Fear, Panic, and Things I Haven’t Done

A while back, a friend told me with a degree of wistfulness that they thought they’d done pretty much everything their body could do.

It was the wistfulness that got me. My heart is so full of longing for the things I haven’t done, and so full of fear that I will never get to do them, that it’s hard to imagine having even a twinge of sadness about having done something already.

It’s better now than it used to be. A year or two ago, I had my first kinky relationship, and it quelled some of the urgency I was carrying. Before it, I was just starting to know what some of my desires looked like, but in a way, it was all still theoretical. I had so many hopes for sex and play being hot and healing and transformative—being worth all the pain I’d gone through to get to this point—but I’d had hopes dashed before. My kinky relationship made something solid for me, showed me that what I hoped for really was possible.

Still, old patterns are hard to shake. And as I get further and further from that relationship and less and less connected to kink communities, I feel the old longings—and the old fears—coming back.

Thinking about what I still haven’t done within sex and play and relationships brings up a host of ugly feelings. Entitlement: this sense that I deserve to have done more, that the universe has cheated or robbed me of experiences I ought to have had by now. Competition: resentment and jealousy of the people I imagine have done more than I. Self-loathing: a certainty that all this is under my control, and that my not having done as much as I wish means I’ve failed somewhow. These feelings feed off each other (I work twice as hard as that person, and look what they get to do that I don’t!), grow big and panicky and monstrous until I am no good to anyone, least of all myself.

When I was still hanging out in the public kink scene, looking for miracles, I sometimes imagined myself as a rat trying to climb a glass wall. I’d scrabble and scrabble and scrabble against the wall, and the more I tried to climb, the more I panicked, and the more I panicked, the more I tried to climb, and the only thing to do was the most impossible and terrifying thing of all: I had to give myself permission to stop trying.

Which is what I do now when the panic sets in. I step away, take myself out of whatever thought spiral has led me here, get some air, watch a movie—self-care stuff. It doesn’t get me any closer to the sex or play or relationships I dream of for myself. But then, neither does the panicking.

You might be asking yourself, by the way, why I’m talking about things I long to have done rather than things I long to do. It’s a wise question, and I think that the answer is that the things I have done I now trust are possible, but the things I haven’t done I still fear are not. It’s a fear worth untangling (and the idea of “experience” is one I’ll likely come back to a lot here), but the fear is something I’m stuck with, at least for now. It’s not pretty, but heck, sometimes desire isn’t.

Flagging, Part 1: Obstacles

This weekend, I did something I’ve never done before: I flagged.

It’s fairly common practice for other kinky queers I’ve been in community with to flag, so I’ll start by talking about why I had never done it before.

For one, I struggle with the fear/insecurity that I am not a real kinky person and therefore don’t have permission to do something like flagging. There are a lot of reasons for this fear/insecurity, many of which have to do with my level of experience (expect a post or two on experience in the near future), and some of which have to do with messages in the scene about what makes a real top, most of which exclude me.

Also, flagging sends a lot of different messages, some of which I want to send and some of which I don’t. I want to mark myself as kinky. And I want to mark myself as a top, particularly because I don’t often feel like I’m assumed to be one. But the hanky code is also about naming one’s availability for and interest in particular acts, like fisting or bondage (though there are exceptions, like Daddy/boy, which is more of a dynamic), and that’s not how I understand my kink. My desire starts with the kind of dynamic or energy I want, like fear, caretaking, or objectification. For me, acts are not an end in themselves but a set of tools that help build a kind of dynamic or energy.

Finally, flagging, at least in its contemporary incarnation, feels like an expression of pride. It announces that one is kinky, at least to all those “in the know” (which, even in non-kink-specific queer space, is a fair number of people). I like to think that I’m proud of my sexuality, but I’m also aware of the ways that discussing kink, or even discussing sex, often feels unwelcome outside of specifically sex-positive contexts, and I know that I internalize that pressure not to bring it up. Wearing a symbol of my sexuality on my body feels very much like bringing it up, and being a visible symbol of something unwelcome feels intimidating to say the least. (Which makes me think a lot about passing and visibility in general, but those are topics for another day.)

Speaking of topics for another day, I’m wrapping this post up here. Next time, I’ll talk about what I flagged (hint: it’s complicated) and how it worked.

[UPDATE, 2/23/12: There is finally, sort of, a part 2 to this story.  Check it out!]

When I Knew: One Kinky Click Moment

Before I fully understood how I connected to kink myself, I found myself drawn to kink spaces. I thought if I were only brave enough to make it to a party, someone else would step in and help me figure out what to do there. But after spending a few devastating parties waiting for a revelation that never came, I started to wonder if I was wrong about belonging in kink space. Then one night, I met Her Majesty.

We talked through dinner, and then, when we moved to the party, the conversation shifted toward play. “What are you into?” she asked. The question intimidated me. I had ideas about the kinds of dynamics I wanted in my play but still couldn’t quite imagine which set of acts would evoke them. Besides, the question presumed I had a repertoire of kink acts that I’d already done, which, to my great shame and disappointment, I didn’t.

The answer I gave was disjointed but honest: I wanted to top but was open to bottoming (I identified as a switch at that point, and it’s hard to know now how much of that came from genuine desire to bottom and how much came from believing that bottoming was the only acceptable way for a newcomer like me to play). I’d come to kink because I cared about consent and healing, and because I wanted to intentionally create my own sexual practices. As far as what I liked to do… this was where I grew vague, stammered, and threw up my hands. Her response was slightly incredulous. If you think about it like that, she said, “You’re missing out on all the fun parts.”

It was the first of many condescending things she would say to me throughout our several-months’ involvement. When I gave her contact information that included my given name, she practically sneered, “Yeah… you might want to change that.” When I filled out a yes/no/maybe list at her request, she zeroed in on the no answers. “What have you got against that one?” she asked of one item on the list. At another, where I’d detailed my discomfort with a different act in full sentences, she scoffed, “You think about things too much.” And sure, I’d used an academic word or two to describe my reaction to the act, but only because I couldn’t figure out how to express the way imagining it made my body shrink and go still.

She scoffed at my clothes, at my cooking, at my not knowing how to smoke pot from a particular pipe. She scoffed at the way I handled books (I’d bent a spine). Later, when she set up a date for me to co-top the boy who was submitting to her, she scoffed at my hesitancy to receive his service. The date taught me, in retrospect, that I needed to feel a connection, or at least an attraction, to someone I was topping. The date taught Her Majesty and her boy that I wasn’t a real top.

It’s hard to imagine now why I stayed involved with someone who clearly had so little respect for me. But in the kink world at the time, I felt worthless. I was hopelessly out of place in kink venues, woefully inexperienced, and desperate for things to change. Her Majesty was willing not only to play with me but to teach me the skills I needed to top. That someone would indulge my floundering seemed generous beyond anything I deserved. If I noticed Her Majesty’s condescension, I took it as a matter of course. I wasn’t impressed with me either.

A few months into our sporadic courtship, Her Majesty took me to a party. It was a private play party, an all-night gathering in someone’s apartment, and I remember thinking, as I had thought so many times before, that this would be the time that things really changed for me. I didn’t know quite what I wanted to happen there, but Her Majesty had my checklist, and I was certain she would come up with something.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Her Majesty told me afterward (exasperated, of course), that I barely spoke a word the whole night. Looking back, there isn’t much of the night I remember. I remember that Her Majesty and I had plans for her to top me, and that I spent much of the party waiting for her attention. I remember watching her top someone she had just met, thumping his thighs with a heavy plastic bottle. I remember someone I recognized as a local big-name kinkster entertaining a crowd in the living room with stories of discovering his first fetish as a child. I remember Her Majesty leaving sometime in the wee hours, and me staying behind with a handful of other all-nighters to sleep amidst a jumble of sheets and mats.

And I remember the scene that was. Her Majesty announced that she was helping me learn to tie someone up and requested volunteers to bottom. A girl, Beta, raised her hand; she was small, talkative, a self-described exhibitionist, and, unlike Her Majesty’s boy, someone to whom I felt an attraction. Her Majesty brought us to the host’s bedroom. Beta lay on the bed, and Her Majesty knelt above her. Her Majesty asked a few perfunctory questions about where she might put ropes, and in their exchange, I saw intangible agreements pass between the two of them.

Maybe Her Majesty described what she was doing with the ropes as she did it. Maybe she even offered to let me try some of the tying myself; if she did, I don’t remember. What I remember is that the moment the scene began, it felt different. I felt different, drawn in, breathless, my mouth gone dry. As Her Majesty tied, taunted, and slapped, I watched Beta yelp, grin, and grow hazy. I was hyperfocused, outside my body and yet deeply in it, aware of nothing but the girl on the bed and the room’s taut silence. I lost all sense of time—maybe it was minutes later, maybe hours, when Her Majesty moved back and gestured toward Beta, offering her to me. “Your turn.”

In a few moments, I would again be stuck. The wordless negotiation hadn’t included me, and I had no idea what Beta had and hadn’t consented to. Nor was I versed enough in my own desires to think up on the spot what exactly it was I wanted to do with her. And perhaps some part of me also saw what is clear to me now: Beta consented to playing with us both, but the energy of the scene was between her and Her Majesty; Beta’s submission wasn’t Her Majesty’s to offer me, nor was it mine to take. Kneeling over Beta, I would fumble and freeze again, and Her Majesty would sigh and pick the scene back up herself, taking my failure to act as one more piece of evidence that I was wrong about my desire to top.

But in the split second before all that, something slid into place. My body lit up and turned on, feeling Beta, helpless, suddenly in my power. I was nine again, telling myself bedtime stories where armies of girls with fists and machines batted for domination. I was five again, gleefully replaying scenes in my head of a cartoon cat tormenting a cartoon mouse. What I felt in that moment, I hadn’t felt since childhood, not in sex and just barely in fantasy. What I felt in that moment, that was why I’d come here. I belonged here. Whatever anyone said, I belonged here.

When I think back to the events surrounding this moment, so many of them disturb me. The shoddy way Her Majesty treated me. My certainty that I would go into play without knowing what I wanted and come out the better for it. The way we treated Beta, like an object to be passed between the two of us. That this flash of rightness came to me in a scene that does not, in retrospect, feel entirely consensual. And yet, looking back, I can’t help but see that click moment as a moment of triumph. Everything—my internalized shame, Her Majesty’s condescension, a string of painful parties—told me I was wrong about who I was and what I desired. But something in me knew. And I was right.

On Loneliness

It’s a bit of a dreary subject for a kink blog, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness..

I’ve been lonely. At least, I’ve been what I think of as lonely. I’ve been restless. I’ve been sad. I’ve spent a long Friday night or several not quite sure what to do with myself. I could say it’s because I’ve recently moved to a new city, but the truth is that I’ve felt this way most times in my life. I have rarely if ever experienced an abundance of intimacy. What intimacies I’ve had, I’ve cobbled together—this friend here, that friend there, sometimes a partner—and I’m often afraid I’m leaning more on one person or another than our relationship can bear.

I’ve been thinking about the stigma of being lonely. How I feel inclined to closet myself about it, afraid that if I admit to feeling friendless (or at least not having quite as many close friends as I’d like) or to having an empty weekend, it’s as good as admitting that I’m just plain unlikeable. Even as I write this, I’m hyperaware of how I might come across (oh good, I sound like I have some friends at least). I’ve been thinking about the way we talk about lonely people, or people without friends: Pathetic. Pitiable. Losers.

I’ve been thinking about the ways that finding intimacy takes skills, energy, and vulnerability. The ways heteronormativity (and homonormativity too), assume that all the intimacy we need comes from our romantic/sexual partner(s), and how much of that belief I’ve taken in—sure, I say I’m looking for community, but every time I get close to someone, I catch myself hoping that it’s romantic and/or sexual, and often when I think about loneliness, I imagine that what I want is a partner.

But this restlessness is one I’ve felt even while partnered. It’s one I’ve felt even in a room full of people I care about, who care about me. And it’s one I can sometimes quell by wandering somewhere new, or absorbing myself in reading. I’ve been thinking that what I’ve been calling loneliness could better be described as understimulation. That what I need isn’t precisely intimacy with other people but ways of challenging and engaging myself (intimacy with other people often facilitates this kind of challenge and engagement but isn’t the only route there).

The other night, I had planned to go to a local kink event, and I was dreading it. Interacting with strangers takes a lot of energy for me, and I don’t trust public kink groups, particularly ones that aren’t explicitly queer, to give me much energy back. There are too many wrong assumptions made about me when I walk in the door: that I have certain kinds of kink/sex experience; that I am available to be touched (kinky folks might ask first, but I don’t trust most of them not to balk at a “no” answer); that I will not object to casual racism/classism/misogyny; that I find play easy and uncomplicatedly rewarding.

But I’d also been thinking that going to the event might ease my loneliness. After all, this is a community with which I have at least one significant point of connection (that kink informs my worldview), and it’s a point of connection that’s been missing with many of the radical queer folks I’ve recently started getting to know.

I didn’t go. In the end, I didn’t feel I had the energy to interrupt all those assumptions, let alone reveal to strangers the things that about me that are real. Instead, I asked myself, what is it I need now? what is it I desire? The answers surprised me. Exercise, because part of this restlessness is my body wanting to move and be challenged. The right books, because incisive political analysis, mind-bendy alternate realities, and skilfully rendered emotional experiences challenge and engage me even when I’m sitting still. To make a practice of pushing to my edges (and no further) when it comes to building connections, which means knowing what I’m up for, being aware of things like, say, the impulse to be closeted about my loneliness, and prioritizing being vulnerable and open when it feels reasonably safe and productive to do so.

It’s no coincidence that noticing these needs and desires brought out my first blog post in months. Particularly when part of the mission of Circumstance and Carefulness is to build community.

So, welcome back to Circumstance and Carefulness (and on its shiny new site, no less!). If you’ve got any thoughts on loneliness and desire, you are welcome to leave them in the comments.


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.