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?

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.

When Play Is a Party, I’m Not Invited: On Kink Events and Party Culture

For a while, when I had a little more disposable income and a little more optimism about the possibilities therein, I was going quasi-regularly to a few weekend kink events.

I haven’t gone in probably a year. And though I miss the idea of having community around kink, I don’t much miss the events as they were. The events didn’t feel like they provided community. I often felt like the one person there who wasn’t insisting they were having the best time ever.

Typical interaction at a kink event:

Acquaintance: Are you having the BEST TIME EVER?


Acquaintance: I’ve had, like, seven playdates so far.


Acquaintance: I just got staples!!!

Me (relieved to have a socially acceptable conversation topic): Oh, really, how was that?

Thing is, I often don’t have a great time. For a number of reasons. Maybe I arrived unpartnered and most nights there’s nothing to do besides play. Maybe it’s been a hard week, or someone said something fucked up, or I can’t find the queers, or a class was triggering, or a speaker assumed that people like me don’t exist or aren’t here. Or I got sick and now I’m coughing mucus out of my lungs and don’t want to touch anyone. Or I went through a heartwrenching breakup the week before. Or people here are touching me without my consent or making assumptions about how I play or who I partner with, and I feel not seen, not valued, not among anything like the community I wish for.

But there isn’t much room for admitting when things are hard. “Are you having the BEST TIME EVER?” isn’t really a question that tolerates a “no” answer, or even a shade or two of nuance. At the last event I went to, which I attended primarily to support my friends who were organizing, teaching, and speaking, I made a point of answering questions about my weekend truthfully. “It’s been nice,” I’d tell the enthusiastic questioners. “Low-key.”

This too was the wrong answer. I got back looks of bafflement, incredulity, affrontedness. Didn’t I know there was a huge dungeon, plus pool parties, a vending floor, a sex lounge, and hey, a hot scene starting in like twenty minutes—maybe I could join in?

Yeah, I guess. But the party atmosphere—this constant, frenzied flitting from one good time to another—isn’t really how I do my kink, or my community. The play I want is based in connection and intimacy, and often the kinds of connection and intimacy I’m looking for build slowly over time. When the expectation is that time is scarce and we have to cram in as many experiences as we can over the course of a day or two, building those connections becomes next to impossible. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and connected quickly with somebody, but that’s the exception to the rule and not something it makes any sense to count on.

Besides, it’s not just about getting to play. What I wish for from kink community, more than finding partners (though often, that too would be nice), is to connect with people who value the work of intentionally co-crafting our sexualities and our relationships, who can share skills and experiences and approaches to doing specific kinds of play or relationships, who can celebrate when kink is rewarding and joyous and pleasurable but also make space for it being scary or challenging or hard. I want to stay up all night sharing stories about who we are and how kink fits into our lives. And I want to maintain those connections long after a weekend event is over.

My suspicion is that plenty of people who go to kink events would be up for many of these kinds of connections. But the culture of events is not one that facilitates intimacy, at least not for me.

In a way, that’s just as well. Ultimately, I don’t want the community I build to be—as many of these events are for many of us—financially and physically inaccessible. Nor do I want it to be bounded so strictly by time—something that exists for a weekend, then disappears for months. But deciding party-style kink events don’t work for me means back to the drawing board as far as how to build the community I wish for. Which is a step in the right direction, but sometimes a little dispiriting.


Against Requiring New Tops to Bottom (and toward treating all players with respect)

When we talk about new players in the public scene, we often assume that we are talking about bottoms. I recently started a conversation in a forum for a kink event I was considering attending about how to help make the event a welcoming space for newcomers. A few participants in the conversation quickly positioned the “newbies” as a population that was sexually available, unskilled, and vulnerable to exploitation. One self-identified sadist expressed glee that a group of “newbies” might be gathered in one place (“a sadist’s dream,” another concurred), while others rushed to caution that we wouldn’t want “newbies” to draw too much attention to themselves, lest they be taken advantage of by unscrupulous “predators.” Leaving aside the odd assumption that people new to this particular event would be new to kink altogether, the implications were troubling. New players were assumed to be bottoms, and bottoms—to either our delight or our concern—were assumed to be vulnerable.

When I entered the scene as a new top, I also encountered the assumption that new players were bottoms. I got this message largely by omission. Conventional wisdom in the community held that new players should try a variety of scenes with a variety of partners to get a feel for different kinds of play. But conventional wisdom also held that new players should avoid inexperienced tops. Wait a second… what about those of us who were inexperienced tops? Well, there was one piece of conventional wisdom that concerned new tops: players who wanted to top should bottom first.

As a new top, this requirement posed a problem for me. In my first years bumbling through the public kink scene, I’d pushed myself into situations I did not want in hopes of gaining knowledge and experience. By the time I came to the scene ready to honor my desire to top, I was no longer willing to permit my body to be used in ways I did not desire, or to let sex or play be a means to an end. Refusing to bottom was the right way to respect my own boundaries, but it seemed to be the wrong way to be a top. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that requiring new tops to bottom benefits neither bottoms nor new tops. Instead, this practice helps maintain a hierarchy that favors a small group of established tops over new tops and all bottoms.

The stated reason for tops bottoming first is that it makes us better tops. Bottoming is supposed to make us safer players. It is supposed to improve tops’ technical skills by giving us a sense of how a particular implement feels to the person upon whom it is used. It is also supposed to increase our “empathy” for bottoms—more on this curious turn of phrase shortly. These improvements, we assume, benefit not only tops but also the people who bottom to us by providing a sort of “quality control”—an assurance that we are safe, skilled, and respectful players.

To refuse to bottom, on the other hand, is taken as an expression of disrespect. To simply declare oneself a top is seen as arrogant, presumptuous, and entitled, and showing dangerous disregard for bottoms’ safety. Even as I write this, I am aware of my fear that my argument here will seem merely self-serving, or that I am trying to “get away with something” by arguing that one can top without first bottoming.

But if the problem here is the safety of bottoms, requiring new tops to bottom is the wrong solution. First of all, what do we mean by “safety”? Emotional safety? Physical safety? Let’s look at physical safety first.

It is never possible to guarantee that no one will be physically injured as a result of play, but the risks can be easily reduced. Players should be aware of basic safety concerns for a given kind of play, information that is readily available in introductory classes and readings. For play that requires technical skill, tops should be aware of their own skill level and be prepared to communicate and make decisions about their play based on that awareness. Tops can also improve their skill through practice, either on partners, on themselves, or on inanimate objects. Established tops have usually had more practice with a given skill than new tops, but it is ridiculous to say that new tops should never be allowed to try a new kind of play (how do we think those established tops got started!?). Rather, new tops who want to try a kind of play for the first time should be honest with potential partners about their level of preparation and let bottoms decide whether they are willing to take the risk.

Perhaps a top’s preparation for a particular kind of play involves having previously bottomed to it. If so, the top may feel somewhat more equipped to intuit how certain sensations feel to the bottom receiving them. But every body is different, and bodies change day to day. Knowing how a particular top experienced receiving a caning on a particular day is no substitute for knowing how this bottom is experiencing this caning right now, information best gotten through some combination of the top’s reading the bottom’s cues and both parties’ active communication. In other words, previously having bottomed is neither sufficient nor necessary for topping effectively now. Far more important is being able and willing to communicate and collaborate.

If the kind of safety we are concerned about is emotional safety, then requiring new tops to bottom is actively detrimental. When we insist that new tops must bottom, and when we insist that having bottomed first makes a top a legitimate play partner, we undermine all parties’ ability to consent.

When we claim that play is simply a matter of technical skill, we leave out one of our most important skill sets: the skill set necessary for consent. Vital for all players, consent skills include awareness of one’s body and state of mind, knowledge of one’s desires, knowledge of physical and emotional limits, ability and willingness to communicate, and ability and willingness to pause or end a scene if necessary. Not to mention understanding the safety concerns involved in a given kind of play and being prepared to make decisions about the level of risk one is willing to assume.

When we focus on tops’ physical skills, we often ignore tops’ consent skills. Worse, by assuming any new player is prepared to bottom, we ignore bottoms’ consent skills. When we do not try to foster consent skills but instead focus on protecting bottoms from “dangerous” tops, we undermine bottoms’ ability to make their own choices.

We are certainly not valuing consent when we insist that new tops bottom. This requirement tells people who have expressed desire to top that in order to do what they desire, they must first allow their bodies to be used in a different way—thus coercing new tops into bottoming. Worse, some established tops are all too eager to take advantage of new tops who bottom. In her post on topping a top, Sex Geek describes meeting a new top who has tried to fulfill the requirement to bottom and ended up in exploitative situations. Multiple dominants who agreed to top the new top were unwilling to respect her negotiated intentions; instead, they took the opportunity to insist that the new top was “really a submissive” or to mock or humiliate her. Again, what is the requirement to bottom worth if it permits tops like these to do their worst?

Perhaps, in some small way, it is abuses like these that the notion of “empathy for the bottom” attempts to address. Perhaps we imagine that some tops’ utter disregard for bottoms’ consent is merely a failure of compassion, and that if only these tops had firsthand experience of bottoming, they would treat the bottoms in their lives with more care and respect.

But the problem is not the failure of tops to bottom. The problem is how we conceive of tops and bottoms in the first place. Rather than seeing tops and bottoms as equally skilled collaborators in play, we create an out-of-scene hierarchy in which tops are authoritative, in-charge, skilled actors, while bottoms are skill-less bodies who are merely acted upon. In this system, tops assume responsibility for all players’ safety and all players’ consent, and bottoms—like the forum discussion’s helpless “newbies”—may be either protected or exploited but cannot look out for themselves.

This hierarchy consolidates power in the hands of a small group of established tops. In it, established tops alone are responsible for determining who is a safe player—in other words, who is “allowed” to top—but can avoid having their own practices around safety scrutinized. Additionally, controlling who is allowed to top while welcoming in new bottoms creates a ratio that ensures established tops are in demand as partners. And because bottoms are considered prepared to play whether or not they have developed the skills for meaningful consent, tops may push limits or violate boundaries with impunity. No wonder my declaring myself a top without bottoming first comes across as entitlement. To be a top in this system is indeed to be entitled—entitled to the bodies and consent of bottoms.

Rather than protect bottoms, rather than improve tops’ skills, requiring new tops to bottom helps maintain this hierarchy. It does so by getting rid of new tops. New tops are indeed a threat, but not primarily to bottoms. New tops threaten the supremacy of established tops by revealing that tops can be vulnerable and fallible, and that tops’ success as players comes not from their innate authority but from collaborating with skilled bottoms. New tops also threaten established tops’ exclusive access to bottoms—this is the threat that we fight by casting new tops as “unsafe.” Even to think about how new tops begin to play is to disrupt our fantasy that tops are inherently experts. This is why we have so little wisdom for players who want to begin topping. This is why we tell them instead either to transform themselves into bottoms or to leave.

There is so much to say about new players and the power structures of kink community: how deeply gender-coded this hierarchy is, how switches fit into this admittedly rather binaristic analysis, the gender dynamics of who gets told to bottom, what it means to be “new” anyway, and how to work toward a more just, more equitable, and genuinely safer scene. But for now, let’s look at how we treat new players. Rather than push away tops and prey on bottoms, we need to support all newcomers in building their skills. Let’s acknowledge that all parties are responsible for their own safety and create a culture where we truly value limits, boundaries, and everyone’s consent. Let’s support all players learning to negotiate, communicate, and be aware of themselves and each other. And when new tops come to us looking for what to do next, let’s do better than telling them to bottom. Let’s make suggestions that honor their desires, like practice or start small. We will be a stronger community if we can give our newcomers the respectful, compassionate welcome they deserve.