“it’s not about sex” and other lies
The following is the talk I gave this afternoon at the closing banquet for The Floating World, a supercool (and absolutely massive) sex-positive annual weekend conference in New Jersey. The teaser for the talk read as follows: “This is a talk about the lies we tell ourselves and the rest of the world. It’s a talk in which bullshit will be called, hierarchies challenged and strong statements made. It’s a talk about polyamory, and BDSM, and queerness, but above all, it is most definitely a talk about sex.”
Hello everyone. I’m very happy to be here, and I’d like to thank the organizers of Floating World for inviting me to come and present both tonight and throughout the weekend. You are an incredible group of people and I’m honoured to be among you. And I want to extend my congratulations to the people who make events like this happen. They are one helluva lot of work.
One of the things that makes this event unique is that it caters to such a wide variety of people on the sexual fringe. Of course that also makes it a little complicated to come up with a speech that will resonate, or potentially resonate, with everyone. But I like a challenge. So today I’m going to speak to you from my various perspectives all at once. Let me lay those out for you so that you know where I’m coming from.
I’ll do this in the order they showed up for me. So, for starters, I’m a kinky fuck. I’m sure that’s also true for many of you in the room. Me, I’ve known this since I was about two years old. I don’t necessarily buy into the “born with it” story, but at the same time, the first thing I ever knew about my sexuality was that my turn-ons were inextricably bound up with questions of power and pain. I’m not saying this to create a hierarchy in which I must be kinkier than you if I was masturbating to thoughts of torture when I was a toddler and you only figured out your kinks when you were fifteen or thirty or sixty. I’m just saying it because it means that to me, kinky came first, and I don’t know how to have sex any other way.
Next up? I’m queer. But I’m the kind of queer that sometimes upsets other queers. A lot of people use the term “queer” as a sort of 2010 version of “gay and lesbian,” maybe with a bit of genderfucking thrown in to mess with the binary (thank you Judith Butler). For me, queer is a question of mindset. I’m not particularly picky about the genitals of the people I’m drawn to—that’s just plumbing. It means that I tend to not find people attractive when they’re invested in the institution of heterosexuality (as separate from the practice, which can be lots of fun), or in a system that only includes two genders. I find the institution oppressive and the binary reductive and that shit gives me a limp dick.
Concretely, that means that both my gender and sexual practice are all over the map. And that map, in addition to all sorts of gorgeous people who identify as female or as somewhere on the vast and beautiful trans spectrum, also includes male-bodied individuals who still identify as male. For some people, the boundary of queer still stops at homosexuality. As in, you no longer really count as queer if you have sex with someone who’s of the “opposite” sex. But believe you me, when I’m in bed with one of those, what we’re doing is still deeply, deeply queer. And not only if I’ve got my cock down his throat or I’m dressing him up in my lingerie, although that’s fun. Even if we’re in the missionary position.
I’m also a trans ally. For me that does not mean automatically seeing trans people as a subset of the queer population. Why? Because some trans people are straight. In Ontario, the Canadian province where I live, a survey was recently carried out that collected 87 pages of data each from nearly 450 self-identified trans people, which is the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind. You wanna hear a fun figure? It showed that 35% of trans people identified as straight or heterosexual. That tells us two things. First, it tells us that one-third of trans people, at least in Ontario, aren’t queer. They’re your average straight person who happens to have been born in a body that didn’t match their sense of themselves. But it also tells us that 65% of trans people do identify as something other than heterosexual or straight—gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, questioning and more. This becomes relevant when we look at the kind of transphobia that still comes up in the queer world. You know, the one that likes to call itself GLB…T. I wrote an article on the initial results of the survey for Xtra, the national queer newspaper. And the reader comments that came up after the article—I just read them this morning—and they made me incredibly sad. One woman wrote, “Perhaps the trans community could come up with their own media so there can be some refocusing on our issue of sexual orientation.” I guess she missed the fact that 65% of trans people are, broadly speaking, some sort of queer. That makes “them”—or at least two thirds of them—into “us.”
I’m polyamorous. I am a member of a queer triad. For me, poly is a worldview and even a spiritual perspective, not just a way of doing romantic relationships. It informs the way I approach my friendships, my work, my community. But in addition to being polyamorous in the sense of having multiple loving relationships at once, I also engage in a broader kind of non-monogamy, meaning that I happily (very happily) play with and fuck people I do not love.
Now that last one brings me to the title of this talk, which is “‘It’s Not About Sex’ and Other Lies.” So the first thing I want to do here is unpack the idea of lies, because as a person who values honesty and trust above all else, I do not use that word lightly.
I think that when people lie, it’s generally for a specific reason. Omitting the compulsive liars out there, who simply do it because they always do, I think we lie because we think it will get us something more quickly or more easily than telling the truth. So when we say “that dress looks great on you” when it doesn’t, we’re doing it for a few benefits. First, it keeps a relationship smooth when a different answer to that little question might have made it rocky, in the moment; it allows us to avoid unpleasant conflict. Second, it allows us to make someone feel good. Third, it allows us to look good ourselves—“look, I’m such a nice guy, I’m giving a compliment.”
Now, I still don’t advocate lying about a partner’s dress, but even so, I can admit that it’s a relatively small matter to by lying about. But it still has consequences. It might keep a relationship smooth in the moment, but if the person who’s being lied to realizes there’s a lie going on, it erodes trust. If I look in the mirror after receiving a compliment of that sort, and I realize that there’s actually a chocolate stain on my dress, or the seam is straining because I gained some weight, I will start to wonder why my partner didn’t just say so—I asked because I wanted their opinion, not because I wanted to have my ego coddled. What else might they be lying about, if something so small and simple is approached that way? And how will we ever learn to deal with our conflict points if we avoid them? Beyond that, while that lie may have made me feel good in the moment, it’s a very hollow kind of way to feel good; and if it made the liar look good in the moment, well, that only lasts as long as the lie isn’t exposed.
If we take that model for the benefits of lying, we can start to see why some of our lies are a tempting strategy, but we can also see why that strategy starts to fail.
So what are the lies I’m talking about?
Well, let’s start with a simple one, and one we’ve probably heard a lot: “Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, queer people are just like everyone else.”
Okay, on some level this is true. We’re just like everyone else in that we’re human, we eat food and breathe air and drink water and shit poo, we work and play and rest, we have dreams and ambitions and challenges like anyone else. Fair enough. But when people say this, they’re usually trying to make it seem as though you could just take the average nuclear family photograph, remove the male half of the couple, insert a female replacement, and proceed, with all other assumptions intact.
And I argue that we absolutely can’t do that. Doing that, or trying to, erases all the realities we live in. For starters, we live in a culture that’s heavily weighed down by misogyny—by the hatred of the feminine and the female. This doesn’t mean we have seen no progress, because we certainly have. But just listen to the way we talk. You throw like a girl. What are you, a sissy? That’s so girly. You’re such a pussy. This language is available to us because no matter how individually progressive we may be, our culture still devalues the feminine.
Our culture devalues the feminine and sees it as the necessary counterpart to the masculine; the feminine is the background against which masculinity defines itself. A man is only a real man when he’s nothing like a woman. The people who hate queers hate us because our very existence challenges that little set-up. If a woman can be substituted for a man in the picture, or a man substituted for a woman, then the whole precarious structure starts to fall over. Which should have us asking: if the structure is that fragile, why are we buying into it in the first place?
Any strategy that tries to pretend we’re all alike is a strategy that only works in a vacuum, and ignores all the many issues that we face, as queers, which make our lives and our experience extremely different from the rest of the world. I come from Canada, where same-sex marriage has been a fact of life for several years now, and you know what? It didn’t solve all our problems. It just made certain privileges easier to access for people who generally had a lot of privilege in the first place.
Kids still show up at the queer street youth drop-in that my boy runs because they’ve been kicked out of their homes for being queer or trans or both. Doctors are still under-educated about some of our most basic sexual practices and the risks they may or may not include, like, say, cunnilingus. Queers, alongside many other groups with legitimate political agendas, are still brutally assaulted by cops and jailed for peacefully protesting, as we saw in the recent G20 mess in Toronto which featured the country’s largest mass arrest in decades. Our health is still affected by the strain of living in a homophobic world, with queer people facing much higher rates of smoking, depression and other issues. Written words and images that depict our sexualities are still censored, underfunded and suppressed. We’re still harassed at work and bashed on the streets.
And that’s just the bad stuff. As a grad student working in the realm of history, I can attest to the incredibly rich and textured past of queer people and queer cultures. It’s a mistake to look into the past, see evidence of same-sex experience and simply equate it with the stuff we get up to today. But at the same time, that history represents the precedents of a culture that many, if not all, queer people still participate in today. The current renaissance of butch-femme identities among dykes, for example, is exactly that—a renaissance. It’s not new. People have been doing it for decades, if not centuries. And we take what we know of our pasts and we blend that with the cultures and technologies and ideas we have today in creative ways every day; that past merges with the present and informs how we understand ourselves and how we create new ways of being. Today’s butch and femme are not the butch and femme of 1942, much like today’s drag queen is not New York’s fairy from 1890. But our identities in 2010 could not exist without the ones that came before us. We have a complex history that informs a complex and evolving culture. And while that history and that culture may not resonate with every person out there who’s interested in having same-sex sex, we can’t dismiss it as the realm of just a few isolated people, either.
When we say that “queers are just like everyone else,” we erase that history. And you know, if you’re not into history, that’s your prerogative. But in saying such things, we also erase the present. We erase the fact that our health, our families, our work situations, our communities really do have distinct characteristics and distinct challenges. And in erasing those challenges, making like they’re not important or notable or worthy of mention, we’re doing the homophobes’ job for them. We’re buying into their system—a system into which we can only truly fit if we erase enough of ourselves that we don’t even really exist anymore.
I’m going to move on to some other lies now. I’m going to talk a bit about the lies we tell in the BDSM and leather communities.
One of the lies I hear a lot, particularly in intro-level BDSM books and classes, is that “BDSM is not about pain.” That one comes hand-in-hand with a couple of others, so I’ll try to tackle them as a package. That package includes the lie, “It’s not really real, we’re just role-playing.” And there’s also my perennial favourite, “Everything we do is consensual.”
Now let me say up front that I definitely know people for whom BDSM really isn’t about pain. They don’t like pain, and not even in that I-like-what-I-don’t-like sort of way. And I also definitely know people for whom BDSM is all about the role-play. They want to be puppies and ponies and dirty uncles and little girls and nasty mobsters and pirates and wenches and Catholic schoolgirls and nuns, and all kinds of other crazy shit. They’re awesome and beautiful and sometimes they’re absolutely the life of the party.
But I would argue that even if these things are true for some of us, the fact that they’re not true for all of us means that using those statements is a problematic way of explaining ourselves to the outside world. It sets up a situation where we take the most palatable forms of kink—the kind that doesn’t really hurt, that isn’t really risky, and that’s all just a big game of let’s-pretend—and we put that forth as an explanation of how really, in the end, we’re not actually perverts, we’re just, y’know, creative types. Who like to dress up in shiny things sometimes, and play, like theatre, and isn’t that fun?
That means we’re setting up a hierarchy in which the people who are the furthest out on the fringe—the full-time master/slave couples, the people who get off when they’re being tortured or humiliated, the people who do heavy body modification or highly risky play, are the bad guys. The weird ones over in the corner there, who make the rest of us look bad.
I know that when I see a 101 manual that tells the rest of the world, and even the freshly hatched kinksters coming into my communities, that we don’t really enjoy pain, I feel erased. I feel as though I’m being told that my kinks are things I should be ashamed of. They’re not fit for public consumption. They’re weird and dangerous and they’re most certainly not good PR.
I call bullshit. I want it to be up-front and centre that while some of us are not interested in pain at all, some of us definitely are. That we’re working to dismantle the emotional, cultural and even medical and legal understandings of pain and hurt and harm, that we’re exploring and disentangling and recoding the meanings we place on the experience of pain, that we’re doing that work with our minds and our bodies and our spirits and our sexualities, and that this is beautiful and valuable work.
Same goes for this question of role play. For some people, getting to be someone they’re not, for a little while, is a great relief. Or hell, it’s just fun. Plus, the costumes are fabulous. For some of us, though, our kink is not about escapism, or about taking on a persona that’s an exaggerated or narrowed version of ourselves; it’s about intensification, deepening of who we are. It’s about broadening that into our daily lives. It’s about everyday power management inherent in ongoing D/s and M/s relationships, and the challenges of doing that ethically, humbly, in relationships with people with whom we take our power dynamics well outside the container of a focused scene space.
Those of us who do full-time M/s relationships are often both admired and reviled in the kink scene. Some people see full-time M/s as the be-all and end-all of what it is that we do; the pinnacle, the thing we all dream of and fantasize about. Others see it as inherently unhealthy, codependent, abusive, dangerous and probably a little bit crazy. Or maybe a lot crazy. Now, I am the last person who’ll try to convince you that there’s no abuse in the kink scene. There is, absolutely. There’s also a lot of simple ineptness, and human error—which of course has increasingly serious consequences depending on how intense the risks are. But that’s not the same thing as saying that M/s is bad.
At the same time, I’m not interested in creating a reverse hierarchy, where the cool kids are the pain sluts, and the more you can take the hotter you are. I’m not interested in making fun of the non-pain people as lightweights or as not really kinky. Not in the least. And I’m also not interested in saying that the M/s people are better than the D/s people who are better than the role-players. This isn’t a question of worth. It’s a question of each of us having our own perfectly valid kinks, that bring their own perfectly valid challenges with them, and their own perfectly valid pleasures.
What I am saying is that as we intersect with a world full of people who don’t yet understand what we do and who we are, we aren’t doing ourselves any favours by putting on a good face and only trotting out the kinks and the people who are easiest to digest. No real understanding can come of it. Much like if I went out in a dress with a chocolate stain on it, someone will eventually notice that something’s not quite right. People will notice that they’re not getting the whole story. It makes us look duplicitous and insincere. It alienates people from each other within our communities as much as it misrepresents us to others. It doesn’t build trust.
I think we also fail to build trust, both within our communities and outside them, when we insist that everything we do is consensual, and stop the discussion there. I’ve often said that for me, consent is the baseline, the sine qua non of anything I do—and I’m not talking about kink. I’m talking about life. I’m not going to drive someone’s car without permission and negotiation any more than I would have sex with them or spank them without permission and negotiation. I bet most of you feel the same way. So now that we’ve all established that we’re human beings with generally good intentions, let’s talk about reality.
In reality, consent is messy and complicated. We communicate to the best of our ability and there is still misunderstanding, unexpected circumstances, emotions we couldn’t have predicted, sensations that feel different than they did last time. Relationships shift, words don’t mean the same thing to everyone, risks come up that we hadn’t accounted for. I am not bringing any of this up to justify non-consensual behaviour. My point is that we hide behind this idea that what we do is consensual when it’s actually a really poor shield. So rather than talking about consent, I’d rather talk about communication skills, listening skills, awareness, education, informed choice about risk. These are human concerns common to any kind of relationship, and in that sense, BDSM is not different.
Beyond that, I take issue with the idea that we insist so strongly on the concept of consent BDSM because I think it puts us on the defensive and lets the vanilla world get away with appearing to be problem-free. The reason we have grasped onto consent so strongly is because we’ve been told that our practices are hyper-risky and freaky and frightening. It’s almost like we’re seen as monstrous, so we must need to build extremely strong cages to contain ourselves. And you know, in some cases, that’s accurate. Some of us do engage in pretty risky play, and I absolutely support the idea that as your risk level goes up, so should the care you take toward safety and the intensity of your negotiation and the depth of your awareness and the weight of your consent.
But you know what? The real monster is way, way bigger than the blood players and the erotic asphyxiation fetishists. The truth is that plain old body-to-body sex is risky. If I flog someone, I do not run the risk of getting them pregnant. If I tie them up, I am not going to transmit hepatitis C. Face-slapping and verbal humiliation are highly unlikely to infect anyone with HIV. But having standard-issue penis-to-vagina sex—now that shit can kill you! And it’s often some of the most poorly negotiated, least talked about and questionably consensual sexual behaviour out there on the market. So why, exactly, is the onus on BDSMers to be more consensual than everyone else?
So I’m interested in having realistic conversations about what we get up to, both within our communities and when we’re doing our PR. I’m interested in turning the tables when people think what I do is terrifyingly risky and that it requires special skills to navigate well. I’d rather challenge the whole world develop the kind of skills we spend so much time working on in the BDSM world, because what the rest of the world does can itself be terrifyingly risky, it’s just not acknowledged as such. I’d rather tell everyone having any kind of sex or play or relationship to engage in the kind of risk assessment and safety approaches we think are important, rather than holding that feature of our communities up to justify why we’re not actually really scary perverts after all.
I’m interested in putting out the kind of message that embraces the diversity of what we do and finds ways to communicate about it without being defensive. It’s about acknowledging that the BDSM, leather and kink communities encompass a full spectrum of people’s relationships to power and pain, and that we’re each on our own journey, and that we come together as a community—a loosely affiliated web of many sub-groups and sub-sub-groups—to help each other along on those journeys. I’m not interested in being admired for the extremity of my kinks on the one hand while being sanitized out of existence on the other. I am a whole person. I am a human being, like every one of you out there, who’s just trying to get it right, to live in a way that’s true to myself, to understand concepts and practices and people who aren’t like me, and to learn what I can from them and offer what I can in return. And I would challenge us, as a bunch of perverts who often do fetishize good communication, to find ways to communicate that to the outside world as such, rather than picking the easy things to explain and sweeping the rest of it under the rug.
Here’s another lie that’s been coming up a lot lately: Polyamory is not about sex.
Now, I can understand that on some level, there is a distinction between having sex outside the context of an ongoing romantic relationship, and having sex within that context. And of course, I would generally agree that it’s probably unhealthy to pathologically pursue empty, meaningless or compulsive sex with strangers that leaves you feeling used or worthless.
But once again, this kind of thinking is all about a weak defence tactic. People often seem to think that the only way to deal with clueless non-poly folks’ assumptions—i.e. that poly is ALL about sex, that sex must be the only reason to do polyamory—is to go too far in the other direction and say “it’s not about sex at all.”
In truth, poly relationships are as much about sex as any non-poly romantic relationship is—which is to say, a lot! This is not to diss the asexuals out there. But most of us are hardly making a claim to asexuality.
Beyond that, we’re certainly not having problems with anti-polygamy laws, multiple-partner immigration cases, child custody and society’s general prejudice for all those multiple *non-sexual* relationships we get into. The whole reason polyamory bothers people is that we’re having sex. Otherwise we’d just be a bunch of friends hanging out, and everyone does that.
Further, what bothers people about polyamory is that we’re having sex with multiple people and telling the truth about it. Because don’t you know, we’re supposed to be ashamed of it? We’re supposed to do it behind closed doors, when we’re working late or when our partner is out of town. The very concept that sex with multiple partners could be a shameless, accepted, encouraged part of our lives is terrifying to anyone who wants to keep it hidden.
Of course sex may or may not be the first or even the most important thing we seek out in a romantic relationship. Real life does happen, and partnerships don’t last if they’re built on sex alone; we are, of course, whole human beings. We want to spend our lives with people who get us, with whom we can share a home harmoniously, and with whom we can enjoy dinner and a movie and a good conversation and maybe a vacation once in a while. But from there to saying we’re not here for sex is simply not true. And it’s a very shaky tactic to be employing when we are trying to explain ourselves to the world.
Another related tactic I’ve seen is when poly people (and non-poly people, for that matter) dress up sex in spirituality as though somehow that makes it less dirty. This is not to say that spirituality is bad. I truly believe that sex can be sacred, that sexual energy moves through our bodies in ways that can open us to the divine, that the body can be a path into the spirit. At the same time, I am often uncomfortable with the messages that I hear in sacred sexuality circles. I hear language that’s about honouring and embracing and celebrating, when in fact it sometimes feels more like it’s about excluding and judging and refusing to see the diverse ways that people engage with spirituality in their sex. Janet Kira Lessin is a leader within the World Polyamory Association, and a tantric sex coach. I’ll quote an essay she wrote about three years ago, just to give you an idea of what I mean:
“Even though we respect & embrace our sensuality, we are not swingers or polysexuals, so we don’t focus on the sexual or disrespect the very essence of sexuality & all its glory. We aren’t swingers, so we don’t use swinger terms & for the most part, most polyamorous people would never use the words… slut, whore, queer, fag etc. These are derogatory & demeaning to a person’s character plus in no way to these words have a positive meaning behind them. We use the words “love”, “long term relationships” & commitment when we talk. We aren’t crude, rude & talk about sex 24/7.”
To me, that sounds incredibly holier than thou. That tells me that she and many people who think like she does really want to draw a line in the sand in which the sluts, whores, queers and fags are on the outside, and the spiritual and loving polyamorous people are on the inside. It’s okay to talk about love and relationships, but it’s not okay to talk about sex. It’s okay to use words like “share” or “sacred” or “spirit” but not to use words like “fuck” and “beat” and “suck.” It’s spiritual to commit to someone, and profane to cruise. I’ve heard that kind of hierarchy in other places and I don’t trust it for a second. My relationships are sacred and my sex is spiritual, but my polyamory does not happen on the other side of a fence with the freaks and sex radicals safely at a distance. I am a queer. My community is made up of sluts and whores and fags. Those people are not “them,” they are “us.” And whatever our sexuality looks like, it’s just as legitimate as that of the people who choose to follow traditional Tantra or any other sex-positive spiritual path.
Beyond the question of spirituality, it seems like there’s a subset of poly folks who are so intent upon the “purity” of poly that they forget—or would like to forget—the natural human instinct to fuck, committed relationships or no. Sometimes sex is deep and meaningful, sometimes it’s superficial and fun. Sometimes it happens in the context of a 20-year-long marriage, sometimes it happens with a person you’ve known for 2 hours and will never see again. Sometimes it’s rough and fast, sometimes it’s sweet and sensual. Attributing validity to only one kind of it, and only then behind closed doors and closed mouths, only serves to alienate the people who are proudly poly and do their sex in other ways (often in addition to, not instead of, the long-term committed kind), and to dismiss the incredible richness and power of other kinds of experiences.
Speaking for myself, I can say that some of the most amazing, affirming and life-changing sexual experiences I’ve ever had have been with people who were not my committed partners. The first woman I ever kissed, I spent one night with and never kissed again. (Of course we’re dykes, so we’re still in touch on Facebook ten years later.) I learned to ejaculate because a guy I had a one-night stand with told me he could feel that my body was ready to do it, and explained how he could tell. I found out just how much I love the attention of foot and shoe fetishists because of an exquisite one-time-only scene with a male submissive—the first person to ever treat my body from the knees down as though it were the most beautiful part of me rather than focusing on my tits and ass. I had my first taste of D/s service in a scene I did with someone I’d just met while I was on vacation in a different country, and that set me on a path of D/s and M/s relationships that has continued ever since; today I have a wonderful leather family made up in some part of my former submissives and their constellations, and I’m the owner of an amazing boy in an M/s dynamic that, ten years ago, I never even dreamed was possible.
I can think of much more productive conversations to be having. Rather than talking about how non-sexual and committed and really non-threatening we are as poly people, I’d rather talk about the kinds of ethics we try to bring to our relationships. From there, I’d like to talk about how to extend those ethics to every kind of relationship we have—how to treat a casual sex partner with as much respect and care as we would a long-term lover, how to take all those amazing communication skills we try to develop and put them to use in navigating temporary connections with as much grace as we do multiple-partner living situations.
I realize that I come to my poly from a place of queerness, where because of a long history of oppression, of being told our sex is bad, many of us hold onto and defend the beauty of our sexuality with great ferocity. I come to it from a place of kink, where we spend tons of time talking about how to play and have sex in ways that feel good to us. But whether you’re kinky or queer or poly, all of the above or none of the above, I invite you to join me in refusing to buy into any variety of “sex is bad” or “sex is less than,” no matter whose mouth it comes out of. Whether it’s conservative lawmakers, or our intimate partners; the American Psychological Association or our community leaders; the Religious Right or the sacred sexuality proponents.
When we sanitize who we are and try to present the “best” face, we’re actually creating a hierarchy that doesn’t reflect who we are and that pits us against each other instead of against the people who try to tell us that how we live is shameful. When we do this as a community, it’s the same thing as when we do it individually—de-gaying your house when your aunt visits, or pretending your second partner is just your roommate when the neighbour’s around—and it hurts us individually just as much.
I think if there’s anything I want you to take away from this talk, it’s to question the easy defensive statements we sometimes make, to avoid slipping into those lies, and to convey a richer and more complicated truth instead.