In high school, I probably wouldn’t have predicted that polyamory would have any part in my time as a Stanford student.
I figured that maybe I’d find someone I’d like, we’d date and then we’d presumably either break up or marry — only two options, and both of them daunting. Could I even date people if I had to choose between falling out with them or marriage? Marriage?
And then I actually came to campus and added the word “hookup” to my vocabulary, and for a few short months I thought everything made sense. It was so convenient to have that sort of no-strings-attached intimacy, so nice to not have to date so I didn’t have to think about the future. For that one night I’d have a hell of a time, and then we’d perhaps smile at each other for a week as we biked past in opposite directions. Then we’d forget about each other, rinse, repeat. Welcome to Stanford, right? We’ve all grown to accept that.
But when I started falling in love with multiple people instead of just hooking up, I had to ask myself if I was ready for polyamory. Well, the first question I asked was: Was poly even okay?
When it happened, it wasn’t as if it was nonconsensual — we were all from campus, we all talked about it, agreed on it, had the consent of everyone involved. We went on cute dinner dates, bickered over completely pointless things, flirted over Skype, cuddled — how was that different from “normal”? My friends had similar relationships and were some of the happiest, most content people I knew. But for some reason, poly didn’t make sense to people around me.
Some people told me that my love wasn’t genuine since it was “spread out,” or something — how could I be so cruel to my partners as to only love them half as much as I should, or a third as much as I should? I was honestly puzzled by the question; what about people with two kids? Is each only loved half as much as they should be? Sorry, economists, but love is an infinite resource — it’s not like love takes up space, and we tend to have large hearts in the first place. Why restrict yourself to one?
Polyamory is hardly perfect — we deal with the same things that all relationships go through. Jealousy, miscommunication, loneliness; we work through the same issues as people in monogamous relationships, except that for polyamorous relationships, communicating about these things is not a choice but a necessity. Communication is the only difference between a healthy poly relationship and cheating on your monoamorous partner. And so we tell each other when we’re feeling jealous, when we develop feelings for new people, about how we feel towards each other multiple times a week. ...
Psychology Today advocates multiple partners and open marriages and offers “evidence” that monogamy isn’t possible. Comparing man to animals is weird to me—we’re supposed to be separated out by reason and morality, right? —The Good Wife, Austin, Texas
Psychology Today, ever on the cutting edge, has had monogamy in its crosshairs lately. A casual search turned up at least nine articles on the subject in the last year. Here’s a representative quote, from “The Truth About Polyamory” by Deborah Taj Anapol:
“Our cultural obsession with monogamy is going the same way as prohibition, slavery, the gold standard, and mandatory military service. In other words, while serial monogamy is more popular than ever, lifelong monogamy is pretty much obsolete, and for better or worse, polyamory is catching on.”
Let’s break this down:
Monogamy is on a par with prohibition, slavery, etc. Spare me. Polyamory is catching on. Depends how we define the term. If strictly, show me your cites, lady. If more liberally, we can talk. More below. Serial monogamy is in, lifelong monogamy is out. True beyond dispute. However, we need to clarify what we mean. Time for the straight dope.
Let’s start with those investigations of animal mating habits you take issue with. It’s often said 9 percent or some other low proportion of mammals is monogamous. So? A puppy reaches maturity in a year; a human newborn needs 11 to 12 years. There’s an explanation for monogamy right there.
Except it doesn’t hold up. Among chimpanzees, the species most closely related to us, the young reach maturity in 8 to 15 years, comparable to humans. But chimps mate promiscuously and never pair off. Although the young remain with their mothers, there’s otherwise minimal family structure. Alpha males dominate and have sex more often than males farther back in the alphabet, but they don’t have harems to organize and defend.
My point is, there’s nothing in our biology that demands monogamy. Sure, it has practical advantages. For humans, rearing the young is a more labor- and resource-intensive process than for chimps, who don’t have college tuition to contend with. But I’ll bet we could come up with some free-love it-takes-a-village kibbutz thing if we put our minds to it.
A lot of Psychology Today contributors think that we’ve arrived at an advanced state of civilization, and we’d be happier if we abandoned the impossible dream of happy lifetime pairing and tried something else. The question is whether we’re actually doing so in significant numbers. Answer: Of course we are. It’s just not called polyamory, or some other trendy term. It’s called divorce.
Let’s look at monogamy alternatives, from least to most common (I’ll ignore celibacy):
Open marriage—that is, a married couple who expressly allow each other to have other sex partners. I don’t doubt there are secure, stable individuals who can handle this long-term without tears. But not a lot. PT contributor Michael Castleman cites unnamed “sexologists” as saying 1 percent of married couples are “committed to occasional non-monogamy,” with “another percent or two ‘curious’ enough to visit sex or swing clubs.” Self-report of sexual activity is notoriously unreliable, but never mind. We’ll say 1 to 3 percent. ...
Floggers, whips, canes and cuffs are certainly fun to read about, but how exactly does it all work in the real world? This year marks the third annual BDSM Writers Con in New York City, August 21-24 — an event that connects readers, writers, BDSM lifestyle professionals and curious parties for a weekend of books, demos, workshops and more. If you're a writer in the area looking for a safe, judgement-free space to get expert advice from lifestyle practitioners, or a fan looking to connect with some fantastic BDSM erotica writers, this event is for you. This year the con's keynote speaker is Joey W. Hill. The attending authors list includes several USA Today/NY Times bestselling authors, including Marla Monroe and Kallypso Masters, and some other erotica up-and-comers, including Cris Anson, Miranda Baker, Gray Dixon, Laci Paige and more.
The con is divided into two tracks: "writers" and "everyone." The writers track is pretty self-explanatory and focuses on the craft, while the everyone track is for readers and fans, in addition to writers, and includes live demos and lifestyle workshops.
The BDSM Writers Con is also offering a BDSM book contest in collaboration with Decadent Publishing, The Wild Rose Press and Totally Bound. The top three submissions in each category (Dom women/submissive men, Dom men/submissive women and LGBTQ D/s) will win a book contract with one of the aforementioned publishers. Did we mention you don't need to be at the conference to win? What are you waiting for!? Submission guidelines are on the contest page.
We know, this is a lot to take in at once. And conferences can be daunting to begin with. Throw in all the BDSM aspects and this event could seem downright nervewracking. But if you're a new writer, the conference is offering a free Author Buddy Program, which pairs new writers with veterans who provide one-on-one advice regarding the industry, how to submit a manuscript, query letter writing and more.
The weekend is capped off with a night out at an actual BDSM club on Saturday night, followed by a public book signing on Sunday. ...
He loops the mustard yellow rope into knots, strong fingers pulling it tight around her skin. One hand grips her shoulder, the other drapes the rope around her chest, pulling it into the first of several harnesses for a full-body "takate kote." It's taken him years to master box-tie suspension, and women like Cherise come here to learn, to spend an hour in someone else's control, hanging from ropes as their body drifts into a zen-like state of numbness.
"We never have sex," says DallasKink, a local rope maker and bondage instructor. "People come here in couples or single to explore things they're curious about or to learn how to tie each other up, and I'm happy to teach them."
Cherise is an average working mom with a day job in marketing and what she describes as a "vanilla life." She invited me along to watch her get tied up, to open my eyes to the sensual lifestyles that exist alongside the rest of Dallas. Her name, of course, is not Cherise, just as no one has ever named their child "DallasKink," but anonymity is vital for keeping their daily lives intact.
"America is still very conservative, and a lot of us could lose our jobs if we were publicly interested in these things," she says. "I'm balancing two different lives. Sometimes I think it's shame they have to be disconnected because the bondage community is certainly not as dark as people are led to believe."
Cherise says she also once assumed the community would be filled with Slipknot music, ass-less chaps and giant whips. Certainly Hollywood depicts the world of sexual dominance as savage and dangerous, but Cherise found the Dallas community to be respectful and welcoming of her exhibitionism and rope fantasies. And she found a teacher in DallasKink, who emphasizes safe practices and the importance of trust.
"My first rule is no neck," DallasKink says. "When you're playing with ropes, you never tie anyone up by the neck. That's when things get dangerous."
Such conversations about safety and proper technique became the inspiration for Bondage Expo Dallas, which was created by DallasKink last year. Now an annual event, this weekend-long convention take place April 25-27 at the downtown Crowne Plaza and runs the bondage gamut, teaching beginner techniques to the eager 50 Shades of Grey reader and heightening the practices of the hogtying exhibitionists. Bondage masters from across the globe visit the expo to discuss the distinction between torture and applied pain, or the psychology of predicament bondage, which embarrasses or humiliates its subject to fulfill unrealized desires.
For outsiders, understanding this need for mental fulfillment can be an entry point into an otherwise unfamiliar fetish. For many people in the BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism) community, there is an inextricable link between their childhoods and their desires. This may sound perverse, but research demonstrates that latent desires, thoughts or interests in childhood spur sexual adult behavior. Unsurprisingly, Sigmund Freud gave the first detailed psychological reports of these behaviors, pointing to a child witnessing adults having sex and projecting a scenario of one adult controlling another onto the scene.
"They inevitably regard the sexual act as a sort of ill-treatment or act of subjugation," Freud wrote, in an essay on theories of sexuality. "They view it, that is, in a sadistic sense."
In his studies on the topic, Dr. Charles Moser of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco finds the motivations for kinky behavior to be incredibly diverse. But his findings echo the sentiments of DallasKink, in that while the scenarios lead to intensified sexual fulfillment, they create catharsis rather than orgasm....
Facebook and Twitter are social networking standard names, but maybe you’ve got a bit of an interest in kinky social media — and sites like FetLife are quietly, discreetly growing in prominence amid the more vanilla social networks.
Of kinky social media options, you’ll find enclaves on Tumblr, Reddit, and other sites — but FetLife is an outlier both in its singular devotion to kink and BDSM and its alignment with real life after social media connections are made.
The internet is for porn, or so they say, and FetLife is for BDSM and kink — a realm in which far many more people than you might realize have a casual to intense interest and drive to get involved. Social News Daily has covered the world of quick hookup social — like Tinder, Grindr, and Bang With Friends — but like kink itself, the BDSM social media thing is a bit more intense, complicated … and maybe fun.
Most people dip a toe in the FetLife pool hesitantly, unaware of the copious real-life social opportunities that crop up on the site in most localities. BDSM and kinky social media aren’t nearly the same as their contemporaries like Facebook, but the ability of kinky folk to make connections with like-minded folk is rife and valuable.
The post linked above examines both FetLife and kinky social media, observing of a local event:
“So as someone from outside the lifestyle looking in, I can appreciate that Purgatory does provide a place for people to dip their toe into kink. It’s also a place for FetLife folks to get together offline. I appreciate seeing any kind of community building, especially for people on the fringes. Human sexuality is amazingly diverse. Everyone should be free to explore their sexual self in a safe and non-judgmental space.”
Earlier this year, I wrote two articles about BDSM—bondage, dominance/submission, and sadomasochism. I argued that BDSM, unlike homosexuality, was inherently problematic and wasn’t an orientation. Defenders of BDSM—Dan Savage, Jessica Wakeman, Clarisse Thorn, Jillian Keenan, and dozens of Slate commenters—wrote back, rejecting these arguments. Then, two months ago, Dutch psychologists published a study of kinksters and mental health. I started digging around. There isn’t much quantitative research on this population, but I found a few decent studies that can help us clarify this debate. Is BDSM sick? Let’s look at the evidence.
1. How many people do BDSM? There’s only one good random-sample survey on this question. It was taken in Australia a decade ago. Nearly 20,000 people between the ages of 16 and 59 were interviewed by phone. In the whole sample, 1.8 percent of men and 1.2 percent of women answered yes to the question, “In the last 12 months, have you been involved in B&D or S&M?” (The question went on to explain, “That’s bondage and discipline, sadomasochism, or dominance and submission.”) Among respondents who were sexually active, the BDSM minority barely increased, to 2.0 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women. Among those who had a sexual partner in the previous year, the figure was 2.2 percent of men and 1.3 percent of women.
That’s roughly equivalent to the sexually active gay population, as measured by similar self-reporting. In the Australian survey, the authors reported, “less than 2 per cent of men and women” said they’d “had sex with a same-sex partner in the past year.” The percentage of respondents who said they’d ever had a gay sexual experience (not just in the last year) was higher—six percent of men, nine percent of women—and presumably the same is true of BDSM. In the Dutch study, for instance, 448 respondents accessed and completed a BDSM survey through a Web site devoted to personal secrets. Of these, three percent “indicated having had previous BDSM experience.”
2. Is it an orientation? Previously, I argued that homosexuality is fixed (an orientation) but that BDSM is flexible (a lifestyle). Kinksters replied that BDSM, too, is an orientation. What do the data show? Mostly flexibility. In a study of Finnish BDSM enthusiasts, 27 percent “endorsed a statement suggesting that only sadomasochistic sex could satisfy them,” but only five percent “no longer practiced ordinary sex.” Furthermore, 40 percent had changed their “preference” or “behavior” (in the authors’ words) from sadism to masochism or vice versa. In another study, conducted in southern California, “32% of the sample indicated that BDSM play occurred less than half the time they spent in sexual activity with partners, and just 11.2% indicated that BDSM play was their only form of sexual activity.” The core group, dedicated to BDSM, seems vastly outnumbered by dabblers.
3. Is it physically dangerous? That depends on what you’re doing. In the Finnish study, bondage and flagellation were standard: More than 80 percent of the sample had done them in the preceding 12 months. The riskier stuff was far less common: piercing (done by 21 percent of the sample), skin branding (17 percent), hypoxyphilia (suffocation games, also known as breath play—17 percent), electric shocks (15 percent), and knives or razor blades (13 percent). The California study found a similar pattern: Bondage, flogging, and spanking were standard (more than 80 percent had done them), but other practices—“fire play” (20 percent), “piercing play” (20), cutting (14), branding (9), and scarification (5)—were rarer. Some potentially dangerous activities were surprisingly common—“electric play” (42 percent), “knife scenes” (40), and “breath play” (27)—though in many cases, the implements were probably just props. It looks as though about 20 percent of these folks are actually cutting, burning, zapping, or partially suffocating each other.
That’s a minority, but it’s still worrisome. In the Finnish sample, those who said they’d previously suffered sexual abuse—23 percent of the women, and 8 percent of the men—were particularly problematic. According to the authors, “Visits to a physician because of injuries obtained during sm-sex were significantly more common among the abused respondents (11.1%) than among the non-abused respondents (1.8%).”
BDSM community leaders preach the importance of “safe words”—prearranged signals that the restrained, flogged, or dominated participant can use to withdraw consent and stop the action. In the Finnish study, 90 percent of the sample said they “sometimes” incorporated such words in their encounters. But fewer than half did so “without exception.” That, too, is a problem.
4. Is it mentally unhealthy? For the most part, no. The surveys vary, so let’s take them one by one. The California study, conducted by Pamela Connolly of the California Graduate Institute, found a “significantly higher level of narcissism” in its BDSM sample than in the general population. Connolly esimated that 30 percent of people in the sample were clinically significant on that scale. Theoretically, a high narcissism score implied “little interest in give-and take in social life,” but Connolly cautioned that it could signify “personality strengths as well as personality pathology.” Only two of the 132 participants met the criteria for pathological narcissism, and Connolly noted an “absence of borderline pathology.” ...
“Poly-Cocktails,” I learned last week, doesn’t refer to tropical drinks or even complicated ones. Rather, it’s the name of a Lower East Side party for people who are done with monogamy.
This revelation, care of a Rolling Stone article that’s been making the rounds, is mustered as evidence that Millennials think differently about sex and marriage than past generations. To the point where, gosh, well-dressed, educated young men and women are having open relationships.
The article practically gushes about its subjects: “Leah and Ryan, 32 and 38, respectively, don’t fit … preconceived ideas [about open relationships]. They’re both young professional types. She wears pretty skirts; he wears jeans and trendy glasses. They have a large, downtown apartment with a sweeping view.”
Wow, even people with money want to have sex with people who aren’t their significant others?
The author goes to great lengths to suggest that this is not your parents’ (or grandparents’) open relationship. Move over, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Forget about the key-swapping parties in “The Ice Storm.” This is the New Monogamy, “a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one longstanding relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the longstanding relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time.” How mature.
Note to Rolling Stone editors: Plenty of married couples acknowledge this. But they also acknowledge that having their “needs met” may not be the only or the most important reason to get married and stay married.
“There will always be an avant-garde,” says William Tucker, author of the new book, “Marriage and Civilization.” Yet the statistics (largely absent from the Rolling Stone piece — why let facts get in the way?) suggest that middle- and upper-class Americans (those most likely to make up that avant-garde) are actually the most likely to marry.
Which is not to say that nothing’s changed. The average age of marriage has skyrocketed over the past half-century, which has meant several changes for Millennial relationships.
First, when people do get married today, they’ve typically been living on their own for more than a decade and are less likely to take advice from their families than, say, someone marrying at 21. Second, they’re more likely to have sampled the other options and have a longer list of things they’re looking for in a mate.
One’s 20s have long been a period of experimentation, Tucker notes. And, thanks to the pill, it can be experimentation without major life consequences — i.e., a baby.
Indeed, when the pill was first introduced, he reports, people talked of birth control as something that “would allow men and women to do a better job of finding the right person — people wouldn’t be forced into marriage before they’re ready.”
Yet there’s little evidence that the pill has vastly improved our choice of marriage partners. The divorce rate certainly hasn’t dropped.
In other words, the New Monogamy, which is really one long not-completely-faithful relationship after another, isn’t improving the prospects for what most young adults still say they want — a happy and faithful marriage. ...
A few weeks ago, Lady Elizabeth had her pain slave over for coffee and a “medical scene.” He had brought his camera with him, and, lying supine on the operating table, he managed to snap a few pictures of her as she performed urethral insertions on him with a long, silver needle. “He gets points for having steady hands,” she told me. No nurse get-up was donned that day, and she had foregone her standard head-to-toe latex: the dominatrix who appeared in the photographs wore jeans, a tank top, and something like a snarl twisted across her doll-like features. “Wow, I’m a really nice person when I’m not hurting you,- but gosh” she said, flipping through the photos later. Ever attentive, her slave was quick to reply. “Well, you’re a really nice person while you’re hurting me, too! It’s okay!”
When I ask her to describe the woman in the image, the question extends between us like a tightrope -— smooth, slippery, and a little slack. “Diabolical,” “scary,” and “perverted” are all words that skim past as we fumble. As Elizabeth settles on “real,” there is something of the teetering quality of a funambulist in the way she plucks the word from the ether. The term is unsatisfying to both of us. I am not yet sure what the “reality” of the professional dominatrix looks like to her — I cannot tell you exactly what she saw in the image — but this sense of verbal instability, she tells me, is part of her job description. As a professional dominatrix, Lady Elizabeth lives in constant suspension between planes of communicable wants and the dark, moving shapes of the physical realm. Her purpose: to bind together the known and the unspeakable, coagulating desire into its most powerful corporeal embodiment.
If the dominatrix’s profession is based in part in physicalizing the abstract through language, Lady Elizabeth is particularly well-equipped for the challenge. In addition to her job as a dominatrix, she holds a PhD from an Ivy League university and has written a dissertation on gender, language and meta-communication in S&M communities. As one immersed in both the study and practice of her field, Lady Elizabeth’s position as a BDSM practitioner is twofold—she is immersed in the reflexive academic project of talking about language, and, as a practicing domme, traffics in modes of communication that can only be experienced through nonverbal means.
It is fitting, in this sense, that I first encounter Lady Elizabeth through her website, where the seduction of image tugs against her purported affinity to word. Flipping through her photo gallery, readers need not be able to articulate their fantasy so much as point to the visual aid that renders it in dazzling Technicolor: Lady Elizabeth in a hula skirt, coconuts in hand; Lady Elizabeth in white riding pants and a riding crop; Lady Elizabeth in a cowboy hat and jeans, brandishing a bullwhip. Lady Elizabeth in a floor-length black latex tube dress, red hair swept over one shoulder, testing a plaited leather cane in her tightly clenched fist.
I discover the site on a Monday. By Tuesday, I’m an addict. Lady Elizabeth’s webpage is only one of many within a labyrinthine online kink community, home to The Pervocracy, Fetlife (Facebook for fetishists!), and CollarMe, a dating site for locating “like-minded kinksters in your area.” These woods are dark and deep — like many other pro-dommes, Lady Elizabeth has a Jessica Rabbit physique, the vinegared gaze of a video-game villain, and a lengthy list of talents including remote-control TENS unit capabilities and a specialty in nanny/teacher play. However, it has not escaped me that her namesake, Lady Elizabeth Foster, duchess of Cavendish, was a novelist from the early 1800s who was famous for her ménage a trois with the Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Georgiana Cavendish. Lady Elizabeth Foster is famous for her dalliances in French intellectual circles, her riotous parties, and her slew of illegitimate children. In her letters to Georgiana, Lady Foster refers to the Duke by their pet name for him, “canis.” We need not have been there to hear the two of them whisper it in his ear — this kink (their kink) takes place on the page.
A “safe word” is a previously agreed -upon code word which, when spoken, halts uncomfortable physical action during a bondage scene. To me, the phrase seems somewhat redundant. As a student of literature, I have always thought of words as “safe,” and the project of learning to wield and manipulate them as means of self-armament. Confronted with the sharp-edged patent leather ambiguities of the domme world, however, I find myself on unsteady ground. With its plethora of double (sometimes triple) entendres and unending scroll-down menus for preferred role options (on Fetlife, you can choose among “ageplayer,” “babygirl,” “bottom,” and “top,” along with 39 other self-identifications), this language is not English as I have encountered it in my academic life or elsewhere. I am not only BDSM illiterate, but unversed in the principles of articulating desire through these words — be they safe, dangerous, or otherwise.
The voyeuristic pleasures of my one-way mirror vantage into domme world soon become impossible to sustain. On Fetlife, users who only look at others’ accounts but do not engage with them are quickly dubbed creeps; a few weeks into my idle membership, the site’s webmasters send me an email which includes the phrase, ‘FetLife is not a meat market.’ With this, my road out of the virtual realm and into Lady Elizabeth’s dungeon is swift, though paved with stuttering. When I first call her, Lady E’s voice has all the lilts and cadences of a slightly huskier-toned (albeit phone-sex-proficient) Terry Gross, and, though I am the one doing the interviewing, I can’t shake the tics of a first-time guest on “Fresh Air”. Mumbling. Silence. The sense of being stuck in a role play scenario that’s struggling to get off the ground. On the day of our meeting, typos riddle my confirmation texts, to her glib reply: “great, will be here playing secretary (as in emails, not the hot film)”. ...