Recently I have had two conversations that reveal the incredible breadth of moral pluralism that exists not just in America but in the Christian population of America.
In one conversation, a young lady told me that her family adheres to a very conservative Protestant tradition. One aspect of this tradition is what can only be described as an extreme form of the idea that God set up a world where men are to rule and women are to serve.
In this family, the father works outside the home, but inside the home he is served by his women, a wife and daughter. After work, he comes in and sits down and puts up his feet. The nearest available woman literally takes off his boots and puts them away. He wants coffee. The nearest available woman makes him coffee. His women cook and serve and clean up after each of his meals. Every day. Every single day.
I gathered that the wife was much more amenable to this scheme than is the daughter. But contemplate that couple for just a minute. It is 2015. The feminist movement has helped shape modern America. Two women are serious candidates for president of the United States. But here in this country is a woman who has chosen to practice a religion in which it is explicitly understood that the man is superior and is to rule, the woman is inferior and is to serve. No one has required her to live such a lifestyle and to practice such a religion. But right now she (and many others) are voluntarily doing just that.
Second conversation. I had been lecturing on Christian sexual ethics to an audience of committed Christians. In the lecture, I ruled out the option of polyamory for Christians. I suggested that it was outside the boundaries of a recognizably Christian sexual ethic, that it had never been contemplated as an option in Christian history, and that there were very good reasons today to rule it out. I learned in a follow-up conversation that the practice of polyamory was not viewed in this way by certain of my listeners; that, indeed, there were practitioners of polyamory in the audience.
I had heard that polyamory was on the rise. I had not anticipated that it would be a live option among committed Christians.
It’s chaos out there. The spectrum of moral views among Christians on just about every subject spans from one extreme to another. And that’s within a faith community that supposedly shares a common Lord, common sacred text, and much common tradition. Now just add in adherents to every other religion and no religion at all and try to have a conversation. What a country!
For those who have managed to carve out a nicely homogeneous little enclave to live in, you might not notice it all that much. Everyone you know has a roughly similar set of beliefs.
But for various reasons I encounter the whole (Christian) spectrum, from the most liberal to the most conservative, the most traditional to the most avant-garde. I address audiences where, often enough, adherents of every particular spot on the spectrum are sitting in the room listening to me. It makes my work incredibly interesting. It also makes it at times almost impossible. ...
When I met Zed, he was wearing a pirate costume, restraining my friend with his faded red rope while slyly smiling at her but also with her. The smiles exchanged were heart warming — playful yet stern.
I fell in love with him in a way I like to have sex: fast and hard.
I don’t particularly care for relationships. Around the one-year mark, I get bored — bored of knowing that my interactions with my partner are repetitive cycles, that our life mimics what society expects of us and that I can have sex with only one person, of one gender, for the foreseeable future. So after ending my last relationship, I promised myself I wouldn’t repeat this cycle again.
I had a couple of partners when I met him, but none of them were serious. Zed was different. At the beginning of our courtship, we discussed what we each would want from a relationship while affirming that we were both polyamorous — in multiple, consensual relationships simultaneously. We had no intention of being emotionally committed, but it quickly happened anyway.
When some explain what polyamory is about, they tell those who are unfamiliar with it that it is “legalized cheating.” The issue with this approach is that it situates the negative repercussions of cheating within what could potentially be healthy relationship dynamics. Previous boyfriends have cheated on me, and my issue wasn’t the physical component but that they didn’t communicate their needs with me. Of all those times of lying and sneaking around behind my back, what hurt the most was that none of it was necessary. The pain of betrayal could have been prevented by a conversation.
Throughout my dating life, I have always lacked the jealousy that seems to be normal in other monogamous relationships. My previous boyfriends have criticized my lack of attention when others flirted with them, but I didn’t particularly care. As far as I’m concerned, I shouldn’t have to manage my partners’ responsibility to me, and if they are no longer interested, they can leave.
One of my favorite parts of being polyamorous is that I don’t participate in that jealousy. Although we are dedicated to each other, we are also very relaxed about our affection toward others. He swipes through Tinder frequently, and I encourage him to openly discuss his experiences. I would rather know specifically what is happening than be in the dark, coming up with imaginary scenarios that never occurred. I have proven to be more lazy than he is, which has resulted in him being more active in his “sluttery,” as he jokingly refers to it. I occasionally contemplate sleeping with others, but ultimately, the search of another partner is too tolling (especially given my desire to hook up with queer folk, which is often trickier than finding heterosexual men). ...
After the housing crash of 2008, James Lowe, a former construction worker, moved to San Antonio from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. With him came Elizabeth. The two were close friends at the time and hoped to find a better life in San Antonio.
James, 34, and Elizabeth, 27, have since married and now have four children between them. Elizabeth is expecting her fifth child with James.
Elizabeth considers herself mainly lesbian but says that James is the exception to that rule. In 2011, when Elizabeth first came out to James, he revealed that he felt he had the capacity to love more than one person. Shortly after enrolling at San Antonio College in 2012, the couple met Audrie, 22, and Ashley, 21. Eventually, the couple’s friendship with the two women evolved into a romantic relationship between the four.
Today, they are in what the four call a polyfidelitous relationship, and all share the same home. They describe it as a “partnership between four people.” “It’s not an open relationship,” James explains. Each individual is fully committed to the others and has equal standing in the relationship.
Ashley has one child with James, and Audrie is expecting her first. James has five other children from two previous relationships, bringing his total number of biological children to 10. The four say they enjoy having a large family and see nothing wrong with it.
“I fell in love with the children first,” Ashley said. “Then with the ladies, and then with James.”
“Gradually, over time we all kind of grew to love each other, and we decided that our relationship just kind of worked between us,” Audrie said. “The kids really liked me and I fell in love with the kids as well. We just really worked as a family unit.”
Audrie and Ashley say their relationship with Elizabeth and James is ideal because they are both bisexual. “Living in a country where monogamy is the norm, I’ve always had to choose between a man and a woman and I’ve always had to struggle with that,” Audrie said. “This is definitely more natural to me.” Audrie and Ashley were legally married in July of this year.
Elizabeth says she is aware of the potential for unhealthy relations that a polyfidelitous relationship may bring. “I don’t think anyone is going to argue that,” she said. “There are people who have been in poly relationships and have had bad experiences. It just happens to work for us.”
While the four express satisfaction with their relationship, they say outsiders have been meddling in their family. The family is in a legal battle to keep custody of their children.
The trouble began in August 2013, when Elizabeth’s parents came from Ohio to visit. “One of the main reasons I had moved to Texas was to separate myself from them, because they were kind of controlling,” Elizabeth said. During their visit, Elizabeth’s parents had hoped to convince her to move back to Ohio and bring the kids with her. They offered to buy Elizabeth and James a home in Ohio and to provide childcare. At that point the couple had already made the decision to become polyfidelitous and were committed to Audrie and Ashley.
“Before they left we all had a meeting at their hotel,” Elizabeth said. “I felt that we needed to be honest, knowing that we were considering moving to Ohio, and accepting these things from them so that the kids could be closer to their grandparents. They had already been told by members of our old church and were very concerned.”
That meeting between James, Elizabeth, and her parents did not end well. Her parents were infuriated. “They told us if we continued in our relationship then the offer was off,” Elizabeth said. “My mother accused me of being controlled by the devil.”
“When we turned down their offer for money, they took that money and sued us,” James said. “They went and got a condo here in San Antonio to bring a suit against us [for custody of Elizabeth’s four children].”
Elizabeth says her parents have made false claims against the family, and that her parents believe James is controlling and manipulating the women in the relationship—a claim the women deny.
“[Elizabeth’s parents] said that there was broken glass everywhere, and feces and urine everywhere,” James said. “They said that I abused the children. They accused me of being some sort of manipulative mastermind and that I had everyone around me under some kind of mental control. They made it all about me.”
Elizabeth’s four children were taken from their home and sent to live temporarily with their grandparents. The family has been investigated by Child Protective Services, and a court appointed psychologist has met with the family. “CPS ruled everything out and the court-appointed psychologist had given note that she found no evidence of abuse and neglect,” James said.
“We were really encouraged by that,” Elizabeth added. “We thought that would be it.”
Nonetheless, a jury ruled against the family, giving custody to Elizabeth’s parents. Elizabeth’s parents have since moved back to Ohio. A judge has allowed the children to visit their parents unsupervised for up to six weeks during the summer. At the time of this interview, the children were visiting their parents at their home in San Antonio.
The family is going against advice to stay silent. “We were told to hide because our culture isn’t ready for our type of relationship,” Elizabeth said. But they now believe it is necessary to address misconceptions about what the family is and is not. The four want to make clear that they are not polygamists and are not involved in any type of religious cult. ...
Domina Elle is a former escort and current dominatrix who specializes in balloon fetish play. (Its practitioners are called "looners.") She is also a sex workers' rights advocate.
I like to call myself an adult play facilitator. The type of work I do is much broader than just BDSM or fetishistic type stuff. I specialize in helping people to open this part of their sexual selves, and be playful and creative. That's one reason I love balloons. It's a very friendly catalyst. It's erotic and playful, and yet it's not as scary as some of the other stuff when you start looking at BDSM.
For me specifically, balloons came out of my latex fetish. In general, looners are primarily men. Usually it started when they were kids and they got a hold of a balloon. It's a soft, puffy, nice thing. Humans are very tactile and sensory-based. They, for whatever reason, found an erotic stimulation there. About seven years ago, I saw someone on stage live-playing with big latex balloons. He was putting one or two people inside the balloons. I already had a latex fetish, and when I saw that I realized, Wow, I can get inside a balloon and have that wonderful latex smell all around me?
Balloons can be used for so many different kinky activities. The big balloons can be used to put underneath [yourself during sex]. You don't blow it up all the way. It's kind of exciting and scary to be on top of it while you're messing around. I love to fill a room with balloons. It's not as easy as it sounds because it really does take a lot of balloons to fill a room — like, thousands of them.
When you go to BDSM dungeons, they tend to be really stuffy. People are really serious. I would take the balloons to these very serious dungeon environments. I thought, How can I get this whole room activated? Once people see a couple of people get in, they start lining up. Then you have everyone in the room cheering and excited because they know there's a trick to getting in while the air is coming out.
It's been such a fun experiment to challenge boundaries and see everyone get so excited. I've been trying to get as many people inside [a balloon] as I can. I'm stuck on 13 and a half. I've been stuck there for about a year. [The big balloons I use] are advertising balloons that are 72 inches when they are inflated. I buy a brand called Rifco, which is from Italy. They cost anywhere from $20 to $50 each. I usually buy them 10 at a time. You can get clear and different colors. It's fun because the clear, everybody can see what's going on inside, which I really like. Then you can do fun stuff with neon paint and confetti. The colored ones allow people to be shielded inside so nobody can see what's happening in there. People feel more protected and in their own little world.
Part of the fun is walking up to someone I don't know and saying to them, "Will you get inside my balloon?" Wrap your mind around that. They visualize this tiny little thing at first. I cut the nipple off the edge of the neck and that gives it a little bit more stretch. You have to wrestle to get in that little hole. It's kind of a reverse birthing process. Most of the time, I'll get people down to their underwear right there. Sometimes, at dungeons, everybody just gets naked in there. ...
When I first arrived at the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) I filed into one of the few empty stadium seats left save for the neck busters at the very front. The place was packed for The Art of Sex & Seduction: Ceremonies of Love & Desire, I realized all eyes were pointed to a tiny, gray-haired woman immediately below and in front of me. She looked more like a gentle octogenarian nun than a famous dominatrix known for her cruelty. But every once in a while there were flashes of unflinching harshness delivered with a toothy, thin-lipped grin–there was a reason why people seemed to either tiptoe or burst into fits of uncomfortable laughter around Catherine Robbe-Grillet all night. She could turn even the most accomplished Tinder Queens amongst us to puddles of prudish mush.
The event began with a screening, bits of Lina Mannheimer’s short film and documentary (La Contrat and La Cérémonie, respectively) about Catherine and her decades-younger partner, Beverly Charpentier, who translated Catherine’s responses from French to English in the discussion to follow. The discussion was moderated by Toni Bentley, the journalist behind the Vanity Fair profile of Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Bentley had spent a couple of days getting cozy with the dominatrix at her 400-year old chateau in Normandy.
Before she left her seat for the stage, I got a close up look at Catherine. Squeezed between the filmmaker and Beverley, Catherine was childlike (she’s under five feet tall) her silver hair fastened in a tight, flat bun, a white headband holding her hair perfectly in place. She wore a prim black skirt and long-sleeve vest getup coupled with rimless oval glasses that sealed her look as an unusually compact, but severe junior nun. I guess you can’t beat the Catholicism out of the Catholic school girl. “These two ladies are atheists, but Catholicism and the props of Catholicism greatly inform their ceremonies,” Toni explained.
Catherine’s stature of course belies her powerful presence. All night, she delivered quippy responses and performed sarcastic, feigned innocence. In many ways, Catherine still has the mannerisms of a little girl down too– she squeals, gasps, and purrs, often widening her eyes in mock surprise. Her infantile movements reminded me of Toni’s piece: for Alain Robbe-Grillet, Catherine’s famous dead husband– the famed French writer, avant-garde artist, and intellectual–“Catherine embodied his lifelong obsession with young girls, resembling a little girl in her height, size, and manner.”
In the film, she described her relationship with Alain– a well-known sadist whose writing centered thematically on power structures, control, and lack of agency– as an “unusual” one. For a long time, she was his submissive. It wasn’t until he gave up sexuality altogether to focus more on writing (a detail hashed out in Toni’s article) that Catherine blossomed into a dom. The year was 1973. She’s been joyfully whipping whimpering subs ever since.
One audience member wondered if she’s ever wavered: “I was wondering if the Madame […] misses being submissive and wants to be dominated sometimes?”
Catherine answered simply, “Non,” and paused. “I relive my submission through Beverly, but I don’t want to relive it myself. I am simultaneously submissive and dominant, but my submission passes through her.” ...
In a clever sting operation, the feds nabbed creeps looking to buy ‘sex slaves’ for their home dungeons.
In March 2014, Steven Currence gave undercover agents a grand tour of the dungeon hidden inside his Montana home.
The subterranean hellhole contained a heavy wooden cross and a smattering of chairs. The walls were covered in whips, chains, and torture devices. Currence boasted of blacking out the windows to dash any hopes of escape.
Here was the sinister lair where the 65-year-old planned to lock his sex slaves. One kidnapped woman would sleep in the basement torture chamber, while the other would be chained to his bed—with a chain long enough to reach the bathroom.
Currence believed he would soon purchase the women from the agents, who posed as human traffickers. The creep previously told the agents that he wanted a “housekeeper with benefits” who would “take care of things, clean the house, take care of me,” court records reveal.
“These slaves will never leave,” Currence said. “I’m not looking for love, they’re just going to be in here and they are going to be serving.”
But Currence wouldn’t be the one doing the shackling. Instead, the feds cuffed him two months later when he traveled to Arizona to buy two women at what he believed was a slave auction.
In September of this year, Currence was sentenced to seven years in prison.
He was one of four men nabbed in an FBI sting operation targeting an extreme slice of the human trafficking underworld: people seeking sexual and domestic slaves.
Court papers paint a disturbing picture of the lengths all four fiends went to keep their would-be slaves hidden. They outfitted their homes with things like soundproof boxes, window coverings, and even a 500-pound therapeutic bed with chains.
One man hired a contractor to turn his BDSM “playroom” into a dungeon so secure visitors wouldn’t know someone was inside. Another ordered a “date rape” drug from China to knock his victim out as he transported her across state lines. ...
... After his arrest, Kandl tried telling law enforcement that although he knew the women weren’t consenting, he wouldn’t have purchased anyone who refused to go with him.
“Kandl was asked why he didn’t call the police and Kandl replied that he should have but his curiosity was piqued,” one FBI memo found in court papers read. According to the document, Kandl planned to interview the women to see if they were willing to go home with them. He told investigators he wanted to explain he could provide them with a better life.
When asked what that meant, Kandl said he’d provide a room, food, and clothes. He also planned to introduce his slave to the BDSM lifestyle, which he’d been engaged in for three years, according to the FBI document.
Kandl said the whole thing was a “bad idea” and that he “shouldn’t have done it.” He told investigators that in his life, “I did everything right until this stupid thing.”
Whenever we hear "sex education," most people imagine a high school health class teacher outlining the basics: monthly periods, the human development cycle, birth control, and maybe an uncomfortable informational film. However, the topics in these classes barely skim the surface of the depth and breadth of our human sexuality.
For each individual, sexuality is a process of self-discovery, and it can be one of the most invigorating journeys of your life.
Did you know that both male and female genitals come from the same embryonic tissue and are identical in the first stage of fetal development? During the whole first stage, the sex of the fetus remains undetermined. After the first stage, the addition of a Y chromosome produces testosterone, which leads to the external and internal sexual differentiation of a male, or an additional X chromosome will prompt production of estrogen, leading to a female.
Some theories espouse that these hormones actually encode our brains before birth -- and that the many external social factors we experience during childhood development do not determine our sexual and gender identity. Some medical researchers even theorize that our sexual orientation -- whether we consider ourselves heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual -- is something that is hard-wired into our brains.
As I was deciding to become a professional dominatrix and fetishist, I asked myself, 'Can I handle other people's judgmental attitudes about my sexuality? Can I accept another person's sexuality without judgment?' In the end, I decided I could -- or at least that I would try. It was a slow process that required me to first deal with my relationship to my own sexuality, and then to practice my free will enough to choose how I wished to express and explore it in my everyday life.
One conversation that never got old at the dungeon (the BDSM/fetish club I used to work in) was sexual preference. It was actually very empowering and freeing to hear a group of women speak openly about their sexualities. Never before had I heard women express with such confidence their gender preferences, curiosities about sex, and interests.
On my second day of work as a Mistress, we sat around the lounge creating my image. I had no clue how I was going to present myself as a Mistress, but I knew I wanted to operate with class and dignity. Seeing my hesitation, Mistress Deborah chimed in: "I'm going to tell you exactly who you are. You are the sexy cougar, mommy, aunt, school teacher, and so on. You are so sexy, I would fuck you myself, and I don't even like white girls!"
Well, hot damn! I thought to myself. I'd never heard a woman speak so openly about her sexual preference for the ladies in public! Lesbian, bisexual, straight, formerly lesbian now bisexual, formerly bi now straight -- the attitude around the dungeon was "change happens." In other words, whatever floated my boat six months ago may not be working for me anymore, and that's okay.
What it boils down to is personal growth, personal progress, and personal choice. ...
Fifty Shades of Grey has shaped a whole culture’s view of BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism). In that fictional world, a powerful man plays out his sadistic fantasies as a powerless woman indulges her masochistic ones. This narrative demonstrates what’s called the "playing out" hypothesis of sadomasochism: In sexual fantasies we re-create our daily power roles. A new paper, however, presents an alternative hypothesis and some surprising findings, including that, all else being equal, high-ranking executives are more turned on by fantasies involving sexual submission than are their underlings.
Joris Lammers and Roland Imhoff report on their "disinhibition" hypothesis in an upcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science. They base their predictions on extensive research showing that social power — having control over others’ outcomes — reduces inhibition. In one 2003 study, for example, participants primed to feel more versus less powerful were more likely to reposition an annoying fan blowing on them. Other work finds that wealthy people are more likely to commit selfishly unethical acts than are poor people, by virtue of their feeling more powerful — and therefore less accountable and vulnerable.
Many people have sadomasochistic impulses — one meta-analysis reported that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women have rape fantasies — but such impulses go against social norms that separate sex from violence, affection from domination. Therefore, the thinking goes, many people inhibit them. And because traditional gender roles prescribe men to be active and women passive in many social domains, men should be especially likely to bury fantasies of submission and women fantasies of domination. But the disinhibition hypothesis predicts that power frees people to let their freak flags fly, increasing sadomasochistic thoughts in everyone and especially masochistic thoughts in men and sadistic thoughts in women.
To test their predictions, the researchers invited readers of a science website and a lifestyle website in the Netherlands to complete an online questionnaire, compiling data from 14,306 anonymous respondents. As a measure of power, people rated their professional position, from unemployed to top-level management. They then rated their agreement with items such as “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about torturing a consenting person” and “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about being tortured by a person on my own demand.” People also rated their desire for social dominance in everyday life, by evaluating statements such as “I like to give orders and get things going.” (The study could only measure correlations, but given the known psychological effects of power, a case for its causal influence on disinhibition in the bedroom can be made.)
Overall, men were more into fantasies of sadism than women were, likely in part because of socialized gender roles. Yet while real-world power increased women’s attraction to sadism (controlling for age and social dominance), the picture for men was split. Among those with an especially strong impulse to dominate others, more power was associated with finding greater appeal in sadism, but among men who shied from dominance, power decreased their interest in sadism. This pattern suggests the men felt free to take on the role that suited them personally — not the one that suited the masculine ideal.
Women, on the other hand, were more into masochistic fantasies than men were. Women with more versus less power were slightly more aroused by thoughts of masochism (meaning power increased their interest in both ends of the sadomasochistic spectrum), but power increased men’s appetite for masochism nearly twice as much as women’s. This is where the findings most strongly support the disinhibition hypothesis and challenge the "playing out" hypothesis: Powerful men are not enacting their typical roles of domination, but tapping into a buried interest in submission that clashes with societal expectations. ...