No Symbols – Only Fire.

Coming and Crying is an anthology published in 2010 by Melissa Gira Grant and Meaghan OConnell.

Coming and Crying is an anthology published in 2010 by Melissa Gira Grant and Meaghan O'Connell.

I remember so very clearly the first time I asked someone to hit me in bed – I was sixteen, I was dreadfully in love, and it opened up strange realms of possibility that, in fact, took me years to unravel. Desire is a complex creature, and for self-identified young feminists, it can be difficult to reconcile bodily imperatives with strongly-held beliefs.

I recently read Alex Hoyt’s story ‘I Hit Her – And She Liked It’, from Melissa Gira Grant and Megan O’Connell’s self-published wonder Coming & Crying, and was surprised at the amount of controversy it raised. Personally, I found it extremely touching, and opened up an important dialogue about sexual violence, the eroticisation of male dominance and female submission, and consensual kink/BDSM. I’ll be the first to say that non-consensual sexual violence is terrifying – domestic abuse and sexual assault is a serious issue. However, it has to be set apart from sexual preference. I also know from personal experience that given the stigmatisation of BDSM, fetish and kink, it is the lack of education about consent in relation to alternative sexualities that leads to negative representations and views of these practices in the media, or perhaps, more importantly, in our own minds and hearts.

Reconciling my feminism with my sexual preferences has been a constant struggle. I remember the multiple times I read and re-read Catharine MacKinnon’s essays on the patriarchal forces that constructed our notions of sexuality, the guilt I felt when I was tied down for the first time, and loved it. I remember hiding scars from bloodplay under my sleeves as I attended Feminist Philosophy classes and argued with my professor about how intercourse couldn’t be essentially violating. And all through this, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I indulged in sexual activity that seemed entirely contingent on my own subjugation, that I was somehow a ‘bad feminist’ for being so weak as to give in to societal constructions in my most vulnerable place – in bed. But what I eventually realised was that every part of our lives is implicated in existing ideologies – it’s how our choices in negotiating them that are most important. Sure, perhaps the way we desire exemplifies sexism, but it’s our awareness of these constructs, and our employment of agency that’s important. Not what we desire, but how we perform these desires, and the egalitarian contexts within which we perform them – it’s about, as always, choice. ‘She was in charge of that captioning, and made the choice according to a story I couldn’t hear.’ After all, if structures and societies are rigid, it’s us who are flexible, and doesn’t everybody want to turn the rules over and fuck them in the ass?

Alex Hoyt’s story, to me, celebrates the unyielding power of consent – the joy of mutual sexual exploration and the existence of multifaceted sexualities. It’s a beautiful story that tracks the incremental desires that creep into a partnership, notes the affection that comes with simultaneous discovery, and the interchange that allows for a unique intimacy between two people. And what’s wonderful about it is the communication between the two – it’s making choices together, and working towards a common goal – pleasure. What’s sexy here is not domination, or submission (although that certainly is a part of it), what’s sexy is making the other person feel, discovering what makes their breath catch and their eyes glaze. The reality here isn’t rooted any kind of oppression; the reality is the bite of a raised pulse in your wrist, the feeling of vastness expanding through your cells. The reality here, is caring about another person, their wants and needs. It’s about two people extending each other beyond a normative plane of being. It’s about turning established symbols of the patriarchy into fire, and destroying them in the process.

Of course, I’m not underplaying the importance of safety – and neither does Hoyt – his partner tells him when he goes too far, and they discuss how far they’re going to go before they do. ‘Only she can show you where and what to hit. In this setting, your sexual vocabulary expands because of your partner’s needs, not your own.’ It’s the ultimate sexual agency, and it’s the combination of agency and consent that lead to a safe sexual experience, whether vanilla or kinky. It’s just that in a situation like Hoyt’s, the physical stakes are much higher. And of course, accidents can always happen, but if you check, at ever level, that like he did, that things are still consensual, the risks become much smaller. I know I certainly got lazy at one point – my partner shattered my eardrum with a slap to the face, totally accidentally, but from then on we played a lot safer, and a lot more enjoyably. After all, there’s no evading the rule, and the only rule is – go slow, and communicate. I can’t stress enough how education about how to play safely is crucial, and rarely addressed when you’re a teen – Amy Marsh recently wrote an article on how parents can teach kids about how to engage in kinky sex safely and consensually. I certainly wish that I had been told about getting regularly tested before I started engaging in bloodplay, that some of my partners had been told that if they were going to make me so physically open like that, they also had to close me up emotionally.

Being a submissive is vulnerable position that one chooses to put themselves in, and it can be intensely rewarding. But it is also a mutual one where you have to ensure you establish trust with your partner, keep hold of your agency, and communicate. And I can tell you, after that, it’s only fire.

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6 Comments on “No Symbols – Only Fire.”

  1. 1 cara said at 12:48 pm on October 4th, 2010:


  2. 2 sexgenderbody said at 3:44 pm on October 4th, 2010:

    I love this. Thank you for such a tender, open statement of your identity.


  3. 3 Ashley Lebesco said at 1:03 pm on October 5th, 2010:

    I am so glad you talked about the importance of distinguishing between assault and what people desire. I have been told that certain sexual positions are not feminist, and that annoys me because whatever gets you off gets you off.

  4. 4 kingink said at 2:27 pm on October 20th, 2010:

    Well said, Trisha. I especially like this: “But what I eventually realised was that every part of our lives is implicated in existing ideologies – it’s how our choices in negotiating them that are most important.”

    I think it’s important to just up and admit that the cultures we live in construct our sexualities, because it leads to a couple of interesting questions.

    For one thing, why do people like Mackinnon or Gail Dines focus such a sharp lens on sexual practices when critiquing the injustices of patriarchy (and capitalism)? In other words, why is it up to us wankers and fuckers to fight with our desires in order to free ourselves from the shackles of patriarchy? Shouldn’t we set our sites on broad social change? Shouldn’t we work on dismantling the social structures that shape our consciousnesses in oppressive ways? Meanwhile, we make our unconscious feelings about those oppressive social structures conscious AND get off in the privacy of our bedrooms.

    In the story that inspired Trisha’s article, Hoyt uses the term “ritual” indicating that the kinky behavior he’s taking part in happens in a ritualized space, set apart from the rest of everyday life (some of the commenters on Jezebel, where Hoyt’s story is posted, talk about the “ritual” of kink as well).

    I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems to me that humans often stage rituals to manage parts of their lives that seem barely within their control. Think of Plains Indian dances where someone dresses up as a buffalo and someone else dresses up as a hunter and the two enact a successful “hunt” in the hopes that the real hunt will be successful. Consider the ritual of the Catholic mass, or Christian worship generally, in which the congregation celebrates the gruesome death of its idol, who died horribly for the continued (spiritual) prosperity of the community.

    In both these examples, humans are trying to manage their fears and anxieties about the world.

    I don’t want to suggest that all BDSM and kink is fear-based, but there are examples that some of it is. In Nick Broomfield’s documentary, _Fetishes_, there’s a black corporate executive who gets off on having a dominatrix humiliate him and call him the N-word. He’s exploring his fears of being what white society says he is. I think in the same film there’s a Jewish guy who does concentration camp play.

    Then look at all the straight white guys who are into cuckolding, especially interracial cuckolding with black men?

    In fact, isn’t it pretty common knowledge that politicians and CEOs and the like often visit dommes?

    We live in an authoritarian, hierarchical, patriarchal society that’s capitalist to boot, meaning we privilege competition and provide a pretty puny social safety net. In fact, “patriarchal” is too mild; like the Romans, we live in a misogynist culture that equates bodily penetration with a lack of power and maybe total degradation. It’s weird, but that misogyny is everywhere. How many turns of phrase in U.S. vernacular English do we have that turn on the idea of prison rape, and that often are the source of jokes: “Yeah, I made him my bitch,” or “He’s gonna make you his woman.” Then there’s the idea that penetration=ownership. “To own” people, in terms of defeating them somehow, is a constant in popular culture:

    Ha ha ha.

    Why wouldn’t we eroticize our fears? It’s how we cope with the social roles that seem to want to constantly swallow us and cram us into rigid categories.

    On either side of the cultural straight and narrow lies abjection. Stray just a little and suddenly you become a slut, bitch, faggot, dyke, freak. Culture threatens us constantly with ostracism and worse, threatens to render us disposable and beyond empathy or compassion. This constant threat that we will be the worst in our society shapes our consciousnesses and sexualities.

    The idea that we should somehow repress our desires as a way of fighting our subjugation sucks. It seems more productive for our emotional and sexual health to go to the deep dark places of our desires and figure out what’s there and play around in it. Either way, while we’re out there fighting the good fight for social change and justice, we can keep a little space for ourselves where we express and explore the ways our sexualities are implicated in existing ideologies, where we can manage the threat of social subjugation.

  5. 5 Nancy said at 10:22 pm on October 28th, 2010:

    Thank you, King Ink, for your amazing comment. I keep circling back to it, thinking about it, forwarding it, referencing it, and holding it up for its truth and complexity. Cheers to the dark places, and exploring them safely.

  6. 6 kingink said at 10:47 pm on October 29th, 2010:

    Thank you for the compliment, Nancy. I was on a caffeine high when I wrote this, and Trisha’s article kind of coalesced all this stuff that I’ve been thinking about for awhile, and it all came pouring out. As I read back over it after I submitted it, I was worried it was ridiculously too long for a blog comment. I’m very glad that it was of use to you and that I didn’t overstay my welcome.

    And that’s a very nice toast! I think it’ll be my new one for 2011. 🙂

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