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Goddess knows, I am no expert at the shitty art of breaking up with people; far from it. But I have a lot of confidence in my own good advice about breaking up that I’m just not amazing at following. Since my social network seems to be brimming these days with recent broken hearts and I’ve been feeling a bit down myself, I figured now was as good a time as any to write a post I’ve been meaning to write for years.
It’s easy and understandable to agonize over the decision to end a relationship, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty convinced that young or old, poly or mono, gay or straight, kinky or vanilla, it mostly just comes down to your answer to three basic questions.
1. Do I like who I am when I’m with this person?
You can rationalize all day about whether you like the person, make excuses for them, and tell yourself that they’re just mentally ill, etc. etc. etc. But take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself: does this person and my relationship with them make me a better or worse person? Perhaps the answer is “neutral,” in which case, continue on to the next questions. However, generally speaking, unhealthy relationships turn us into the worst versions of ourselves, while good relationships help us manifest the best parts of ourselves.
2. How long has it been since I felt happy/satisfied/fulfilled with this person? How long am I willing to wait to feel that way again?
The most damning answer to this question is, of course, “I have never felt happy with them.” But more commonly, people had a glowing period of New Relationship Energy (NRE) in which to enjoy their relationship, and then settled into something decidedly less glowy that they stayed in hoping to return to their former glory days. Or maybe things were good for a very long time until Something Happened (a child was born, a parent died), and the relationship has just never been the same since. At that point, you kind of have to set a timer for yourself, and try to force yourself to keep to it: “I’ll give this six more months to get a lot better, but then it’s time to go” or “I’ll give this a couple more years with some couples counseling before I throw in the towel.”
It’s also important to distinguish where you are on the scale of dis/satisfaction, which spans from “glowing” (spoiler alert: that’s not usually something that lasts very long for anyone) to “happy” to “fine” to “boring” to “miserable” to “abusive.” If you demand “glowing” all the time, you will never keep a relationship for long; for some situations, “boring” might be good enough, but for most situations, “miserable” and “abusive” probably aren’t. Ironically, mediocre relationships are often harder to leave than “miserable” ones (though usually not harder than “abusive” ones), just because your motivation to get out is lower, and you feel guiltier about leaving.
The calculations for how long to wait here are the result of some complex multiplication involving life entanglements (houses owned, children raised), time together spent in joy, and time together spent in misery vs meh. Be brutally self-aware of your math, plotting out the time you spent together happy (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in misery (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in “meh” (you get the picture). The most common trajectory I see is people who were happy together for six months who then manage to eke out the next year-and-a-half before finally giving up. 2-3 years is pretty much the well-researched cutoff line for classically defined NRE style affection, so the timeline there is fairly predictable.
3. Would I be happier “alone”?
I’ve put “alone” in quotation marks here because frequently poly people aren’t making a choice to be alone or not, but rather “just” with their other partners vs additionally with this partner. Regardless, the very human temptation here is to ask yourself, “could I get a better relationship than this one?” You’ll never know whether you’ll find another partner, and you may be seeing Potential Competing New Partner over there with the beer goggley gaze of NRE. New Partner looks to be filled with the promise of joy, while Old Partner looks like work. But it’s very hard to know the future of your relationship with someone you haven’t been in one (for long) yet with. one thing you should be able to hopefully calculate with realism is how you’d feel without this person.
Conversely, So. Many. People. Stay. In terrible relationships because they’re convinced that they’ll never find a better partner than this one. But it’s not about finding a better partner or not: it’s about the relative soul rot of being in a crappy relationship vs being without it. Only you can know how unhappy the relationship is making you compared with how unhappy you’d be without it.
There are lots of other considerations that influence whether you should stay or go. These include everything from “we have kids” (which I did mention in the time math) to “my primary loathes this person.” Those factors may all turn out to be much more important for you than any of the ones I have listed here, which are targeted more purely at the relationship in and of itself. If you end up basing your calculations on something other than your own happiness, it’s still at least worthwhile to do so consciously. This can, for example, help you avoid one of the classically stupid poly situations that often arises of “my primary loathes X […because X is actually terrible for me…], but I’m mad at my primary for hating X.” You can get out of that situation by realizing your own damned self that X is terrible for you, irrespective of your partner’s feelings about them. Lots of poly people think they have “jealous partners” when what they actually have are partners who are sick of them dating terrible people. Meanwhile, if you’re basing your decision to stay together on something like supporting your children, for goddess’ sake, try to be good parents together. Whatever devil you choose, do it with your eyes wide open.
I’m going to close this post with some Valentines for my exes. I strongly suspect that some of these emotions will resonate with others, and if they feel painfully familiar to you, maybe that should inform your choices…
It’s amazing how little someone can leave behind when they never intended to stay.
I wish that I could have reflected your best vision of the person you wanted me to be, instead of reflecting your anxieties about the people you were afraid I was.
I worry that the mere fact of loving you made me complicit in the awful things you did to other people.
At least once a week, for years, I still fantasized about having sex with you. I only stopped after you broke my heart again into even smaller pieces of exactly the same shape.
I was always more in love with your kinks than with you.
I wish that our beautiful friendship could have better withstood me falling in love with you.
I don’t get a magical denouement where I get to make everything better. I just have a hole in my life to remind me of the way I failed.
The first time I said I loved you was the last time I ever saw you, and despite the passage of years, I still can’t decide which part of that I regret.
I almost left the scene because I couldn’t tolerate being in it without you.
If I had a chance to be with you again, I would love to be someone I never got to be on the first try: myself.
Him: You’re going to get tired of making me ask permission to drink water. You don’t know how much I drink.
Me: Oh, trust me, I know. And I’m not going to get tired of it.
I have a confession to make: I find most 24/7 d/s relationships to be really boring. When I ask people what they do in them, they mostly tell me things like, “I take care of her,” “I get water for her,” and “Everything I do is for her.” When I ask them if they get anything sexual out of doing things for their partners, most of them say “no.” I don’t fucking get it.
But it’s not that I’m not into 24/7 d/s dynamics—I totally am. I just like the really fucked up shit, and it’s mostly sexual for me. I’d cheerfully keep a sub locked up and chained to a piece of furniture for… well, as long as I guess I reasonably could. I literally jerk off thinking about my sub asking permission to use the bathroom and telling them “no.” My ideal version of a sub is basically a sex toy who does whatever the fuck I want them to for my entertainment and pleasure. Their humanity is only really meaningful to me in this arrangement in as much as I find consent (as well as the blurry world of consensual non-consent) hot. (Despite appearances, I’m not actually much of a sadist, and a lot of the awful things I love to do I don’t even find hot—I just find it hot that someone will let me do them).
I generally divide up these two worlds of d/s into “affirmative d/s” and “the dark side of d/s.” In affirmative d/s dynamics, the idea is basically that the sub has been uplifted by being owned by the dominant; doms do things like tell their subs that the subs aren’t allowed to refer to themselves as “fat” or suggest that they’re in any way unworthy. There’s kind of a glowy look that subs in these dynamics get. Dark d/s subs, on the other hand, have generally been consensually downgraded through their submission. They and their dominants are happiest in the places where the sub’s humanity seems questionable, and you get comments like a friend of mine’s in reference to his sub that “sometimes she forgets and thinks she’s people.”
It shouldn’t escape any observant kinksters’ notice that the vast majority of long-term d/s relationships, whether primary or even fairly serious non-primary relationships, are affirmative d/s dynamics. People in those dynamics sometimes play in the territory of humiliation and degradation, but it’s not the core of the d/s arrangement. It turns out that it’s really hard to have a spouse who you treat as degraded property all the time (more plausible to do it on weekend retreats or just when you close the bedroom door, but still tricky).
Dark 24/7 d/s dynamics, which in their most extreme versions are just immersing yourself in a fucked up kinky fantasy life, are relatively rare because they’re wildly incompatible with the basic demands of real life and most people’s actual emotional needs–and ironically require a pretty serious dose of trust, compassion, honesty, and just generally knowing someone well. From observation and experience, I’m pretty convinced that if you’re addicted to this kind of intense hyper-kinked (and often hyper-sexed) fantasy, you’re unlikely to get it outside of the context of vacationships .
Staying cognizant of the emotional limitations of these vacationship “24/7 dynamics” is a perpetual challenge, since most of the people who are into them are really into them and tend to get kind of swept up in them. Moreover, if you find one, it’s hard to escape the sense that you’ve stumbled upon something precious because it’s so hard to find people who are into this fucked up shit, good at it, and don’t have questionable motivations for doing it, and who have good chemistry with you personally. Once you find your golden needle in a haystack, it’s hard not to want to metaphorically clutch it and cuddle it, but the reality is that it’s about as emotionally satisfying as cuddling that metaphorical needle: it’s sharp and not well-designed for that. …And yet… You journey into the dark parts of your self with someone else and you create a powerful intimacy and trust on that trip. And if you’re on the left side of the slash and you have an ounce of sense, you know that the end of that trip leaves you in a profoundly vulnerable place.
I think most of us in kinkland spend most of our time worried about the mental health, stability, relationship satisfaction, and general well-being of the subs in these dark d/s dynamics, but little to no time concerned about these things for the doms. I get why that is: we’re worried that the subs are being abused, or that they’ve only agreed to do these things because they have abysmal self-esteem—and these concerns are very valid. But in relationships that are completely consensual and voluntary (those are some big and important caveats), there’s a weird emotional/relationship imbalance that ends up accruing in these dynamics against the doms, which I think is the reason that most longish-term dark d/s dynamics I’ve ever heard of got broken off by the sub.
One of the most fucked up aspects of these relationships is that, to some (and sometimes to a great) extent, they’re built on the sub being afraid of the dom and hating many of the things the dom does to them. On some level, this tends to generalize to the sub also hating the dom a little bit too, but in some twisted way, just as they love hating the things the dom does to them, they love hating the dom. That’s a convoluted emotional labyrinth for most people to navigate, and it’s only made weirder and more twisted by the fact that terror, degradation, and humiliation are often the deepest core of intimacy in these relationships.
If the core of intimacy in affirmative d/s relationships is sort of a perpetual trust fall into loving arms, the core of intimacy in dark d/s relationships is the dom pushing the sub into a dark hole and then maybe eventually throwing them a rope ladder to climb out.
There are a few bleak inevitable emotional inequalities in this arrangement. First of all, unless they’re deep switches, doms tend to be pretty bewildered by what the subs are getting out of it. Doms in these dynamics live in a state of (aroused) cognitive dissonance and discomfort surrounded by the fact that their sub keeps telling them they hate something, but they’re obviously turned on by it and apparently keep doing it willingly. Yet the doms don’t really understand why.
The second problem is that even the most cheerfully degraded subs still usually have at least a few things that are genuinely “too much,” but neither they nor their doms are often terribly clear about where those lines are. Once ideas like “I hate that,” “that’s too much,” “I can’t do that,” and “please don’t do that” become so blurry that they’re sort-of meaningless, doms end up in this odd limbo where they’re worried about accidentally going too far and worried about not going far enough and boring their subs. Instead of meaning “stop,” all those phrases of dislike just become a means to emotional intimacy and kinky pleasure on both sides… right up until the moment when they don’t.
Every dom in these relationships inevitably crosses a line, and they don’t really know where the line is until they get to it. Sure, the subs have safewords, but not using them tends to be a matter of perverse pride for them, and in my experience, instead of safewording, all of them just get mad and yell at me if I hurt them too much. It’s pretty hard to know what “too much” is until you get there, especially because it often varies wildly by the day. Relatedly, guessing how the subs are going to react when stressed is often just a crap shoot: half the time, do something terrible to them when they’re in a bad mood, and they’re so much happier and relaxed than they were before, while the other half they’re furious with you. How do they feel about you after you cross those lines? At what point do you do something that’s unforgivable? Do you do cumulative damage to the dynamic every time you mess up, or is it basically okay as long as you don’t do it too often? Even more torturous is wondering if maybe you’re actually creating more of this fucked up intimacy by occasionally going too far, but if now it’s kind of the wrong kind of intimacy? No matter how much you pretend they aren’t people, the subs here still are, and they have actual feelings. About you.
Which brings me to the third and biggest problem. While you’re building this perverse intimacy with someone, it just doesn’t look the same on both sides. Subs are getting slowly lost in this twisted labyrinth of simultaneously fearing, hating, being attracted to, and possibly loving their doms, and all the while the doms just kind of adore the subs for letting them do this shit to them. Sure, there may be a fucked up part of the dom’s brain that actually, genuinely, truly believes that they own this piece of property formerly known as a person, but any reasonably healthy person knows that that piece of property is actually a rare fucking miracle of a person for letting them do (and seemingly enjoying) the things the dom always thought they were a terrible person for fantasizing about.
Thus you end up with this twisted relationship dynamic where, for a variety of reasons–including the fact that it’s what turns them on–the subs get increasingly ambivalent feelings about their doms, but the doms unambivalently like their subs. That doesn’t exactly put the two of you on equal emotional footing in terms of the relationship.
I wrote an erotica years ago that ended with the sub telling her dom, “I hate you,” and him telling her, “shhh, you’re trying not to cum.” I find that fucked up emotional place to be incredibly sexy, but it ultimately makes the doms weirdly emotionally vulnerable. If you’re genuinely emotionally invested in your sub (and, perversely, you can’t cultivate hatred without emotional investment), wondering if they actually hate you will keep you up at night even if the memory of them saying that in bed is pure wank fodder. And that inequality is just exacerbated by the fact that even in the most degraded of dark d/s dynamics, it’s very hard to imagine a dom telling their sub, “I hate you,” because that’s just not the way this usually plays out. When you build a dynamic around one person’s eroticized hatred and the other’s eroticized malevolent sense of ownership, any smart person knows they’re going to end up with some warped interpersonal dynamics. But contrary to what you might expect, in a real world of genuine consent, I don’t think the warp favors the dom. Even though both people have the power to walk away from this, we all know who’s a lot more likely to do the walking; despite being tied down, chained up, and leashed, I’m pretty sure it’s mostly the subs.
 I usually define vacationships as “real” relationships where people see each other intensely, but only occasionally. One of the signals of a vacationship is that you clean the house, get dressed up, and clear your schedule because the partner is coming over. You don’t have to try to schedule a “date night” with a vacationship partner, because any time you spend with them is basically by definition date night. You can’t really get the kind of trust you need for super intense dark d/s dynamics out of a casual encounter, but you run into the aforementioned pragmatic day-to-day + emotional problems if you try to do it in the context of more serious long-term relationships. (I’m sure everyone reading this will have one exception to the claim that dark d/s dynamics mostly only work in the context of vacationships over the long haul. Cool. But I’ve watched a lottttt of kinky relationships over the years, and those people stand out because they’re exceptions… And even most of the ones I thought seemed okay later ended in acrimonious messes).
Evie Lupine interviewed me about the academic side of BDSM for her YouTube channel. You can check out the video at this link. Enjoy!
“I found your website while trying to find and answer to the following question, which has been surprisingly difficult to get ANY real information on:
Last month, I inadvertently found some VERY violent pornography among a loved one’s belongings — extreme stuff by any standard: mutilation, broken bones and torture, even hints of necrophilia and snuff, all sexualized in one way or another.
He’s long been quite vocal about being a kinkster, and I understand that much of this is “play” — “like a violent video game,” as it’s been described to me. But is material this extreme something to worry about, in your opinion?”
The short answer is that it’s probably not a big deal. The slightly extended answer is that no one really knows, but it’s probably not a big deal.
Very long answer:
So I’m not really sure how you came to be exposed to this information about the person you love, nor what the nature of this pornography is, but I’ll make some guesses and move on to the important issues…
There are basically two angles I see to answering your question: 1. Should you be worried about this person actually going out and raping/torturing/murdering people? And 2. Do I personally believe him watching/owning this is immoral?
Should I be worried about him actually going out and raping and murdering people?
…Probably not. There’s a pretty big difference between watching fucked up shit and doing fucked up shit. There’s at least one study (which to the best of my knowledge has never been replicated) that found that in countries where (fake) child porn was legal, child molestation rates were much lower (see Perv). Thus there’s actually some reason to believe that people watching “bad” porn might make them *less* likely to do “bad” things (I know I get therapeutic experiences from playing violent video games, and I think there’s every reason that the same idea could be applied to violent porn).
I have a partner who jerks off to (free and publicly available) videos of people being (actually) tortured because he figures the videos have already been made so he might as well as enjoy them. He’s not even looking at “porn”–just eroticizing the torture that someone else experienced, which might objectively be way creepier than what your friend is doing. Yet I’m fairly certain that my partner’s not likely to go on a serial killing spree any time soon, but I guess you never know. All of which is to say that watching, reading, and jerking off to “extreme” stuff doesn’t necessarily make someone more likely to do those things. If he’s deep into the BDSM subculture, a big motivation for a lot of kinksters is to find ways to do super fucked up things in safe(ish) and consensual ways.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no reputable or meaningful academic studies that have looked at the actual violent tendencies of people who watch extreme porn. There’s good cause for them to look at it, too, because merely possessing such pornography became a crime in the UK in 2009. For a great look into all this, check out Clarissa Smith’s chapter on snuff (link) and Jonathan Clough’s article on extreme pornography (link).
Okay, now I know you’re thinking about the three million studies you read where a psychologist took 36 undergraduate men, showed them some violent porn, and then they said they thought the idea of raping women was more appealing. The problem is that those studies have nothing to do with real world behaviors. And lest you appeal to the “common sense” argument here, let me point out a “common sense” contradiction between experiments and real-world findings that is much better understood: condom use while intoxicated. Common sense says that people are less likely to use condoms when they’re drunk, experiments say that men who are drunk find condoms less appealing, but… real world data say that there’s just no connection (I wrote a paper on this in 2013). Really, the question that they should be researching is if a taste for violent pornography is linked to actual violent behavior, but I can’t find anything that does that.
And I know you’re thinking about all those news stories about the crazed serial killer rapist dude with his terrifyingly creepy porn collection, and forensic researchers who insist this is real evidence. The tricky thing there is that’s a one-way correlation: my understanding is that there are pretty decent odds that people who do fucked up things will watch really fucked up porn. But the correlation doesn’t necessarily go both ways: there’s decent reason to believe that lots of people watch really fucked up porn but don’t do the really fucked up things. I think Smith’s article (cited above) does a pretty decent job of explaining why that might be.
But what about the moral implications?
For me, it mostly depends on whether the people making the pornography in question are doing so in an ethical way. According to Smith, a lot of these websites promise that no one was actually harmed in the making of their pornography. To that, I say, cool. If the porn is not ethically produced, then I think it’s super creepy to financially support it (and kind of neutral to say, steal it off the internet). But people buy stuff that’s immorally produced all the time (from illegal drugs to the literal clothes on our backs), and I personally think that anyone who’s supporting the Mexican drug cartels has way more to answer for than people supporting an itsy-bitsy basement industry of criminally produced pornography. They’re both terrible, but… hey, that’s just me…
The British government, by the way, decided they didn’t care about the ethics of production. They decided it was just bad, end of story. So if your loved one lives in the UK, he’s in potential legal trouble, regardless of the ethics of the thing.
The thing that actually matters
True story: I once went on a date with a guy who did in fact commit first degree murder just a couple of years later. After that single date, I decided there was no way I would ever go out with him again because he was “clearly too violent.” This was blindingly obvious to me, but clearly not quite as clear to many of his friends…
My point here is that the majority of the time, people don’t randomly turn out to be serial killers and rapists; there are usually a thousand clues around them that have nothing to do with porn and everything to do with how often they’ve beaten people up, talk about beating people up, and how much they believe “women really want sex from you even when they say no”. There are a small number who aren’t so obvious, and they generally have NO friends; the ones who actually have friends and still manage to pass as normal people are absurdly rare.
So. In my opinion, the real question isn’t, “Should I be concerned that my friend has creepy taste in pornography?” but far the far more complex, “Does my friend seem like someone who gives a shit about the well-being of both men AND women in general and his partners specifically? Do his partners seem afraid of him? Does he seem to have violent tendencies in general? Does he often cover up things, lie, constantly make excuses, hypocritically slut shame, seem really into sex but weirdly and disproportionately uncomfortable talking about it in a personal way, or massively exaggerate?” Even in the BDSM scene, I’ve met a number of people who were really bad people, and every single one of them so far was easily identifiable to me by one of those traits. And in my experience, those are the things that separate the kinksters with disturbing tastes from the future convicts of the world.
And believe me when I say I know, have played with, banged and AM a kinkster with slightly disturbing tastes.
Valentine’s Day draws nigh, and we’re about to be treated to another installment of the 50 Shades movie and Christian Grey’s twu domliness (ignoring the inconvenient part where in the book his character was once a sub, because he was apparently underaged so it doesn’t count…). And of course he’s a dom. He’s a guy. In American films, you’re not likely to see masculine high-power business executives or action heroes who get chained to beds when they get home any time soon, because we mostly treat masculine submission as humorous and often absurd (if you haven’t seen it, check out this hysterical segment of Conan). Gods, in a world where we think men being actually raped is funny (check out the Wedding Crashers or to a lesser degree Almost Famous), it’s no wonder that we think the idea of men consenting to submission is just downright absurd.
It’s the twenty-first century, and I’d personally love to see the idea of gender done away with entirely. I want to make very clear at the start that I prefer living in a world where no one gives a shit about gender, and most of what I’m about to say is irrelevant to assigned-male-at-birth people who identify as genderqueer, genderfluid, trans, or even (a la Eddie Izzard) as “executive transvestites.” But since we seem to be stuck with gender for the foreseeable future, I want to make sure that we get something clear as a subculture, because right now the mainstream culture seems to have made us a bit fuzzy on this point:
submission is masculine too
I’ve never heard anyone suggest that a submissive woman isn’t a “real woman,” but the idea that submissive men aren’t “real men” is one of the most pernicious concepts that pervades much of traditional femdom sub-sub-culture. I don’t pretend to know what a “real man” is, so I figured I’d check the internet for help. The difference between men and women on most personality characteristics is so small that it’s barely scientific to discuss it, but the words that show up as associated with masculinity are:
independent non-emotional aggressive tough-skinned competitive clumsy experienced strong active self-confident hard sexually aggressive rebellious
Now if, for some reason, you’re deeply committed to being a twu manly man and holding onto these values, I want to point out how you can hold onto these characteristics and still be a twu sub too (Goddess help us all). Here goes.
- Independent: while crazy doms might like someone who is financially and emotionally dependent on them, most sane and healthy doms agree that they actually prefer subs who have their shit together and can take care of themselves. To go back to my car analogy of ages ago, most doms prefer a sub who can drive, but just likes it better if their dom does.
- Non-emotional and tough skinned: don’t underestimate the appeal of a stoic bottom. It’s super hot when you beat the shit out of someone and they barely show any response, even as the welts appear (it’s also super hot when they scream. My tastes are many and varied).
- Aggressive and clumsy: okay, I can’t make those work. But they’re also super unappealing qualities anyway, and wouldn’t be nice in a dom either…
- Competitive: by all means, be competitive–just love to lose. And compete with yourself (just how big a dildo can you take up your ass without getting injured? hm?) Also, develop a perverse affection for rigged games (“let’s play rock paper scissors to see who’s going to be on bottom! You can only do paper.”)
- Experienced: while cherry popping and innocence are easily compatible with bottoming and submission, you can go so much further with someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing.
- Strong: yes, please. Give me a strong masculine sub, and I’ll do fucked up shit like kick him while he holds his arms plank position until he falls onto my torturous acupressure mat in exhaustion and I get to step on him. No fun to do with someone who’s weak.
- Active: contrary to popular belief, submission and bottoming are not passive positions. It’s like getting fucked: to be good at it, you still have to actually be DOING something.
- Self-confident: one of the unsexiest things is people who seem to be submissive because they’re too insecure to be anything else. And they’re way more satisfying to dom because it feels like you’ve achieved something.
- Hard: I mean, I don’t want to make people who have erectile problems feel bad, but I must admit that I prefer guys who get and stay hard easily. This is equally true for subs and doms, because I’m going to want to fuck them either way.
- Sexually aggressive: I would love it if we could stop equating “passion” and “dominance.” You can absolutely still be the sexual aggressor and be submissive. Slam me against a wall and kiss me to get me horny, and I’ll still force you down to your knees to worship my pussy. You can still be the one who initiates the sex… by pleading.
- Rebellious: my sub rebels all the time; I keep a list of strike marks on my phone and beat him later accordingly. Everyone is still happy. Alternatively, you could argue that one of the most rebellious things a guy in our culture can do is stand up and say, “yeah, I fucking love it if my wife kicks my ass.”
Am I stretching things a bit to make this work? Yeah. But we’ve spent the last 70 years passionately re-working the concept of “feminine” to include the idea of “dominant,” and we’ve done an okay job at that (enough that a woman won the popular presidential vote by a substantial margin–something that would have been impossible 50 years ago). It’s high time we started working on the converse of that idea and started thinking about healthy ways to let men be submissive.
So you want to be a masculine submissive (please note that this is not necessarily the same thing as being a submissive man). And I would love for you to. You know, like the cover of a trashy romance novel, except you’re wearing a collar. How do you make that happen?
First, let’s go to a couple of awesome fantasy series for inspiration: Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books, and Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. In both cases, super badass manly men lovingly and happily take the backseat to even more badass chicks, and use the same phrase as they do: “protect and serve.” They take a traditionally masculine role (“the Protector”) and use their skills to serve and please the women in their lives. They’re physically and emotionally strong, clever, resourceful, and good in bed… And they seek out women who are even more badass than they are themselves so they can use their abundant personal resources to do what those women tell them to.
Sure, it’s fiction, but that sounds pretty fucking awesome to me.
But let’s talk about the real world. Here’s a few points of inspiration for you:
- I think it’s wicked hot if a guy walks around a dungeon in a suit being led around by his necktie (what convenient leashes those are!).
- And what fun if a guy is strong enough to pick me up and fuck me standing up while carrying me… but isn’t allowed to cum until he’s made me cum three times and has to ask my permission.
- Tough guys can take a lot of pain, and it’s extra fun to watch them suffer. It’s an especially beautiful thing is to watch super strong guys tied up with almost no rope lines on them, basically stuck in a pull-up position… Their muscles inevitably start trembling, and then they finally collapse into the agony of their viciously unsupportive lines.
- Our culture has become a little obsessed with the idea that part of being manly is being able to please one’s sexual partners. I think that obsession is pretty unhealthy, but if you’re going to cling to it, it’s super easy to make that compatible with submission. (Pleasing one’s partner is one of those ideas that’s easy to interpret in support of any identity, conveniently enough). But I certainly want a sub to be good at pleasing me and enjoy pleasing me, and I think it’s pretty easy to make that compatible with common masculine identity values.
The thing we seem to have the most trouble with is the idea that erections and being on the giving end of PIV/PIA sex are submissive. This idea is a big part of why fem dom stuff tends to put a big emphasis on chastity play and penis cages: the implication is that in order to control a man, you have to get control of the root of his power, i.e. his dick. We’re stuck in an archaic patriarchal conceptualization where penis = power. This is just silly. Men are amusingly weakened in so many ways when they’re hard. It’s hard for them to pee; a lot of times they walk funny; actually, it’s often difficult for them to do much of anything non-sexual when their dicks are hard–especially, say, math. Men are exposed (literally) and vulnerable when they’re hard, and most of them have been taught by society to feel extremely self-conscious about their erections (you want to quickly humiliate most guys: keep their belt on so their pants stay up, unzip their fly, keep their boxers on, and make them hard anyway so their dicks are sticking out of their clothes. Then make them, say, go to the bathroom across the room in a dungeon to get you a kleenex).
Screw this idea that penis = power. The root of anyone’s power–and the site of everything that controls submission, switching, and domination–is never the genitalia. It’s the brain. You get hard for me. You fuck me for my entertainment and my pleasure. You cum when I tell you you can. Done. That’s what submission is. There’s no need to emasculate yourself in order to be submissive, and I’d personally mostly rather that you didn’t.
Oh, and did I mention the most ironic part? The sooner we embrace the idea that submission is masculine, the easier it will be to find hetero-attracted women who want to be dominant. For many or even possibly most (potentially) dominant hetero-attracted women, submissive men are hot because they’re submissive men. And that’s not just about some sort of fetish for the taboo or defying gender expectations by getting a MAN to submit to them. It’s also just about finding conventionally masculinity hot in a context of submission.
In conclusion, I’m not just saying that it’s okay for guys to submit, or that it’s okay for guys to wear collars. I’m not even just saying that it’s hot for guys to do these things. I’m going several steps further and saying: if you are a masculine person who likes to submit and/or identifies as a sub, that can in fact boost your masculinity rather than reducing it. And I’m not just basing this on some subjective idea about “gender is in the eye of the beholder/keeper” (although it is), or some desperate attempt to re-work masculinity for my own mischievous fem-domly aims (although I am). You really just don’t have to work hard to make your identity as a guy compatible with your identity as a sub, for one simple and basic reason: with the right dom, being masculine is likely to please and arouse them, and isn’t that what submission is about?
A while back, a sex toy company called Mystery Vibe emailed me to ask if I’d be willing to review a product for them for my blog. I said, “Sure!,” cheerfully ignoring the inconvenient fact that I detest vibrators. So they sent me this fancy schmancy device called a Crescendo.
Now your response right now might be, “What the fuck, you don’t like vibrators?!” followed by, “Why the hell should I read the rest of this review?” Well, to answer the first point, I find vibrators tolerable when they’re ridiculously slow and have irregular rhythms. But mostly I just think they’re incredibly uncomfortable. I enjoy making women happy, however, so I like to keep a handy arsenal of vibrators around. Which brings me to the second question about how I reviewed this toy: I did what any sensible slut would do; I took it to a Victorian-themed kink party, and treated a couple of lovely ladies for hysteria. You know… for science!
Okay, so first off, the selling points from the company. What does Crescendo have going for it? It’s a rechargeable flexible toy with six independent vibrators that you can (theoretically) control with an app on your phone, and it’s fully submersible. It can be many different shapes, as the website shows: It currently sells for $199 (with free shipping right now), so it’s not a small investment in pleasure.
But let’s just go ahead and get one thing out of the way at the start. A friend of mine at the party where I tried out Crescendo noted that with vibrators, it’s usually a case of Rechargeable, Waterproof, Powerful: Pick 2. Crescendo, alas, is no exception to this rule. It’s rechargeable and waterproof, but if you love Hitachi-style genital abuse, save your money. I tried Crescendo out on two different women, and Test Subject #2 just basically stared blankly at me and the poor toy with that tragic, “Is something happening to my genitals? I can’t tell” look. We knocked the Crescendo up to high, and she continued to just look vaguely uncomfortable; we gave up. Her opinion was basically 0 stars.
So, assuming that you’re not the sort of person who likes to feel like a car engine is revving up against your bits, what can Crescendo do for you?
For our experiment, our victim who I’ll call Meredith, found a random girl to stuff some fingers inside her, and a very well endowed gentleman whose dick she could suck, while another woman physically manipulated the Crescendo against Meredith’s bits and I controlled the app for the Crescendo on my phone. If this sounds like a lot of people were trying to make her happy, it’s true. During this phase, the Crescendo stayed completely on the outside around Meredith’s clit.
For most of the second phase of this experiment, Meredith just jerked herself off without all her assistants. For this, she kept the toy bent into a U-shape, so that half of it was inside her and half outside. She noted that while the flexibility of the toy was potentially awesome, in reality, her own pussy muscles kept trying to bend and straighten it back out of shape. This really limited its power as an insertable toy.
Hypothetically, the Crescendo with this shape should be able to provide a really subtle and magnificent experience, since you can have higher levels of vibration on the inside or the outside, depending on your preference. In practice, however, this turned out to be pretty difficult to manipulate. As long as you want a clear difference between them, it’s fine; but if you want the power to be more evenly distributed, you’re in trouble. None of us (and there were a lot of smart people around) could make the vibrator have evenly distributed intensity throughout. There was always more intensity at the base, which meant that you had to pick which side you wanted the stronger vibration on.
We ran into a whole host of other practical problems. The toy has buttons on both its sides, and it’s really hard not to end up bumping into them while you’re playing with it. On several occasions during our experiment, we accidentally turned it off. It’s also really hard to touch those buttons yourself if you’re jerking yourself off with it. Unless you’ve memorized where these tiny buttons are ahead of time, you’ll have to take the toy off of you in order to adjust its intensity–not so great in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t any easier to adjust if you were another person manipulating the toy.
Theoretically, the app should keep you from having to worry about those problems. But at its current stage of development, the app is mostly just bewildering. Most importantly, as far as me, an engineer, a computer scientist, and a graphic designer could tell, the app doesn’t really let you control intensity of vibration. Only the physical buttons on the Crescendo itself do that. On top of that, there’s no easy way to manipulate the six different vibrators in the Crescendo. You have to keep scrolling around between a lot of different options, most of which just don’t make sense. It would be way more reasonable to be able to directly control each of the six vibrators and their respective intensities.
Ultimately, Meredith rated the orgasm she had from the Crescendo as “outstanding and excellent,” but said that the complications and inadequacies of the toy would be unlikely to make it her go-to vibrator. Her opinion of it was basically 4 stars.
During our experiments, we did not attempt to use Crescendo for penis-in-vagina sex, nor did I find any people with penises who wanted to try it on themselves. Given the current limitations of the toy, I would be reluctant to try to use it for PIV sex, although I definitely think it has potential for that (like a WeVibe).
All of us who participated in the experiment felt that Crescendo has a lot of potential. We felt that the key problems that we hope the designers would fix in a later version would be:
- Actually having some sort of on/off switch. Preferably one that’s hard to hit during play. The current lack of one is extremely annoying.
- Other than the on/off switch, getting rid of the physical buttons entirely would be helpful. Substituting a remote control would be easier and reduce the chances of accidentally turning it off or up/down while using it.
- Improving the app to provide much more control. Nothing about the app is intuitive presently, and it also just isn’t very useful. It doesn’t let you do any of the things you would most want to do. You should just be able to tap any of the six vibrators and set the rhythm and intensity, and adjust the intensity by dragging up or down. It would also be fucking fabulous if the app had an option to make your phone vibrate in some approximation (at least the rhythm) of what you’re doing to the person. That way, if you’re manipulating your partner, you have some clue what you’re doing.
- Having a sturdier charging base. The base fell off a low table to the floor, and basically fell apart. My two very mechanically savvy partners managed to put it back together, but that shouldn’t be necessary.
 For the record, I have seen the same thing happen with Sybians, which many people claim are amazing. I was once at a sex party where someone brought a Sybian. I watched three folks with vaginas ride it. The first just looked bored. The second had approximately the appalled look on their face that a woman would have if a man with a soft dick had repeatedly tried to penetrate her belly button. The third had many noisy and happy orgasms. All of which is to say, sex toys are definitely not one-size-fits-all propositions. I myself would literally not ride a Sybian with a ten-foot-pole.
Much of the time I’m sufficiently opinionated that I just write unsolicited sex and relationship advice. But this time, someone actually asked a solid question and said I could answer it publicly. This person, who I’ll call Jo, had been to my poly architecture class and heard me make the claim that it’s ridiculously difficult (nigh unto impossible, it seems) for people in very serious secondary relationships who want a primary to find one. She wasn’t questioning the claim. But she was concerned, because she already has a wife and a serious girlfriend, but she just met The Perfect sub For Her (™). The problem is that Perfect sub, who I’m going to call Amy for the sake of simplicity, doesn’t have a primary and definitely wants one, and lives a long way away anyway. Jo was worried about Amy finding a primary if Amy was always sitting at her feet whenever they went to events together, and asked for my advice.
My advice is… hoo, boy, that’s a tricky one.
On the one hand, in some ways distance can work in your favor in that situation, because it tends to place automatic constraints on how serious the relationship can get (there’s only so much time you can practically spend with someone who lives a long way away). On the other hand, poly long distance relationships have a habit of becoming vacation-ships–you know, the kind where you don’t get out of bed for two days, do all your laundry and clean your house before and after “the date,” and ignore most phone calls from other people when you’re together? Vacation-ships are a big problem when you’re trying to build other actualrelationships because they make the other relationships seem so much less fun by comparison. Vacation-ships are like dessert, but people need solid meals to be healthy and happy. And yet. You need to eat vegetables, but they don’t look very tasty next to cheesecake, do they? Of course, you’ll actually enjoy the cheesecake a lot more if you eat your veggies. Go figure.
The other way that long distance becomes a problem here is that it makes my first automatic advice a lot more difficult to implement, which is: assuming that Amy is the kind of person who meets people at events, don’t go to many events “together”. For most kinky folks, even if they don’t actually meet a Person at events, they socialize and network at events in ways that ultimately can help them meet a Person. So if you go to an event and spend all of your time with the Person you already have, limiting your opportunities to meet new people, you make it really difficult to acquire the missing Person you’re looking for. BUT if you’re long distance, events often become your chief opportunity to spend quality time together.
The temptation here is the Rotten Compromise, where you say, “We will go to this three-night event, and even though we will be sharing a hotel room together, Amy and I must spend one evening apart so she can look for a date.” It sounds eminently reasonable, but sadly, it’s really not, in my experience. At a bare minimum, even people who are quite capable at the Pick Up need one night to search and another night to cement their search, so you really have to promise to spend two evenings apart. But if you’re sharing a hotel room (or cabin or tent), it’s ridiculously easy to just chuck your good intentions entirely and decide that a “night” apart in that context is from 7 pm to 10 pm. Suddenly your resolution not to spend too much time together and to enforce socialization with other people gets flushed down the toilet. Do I sound like I’m speaking from experience? Yeahhhhh…
And I haven’t even gotten to the basic day-to-day stuff where Amy struggles not to text you all the time, because she knows she’s not supposed to depend on you too much emotionally, but she still values you and the support you give her so much. And even though she knows she shouldn’t let it happen, you kind of become her rock. And dammit, she never meant for that to happen, but how is she ever going to find anyone who’s even as remotely awesome as you?
That latter point raises an important point that a lot of hierarchy discussions leave out: there really are some people who are That Awesome. I know a number of folks with a zillion partners, and several of their partners say they’d ideally rather have a primary; but since Awesome Person already has a primary (or two or three), they’ll settle for mostly being Awesome Person’s secondary or tertiary because Awesome Person is That Awesome. So if you’re That Awesome, it’s possible that Amy might kind of give up the hunt for other partners. Be prepared for this possibility. It’s happened to a lot of the people I know.
But let’s say you’re trying to stay super committed to helping Amy find a primary, and let’s hope that you’re better at managing all of this than I have historically been. What do you do?
Dump her. No, I’m kidding. Well, I’m kind of not… Except, you’re not going to, and I sincerely hope you aren’t the sort of person who’d do that because I told you to anyway. It’s still good advice, but I hope you, like me, are unwilling to take this good advice.
So what else do you do? First, you have to be very clear about the relationship boundaries and possibilities. Say, “I have a wife and a girlfriend, and I love you, but I cannot be the Person that you need, and I want to actively support your quest to find that Person.” Try not to accidentally raise unrealistic expectations. At the same time, don’t try to force yourself to stick to unnecessarily harsh relationship boundaries as a matter of principle. There’s a balance there, and no one but you and your partners can find it. That’s a matter of trial and error. If Amy asks you to do or be something for her, and you have the time and energy and inclination to do it, do it. Don’t say “no” just because you’re afraid she’s getting too dependent on you or that it will raise her expectations too high. Constantly doing boundary maintenance for the sake of boundary maintenance is futile and exhausting, in my experience. To use a plant metaphor, don’t try to create relationship topiary: get an approximate sized box to grow your relationship in, and don’t freak out every time it looks a little too big or too small.
Next, you should try be very careful about how you spend time in public places where Amy has good opportunities to meet other people. Unless Amy is the sort of person who is constitutionally incapable of meeting people in large gatherings, or the sort of person who goes to events all the time without you, try not to be her Event Girlfriend. Try to make sure that she goes regularly to quality places where she can meet–and will basically be forced to interact with–quality people without you. You can’t force her to meet other people, but you can make sure that you aren’t the human security blanket that most of us kinky oddballs love to have when interacting in big groups.
Most importantly, if Amy does manage to get another relationship, or even something that looks like it might grow up into one, graciously accept your back seat role. Don’t make her feel guilty for spending less time with you; tell her she’s wanted, but that you accept that whatever she is building with takes priority. Recognize that initially she’ll probably come running to you every time something goes wrong in that other relationship because you probably will remain her security blanket for some time. And then eventually she’ll either stop running to you because that relationship grows up, or for a different reason because they broke up. The hardest thing about anticipating and managing these kinds of relationship changes is recognizing that your role in her life may change completely once she gets her Person. Most of the people who are attracted to hierarchical poly over anarchical poly usually prefer stability; but when you start trying to build relationships over top of previous relationships instead of under them, you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
I don’t know how helpful this has been, because there really just aren’t any easy answers to this very serious question. To me, it often looks like one of the unintended consequences of hierarchical poly life is that some people just seem stuck in a pink-collar relationship ghetto–much like the beloved and well-treated secretary in your office who is never going to get a promotion and never going to get paid what she deserves. Everyone wishes they had a way to fix the system, but no one really has a fucking clue how. If anyone else has a fucking clue, I’d certainly love to hear it.
I wish you both (all) the best of luck.