An Alt Lifestyle Blog for and by Our Communities

Grappling with Consensual Non-consent, part 1

The concept of consensual non-consent1 (CNC) relates to the type of BDSM interaction in which there exists a mutual agreement between participants that allows for an atmosphere of suspended consent2 or suspension of limits3. This type of interaction can take place within the parameters of a time-delimited scene, such as a heavy discipline scene or rape roleplay4,5, or a D/s relationship in which the power dynamic extends beyond sexual interactions, such as in 24/7, Erotic Power Exchange (EPE), Total Power Exchange (TPE), or Total Power Transfer (TPT) relationships2,6. Identifying a clear framework for CNC interactions is exceedingly difficult, which is most likely why CNC has long been controversial within the BDSM community, both in terms of how it’s defined, and whether it’s a viable form of BDSM due to its pushing the boundaries of consent. Some would say CNC is entirely consensual and only presents the appearance of non-consent, along the lines of a roleplay2,7; others would say that once consent is given in this type of dynamic, anything goes, and rescinding it signals an absolute termination of the interaction or relationship2,6; and still others say that (from the bottom’s perspective) it is integral to their experience to experience a complete loss of control, and feel that there is no other option but to endure whatever happens within a scene or relationship8.

Tsaros’s2 article in Sexualities analyzes occurrences and conflicting understandings of CNC in two popular BDSM texts: Fifty Shades of Gray and The Story of O. The author points out the differences between ownership in EPE or TPE relationships (i.e., it is symbolic, and commonly incorporates intimate connection and protection from harm), and ownership found in non-BDSM instances of slavery and human trafficking2. The author also problematizes the concept of CNC, suggesting that the imitation of ownership is an integral part of all BDSM interactions, not just in CNC2. These points support the position that there may be an ideal way to enact a CNC scene, which incorporates the understanding among all parties that the loss of control is an illusion that can be ended at any time by the bottom9.

It can be argued that there should be room in human sexuality to encompass CNC, perhaps ideally a version in which all parties involved place concrete emphasis on the consensual nature of the scene, and are in agreement that the atmosphere of “non-consent” that follows is plastic and rescindable. In other words, for many, the ideal CNC scenario is explicitly consensual, and the non-consensual aspect is a roleplay contained within the bounds of consent, with rules in place regarding negotiation of and respect to limits, use of safewords, and incorporation of aftercare. Having said that, while it is easy to state that every sexual interaction should be explicitly consensual, it is not as easy to define what consent means to or how it is communicated between others10. For example, while consent is a social construct that can be defined in an important and useful way, society does not seem to have a strong collective understanding of what consent means or how it is obtained.

While there are those who would take issue with placing restrictions on a CNC scene, many who engage in BDSM find it helpful to play with certain guidelines in place, especially in the case of more extreme scenes, which CNC scenes often are. For example, such guidelines might include avoiding CNC interactions with people who lack experience with BDSM interactions and/or an understanding of how to communicate their boundaries. As Califia7 notes, it is crucial that newer players be aware of the distinct and necessary difference between fantasy and the manifestation of fantasy into reality. Another guideline might be that CNC interactions take place between people who have interacted with each other for a long enough period of time to establish a sense of mutual trust, care, and understanding. The problem many have with the concept of CNC is that there tend not to be such clearly stated parameters. As mentioned above, however, consent tends to be a difficult concept for many to clearly define, a fact that should not necessarily affect peoples’ rights to engage in what they consider consensual activities or lifestyles.

In an article discussing the need for a more sophisticated conceptualization of consent, the authors describe three different levels of consent: surface consent, i.e. “no means no” and “yes means yes;” scene consent, i.e., the pushing of boundaries and blurring of lines within a negotiated and consensual scene; and deep consent, in which the bottom may be in an altered state of consciousness, and consent may not become clear until considering it afterwards5. The authors also posit that in the case of deep consent, what makes a scene consensual or not is the extent to which both parties are aware of the potential for an altered state of consciousness, and there exists an adequate amount of affection, aftercare, and communication between participants before and after the scene. While deep consent in the context of a time-delimited CNC interaction might make sense in practice, the bottom’s inability to know in the moment what is illusory contradicts the idea that the non-consent must be illusory, especially given that every BDSM interaction is by definition based in consent, regardless of how it is framed or appears to be3,4.

BDSM by nature plays with the illusion of a loss of control and at times with an atmosphere of non-consent5. While this can be precarious, it is also what draws many BDSM participants to the lifestyle—finding a way to balance proper communication with a suspension of disbelief can result in the combination of fear and excitement that many people desire5. Inherent to a CNC scene is the desire to experience a range of intense emotions, and in the best case scenario, could provide a context for achieving transcendence. The concept of deep consent could contribute to a number of emotions on the part of those involved in the scene. In the case of a successful scene, participants might feel elation, happiness, a sense of intimacy, and empowerment. In the case of an unsuccessful scene, anger, resentment, disappointment, and alienation might surface. Even in the case of an unsuccessful scene, there is the potential for the rupture to be repaired with aftercare, an exchange of feedback, and renegotiation of rules11. If the participants have entered into a CNC scene with partners who they trust, know well, and desire intimacy with, even negative emotions could be processed in a way to achieve a closer bond12.

Please see the continuation of this essay, Grappling with Consensual Non-consent, part 2.

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1 Fifthangel. (2012). Inside the mind of a sadist. In T. Taormino (Ed.), The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge (pp. 333-351). Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.

2 Tsaros, A. (2013). Consensual non-consent: Comparing EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and Pauline Réage’s Story of O. Sexualities, 16(8), 864-879. doi: 10.1177/1363460713508903

3 Moser, C. (2006). Demystifying sexual behaviors. Sexuality, Reproduction & Menopause, 4(2), 8690.

4 Fowles, S. M. (2008). The fantasy of acceptable ‘non-consent’: Why the female sexual submissive scares us (and why she shouldn’t). In J. Friedman and J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (pp. 117-125). Berkeley, CA: Seal Press. Kindle Edition.

5 Williams, D. J., Thomas, J. N., Prior, E. E., & Christensen, M. C. (2014). From “SSC” and “RACK” to the “4Cs”: Introducing a new framework for negotiating BDSM participation. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 17. Retrieved from http://mail.ejhs.org/volume17/BDSM.html

6 Dancer, P. L., Kleinplatz, P. J., & Moser, C. (2006). 24/7 SM slavery. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2/3), 81-101. doi:10.1300/J082v50n02_05

7 Califia, P. (2012). Expanding masochism: How to expand limits and increase desire. In T. Taormino (Ed.), The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge (pp. 309-331). Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.

8 Taormino, T. (2012). “S is for…”: The terms, principles, and pleasures of kink. In T. Taormino (Ed.), The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge (pp. 24-32). Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.

9 Baumeister, R. F. & Butler, J. L. (1997). Sexual masochism: Deviance without pathology. In D. R. Laws & W. O’Donahue (Eds.), Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment (pp. 225-239). New York: Guilford Press.

10 Barker, M. (2013). Consent is a grey area? A comparison of understandings of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey and on the BDSM blogosphere. Sexualities, 16(8), 896-914. doi: 10.1177/1363460713508881

11 Faccio, E., Casini, C., & Cipolletta, S. (2014). Forbidden games: The construction of sexuality and sexual pleasure by BDSM ‘players.’ Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(7), 752-764. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2014.909531

12 Beckman, A. (2007). The ‘Bodily Practices’ of Consensual ‘SM,’ Spirituality and ‘Transcendence’. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane, and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 98–118). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Depathologizing Casual Sex

I recently read an interesting albeit brief article discussing research on casual sex, and calling out the different types and functions of casual sexual encounters (click on the following to read)…

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…and I really appreciated that it calls out the oversimplification of these types of sexual interactions. I often have a strong reaction to the way that certain words are reductive, and used to pathologize or stigmatize non-reproductive sex—casual sex, hypersexuality, promiscuity to name a few. The phrase “casual sex” has an inherent assumption that “casual” is not “meaningful” and that there is something wrong with having casual sex. The same sort of implication exists in the terms “hypersexuality” and “promiscuity”—both are terms coined by the mainstream majority to refer to sexual activity that deviates from social norms, and are loaded with negative connotation. I am of the mindset that sexuality is a very personal matter; that how many sex partners one has or how they choose to interact with sex partners or engage in sexual interactions is very much dependent on individually assigned meaning and motivation.

For example, person A might have a variety of sex partners (perhaps who they consider “casual”) and types of sexual interactions, and experience their sexual expression as egosyntonic—i.e., a positive expression congruent with their values, beliefs, and self-image. Person B might have a sex life similar to person A in terms of sex partners and types of sexual interactions, but experience it as egodystonic—i.e., it might create internal and external conflicts, and negatively affect interpersonal functioning and the way they feel about themselves. In defense of person B, I would say that a large part of the conflict someone might have regarding their means of sexual expression is a reaction to the societal expectation that they conform to what is considered “appropriate” sexual behavior. For many, the resulting stigmatization from words like hypersexuality and promiscuity can cause far more discomfort than their internal dissonance, not only due to negative reinforcement, but in that it can create additional conflicts that delay or mitigate an authentic expression of sexuality.

All of the Shades

I started out thinking that this would definitely not be a blog post about the 50 Shades books or film, but about the myriad of ways to identify outside of binaries—for example, all of the shades of gray between straight and gay, top and bottom, kinky and non-kinky, and all of the intersections thereof and beyond.  It can be a tricky for people to admit that they reside in the gray area somewhere between the categorical binaries of gender and sexuality—for example those who are not 100% kinky or 100% vanilla; or are versatile or a switch; or who like different things at different times with different people.  There can be a tendency to feel devalued or anticipate judgement by any given community’s majority for not fitting into a binary role, which can prevent people from experiencing the fullest sense of who they are.

I have been so inspired by the all of the conversations around identification and sexual exploration that have come out of reactions to the 50 Shades franchise that I can’t help wonder how the expansion of consciousness happening around kink right now will influence ideas around non-binary identifications.  And while I can’t say I’m exactly a fan of the content or its presentation, I think it’s wonderful that 50 Shades is making discussions about kink more accessible and acceptable. This is important for so many reasons, one of my favorites being that in opening up conversations around kink, it makes it easier for a lot of kinky or kink-curious people to come out of the closet, or consider embarking on a new exploration of their sexual identity.

Having said that, because the general public has historically not been privy to the inner workings of the BDSM dynamic, an unfortunate side effect of the current focus on kink as mass marketed by the 50 Shades franchise is that people might assume this depiction is actually what BDSM is. The collective understanding of sexuality is reciprocally created by and influences popular culture and media, which is why I’ve been thrilled to see all the articles calling out how 50 Shades is an egregiously inaccurate representation of BDSM interactions. If we don’t have these conversations, we may end up getting set back decades in the fight against pathologization and criminalization, and people’s lives will continue to be seriously affected, such as the all too common problems of custody cases being lost because of sexual orientation, or discriminatory firing, et cetera.

Let me give you a real life, first hand example of this type of problem. I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago to a group of kinksters in NYC, and a woman stood up at the end to thank me. She had been considering exploring her submissive desires for some time and had been reluctant for many reasons, but on that night, she gained the understanding that she actually has a say in what a prospective dominant might do to her. Though it is common knowledge in the BDSM scene that the submissive or bottom holds most of the power in their ability to use a safeword or gesture to stop a scene at any time, not having interacted with the scene before, and going off common (lack of) knowledge of BDSM, she had no idea about the importance of negotiations, or having firm boundaries, or really what consent means in the context of a BDSM interaction.  I was so happy that she spoke up, and that she felt empowered to explore submission in a safe way with a dominant she trusts, because this is a ongoing issue that I’m concerned will be exacerbated by the insidious consent violations in 50 Shades.  (One of many examples: A kink-identified person who clearly understands the concept of consent would never give a person who does not sexually identify as a submissive, and who has not yet had a chance to figure out much at all about her sexuality, a 24/7 D/s slave contract. Ana wasn’t capable of giving consent because it would have been impossible to wrap her mind around what that means, and therefore impossible to give consent to any of it. It would basically be like trying to convince a straight-identified person to be gay, or vice versa.)

That is not to say that people who enjoy vanilla sex can’t also be interested in trying kinky sex, or vice versa (though that really doesn’t seem to be the case at all with Ana or Christian.) The most important thing in any kind of relationship or sexual interaction is communication. So many relationship issues come from important information or preferences not being brought up early on, and a lot of the challenges people face come from not knowing how to do this. We’re just not taught to talk about sexuality in our society, in fact, we’re taught not to talk about it, which is pervasively problematic. It can be extremely uncomfortable when you’re not used to it, and it can make people feel vulnerable to merely consider a disclosure of information when they’re not in the habit of doing so, especially when you add the expectation of resistance or rejection to atypical preferences.

To get back to my original thought process, the aforementioned books and film might very well encourage a lot of formerly non-kinky people to consider adding kink to their sexual repertoire, which has the potential to be a good thing, if it turns out that BDSM is something they find they’re actually into, and if it’s something they learn how to go about in the right way (consent, consent, consent). Speaking transparently about sex—any kind of sex—with current or potential partners is crucial; for example, discussing both kinky and non-kinky sexual interests before having sex for the first time; and how often you might like to indulge in kinky as opposed to vanilla sex, for those who are into both at different times; or if you happen to be someone who prefers to incorporate kink into vanilla sex, or incorporate vanilla sex into kink. Since sexuality is an extremely individualized aspect of identity, as long as you’ve communicated ahead of time what your interests are or may be, and you’re doing what you’re doing consensually and with someone who shares your interests, you’re doing it right. The options are endless, but they will remain beginningless without having that conversation.

The bottom line is this: There are so many shades of sexual interaction, and while it’s comforting for many to self-identify in a specific way, it’s also not necessary to adhere to any one particular orientation or identification. We are all multi-faceted individuals with a variety of aspects to our identities, and we all have sexual identities that are fluid from childhood to old age. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—confining ourselves to a specific set of society-approved sexual acts could at minimum result in a stifling of sexual identity and self-actualization. Encouraging clear communication, education, and tolerance for if not full on acceptance of sexual diversity is the antidote.

Poly Perfect

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about non-binary intersecting identities—well, actually, I’ve always thought a lot about them, but lately I’ve decided to more fully flesh out my thoughts in order to share them with you—and right now I’m thinking about the poly lifestyle, and what it means to identify as poly, and how the meaning of the identification can change depending on other lifestyle intersections. Not too long ago I had a conversation with a friend who’s relatively new to the lifestyle about how when you start attending poly events there’s always someone (and usually more than one someone) who wants to impart their very firm beliefs of what perfect poly is, and how someone who identifies as poly should act, the kinds of rules that should be in place, and whatever else they feel is correct in their belief system. And though we are two people with very different, backgrounds, collections of experiences, and ways of living the poly lifestyle, we agreed quickly that:

There is no perfect poly.

The thing is, perfection is a tenuous concept, especially in any non-traditional lifestyle. And let’s face it, it’s a tenuous idea in traditional lifestyles too, it’s just not really spoken about in such terms because living a traditional lifestyle usually means that you’re amenable to living within the structures and constraints understood by the collective majority. Which is fine when that works for you, and it’s also fine when your perfect idea of poly works for you, but what’s not fine is trying to impose whatever perfect structure you’ve constructed for your life on someone else. Not to mention that having a perfected structure for what poly means might tend to impose a rigidity that can work with a certain set of partners, as long as things don’t change a lot within that structure, which is rarely the case.

For example, let’s consider the single poly person. As so eloquently elaborated on in The Critical Polyamorist’s post about Couple-centricity, Polyamory, and Colonialism (which offers important perspectives that go far beyond the scope this post), there is a tendency in the poly community to default to couple-centricity, which has the effect of emphasizing a hierarchy of relationships within the poly structure, and can sometimes relegate the single poly person to a lower status within the community. This is not something that happens across the board, and is an idea that fluctuates widely depending on personal perspective and experience, but that it does exist is a good reminder of how easily we can unconsciously fall into systems put in place by the mainstream majority.

That is not to say that the idea of couple-centricity is a bad thing—it’s just as easy for people in the poly community to insist that hierarchy within poly relationships is not the perfect way to do poly, and terms like primary and secondary or ancillary are hierarchy-reinforcing and therefore destructive to the perfect poly lifestyle, to which I say: Mind your own perfection! After all, every relationship fluctuates, and the way that we feel about a partner or a combination of partners will shift depending on many factors, including the coming and going of NRE (new relationship energy), and other factors such as whether or not one or more partners identifies as kinky, or has time constraints because of work, school, or other obligations, et cetera. One example of this is neatly laid out in the concept of “Not Better, Just Different” described by Silverwolf for The Polyamory Society.

I like Silverwolf’s discussion of NRE versus ORE (old relationship energy), but I don’t think there’s any one correct way to deal with things in the poly structure. For example, let’s take the case of a long-standing ancillary poly partner with a new primary partner in the throes of NRE—can there be a perfect approach in handling this situation? While one person’s idea of perfect poly might be that all loves be equal, they just aren’t always, and therefore sometimes hierarchy becomes part of a structure where it didn’t exist before. (The author of Poly Styles describes hierarchical versus egalitarian styles of poly in their post on Living Poly.) This can be a difficult situation to deal with when you’re used to an egalitarian poly structure, and there’s no easy or necessarily correct answer for how to react. It depends entirely on the new agreements that the primary couple ends up having, and how those agreements mesh well or differ from the agreements you have with your ancillary poly partner. Relationships change just like feelings change just like people change over time. A shift in focus and attention might feel like rejection or neglect, but it does not have to be perceived that way, and a thoughtful investigation into the concept of compersion can do wonders in this situation.

Another type of poly relationship that is often controversial within the poly community is the platonic poly partner. There are those who say that there is no such thing, that a platonic poly relationship is “just” a non-sexual friendship, so why call it poly? To that I would say the same thing to someone who says a single poly person might be considered someone who is “just” dating different people—if you identify as poly, and your partner identifies as poly, and you agree that you are in a poly relationship together, then you are in a poly relationship together, regardless of whether or not or how or when sex enters into the arrangement. (For an astute example, see S. E. Smith’s definition of the word “queerplatonic.”) I don’t like to apply rules to identification, but I will assert that self-identification is key: Nobody else gets to decide how poly you are or aren’t.

Now that I’ve drilled it home that there is no “perfect poly,” here are excerpts from Dr. Kenneth Haslam’s The 12 Pillars of Polyamory, which I feel quite strongly is a collection of guidelines that would help reinforce the fluidity in anyone’s definition of a perfect relationship, poly or not:

I. AUTHENTICITY
You must know yourself and be comfortable being you.
(I would just add, do the best you can. Nobody is always entirely comfortable with themselves, or knows exactly who they are, and identities shift and change over time. So I would paraphrase this to say: Be on a constant search for authentic authenticity.)

II. CHOICE
A grounded and balanced Poly understands they are free to make decisions about how they will live their life.
(Nothing to add here.)

III. TRANSPARENCY
Although some will disagree, I firmly believe that there should be no secrets in Polyamory.
(While I tend to agree with this idea, and what others might call radical honesty, I also believe that disclosure is a very personal thing that should be done on a timeline and with people as aligned to the individual’s comfort level. I do personally believe that transparency in one’s identifying as non-monogamous should happen right away, however. That said, this is not always possible when you’re not sure exactly how you identify, in which case the transparent conversation would go something like: I’m not sure how I identify in terms of non-monogamy.)

IV. TRUST
A quick definition of trust is: firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.
(Side note: Trust comes with time, and should not be given too freely, or withheld too stringently. Again, this is according to the individual’s timeline and comfort level.)

V. GENDER EQUALITY
What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
(And also for those who are neither goose nor gander.)

VI. HONESTY
(I think this goes without saying, though I also will refer you back to what I said about transparency.) 

VII. OPEN COMMUNICATION
Although this overlaps other Pillars it is so important it is worth repeating.
(I think this should be #1.) 

VIII. NON-POSSESSIVE
No one owns anyone.
(I very much believe this, though of course there is the case in which someone is kinky and their partner identifies as being owned by them, and we could get in a very long philosophical conversation about what that really means.)

IX. CONSENSUAL
Everyone knows what is going on in all the partners’ lives and everyone AGREES to what is going on.
(This should also be #1, if there can be two #1s. And I happen to believe that 2 #1s is a perfectly poly premise.)

X. ACCEPTING OF SELF DETERMINATION
Understanding that each of us is different is essential. Encouraging your partners to follow their own life’s path is mandatory.
(Absolutely, otherwise you’re in a coercive relationship.)

XI. SEX POSITIVE
Sexuality is, of course, a major part of Polyamorous relationships and all partners being in agreement on sexual matters is essential.
(And practice safer sex obvi!)

XII. COMPERSION
Understanding and embracing compersion is the essence of successful Polyamorous relationships.
(I’ll link to Dr. Elisabeth Sheff’s Psychology Today article on compersion again
here, because I agree that this is paramount, and if we can have two #1s we can also have three!) 

*The above 12 pillars are direct quotes from Dr. Hansen, and my sidenotes are italicized in parentheses.

The Intersection of Gender Roles and BDSM Power Roles

I was so pleased when the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom—an organization which I have long admired for their tireless support of alternative lifestyles—asked me to submit a guest blog for their site, and posted a excerpt on the presentation I gave at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit in 2014 based on my paper “The BDSM Power Exchange: Subversion, Transcendence, Sexual (R)evolution.”  The excerpt they included was chosen because it aligned well with one of their main goals, which is to debunk the historical pathologization and criminalization of BDSM.  I wanted to share with you the excerpt below as well, which looks at the intersection of gender roles and BDSM power roles and the potential for subversion and sexual (r)evolution.

sexual-r-evolution3

[…]

An individual’s gender expression is arguably the most visible set of physical characteristics used by society to form assumptions about what is acceptable behavior. This type of automatic social profiling can be exceptionally stressful for those being profiled, as there is no viable way for individuals to fulfill societal expectations of idealized stereotypical gender roles. Many BDSM participants find relief from such societal constraints within the parameters of the BDSM power exchange, and often experience a subsequent release of stress that can be quite therapeutic1.

Research that explores BDSM interactions from a normative (i.e., non-pathologizing) perspective is a relatively new phenomenon, and research that explores a subversion or displacement of gender roles within BDSM interactions is quite rare. Historically, the literature has suggested that BDSM interactions might be more contingent on gender and/or sexual orientation than power dynamic, likely due to the historical bias that assigns feminine-presenting individuals to submissive sexual roles, and masculine-presenting individuals to dominant sexual roles2. In order to refute the “the myth of the alpha male,” a study was conducted in 2008 positing that social dominance in females had been traditionally overlooked in research, by biologists and psychologists alike. The study involved the administration of questionnaires to a relatively large sample (N = 1723) of children in grades 5 through 10, reporting self- and peer-ratings on aggression, social motivation, and interpersonal influence. Their findings showed patterns in females that had typically been associated with male dominance, as well as patterns in males that had typically been associated with stereotypical (i.e., less dominant) female behavior; in other words, the study suggested that social dominance exists outside the realm of gender-specific norms3. This tendency toward gender skew was further refuted in Hawley and Hensley’s 20092 study of feminine power, which reported higher preferences for submissive fantasies in men than women.

One common theme described in BDSM activities as deliberately contrary to traditional patriarchal society is the common pairing of feminine dominants and masculine submissives4. Exaggerated parodies of subjugation, oppression, and exploitation emphasize an inequity of power that is not always weighted in favor of men or masculine gender representations; thus, BDSM interactions have been described as parodying traditional heteronormative sexual interactions5. The relationship between gender and power dynamic was examined in a qualitative study in which 24 participants from the BDSM community were interviewed regarding their sexual behaviors. The transcriptions were coded in order to determine common discourses, or “underlying systems of meaning” (p. 297), and the data showed several instances in which power dynamics were found to diverge from gender identification5. One common theme described BDSM activities as deliberately contrary to mandates of traditional patriarchal society, effectively ridiculing, undermining, and deconstructing mainstream sexual interactions toward the goal of exorcising subjugation and oppression5.

Taylor and Ussher’s findings directly counter arguments that many radical second- and some third-wave feminists have put forth against BDSM—that it reenacts and fosters the male-dominated structure of society, and therefore that consent in BDSM interactions is not valid4. Reminiscent of the means by which paraphilic disorders remain included in the DSM, these assertions are based in philosophical beliefs and political arguments; there has been no empirical research conducted to support these theories. As noted, the research that has been conducted shows that the power structures established by BDSM participants can in effect de-gender power dynamics through pointed subversion and personal choice. The devaluing of consent in BDSM interactions due to an ostensible association with misogyny effectively strips BDSM participants of agency and reduces them to a stereotype. In other words, to say that BDSM participants are not capable of giving consent because outside viewers may misunderstand the meaning of their actions negates self-determination and further stigmatizes this sexual minority group4.

[…]

McClintock’s6 exploration of the intersection between fetishism and gender power suggests that the prevalence of BDSM continues to expand due to a desire in modern societies to challenge mainstream social constructs of power, gender, identity, and erotic expression. BDSM power roles are said to complicate and/or supersede traditional power roles by subverting socially ingrained power dynamics through the creation and enactment of interactions that pointedly appropriate the privilege to punish6. There is no default method of behavior or expression in BDSM; instead, there is a conscious disruption of conformity, which can serve to free the individuals involved from the pressure of conforming to mainstream society, thereby providing psychological relief1. The parameters of a BDSM scene can provide a safe space where any gender can adopt any power role, thereby challenging the constraints of stereotypical gender expression6, and allowing for an expansion, elaboration, or contradiction of an individual’s typical gender expression in daily life. Participants can fluidly inhabit different sexual identities within or across BDSM scenes, mocking the idea of an expected and fixed identity, freeing individuals to expand their exploration of erotic desire, fantasy, and self-identification4,6. The vast array of scenarios and activities that fall within the realm of BDSM encourage many participants to seek an evolution of their sexuality and definition of self. Furthermore, many BDSM interactions deconstruct the expectation that erotic acts should be genitally focused, in the exploration of non-genital, atypical erogenous locations on the body or in the mind for arousal4,6. This displacement and diffusion of arousal challenges the notion of conventionally enacted sexual stimulation, and allows for an ongoing expansion of physical and psychological outlets of sexual satisfaction.

[…]

_____________

1 Pitagora, D. & Ophelian, A. (2013). Therapeutic benefits of subspace in BDSM interactions. [PowerPoint slides].

2 Hawley, P. H. & Hensley, W. A. (2009). Social dominance and forceful submission fantasies: Feminine pathology or power? The Journal of Sex Research, 46(6), 568–585.

3 Hawley, P. H., Little, T. D., & Card, N. A. (2008). The myth of the alpha male: A new look at dominance-related beliefs and behaviors among adolescent males and females. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 32(1), 76–88.

4 Hopkins, P. (1994). Rethinking sadomasochism: Feminism, interpretation, and simulation. Hypatia, 9(1), 116-141.

5 Taylor, G. W. & Ussher, J. M. (2001). Making sense of S&M: A discourse analytic account. Sexualities, 4(3), 293-314.

6 McClintock, A. (1993). Maid to order: Commercial fetishism and gender power. Social Text, 37, 87-116.

The Cultural Relativity of Male Sexuality

Over the past few decades, various feminist movements as well as the more recent movements in queer politics have fought for access to rights for marginalized individuals. The strides that have been made toward visibility and sexual freedom have not only been important for individuals within these groups, but have the potential to benefit all individuals. Cultural norms around sexuality do not only affect those who identify outside of the mainstream, but every individual regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identification. Strict guidelines for sexual behavior that a given culture mandates can prohibit exploration, inhibiting many from experiencing their fullest expression of sexual identity. This is a phenomenon that for many is difficult to perceive from within cultural confines, but can perhaps be understood more clearly by comparing and contrasting sexual practices across various times and locations.

Depending on someone’s cultural identification or indoctrination, an individual might have a strikingly different attitude toward sexuality than someone else of another age group, religious or political affiliation, or gender, or residing in another city, country, or time period. A given culture’s sexual norms influence the perception of sexual practices as natural or unnatural, and certain sexual interests might be endorsed while others might be censured1. Through common understandings and shared beliefs, ideas about sexuality are socially constructed and collectively reinforced through cultural standards2.

The concept of social constructionism gives us a means to understand the way attitudes and beliefs about sexuality diverge and fluctuate over time and across distance2. When observing a particular culture’s sexuality through a social constructionist lens, it is important to take cultural relativity into account; i.e., to try and understand an individual’s behaviors and beliefs in terms of the cultural group(s) they are a part of, rather than view it through the filter of one’s own cultural perspectives, and run the risk of applying judgment or assigning values that may not apply to the culture in question3.

The shifting behaviors and beliefs surrounding male sexuality provides a rich arena for such an exploration, one that might be a morally discordant mine field without the lens of cultural relativity. Around the world there are widely varying means of sexual development and expression among males; for example, the Mangaia in the Cook Islands teach sexual proficiency to adolescents, are expected to be sexually prolific prior to marriage, and experience a decline in sexual desire in early adulthood, while the Dani in western New Guinea confine sexual activity to reproduction, and abstain from sex for five years following childbirth1. Young Sambian males in Papua New Guinea begin by being sexually active with older males and ingesting semen as a means of sexual mentorship and development, then incorporate sexual activity with females in adolescence, then become exclusively sexually active with females in adulthood1. In ancient Greece, sex between males was lauded, and sexual gratification was sought either with males of the same age, with adolescent males, or female prostitutes or slaves; when males were sexually active with their wives it was primarily for procreation1. These practices might seem questionable to those of us who have an understanding based in Western culture about how sexuality should be learned and expressed, just as our way of experiencing sexuality might seem equally as foreign to the cultures mentioned above.

Different points in time have an effect on collective views of sexuality as well. For example, Victorian America was similar to ancient Greece in the portrayal of females as being all but devoid of their own sexuality. Overtly sexually active females were pathologized, while males were portrayed as constantly sexually voracious1. Beginning in the 1960s in America, the sexual revolution became a platform for critiquing and deconstructing unfounded historical social constructs of sexuality and gender roles1. Though there has been considerable progress, Western culture remains confined by traditional definitions of sexuality4.

What tends to link most cultures in terms of sexuality is reproduction2,1. Furthermore, in much of modern history, sexual activity unrelated to reproduction (e.g., oral and anal sex, same-sex interactions) has been illegal and severely punishable5; for example, sodomy currently remains against the law in 12 American states, despite being overturned nationwide by the Supreme Court in 2003. The American hierarchy of sexual bodies and behaviors continues to be phallocentric, i.e., focused on the penis as the most important sexual body part, and the penetration of the vagina by the penis as the most important sexual act2. Using the lens of cultural relativity, it is possible to understand this persisting perspective as a result of predominant social forces. There are individuals who acknowledge that sex can be about reproduction, but also about power and control, expressing love, or a rite of passage2. However, males continue to be sexually socialized in a way that promotes patriarchy by discouraging non-mainstream male sexual behavior, which is reinforced with the threat of violence,4,6.

Anti-sodomy laws are typically thought to be homophobic, because male receptive anal sex is regarded as a homosexual act, and mainstream male sexual socialization requires that males engage in heterosexual acts4. This tendency to assign this particular act to specific sexual orientations regardless of the genders involved distorts and conflates the very individual meanings of gender identification and sexual orientation. In all genders, most of the sexual pleasure during anal sex is derived from nerve endings in the external and internal anal sphincters (though males have additional potential for pleasure on and around the prostate)1. Though a male may have the potential for pleasure from receptive anal sex, this does not mean he will be able to experience pleasure with another male in the insertive role. American culture has constructed a nearly impenetrable perspective against heterosexual males who enjoy receptive anal sex, and as a result there remains an egregious gap in the discussion and understanding of male sexuality7.

An example of this resistance can be found in the appropriation of the term “pegging”—which was arguably first used by the earliest known writer of literature, Enheduanna, a woman who wrote poems begging the Goddess Inanna to “peg” her vulva4. Today the word “pegging” is used to refer to males who are anally penetrated by females7, coined in 2001 via a contest held by author Dan Savage to make up for the lack of a specific term. The creation of a new term for the act of receptive anal intercourse that separates heterosexual males from females and non-heterosexual males raises interesting questions about the need to compartmentalize sexuality. For example, it is interesting to consider whether this cognitive separation is indicative of internalized homophobia and heterosexism, and a desire to dissociate from atypical, gender role violating acts2,8,9. Using the term pegging to refer to an act enjoyable by individuals of any gender identification and sexual orientation seems to unnecessarily gender the act of anal sex, and desexualize it by making it sound less erotic, in effect further pathologizing the act.

While society has traditionally protected the boundaries created by a strict definition of heterosexuality, the current movement toward sexual freedom is not necessarily looking to dismantle boundaries or blur identifications. Instead, the goal of most sexual rights advocates is to increase tolerance and celebrate diversity within and among identifications, and to promote self-actualization10. In taking a closer look at atypical heterosexual male behavior outside of current cultural constraints, there exists the potential to reconceptualize heterosexuality, which could contribute to a shift in power inequalities, and to the slow but imperative process of dismantling heterosexism and misogyny9,11,12. The bottom line is that encouraging acceptance of heterosexual males who are anally receptive could very well be a means of entry into dismantling the sexual repression that is inherent in patriarchy, and an important component of promoting sexual freedom regardless of identification.

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1 Yarber, W. L. & Sayad, B. W. (2013). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. ISBN-978-0-07-803531-9.

2 Seidman, S., Fisher, N., & Meeks, C. (2011). Introducing the new sexuality studies (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

3 Mcauliffe, G. J., Grothaus, T., Jensen, M., & Michel, R. (2012). Assessing and promoting cultural relativism in students of counseling. International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 34(2), 118-135. doi: 10.1007/s10447-011-9142-4

4 Crane, B. & Crane-Seeber, J. (2003). Four boxes of gendered sexuality: Good girl/bad girl and tough guy/sweet guy. In R. Heasley & B. Crane, (Eds.), Sexual lives: A reader on the theories and realities of human sexualities (pp. 196-217). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

5 Lehmiller, J. J. (2013). The psychology of human sexuality. West Sussex, UK: Wiley. Kindle Edition.

6 Heasley, R. (2005). Queer masculinities of straight men: A typology. Men and Masculinities, 7(3), 310-320. doi:10.1177/1097184X04272118

7 Glickman, C. & Emirzian, A. (2013). The ultimate guide to prostate pleasure: Erotic exploration for men and their partners. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.

8 Ayres, I. & Leudeman, R. (2013). Tops, bottoms, and versatiles: What straight views of penetrative preferences could mean for sexuality claims under Price Waterhouse. The Yale Law Journal, 123(3), 714–768.

9 O’Rourke, M. (2005). On the eve of a queer-straight future: Notes toward an antinormative heteroerotic. Feminism and Psychology, 15(1), 111–116. doi: 10.1177/0959-353505049713

10 Johnson, P. (2004). Haunting heterosexuality: The homo/het binary and intimate love. Sexualities 7(2), 183–200. doi: 10.1177/1363460704042163

11 Hill DB (2007) ‘Feminine’ heterosexual men: Subverting patriarchal scripts? The Journal of Men’s Studies 14(2): 145–159.

12 Hollows, K. (2007). Anodyspareunia: A novel sexual dysfunction? An exploration into anal sexuality. Sexual and Relationship Therapy 22(4), 429–443. doi: 10.1080/14681990701481409

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The (In)visibility of Gender Diversity in Graduate Level Education

While the abstract below refers to the lack of education on gender diversity in graduate level psychology programs and to the pathologization of gender diversity in related literature, it’s clear that the reification of heteronormative gender roles is also rampant in the field of social work (Hicks, 2014). As someone who holds master’s degrees in both psychology and social work, I experienced this phenomenon first hand twice, and as someone whose practice provides support for underserved individuals in the trans* community, I’ve taken it upon myself to correct this gap in my education. My efforts have also been motivated by identifying as non-binary/gender fluid, though I say this knowing that I benefit from the privilege that goes along with being presumed to be cis female in most circles. However, it is not solely for personal and professional reasons that I am posting the abstract to this article. Clinicians, educators, and other service providers have a responsibility to understand gender and sexual diversity—it is crucial not only to avoid further stigmatizing underserved populations, but this is the most direct route towards recognizing the diversity that exists (often invisibly) in every individual. Knowledge is powerful, and I believe that instilling a heightened awareness of diversity in future psychologists and social workers has the power to relieve constraints against freedom of expression for all individuals, and create a more tolerant and accepting society overall.

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Peering into Gaps in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
Student Perspectives on Gender and Informing Education
by Jessica Joseph, Dulcinea Pitagora, Adrian Tworecke, and Kailey Roberts (2013)
The Society for International Education Journal:
Engaging with Difference, Gender and Sexuality in Education, 7
(1), 104-127

Abstract: At the intersection of psychology and critical theories, graduate students in psychology are uniquely situated to analyze the pedagogical assumptions and practices that shape constructions of gender normativity in the field. Writing from the perspective of current students, we examine how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition Text-Revision’s (DSM-IV-TR) work group members represent gender in their own publications. In line with previous criticisms, we suggest that many of the work group members uphold traditional binary systems; perpetuate statistical reinforcement and social loops; and pathologize (or deem developmentally lagging) gender diverse behavior. We question whether the DSM-IV-TR has been revised by diverse voices and make recommendations on how graduate-level curricula might broaden its pedagogy to include more fluid and inclusive concepts of gender expression.

A full-text PDF of the journal issue this article was published in can be downloaded here; the article begins on page 104.

While the Hicks article I mentioned above reviews “various theorizations of gender” (e.g., poststructural and postmodern feminism, queer and trans theory, material and structural, ethnomethodological, performative, and discursive) “to highlight ways in which social work may be limited in the versions that it prioritizes” (p. 13), it is exceedingly valuable to fields and schools of thought reaching far beyond the scope of social work. I highly recommend reading it! Here’s the citation:

Hicks, S. (2014). Social work and gender: An argument for practical accounts. Qualitative Social Work, 0(00), 1-17.

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The Scaffolding of Sexual Consent

The definition of sexual consent remains a contentious and controversial topic. Some accept a broad definition of consent that allows for implied agreement, while others insist that sexual consent should always be explicitly stated. To those unfamiliar, BDSM interactions might seem to exemplify coercive sexual practices, though consent is integral in non-pathological BDSM interactions. The article described in the abstract below examines the nature of BDSM interactions in order to clarify the line between consent and coercion in all sexual contexts.

NSPB


Consent vs. Coercion: BDSM Interactions Highlight a Fine but Immutable Line

by Dulcinea Pitagora (2013), The New School Psychology Bulletin, 10(1), 27-36

Abstract: In the majority of literature related to Bondage and Domination/Dominance and Submission/ Sadism and Masochism (or Sadomasochism) (BDSM; Connolly, 2006), there exists a focus on the pathologization of such interactions, and little attention is given to a non-clinical BDSM-oriented population. What research there is analyzing non-clinical expressions of BDSM suggests that consensual BDSM interactions can positively influence individuals in various ways, such as through heightened meaning-making and self-awareness and intensified interpersonal connection through a deliberate exchange of power. A closer look at the extant literature discussing nonpathological expressions of BDSM reveals that the explicit communication of consent is paramount. Nonpathological mainstream sexual interaction is based on the construct of consent as well, though consent is often assumed rather than asserted. While the realm of BDSM encompasses a vast range of potential activities, explicit consent is the single universal characteristic in BDSM sexual interactions and is considered a fundamental tenet in the BDSM community. This article presents a review of the literature on BDSM interactions with three goals in mind: 1) to investigate the historical pathologization of BDSM; 2) to compare similarities between BDSM and mainstream sexualities; and 3) to highlight the importance of explicit rather than tacit agreements of consent in every type of sexual interaction.

Full text available for download here.

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Call for NYC Kink/Poly/LGBTQ Affirmative Providers

Welcome to the launch of ManhattanAlternative.com! We are a network of therapeutic service providers in New York City who are sex-positive, affirmative, and have expertise related to issues that kink, poly, consensually non-monogamous, trans, gender non-conforming, and/or LGBQ-identified individuals face.  I started working on this collaborative in 2014 in an effort to address the lack of openly affirmative support to the communities I’ve been a part of in NYC for the past 10+ years, and am very much looking forward to seeing it grow.  

Because we hope to provide people seeking affirmative health care with a network of providers that is as inclusive and diverse as possible, we’re putting a call out to encourage therapists and health care professionals of varying races, ethnicities, gender expressions, and abilities to fill out the Provider Application Form if they are interested in being listed as a kink/poly/trans/LGBQ-affirmative provider.  

Listing priority is given to those who are referred from an existing ManhattanAlternative.com provider, or those with verifiable alternative lifestyle affirmative academic publications or presentations, and have personal intersections and work experience with more than one of the communities listed above.

Any and all feedback is welcome, and please feel free to share—thank you!

Best regards,

Dulcinea Pitagora, MA, LMSW
Manhattan Alternative Founder

ManhattanAlternative.com
[email protected]
DulcineaPitagora.com
[email protected]
917-675-3446