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.

2 thoughts on “On Defaults, Roles, and, Finally, Flagging

  1. You keep hitting on so many of the precise motivations that animate my academic work, which is really cool! File this one under: “things I learned from studying the history of sexuality.” Once you start trying to think historically about something you might call “sexuality,” you start encountering all of these issues: what makes an act or a word seem legible to me now as something “sexual?” What norms am I imposing on the past through this presumed legibility? What do I even mean by “sexual,” anyway? And these questions are only complicated by the fact that certain words describing acts or desires do not mean the same thing over time (which, in turn, should make it clearer to us that they also have a wide variety of meanings at any given time.) The whole endeavor is a complex balancing of lots of different kinds of opacity, unknowability, and ambiguity all at once. Which is why I think it’s the most interesting thing ever. And hopefully, teaching it will help shake some people out of a mindset that always presumes legibility and fixed meaning. 🙂

    • Yeah, in my experience it ddpenes on what kind of disability you’re talking about. The kink emphasis on explicit consent, negotiation, check-ins, aftercare, etc., is a boon for me, having a psych disorder and sexual dysfunction. But a lot of the venues I’ve been in have not been accessible to people with mobility impairments. (In one case, it was for a big kink community event benefiting a disability organization and the elevator broke at the last minute…whoops.) Partly, I think, it’s because of the covert, underground nature of some kink stuff—gay bar on the ground level, dungeon in the basement; an ex-council flat being converted to a dungeon; etc. Which is no excuse; it just means kinky disabled people are even more isolated.Another aspect is money. Many kink events have a dress code which requires expensive clothes/gear, and in my experience none have provided free food, transit fare, or any other allowances for low-income people. And, let’s face it, disability and low income intersect quite a bit. I might be kinky as hell but if I’m only working part-time or on a very low fixed income due to disability and all I can afford are clothes from the Sally Ann, that’s not gonna get me into the play party with a fetish/formal/leather dress code.

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