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.