No Erotic Act Is Inherently Nonviolent

Content note: discussion of sexual coercion and violation

Why do I have to see violence in my porn?

The housemate who asked this in a conversation about kink was upset that a feminist porn series she liked included scenes involving slapping.

On the one hand, I empathize. I’m more into textual porn than visual, but I don’t like being surprised by elements I find upsetting: luxuriant body-worshiping oral sex, characters crying out “I love you” at the point of orgasm, the ickily clinical m-word. It’s not the frustration at encountering unwanted content I object to. It’s the characterization of slapping as violent, and the implication, by contrast, that other kinds of erotic touch are nonviolent.

My teenage sexual abuse was painstakingly gentle. Soft kisses, soft touches, and afterwards, a round of obligatory moon eyes and gushing about how beautiful the thing I hadn’t wanted in the first place had been. Expect gentle touch from me, or touch without a power dynamic, and I’m back in my high school girlfriend’s bed, waiting for a sign that I’m allowed to stop, steeling myself to be held after. When I say gentle touch can be violent, I speak from experience.

What makes an erotic act become nonviolent isn’t the type of act; it’s whether the parties involved consent to it.

In a sense, this is consent 101: consent is what distinguishes sex from assault. But the belief that gentle, power-neutral sex is a sort of erotic default muddies the waters.

A few years ago, I found myself alone with a date. I was interested in playing with her, but I hadn’t yet ascertained whether she was kinky. When she kissed me without asking, before I could start a conversation about what sort of things we were each into, it became clear that we were on different pages. We had come back to my apartment from a bar on what turned out to be a pretext. “I’m sorry,” I’d told her after she’d kissed me some. “I don’t think I’m awake enough to have the conversations I would need to have to keep going.”

Not awake enough, not sober enough, and, given what I’d already seen of her approach to consent, not confident enough that a conversation about kink would end anywhere near where I wanted it to. But somehow—my memory fuzzes as to why—our night didn’t end there. Making out with her, detaching already from my body, I found myself silently bargaining. Maybe if I’m on top, I can still want this. Maybe if we play with pain. “Can I pull your hair?” I asked. She agreed to this, but as soon as I started, it became clear we weren’t on the same page there either.

“No,” my date said, looking up at me every bit as doe-eyed as my high school girlfriend in those endless numb afters. “Gentler.”

For anyone invested in consent, it seems obvious that my date could consent to gentle erotic touch but not to something rougher like hair-pulling.

What is less intuitive, I think, is that I might consent to rougher touch but not to gentle.

Particularly not as a top. I let go of my date’s hair and steeled myself to go mutely through with whatever she expected. Maybe I could have stopped things then—though my earlier attempts had been unsuccessful—but I was held back by the fear of how my no would sound: I only want to have sex where I hurt you*.

There is an oppressive idea I’ve internalized, something that makes my withdrawing consent in itself seem somehow predatory, and I’m trying to put words to it. Maybe it’s that I’d “led my date on” by not clarifying sooner that I wasn’t looking for normative sex, and wanting dominance or sadism instead seemed like a kind of bait and switch. Maybe taking gentle sex off the table seemed like a disingenuous tactic designed to manipulate my date into doing something kinkier than she’d ordinarily choose. Or maybe it’s just the simple idea that it isn’t fair to expect someone to be into the things I’m into.

I agree it wouldn’t be fair to expect my date to be into what I was into. But I’d add that it’s also not fair to expect someone to be into the things my date was into. I’d add further that expecting someone to be into anything is the wrong approach entirely.

What I had wanted to do, what I had gone into our date intending to do, was negotiate. I wanted to state what I was interested in and ask my date what she was interested in. If we wanted compatible things, we could do those. If not, I’d have been disappointed, but far less disappointed than if we’d gone forward with an erotic encounter that one of us didn’t want. I had gone in open to hearing no—maybe even expecting a no, even if I hoped otherwise—and to respecting that no when I heard it.

My date, on the other hand, didn’t even frame gentler as a question. She simply gazed up at me, her voice pitched soft and sultry, and purred a word that maybe, to her, seemed intimate and romantic. I don’t think it occurred to her that gentler might make the difference between an act I could enjoy and an act that would cause me harm.

I didn’t tell her. Maybe because she hadn’t responded to my saying no earlier. Maybe because my high school relationship had taught me that the sooner I resigned myself to going through the motions, the sooner I could get out of bed. But at least partly, I think, because of the idea my housemate had expressed in our conversation about feminist porn: what my date wanted was normal, and what I wanted was violent. Pain play might fly in some late-night dungeon, but here in the real world, where gentle was a sweet nothing in a lover’s ear, where we kissed without asking because there was nothing to ask about, what I wanted was monstrous. Maybe more than anything, I made myself have gentle sex with my date as a kind of penance for ever having hoped she’d consent to me hurting her.

In some ways, what happened with my date is a classic sexual assault story: we were intoxicated; she initiated touch without my consent; she didn’t listen when I said no. Even without a kink framework, what my date did was harmful.

But I find it additionally valuable to read this story through a kink lens. Internalized shame about my desires, and the internalized belief that I should want to touch an erotic partner gently, made me more able to be coerced. On my date’s part, assuming that gentle sex was something everybody wanted, and that if I had desire for her, that my desire must encompass gentle sex, made it harder for her to realize that her actions were, in fact, coercive.

I’ve spent this blog series exploring why it’s important to talk about kink, and the story of my date offers another, somewhat grim, reason. The more we recognize that there are no universals when it comes to desire and erotic expression, that not everyone is erotically compatible, and that all erotic acts have the potential to be unwanted, the less effective this kind of coercion becomes.

No erotic act is inherently nonviolent. But the belief that some acts are violent, while others are normal and universal, leads to violence—particularly, to sexual coercion. A kink-aware consent framework helps push back. We need to approach potential erotic encounters with the understanding that different people experience desire differently, and that one set of desires is no more valid—and no less violent—than another.


*Or at least, that’s how I would have formulated it at the time, though now I’m not sure I would have wanted sex either way.

Not Everyone Is Erotically Compatible

Here is something I take as a given as a kinky person: people are not always erotically compatible.

Two people who only top and don’t bottom might co-top others but would have trouble finding something to do just the two of them. Ditto two bottoms, ditto one partner who wants to switch within a partnership and another who prefers a consistent role. Or one person whose kink centers on power exchange and one who likes to play with sensation but not power. For some combinations, there might be ways to creatively get everyone’s needs met, but for others, it would be pretty challenging if not impossible.

There are many reasons talking about one’s specific kinks is normalized in kink communities, and this is a big one: if you’re looking for someone to do kinky things with, you’ll want to find someone with corresponding interests.

When I’ve tried to date (or, um, seek mental health care) in queer spaces that weren’t specifically kink-aware, the prevailing assumption was the opposite. The assumption there was that as long as two people had compatible genders, they would have compatible erotic practices. (Or, really, compatible sexual practices, as the distinction between erotic and sexual doesn’t tend to be made in most circles either.)

There is a lot of talk about communication and consent in queer circles, but the framework of that talk isn’t broad enough to encompass kink—at least, not as I practice it. Someone might ask how you want to receive touch, but not whether you want to receive touch. What kinds of sex you like, but not whether you like sex at all. Whether you enjoy playing with a power dynamic, but not whether you enjoy playing without one.

The unspoken assumption is that there are some activities only kinky people like (power play, pain, fetishes), and others that everybody likes (genital sex, gentle touch, power-neutral interactions). If a kinky person partners with a non-kinky person, this idea goes, they can simply default to non-kinky activities.

Kink is presumed optional; gentle, power-neutral sex is presumed universal. And if everyone can agree on gentle, power-neutral sex, then everyone is compatible.

The problem with this idea is twofold. First, for many kinky people, our kinks are important enough that partnering with someone who doesn’t want to go there with us would ultimately be unsatisfying. Second, wanting gentle, power-neutral sex is not universal. Some of us don’t. I don’t.

I have an online dating profile where I state that I’m kinky, and a somewhat common response I get is that I’m so brave for putting what I want out there. But identifying myself as kinky is less about bravery and more about self-preservation. If I don’t announce what I’m looking for, most potential dates will expect gentle, power-neutral sex. Since that act is not on the table for me, I don’t want to risk ending up with a partner who assumes it’s on the table for everyone. Talking about kink is a way of going after what I want, but it’s also a way of shielding myself from what I don’t want.

Everyone deserves partnerships where all parties can find erotic fulfillment and all parties respect each other’s boundaries. Understanding that not everyone is compatible means knowing that not every potential partnership can offer me or potential partners what we deserve. I talk about being kinky because I want to be able to find fulfilling partnerships and consensual erotic experiences, and I want others to be able to do the same.

Maybe that’s brave. But for someone who doesn’t consent to normative sex, it often feels like the only way to go.

Reducing People to Their Genitals Is Vile. It’s Also Anti-Kink.

I have been wanting to write a piece about my latest, maybe last, venture into fanfiction, what it meant to find a community of erotic storytelling keyed to an imaginary world to which I felt intimately connected. The way finding that community and reading their stories, after being cut off from my own desire for years, awoke some deep part of me. It was January, cold and dark, but I could feel something growing, finally, a shoot from a seedling. A remembering of self.

I want to tell this story, and one thing that stops me is imagining a snickering reader who hears “some deep part of me” as a florid way of saying “my vagina.” I hate that talking about something as complex, layered, expressive, and individual as desire will lead people to reduce me to my genitals.

Reducing people to their genitals is, I believe, an oppressive practice closely aligned with the idea that how sex works is obvious. It is cissexist, misogynistic, ableist, and anti-kink.

I hate it.

I was telling a story to someone in my life about the way my dog snuggles up to me in cold weather. He paws at my hand until I lift the bedcovers, and then he crawls under and curls up beside me. Licking must be some kind of self-soothing behavior for him; he never seems to lick out of affection, but at bedtime, he’ll find any patch of bare skin (or, in a pinch, a blanket) and lick until he falls asleep.

The person I was talking to snickered here; the combination of “lick” and “bedcovers” must have been too much for him—or, well. The combination, of “lick,” “bedcovers,” and my body, which is, in the end, a (cis) woman’s body, and we’re all adults here, we can extrapolate what lick means to a body like mine.

The ickiness here is multi-layered. As it happens, the kind of licking this person imagines is not a way I choose to receive touch. Beyond that, I don’t want to hear that this person is thinking of me in a sexual context, or (for fuck’s sake) putting a sexual context to a story about my dog. And then there’s the logic that makes the joke work in the first place, the same logic that makes jokes about piss and shit work: here’s something crude we all know your body does; here’s us bravely breaking the rules of decorum to say so.

It’s the we all know piece I’m thinking about now. The invasive and wrongheaded idea that what someone desires, and what they choose to do with erotic partners, can be easily extrapolated from what their genitals are like, which can (according to this invasive and wrongheaded framework) be easily extrapolated from their gender presentation, and just… no. No to reducing people to their genitals, and no to assuming that anything you know, or think you know, about the intimate contours of someone’s body tells you anything about their desires or their erotic expression.

When I talk about being kinky, it’s this snickering reaction I brace myself for the most. I talk about kink as a way of making space for my experience of desire in a context that largely assumes my experience isn’t important or doesn’t exist. The snicker hears my story simply as an opening to remind me of what (supposedly) we all know. I talk about kink to disrupt the assumptions that are made about me based on how my body is perceived. The snicker tells me that whatever claims I might make about myself, a deeper, dirtier truth is written on parts of my body it can only imagine.

As a silencing tactic, this type of response is frighteningly effective. I talk about kink in part to avoid being sexually violated (more on this later, I’m sure). But this snickering reaction—a reaction that takes my mentioning the erotic at all as a cue to reduce me to my genitals—is itself a kind of violation. Reducing people to their genitals is violent and dehumanizing. It says that ableist, misogynist, cissexist, and anti-kink tropes about what our bodies mean have more value than our own lived experience. It undermines consent by saying that whatever we claim to desire, the snicker knows—and the snicker has a right to insinuate—what we really want.

It’s not going to silence me this time. But when I think about how many times I’ve chosen not to talk about kink, a core part of my identity, because I didn’t want to be immediately sexualized—or immediately violated—I can’t help but be furious. Some deep part of me has been cut off from community and connection. This snicker, this crude, slimy, presumptuous set of beliefs about what bodies mean and who is entitled to decipher those meanings, is a big and vile reason why.

Being Kinky Is (Kind of) Like Being a Writer

When I try to describe what kink means to me, I find it useful to draw a comparison between being kinky and being a writer.

Both are deeply held identities as well as practices, things I do, but also things I am—and, sometimes, things I don’t do, but in their absence, the world feels duller and more lacking.

Both kink and writing are sites of creativity and means of expression. Both bring self-knowledge and self-discovery. Both are, in their own ways, lifelong pursuits with limitless potential for growth and learning.

Both are ways of being curious about and making sense of the world. Both are means of communication—writing with anyone who’s reading, and kink with whoever I’m doing a scene with.

This isn’t a perfect comparison, but I find it useful as a way of getting at where kink resides in my identity and why it matters.

It quiets the question of why I’m kinky. Like writing, kink is innate to who I am; neither needs (and neither has) an explanation.

It also makes clearer the cost of not talking about kink. I can, if need be, conduct relationships without disclosing that I am a writer, but avoiding the subject takes effort. It creates distance and ultimately leaves the other person with a distorted or fragmented impression of me. That’s to say nothing of how, if I don’t disclose that I’m a writer, I’m supposed to make connections with other writers, let alone find people to write with.

Okay, the subtext here is, as they say, rapidly becoming text, but I share this analogy to illustrate that having kink as an innate part of my identity and practice often means being pressured not to talk about key areas of who I am and what I do.

Kink, like art, is a way of making connections. But as with art—as with anything—I can only make connections around kink if I first acknowledge it exists.

What Being Kinky Means to Me: The Basics

Definitionally, what makes me describe myself as kinky is that what I experience as erotic is substantially different from what is normative.

I desire and seek out erotic experiences based around power, sometimes involving pain, and not necessarily involving sex.

I do not desire or seek out, and generally do not consent to, erotic experiences that do not involve power or pain. (Some kinky people do, but I don’t.)

I do not desire, seek out, or consent to sex without power or pain. (I am unsure these days whether I desire, seek out, or consent to sex at all, but that is another story for another time.)

I am trying to be precise in my language because I want to avoid misunderstandings. There is often a vast gap between what someone thinks I mean when I call myself kinky and what I actually do mean. This effect is amplified by how many knee-jerk reactions there are to bringing up the topic of eroticism at all. Talking about eroticism, desire, or sex is considered uncouth, icky, crass, and too much information. It’s hard to hear nuance when one is dazzled, or horrified, or titillated, or embarrassed by the topic at hand.

What I am supposed to do, of course, is not to talk about eroticism in public. What I am supposed to do is recognize that there’s no need to talk about it, outside partnerships, or maybe small intimate circles, because eroticism is basically just sex, and sex is unimportant and obvious, and anyway, it works basically the same way for everyone.

Only, of course, it doesn’t.

I talk about eroticism because of that gap between what is understood to be true for everyone and what I know to be true for me. I talk about eroticism because I want it to be more broadly understood that someone might want the kinds of things I want and might not want the kinds of things I don’t want.

Speaking of which, if you are still concerned that talking about being kinky is giving out “too much information,” perhaps you will notice that I haven’t given out much information at all. I’ve noted categories—power, pain, sex—and stated my general alignment toward each, but I haven’t at all gone into specifics. For the purposes of this conversation, specifics are unimportant.

At its simplest, what being kinky means to me is that what eroticism looks like for me is different from what is expected. It means that you can’t correctly assume from looking at me, or from knowing that I’m queer, or a femme, or a woman, how eroticism works for me.

It means that desire, intimacy, and connection—no matter how socially unacceptable the topic—are things we have to talk about.

Welcome to my Kink Autumn blog series. Let’s talk.

Coming Soon: Kink Autumn Blog Series

I am excited (and a bit trepidatious) to announce Kink Autumn, my new blog series.

Who: Me, your local melancholy writer-kinkster

What: Short posts about kink, identity, consent, trauma, and why any of this matters in 2017

Where: Here on Circumstance and Carefulness, at least for now

When: Starting this week! And continuing, tentatively, until winter

Why: Because this stuff does still matter

How: One small idea at a time

I’m looking forward to the next six weeks. I hope you’ll join me.

How I Got Here 2017

This summer, I had the privilege of telling a story at Debauchery 2017‘s speakers’ corner. Here is the piece I read–an updated version of my first-ever post on this blog.

This is how I got here: I wanted kink to save me.

It was a fantasy I’d been bringing to lovers for years. After a traumatic first relationship in high school where my girlfriend convinced me I owed her sex whether I wanted it myself or not, I came into new relationships with an unexamined urgency. I was in pain, and I wanted that pain fixed. Each new lover, each new sexual encounter, was an opportunity. If I only did sex right this time, the fantasy went, everything would change.

It was a fantasy that did not see my lovers. There was no place in it for my partners’ needs, my partners’ desires. It was a fantasy that did not see me, did not see that my body was once again being used in the service of a narrative that had nothing to do with bodies. In my abusive relationship, I’d used my mouth, my fingers, and far more nakedness than I could bear to promise my girlfriend I loved her. Now I wanted the promise that sex couldn’t hurt me and was conscripting my body and my partners’ bodies into proving it.

Most of my partners kept their distance from me where sex was concerned. My senior year of college, I was lucky enough to have a partner help facilitate my coming into my own desire. Cat was the first person I knew who identified as polyamorous and, oddly, the only man I’d ever dated. He showed me his desire for me and waited gently, patiently, for me to name desires of my own. What I named was still limited by what I understood to be possible; I knew people who did bdsm—my college even had its own bdsm student club—but I’d never considered it in relation to myself. I was still, after all, trying to work out “the basics.”

At the same time, I got back in touch with a high school friend in another city who had just opened up her marriage. We at first reconnected over polyamory, then over her also becoming involved with Cat, and finally over each of us seeing enough of his flaws that we both cut ties. Within a few months of opening their marriage, my friend and her husband discovered kink. Both kept LiveJournals, and I read eagerly, hungrily, their stories of exploration and self-discovery. This was what I craved for myself: for desire to be a site of transformation and joy. Through the journals, I saw those possibilities in bdsm, and I wanted them.

By then, I was in a sort of sexual limbo with a dear friend. Our dynamic, which periodically shifted between tensionless friendship and something more erotically charged, had taken a sharp turn just before she left for a semester-long study abroad. Much would change before we saw each other again, I knew, but surely in that one night of intense and joyous intimacy just before she left the country was the promise of a future. We would explore New York’s kinky underground together, I was sure of it. So as I graduated from college, watched my friends and chosen family scatter to the winds, spent long days unemployed and purposeless, and was too proud to admit how alone I felt, I checked off days on the calendar, waiting for my friend and our transformative future.

And then, of course, I lost her too.

It was nearly two years before I first set foot in kink space, and by then, my sense of urgency had returned. I brought so much anguish with me: resentment that my high school friend had come so easily to her self-discovery when I felt so cut off from mine; shame at my inexperience; anger at the partners who had seemed to promise an end to my pain but never delivered; guilt at my sense of entitlement—I knew my partners didn’t owe me sex, but I thought the universe did, and the more panicked and powerless I felt, the harder it was to keep the two separate.

I did not bring embodied desire. Before my friend came home from study abroad, I’d had a host of toppy fantasies, but those were forgotten in my heartbreak, my loneliness, and my desperate terror that sex for me would always be a site of trauma, defeat, and broken promises. Instead, I came to the kink scene with the same fantasy I’d brought to every lover: this place, these people could help me end my anguish, if only I could figure out how to do things right this time.

Just as my fantasy failed to see my lovers, it made invisible to me the particulars of the community I’d found. I sat through classes on how to hit, pierce, or tie up a partner, ashamed that I did not yet know if I wanted to hit, pierce, or tie up anyone, resentful that I had no way of trying. It never occurred to me to evaluate the experiences I was having. If the people around me thought it had been a good class, I supposed they were right, and that my still feeling stuck was simply my own failure—as always, when it came to sex and desire—to grasp something everyone else in the room easily understood. And if the people around me criticized the class, I felt even more ashamed. Yet again, I was too foolish and too inexperienced even to have noticed.

And then there were the parties. My high school friend’s transformations had begun at play parties, and I was sure each monthly gathering held the possibility of change. There was a cycle to it: the week before, I’d be giddy, fantasies spinning fast and big and mind-altering. When the day came, I’d grow uneasy. I’d slip on borrowed clothes, lingering at the mirror, wondering: Was this the night? Would I come home different? And then, hours later, I’d return, crushed and defeated, as far as ever from untangling the mystery of who I was, what I wanted, and why my sexuality so often seemed to keep me isolated.

I met people at play parties, started to recognize faces that would greet me, talk with me, then disappear sometime during the evening with a date and a satchel full of implements I could never quite make myself look at closely. Some people I met expressed interest in me, but they usually backed off when I couldn’t find a satisfying answer to what it was I was into. I met a top who offered to let me play with her submissive the next time the two were in town. I met a bottom I thought was cute, and we talked about grad school and erotic poetry, but I couldn’t bring myself to suggest we do anything.

Still without answers, still in pain, I decided to push myself harder. Every offer, I reasoned, was an opportunity. I let a stranger with whiskey on her breath pull me into a makeout session that slid further and further out of my control. I let a woman who couldn’t stop shaking her head at my age—she was all of six years older than me—into my home and my bed. There was a top I’d once turned down who had always been kind to me. I wanted to talk to her about topping, ask her some of the questions I’d started to ask myself. But that, I knew, was a ludicrous thing to do at a party, so I approached her for play and promised myself I’d try whatever she suggested.

Finally pushed too far, my body rebelled. I came home from a party unable to move. I lay in bed all weekend, arms heavy, chest thick, eyes hot and sticky, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. All my efforts, all my fighting, had only brought me here: my body pressed cold against itself on a three-foot square of mattress. Lying there, I knew with an awful clarity that I had been wrong. Kink was never going to save me. It was only making things worse.

I left the scene. I joined a writing group and was struck, moved, by how easily I felt competent there. My memories of the kink scene faded like a bad dream. I still had no answers about desire or sexuality, but I knew now that pushing past my own limits would bring me no closer to the answers I wanted. I sat back. I wrote. I waited.

In the writing group, I met a woman with whom I eventually became involved. She wasn’t into that kinky stuff, she assured me up front. Good, I thought. I was safe here. I did not tell her about the world I’d left. I only told her I needed to take things slow.

It was the first time I’d come to a relationship without that sense of urgency. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time a partner didn’t push me away. When we had sex for the first time, I felt vulnerable and strange. As we kept having it, I felt the knot of pain and hopelessness begin to unwind itself. I started to imagine possibilities beyond simply not getting hurt, not getting rejected. I started to see the shape of my own desire.

And so, in a sense, I’d been right all along. It was only when I was having erotic encounters consistently that I was able to start finding my footing within them. But it turned out I’d been right about something else too: the shape of my desire was pretty kinky. The woman from my writing group told me she was “up for anything,” but she didn’t think “anything” meant a polarized power dynamic or her bottoming to acts I would not then bottom to myself. I shared with her the desires I’d been feeling, and we ended our relationship.

I did not relish the idea that I would need to find a place for kink in my life. I was not ready to go back to the places where I’d pushed myself to breaking or to the people who’d been there alongside me and never noticed. At the same time, I was not willing to ignore my desire. And I had resources this time. I knew where my limits were. I knew how to listen to myself, and, when things got to be too much, I knew how to leave. I tiptoed back, gently, open to possibilities but prepared to protect myself.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first. But I think I assumed that someday, it would get easier. That one day, I’d be like those tops I’d met early on, playing effortlessly at every event, bewildered by the idea that one might approach kink and play and desire with anything less than delight and satisfaction. What I’ve learned since coming back to kink is that it’s always going to be a challenge. I say “no” more often now. I admit more often when things are hard—and when I talk about my own struggles, those around me are often willing to admit to struggles of their own. Still, sometimes there is nothing to do but go home, knowing I am in no state to play or even be around play tonight. Sometimes there is nothing to do but be gentle with myself, to wrap myself in a blanket, sit back, and wait.

In our public discourse about kink, we do not often talk about the ways these things we do—these things that can be joyous, energizing, hot, and intimate—can also be hard. But for so many of us, they are hard. And that’s okay. We’re playing with desire, power, and vulnerability. How many of us can say that these parts of our lives are simple? Would we even want them to be?


I wrote this piece in 2010, a few months after the end of my first kinky relationship. There was a lot I didn’t know then. I didn’t know it would be six years before I had another play partner. I didn’t know I’d have a nonsexual kink partnership and start questioning whether sex was part of the shape of my desire at all. I also didn’t know that that 2017 was going to feel quite so politically catastrophic.

When awful things are happening around us, it can be easy to think of kink as something frivolous, or unimportant, or not “the real struggle.”

I share this piece as a reminder that for a lot of us, kink is a core part of our humanity. Kink is intimacy and connection, kink is creativity and self-expression, kink is bodily autonomy and bodily integrity. For me, those things are worth fighting for. And I don’t know about you, but I find that for me, it’s only when I have access to those parts of myself that kink represents, that I have the will to fight for anything.

Thank you.

Thoughts from FemmeCon

This post is about my experience of the 2012 Femme Conference.

First thing on the first day there’s a kinky femmes workshop. There’s no description in the program book, but I am looking forward to being around other kinky femmes. I want to say this thing I’ve been thinking about that no one ever seems to say: that being kinky doesn’t always mean getting to do kink. I am thirty years old, and kink is vital to me, but it’s something I’ve never really had in abundance.

The session turns out to be a panel: four kinky femmes talk about how they do kink; we ask the questions, and they have the answers. I’ve spent the better part of the past eight years hearing about how other people do kink, and I can’t really bear to do it here now. I write a note to the friend I’ve come in with and slip out the door.

Where I go instead turns out to be my favorite workshop of the weekend. Kim Crosby‘s analysis of the world is so keen and expansive and intersectional that for the duration of the session (presentation available here), I almost don’t notice that no one is talking about kink.

But there is sexual tension everywhere. We are, after all, a group of queers who have come together for a weekend. On the first day, there is a speed-dating session (scheduled, aggravatingly, against a workshop on trans-misogyny). On the second day, there is a play party, but it’s far away, physically inaccessible, and costs $15 on top of the conference registration fees – besides which, the kind of erotic community I’m looking for is something I rarely find at a party). At one of the keynotes, someone shouts, “I want to get fucked at this conference,” and people cheer. I hear it in private conversations: hooking up, making out, who’s cute. I’ve thought it myself vaguely and privately: It would be nice. I don’t know if I’m ready to touch or be touched this weekend, but it’d be nice if I were and I could.

I run into people I used to know from the kink scene. “Where have you been?” one asks. “It’s been ages.”

I tell them I haven’t been to a kink event in years. “I’m kind of mad at the kink scene,” I say, honest but trying to keep it light. I talk about how it takes me time to want to connect with someone, how kink spaces always seem to be urgently about doing play right away, right now.

“That’s a good thing to know about yourself,” my old acquaintance answers. It’s the kind of answer I’m used to hearing from players in the public scene: the problem isn’t the scene, it’s you. At the kink panel, my friend who stayed tells me, someone said that if you don’t act like you belong, you never will.

If those are the rules, then I don’t belong. But outside of kink space, I miss the way that desire is understood as important, specific, variable, worth exploring, negotiating, making time for. I miss trusting that the community around me understands that we don’t all fuck the same way, that we don’t all fuck, period. When I walk into a space–yes, even a queer space–I assume that I’m not sexually compatible with most people in the room. And in a space like the Femme Conference, where the story we’re telling ourselves is that everyone wants to hook up (and we all basically know what hooking up means), I feel alienated, left out, afraid.

I want kink spaces that care about access: physical, financial, emotional. I want queer spaces that care about kink, and I want social justice spaces that value desire. At the end of the weekend, another person I know from the kink scene tells me they wish the conference had been more kink-informed. I roll the word around in my head. What would it mean for an understanding of kink to be integrated into the conference? How does kink fit into an intersectional analysis? What—as a friend wisely asked me—do I even mean when I use the word kink?

One week later, I’m still thinking it through. What about you? What do you think?


A few numbers that don’t sit well with me: This month makes two years since I’ve had sex or play in my life. I’m turning thirty this summer. It’s been twelve or so years since my high school abusive relationship ended, which makes about eleven years I’ve been throwing myself into the work of trying to make sex feel safe and generative and good.

I am proud of the work I’ve done, of the person I’ve become and am still becoming. I am proud of knowing what I want (emotional intimacy, D/s, to give touch more than receive it, to balance alone time and togetherness), and I’m proud of saying no when I’ve needed to say no.

And, I am heartsick. For eleven years, I have wanted this thing. I couldn’t have put a name to it at first, but what I’d call it now is abundance. I want sex and play, and the particular kind of emotional connection that comes with them, and I want enough. Enough that there is time and space to learn and explore and grow and try things and make mistakes. To meander into different corners of my desire. To surprise myself by liking things I didn’t expect. To watch my edges shift, to move with them. To have kinds of play that feel comfortable and easy, and others that challenge me. To do things wrong and learn to pick up the pieces.

By and large, I haven’t had this. And today, I am filled with sadness for the things I haven’t done and for the ways I feel alone now.

Someone asked me recently if there was “anyone special” in my life. I answered that there were many—the housemates I live with, friends near and far, but as for “special” in the romantic way, no. “And you’re okay with that?” she asked, sort of marveling at it. And the truth is I’m not, really. It’s not what I’d choose for myself if I had the choice. And the other truth is that I am. It is what it is, and I’m proud of choosing to be alone rather than accepting partners (romantic, sexual, play, etc.) who are wrong for me.

But it hurts. It hurts to lack some fundamental kinds of intimacy. It hurts because I am someone to whom desire and intimacy matter deeply, and there are parts of myself that I can’t fully access alone. It hurts because it feels like it’s so often been this way, that I’ve spent so much of my adult life alone. It hurts because I feel alone in my aloneness, even though I know I’m far from the only person who’s spent most of her twenties unpartnered, and certainly not the only person who feels alone right now.

And yet, in so-called sex positive and kink communities, which in some ways are communities to which I feel connected, aloneness seems to be unthinkable. Every play party seems to assume you’ll either bring a date or pick one up there. Most skills classes seem to assume you either have experience doing whatever the class is about or that you’ll have somebody to practice with after. Most casual conversation in kink circles seems to assume you either have experience doing x, y, or z or, if not (and if it’s the sort of thing you might like to do someday), priority number one is to try it. For me, priority number one is to take care of myself. I’m not going to play with a partner I don’t trust (experience tells me that leaves me worse off than not playing at all), and I don’t build trust easily.

And it hurts. It hurts to watch communities grow out of these spaces (parties, classes, etc.) that feel fundamentally inaccessible to me. Sometimes it feels like everyone is moving forward and I’m the only one standing still. And yet, I know I’m not alone in this, even though it feels like I am.

As I write this, I am anticipating responses. I am imagining that someone might read this and feel compelled to tell me that my aloneness is my own fault, or to tell me how to fix it. If this is you, I ask you to step back, to not share those things with me. The truth is, some factors are within my control, and some aren’t, and I reserve the right to be sad about the aloneness I feel whether or not I’ve made every possible effort toward finding abundance.

This is what I would like you to share: I want to hear from other people who feel alone, or who have. I want to hear from other kinky folks who feel like they don’t have access to kink. Tell me a story about being alone or alienated from desire, tell me what it feels like for you, tell me how you take care of yourself, or just tell me that you’re out there. Maybe we can be a resource for each other. I hope so.

On Defaults, Roles, and, Finally, Flagging

Sometimes I hear people talk about kink and sex as if there is “regular sex” and kinky sex, and kink is a sort of extra or add-on. I’ve heard kink discussed as a kind of gourmet approach to sex, as if there is “meat and potatoes sex” and then in contrast, an exquisite, rarefied set of pleasures for the discerning palate. Underlying these approaches is the assumption that there are at least some sex acts that serve as a default, sex acts that everybody does. As someone who doesn’t do many of the acts that get considered default, and as someone for whom kink is at the center of my desire, I find this assumption both alienating and anxiety-producing.

A while back, I was talking to a group of people I was getting to know with whom I hadn’t extensively discussed sex. The conversation turned to sex, and in particular, the group started boisterously bantering back and forth about a particular sex act in a way that assumed that everyone did this thing, and it was a source of delight and humor and levity for all. I wanted to be able to talk to my new friends about sex, but I could find no way to be part of this conversation. They were discussing a kind of sex I rarely choose to have in a joyous, rapid-fire way, and it felt like even naming that I didn’t share their experience, or naming that that particular act was connected to trauma for me would have changed the tone of the conversation drastically.

Norms around dating also imply the assumption that there are acts everybody does. At least in the queer (but not explicitly kinky) communities that I’m currently connected to, there are no widespread norms about establishing erotic compatibility. Some of us flag, some don’t; some announce our kinks on dating websites, some don’t, and while you might hear a murmur about whether so-and-so is poly or dates femmes, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a conversation about whether someone bottoms or does D/s.

The implication here is either that erotic compatibility is assumed or that it’s not very important. And yet as someone with reasonably high chances of not being erotically compatible with someone I otherwise find attractive, I do find it important in choosing partners. Moreover, I value knowing about what sexuality looks like for the people in my life, and having people in my life who know what sexuality looks like for me. I find it puzzling to be part of a community that sees information about the general shape of each other’s desires as either too personal or too sexual to be expressed outside of explicitly erotic relationships. Or that assumes our sexualities are similar enough not to be worth mentioning, except in a moment of raucous bonding over (presumably) shared experience.

I am tempted, at times, to miss some of the norms of the queer bdsm community. There, it was rarely assumed that two people were compatible without knowing the kind of play each did. And there, knowing the kinds of play someone did or the kinds of roles they took up wasn’t considered any more private or intimate than knowing, for instance, the gender(s) of their partners. But I’m not suggesting that my community replace a system in which a default sexuality is assumed with one in which everybody identifies with a particular role (top, bottom, dominant, submissive, etc.) or a particular set of acts (bondage, flogging, etc.). In queer bdsm communities that did the latter, I felt just as unseen and presumed upon as I do outside of them. What I’d like to see both inside and outside of queer bdsm communities is space for the unknown. You can’t know what my desires look like by simply assuming they’re similar to an imagined norm. You can’t know what my desires look like simply by knowing that I call myself a top (though it’s a start).

This is why when I flag (in case you’ve been wondering), I flag “it’s complicated” on the left. I use a fabric scrap with a pattern that isn’t covered by any hanky code I’m aware of and hope that what those who notice take from it is 1) that I top and 2) that there is always more to the story than can be communicated at a glance. For me, flagging “it’s complicated” is a way of making space. In communities that presume a set of sexual defaults, it marks my sexuality as something different; in communities that invite me to declare a role and repertoire of acts, it conveys some information while leaving the rest opaque. My hope is that anyone who wants to know more will engage me in conversation—not the raucous kind based on presumed shared experience but an intimate, curious kind with room for nuance and complexity.