On the individual third person (why singular they isn’t enough)

On my “Language” page, I note that I am unhappy with the use of singular “they” when talking about a specific person (though always deferring to a person’s stated pronouns where I know them). I am fine with a generic or hypothetical person (e.g. “When an X does Y, they also experience Z.”) although I would tend to use “zie” in that context as well.

Every so often I come across language-y people defending “they” as the singular third-person pronoun, usually citing the above types of example (and agreement with “everybody/nobody/anybody/somebody” in hypothetical/generic statements) as reasons why English does not need a new set of pronouns, such as zie/hir/hir (the ones I habitually use nowadays). I knew there was something that sat wrongly with me about this, when I wrote that I, “dislike [singular they] when used as a personal pronoun (referring to some specific person)”.

In a recent conversation (well, fairly recent, it’s a few weeks ago now), I managed at last to put my finger on what the problem was that I had with singular they in a personal as opposed to generic context, and it is precisely that it takes away the individuality of the person to whom one refers. The closest analogy in terms of the effect it seems to have for me, would be something like instead of using female pronouns, a person would say something like, “When Sally goes to work, a woman takes the bus.” Sally becomes not an individual, but an example of “woman” and interchangeable with any other woman. She is not a “she” but a “they”. If I say, “When a person goes to work, they take the bus” it feels natural because it could be any person. But when Sally takes the bus, we are not discussing the behaviour of women, or people, in general. We are discussing Sally’s behaviour, which may or may not conform to other people’s behaviour patterns. Sally is not a part of any they, either as a behavioural mass or as a selected representative of behaviours. Sally is her own person.

Calling Sally “they” makes Sally into a representative of a class rather than an individual with her own motivations and autonomy. She becomes, instead of a person, a faceless member of a crowd.

Where “it” fails for being a dehumanising pronoun, “they” fails for being a depersonalising pronoun, removing the sense of a person as an individual. And that was the source (or maybe, a source) of the discomfort I had previously been unable to pinpoint regarding the singular “they” as a nonbinary/neutral gender singular pronoun.

Elust #69 Dudes!

Photo courtesy of Sex Is My New Hobby

Welcome to Elust #69

The only place where the smartest and hottest sex bloggers are featured under one roof every month. Whether you’re looking for sex journalism, erotic writing, relationship advice or kinky discussions it’ll be here at Elust. Want to be included in Elust #70? Start with the rules, come back May 1st to submit something and subscribe to the RSS feed for updates!


~ This Month’s Top Three Posts ~

Bully for you
Watching Me
Red in Tooth and Claw

~ Featured Post (Molly’s Picks) ~

He’s Got Her
Subject/Object/My Desire

~ Readers Choice from Sexbytes ~

*You really should consider adding your popular posts here too*

Waiting with Snowdrops

All blogs that have a submission in this edition must re-post this digest from tip-to-toe on their blogs within 7

days. Re-posting the photo is optional and the use of the “read more…” tag is allowable after this point. Thank you, and enjoy!


Erotic Non-Fiction

Nothing Really Matters
Njoying Myself
He’s beautiful
Humiliation of an ex-Nazi submissive 39
His Beauty Shatters Me
Vacation Got Off To A Slow Start
After Party On My Own
My Life Erotic: “The Bad Man”

Thoughts & Advice on Sex & Relationships

Questions We’re Actually Embarrassed to Ask
Ignorance & Misconception – Scary Combination


Laced Up – a Lusty Limerick

Erotic Fiction

Our First Time
The EuphOff
the auction
the conductor
Habla con ella

Writing About Writing

My Filthasaurus

Thoughts & Advice on Kink & Fetish

On Corsets
Consent: A play in one act
Playing hate: topping in a degradation scene
Corsets and Kink
What I Love About Pinching

Sex News, Opinion, Interviews, Politics & Humor

Dancing vs. Sex
Volunteers Needed!
Jewelry N’ Kegels


1000 Fucking Blog Post



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Albert, Bernard, Cheryl and the theory of mind

I love a good maths/logic puzzle. I love it even more when it becomes a language puzzle as well, and it seems social media has picked up on one such today. Known as the Cheryl Birthday Problem, you get a different result depending on how you interpret a single word in the way the puzzle is framed. That word is the second occurrence of “know”, and the article linked describes the different interpretations as being either a statement of “deduction” or “fact”.

This can be framed as a deep philosophy puzzle: “What do we mean by knowing?” That question is one that cannot be answered easily even by the greatest minds. (Suppose Cheryl lied to one or both of them? Then neither truly know…)

It can be framed as a purely linguistic puzzle: “How does this setter use the word ‘know?'” That would lead to the intended correct answer, since in every other use of the word “know” in the puzzle, it is to be interpreted as “can (from this information) deduce”.

But it can also be treated as a psychology puzzle, to do with theory of mind and socialisation.

I read the puzzle and assumed a statement of fact, that Albert had from some source been informed that Bernard does not know, rather than that Albert had managed to deduce that Bernard doesn’t know. But why did I make that assumption?

I made this assumption because I generally do not assume it is possible to know another person’s state of mind unless they give some indication. But I also know that people generally do give indications of their state of mind. James Grime (the first Guardian link above) suggests that, “Maybe Cheryl told him”. But maybe Albert looks at Bernard’s face, screwed up in frustration and puzzlement, and says to himself, “There is someone who doesn’t know the answer!” Thus, I assume more communication between the participants than has been reported. (This example uses “know” in the colloquial sense of “is confident that”.) It is telling that, in Grime’s explanation of the second solution, “Albert taunts Bernard”.

The setters, in a “Voice of God” statement after the fact, added comment to rule this out:

They say Bernard did not reveal that he did not know the answer at the start of the conversation, so Albert cannot know this as fact.

(I like Grime’s response that, “I don’t think they have settled it, since this ignores the possibility that Albert knows by some other method, for example from Cheryl.” I also feel that it is unfair, because we know we haven’t been told everything – because we have to figure out a key part of the three-way conversation. So why shouldn’t we suspect that there is more to the conversation than reported?)

I said that I assume (a) that it is not possible without communication to know another’s mind, and (b) that people generally do communicate. But this is entirely a puzzle about knowing others’ minds: we must figure out what Albert has been told and what Bernard has been told. We are asked to play the role of an eavesdropping 4th person (Danielle, perhaps?) who somehow also has a list of the dates. If we were told from the start which month Albert has, and allowed to play a role in the story (or, vice versa, which number Bernard has) then we would have a different journey to the solution.

At the heart of this conundrum is a question of whether the puzzle is a question about people, or about information. Of course it is a question about information, but it is framed as occurring within the relationships between three people and so information about ways that people behave can be brought in by solvers who are prone to see the world in terms of people-problems. This is not the first time I have been caught out by maths puzzles that state a fact that I am supposed to demonstrate are deduced rather than revealed.

Which leads to the third person in the puzzle: why would a person choose such a roundabout way of revealing hir birthday? Cheryl’s behaviour is puzzling. Some people, it seems, have been ascribing motives (usually negative ones) to her behaviour:

But the same goes for Albert and Bernard. Why don’t they just pool their data? Instead, they taunt each other with their deducing skilz. It’s the worst of masculine competitiveness in action! They’re a pair of jerks.

I love mathematics, and logic puzzles. But here, the “correct” answer is of less interest to me than the thought process: what makes a person instinctively leap to the “information” or the “personal” interpretation of the puzzle? That is, a “deduction” or a “fact” meaning of “know”. I am sure the MBTI analysis would discuss this in terms of the T/F scale (Thinking vs Feeling). I’m not sure how the Five Factor Model would encode it, or if researchers would code it using the “Dark Triad” (Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, Narcissism, if I recall correctly) instead. I am fairly confident that economists assume people see the world as deductive, information-based problems whereas plenty of people, as this puzzle has demonstrated, are not like that.

We now have Shared Parental Leave – so why didn’t I hear about it?

Girl on the Net has written up the case already, and perfectly, so there really is very little for me to add here except pointing everyone to her post.

This is the sort of thing that I would be all over if it had entered my field of vision, but it didn’t. It’s one of the big changes that I really hoped for from feminist campaigning precisely because it’s a clear, solid-gold example of how Patriarchy harms men (and male-bodied) people too. Yet I never heard it was happening.

The change came in at the beginning of April, GotN reports, and yet I saw nothing in the national press, and nothing in my usual haunts online. It’s not like I make a habit of looking up articles on specific topics, but as GotN reports, the people who supposedly care about Men’s Rights have been suspiciously silent about this too. It’s almost as if, if something is good for women, they don’t want to know?

As GotN says, this should be trumpeted from the rooftops, fireworks, 21-gun salute, the whole nine yards and then some. It angers me that no one seems to have noticed or cared.

Brain science, touch and some questions on BDSM

I’m about 5 weeks behind in reading New Scientist articles, having just finished the 28 February edition. One article in particular in that edition struck me as interesting from the point of view of understanding BDSM in a neurological or physiological way.

The article is about how social touching works amongst humans, and how different types of nerve fibres function differently. It describes A fibres, which operate at full speed and alert to pricks, stings and burns; and C fibres that operate more slowly (it cites a signal speed of 7km/h and that a C fibre signal can take a whole second to travel from your ankle to your brain), and convey throbs and aches. The main purpose of the article is to discuss the role of CT-fibres (“C-Tactile”) and I’ll come back to that in a moment.

I am sure there are BDSMers who have studied these topics in more detail, and could give a better perspective than mine; I would, however, love to see research into masochists’ (and other bottoms who accept pain play) preferences for pain types, and how those relate to A versus C fibre responses. For instance, does my aversion to cutting and needle play relate to those being clearly more A than C type responses? What about some people’s preference for “stingy” or “thuddy” impact play? Given the “transforming” type of processing pain into pleasure, described by some of Staci Newmahr’s respondents in her research on BDSM (see her book, “Playing On The Edge”), is it possible that the slower signals arrive and provide the pleasurable element of the pain stimulus, thus enabling that conversion? I would love to find out more about such aspects of the physiological side of how our bodies and minds create these forms of pleasure.

The CT fibres are found, the New Scientist report explains, only in areas of the skin where hair grows – “almost everywhere except the lips, palms of the hands and soles of the feet”, and are attuned to social touching: “they also plug into areas like the insular cortex, which is linked to emotions” – and the brain regions that seem active when thinking about other people, and making sense of their intentions. They respond most strongly, the report continues, to “low force, low velocity, stroking movements”. And this triggers endorphin release as a reward mechanism.

Again, when I read these passages, my thoughts went straight to the question of how such findings relate to the bonding that goes on between a top and a bottom in BDSM. I thought about whether the sites of maximal CT fibre contacts related at all to erogenous zones (the article says they are concentrated “on the top of the head, upper torso, arms and thighs” and I am certain that arousing touches happen in many of these areas). I thought about whether BDSMers have differences in the way the different fibres are connected to the brain (more on which in a minute). I thought about ways in which BDSM touching might mimic the sorts of touch that trigger CT fibres.

Bondage, it seems to me, often has as an incidental effect a slow stroking effect of the bondage materials on the skin. In fact, that kind of sensual touch is one of the attractive parts of bondage play in some sessions and styles of play. The way it tends to produce more aching pain than immediate pain might also relate to the pleasurable side of such torment, since those are presumably more C than A fibres.

In SM play, there’s a technique of alternating slower, more sensual strokes and harder, heavier, quicker ones: is this a way of producing both the CT-fibre reward and another kind of reward, or does the slower stroking somehow prime the nerves to respond to heavier and heavier impacts?

However I twist it, I can’t quite find a way to square masochism with the description of ‘nilla pain response. However, the article makes another suggestion, based on the role that the CT-fbire touching seems to play in building social awareness. I’m not comfortable with the way it’s presented, but I found it curious:

McGlone also thinks that these ideas could give new insights into autism, a developmental condition that can affect people’s sensitivity to sensory input. Several recent studies have suggested that some people with autism process touch differently. Pelphrey has evidence that children with autism struggle to process the social significance of touch, for example.

It’s worth noting that I am probably somewhere on the Aspergers-autism spectrum; and that when earlier in the article they described social touch with examples such as, “Salespeople use it to build trust, waiters use it to boost their tips,” I recalled feeling creeped out by just that sort of touching. I reflected that the difference between that, and pleasant touching, is that the touch is incongruent with the perceived social connection and therefore I interpret it as “wrong”. (See also: Touch, Flirting when Stone-ish, and the earlier, Am I Stone?).

Anyway, that put the idea into my head that maybe (some, and those who identify as as “orientational”) BDSMers also are wired differently with respect to their CT fibres, or how they function, or maybe other fibres (e.g. from the A or C category) are also wired into the insular cortex. What if heavier, more rapid, rhythmic or heavy stimuli can also trigger the same feelings of connection that in ‘nilla folks are produced only by the CT fibre responses?

It seems to me that there are many different causes for different types of BDSM identity and enjoyment so to fixate on one neurological/physiological explanation would be a mistake. There are, as I said, no doubt many better-qualified people to write about these topics, and maybe they have. But the questions fascinate me.

2015 General Election: My Letter to Candidates

I’m a bit of a politics geek at times, so I know that officially the nominations for the parliamentary constituency in which I live closed at 4:30pm yesterday (Thursday) afternoon. As it happens, there were no late surprise entries and the information at YourNextMP proved to be complete. I have already written to three candidates (Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green); the remaining two (Conservative and UKIP) are never going to have my vote because they are teh ev0l boo hiss!

One interesting fact: in this constituency, the Tories and UKIP have female candidates; the supposedly centre or centre-left parties are all fielding male candidates.

Anyway, tonight’s post is simply to share with my readers the email I have sent to the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates. There are other questions I could have added, but I feel all of these are important issues that could influence how I vote – and on which, should they be elected, I would be expecting my MP to present my views to the relevant persons in government. (Before I moved, I had a really good MP for that, but he was a Tory; here, not so much, and I realise now how lucky I am to have that benchmark for what a good MP does for those they represent.) A lot of it is copy-pasted from my letter to the European Parliament candidates last year (and I forgot to edit the “this year” section on the surveillance issue – though there have been plenty of stories since to keep that topic relevant).

I chose to ask the candidates’ opinions rather than demand they support this or that stance, because I want to feel they are on my side rather than just saying something to please me. Nevertheless, I feel that the text makes my positions relatively clear.

– * –

Letter To Candidates

Dear [name],

I am writing to you because you are standing for election to Parliament in the General Election that is being held on 7th May this year. As I am a voter in your constituency, the successful candidate will be my elected representative in Parliament for the next five years, so I want to ask a few questions about your beliefs and policies so that I can cast my vote in an informed and considered manner. I am much more interested in your personal views, in addition to your party’s policies, because you will be my representative and not merely a member of your party.

I am currently unemployed, and qualify as long-term unemployed. Recent research has shown that a more generous and stable benefit system for the jobless is more effective at helping people like me into work than a punitive system. My experience of claiming Jobseekers Allowance has unquestionably been one of instability, fear, and indignity, each following the other. How will your party deal with the unfairness of not just Jobseekers Allowance rules and regulations, but the wider issues within the benefits system?

I have in the past campaigned on issues of internet privacy and the surveillance society, and against censorship of the internet, particularly of sexual or political material. With revelations this year about the USA’s surveillance operations, including prominent European leaders, what are your views on how we should deal with privacy for the individual versus openness of political or business organisations? When it comes to the control of the flow of information or media, I believe that freedom of speech and communication is vital, even when it means allowing material we find objectionable or unpleasant.

Where do you stand on the attempts to prevent portrayals of sexual fantasies featuring adults being communicated via the internet? Is sexual fantasy, even of unusual or “extreme” nature, harmful to society or a matter of individual preference that harms no one?

Related to these questions, I also campaign at times on the issues of sex workers’ rights. Several organisations of sex workers, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, advocate full decriminalisation of sex work, as successfully carried out by New Zealand. As an MP, what would your views be on the role of legislation in sex work, and how do you think the problem of sex trafficking could be handled while protecting the rights of consenting sex workers to work in safety and with the protection other workers enjoy?

Finally, I would like to ask about general issues affecting the region of [constituency]. What global issues do you believe are most likely to affect this region and specifically [constituency] and how would you hope to influence these issues? The area is known for its technology industry, and as recent events have shown, energy, technology and the environment are key issues that must be addressed urgently. What are your views on how the needs of environment, energy and technology can be balanced and how the government should address them?

Yours sincerely

Disappointments and ageing and sextoys

I don’t really know that this has anything to do with ageing, but I do sort of feel like I’m getting older and my body doesn’t work the way it used to, and some of what this post is about seems to be to do with that, or at least, it’s easy for me to imagine it is.

But the first disappointment is that I have not been keeping up with my intended posting schedule here and figure I owe you guys at least 3 posts this week if I’m to retain any kind of hope of getting back into the swing of things. I hope to add a political and another BDSM/sex type of post before the weekend is over, so stay tuned, folks!

The ways in which my body has disappointed me, then.

Since the beginning of the year there’s been a cock-up with the DWP about paying my JSA. I got down to my last fifteen quid when finally the situation got cleared up, and a massive load of money all got paid at once. Because of being frugal for the past 6 months (when I feared I was going to be sanctioned for screwing up on a MWA placement), this meant I had a bit of spare cash at last. I put some into a savings account, kept some as my two-weekly income, but that left plenty with which to treat myself. One of the ways I decided to do so was to buy some sex toys.

I chose to visit a fetish shop in Cambridge, where I settled on some nipple clamps. Online, I ordered from Girl on the Net’s sponsors, sextoys.co.uk, a cock gag and an anal toy with a suction pad base and a tapered, knobbly design.

My first experiments with nipple pinching were with clothes pegs and about 15 years ago. It hurt, but was fun. I was aware that I found clothes pegs more painful recently but still wanted these clamps to feel like a proper masochist. Instead, I feel like a total wuss compared to my earlier experiments. My nipples genuinely seem to be so much more sensitive than they were a decade ago and I have no idea why that should be. I feel like a failure as a masochist!

Okay, but I can at least get some proper practice at sucking cock, with my new gag, right? I’ve experimented taking various foodstuffs (like fat sausage rolls, and chocolate eclairs) and any long, cylindrical, and safe-seeming, objects in and out of my mouth as deeply as I can. I still have no idea if my blowjobs would feel good to a real person (just one reason why I’ve not offered that service on my AdultWork profile) but surely I’ll be able to enjoy this toy?

Turns out my experiments have not prepared me for the shape, size, and permanence of a cock gag. The gag is not as long as a penis, in fact, it really only models the glans and the base of the glans – about 3-4cm of insertable length. Nevertheless, my gag reflex sprang into action almost as soon as I tried it on. I felt betrayed and let down by my body! I want to learn to suck cock properly and this had seemed like such a good way to start, before I find a human partner to try on (as well as being a fun toy for when I have a partner to wear it for me). Instead, I felt like a failure.

Still, I know I love anal play. I used to have lots of fun with a massive buttplug, as recently as 5 years ago, and my torpedo-shaped vibe that slid in just beautifully (sadly, that was a bit cheap and I noticed the gold paint was starting to flake, which didn’t seem like a good idea to put it up my arse any more – or any other orifice for that matter – so it went in the waste). This was just a question of sticking it to the shower cubicle, lubing up, and sliding right in. Right?

Wrong. For one thing, my arse is so big that when I stuck it to the shower cubicle, my bum wouldn’t squidge small enough to get the toy inside me (and once I had it inside me, I couldn’t get it to stick to the cubicle). Secondly, even though I used loads of lube on the toy, and applied some with my fingers to my arsehole too, I really struggled to take the toy, even though it seemed smaller than the things I used to regularly enjoy. It hurt! I was dismayed and shocked to discover how out of practice my butt seems to be in taking a nice, stiff object. Once it was in, it felt as good as ever but I felt so let down but I couldn’t get it to move or massage my prostate as I was promised it would (I think I need a dedicated prostate massager so I know for sure what that feels like). It was still a pain in the arse in a literal sense as well.

Three new toys. Three ways in which my body no longer seems to perform the way I want it to, or remember it doing. Three ways in which I felt like a failure and a wuss.

I have of course not just left it there. I practice on the cock gag every night, building up the stamina, suppressing the gag reflex for longer periods, experimenting in what techniques help me do better (sucking, and breathing round the gag rather than through my nose, both help greatly – tips I picked up from reading women’s advice on blowjobs and deepthroating). I tease myself with the nipple clamps and see how much I can take – and work on finding ways to limit the pinch so I can bearably wear them for longer periods. I haven’t tried the anal toy again, but intend to, and maybe find something like that old torpedo toy (but in better quality!) to help my ring get more supple and used to the idea of stretching for things again.

But I still feel old and decrepit and let down by my body today.

Violence and BDSM assumptions

[CONTENT NOTE: abuse mindset, violent behaviour]

So today on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog service, Emer O’Toole writes that a murder in a BDSM relationship has “made me rethink my sexual practices”. This is a sad and, if I’m honest, distressing read for many BDSMers who aren’t murderous or abusers.

Girl on the Net and <a href="http://mollysdailykiss.com/2015/03/31/a-marked-difference/&quot;?Molly Moore @ Molly's Daily Kiss have both commented in a general way on how this is a harmful and mistaken attitude to take, and how analysing and examining need not be a synonym for rejecting our desires.

Carter @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar demolishes the logical fallacies in O’Toole’s approach.

These are all excellent commentaries. I wanted to add to them by looking at some of the specific assumptions, either stated or implicit, in the article and challenge them directly.

The first is blatant, though implicit: “I’m making this critique not as a kink-shamer, but as a challenge to myself: what are my reasons and justifications for inviting or accepting male sexual violence?” Do you see it?

“BDSM=Male Sexual Violence”

The obvious retort is, “Um, do you see that woman over there holding a flogger and standing over a naked, restrained man? Where’s the male sexual violence there?” I’m not completely satisfied with this retort, because of the prevalence of feminisation and crossdressing as a submissive fantasy.

But there is a lot more to BDSM than violence. Only sadism/masochism (the SM part of the BD, D/s, SM combination “BDSM”) involves explicit violence. Bondage (the “B”) can involve force, but is often completely co-operative and collaborative in producing the effect of restraint. Discipline (the first interpretation of “D”) may well carry implied violence, but can equally be a matter of self-discipline, or of “corner time”, the “naughty step”, “writing lines”, or other non-violent but focussing assignments. Domination and submission (the “D/s” part) is frequently service-oriented with each partner supporting the the other and making devotional acts. We don’t use that language to talk about Dominant partners so much, but I’ve been there and the same care and attention and focus on the other is present.

This leads to the next, overlapping, assumptions:

The dominant ideology in kink communities is that BDSM creates a sandbox or play space around impulses which clearly have their roots in sexism or other prejudice. The sandbox allows role play that expurgates dangerous desires in a cathartic manner, rendering doms safe, egalitarian people who do not want to hit or kill women in the real word. In short, it’s believed that BDSM gets violent urges out of our systems.

Except, this isn’t how human psychology functions. We do not siphon off fiction or play from our social realities. Rather, the values and norms of the fictions we consume or participate in suffuse our world views and influence our actions.

Participating in violent sports or fictions does not always make us less violent, but can do the opposite. Watching aggressive pornography does not quell our desire for aggressive pornography, but, contrarily, can create a desire for increased violence. If we know and believe this about video games, movies and porn, then why do we suddenly deny it when it comes to BDSM?

The description above of the “dominant ideology” sounds like a twisting and simplification of the explanation that is commonly expressed in my experience. (It is worth noting that, while I was composing this piece, O’Toole edited her article and it now more closely resembles what I describe below.) Maybe I read too many feminist BDSMers and not enough BDSMers who don’t have that perspective of gender politics. I’ll explain as I get into the individual assumptions, which are:

Playing or Subverting?

The main difference between the theory O’Toole describes and the theory I’ve heard is that he assumes that the spaces are there only to insulate. The discussions I’ve heard are about how BDSM can (not always does) use that space not only to isolate, but to actively engage with and subvert the norms of social violence and oppression. We don’t simply act out the aggressions of society, but mock them and challenge them. A week ago, I wrote about what it’s like to be the top in a degradation scene:

To take on, for a moment, the role of what I hate is to confront the capacity to hate within myself; and to take on the role of a hater or abuser does the same thing. (Blake, again: “To mindfully explore our kinks is to turn to our shadow and accept it” – and of course I’ve referenced the “shadow self” concept a few times myself.)

* * *

Ultimately, I don’t know what it means that I am so readily able to take on these roles and play them out in a consensual, kink, setting. I am pretty sure it doesn’t mean that I am secretly any of the things that I play and that the social justice stuff is all a façade. I think it does mean that I am aware of the influences society has on all of us, regardless of our political convictions, and that living in a racist, or rape-culture, or homophobic, or whorephobic, society means that somewhere along the lines you’ll pick up something of those issues – we all have the capacity to hate. The operative word in the Blake quote is, “mindfully”. To enact the roles without engaging with where they come from is problematic.

Are there BDSMers who are not mindful, who engage (as O’Toole suggests), “reluctant to acknowledge problems with the ideologies underlying their sexual practices, focusing instead on the pleasure or relationship benefits to be gained from BDSM.”? Well, yes. And I have seen some of them writing about their stuff online, and it doesn’t make me happy. But those problems are the same in any group.

The next overlapping assumption is that:

“BDSM is about Violent Urges”

Central to Toole’s thesis here is the assumption that the violence displayed in a SM context is similar in kind and emotional content to the violence displayed in playing video games, or violent sports, or letting out your anger.

I’ve done all of those, and I’ve done BDSM. I’ve even done a scene in which my partner had just told me she wanted to dump me, and I was feeling angry with her. I shouldn’t have done that, but it’s a part of my history and a relevant data point for this piece. All of which enables me to tell you that these are two completely different types of experience and pleasure. BDSM is not cathartic violence, it is not a video game, it is something entirely separate. When O’Toole asks, “why do we suddenly deny it when it comes to BDSM?” the answer isn’t, “because it makes us feel defensive” but rather, because we are well aware of our experiences and of the differences between them! (Well, alright, there may be some defensiveness involved as well – nobody’s perfect.)

The research cited by O’Toole showing that, “Participating in violent sports or fictions does not always make us less violent, but can do the opposite,” (assuming it’s the same as what I’ve read) focusses on the reward cycle: it feels good to let off steam and act violently when we feel angry or stressed, so we learn to do it more. This seems to be true, to some extent. It is always dangerous to assume that a population trend is also applicable on an individual basis.

However, the reward structure in being a BDSM top is fundamentally different than the reward structure in cathartic violent release. It is precisely the opposite of just letting go and giving free reign to your violent urges. (If you think this is a direct contradiction of my self-quoted passage above, I’ll point out that there the “just letting go” was a release of worry over inadvertent harm, and not a sudden outburst of violence.)

For a SM top, the reward is not the wonderful rush of adrenaline, testosterone and/or dopamine (all hormones associated with violence – dopamine is the reward transmitter, usually, as I understand it, but I don’t know which of the three is significant in the catharsis violence that’s usually discussed). Instead, to top effectively one must be controlled, focussed, alert and competent with your tools. There is no immense rush of violence, but rather, a measured, purposeful application of force towards a specific and clear goal. Moreover, what you are doing is other-focussed. There is no “enemy” as there is in violent sport, and it is no solo activity as in cathartic release or video games (even multiplayer violent games have an “enemy”, and are frequently experienced in isolation).

The rewards are therefore from focus hormones, and probably from oxytocin, the “bonding” or “cuddle” transmitter that makes us feel closer and more connected to one another (and I am sure I’ve seen there have been studies showing BDSM produces higher oxytocin levels in participants). It is just not the same experience.

Finally in that passage, there’s:

“Doms are violent people”

O’Toole wrote that the theory is supposedly that being violent in the BDSM space is a means of, “rendering doms safe, egalitarian people who do not want to hit or kill women in the real world.” This implies that if we didn’t have BDSM then all the tops in the world would want to murder or beat up people at random. (O’Toole thinks women specifically, so all the gay tops and straight female tops are not included in her analysis.)

This is, in short, a load of bullshit. I can’t speak for all Doms, but for Yours Truly, it is precisely the opposite: in day-to-day life I am overly concerned about not hurting anyone. I think it is also telling that if O’Toole’s linking of the research on violence to BDSM violence were accurate, then surely they’d become more violent and there would be many more examples out there. The truth seems more likely to be that Doms have the same range of emotions and personalities as any other randomly selected group of society – if anything, BDSM practitioners test as more stable emotionally (again, bearing in mind my caveat about going from population trend to individual characteristics) and research has reported such findings.

I was in a shop today when from the first floor I heard shouting. A customer was asked to leave. I heard him shout, “You think I’m aggressive? I’ll show you fucking aggressive!” He stopped every couple of steps as he descended the stairs to hurl more abuse at the staff. I wouldn’t say no Doms ever behave like that, but there’s certainly no indication in my experience that it’s commonplace. I can’t imagine a single BDSM space where such aggression would be tolerated, and I can’t imagine a greater contrast with the behaviour of tops in general while in a scene.

It’s worth noting that prevalence of bottoms in BDSM, and of women in general society (going on various US research figures I’ve seen about 5 years ago – sorry, I don’t have the links any more), reporting having experienced roughly similar types of consent violations against them, were about the same. It implies that BDSM is neither better nor worse than general society when it comes to the prevalence of abuse (and we may tentatively speculate, abusers) in the group.

Made-up “facts”

O’Toole claims, “Watching aggressive pornography does not quell our desire for aggressive pornography, but, contrarily, can create a desire for increased violence.” However, despite decades of research, nothing conclusive has ever been demonstrated to this effect. In fact, it seems to be less likely to be true. There are certainly studies bandied about by both sides of the censorship debate, but none of it seems to prove anything other than that, if you ask the right question, you can get the answer you want.

“Rather, the values and norms of the fictions we consume or participate in suffuse our world views and influence our actions.” – in itself, not false. The false assumptions are (a) that we do not insert our world views first into the fiction, and (b) that we do not ever engage with or challenge the values and norms we find there. And it’s not the fact that O’Toole would present it as.

But the biggest assumption of all is that:

“It’s All About The Dom”

In the re-edited version of O’Toole’s piece, she acknowledges that, “It may give subs control over situations that would – in reality – make them feel powerless” In the original, there was no acknowledgement of the Sub’s role in BDSM whatsoever: Submissives are, literally, an afterthought for O’Toole’s understanding of BDSM. When I am topping, my bottoming partner is the centre of my world because I am responsible for hir wellbeing and for what happens to hir.

O’Toole implies that psychology “doesn’t work this way”, when countless people with lived experience say it does.

The centring of (male) tops is rife throughout the piece: every point makes assumptions about how tops work, about their intentions and the effects on them. The Submissive is a cypher here, presented with no engagement of hir own, no powers of consent or negotiation, no desires that zie wants fulfilled. There’s no questions about the physical pleasure of being hurt in physical (i.e. violent) sports (again, lived experience for me) and comparing that to the bottom’s experience (does this make bottoms more violent, I wonder?)

This is a fundamental flaw in O’Toole’s piece: it treats BDSM as something individuals do, instead of as a collaboration of two minds and two bodies. In so doing, it could be suggested it replicates the mindset of an abuser (I’m no expert so I don’t know for sure).

Playing the hate: on being the top in a degradation scene

Content Note: Discussion of “forced fantasy”/”rape” roleplay, race play, body shaming play, slut shaming play and general topics of that nature that may be distressing to some readers.

So about a week ago, University of Abject Submission published a guest post from Cava Supernova asking, “Is Racism Sexy?” Cava wanted to know what it meant that in the middle of a threesome scene, her black partner wanted to be called all kinds of racist terms.

I gave the standard reply that is well-rehearsed from discussing things like rape fantasy (and is familiar from my own bottoming rape fantasy/roleplay stuff):

I suspect that it’s that concept of, “this thing that can destroy me in r/l, can’t destroy me here so it is hot.” Some people even find violent sex/roleplay to be therapeutic in terms of reliving in a controlled way some past trauma.

I roleplay a version of Vannie (with one or two twists to better reflect those sides of my personality that need this) as a victim on a rape fantasy website (where it’s very hard to find anyone who’ll violate you – the standards of consent negotiation are VERY high), and a similar discussion has been going on about the sorts of ultra-violent fantasies that I feel the urge to bottom in. Someone asked, “Is it a way of exerting control over an idea that is terrifying in real life?” and I replied:

Call it, the soul surviving intact even if the “body” (virtual/fantasy) doesn’t. It’s not “degradation”, but it is definitely violation and that’s an element as well.

It’s about coming out the other side.

All of which is preamble to the main point, which is about being the top in violent or humiliation-based scenes.

In my reply @ Univesity of Abject Submission, I cited (again) Pandora Blake’s piece on humiliation play with Nimue Allen, and was reminded (again) of Pandora’s response to being asked to play the abuse-hurler, by comparison with Cava’s discomfort with being asked to roleplay the racist for her partner (such discomfort that she needed to ask us what it all meant).

When Xiao Yingtai tweeted Stabbity’s piece @ Not Just Bitchy, “It’s okay to like intense play” I was struck by Stabbity’s point:

What pisses me off is when people refuse to admit they’re doing something problematic, or refuse to admit that people have a right to worry how someone’s play might reflect their actual attitudes toward women, or people of colour, or submissive men.

I was already questioning what it means that, when I top (at least, in online scenes), I find it so easy to slip into this role of expressing views that I really don’t have, in language that I never use, and express hatred that I don’t feel. Not hatred for the person, nor for the group they’re a member of. That point (which is valid, of course) made me think even more about what it means even more acutely.

Pandora Blake’s account of her feelings is informative:

I said I wasn’t sure I was comfortable using body-shaming language, but in the end, I did. When I started to insult Nimue, she held her head up and calmly returned my gaze. I verbally abused her, and I could see a smile playing on her lips as she absorbed the insults, claimed them as her own, and responded with nothing but pride. If she had reacted with shame or fear, I would have held back, but her self-acceptance made me feel safe. I ended up being far nastier and more insulting than I had expected to be – and she loved it.

The language we had negotiated I would use – insulting her for being a slut, a whore, telling her she was disgusting to be sexual and to enjoy kinky play – represented the opposite of my own point of view. My role was not to express my own opinions but to hold up a mirror, to play the part of the worst sort of conservative, whorephobic, misogynistic, slut-shaming, body-shaming prude so that Nimue could rise above it. I was fascinated by the power these words held to make me feel so uncomfortable – and even more fascinated to discover how aroused they made her.

She adds, “I got into the scene way more than I expected. The abuse was a role, a performance – I didn’t relate to the character I was playing … Once I got into the swing of it, my sadistic impulse kicked in.”

I’m likely to quote/steal a lot from Pandora’s piece because she writes so intelligently and insightfully about it. But again, Pandora reported being unsure and uncomfortable about doing it. My self-questioning is that I find it so easy to, as Blake puts it, “play the part of the worst sort of conservative, whorephobic, misogynistic, slut-shaming, body-shaming…” – or racist, or homophobic, or take your pick.

Of course, I need to know that it’s genuinely what the other person wants, that they need me to try to provoke those reactions. In one online roleplay in particular, my partner was a woman of mixed race who wanted to be raped by a racist cop (and of course, basing the “arrest” on racist profiling that she must be an illegal sex worker or something) and have her appearance absolutely shredded verbally. I basically demanded she say, “Do your worst!” And I did. I used every contemptuous, racist, degrading phrase I could to reflect back to her the photos she’d linked me, find whatever points I could to hurt her. It wasn’t until we did aftercare/debriefing that I knew I’d hit the right notes, but her feedback was those insults, the contempt and viciousness I expressed, had been the hottest and best part of it (I think her absolute favourite insult included the phrase “frizzy-haired half-breed” or something like that). The point of the anecdote being that as soon as I was confident she wanted it, I was ready to go, completely in-character.

As Stabbity says (by quoting Mollena), a top can’t really ask for such play: in fact, I don’t really want or seek it particularly, myself. But somehow I am very good at providing it, and slipping into the role of “hater” or “abuser” in a scene. Partly this may be down to the thanks and gratitude that bottoms have expressed once a scene is over and I’ve given them all they hoped for in terms of this verbal assault. It’s a positive reinforcement of the behaviour in context. And, top or bottom, there’s a strong element of service in my play even when I’m pretending to be the most selfish, self-obsessed, “it’s not your place to enjoy it, just to serve me!” type Dominant in the world.

Part of it may be that I go through life afraid I’m going to hurt someone by mistake or accident. As in, in a harmful way, not a consensual, fun way. But here’s all these ways where you desperately don’t want to hurt someone, and suddenly it’s not just okay, they actually want you to do your worst. I don’t have to be afraid any more, I can be the nightmare instead.

And part of it may be that, in despising the haters, and opposing them, I learn to imitate them (something about staring and the abyss, here?). Blake writes:

We can be advocates for slut pride, for sex worker rights, for body positivity and kink acceptance – and we can play with those taboos in private, in the safe container of a scene space. There’s no paradox there. It’s our genuine hatred of real-world abuse that gives play abuse its power.

To take on, for a moment, the role of what I hate is to confront the capacity to hate within myself; and to take on the role of a hater or abuser does the same thing. (Blake, again: “To mindfully explore our kinks is to turn to our shadow and accept it” – and of course I’ve referenced the “shadow self” concept a few times myself.)

* * *

Ultimately, I don’t know what it means that I am so readily able to take on these roles and play them out in a consensual, kink, setting. I am pretty sure it doesn’t mean that I am secretly any of the things that I play and that the social justice stuff is all a façade. I think it does mean that I am aware of the influences society has on all of us, regardless of our political convictions, and that living in a racist, or rape-culture, or homophobic, or whorephobic, society means that somewhere along the lines you’ll pick up something of those issues – we all have the capacity to hate. The operative word in the Blake quote is, “mindfully”. To enact the roles without engaging with where they come from is problematic.

Thoughts on porn in the classroom

This morning, I retweeted Girl on the Net because she felt that actually showing porn in the classroom as part of sex and relationship education was a very bad idea.

This afternoon, after mulling the question over, I have reached the opposite conclusion. I feel some strong ambivalence about the idea, because the arguments against that came up in GotN’s twitter thread were all valid and important ones.

However, it seems to me that, if we wish to teach teenagers to engage critically with porn and to understand what it is, then at some point you’re going to have to have some actual porn to talk about and view critically. One doesn’t attempt to teach English Literature without students reading some actual literature, for example. In essence, attempting to tell teenagers about porn seems to me to be ineffective and rather like trying to teach about sex in general without referring to the genitalia.

Part of the objection seems to be that “show porn in the classroom” seems to be taken without any context – as if the teacher just springs it on the class with no warning or preparation. While it might go that way, I would hope that a proper lesson plan would be somewhat different, and would be part of a broader curriculum. The “today, we’re watching porn” lesson would probably fall somewhere in the middle of a sequence of lessons discussing sexual media theoretically or as a concept. At the start of the sequence of lessons, the teacher’s going to give a heads-up that in lesson 5 (for example) there will be some porn clips shown, and to be aware of that.

I am not an educator of any kind, nor an expert in sex or media or porn or anything. So what follows is just me working from “first principles” to figure it out (one might also assume legitimately that this is the sex ed class I wish I’d been taught at 15/16). But it is a suggestion as to how the porn class might possibly go.

– – –

Teacher: Today, we’re going to watch some porn.

[plays a clip showing James Bond or similar action-adventure stunt sequence]

[plays a clip showing a Jackie Chan fight or stunt sequence]

Teacher: Alright, let’s have a discussion about what we’ve just seen. How realistic is it? How much “behind the scenes” work went on to produce those sequences? What is the intended effect on the viewer? How does the way it’s presented help the film maker produce that effect?

Class discussion – if needed, Teacher can play a clip of the closing credits outtakes from the Jackie Chan movie, to prompt discussion about what we don’t see behind the scenes

Teacher: Now, keeping all those ideas in mind, I want you to make some notes about the same questions while we watch some sexual porn: what effect is it intended to have, how do the film makers do this, how much behind the scenes work did it take to do that, and with all that in mind, how realistic do you think it is?

[plays a “mainstream porn” clip]

[plays a “feminist porn” clip]

Class discussion – teacher should try to guide observations to make comparisons with the previous “action”/”stunt” clips, and ask students to reference points in the porn clips to support any observations or conclusions. Teacher should ask students not to talk about their own reactions (e.g. turned on/grossed out/whatever – though making sure it’s understood all those reactions are valid and okay to have) but talk about the films generally. Also, encourage comparisons between the two clips.

Teacher concludes by reminding that in general it is okay to choose to watch or not watch porn, and others should respect that decision; that the purpose of the lesson was (a) to demonstrate the ways in which porn is constructed and not realistic, and (b) to give an idea of what porn involves so they can make informed decisions; and remind students that there will be more discussion in the next class about different types of porn.

– – –

(I thought about including a slasher/gore horror clip in the opening clips sequence, but felt more uneasy about the idea of showing that to under 18s than about showing porn to them. Also, maybe more clips should be shown of porn, to include at least one gay scene, for instance.)

Of course, these class discussions could take place without watching videos. My feeling is that they are more effective when there is an example to talk about. Some people learn well from the theoretical discussion, but in a class I often learn best from having a go (on a VAK learning styles test, I come out as much more Visual and Kinaesthetic than Auditory – talking and being told actually doesn’t help me learn so well – writing, reading, and trying it myself are more effective). As an author, I am always being told, “Show, don’t tell”, and I think if you want to teach young people to engage critically with porn, then you have to show, not just tell them, what you mean.

One thing that troubles me about the “No, that’s a bad idea” response is that it seems to imply that we don’t actually trust the adolescents to look at the clips analytically rather than emotionally. Which is to say, the thing we want to teach them to do, we don’t think they can (learn to) do. To be squeamish about the discussion seems to make it harder to have informed discussion about consent, as well.

On the other hand, suppose we have this class, and groups of students go away discussing the clips among themselves. While they might have been engaged with writing notes and thinking critically about the scenes while they’re in the class, afterwards, will the talk be about the analysis, or will it be about their personal reactions? If someone doesn’t have the same reaction as their peer group, what message will they take away from it? (And yes, again, these questions spring from personal experience of sex ed, and of peer discussions of sex/sexual material, at that age.)

Furthermore, it does raise questions about consent: if one wants to make the lesson optional, then it’s either opt-in or opt-out, and either way there’s going to be peer pressure: “pervy”/”slutty” if you opt in; “prudish” if you opt out. How do you handle involuntary erections, or other arousal signs? It would be good to think we could create a world where that would be seen as incidental and let it be without comment, or at least, have a sex ed class where that was the case. It is harder to see how to do it effectively.

Like I said, I’m ambivalent about the idea of showing porn clips in class to adolescents as part of sex and relationship education. There are very good arguments against the idea, and I admit to feeling uneasy with the idea myself, even though I’ve argued above that it’s better than not. Consider this piece not a position paper, but a prompt for further discussion of a difficult and challenging question.