Blog Archives

Blogging “Yes” Day 22: Control in Sex Work and BDSM

For day twenty two of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read a conversation entitled “Who’re You Calling a Whore?: A Conversation with Three Sex Workers on Sexuality, Empowerment, and the Industry.”  The sex workers in question are Susan Lopez, Saundra, and Mariko Passion, and the conversation focuses on various issues of power, control, and empowerment in sex work.  As I was reading, I found myself drawing a lot of parallels with BDSM, especially when it comes to female control and empowerment, and I thought I’d comment on those here.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 8: Sex Positivity as an Anti-Rape Tool

For the eighth day of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read one of my favorite essays in the book.  It’s called “A Love Letter from an Anti-Rape Activist to Her Feminist Sex-Toy Store” and it’s written by Lee Jacobs Riggs.  The piece is fairly autobiographical, focusing on Riggs’ experiences working both with a rape crisis center and at Early to Bed, a feminist sex shop.  What’s amazing about this piece is how Riggs articulates the importance of giving people the sex-positive language to enthusiastically consent to sex as an alternative to just teaching people about the bad stuff that happens and how to say no.  In this post, I’m just going to highlight some of my favorite parts of the essay.

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Thoughts on communicative sexuality

Note:  the below is crossposted from my book journal.  No Tati Tuesdays this week b/c I didn’t actually have much to report, though I do recommend Jon Stewart’s interview with Barney Frank on Monday.

I’m reading an anthology on date rape, edited by Leslie Francis, and I was particularly struck by the first two articles.  The first, by Lois Pineau, proposes a new communicative model of sexuality to replace the contract model frequently used in understanding sexual relations in rape cases.  According to the contract model, the idea is that if the victim consented, then a contract was established and the perpetrator did nothing wrong.  Pineau argues that this allows perpetrators (males) to get away with a lot because the evidentiary standard for showing consent is relatively low.  The alternative she suggests is a communicative model, where sexuality is thought of not as a contractual relationship but as something akin to friendship or conversation.  Under this model, the presumption would be nonconsent in the case of any noncommunicative, aggressive sexual interaction.  The defendant would then have to offer a reasonable explanation for his belief that the victim was consenting, despite the lack of communication between the two.  I like this idea, because it encourages communication and makes it more difficult to argue “I thought she was consenting.”  I also think, based on some psychological pieces I’ve read, that many men would be less likely to rape if the situation was not “blurry,” as I’ve read quite a few accounts of men who seem to honestly believe that their behavior was okay, based on certain actions or words of the victim.  In an open, honest, complete dialogue, they would have more trouble convincing themselves that it was okay to force sexual contact on the victim.

The second piece in the anthology, then, is David M. Adams’ critique of Pineau’s piece.  He has two main objections.  One is that verbal communication is not always necessary – that men might reasonably rely on other indicators such as body language and that given the difference in how the genders communicate we should not dismiss these indicia – and the other is that verbal communication is not always sufficient – in other words, a woman might say one thing and truly feel another.  I think that both these two objections could be met by a look at BDSM sexuality.

In arguing that verbal communication is not always necessarily, Adams points out that erotic communication is often complex and that a “checklist” would take away from the sexiness of it; that the most unambiguous form of expressing desires, literally writing them down and checking them off, takes all the romance out of the equation.  In fact, this isn’t true at all.  Many BDSM couples in fact use a checklist – before the fact.  This establishes some reasonable assumptions, because partners are aware of likes and dislikes in advance.  Further, the partners are not bound by these preferences – they are free to use a clear verbal communication, in the form of a safeword, to say no.  This kind of verbal system makes it very clear when non-consent is established.  The “she said no but I thought she meant yes” strategy doesn’t fly, because there is one word that means “I no longer consent, and this is not up for debate.”  Though it’s unlikely that all couples would establish a safeword, I do think a similar model of communication both before and during erotic encounters can make the experience both sexy and mutual.  I’m also bothered by Adams example of a man establishing consent based on a look in the woman’s eye versus the example of a woman deciding not to physically resist based on a look in a man’s eye that provokes fear.  He uses this example to argue that feminists can’t have it both ways – if option B is allowed, then so too option A.  I think this is absolutely ridiculous.  There’s a big difference between establishing consent based on a look in someone’s eye, and making the decision not to affirmatively ask, and feeling instinctive, gut, fear based on a look.  Any look at the way women are raised in this society, and the fears men instil in us from a young age, would prove this point.

Finally, I also think the BDSM model is instructive on Adams’ other argument, that someone can say one thing and mean another.  In any communicative system of sexuality, part of the deal is an implicit agreement to be open and honest in communication.  This may mean that things move slower, and one or both parties may have some issues to get past in developing trust and an ability to be open.  But I think such a model entails responsibilities for both partners – first, to ask questions and affirmatively establish the partner’s desire, which includes paying attention to any red flags that come up, such as discomfort in the conversation itself; second, to be open and honest about one’s own desires, and to refuse to go forward with a sexual encounter if one is unable to do so.  Of course, without such a system, the fact is that there will be cases where a person says “yes” in an affirmative, enthusiastic way, not really wanting a sexual encounter.  In such a case, it’s hard to blame the other party – and I think the communicative model accounts for this, in that when genuine communication and affirmative assent is established, there is no rape.  But I think what it means for the big picture is that as sexual partners we need to pay close attention to how our partners communicate consent, and be on the lookout for signs that it is not enthusiastic.  At the same time, as a culture, we need to work on making it easier for women, especially, to say “no,” and not make genuine feelings about sex something that women need to be embarrassed about or feel a need to keep secret.

A query

Why is it that some women who are sexually dominant assume that they have license to make everyone they meet do as they please, or that women who are sexually submissive are expected to defer and automatically be interested in them sexually? I’m not saying that all, or most, dominant women are like this, but I encountered one casually (not in a romantic/sexual context) and it really baffled me. My understanding is that kinky relationships are something to be negotiated, based on trust. So perhaps that sort of dynamic would evolve within a relationship, and I can respect that. What I don’t understand is someone who assumes that because they take on this role they should suddenly have everyone wait on them hand and foot. That’s called arrogance.