27 September, 2008

Ins and (Mostly) Outs of Public Displays of Kink

When time is short I'll occasionally dip into the pool of interesting ideas I've addressed with one correspondent or another over the years and dress it up a bit for posting on RSE. Here's one concerning my antipathy toward public play.

  • What happens when the norms/rules are violated in a club? Do others provide sanctions or do some just look away? What if people consistently violate and are sanctioned…will they eventually stop coming because they realize that they aren’t wanted there? Have you ever seen someone who others ignored or sanctioned because they weren't respecting the rules? If so, what happened and what happened to them?

In my checkered experience of the public scene, the answer to this question seems to me highly contingent on the nature, structure and/or conditions of entry into the club. At one of the few surviving public BDSM clubs in NYC there is no vetting for fitness to the club's motif and putative purpose, so culture tourists and "wankers" (men who intrude on scenes while masturbating) are not only common but form the base upon which this club continues to do business.

Crowding by such persons reliably breaks scenes, mine and others. My standard line to unwanted participants (at first politely delivered) is "If you need to know where to position yourself, it's where I'm not hitting you," referring putatively to my reach inside the scene, but offered with a dusting of menace. More than once I've been brought to the point of physical confrontation with a wanker who simply would not keep his distance from my bound partner. In one instance an inebriant ended up being physically removed by myself and three other men (none of whom represented the club), but it is my impression that as a matter of policy no one who pays the cover is ejected unless the disruption has practically evolved into one for the police. I understand the club's position as a business proposition, however, and my choice to attend or not is, like any wanker, mine to make. It's impossible, however, not to conclude that under such conditions I am providing an attraction, and act, as it were, and indeed paying for the privilege of doing so, solely for the club's benefit.

In the interest of gender equality let me also observe that it is not only sexually repressed men who confound public play. Under different public circumstances and on more than one occasion women have approached me in public and endeavored to insinuate themselves by exaggerating their interest and experience, or by just lying. The latter behavior, if not pathological, one can usually chalk up to loneliness or an interest in something other than bondage (such as in one case the mistaken assumption that I was both substantially well-off and of a certain faith). More than a few women I've met have "always been intrigued by bondage" once, it seems, they've calculated my value on some other scale. Finding out I'm married usually puts an opportunistic intrigue down pretty quickly.

A counterpoint to this kind of tedious public dynamic are clubs such as one I used to frequent in Seattle, which fields 7 - 10 dungeon monitors on any given night. These experienced volunteers manage scenes in which perhaps a large number of people have taken an interest, or will assist with complex suspensions or other dangerous situations, and generally make their presence known and felt for the sake of those who can use them to, or, at the very least, to establish a perimeter.

(As an aside, gay bears and leather daddies make, I think, especially excellent DMs; robustly masculine and intimidating on the outside, politic, diplomatic and empathetic on the inside. The queer clubbing community also seems to have an intuitive feel for SM scene energy, irrespective of individual appetite. This reflexive and deferential civility toward concentrated human experience (in this case intimacy) is what I think endows a community with culture. Perhaps we don't use the word "culture" to qualify the straight or vanilla communities precisely because they lack the requisite erotic cultivation and civility to qualify as such. As I am often wont to observe here, BDSM just amplifies who one (or an entire community) really is.)

It helps that the Seattle outfit is a membership club, so all members are thoroughly briefed on the rules, and outsiders such as myself are obliged to either be accompanied by a member upon entry, or to be meeting one there. Even so, outsiders are obliged to sign off on the rule sheet. I'm given to understand anything untoward is very unusual, and that was indeed my experience. Likewise, in a private party setting all of the attendees have probably demonstrated their bona-fides to the host directly or by relation to a trusted source, so rules are largely unnecessary and comity is far more likely.

But, still, there are no guarantees. Once, some time ago, at a private party outside Austin I performed a semi-suspension that gathered a large audience. As the scene played out to the satisfaction of myself and my bottom (a friend's girlfriend), the respectful (and wanker-free) crowd dispersed to reveal two attractive young women, one of whom I had taken note of earlier in the evening, the other giggling cutely and asking if she could be next. I foolishly (and youthfully) said "of course," both flattered and feeling very full of myself on the heels of my moment in the spotlight.

Well, pride goeth before the fall.

Their excitement ended up centering around getting pictures of each other in situ at a BDSM affair, to which they had been invited as decoration (which I would find out presently). I had unwittingly volunteered to be their sideshow cut-out. With very little rope on her my initiate posed and mugged for a few snapshots before she realized she was in fact in the early stages of helplessness, at which point she began complaining loudly that she was uncomfortable, and went from giggly to apoplectic in a matter of a few seconds. Fortunately my creds were good with the organizers and, more importantly, the bouncers, who bounced promptly when the one I had initially found cute started shouting (most uncivilly) "Hey! This asshole's assaulting her!" There were several minutes thereafter of feather smoothing and drink ticket distribution, the effect of which apparently prevented the dialing of 911.

Turns out culture tourists can show up in grubby trenchcoats and shear back-seamed stockings.

The above constitutes the majority of my misfortune in the public scene taken over 20 odd years, so I consider myself actually pretty fortunate. Apart, however, from the occasional class or private tutorial (and, of course the fine art stuff), I've pretty much forsaken public play for these and other reasons, but mostly because I finally got wise to the happy fact that in all areas of life the right sorts of folks seem to show up right in my midst when I'm least expecting it, and with a lot less work and stress. To quote Bertold Brecht:
"What a miserable thing life is: you're living in clover, only the clover isn't good enough"

17 September, 2008

Marriage Failure a Natural Success

In a hilarious example of editorial resistance to the way things actually are, the Washington Post published this feature on the findings of researchers at the esteemed Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on the genetic basis for marital dysfunction.

The writer and editors of the Post article blandly accept the social idealism of the study's authors, not bothering to trouble themselves with a critical (i.e., journalistic) perspective on the biological ramifications of what, essentially, now seems to be a demonstrable biological truth (albeit as yet scientifically uncorroborated); that some 40% of men are genetically outfitted to "cheat".

The use of the word cheat in the article is very telling, as are words such as "risk", "dysfunction" and "threat":
"Men with two copies of (a particular) allele had twice the risk of experiencing marital dysfunction, with a threat of divorce during the last year, compared to men carrying one or no copies," said Hasse Walum, a behavioral geneticist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who led the study. "Women married to men with one or two copies of the allele scored lower on average on how satisfied they were with the relationship compared to women married to men with no copies."
If we consider more than one copy of the allele in question (an allele is a member of a pair or series of genes that occupy a specific chromosomal position) predictive of a man's success or failure in marriage and long-term relationships in light of the much more rigorously predictive models of Gregor Mendel and later Charles Darwin, then a fair alternate conclusion could be that men possessed of more than one of these rover alleles are more likely to wander and therefore reproduce - precisely nature's intent for all its creation - and that failure, if any is to be assigned here, accrues entirely to the institution of marriage as it is conceived in the popular consciousness.

Do we blame fish for dying off when we dam a river?

The report is all very nuanced, and not made any less so by the inclusion of weasel words such as "satisfied", with the concomitant couching of the entire study's relevance in terms of that vague and variable criterion - stacked, let it not go unobserved, on but one side of the matrimonial partnership (which, I suppose, if one considers the Latin root mater in matrimony is placing the emphasis where it wants to go anyway). It's quite likely that nearly 100% of men with this naturally-occurring genetic variant would have equally valid (i.e., weak) complaints about their matrimonial "satisfaction", thus is the criterion spurious and the point of the study moot.

But, since we're on the subject, let me apply Occam's Razor and offer a simpler thesis: Naturally-occurring human genetic encoding trumps socially-engineered monogamy.

Big surprise.

Despite its laughable faults, this study does support an explanation for women-kind's reliable attraction to renegades and outcasts, the proverbial "bad boys", the "alphas", of whom it is always known at the outset never stick around. The basis of the attraction to the James Dean type is by now well-understood: women sense good-quality genetic information much as men do - the kind that begets more of the species most efficiently (and therefore gets passed on), the kind they want expressed in their offspring. If 40% of males pack the tomcat allele, then there's no denying that variant's success in getting itself passed on.

If a woman thinks about it (i.e., does the risk-analysis math) she may indeed go directly for the beta male, or upon hooking up with an alpha seek to modulate his risk profile down the scale to beta levels (thus possibly jeopardizing her marital satisfaction in an entirely different way). On the level of woman's feeling, however, the recently popular beta types, e.g., the "emo-boy" and homo-manque, have apparently had their moment in the sun and have been largely discarded (as they characteristically fretted they would be) by sexually astute and self-aware (read: trend-leading) women.

From the perspective of a long-time married man who, given my history, likely has two or more of the offending allele, marital survival is in no way predicated on the luck of the double-helix draw. Fin and my marriage is completely legit in all the conventional senses of the word (licensed, blessed, taxed, etc.), but it is also something else utterly outside conventional legitimacy: we can't "cheat" because we tell the truth.

Or, pulling in Occam again, cheating truth telling. Fin knows all about my partners, they know all about her, I know about hers and they about me. Everyone is clued in and gets complete disclosure upon request from me, and I from them. I think the marriage succeeds not because it's open but because we are open with each other, fully exposed and vulnerable... and therefore, paradoxically safe.

Think about it - the "cheating" is just the lying (cheating = lying); we fear what we don't know, and if our partner lies to us about his or her desire for other partners, about the nature and extent of their lust, about their kinks, about whatever, we don't get to know them, who they really are, who we're spending our lives with, who sleeps next to us (when we're really most vulnerable), who's helping to raise our kids. Now, that's fearsome, not knowing who you're married to. That could be reason enough to get out of the relationship.

Make no mistake, I'm not arguing here for having a lock on everything your partner is or will ever be in order to stay in your relationship. Quite the contrary - mystery promotes attraction (see "bad boys" above). I'm talking about proceeding from truthful premises and being content with the unvarnished truth of what you find out about your partner, which is often what they're finding out about themselves in the same moment. Their own picture of themselves is likely incomplete, so the truth is we don't get to know anything our partners don't know - although we pretend it's possible and often demand answers along these lines. In effect, we ask to be lied to.

A big part of success in anything has to do with allowing yourself to be surprised, indeed, being grateful for the leavening and spice of life's surprises, big and small. This is never more true than in relationships, but in principle yielding to surprise solves (in the sense of Wendell Berry's concept of "solving for pattern") for what appears to be a host of life's more intractable problems while creating few new problems of its own. Often events are just surprising and nothing else - not really problems at all if one can accommodate having not expected them.

Blaming unhappiness on hardwired (and therefore unsurprising) biology is lazy, even shabby, thinking. Lying is a social act, related in this case to a social institution, marriage. Given that over 50% of marriages end in divorce, and that cheating plays a big part in a sizable percentage of those divorces, it may be fair to say that lying (by cheating) is a property of conventional marriage; i.e., dishonesty comes with the package, if not in the bridal registry.

That after 25 years Fin and I are still married is already statistically unconventional, but in the conventional sense our marriage is a failure in that it utterly fails to force biology to heel, and has failed, thereby, to fail. With respect to this failure to fail we have also been told occasionally through the years that our marriage is basically a sham, that our relationship is nothing more than that of roommates with privileges (ironically, this often comes from folks whose marriages are somewhat brittle, if not in outright distress).

And you know what? Those folks get to be right. That's all 25 years of cohabiting companionship, mutual support, commitment, pooled resources, sexual experimentation (within and without), crisis management and the gathering to our relationship of a cherished and loyal coterie of friends, lovers and fellow travelers comes to: a sham marriage. Nothing like a real marriage, with the lying and the cheating and the stacked odds on ending and the counselors and the lawyers... the real institutional trappings of the institution of marriage.

So, there you go: lots of alleles = marital failure. QED.

What bearing, then, does the bit of embossed paper with the endorsement of several potentates with powers granted them by The State of New York have on my relationship with my wife? Nothing with any real meaning, really.

Other than perhaps economic. The last lines of the article cited above confirm as much:
"Fisher (quoted previously in the article), who described herself as a romantic, said she would not reject a potential mate who has two copies of the risky allele (Surprise!). She paused, (no doubt doing the risk analysis) then added: 'But I might not start a joint bank account with them for the first few years,'" (italics mine).
What's left? Well, Fin and I don't lie, cheat or resist our genetic makeup, and we stay together despite the odds. Clearly it's something other than the kind of failed marriage that gets looked at in studies.

I wonder if anyone still believes in the idea of a sacrament.

11 September, 2008

Meeting with BS 4

Much has transpired since my last entry on Insex and BS.

The lovely, well-connected and ever helpful Barbara Nitke, as it happens, is a close friend of BB, a former writer for Big Worm Productions - Insex's minuscule nom de camouflage that once marked their DUMBO warehouse door here in lil' ol' Bklyn. She arranged a dinner at a perfectly extraordinary little place on the LES (Mexican food / French technique / 22 seats) where we all met and regaled each other with our respective experiences of Insex and BS. I had read BB's 2000 literary opus (available on Amazon) a couple of years ago, a rangy and popular thriller with a carefully considered BDSM theme, and had been moved by her unsentimental traverse across the some of the uglier congruencies of our favorite pastime. I was eager to meet her.

I won't speak out of school here*, but suffice it to say that I was sorely impressed not merely by BB's heartfelt interest in the ways of BDSM (as opposed to the usual uninformed or academic - so characteristic of (often wrong-headed) portrayals of BDSM in a popular context), but with the many dimensions of her intelligence and the ecology of her life as a writer. While she had provided Insex with a great many of its more legendarily scenarios she had been quietly digesting her experience into a documentary script for a more gimlet-eyed exploration of Insex and, more specifically, the cult of the mad genius behind it, BS. Being a work in progress, it is as such subject to all of the usual detours, funding difficulties and creative slog any work of its scale would be, but it promises to be masterful when it comes out. BB believes it will be well received in European markets and Japan, where people better understand the distinction between analyticity and porn than they do in our electively sex-conflicted culture.

I surprised myself by having information I would have guessed BB to already possess regarding BS's foray out from conventional middle class propriety. It was while in the walled garden of academe, well before the veil would be lifted from the eyes of the first Insex subscriber and BS would fulfill the mandate of those who had convinced themselves that he was a corrupter of youth.

When he and I first met BS had recounted to me the beginning of his fascination with digital media in the 1980s when he was living in Buffalo and appended in some fashion to SUNY Buffalo. It was there that BS began experimenting with realtime interactivity using machine interfaces and video. By the early 1990s BS was at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, having taken with him some of his more promising protégées from Buffalo, encouraging new acolytes and continuing to build a reputation in interactive digital media. Consider this former student, and for an even clearer harbinger of what was to come (including perhaps the character origin of the renowned Insex model Liz Tyler) click here.

At about the time Bruce Sterling and Tom Maddox teamed up on the breakthrough Snake Eyes (a live-action cyberpunk drama wherein actors controlled computer generated graphics with bodily movement) in Austin, TX, BS was organizing his first interactive performance art / installation outside the university setting. The piece, titled manINFESTation, debuted at the TransHudson Gallery in Jersey City in June of 1995. I remember BS said that the press showed up but did nothing with it, although I would learn later that some positive reviews did come of manINFESTation's one (expensive) gallery exhibit.

The following quip from the press release presages the elaboration of BS's career in art and media, and had it not been written for manINFESTation could easily have been applied to Insex.
"This work raises questions and concerns about control and power. It explores relationships and responses to the spectacles of society. These spectacles are recontextualized in images and performances intended as visual hyperboles."

In their reaction to consideration of BS's theory and practice of art, the predeceased right, the hysterical left and the timid administration of a major eastern university satisfied themselves that faculty member BS was a danger to their young charges' well-being and moral probity. He was summarily discharged and several other factors arrayed themselves against his quiet enjoyment of life. Thus began the plunge into the woods that ended with the founding of Insex.

*By the way, all the clues about BS left out in the open throughout these essays are entirely intentional. A little googling around would net you all this and more, and with the screening of BB's documentary all of this coyness of mine will be moot anyway. I'm just being respectful for the time being.

03 September, 2008

Non-Zero Sum

Every now and again I can't resist giving props here to the flashes of genius that are erupting all the time all over the web, only a very small percentage I get to see, and an even smaller percentage of which apply to the focus of RSE. This post is, I think, a laudable read on the first of Sarah Palin's campaign vexations, but more importantly on the sex/culture wars. That such a sophisticated, articulate and accessible analysis should emerge from the domain of art doesn't surprise me in the slightest.

Is it possible that the last salvo has been fired, the last petard hoisted, the tsk tsk'd and we can all go about our business?

02 September, 2008

Push Button Behavior Modification

What does a rope top do with a bottom who presents as a blood/collar/throat/electrical stim fetishist? Tell a story about this bad boy I know…

Ben presents as nothing out of the ordinary really, not in New England at least. One sees his kind all over, especially during hunting season, which begins soon. Ben happens to be a pretty fine specimen, however – strong, lean, blond, “nicely made” as any Yankee might observe. Not a bad recovery from his early life, during which he likely fell out of a pickup and wandered the landscape in search of food for a year and some.

Whether it was barbed wire, an unfortunate meeting with a farm implement, or perhaps with a coyote, Ben ended up under a surgeon's knife getting an 8 inch gash in his leg muscles fixed one day in his early teenage, having been found lame by the side of a farm road and ferried in yet another pickup to the only medico available at 2am in rural southern Vermont - a horse vet. Of course he spent that whole episode anesthetized, and just as he woke (in a cast hiding 40 sutures) to begin his convalescence, over him were hovering the solicitous faces of two elderly women. One of them was my mother. The other was the kennel owner.

The county doesn’t maintain a pound, so what few strays there are that survive the coyotes, the bears, now the gray wolves, and finally the Vermont winter are sent to the kennel on the north side of the Waloomsac Bridge. Ben had done alright, apparently. His coat was shiny, he was strong, his eyes bright despite his obvious pain, and he had offered his rescuers no resistance to their bundling him off to the vet. He was a little light in weight perhaps, and his movements even in the cast were clearly feral, but he was used to people, and he was beautiful and my mother fell in love with him immediately.

Ben immediately established himself as the alpha character among the others of the menagerie occupying mother’s farm. Once the cast was off he gleefully strutted his dominance and abilities in the fields, racing full out in any direction, flushing game, putting down challenges to his authority – even to mother.

Like boys will do, he wandered. Like feral animals do, he killed. It was unclear to mother what he was killing, but over 300-odd acres of range it’s easy to loose sight of a fast-moving yellow lab. Ben would frequently emerge over some rise with blood on his maul, looking quite pleased with himself. Mother didn’t mind the thought of her young man enjoying an occasional woodchuck, mole or vole tartar, but now and again there was more blood on Ben than could possible fit in the average vole.

The story got much more interesting one fine spring evening when out for a romp on Pointer’s Run. 50 yards across the new alfalfa planting three dear broke from the wood and foolishly gamboled along the margin. Ben broke into a streak, flattened out like a catamount and caught up with the smallest of the white tails in seconds. Mother stood rooted to the spot Ben had just vacated and watched in horror as he tackled this yearling and promptly tore open its gullet, laying his full fighting weight of 90 pounds across the poor deer’s forequarters as it spasmed and sprayed life out on the alfalfa. Ben was stripping the skin from his kill’s neck when mother, now shouting, attempted to pull him off, getting herself covered in gore and recoiling at Ben’s sharp and aggressive rebuke.

Mother retreated with her other dog and let Ben find his own way home. Over an hour later he came prancing up the drive, caked with blood, lymph and bits of the downy undercoat his prey had just begun to shed before going down to his blood lust. She banished him to the tool shed and went to see to the cadaver lying up on the edge of her top field. When she got to the bottom of the fields she could see the coyotes were already finishing the job, so she let the whole matter be, apart from washing Ben of his victory as he panted happily.

Clearly there was some training needed.

The solution was surprisingly elegant. Instead of the leather field collar Ben had discolored with his vampyrine mayhem, he was fitted with a new little box and nylon strap - a shock collar. The regime was simple: whenever Ben ignored a command he got an audible signal, triggered from a cell phone-sized sending unit; further recalcitrance would receive a fixed nine volts at various levels of amperage up to the full measure, which is more than enough power to take-down an obese Newfie, much less a 90 pound gazelle of a retriever.

Ben responded very well to the training and before long he was hanging much closer on walks. I learned how to use the system but had needed it much, other than to “chirp” my charge, for over a year. I was, admittedly, more inclined to indulge Ben’s blood lust than my mother, finding it altogether fitting to his general deportment and mien. He is, after all, a dog, an exemplar of his breed at that, and not so removed from his lupine brethren all over the woods. It had not escaped my notice, either, that since Ben’s arrival the coyotes no longer ventured anywhere near the house.

On a wet and windy evening we were at the entrance to the Mile-Around Wood when Ben stopped and pointed into the bramble off to one side. As I uttered “Ben…” he bolted into the cover and I fished the sender out to signal his return along with the full-voiced “Ben!” to go with it. Before I could organize myself a six-point buck broke no more than 5 feet in front of me, a huge deer, leaping the ten foot wide path in nearly a single bound, with Ben not more than a few feet behind it and gaining as they charged out into the open field on the other side.

I amped the sender up to 3 and hit the key. From 25 – 30 yards away Ben shook his head slightly, lost a little ground, and then pressed his pursuit, giving the buck time enough to turn and confront his assailant with his rack at ground level. Ben, mad with the chase, tore forward playing chicken with the lowered rack and without thinking I dialed all the way to the last stop and keyed. About five or so yards from the buck Ben’s head suddenly dropped and he went tumbling ass over tea kettle in a spectacular jumble. The deer immediately seized its good fortune and flew out of the field onto higher ground.

Just as I began to wonder if I’d seriously injured my mother’s feral founding his head popped dazedly up from the grass, he shook, and then made his way with his tail down toward me, shaking his head periodically. Finally he came up close at sat next to me somewhat stoop-shouldered, looking genuinely contrite. No small feat for such a proud creature.

For myself, I considered it a win-win. Ben was in one piece (as was the buck) and my pervy wheels were spinning.

Back in the present tense my fetishist friend had said nothing during the entire story, simply sat rapt and somewhat dreamy (especially during the throat-ripping bits). After a pause and a wondering stare, she turned to me and asked sotto voce “So, these collars… where do you find them?”

With thanks to Graydancer for the inspiration.