Agency, Consent, and Integrity
24 August 2017 | 9:17 pm

It seems that over the last year or two, we can’t make it through an event weekend without a big to-do over consent. These complaints have ranged from typical “creeper” groping to such extremes as nonconsenual biting or willful breaches of consent (both of which truly are inexcusable). I bite my tongue every time someone complains about a rando groping as though it’s a colossal failure of the community, and I finally wanted to spell some things out after someone (wrongly) told me I literally cannot elect to waive my right to revoke consent within the context of a negotiated scene. Any idiot can understand the basic concept of asking for consent, but unfortunately most individuals do not function in that capacity and sexual-social community dynamics are substantially more complicated, involving far more than immediate verbal consent. People seem to stop at “any idiot can understand,” and then demand all consent be based purely on immediacy and vocalization which is a grotesque oversimplification of what consent really is and how it functions.

One of the biggest things that is overlooked when people talk about this model of consent is that agency is necessary to give consent. If you’re not familiar with what agency is, it’s the ability to independently make your own decisions and it can be limited by anything from inebriation to complex social systems. For instance, someone only engaging in an activity due to pressure from an authority figure does not have full control of their agency, nor does a person who is completely inebriated in that they cannot fully be conscious of their decisions. The same can be said of someone suffering from addiction, someone in a deep headspace, or even someone who’s just so horny they aren’t thinking straight: when something prevents us from being fully present, whole, and aware true consent is not possible.

When people talk about breaches of consent, they tend to only look at situations in which a person does not want something in the moment and is forced to endure it - molestation or rape, for instance. The model of consent that is presently being pushed heavily (immediate and verbal being the only acceptable measure of consent) is largely built in response to this thought process, and it neglects that one of the primary functions of many power exchange dynamics is to diminish control over one’s agency. This can of course have varying degrees of severity but just as someone may engage in behavior they normally wouldn’t due to pressure from an official authority figure, a Dom’s presence can shape a sub’s decision-making process. Because of the way this informs these decisions, in some instances a sub cannot truly consent, much in the same way a drunk person cannot.

Looking at consent only through the lens of immediacy is easy, but it does not consider the potential for someone operating at a diminished capacity. A prime example of how this can fall apart is looking at something like barrier protection or participation in safer sex. While this specific example is becoming less relevant due to PrEP allowing for better risk management, it’s still something that happens frequently. Let’s say a sub negotiates a scene with a requirement that anal sex may only occur with condoms. After a good bit of edging, he’s feeling rather driven to get fucked to the point he wants to beg for it and all he can think about is his Sir’s dick claiming his hole. Of his own volition (maybe there was no condom around, maybe he wanted to feel skin or a load - the ‘why’ is immaterial) he begs the Dom to fuck him without protection. The over-emphasis that immediate consent is all that matters could easily lead to someone honestly believing this to be consent, and encouraging that thought process is dangerous.

Let’s look at another situation, one that is a common sub experience I’ve been through myself a number of times. For a lot of subs, headspace can run incredibly deep; it can do things like make you instinctively reluctant to speak, cause you to become very emotionally invested in service, and significantly alter other behavior to the point where your normal self might be barely recognizable. In these instances questions might be answered with a quick nod or shake of the head or possibly even a lack of response connoting disagreement, and control is a constant pressure the sub feels exerted upon them: it informs every action they take. For subs who lean towards this sort of headspace, the intense aversion to vocalizing means a lot of what they are feeling is heavily internalized and they are left with a very strong desire to please. One of the things that can get internalized in this context is disappointment in oneself or the fear of disappointing the Dom; feeling failure to instantly grow and be a better sub, not being able to please someone enough or in the right way, thinking that disagreement will undermine submission, etc. When this is internalized too strongly, a sub in headspace may end up expressly consenting to activities they do not want to engage in as a means of abating this perceived potential for disappointment. In a way, this example can be even more dangerous because of its greater potential to be used as a means of manipulation and, again, an over-emphasis on the immediacy-based consent model can blind someone to this potential.

One of the other failings of this model is that it quite literally creates something akin to a caste system in which allowing exceptions to the rules is based on attractiveness. I have watched as some of the most vocal proponents of immediacy-based consent respond differently to people touching them without consent depending on how attracted to the individual they are, and I personally feel that makes their motives clear. When you don’t have the integrity to turn someone desirable down for violating a principle you purport to value, your goal is not to nobly protect others from assailants by asserting a standard but rather to legitimize your aversion to undesirables touching you. It’s dishonest, it’s selfish, and it actually hurts people whether by directly damaging their confidence or through one of the many side-effects of this double-standard.

What we should be doing instead is respecting that consent is not simple or purely rooted in immediacy and that insisting it is undermines that having control of one’s agency is necessary to grant consent. We should respect that there is a staunch difference between sex-prohibitive and sex-positive culture, and no matter what we do some new people will always misunderstand things until they are taught. We should respect that the people making these mistakes are often times not at fault and their actions stem from being educated by a culture that deliberately and systematically misinformed them about how sex works. We should respect that malice and ignorance are not equivocal, and that we should see teaching opportunities instead of pariahs in the case of the latter. We should respect that there are some in our own community who would elevate their own minor inconvenience over the growth and development of others and that that sort of thinking is far more damaging than a wayward grope.

I don’t mean to call into question anyone’s right to bodily autonomy, I simply believe that there are far too many people whose aim is to reinforce a double-standard which allows them to have their cake and eat it too. You don’t get to claim there is a strong moral argument for something while quietly allowing exceptions that suit your whims, and I think it’s time people stop enabling this kind of rabble-rousing. If your solution is to draw a line that denies not only the complicated transition from normal culture to kink culture but also perpetuates a narrative that undermines the importance of agency in how we grant consent, I’m not going to praise you and give you a pedestal. It’s not that simple and it never will be, so all we can do is try and help steer individuals towards better behavior instead of creating standards; claiming there’s a nefarious underlying issue in kink is chasing a remedy to something that can’t yet be fixed, and I’d rather use my energy on potentially productive conversations.

Fight, for Fuck's Sake
21 June 2017 | 12:06 am

When I learned of Si’s passing, my first thought - after again compulsively yelling “HOLY FUCK” - was “Please, for the love of god don’t let this have been suicide.” This thought was likely colored by the fact that someone in Chicago recently killed themself, but the primary motivator was how amazing and welcoming both of these individuals were. I expected to feel almost a sigh of relief when someone said it wasn’t, but instead I was left with the thoughts I’d had about what a positive person he was any time I saw him.

I remember not being as impacted by death when I was younger, and I don’t think this had anything to do with it being a less frequent occurrence at the time or that it's people who meant more to me. In fact, I feel like there are people who could logistically be called acquaintances (though I wholeheartedly refer to friends) whose torch being extinguished honestly affected me more than losing my great grandmother and my grandfather. I spent a good amount of time being raised by my grandfather, and my great grandmother was the family member I talked to most when I was first on my own … and yet, I find myself more impacted by the loss of people I’ve only interacted with a number of times that could easily be counted.

What’s happened as I’ve gotten older, I think, is I’ve realized how small I am. Within the context of my family, yes, these people made a tremendous difference to me and who I am. They protected me, they loved me, they taught me to love, and they let me be myself - things I try with every fiber of my being to carry into the world. But no matter how much I appreciate what they gave me, the world where I came from always felt so incredibly small. We had our neighbors as friends and that was essentially the extent of our social gatherings outside the family. I understand that some people want to live small, quiet lives, but the more people I meet the more I see how much work there is to be done.

It’s no secret that community is important to me, and I can’t imagine myself ever wanting a quiet life; nature is pretty and tranquility is nice, but people are fucking beautiful. If anything, this is a sentiment that has strengthened with age instead of souring into cynicism like it does for most. I think a lot of this is rooted in being involved in queer culture, but I’m honestly so immersed in gay/kink stuff that I literally can’t tell what normal culture looks like any more. A friend was joking the other day about some director saying “It’s not believable to have two gay characters in a friend group,” to which they responded “Hunny, I haven’t seen a straight person in a week.” Aside from work (and even parts of work), my entire life is LGBTQQI.

One of the main reasons I think people are so beautiful is their potential for growth when they’re given a supportive environment. The world has a way of beating down the things that make people special, and queer culture is the strongest existing force against this erosion of true self. Whether it’s the simple acknowledgement that love is okay - even when it’s complicated - or that it’s okay to not adhere to a specific gender norm, or that sex is not evil and immoral it empowers people, it's a culture that says “Hun .. you do you: you're amazing,” and I can't think of a better way to enable mental health and growth. When you cut off the fear of rejection that is drilled into us by oppressive standards, suddenly people are more willing to pay it forward instead of trying to shoot someone down before they can be shot down.

As I reflected on the initial thought I had - “Please don't let it have been suicide,” really more prayer than thought - it actually became a little unsettling that I couldn't feel grateful he was around rather than sad he's gone from the world. I really did not know him that well through interaction, only through seeing what he was to others. Wondering why what he represented was so important to me kind of lead into thinking about community, which made me wonder why I can't just let myself just be a “rocking chair on the porch” kinda guy despite being such a huge ball of anxiety. And there it was again: that knee-jerk fear that another beautiful, amazing person had taken their own life. The fact that he hadn't was no longer relevant; the fact that some of my friends and my family are so exhausted by the world telling them that their existence is wrong they have life-long intimacy issues, or substance abuse problems, or take their own lives … that's what mattered in that moment, and why being grateful doesn't feel like enough.

I recognize the imagery of love and war may seem antithetical, but we need soldiers. We need people willing to put themselves out there fearlessly to show others it can be done. We need people wearing the emotional equivalent of teflon armor so that the aggression of rejection (or by extension the potential for it) doesn't phase them and they can move from person to person and help them. We need people whose smile and joyfulness is a weapon that can pierce through cynicism and mistrust, and we lost someone fucking armed to the teeth.

Things have been feeling a lot better lately. I’ve almost been feeling complacent, and comfortable, and far enough removed from grief to not feel sad all the time. When I heard about someone who was basically the embodiment of a warm hug killing themself, it set me back a bit as a reminder of the struggles of our community. While my initial response to Si’s passing may have been incorrect and tantamount to a coincidence, I won’t soon forget that it is indicative of how we exist: they’re not killing us as often any more, now they’re just applying pressure until we snap one way or the other. It’s still happening, even in cities we basically own, and it needs to stop.

Don’t just be unapologetically you, fight like hell against anyone who tries to tell you you can’t: you don’t have to maintain space for people who want to bring you down. Take a stance against shaming whether it’s a fem boy, a bottom, a slut, a pup, a diaper boy, an artist, a socially awkward weirdo, a disabled person, someone living their heritage, someone who can’t afford nice clothes … be there to smile when they are being supportive, but don’t ever let someone trick you into thinking you need to tolerate their bullshit. Everyone does better off when we support each other, but support is a mutual endeavor and we need to not let people build themselves up on the backs of others. We’re a small piece of the pie, but people from outside our community have been using us as punching bags to work out their own feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, and it’s still fucking a lot of people up.

It’s easy to feel complacent when you feel progress, but if you take a look at the mental health issues that are still prevalent as a result of heteronormative pressure you’ll see there’s still a lot to be angry about. For those of us in big cities it’s especially easy; we forge our own communities where we feel loved and accepted, and we’re very far removed from signs of the damage that is still going on. We may not even realize some of our own community members are carrying scars, and that for them small signs of rejection may feel to them like it did where they came from; feeling accepted after a life of rejection only to have it pulled out from under them. We need to smile and have joy and even mourn, but don’t forget for a second the anger you should feel from their treatment of us. When the most common first thought upon hearing of an untimely death in your community isn’t to wonder if it was an accident but rather to wonder if it was either suicide or drugs, there is a problem … and it just so happens that this problem isn’t of our own making.

Expressive vs. Regressive Pups
6 June 2017 | 5:49 pm

While being regarded as a pup is fairly new for me (it actually still catches me off-guard when people refer to me as one), I’ve still hovered around the pup scene for quite some time. I think the reason it originally didn’t resonate with me had less to do with pup play specifically and more to do with a disinterest in power exchange at the time I was introduced to it. As my desire to explore power exchange dynamics began to delve into dehumanization, suddenly it made a lot of sense both conceptually and in practice.

One of the things I like most about the pup community is that there is such a healthy attitude about how people handle things differently. There are plenty of approaches regarding how to train pups, fairly different headspaces, and even a wide array handler/pup dynamics. While I truly do believe the community is very open to these differences, visibility is still an important part of teaching diversity and some ways of pupping are innately bound to overshadow others. I feel like social moshes are the part of the scene that will naturally have more presence, and they’ve left things feeling somewhat one-sided for newcomers. Events like On Leash are a great step towards remedying this, but to make greater strides education is important as well.

Despite how varied many of the nuances of these relationships are, they primarily seem (to me) to fall under two distinct categories. The first, and most common, version is actually somewhat closer to how pups from the furry fandom approach pup play: the headspace is tantamount to a persona, usually one the individual strongly identifies with. The second, which is firmly rooted in the traditional pet play found in BDSM, is based on stripping away certain aspects and behaviors that make someone human. Both “core” approaches are equally valid, but they tend to resonate with different individuals. I’ve been calling them “expressive pups” and “regressive pups” for some time, and I wanted to talk about some of the key differences a bit.

Expressive pups: these are what has become the bread-and-butter of the pup community, and their dynamics that emphasize fluidity can confuse or even frustrate those accustomed to structures that favor rigidity - hence the pushback from some leatherfolk. They see being a pup as a part of their identity as a whole, and are often not shy about sharing this part of themselves with others. Expressive pups tend to enter headspaces of varying depths depending on circumstance, ranging from casually barking at people/pups to reflexively curling their hands into paws or similar physicality to a full-on, tunnel-visioned romping headspace. Their ability to express themselves as pups so flexibly and openly is largely what is responsible for the community’s explosion, and their ability to have a varied depth of headspace lets them engage more actively in human socialization. Many expressive pups have little to no interest in sexual activities while in headspace and they may be prone to romp and play purely as a social endeavor.

Regressive pups: much less visible, regressive pups tend to rely on reinforced dynamics to access their headspace. While expressive pups may use power exchange for training or within the context of a pack dynamic, regressive pups tend to be purely based on power exchange as a means of enforcing behavior. Rather than having a pervasive, puplike personality that bleeds into many aspects of their character, being a pup to them is more apt to represent a deliberate denial of personhood. Essentially, a regressive pup may be closer to a gimp-like headspace than a boy-like one, which may entail a further diminishing of agency. With their behavior being sculpted by rules and expectations instead of expressing themselves in varying degrees, regressive pups are less likely to be able to (or desire to) access hybridized headspaces. One of the challenges for these pups gaining visibility is that a substantial motivating factor for this sort of play may in fact be the somewhat stricter denial of human-to-human social interaction within the context of these scenes.

It’s worth noting that both sorts of pups need somewhat different sorts of handlers. Expressive pups are likely to need a primarily nurturing handler that is prone to encouragement and positive reinforcement. Depending on the pup, this may be a side of themselves they have been repressing for a substantial portion of their life; unearthing a part of themselves that deeply buried usually takes making someone feel good about it. Regressive pups may need a stern approach, potentially rooted in corporal punishment or timely correction. Since a regressive pup’s motivation is having their identity stripped away, their immediate desires may often be in conflict with the demands of the dynamic, making the need for discipline more prevalent.

I guess what I really wanted to get at is I’ve heard from a lot of pups having trouble finding the sort of play they’re looking for because all they see are expressive pups/handlers - I know a few who have actually left the community over it. While I definitely don’t think the community is engaging in kink-shaming or anything similar for regressive pups, it’s hard to tell people their version of pupping is okay when they don’t see anyone engaging in play the same way that they want to. If you’re a pup who wants this sort of enforced headspace, hang in there: keep having open discussions with handlers and you’ll find one that enjoys the extra rigidity you’re aching for. If you encounter a pup who seems to be interested in this, try to be just as actively supportive as you would for an expressive pup even though you may not see their pup side as often. Most of all - for the love of god - if you see an event that tries to cater to pups who feel this way, keep your mouth shut if it’s not for you: there are more than enough moshes and similar social events. Let the pups who need this structure have it just like they let you have the freedom you enjoy at your mosh.

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