend drinks his coffee) may require less care; but sexual boundaries are as sensitive when portrayed in a memoir as they would be in person, and deserve the same respect.

So, here are my responsibilities — as both kinkster and sex writer: not just to get consent ahead of time, but to be very sure that my partners know exactly what the long-term consequences could be.

* * *

* This moniker arises from the fact that he’s got a vow of chastity going — yeah, I know, it’s beautifully ironic that a sex activist is dating such a man! And I do, of course, have his consent to call him that.

2009 30 Apr

Evidence that the BDSM community does not enable abuse

How can you tell BDSM from abuse?

People ask me this all the time.

The idea behind that question is that BDSM “looks like” abuse. BDSM can leave bruises or other marks of pain. When two people are having a BDSM encounter, then — if an outsider were to walk in in the middle — it might look like a scene of abuse. Hence, one of the biggest fears that people outside the BDSM community have about BDSM is that — although it appears to be consensual — BDSM enables abuse, or is used as a mask for abuse.

Are some BDSM relationships abusive? Unfortunately, some are. But abuse happens, sometimes, in all relationships. There are lots of non-BDSM relationships, whose participants have never even heard of BDSM, that are abusive. And the fact is that the majority of BDSM relationships — just like the majority of vanilla relationships — are completely consensual encounters between adults who have specifically sought out, opened themselves up to, their own BDSM desires.

Just as importantly, there are swaths of the BDSM community that actively work against abuse within the community.

I want to caution, before I talk about this, that the “BDSM community” is a big place. Plus, there are many BDSM communities out there — not just one. There are BDSM communities in cities around the world, and within those city-communities, there are multiple smaller communities. Here in Chicago, for instance, there are communities based around multiple BDSM clubs, multiple BDSM events, and more. And all the BDSM communities that exist are filled with many different voices, and all those voices will agree and disagree with me to varying extents.

But I can observe some commonalities from various BDSM communities I’ve participated in. And one of those commonalities is that many (if not most) kinksters are very concerned about potential abuse. Arguably, the greater BDSM community contains a far higher proportion of people who worry about abuse, than the rest of the world does.

You can tell partly because of the steps BDSM people are frequently trained to take within our relationships, to ensure that we communicate well and do not misunderstand each other. Safewords are the most common example of these kinds of anti-abusive communication tactics. I think the more convincing argument, however, comes from these examples of specific anti-abuse initiatives from the community:

Anti-Abuse Initiative #1: The Lesbian Sex Mafia, an old and respected BDSM group in New York City, has a short page on its website devoted to the difference between BDSM and abuse. The page has a list of quick, comparative maxims designed to explain the difference simply, and ends by providing the number for an abuse hotline.

Anti-Abuse Initiative #2: At one point, while sorting files up at the Leather Archives and Museum, I found a copy of an anti-abuse pamphlet created by The Network/La Red that has been distributed at various dungeons, BDSM workshops, and other BDSM community spaces in the Northeast.

Here’s one panel from the pamphlet — I think it speaks for itself:

(For the rest of the pamphlet, check out the images at my Flickr account — here’s the front, and here’s the back.)

Anti-Abuse Initiative #3: In September in San Francisco, I attended a workshop put on by Angela of EduKink, an excellent BDSM educator. The workshop was titled “Emotional Aspects of BDSM Play”, and there was a section that talked about how to look out for abuse in a BDSM relationship. Angela described:

Four General Guidelines for Recognizing the Difference Between BDSM and Abuse

1) Consent. BDSM is consenting; abuse is not.
a) Assuming consent was given — was it informed consent? Did everyone know what they were consenting to?
b) Was consent coerced or seduced from the partner? Did everyone feel like they could say no if they wanted? Was anyone worried about suffering negative consequences if they said no?

2) Intent. A BDSM partner intends to have a mutually enjoyable encounter; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did everyone leave the scene feeling somewhat satisfied?

3) Damage. A BDSM partner tries to minimize the actual damage inflicted by their actions; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did the two partners learn what they were doing before they did it? Did they learn how to perform their activities safely?
b) Were the partners aware of the potential risks of their activities?

4) Secrecy. Abuse often happens in secret. This is the hardest one on this checklist, because — due to the fact that BDSM is a very marginalized, misunderstood sexuality — BDSM often happens in secret, too. But this is one of the benefits of having an entire subculture that deals with BDSM: we look out for each other.
a) Were the two partners involved in the local BDSM scene? Did they get advice from knowledgeable, understanding BDSM people during rough patches in their relationship?

* * *

The moral of the story here is … for a community that’s so frequently accused of hiding or accepting abuse, doesn’t it seem like the BDSM scene puts in an awful lot of work against abuse? Again, I can’t speak for all BDSM communities, nor can I speak for everyone who has had BDSM experiences; and I know that — as with all types of relationships — there will occasionally be abusive BDSM relationships. But the three anti-abuse initiatives I’ve listed above are hardly unique, and many of us within the BDSM community work to emphasize those ideas as much as possible.

We’re not monsters. We’re not trying to do things that our partners don’t want to do. I have never met anyone within the BDSM scene who was not exquisitely aware of how careful we must be to gain consent from our partners. I’m not saying that people who don’t care about consent don’t exist — I’m not saying that abusers don’t exist — even within our community. But the community as a whole dislikes abuse at least as much as any other community. The only difference between us and non-BDSM people is that we feel violence and dominance as a language of love; violence and dominance is not, for us, intrinsically abusive — rather, something to be considered in context and with full understanding of the involved parties’ BDSM needs.

2009 25 Mar

[storytime/advice] On Collars

I received a lot of really great positive feedback after I gave my BDSM Overview presentation at the Museum of Sex. One of my favorite letters was this one. I swear, I should start an advice column ….

Her letter (posted with permission):

Hello Clarisse,

I attended your lecture at the Museum of Sex on Friday and I just wanted to say that it was very helpful for me. I’m very new to the BDSM scene and I guess I’m being mentored by a dominant who I am dating. He’s very patient and understanding with me, but I’ve had quite a difficult time accepting even the fact that I am submissive. As I once told him, to me submissive equates weak and helpless. I’ve always wanted to think of myself as a strong, independent, feminist woman so I am having a hard time with this. It definitely made me feel better to hear you talk about your similar struggle. I am not being coerced, or lured into anything I don’t want — I am definitely submissive and interested in BDSM and exploring that whole path — but it took me a while to accept that I am submissive, and I do have issues with it a little still. I just want to make sure you understand that it’s not an issue of being forced or asked to do anything I don’t want to do.

But I did want to ask about the use of collars. I don’t know if this is more of a personal preference, but he is interested in buying me a collar and I just can’t shake the association with pets, slaves, a.k.a. degradation! He is the most charming man I know and treats me better than any “vanilla” boyfriend I’ve had, so I know he would never want to degrade me, but I just can’t shake those associations and a collar means a lot to him. Do you have any advice?

I answered:

Of course I can’t tell you whether it’s right for you to let your boyfriend collar you. Of course only you can make that decision. You already know those things, I hope! What I can tell you is about my own experience.

First, though, a side note. You might consider trying to find a different mentor, rather than relying on someone you’re romantically involved with. I mean, you might want to have this man stay your lover, but find a separate person who can mentor you.

For one thing, it’s a really good idea to have a mentor who is of your “type” — so for instance, as a bottom, I’d advise you to find a mentor who has experience bottoming. For another thing, it’s a good idea in any relationship to make sure that you have resources for advice and assistance other than your partner. And this is especially true of fledgling BDSM relationships, where there’s so much new to learn and understand! Of course, part of seeking an outside advisor is that you want to feel sure that you’re getting unbiased input. But it’s also worth noting that it can put a lot of strain on your relationship for your boyfriend to be, not just your lover, but your major source of BDSM information and understanding. That’s a lot of roles for one person to fill. That might feel okay now — it sounds like it’s a new relationship and you’re both excited — but after a while, being so dependent on one person could become a real problem for one or both of you. Or it might not. Again, I don’t know what’s right for you. This is just some general tried-and-true advice from mentoring groups I’ve encountered.

On to your actual question! There are lots of different feelings on collars, in general. There are people in the BDSM community who simply use collars to demarcate temporary roles. A while ago, I played with a man where we agreed that once he put the collar on me, I would obey him unquestioningly for the evening; then, at the end of the evening, he took it off and the encounter was over. That was just for one night, and in that case, the collar might be considered like a symbol, or a costume — putting us in a certain kind of space together for that time. But collars are also sometimes seen as a deep sign of love and commitment. I know people who consider collars to be as strong a statement as a wedding ring. They wouldn’t even think about wearing a collar just for one night, or for someone they met recently.

Personally, I have evolved a bit on my preferences, and collars mean something different for me from what they meant several years ago. When I first came into BDSM, I was very uncomfortable with it; I needed to take small steps to keep myself comfortable. Also, I was doing BDSM with a man whom I felt emotionally uncomfortable with — I think that I wanted to distance myself from him emotionally whenever we did BDSM. As a result, I believed (that is, I told myself) that I was only interested in the physical sensation: pain. I said that I wanted nothing to do with submission or ownership. I remember that I even told one friend, very emphatically, that I’d never ever wear a collar! Never!

Later, when I had my first BDSM-flavored relationship with someone I loved and trusted, I realized that I did want to wear his collar. I wanted to feel like he owned me and could do whatever he wanted with me. I started to understand that I did want aspects of ownership in my BDSM — I recognize now that I even want aspects of degradation. But I had to come into that slowly, because those things were emotionally very hard to accept for an independent, rational feminist such as myself. And it can be confusing to work out in practice, too, because I don’t want those things from everyone! For instance, I’m willing to do some BDSM with people I don’t know very well — but I need to trust someone a lot before I can enjoy a degradation scene with them. And obviously, since I top sometimes, there are some BDSM partners where it wouldn’t even enter my head to wear a collar. Every relationship has its own texture.

As for the statement, “You own me” — I don’t say that to someone unless I’m totally into them. It feels dark and a little scary, but it also feels real and important. It feels like I’m saying something even stronger than, “I love you.” If I were with a man who wanted to put a collar on me, and if putting a collar on me meant saying to him — whether aloud or silent — “You own me,” then I would have to be totally in love with him to do it.

Desires change over time. Sometimes people don’t like things that they’ll like later. Sometimes people stop liking things. But of course, sometimes people always like certain things … or never like certain things. Maybe someday I’ll wear collars casually. Maybe someday I’ll decide never to wear a collar again! Maybe I’ll even get bored of collars and wear them as nothing more than jewelry!

So maybe you’ll never want to wear a collar, and that’s fine. Just work on it slowly. Don’t rush. Certainly, if wearing a collar feels like degradation to you — and you don’t want to be degraded — then don’t do it! I know you don’t want to ignore your lover’s needs, though. So if this is so important to him, try asking him why it’s important. Does he want to degrade you? Or does he want to feel like he owns you? Or does he just want some kind of mark on you? Or does he just want you to carry a symbol of his? Once you know why he wants to collar you, maybe that’ll help you work out a compromise. For instance, if what he really wants is for you be marked by him or carrying a symbol, then he could give you another piece of jewelry that you always wear.

Hope this is helpful, or at least illuminating!