Note: If you have been reading this blog to your small child before bed, you might want to skip this post.
Recently I’ve been enjoying a column about bondage and discipline (otherwise known as BDSM, which stands for some slightly convoluted and contested mash-up of bondage and discipline, dominant and submissive, and sadism and masochism), written by a dominatrix called Mistress Matisse. I found the column through the website of my personal guru, Dan Savage.
I have always enjoyed reading about sexuality, and it has often dawned on me (usually because my friends tend to point it out) that this interest seems incongruous with other parts of my life.
This is what they’re getting at: I am the kind of person whose frequency of having sex correlates directly to me dating or being in a relationship with somebody. And I often go years without dating or being in a relationship. You can finish the syllogism yourself.
So why do I like reading about sexuality so much, when so often the information is not immediately applicable to my life? It’s not because it’s arousing—a lot of writing about sex is strikingly un-sexy, involving a lot of technical details, tips about technique, philosophical discussions of various kinks that the reader may find distinctly not to his or her taste.
The thing I enjoy about sex writing is that it deals with the philosophy of how our bodies interact with our psyches. Sexuality is like food or illness or disability or athletics. It’s difficult to integrate the biological realities of our body with our sense of ourselves as social and intellectual beings.
This conflict between physical and social self is one of my favorite subjects to think about, and sexuality is one of the most entertaining venues through which to consider it. A lot of what is written about sexuality applies to how we understand our own identities. For example, in his advice column, Dan Savage responds to a reader who describes himself as “slightly homophobic,” and who was therefore horrified to have engaged in sexual acts with a male friend during an ecstasy-fueled party that turned into an orgy. Dan Savage responds:
“Studies have shown that homophobia, slight or otherwise, correlates neatly with homosexual urges. Why? Because a guy who has 98.2% hetero desires and just 1.8% heterosexual will, to protect himself from his homosexual urges, cultivate a slight case of homophobia. This slight case of homophobia serves to reassure the 98.2% straight guy that he’s really 100% straight.”
This response, while well-phrased, is common wisdom, but in combination with the question that elicited it, it’s fascinating. The reader is distraught because he committed a number of sexual acts that didn’t fit with his sense of self. Instead of viewing the situation factually—I had a sexual experience with a man; therefore, it seems that, occasionally and under very specialized circumstances, I am attracted to men—his response is mortification, thinking that he has gone crazy and made a horrible mistake.
Savage’s response begs the question: why would somebody who is 98.2% straight need to convince himself that he is 100% straight? I think, among other reasons (like living in a homophobic society), that this points to fear about fluidity of our identities. We spend a lot of time and energy constructing consistent personae, and we often stake quite a bit on those personae: our relationships, our friendships, our jobs, our status. If a straight man is a little bit gay, or a masculine man is a little bit womanly, he feels his sense of who he is, what he likes, what he represents is threatened.
Even if we don’t live in terror of having our sexual or gender identities disturbed, we are scared of losing our identities in other way, often for good reason. A momentary lapse of identity could cost us our jobs—for example, if we decide to forget our identity as employee and scream at our boss. For some people, it could cost us our lives, such as if an otherwise brave and resourceful soldier has a lapse in those qualities.
At the same time, Savage’s response also alludes to how limiting it is to not have any flexibility in one’s identity. Having a rigid identity means that we cannot be empathetic, because we cannot find some part of ourselves that is different from our overriding identities. If I cannot accept the possibility that I have parts of myself that are gay or straight or male or female, how can I understand those who are gay or straight or male or female? How can I understand those who do not fit into these categories so neatly?
I have particularly enjoyed reading Mistress Matisse’s column because of the connection it draws to life beyond the bedroom, the dungeon, or the Folsom Street Fair. And not just because of the ways that we are dominant or submissive in our regular lives, which is a common explanation of how BDSM connects to non-erotic life. What I like about her column, and about much writing about BDSM is that it focuses so explicitly on the physical realities of sexuality, and, by extension, the physical realities of having a body and being human.
Most people presumably have sex assuming or hoping that it will be exciting—i.e. sexy—but BDSM practitioners work actively at creating that excitement. People who are into BDSM have to plan their erotic encounters carefully. They have to buy special equipment and learn techniques for causing intense sensations (a.k.a. pain).
This leads them to think a lot about how bodies work. For example, Mistress Matisse wrote the following (in her personal blog, not her column) about her first time inserting her fist into a man’s rectum:
“It’s tremendously intimate, too. I could feel his heart beating. It’s sort of amazing to feel that and think, Well, yeah - your hand isn’t that far away from it!”
In this situation, Matisse isn’t just having a sexual encounter, but learning more about the capacities of our bodies, and how our bodies and psyches react to extreme circumstances. I don’t foresee a situation in which I will need much of the practical information in this blog post, and yet I learned a lot from it, not the least of which was what it feels like to have your hand fully inside of another person’s body—and isn’t that something worth learning about?