A fairytale world where people are nice on the internet?

So you know how the last post was about how the kink community is actually kinda awesome? Well it still is. But it sure as hell ain’t perfect.

I am on FetLife, ‘the Facebook for kinksters’. If you don’t know it, it’s exactly what the tagline says, a social networking site for kinky people. It’s pretty cool, and if you’re at all curious about the community, I would really recommend checking it out. It is definitely not a dating website. You can’t search for matches like you would on a site where the aim is to find people to hook up with. Rather it’s for keeping track of your kinky friends in a way that’s separate from the rest of your life. (And for finding local events. Seriously, the events thing is awesome.)

I am stressing this point to give an idea of how not okay what just happened to me is. You can send messages on FetLife, and it’s usually a good idea to message someone before adding them as a friend, mainly because, unlike Facebook, it’s a site where most people use online pseudonyms. This is pretty obvious, since people upload some very intimate material, which they might want to be discreet about in their everyday vanilla lives. Some people use this online name on the scene, but others use their ‘real’ name when you meet them in person. As such, it’s sometimes really difficult to remember who is who at first, so a quick message saying ‘Hi, it was lovely to meet you last night, hope to see you soon – Phoebe’ goes along way when you get a friend request from mystic_domme777. (I just made that username up, but I swear, it probably exists.)

At the moment, since I’m relatively new to all of this, I’m only adding people I have actually met face to face, or have been introduced to through a mutual friend and had interesting conversations with. Lots of people on FetLife have this rule, it’s a common line on profiles. It is listed on mine.

Here is the following message conversation I had with a certain anonymous FetLifer. My analysis is in italics.

Him: How exactly does one make amazing coffee? [This refers to a line on my profile when I say I’m good at making coffee. It proves he read it. Good for him! On OkCupid, that might be a good opener, but this is not a dating website. It also means he read the bit about me not friending strangers.]

Me: Strong. Also, do I know you? I’m not sure I remember your name from last night. [At this stage, I have checked his profile, seen he’s from the same area as me, and assumed I met him at the munch. Like I said, it’s hard to remember usernames. I was also (I thought) making it clear that I like to know people before I add them, and subtly giving him the chance to acknowledge that and offer a reason why I should make an exception for him.]

Him: Probably not, I’m not in [certain place] at the moment. =) I’m Ceyx. Let’s Skype and explore you a bit more. [Okay, so his name wasn’t actually Ceyx, but that’s less random than his actual username, and also classical! More seriously, note how he deliberately ignores my not-so-subtle hint that I don’t talk to people I don’t know personally. Complete lack of interest. He’s also immediately gone from sending harmless messages to wanting to Skype. Skype means talking by phone, probably video-chatting. I definitely do not do that with people I don’t know well. I certainly wouldn’t do it with someone I’d messaged once on a website. Am I overthinking things to sense sexual undertones? We are on a kink site after all. The jump between Skyping and webcam sex isn’t that huge. The word ‘explore’ makes me feel kinda uncomfortable – I often find it creepy when people say that to me in real life, let alone in a message. From a guy who’s just admitted he’s never met me. Right.]

Me: Um, no thank you. I don’t really talk to people I don’t know in real life, and I get kinda freaked out when people message me for no reason. Sorry. [I debated long and hard about the ‘sorry’. In the end I decided that the message sounded too cold and harsh otherwise. After all, maybe he was just trying to be friendly? At any rate, I wanted to reiterate how I felt, and make it clear I wouldn’t be talking to him on Skype anytime soon.]

Him: Wow. Ok. Enjoy your exploring curiosity goals of 2013.

If I’d been concerned about pre-judging him, the last message removes all doubt. The ‘Wow. Ok’ suggests there is something completely shocking and unexpected about my response, despite the fact that this information was on my profile, and implied again with the first message I sent him. It also makes it look as though this is an entirely unreasonable policy to have, despite the fact that at least half the people I know on FetLife do the same. The second bit is just downright bitchy sarcasm. Had I mentioned anywhere about wanting to explore curiosity goals? No. And even if I had, it would be perfectly within my rights not to want to explore them with him, someone who’d violated my stated boundaries pretty obviously. The snide undertone there is that I’m boring, no fun, maybe even a hypocrite for replying as I did.

Any of this sound familiar, all you non-kinky feminists? This is standard rape culture (no, I’m not for a moment equating this with rape, read the rest of the sentence), where a man feel entitled to a woman’s time and attention, for whatever reason. It is online cat-calling. It’s getting angry when the girl you cat-call ignores you, and shouting after her that she’s a stuck-up bitch for refusing to respond. (Yes, this has happened to me. Several times.) It’s implying that, by being in a certain place or dressing in a certain way or saying certain things, a woman somehow owes you something. And yes, it’s on a kink site, where the atmosphere is generally more sexual, but you know how that atmosphere is maintained safely? Through the respect of limits and boundaries and clear communication.

This is exactly what the kink community would like to believe never happens. It does. I admit that this is a tiny, harmless example, but it stung enough for me to be writing a pissed off blog post about it hours later. This stuff hurts. It erodes confidence and embitters attitudes and generally spoils it for everyone.

The scene may be awesome, but it isn’t perfect. It has all the same bullshit as the real world. I am disappointed, but not surprised.

But EVERYONE loves a neck massage

I hate having my shoulders touched.

I used to joke that I’d let someone fuck me long before I let them close to giving me a massage, but the truth is, as is so often the case, I was ‘joking’ as a way to communicate how I actually felt. I come from a family of people with back problems, who live with constant pain in their neck and shoulders. I was sixteen before I realised that daily tension headaches weren’t something everyone suffered from (and I mean the kind of tension headaches where taking painkillers and sitting completely still doesn’t even take the edge off). I used to rock-climb, and if I pulled a neck muscle, it would be a week of agonising pain every time I tried to get dressed or moved my head too much. My friends would tease me and say that I went around with my shoulders glued to my ears. It took two years of Alexander Technique to get them down to ordinary levels of ‘tense’.

What this means is that when inexperienced masseurs grab me by the shoulders, I am likely to scream. I’ve got a lot better since adolescence, and the headaches I get are less frequent and less painful, but it’s still something I’m very aware of. The trouble is that amateur massages are often a common part of foreplay, even flirtation. I’ve lost count of the times where a new partner has tenderly put their hands on my shoulders, or asked me to roll over for a back massage, and I have sat bolt upright, tension flooding every part of my body. Occasionally, if I’m with a partner I absolutely trust with all my heart and soul, I’ll allow them to touch me if they promise to be really really gentle. Sometimes it’s nice, though usually by that point I’m so nervous that it’s very difficult to relax enough that I don’t flinch by reflex. On the whole, it’s not worth it.

(I should maybe add that my wonderful housemate Pyrrha has qualified as a professional masseuse. She used me as her ‘body’ for her assessment, which she said was really helpful as part of being a massage therapist is being able to adapt the pressure depending on what the person wants. She is allowed to give me massages. Sometimes.)

I bring this up on my shiny sex positive blog because I have to explain myself. A lot. My partners generally get very confused by this, especially because I talk about kink so much, and the kind of pain I’m into. I enjoy being whipped with a belt, but I can’t handle a light massage? It doesn’t make any sense to them. (Nor, indeed, does the fact that I hate having my hair pulled. I used to say that was a hard limit, whereas bloody scratches and purple bruises are welcome. I have recently discovered that I actually love my partner pulling my hair, or rather I hate it, and I love hating it in such a way that it’s really damn hot. But only with one particular person, and only in certain situations, and never ever without prior discussion. It’s confusing.)

I was at a munch recently (a.k.a. kink meeting, though I kinda prefer that term since it makes us sound like a secret society), and one of the women there asked if she could stroke my hair. I love having my hair stroked, but I tensed up automatically, and stuttered ‘Yes, but I really don’t like people touching my shoulders, because I have issues with muscle tension and it really really hurts even if it’s very gentle and I know that sounds weird, especially when we’ve been discussing hardcore masochism, but please please don’t?’.

Or at least, I started saying all that. What I actually said was ‘Yes, but I really don’t like people touching my shoulders because-‘, and then she cut me off with ‘That’s cool, I won’t do that’. And she didn’t. And then she stroked my hair in an entirely non-sexual way, and I felt calmer.

If you read anything about the BDSM community, you’ll quickly come across discussions about communication, and the importance of establishing clear limits. And in some ways the scene totally mirrors real life. In general, nobody is going to beat you senseless unless you discuss it first. (That’s a really great distinction if you’re at all confused by the difference between BDSM and abuse, by the way.) But something as mundane and ‘vanilla’ as a light massage, well, that’s something that people in ‘real life’ often don’t feel the need to ask about.

And do not even get me started on tickling. Attempt to tickle me, and I will kick and scream and try to claw your eyes out. Seriously. I hate it. Not love to hate it, just hate it. I have always hated it, and I have always had an impossible time trying to convince partners how much I hate it. Funnily enough, I’ve read at least three other S&M bloggers who say the exact same thing, and have talked about how they’ve had to use a safeword to stop tickling. People just do not take me seriously when I say this, at least not the utterly vanilla ones. Those that are into kink, even if it’s in a purely theoretical way, tend to get it. Limits are limits, whether it’s scratch me but don’t break the skin, or touch me but no penetration, or whip me with a riding crop but don’t you dare under any circumstances touch my shoulders.

I’m still finding my feet with the kink community, and I’ve got a lot to think about. But I like not having to explain myself. And I like having my hair stroked.

Julie Burchill does not speak for me

The latest shit storm to hit the UK progressive blogosphere is an ‘article’ (diatribe) in the Observer by Julie Burchill, about how ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’. It was the sort of transphobic hate-speech you’d use as as a theoretical example to demonstrate what transphobic hate-speech looked like. It was finally taken down, but I think republished on the Telegraph website because of ‘free speech’ issues. (Sidenote: one of these days I am going to spend some time and energy working out a way to explain that free speech =/= right to a privileged high-profile platform. I have free speech. I post stuff on my blog. Doesn’t mean I feel I have the right to be printed in national newspapers. Though if anyone would like to, that’d be awesome?) I’m not going to link to it, but it’s pretty easy to google, and there’s a very well-written letter to the Observer here, and a good summary plus some further reading material here at The F Word. I would strongly advise reading all of it.

ETA: Jezebel has done a round-up that is also brilliant, complete with appropriate gifs. Feel free to share more links in the comments, if you find something else worth reading.

So what do I have to add? Well, very little. I’m a privileged cisgendered white girl, and I know it. I don’t really blog about my gender identity. Or rather, I do. I take it as a given. I try to use non-gendered language when I can, and usually I’m writing about very specific personal experience, so it’s less relevant, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always do a great job of it. I  don’t talk about non-binary gender issues because the simple fact is I don’t feel qualified, and I would much rather anyone reading this went off and read some amazing trans* and genderqueer blogs instead of my clumsy summaries. I have gay and lesbian friends. I have trans* friends. I have genderqueer friends, and friends whose gender identities do not fit neatly into any particular label. This does not make me qualified to talk about gender issues, and though I like to think of myself as an ally (don’t we all), I know that there are gaping holes in my knowledge, that I am going to slip up sometimes, and that it is not my place to discuss it.

And yet, even with all of that, here’s what I’m going to say about Julie Burchill’s piece. It is hate speech, pure and simple. I am heartened by the fact that so many people outside of the LGBT+ community have acknowledged that it is hate speech, and that it eventually got taken down. It is full of disgusting, vitriolic, downright violent sentiment, and it got the response it deserved.

But I don’t doubt for a moment that Julie Burchill genuinely believes it. And the thing is, if you read it closely (which I don’t advise if you’re having a bad day), you see that she’s not really talking about trans* people at all. She’s talking about men. Men in dresses, men who want to ‘cut their dicks off’ (that’s a direct paraphrase of a tweet by Suzanne Moore), men who are pretending to be women in order to enter her feminist space.

In her mind, a trans woman is a man. And that makes everything she says from that point onwards impossible to argue with, because that basic premise is so entirely detached from reality there’s no way to persuade her. She is wrong. She is so appallingly, horrifyingly, dangerously wrong. But she is wrong in such a way that I don’t think there’s any space for dialogue here. It’s like those people who argue that black people are just biologically less intelligent than white people, or that the Holocaust never happened (oh look, I just broke Godwin’s Law, deal with it). The point is, when someone is starting from a point of view that just doesn’t make any sense, anything that comes after that is… irrelevant.

That’s not to say I think we should be ignoring it. It is hate speech, it should not have been published, and she deserves to be vilified for what she wrote. Maybe the strong wave of anti-transphobic sentiment is a good thing, long-term? I don’t know, nor do I feel it’s my place to offer an opinion. But Julie Burchill will not change her mind, just like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel will never change their minds. To them, trans women are just men who want to invade their special exclusive feminism, and I can’t see them ever going back on that.

That is not any kind of feminism I want to be part of. And while I try very hard to stay away from defining what feminism is or isn’t for other people, in my mind, that’s not really feminism at all? Burchill has yet to learn both that trans women are women, and that feminism isn’t just about women anyway – it’s about groups that lack privilege, whether due to gender identity, sexuality, race, class, disability, or anything else.

The one thing her original article has done is get feminists and progressives from all over to state loudly and publicly that this woman does not speak for us. She certainly does not speak for me. And I think that’s important. I just wish we didn’t need to say it in the first place.

It’s the place where who you are meets who you haven’t been yet

The title of this post comes from a song by the wonderful Seanan McGuire, and I quote:

It’s a little slice of chaos, it’s a starlight carnival.
It’s the place where heroes fear to tread, but angels come to fall.
Ask the barmaid where she’s from, she’ll say she doesn’t recall.
You may think this is heaven but it’s not that at all,
So why not look around you and see?
Won’t you take advantage of me?

This, to me, has to be a song about fetish clubs. I’ve held off writing about fetish clubs so far because the more I think about it, the more I realise how little I know. I’ve been to a few, but they vary so much and who you go with makes such a difference that it’s really hard to say anything that is both general and useful. Plus I feel totally out of my depth in places like that. In a perverse kinda way, they make me feel less kinky.

That might sound like it makes no sense, but if you think about it, it’s obvious. I lead a standard geeky student-y life, surrounded by standard geeky students. Pretty much all my friends know that I’m into kink, and that I’m the one to go to with any kind of ‘alternative sexuality’ question. When I talk about the bondage I’ve done, or try to explain the sort of submission I’m into, or reveal the rope burns and scratch marks I’ve incurred, they look at me with wide-eyed amazement. These are my close friends, and they are accepting and non-judgemental, and they know me. But as far as they’re concerned, my kinks pretty damn extreme.

And then I go somewhere like Club Antichrist (which is probably mild, by scene standards). I dress up in a corset and collar, clothes that would shock even at a costume night, and tell myself that these are my chances to really let my hair down (in the hope that someone might pull it) and embrace my kinkier side. Yet as soon as I step through the doors, I revert to my nervous, self-conscious  teenaged self. I watch people taking spankings and whippings that I know I couldn’t handle. Nowhere even close. I see collared slaves kneeling at their Master or Mistress’s feet, and know that I don’t want that kind of public submission. Strangers approach me and casually ask if I’d like play, and I back away, confused and conflicted but certain that I don’t trust a stranger to hurt me.

None of these are bad things, I should add. In fact, I kinda envy the people in the community who are into that level, because in some ways it turns me on and makes me wish I was less anxious. Less vanilla. Someone jokingly called me a ‘tourist’ last time I was there, and that stung, because the last thing I want is to be is a little girl playing dress-up. Which is kinda how I feel, especially when I see the elaborate outfits other people wear. I also know that my limits are my limits, and I shouldn’t feel pressured into anything I don’t want, just because I want to be accepted. Playing with a stranger is very different to playing with a partner. I’ve taken public spankings from people I don’t know, and it does very little for me, except to make me feel vaguely unsettled afterwards. I’ve also taken much, much worse from a close partner, and come so hard it took me days to recover. Some people get off on the act itself, not on the situation. Some people get off more with a stranger. I’m not one of them. And that’s okay.

But I still feel confused and out of my depth and a little like an impostor when I stand in the dungeon and watch women (and it is always women) being handcuffed to a cross and lashed with a cane. The corset and collar feel like a disguise, and not even a good one at that, compared to the fishnet body-stockings and latex dresses. I don’t even have any tattoos or body piercings, for goodness sake!

Something else that unsettles me is the gender dynamic. The fetish scene is meant to be embracing of all genders and sexualities, and for the most part it is. But I can count on one hand the number of men I saw submitting to women, in a sea of leather-clad male doms punishing corseted female submissives. (It’s difficult to tell about the ratios for people of other genders, as I’m mainly going on markedly male or female clothing.) One guy I spoke to about this said he’s a switch, but it’s almost impossible for men to find female dommes who will play with them at places like that, whereas female submissives are easy to find. Maybe that’s true, and I could also understand how it might be harder for male submissives to be open about their preferences than male dominants or female submissives. Cultural expectations and social conditioning and all that. But personally, even though I am a sub, I get slightly freaked out by men I don’t know coming up to me and asking if I want to be whipped by them, before even asking my name, just assuming that’s the sort of thing I’m into. I mean, yes I’m 5’4 with long hair and stockings, but does that has to mean I’m submissive? Do you not get dommes who don’t wear stiletto heels and leather?

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’m doing a lot of thinking about kink and the scene and where I fit into it all. I still feel kinky. I still identify as kinky. My sweet vanilla friends still think I’m the kinkiest person they know. But I’m not quite sure how the rest of the scene would see me – cautious new blood or vanilla tourist? I get overwhelmed at fetish clubs – the lights and the music and the smoke and the costumes (oh god the costumes) and the sound of whips and the smell of sex. It’s intoxicating. It’s very difficult for me to think clearly in that kind of environment, so the thinking has to come after. How kinky am I? What do I want? And who do I trust to help me explore my limits safely, to push me just slightly beyond what I’m comfortable with without going too far?

It’s a kind of happy ending; it’s the midway of the moon,
It’s where broken stories gather in our shadow-play saloon.
And it’s burning where she kissed you, but the scars will heal soon,
You can’t reach ‘ever after’ if you don’t know the tune.
Now, can you pay the ferryman’s fee?
Won’t you take advantage of me?

In Seanan McGuire’s song, it’s all very glamorous and dangerous with the tantalising promise of your deepest darkest fantasies coming true. I’m not sure how I feel about that. But I don’t think I’m ready to be taken advantage of just yet.