Curiouser and CuriouserPosted: July 29, 2011
Please accept my apologies for my recent absence. Shortly after my last post I fell down a rabbit hole into a strange and magical other-world. At least, that’s what it felt like. In reality, I was at Secret Garden Party, a weird and wonderful weekend unlike any I had previously experienced. A festival, a carnival, a playground, a wonderland: Secret Garden Party seemed above all to be an invitation for exploration.
There are many stories that I could relate (nudity, fireworks and a tarantula all featured in my weekend – though, thankfully, not at the same time), but for this blog I’m going to focus on “Sensual Domination”. That’s the name of a session that I attended in a tent entitled The Goddess Temple. The workshop was led by a professional dominatrix who defied all the stereotypes I held: petite, softly spoke and little shy, she had a warm, gentle energy and wore a shortish white dress that was part dishevelled-virgin and part balletic-wood-nymph. I didn’t catch her name, so I’ll call her Jane – purely because it’s the least dominatrixy name I can think of.
Jane showed us various tools of her trade – restraints, spankers, strap-ons and so on. Her concern about shocking people was endearing, but Jane’s toys differed from those available on the high street mainly in quality (“I’m actually a vegetarian…” she acknowledged apologetically, modelling a genuine rabbit-fur mitt). What, for me, was infinitely more striking than her array of props was her tone and the meaning of domination that she conveyed.
Worship: that was the word she used. For her, dominating someone who wants to be dominated is a way of worshipping them. It is reciprocal, she explained: one person manifests their worship of another by entirely surrendering control to them; the other’s worship lies in cherishing the gift of power they have been given, and using it to fulfill their (play) partner’s desire to be dominated. It feels cheesy to say it, but I have to acknowledge that I was moved by this description. It felt genuinely new to me and yet so obvious. If giving oral sex, or fucking, or attending to your partner’s/partners’ desires in any other normative way can feel like worship – which I know it can – why wouldn’t, for example, collaring and spanking them feel that way, if to be collared and spanked is what they most wish for?
Perhaps Jane’s description of domination-as-worship wouldn’t have resonated with me so deeply had we not seen it played out. One of the women running the Goddess Temple – let’s call her Lucy – volunteered to participate in a demonstration. Around 20 women sat quietly in a circle while Jane guided Lucy through a short meditation, in order for them both to become relaxed and centred. She then began to tie her up, using the art of Japanese bondage. There was an undeniably devotional quality to the careful attention that Jane gave to Lucy as she wound the rope around her: the process seemed measured, mindful, and precise, like a ritual.
Once Lucy was bound with her arms behind her back, Jane placed a blindfold over her eyes and proceeded to touch her arms and chest with various differently-textured toys. Sitting behind Lucy, she then drew her back towards her chest and, after checking that Lucy was comfortable, continued the workshop while holding her in an embrace. When she later removed the blindfold and rope, she checked in with Lucy about her experience. Throughout, Jane was firm, purposeful and undeniably in control, without a hint of violence. Indeed, I felt I witnessed an interaction of tenderness, trust and real intimacy.
Before Secret Garden Party, I would have described myself in relation to BDSM as pretty vanilla in experience and quietly curious in inclination. I aspire to a “whatever floats your consenting adult boat” open-mindedness about paths to pleasure. I was aware of some common misconceptions about BDSM – confusing consensual power-play or pain-exchange with abuse or violence, for example – and have on occasion challenged those views. All of that said, my reactions to the workshop demonstrate that I was holding preconceptions about domination. My awe of the tenderness displayed shows I didn’t imagine tenderness in BDSM scenarios; my surprise at the lack of (real or performed) aggression proves that I expected aggression.
I value being confronted with my unexamined prejudices: it gets my intellectual cogs turning, makes me humble, and helps me to empathise with people who hold prejudices against groups I belong to. This workshop, though, stretched me further. Listening to Jane speak, watching her interact with Lucy, I acknowledged that on some level I find the idea of being submissive very appealing. I think that that has been difficult to identify previously for a variety of reasons, and it feels like a tricky thing to begin to explore.
It doesn’t help that if you google “BDSM” you quickly find yourself encountering porn sites with slogans such as “outnumbered and overwhelmed: bound and gangbanged.” Try “Japanese bondage” and second only to trusty Wikipedia you get “Most innocent girls you’ve ever seen, tied up, hung and spread eagled for the satisfaction of sex maniacs”. The glaringly misogynistic and often explicitly violent nature of most hetero pornography (not to mention the more subtly misogynistic and implicitly violent aspects of mainstream culture) seem to me significant obstacles to getting to grips with one’s own fantasies and desires about domination. It’s hard not to feel that the whole area is contaminated somehow.
Can a feminist enjoy being dominated sexually? “Of course!” I cry. I don’t believe that someone is “colluding with her oppression” if she enjoys submission or masochism. My feminism is not about telling women how they should or should not experience or enact their sexuality. However, it’s relatively easy to defend the rights of another woman, whom I trust to have a clear understanding of her own desires. It’s a lot murkier when it comes to myself. I’m also pretty sure that, regardless of what my brain might have to say about it, my body would have reacted differently had the workshop leader dominating Lucy been a man.
On a personal level, I was remarkably uninhibited when I first became sexually active and enthusiastically explored some level of “kinkiness” at quite a young age, but later negative experiences made the whole area confusing. For a long time any kind of domination scared me because, no matter how hard I tried to hold on to my own desires and my own consent, it seemed to echo with experiences of having power used over me in an unsettling or abusive way.
Another hurdle is that the terms covered by BDSM (that’s bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism) are easily conflated, so that nuances between different kinds of play become lost. It’s possible, for example, to want to be submissive and bound, but not want to be “disciplined.” That seems obvious, now, but I don’t think I really understood it until I watched Jane tie Lucy up and then – in a very dominant, very loving, way – caress and hold her.
The Sensual Domination workshop opened lots of doors, and, like Alice in Wonderand, I’m curious to see where they lead. Learning and sex are two of my very favourite things, so I’m excited, but also daunted, and I feel that I have a lot more questions than answers right now. Modifying my search to “BDSM + feminism” brought up more promising leads (feminism really is the magic word), and I got some food for thought on feministsforchoice, Jezebel, The F Word and AlterNet.
I would absolutely love to hear from others on this topic, especially if you have read anything that you’ve found useful, have thoughts on the articles I just linked to, or are just generally an enlightening human – get in touch! I’ll be pondering until then…