Defining the BDSM Lifestyle: The Essential Prerequisite, part 2
Author: Polly Peachum and Jon JacobsFiled in: dominance, submission, lifestyle, sm, definitions, bdsm, essentials
Polly has said the bulk of what we want to talk about tonight, but I do have a bit to add. I want to talk some about the two SM life styles, including some good things about the SM subculture--which will probably surprise everyone--about how to tell the difference between the two, and about what is required to go beyond the fantasy SM life style.
First, the good about the public SM subculture. The phenomenal rise in visibility of the public SM world, mostly through the explosion of on-line communication on the commercial computer services and on the Internet, has had one profoundly good effect: it has allowed hundreds of thousands of submissive women who used to believe that their sexual fantasies and needs are unique to find out that they are not. I'm certain that a goodly percentage of the people here tonight can relate to the experience of having deeply felt dominant or submissive needs, believing them--perhaps guiltily--to be secrets that only you have and that must be kept to yourself, and then suddenly coming upon an on-line SM area or a local support group and finding that you're not alone at all, that many people share your desires and fantasies and even act on them. What an exciting and liberating--and shocking--moment that is! And had you not bumped into the highly public SM subculture, you might have gone the rest of your life keeping your guilty needs to yourself. Many, many people have done so over the years. It's a tragedy.
There's no doubt about the fact that the public SM subculture has provided and continues to provide a crucial moment of liberation for many isolated people. It's ironic and sad, however, that the realities of the public SM subculture often lead its newly aware members into an attitude toward their needs--what can be done and what can't, what should be done and what shouldn't--that is in many ways as repressive as the ignorance and confusion in which its members lived before finding it.
This is a shocking idea to many people--no doubt to many people here tonight. They look at the rich panoply of activity in the public SM subculture and feel like hungry children with an invitation to the world's biggest candy store. Why, out there are masters and mistresses, submissives and slaves, Very Important Subcultural Personalities who talk authoritatively and soothingly about what people should do and shouldn't do, support groups and play parties, chat rooms and support channels--what could be better? It's easy to believe--as many of its members do--that anything the scary dominant or little submissive could want or need is out there just waiting to be plucked. Even better, the subculture comes complete with a set of rules and jargon, clear guidelines about how to behave and what words to use--as Polly has pointed out--that can be learned just by watching and listening. And once you learn the basic niceties, there's a comfortable place for you, and you can begin your quest for sadomasochistic satisfaction!
Does anyone here have a degree in or any experience in anthropology? If you do, you'll recognize that there's a name for the sort of subculture that I've just described: mystery cult. Humans have been inventing them--mostly but not always around religious ideas--for at least as long as we have oral history to tell us about. It's a pretty loose mystery cult: very few Scene organizations have the formal initiations, the deadly oaths, etc., that are usually associated with such organizations. Still, it is a mystery cult, with the requisite rigid ideology (based on the rubric "safe, sane, and consensual" and on the belief that the submissive is always ultimately in control), a highly evolved jargon, a rough hierarchy, and all the rest.
For several reasons, it's not surprising that the sadomasochistic subculture has developed into a mystery cult. First is the reason that many mystery cults are born: the need to protect a persecuted minority from the outside world and to provide its members with support and a feeling of safety in numbers and in the possession of knowledge that not everyone has. Secondly, the public hetero SM subculture has been heavily influenced by the development of the gay leather subculture before it, starting just after World War II. These folks, a classic persecuted sexual minority, developed a structure of behavior and organizations that seems to have stood the test of time, complete with hanky codes, initiations, very rigid hierarchies, and a sophisticated symbology. Some of the leaders of the public SM subculture have simply been influenced by the gay leather culture; others seem to be intentionally trying to emulate it.
So what's wrong with all of that? Who cares if the public SM subculture is a mystery cult or a marching band? It seems to work, doesn't it? It does give people a comfortable place to belong, where they find people who seem to understand and support their ideas and needs, people who tell them that what they want is for the most part OK.
What's wrong with that is nothing--for a great many people. Many people don't want or need or simply can't have more than the public SM subculture offers: people whose dominant or submissive needs are relatively shallow, people with deeper needs who can't come to terms with those needs and who will always have to settle for a kind of play acting, people whose real-life situations--families and children and work and other considerations--make any more than the kind of involvement provided by the public subculture impossible.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if a lot of people reading their screens right now are confused, angry, or both about what I just said. It implies strongly a challenging and dangerous idea: that the public SM life style, with its IRC and news groups and play parties and support organizations, is actually a shallow and fantasy-based place whose members only imagine that they are engaging in SM in the deepest and most profound sense, which is what most of its members say that they want. Please understand, if you are among the angry or confused, that I am neither attacking nor trying to negate your experiences in and with other people in that version of the SM life style. I understand that many of the experiences and relationships generated by and within the context of the public SM subculture can feel real, profound, even life-changing. In fact, I want to talk for a moment about exactly that, since it is one of the most seductive and for that reason dangerous aspects of that subculture--that life style, if you will.
For the last decade or so I've watched the public SM subculture develop with fascination. I've talked to literally thousands of its members over the years, interviewed hundreds of them, and been in counseling relationships with dozens of them. And I've seen some astonishing ideas develop. Let me tell you a few of them--a few that will no doubt sound very familiar to many reading this, and in which some of you will find yourselves.
* I am the absolute slave of (master of) someone whom I have never met and who lives a thousand miles away from me (or whom I have met a few times, perhaps).
* I am the absolute master of (slave of) someone, but I still maintain my vanilla marriage and continue with my life in many ways just as I did before.
* When I submit to people at play parties or otherwise, I use a safe word and negotiate exactly what I will and will not do, but I still am submitting to the people I play with.
* When I dominate people at play parties or otherwise, I accept safe words and all sorts of limitations on what I can do, but I still am actually dominating the people I play with.
* I only submit to or dominate people over the computer, but I experience real and profound dominant or submissive satisfaction.
* [my personal favorite] the submissive is always ultimately in charge.
My friends, you cannot be the absolute slave of someone whom you seldom or never meet. You may want to be. You may try to be. You may feel as if you are--and more on this in just a moment. But someone who is not with you most of the time, observing your behavior and needs, cannot control you, which is what a master does, if the word "master" is to retain any real meaning at all. Likewise, you can not absolutely control someone whom you never or seldom see.
My friends, you cannot be the absolute slave of someone and continue your vanilla marriage and the rest of your life pretty much as usual.
My friends, when you "submit" to or "dominate" someone in a situation where safe words are used and when limitations are negotiated, you are not actually submitting or dominating at all--you are playing at it.
Is anyone really pissed off yet (g)? Even if you are, stick with me.
If all of what I've just said is true, howcum so many people disagree with me? Howcum so many people do those things and things like them and believe that they are actually owning or owned, actually dominating or submitting? Several reasons.
The first is an ancient human psychological ploy: wish-fulfilment and self-deception. People often feel their dominant or submissive needs deeply and are quite driven by them. Still, very few people view change, let alone drastic and painful change, with equanimity: they want to have their cake and eat it, too, have their dominant or submissive needs met without messing up the rest of their lives, without having to make extremely painful and portentous decisions. What's the solution for a lot of these folks? Pretending and believing. If I want it to be so, it is so. That's wish-fulfilment. If it isn't really working as well as I'd like, then just deny that and plunge on. After all, what I have now is more than I had before, and to have more would mean facing choices that I simply don't want to face.
Wish-fulfilment and self-deception need a lot of support from the real world to work, though, and that support does indeed come from the activities of the public SM life style. This is the seductive part, the dangerous part, the part that leads many people to disaster. People here who disagree with me will say: "But when I do these things, I really feel it! I go places where I've never been before, where I could not go if I were just playing at it. This is real!" In a sense, yes.
The emotions involved in dominance and submission, even in just fantasizing about them, are very, very strong and compelling--no doubt a few people around here have noticed that (g). Perhaps this is because the establishing of and awareness of pecking orders and dominance relationships is so important to most animals, perhaps for other reasons, too, but very strong they are. In fact, they're dynamite. The fact is that just playing around the edges of these emotions, even just playing at them as people do at play parties or with "absolute masters" whom they've never met, can be spectacularly affecting to the people involved. They go into "sub space." They can feel the exhilaration of controlling another person's actions and senses, even if that control is extremely limited. These experiences strike deep into our animal natures and make us feel intensely, perhaps more intensely than ever before; they seem to speak to us directly.
But it's crucially important to realize that that experience is like a kind of masturbation: the profound experience is coming more from inside you, from your imagination and expectations, from the contrast between the way you are behaving sexually and the way you are supposed to behave, from the experience of actually indulging some of your fantasies--no matter how pale-ly--than it is coming from that actual and only prerequisite of the other SM life style, that one thing that must lie at the root of all relationships in the second, often more private, version of the SM life style: the actual--and often the absolute--exchange of power.
I promised in the beginning that I'd describe the difference between the two SM life styles, and I just done did it. In the larger and more public life style of the SM subculture, despite all appearances, the actual exchange of power between two people is rare. In the smaller version of the SM life style of which I've been a part for most of my adult life, power is exchanged, either absolutely or, especially in the early stages of a relationship, experimentally.
It sounds like a simple difference. It sounds as if it ought to be easy to tell a relationship in which power is actually being exchanged from one in which it is not. It should be easy, too, but often it is not. The reasons for this are several. One of the main ones is that the distinction between a situation in which two people have actually exchanged power and one in which they are simply trying to do it but have not accomplished it yet can be subtle--crossing over that line involves changes in the heads of the two people rather than changes in their activities. Another one, sadly, is that many of the denizens of the public SM subculture, including most of its high-profile leaders and gurus, work hard to confuse the issue. Some of this misinformation is unintentional, sown by people who are simply confused. Some of it, alas, is intentional, generated by "dominants" who prey on new and needy submissives and by "experts" interested largely in promoting themselves--I'm sure that most of you can think of a few who might qualify for this last.
If you cannot, let me help you out. Have you read books that tell you that there are X number of Positions of Submission that all submissives must learn? That "masters" and "mistresses" should be addressed thus-and-suchly by submissive people, even if they don't know one another from Adam's aardvark? That negotiations, even between people who know one another well, are mandatory, since eschewing them violates the credo of "safe, sane, and consensual"? Have self-styled experts on line--usually but not always men who say that they are dominant--told you that a submissive is ultimately in control of a scene or a relationship? That love and SM should not be mixed? That he or she is the absolute owner of six slaves, some of whom he or she has never met and most of whom he or she hardly ever sees? That safe words must always be used? That he practices "Gorean slavery"? That relationships of ownership and slavery in the literal sense of these words are either impossible or to be avoided absolutely because they are inherently abusive?
People who tell you that sort of thing are describing correctly a certain reality: the stylized, fantasy-based reality of the SM life style which most sadomasochists in this country practice. It's all perfect nonsense, of course. There is no list of Positions of Submission. People ought to be addressed by their actual names, except in special and rare circumstances in the context of real relationships. Negotiations, safe words, and the idea that the submissive is ultimately in charge are ideas generated by people whose lives are dedicated to play parties and play relationships where responsibility, like power, remains fundamentally unexchanged. In the most successful and happy SM relationships, love and sadomasochism are inseparable--love must exist in any relationship that is longlasting and happy. It is a profound and constant challenge genuinely to own one person; someone who tells you that he or she owns two or five or nine is really telling that he or she owns nothing at all except a fervid imagination. Anyone who tells you that they practice "Gorean slavery" and have done so in real life for more than a few months is almost certainly lying to you. And ownership and slavery, in the literal senses of the words, are both possible and, for many people, mandatory for happiness.
But you know what? All that silliness, all those imagined rituals and silly orthodoxies can be fun for people--if those people are unable or unwilling to have the real thing--or are uninterested in having the real thing. As I said above, for many people the play world, whether at a play party or in a full-time relationship, is just dandy. More power, as it were, to them (g). So what's my beef, eh?
My beef is that the overwhelming power of the ideas promulgated by the public SM subculture hurt a great many people, people who need more than fantasy play in their lives. There are a lot of those people, too. And they get eaten up by the public subculture in many ways. Here's the worst of 'em.
Remember that submissive woman I talked about above who has had submissive fantasies all her life but who, like lots of people, represses them because she thinks that they are sick and in any case that nothing can be done about them? Then one day she is surfing the Net and happens upon an SM-oriented page, which leads her to an SM channel on IRC or to alt.sex.bondage or another kinky news group. Remember what a wondrous revelation comes over her! Here are the people who understand her needs and who don't think they're sick! And she begins to explore the possibilities.
Now, let us say that this woman is a woman of unusually deep submissive needs. A woman whose fantasies and dreams are not just about being spanked or whipped or tied up or having enemas forced on her or any of the rest. Her fantasies go beyond that, to an absolute exchange of power, where she is genuinely owned by a man or a woman who has both the need and the ability to own her and who also loves her dearly. This woman is newly hopeful that her needs can be met by someone out there in the public SM subculture, and she goes searching in many ways. She talks to other people about her fantasies. She goes to play parties and support groups, where she is welcomed with open arms. She reads books and pamphlets. And, far more often than not, here's what she finds.
She finds people and publications that tell her that what she wants is either impossible or sick or both. She finds people who claim that their relationships are wonderful, exactly what she has in mind, but when she actually gets to know these people, she finds that their relationships are not as described--that the people are either living a palpable and obvious fantasy or that their glowing descriptions of how they live are dishonest, that their relationships are dysfunctional and unhappy. Or she may meet "dominants" who make many promises on which they don't deliver.
What a position to be in! Her brave new world of hope is suddenly and cruelly dashed on the rocks of the reality of the public SM subculture, and so, in the end, she gives up any hope for what she really wants and needs and either withdraws back into denial or settles for a fantasy relationship that may or may not be better than nothing. There are lots of people like this woman, folks, who have been mortally wounded, in an emotional sense, by the ideology and practice of the SM subculture. I've dealt with them in counseling--and, believe me, they are often irrevocably lost.
This woman I'm describing has a sister who is also a victim of the public SM subculture. In fact, Sister is considerably more common than the woman I described above. She comes into the subculture with no sense at all of the depth of her submissive needs. She joins in the fun, and she enjoys it. But genuine internal exploration, while the SM subculture pays lip service to it, is not something that is really encouraged. This woman is absorbed by the subculture and its ideology and values, and what she might have been if she is in fact profoundly submissive, the joy and satisfaction that she could have found if encouraged honestly to explore herself and if supported in the process, is never hers.
I'm willing to wager that there are people here tonight who fit both descriptions. It's a damnable shame.
Let me put this bluntly. A woman with deep submissive needs, the kind of woman who needs to be owned to be happy and fulfilled, is far more likely, at the mercy of the public SM subculture, to be the victim of an abusive and manipulative man or woman posing as a dominant than she is to find a man or woman who will actually be her loving life partner and who can and will give her the control that she so desperately desires. That's not something that we ought to be proud of.
I want to talk for a moment about the other SM life style. As I said above, there's only one crucial difference between the public SM life style and its alternative: the actual exchange of power. Simple idea, right? Sure. But what the hell does it mean?
People involved in the public SM life style use all sorts of words that describe what they do that imply that power has been exchanged: mastery and slavery, dominance and submission, ownership, control, helplessness, many more. But, although it's popular in the subculture to twist the meanings of those words so that they seem to fit activities supported by the subculture, so that they support the fantasy of the exchange of power, in fact very little of it goes on. This is another unpopular idea; nevertheless, it's a fact.
If you go to a play party and negotiate with a dominant what he may or may not do to you and then you "submit" to activities entirely obedient to the terms of the negotiation, you are giving up no power at all; you are controlling the activity from beginning to end, even though you do not always control each specific event that occurs within it. If you like that, great--I have no bone to pick with you whatever. Just don't pretend that it is what it is not. If you sign a "slave contract" with a dominant that says what he controls and what he does not, what he is allowed and what he is not, then you remain in control of the relationship to a degree that precludes any genuine exchange of power. If you have a scene or a relationship that includes a "safe word" whose effect is to stop whatever is occurring when you speak it, then who is really in ultimate control? 'Tis you.
People living that other, usually more private, SM life style eschew any situation where any control at all remains in the hands of the submissive--although, particularly in the early stages of the relationship, they may accept certain limits, especially limits of time, until they are are sure that they want to make final commitments of ownership to one another. There is supposed to be enough trust and intimacy between them that the absolute commitment of control or helplessness is possible. And, while just making the commitment to helplessness and absolute ownership does not create helplessness and absolute ownership in an instant--does not make out of whole cloth that genuine exchange of power--it is the beginning of the process of creating it. People who make that final and irrevocable commitment to one another and who then make the relationship work are without a doubt the happiest and most satisfied people in the SM world--in fact, they are as a group the happiest and most satisfied and contented people whom I have ever met.
What is living this life style like? Well, aside from the fact that it always involves an actual exchange of power, people living this life style often share very little with others living it. The hallmark of the people living this life style is that they create their own shared and very individual realities. They do the things that work for them, not the things that self-appointed SM gurus tell them are the things that "all BDSM people do." Although there are a few emotions, attitudes, experiences, and difficulties that most such couples have in common, beyond these very basic matters there is very little that all of us share. How people actually live in such a relationship is ultimately decided by the ideas, intelligence, experience, and character of the dominant, leavened by the same qualities of the submissive, as well as by the particular package of emotional difficulties that the submissive brings to the relationship. The submissive's life may be anything from that of a cloistered house slave to that of an active and aggressive woman of and in the world who is yet absolutely submissive to her owner. There are endless permutations--whatever makes the two of them happy is what they do. It can be permanently glorious.
So how do you, as a submissive woman, know if that sort of life is right for you? And if you decide that it is--if the version of the SM life style that is for you is one where you are absolutely owned by your loving dominant--how do you go about creating that kind of life for yourself? Just as important, how do you avoid the pitfalls of trying to create that sort of life for yourself (serious dangers lurk in these waters)?
In the answer to that question lies an irony and a paradox. One of the characteristics generally shared by profoundly submissive women is the desire to be little: to be without ultimate responsibility, to be loved and controlled almost in a parental sense. And yet, before such a woman can be little, she has to be very big indeed. She has to take a difficult and often searing inner journey to decide if the life of a slave is something that she absolutely needs (if she doesn't really need it, she ought not to mess with it). If she decides that such a life is for her, she faces the daunting prospect of finding, in the SM wilderness, the master or mistress who is right for her. All of this requires taking the kind of responsibility for self, the ability to make difficult decisions that, good or ill, will change her life forever, that are precisely the kind that she often wants to do away with entirely. And she'd better make her decisions well, too.
So how does our profoundly submissive woman go about all of this? Glad you asked (g).
That inner journey, through which she must know herself well enough and be absolutely honest with herself, must usually be made more or less alone, alas. There may be friends who can help her, if she is lucky there may be a couple who is in a genuine power exchange or at least whose members are not hostile to the idea and who understand it, who can help. But the most obvious way--becoming involved with the myriad "dominants" and "mentors" who populate the public SM world--is something that she should avoid. Many of these folks have agendas of their own, and they are less interested in helping the submissive to know and discover herself than in getting her clothes off her and bending her over the nearest hassock. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but how can she know that the person whom she's relying on for honest counsel and insight is either honest or insightful? She cannot.
The details of that inner journey are a subject far too complex to address here in any more detail than Polly and I have. We'll certainly be dealing with it in Submissive Women Speak. But its outlines should be pretty clear.
So let us say that our submissive woman's inner questioning is done and that she has decided that her happiness lies in exchanging power, in giving up control of her life to another person. What now? Unfortunately, things get even harder.
The challenge of finding a man or a woman whom she can love and who can love her, who needs to own another person as badly as she needs to be owned, and who has the emotional maturity to pull it off is daunting. What such a woman must do is to make her interest known anyplace where she imagines such a person might be watching. Yes, it's true that most of those places are the strongholds of the public SM subculture: support groups, educational organizations, interest areas on line, and even (shudder) SM clubs and munches. That those are basically the only places to look for such people, outside of a chance encounter in the Piggly Wiggly, is part of why the task is so daunting.
Having made her interest known, our hopeful submissive will be deluged with offers from putative dominants, all glad to give her "exactly what you're looking for." Anyone here ever experienced anything like that (g)? Some of these people are lying to her, trying to get her bent over that ubiquitous hassock. Others who respond to her believe that they can offer what she needs; it's most likely that all of them, inculcated with the ideas promulgated by the public subculture, are wrong. They'll be happy enough to play with her, and they probably like the idea of owning someone, in theory. But are they capable of it? Do they have their emotional shit together enough to do it? Do they really want the responsibility, day after day and year after year and decade after decade, of absolute power over another person? Not bloody likely. The person who might be for our girl is the one who meets all of those prerequisites and who really needs to own a woman; anyone with less than that real need will poop out pretty quick.
Hard as it is, our submissive woman must keep looking, fending off the bozos and the poseurs and the honest people who really don't understand what she means by a permanent exchange of power. She may be able to get some help from a couple who is living the life that she wants to find for herself and living it successfully. Such a couple may be able to help her enormously in her search--if she can find one. If she has someone in mind to help her, though, it's crucial that she see their relationship as it is--not as they say it is--and be certain that what they have together is fundamentally similar to what she wants for herself.
What to look for in an owner and how to tell if someone is the right person is too complex a process to talk about here in any detail, and, in any case, I've talked long enough for one evening. Perhaps we can go into it at another time; we certainly will do so in our book.
To conclude, then: there are really two SM life styles, one the life style of the public SM subculture and the other, often very private, of the actual exchange of power between two loving people. One is relatively easy to become involved in and to enjoy, the other much more difficult (although both have their dangers). Each of them is fine for the right person. Either can be emotionally deadly and physically dangerous for the wrong person.
If you like the public SM subculture and if it's all you want or all you can have, enjoy yourself to the fullest. Remember, however, that there are others out there who are not cut out for it and who you may be able to help by telling them that they have alternatives. If you think that you may be someone who would thrive within the strictures of a permanent power exchange, know that it is possible to make such a life for yourself if you do the hard work that is necessary first. And all of you: remember that being absolutely honest with yourself, not letting yourself wiggle away from the tough questions about yourself, is the surest way to happiness.
I'd like to thank Artful and Natasha for having us tonight. Polly and I would be happy to answer any questions about what we've said tonight.
- Defining the BDSM Lifestyle: The Essential Prerequisite by Polly Peachum and Jon Jacobs
- Irresponsible Masters by Mystik
- Limitations and Personal Growth by Rover
- Ten Commandments by Society of Janus