So… I’ve started reading Conflict Is Not Abuse.
It’s… difficult. (There are going to be a lot ellipses in this post, which I know can be irritating, but please just bear with me).
I’m not yet 50 pages in, so I have some hopes that it’s going to get easier, that the author’s theories about powerful individuals or groups reading threat & danger into what would more accurately be called resistance to oppression will find a better fit when she’s talking about white cops and unarmed black men, or occupying forces and the people they’re terrorizing (she uses Israel and Gaza, but could just as easily be talking about Canada and the many nations contained within, and overlapping, its borders). But at the moment, we’re at the “micro level” of this theory, talking about interpersonal relationships, flirting and dating, power plays, “shunning”, and… you guys, it is not going well.
It’s hard to read this book, or at least it’s been hard so far, because a lot the stuff that the author is saying – and probably feeling pretty confident about her professionalism in saying, given that her publisher is the kind of place that has a slush pile, professional editors, and a number of titles that wound up on Canada Reads – sound like the inside of my own head when I’m not doing well at all.
So I thought I’d talk about what goes on in my own head.
Which is a scary thing, in and of itself, because a whole bunch of it? Is probably really wrong.
So. Here we go…
The first thing is this:
Boundaries are complicated.
I mean, yes, they’re also really, REALLY simple. They’re as simple as “No”. As simple as “Stop”. The words that two-year-olds say over and over and over – No! Mine! – because they are at the developmental stage where they start actively differentiating Self from Other and that difference is HUGE big news.
But they’re complicated – for me, if not for everyone – because they are many-layered things. Boundaries are No and Stop. The place where I begin and You can’t cross.
But they are also the place where You begin and I can’t cross.
The place where my privileges end.
But also the place where my responsibilities end.
I had such a lightbulb moment, years ago now, when my therapist told me that she wanted to try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – AKA “talking to chairs” – with me. With much trepidation and a lot of side-eye, I told in all seriousness that I was willing to try it, but that I couldn’t guarantee that I would know where I was supposed to go with it.
And she said something along the lines of: “You’re not supposed to know where to go with it. That’s my job. Your job is to trust me and give it a shot. See? Boundaries.”
It was a total penny-drop.
But I still have trouble with it.
I try to anticipate what a given partner or friend will want/need/feel so that I can have that base covered by the time they’re wanting/needing/feeling it. If my life were a movie, the results would probably involve Zany Hijinks, or at least Hilarity, ensuing but… this is real life so it mostly just involves me putting undue pressure on myself and then needing a lot of reassurance that I’m not doing something wrong just by existing in a not-actively-helpful way.
I try to chess game my way through Hard Conversations (job interviews, relationship transitions, crisis moments), to know how my interlocutor is going to react, so that I can address whatever comes up perfectly, so that they won’t be scared or angry, so that things won’t go completely to hell, so that the person won’t Leave Me. So that I’ll (hopefully) get what I want, whether that’s a happy and invested romantic partner or a realist-artist who wants to hire me again; a friend who is eating a real meal, with protein, for the first time in three days, or an acquaintance who’s interested in meeting me for Pho at a confirmed date and time.
…And the more intimate the relationship, the more invested I am in it continuing, the higher the stakes are when I have to go into a conversation (even if it’s with an empty chair representing my own inner child, if you will) where I don’t know what the path to the other side really looks like.
So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is… My primary love language is touch.
So, yes, when a romantic partner and I have sex together, I’m speaking (and listening to) my love language. But that’s also what happens when I offer my hand across the pub table to the friend who’s having a really hard week, and she takes it. Or when I hug my favourite auntie (or my mom, even if our relationship is still a little bit fraught), and she hugs back. Or when my wife snuggles up and spoons me at night, and I twine my fingers with hers. Or when I scratch my pal’s recently buzzed scalp and they lean against my shoulder, while a big group of us chat over brunch.
And that’s all lovely. That’s all consensual and delightful and good.
But things get pretty fraught, pretty fast, when you are asking (pleading with?) your partner to start speaking your love language… and that language is touch.
I don’t think that happens nearly so much, or to such a degree, if one’s primary love language is, say, Caring Actions. In which case, maybe what you’re asking for is “Can you be at the train station to meet me? Can you call, out of the blue, to offer to pick me up from work in the car so I don’t have to brave OC Transpo during flu season? Can you know what my favourite food is and keep it on hand and make it for me sometimes, Just Because? Can you surprise me by hanging the pictures while I’m out getting groceries, so I come home to a house that feels a little more finished? Can you put a photo of us, together, on the lock-screen of your phone, or the desk of your home office, so that when I visit, I can see it and know that you are wishing me close, even when I’m far away?”
…As opposed to asking that someone to “speak your love language” in ways that, whatever they happen to be, all boil down to “Can you touch me for longer durations, and/or in more intense ways, and/or with greater frequency, than you are probably comfortable with, because if you were comfortable with them, you would probably already be doing so?”
That can turn into scary-pressure really fucking fast, and I’m not sure where the line between “advocating for my needs” and “pressuring someone else” really is in that situation. (If I’m upset that someone said No (I don’t want to have sex with you; I don’t want you to hold my hand right now; I don’t want to sit next to you; etc) do I have to hide my upset forever, or can I talk about it the next day? If the next day isn’t okay, what about the next week? Can I ask for touch at all, or is that pressuring someone in and of itself? Is my level of skin hunger abnormal? Does that make it bad? If it’s not bad, why is it so hard for someone else to meet me where I’m at? Is there something wrong with me?)
So. That was the second thing.
The third thing is that I’m still trying to internalize/grok/something the relationship between “Abuse is too much closeness, NOT too much distance” and Covert Boundary-Crossings like lying, manipulation, and gaslighting. Because I think there is a relationship there. (The gaslighting link talks about a thing called “glamour gaslighting”, where someone puts you on a pedestal and then gets mad, or freaks out, and pulls away when you start asking for support or care which, like, “Oh, hai, extreme familiarity”… And it feels very much like “too much distance” to the gaslighted party, and yet… may still qualify as abuse?)
I went to Kai Cheng Thom’ and Kota Harbron’s “Monstrous Love” workshop on mental health and intimate partner abuse, about a year ago. It wasn’t what I was expecting it to be, but it was an interesting workshop. There was an example given by the presenters wherein they roll-played two conversations, in which the respective people in a romantic diad each confided in a friend about something scary and uncomfortable going on in the romantic relationship. Then the presenters asked the workshop participants to identify who was abusing whom in the shared scenario they’d just performed.
One partner was clearly experiencing anxiety because of something their partner was doing to them (asking a lot of questions about what they’re doing with whom, when, and getting angry or otherwise upset when they weren’t home or made plans to hang with other people), whereas the other partner was clearly experiencing anxiety because of something she was doing to herself inside her own head (replaying situations from a past, painfully-ended romance and assuming that the same thing is happening in her current relationship).
I have a really hard time discerning when I’m reacting to stuff in my head versus when I’m reacting to stuff someone else is doing to me.
When my friend says “we should do coffee soon” but never follows up with possible dates and times (nor responds to my suggestions of dates and times), am I feeling angry and blown-off because my friend is actually blowing me off? Or am I feeling angry and blown-off because I’m hyper-sensitive and/or believe that I have a closer relationship with this person (friend, as opposed to friendly-acquaintance?) than I actually do? Is someone actually doing something to me (blowing me off, suggesting a thing and then not following through) or am I doing something to myself (having unrealistic expectations about the kind of relationship I have with this person, expecting follow-through when “we should do coffee soon” really means “it was so nice to see you at this public, group event, I hope I’ll see you here again”).
When I ask the person who refers to herself as my girlfriend to act like she likes me (see: love languages, limerence behaviours, the general idea that one can – one hopes – expect a reliable degree of acceptance, empathy, validation, and reciprocal disclosure from one’s romantic partners) and she tells me that I’m being unreasonable or needy, is she reacting to something she’s doing to herself (replaying an earlier romance that devolved into stalking, or a childhood situation where she was made to take responsibility for the emotions of an adult care-giver, or a limbic-response that relates to her ambivalent/avoidant attachment style), or is she reacting to something I’m doing (Am I actually being unreasonable for wanting those things? Am I being needy/pushy/demanding in how, or how often, I ask for them)? And is my upset/panic/spiraling at her reaction based on something she’s doing to me (punishing me for wanting care or reliability, gaslighting me about what are, or are not, reasonable things to expect from a partner) or something I’m doing to myself (my own limbic responses as relating to my insecure-anxious attachment style; replaying stuff that happened in earlier relationships – a minor schoolyard disagreement at age nine directly resulting in years of ostracizing & bullying; my ex-husband insisting that there wass nothing wrong with how he was treating me, and that the problem was clearly my having a problem at all – and believing they are happening again)?
A lot of the time, I suspect it’s a little bit of both.
But I am an absolute MESS when it comes to sorting out… basically, how much of that “little bit of both” is stuff that I’m doing and can therefore (ha, in theory) control, or at least make decisions about.
So that’s the third thing.
But. Back to Conflict is Not Abuse.
There are things that the author says in her book that are… unbalanced. I get the strong impression that the grace being asked for in interpersonal conflict situations… doesn’t go both ways.
That the author is asking the reader to extend a lot of empathy and compassion to someone whose “being interpreted as abusive” behavior is (probably) coming from a place of unexamined, maybe even unacknowledged trauma & anxiety, but that they are not asking the reader to extend that same compassion to someone whose “reacting to perceived abuse” behavior is ALSO (probably) coming from a place of unexamined, maybe even unacknowledged trauma and anxiety. Honestly, I kind of feel ike maybe we, as readers, are straight-up being asked NOT to extend that compassion towards the “reacting” person. That it’s cruel and wrong to force someone to back off (by cutting off all contact), but not cruel or wrong (quite the opposite) to force someone to keep talking, keep meeting (in person, no less) with someone they don’t want to be around anymore.
And that’s just majorly fucked up.
Even I know this. Even I have my shoulders up around my ears (when my eyes aren’t rolling skyward, at any rate) reading some of this stuff, and I understand really, really well the feelings of loss, anxiety, abandonment, and hopelessness that the author describes the “perceived as abusive” person feeling when all contact is refused.
I have SO been there.
Deep Breathing through hours of unanswered texts or days of unanswered emails & social media messages, trying to find a balance between the Captain Awkward axioms of “Silence Is An Answer” + “People Who Like You Act Like They Like You” (I swear, Captain Awkward is how I learned what boundaries actually are in practice) and the million Totally Reasonable Reasons that someone might not have gotten back to me yet.
Fighting off yet another goddamn anxiety spiral because I ended a message with a question mark – “How’s your day?”; “I’m free for coffee and knitting on Tuesday. Want to join me?” – and the vulnerability built into one stupid piece of punctuation, the rawness of showing even that much wanting, needing, is overwhelming. (I… don’t actually have a clue why it’s that overwhelming, but there it is).
That place of doubt, where you can’t actually tell if you’re really asking for way too much or if it’s within reason to expect the other person to probably be game for snuggles/hang-outs/sex/writing-critiques/confidences/coffee/whatever most of the time, or at least be up for proposing alternatives; where your own desires seem utterly monstrous specifically because (apparently) they’re not returned; where you feel so lonely and so nuts…
That’s a hell of a shitty place to be.
But you don’t get to call the other person “childish” just because they don’t want the same things as you. And you DO have to at least be willing the see the possibility that, while you feel like you’re starving or desperate, or whatever, the other person is maybe feeling crowded or eaten alive, or otherwise overwhelmed by the closeness you are asking for, however minimal that might be, or might be right now, or might be in a different situation but NOT right now, or whatever.
And I get that.
So it’s really uncomfortable to see what are basically My Worst Moments – the stuff that scares me when I think it, and that I try to never let come out of my mouth – published in a mass-market paperback, as if they were totally reasonable things to think and act on.
It’s a bit of a tough go, you might say.
So, we’ll see how I do with the rest of it, but… I don’t know if this is going to be something I’m able to finish or not.
 Whether that means “not hire me” or “break up with me” or “retreat into shame-hiding and massively disordered eating” or some other thing doesn’t really matter in the context of this post. It all tends to boil down to “don’t leave me” when we’re talking about my brain.
 And here’s the thing about me: I don’t even know if that’s true. If my assumption that someone would be doing the things that tell my limbic system that I’m safe and loved in return if they were comfortable doing them, that I wouldn’t need to ask (at all, let alone over and over) because it would come naturally… Would it? I have no freaking idea.
 As happens during limerence – AKA New Relationship Energy – when your brain chemistry tends to lead you to want to share as much time, energy, and (various forms of) attention with The Other Person, whether or not you’re actually thinking about, or putting conscious effort into, it.
 For some reason, “Silence Is An Answer” translates in my head as “If an answer is not forthcoming within a two (txt) or 24 (email) hour period, you should just wrap your head around the idea that the recipient of your message has finally gotten sick of your shit and is either waiting for you to get the hint that you are no-longer friends, or else has moved on already”.
 Phone died; driving; person is at work or has a date or other social event; their in-laws visiting; Maybe they… kind of didn’t feel like talking? (<– This one sucks SO MUCH, but it’s still an option, and it’s not actually the end of the world); they needed some introvert time, or didn’t know how to respond to the question; Got swamped on some other front and then felt embarrassed (I have been here, too); was in the middle of a really good novel and didn’t hear the phone; etc…
 For real. I figured out last… February? That I am waaaaaay more likely to get antsy or worse about an un-answered text or email if I’m asking the recipient a question. Because a question is a request for contact, and an attempt to build or strengthen ties, and if it’s left hanging, maybe it means that I’m the only one who wants those ties in the first place.
 Yes, I know Normal People don’t do this. That a text message, an email, or a tweet suggesting that “we should do coffee soon” isn’t actually a referendum on a given friendship/partnership/lovership/whatever. It was kind of a clue that maybe I have Actual Problems and am not just, I dunno… weak-willed or “too sensitive” or some other bullshit.
 Except here, clearly, where I’m telling you all about the mess that is my insides.
So, I (finally) picked up a copy of More Than Two because someone posted a screenshot of an excerpt (on twitter) about how part of asking for what you need is being able to handle refusal (regardless of whether it’s “can’t go there (yet / at all)” or “don’t wanna go there with you (yet / at all)”) with grace. Which I am really, really bad at.
So far, I am… skipping the first chapter entirely. It’s the “Might you be poly?” chapter. I am already polyamourous. I know that bit.
I really like that the authors (Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux) have included Questions To Ask Yourself at the end of each chapter, and I’m inclined to answer them – in blog form, no less! – just to find out what my answers are.
So here we go!
So, today, I’m taking part in a blog tour promoting a new erotica anthology – Show Yourself to Me – from author Xan West (You can find the whole tour at this link, yesterday’s stop can be found here, and tomorrows – which involves a time-difference – can be found here. The tour itself includes a number of reviews, but you can also find – and add – reviews at Good Reads and Amazon). I jumped at the chance to read a slew of stories from an author I respect and admire, as well as the opportunity to ask some writerly questions about the nuts, bolts, and decisions involved in writing an anthology like this.
Before we get to the interview, here’s the blurb about the book itself:
In Show Yourself to Me: Queer Kink Erotica, Xan West introduces us to pretty boys and nervous boys, vulnerable tops and dominant sadists, good girls and fierce girls and scared little girls, mean Daddies and loving Daddies and Daddies that are terrifying in delicious ways.
Submissive queers go to alleys to suck cock, get bent over the bathroom sink by a handsome stranger, choose to face their fears, have their Daddy orchestrate a gang bang in the park, and get their dream gender-play scene—tied to a sling in an accessible dungeon.
Dominants find hope and take risks, fall hard and push edges, get fucked and devour the fear and tears that their sadist hearts desire.
Within these 24 stories, you will meet queers who build community together, who are careful about how they play with power, who care deeply about consent. You will meet trans and genderqueer folks who are hot for each other, who mentor each other, who do the kind of gender play that is only possible with other trans and genderqueer folks.
This is Show Yourself to Me. Get ready for a very wild ride.
And now, on with the interview! 😀
1) Show Yourself to Me opens with a story that, fundamentally, is about belonging. Can you talk to me about that, and why you chose to open your anthology with this piece?
“Missing Daddy” sets the mood of the book in so many ways, and belonging is absolutely one of them. For me, as a queer writer who centers my fantasies and desires in my work, belonging is such a central aspect of that, of my queerness, of my kink, of my politic. Being connected, not just in the context of a romantic couple apart from the world, but being in the world, belonging to community and family, belonging to self, as well as being claimed and claiming in the context of D/s. They balance and match each other, all those belongings. Especially for a story that begins by speaking openly about abuse in the context of kink, and the legacy of that in kink life and community, it is so important to center this story of longing and nostalgia in a deep memory of belonging and care in the context of BDSM. This story wants the reader to hold all of that reality in queer kink life: abuse of power and also care with power, legacies of abuse that last long beyond abusive relationships, and legacies of leather that feel whole and beautiful that also come with us, belonging to self, giving self to a partner, belonging in community and family.
2) Pieces like “My Pretty Boy”, “The Tender, Sweet, Young Thing”, and “How He Likes It” touch on how it can be easier to accept cruelty than gentleness. Can you talk about that for a bit?
I’ve had a lifetime of experiencing sensory input in ways that didn’t match how people thought I should be experiencing it, how it was “supposed” to feel. It took me a long time to come to terms with and accept that reality, which has shaped so much of my daily life, especially play and sex. The simple truth is that people are different, and they experience sensations differently. Something that is intolerable for me might be pleasurable or neutral for you. Kink really helped me hold that reality, because although there were cultural expectations about how people would experience sensations, I kept finding, as a top, that the folks I played with would experience them so very differently from each other.
This theme in my work, of light touch and gentleness feeling close to or actually intolerable, where sharp, firm or intense touch, and pain in particular, feel welcome and desired, is my attempt to center and validate an experience that is so rarely acknowledged, even in kink life. It is an experience that often resonates for stone-identified folks, and that is definitely part of my motivation as well, to write stories where stone folks can see themselves reflected without judgment or pathologization, as those stories are incredibly rare.
It’s also a layered thing, one that gives opportunities for internal struggle within a scene, and pathways for sadism. In “My Pretty Boy,” they consensually play with the fact that Rickie hates gentleness. This created a wonderful way to shift perspective on what cruelty and sadism can look like, and illustrate that sometimes gentleness can be very cruel indeed.
3) This is a collection of your erotic writing, some of-which is forthcoming (I think… like the excerpt from Shocking Violet), and some of-which has been published elsewhere. A lot of them run to what I think of, accurately or not, as “standard anthology length”, but some are longer and some are much, much shorter (“This Boy”). I’m wondering how many of these pieces were written for specific calls (“Facing the Dark” seems like a likely example), how many just turned up in your head demanding to be written down, how many were born out of personal explorations or writing practice? (Yes, this is essentially a “where do you get your ideas” question).
You got it right, close to half of these stories were written for specific calls (including some of the shorter ones, for flash fiction collections). For a number of years, writing to a specific market was part of what drove my writing process. “Facing the Dark” was written because an editor asked me to write something for a gay fireman anthology. “Missing Daddy” was for a bear call, “Ready” for a gay motorcycle collection, “Falling for Essex” for a college boys call, “My Will” for a gay time travel anthology. “Please” was written as an exercise in writing to a tight editorial preference—for Violet Blue’s Best Women’s Erotica series. “The Tale of Jan and Tam” was written for a fairy tale retellings call.
When I’m contemplating writing for a call, or am solicited by an editor for a specific kind of story, I sit with it for a while, do some research if needed, see what wants to stick. I often go through a few ideas before I land on one that works for the call and feels doable to me. I’m especially looking for a spark, a beginning, a strong voice, or a moment in the story that I find so compelling I feel like I need to write it. My notebooks are filled with potential ideas like this, and there are some I will bring out years later, and try to write them.
The other times, I often find a spark in something else. “The Tender Sweet Young Thing” was sparked by a conversation I had at a regular queer gathering I go to. “Compersion” was sparked partly by a class I went to on the subject, that felt like it completely left out so much of my own experiences of compersion. “Nervous Boy” was written in response to a craigslist ad I saw, and answered, though I never got a response. I’ve also written fantasies and dreams that kept returning demanding to be told. I’ve written pieces for lovers, and potential lovers. I’ve written stories in response to scenes I’ve watched.
Often, it’s a mesh of things that drive my writing; the spark or the voice or the lines that come into my mind are just the beginning. There are often experiences and ideas I want to capture, and things I want to talk about in my stories. I’m fairly unabashed about having certain agendas in my work.
4) I know you make a point of showcase a lot of different bodies in your erotica – your characters don’t default to “able-bodied and thin”, for example, and you make sure your readers know it. With that in mind, when a character ends up being white or fat, fem/me or cis or disabled (or whatever cluster of identities a given character may have), how much of those intersecting privileges and oppressions are just “how the character showed up in my head” versus how much of it is an active decision on your part as an author about the kind of story you want to tell?
Much of the time, not defaulting takes conscious work. Sometimes I catch myself not having defined some aspects of a character’s identity and there I am, stuck in my usual defaults. I usually am stuck by the things I haven’t defined, a little ways in, not knowing where to go. Conscious work gets me unstuck, and a lot of the time that is at least partly about establishing specificities of identity.
Some aspects of a character’s identity will come to me with the character’s voice or the situation or the conflict I’m imagining at the beginning of the process. Sometimes those choices are driven by the way I puzzle out what I can bring to a specific call, how I can imagine bringing these people together.
One of the things that has become very clear to me is how much the specificities of identity of my characters are often shaped by my own identities and needs. When I think about the specifics of the queer genders that appear in this collection, it is clear that I’ve mostly been writing stories about my own gender experiences, or about genders that I have fantasized about being. Over the past 15 years of writing erotica, the body of work from which I drew the stories for this collection does not include the diversity of genders of the people in my life and my communities. Instead, my deep hunger for putting myself into a genre where I have mostly been erased or misrepresented has driven many of my choices about the genders of my characters. As a whole collection, those choices contribute to a deep erasure that mirrors the ways trans misogyny and misogyny often operate in queer communities. For me, this recognition is even more reason to work more on consciously considering the identities of my characters.
When I was pulling stories together for the collection, from the body of my existing work, one of the things I worked on was more clearly marking the identities of the characters, so that they weren’t just clear to me, but were clear to the reader. So the reader also was less likely to go to defaults while reading. I needed to do this much more with my earlier work than with my later work.
A few years ago I began a project of deliberately centering disabled characters in my work, one that coincided with my decision to live more deeply into my own disabilities. I wanted my creative work to hold the same intentions as my personal work, so they could feed each other. I have found writing these stories to be so powerful in my own life. Many of them are included in this collection; they are the ones written in the third person.
5) On a related note, you tell stories from a lot of different perspectives – both from story to story and sometimes within a single piece. Can you talk about the factors that determine whose PoV you’re writing from, which stories are going to involve “head hopping” versus which ones stay with a single narrator? I’m thinking, in particular, of stories like “My Precious Whore” where you’re dealing with some fairly heavy edges (for the characters but also for, um, me as a reader…) but also of “The Tender, Sweet, Young Thing” where the narration is bouncing between half a dozen heads. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Most of my early work was in the first person, though I played with that some by having POV characters sometimes imagine that they knew the perspective of other people (like in “Nervous Boy”). My recent work has been in third person. It was a conscious choice to shift that way, because I found it unblocked me. Until I tried third person, I kept hitting up against a wall, couldn’t figure out how to more clearly mark characters as disabled.
When I chose to shift my work, I embraced head hopping, something that is often frowned upon in erotica circles. I wanted to explore multiple interior experiences, see where that got me. In “The Tender Sweet Young Thing”, I wanted to stick with three perspectives—to stay inside the heads of the three queers that were central to plotting the fantasy scene, because they each were deeply invested in creating this scene from a different place. Dax, from a fantasy ze had held since childhood, Mikey partly as a gift of love and recognition for Dax, and partly for her own self, and Téo, who recognized a gender he wanted to play with. The story shifts from one to the other as the dynamics shift between the characters, that’s how it flowed out, so by the time you get to the actual scene, you hopefully have a stake in each of them getting what they need from it, and from each other.
With first person, often a voice comes to me as a story sparks. Point of view is one of the first things that solidifies in the story. In “My Precious Whore”, I was working on a few things in that story:
1. I was working to illuminate the edges inherent in playing with misogyny and whorephobia, to take the reader deep enough to really be able to see how deeply dangerous this kind of play is.
2. I was trying to illustrate how a structure of D/s and consciously chosen power play can create a container for this sort of intense and risky psychological edge play, make it possible to do it.
3. I wanted to capture something specific about orgasm control, how it can work in humiliation play scenes, how helplessness from forced orgasms can be particularly intense and beautiful.
4. I wanted to write a story that explored possessive top desire that wasn’t feral (which I’d mostly been writing), but went to colder places, wielded power differently, grappled with the edges of misogyny and deep psychological play.
5. I was attempting to illuminate the ways being the top in a scene centered on humiliation, objectification, and play with oppression can be incredibly edgy for the top and how the top can need support from the bottom.
Some of those things would be a good match for the bottom’s point of view, especially #3. (I want to write another story from a bottom’s point of view that can get me there more deeply.) #1 and #2 could work from either point of view. But for #4 and #5 I needed the top’s perspective to get me there.
I put that story in a drawer for a while after I wrote it. It felt too volatile to put out into the world, and too personally edgy. That’s how it has often worked for me with the stories that go deep into play with misogyny. (“Strong” is another example.) I was concerned about the damage they might do in the world, and worried about the ways they could be misinterpreted. This version of “My Precious Whore” illuminates top vulnerability much more than earlier versions, and it showcases the support of the bottom. Telling it from the top’s perspective really helps it get there, helps the reader touch those things.
6) In “The Ballad of Tam and Jan” (and I love that Carter Hall turns up in more than one story, by the way), you talk about transformative experiences for tops. In it, and also stories like “My Pretty Boy”, you talk about tops needing to remember and honour their own needs. There’s this pervasive (or maybe it’s just me?) thing where sadistic, and even just toppy, desires are framed as not okay – like it’s totally fine to want to be anonymously skull-fucked by a truck-load of random people, but wanting to turn someone into “just a hole” (to pick a theme that ran through a lot of your stories), to dehumanize them, is less okay. Wanting to beat someone to a pulp because it feels good to hit defenseless people is, well, monstrous. I find in a lot of Kink 101 stuff, the top is framed as facilitating the bottom’s experience, with the bottom being “really in charge” and the top being a provider in a lot of ways. Can you talk about that stuff in the context of the needs and vulnerabilities of tops?
The fear of top desires and needs that you describe is one of the most frustrating aspects of kink culture for me. I’ve written several essays about it. It’s a big problem, and can make navigating play so much harder for everyone, so much less likely to be mutual. This image of the top as facilitating the bottom’s experience and having no needs of their own is a huge contributing factor to ableism in kink communities. It’s been a challenge for me, personally, to find play partners that are up for considering and honoring my needs as a top, especially my needs for support around pushing my own edges.
My work, and in particular the stories in this book, are invested in creating different images of tops, different narratives about what tops need and desire, what bottoms do to support tops, what play that is mutual and honors the needs and desires of all parties can be like. Stories help create culture, and this book is one of the ways I’m trying to shift the way we think about top desires, top needs, and top vulnerabilities.
These stories openly celebrate sadistic and dominant desire, and that aspect of them alone is likely to make people uncomfortable. I’ve had stories rejected (with rather intense judgmental language) for openly describing sadistic desire. Once I had an editor suggest that I edit the story so that the dominant was not so clearly getting off on making the submissive cry during sex, because that felt inherently non-consensual. The editor suggested that I change the story so that the dominant was doing it to facilitate the experience the submissive needed.
In these stories, I am attempting to carve out room for the beauty and heat of unapologetically sadistic desire, and it is partly to meet my own needs. I need a kink culture that honors sadists who have their own desires, that supports tops to be vulnerable, that asks bottoms to support tops in play, that honors that everyone has needs. Not just because I’m human, but particularly as a disabled top.
7) Tell me something you love about this collection and want everybody to know.
I’ve talked about writing stories that center disabled and sick characters, how that was my project over the last few years. These stories often include disabled and chronically ill fat trans and genderqueer characters playing with each other, in community with each other, creating accessible spaces together. I’ve never read stories like that before, which is one of the reasons I needed to write them.
What I haven’t talked about is how impossible it has been to place these stories in anthologies. I’ve been aching to share these stories with the world, but have had no luck getting them published. I finally decided that I had to try to sell them as a group with my other work, in a collection like this, in order to get them printed.
Before I could seriously tackle that project, Go Deeper Press approached me to request a manuscript. They love these stories in particular, which makes me incredibly glad. And now these stories are out in the world, and I am so thrilled that people get to read them! I love that my first collection shows some of my oldest work, next to the new directions I’ve been going in as a writer.
Thank you, Xan. 🙂
You can pick up a copy of Show Yourself to Me from Go Deeper Press (print or digital), or as a e-book from Amazon.
You can find Xan’s thoughts about the praxis of sex, kink, queerness, power, and writing at xanwest.wordpress.com.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha. If you’re the kind of femme who reads a lot of “femme theory” books – or if you’re the kind of feminist who reads a lot of social justice essays – you’ve probably heard of this chicky. Well. She happened to be in Ottawa last night (Saturday, July 20th) to do a reading-and-socializing evening at Venus Envy.
Now, in spite of hunting up as much of her writing as I could (she hasn’t profoundly changed how I view the world, for the most part, but she was the first – quite possibly the only – femme who openly ID’d as bisexual in the entirety of Fem(me): Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls and, thus, was the person who gave me the clue that maybe, just maybe, this word could apply to me. And that’s a pretty big deal), I was a little worried about seeing her read/speak live.
I always am.
There’s always a little bit of fear in the back of my mind saying: What if this person who is so awesome on paper winds up being kind of insufferable – or possibly just a bad speaker – in real life?
So far… that hasn’t actually happened. Not much, anyway. But it remains and so I strolled over to VE – in a blue sundress that used to be my grandmother’s, plus flip-flops and glitter mascara – with my lovely wife, hoping that I wasn’t about to regretting dropping $20 on the evening.
Readers, I do not regret dropping $20 on that evening. 🙂
She read excerpts from The Revolution Starts at Home and her forthcoming memoir (which, when it comes out next year, I will most likely be buying). I cried. (I’m a crier, what can I say). And then she read poetry. Yay Poetry! 😀
I finally got to hear “When Kali and Oya Met”, a poem from Consensual Genocide that, because my copy came from an early print-run that contained a major misprint (i.e.: Eleven of the poems were missing and had, instead, been replaced by repeats of poems from earlier in the book), I had yet to hear. It was sweet and sad, and it reminded me of my ex-girlfriend, a little bit, truth be told.
My two take-aways from the show – other than that Leah is a pretty awesome chicky who seems far more interested in being kind (not the same as nice, mind you) than in being right-all-the-time – were:
1) The question of “What kind of ancestor do I want to be?” – This is a question that prompted a poem from Leah, but it’s also something I take into consideration myself.
2) What does “decolonization” mean to me, given that I’m a white chick who doesn’t want to move
back to Scotland, and given that the whole thing is probably a lot more nuanced than the “White people, go home” idea that tends to spring to my mind when I first try to think about this? (That, I think, will take up an entire blog post of its own).
After the show, there were nachos and karaoke to be had, but also a chat about the whole concept of creating and seeking out justice-alternatives to the police and the courts. Things that came up:
1) Bridge-building goes in multiple directions and no-one is going to change their behaviour for people who are Opting Out and having nothing to do with them
2) Change takes a long, long time (especially when it involves changing both a corporate culture and the systemic-oppressive culture that underlies it both for the oppressors and the oppress-ees) and, in the mean-time, there are still people who can’t or don’t trust The System and who, therefore, would appreciate some alternative options
3) It is really, really, REALLY difficult to get a system (or a person, for that matter) to change when it has no examples of how it would or could look/act/be if it were different. Thus creating alternative justice options can, itself, be a form of the afore-mentioned bridge-building because they can stand as examples of how to Do This differently while still being effective.
So that was my evening at the Leah Lakshmi show, and (so far) everything that came of it. 🙂
 My hips and knees still work – hurrah! But, since I’d like to keep it that way, it means that high heels (alas) are for sidewalk-walks of no more than about six minutes.
 I know. One’s opinion of how effective it is will have a LOT to do with how invested one is in both (a) cultural narratives about who is and is not a Good Guy, and (b) the already-existing system. But bear with me.
So I’ve been reading Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic – a book by Raven Kaldera on doing power exchange and non-monogamy at the same time. At this point, I’m only through the first three parts, midway through the fourth (of I don’t-know-how-many because I’m reading this on an e-reader and can’t just flip back to the ToC… that I know of), so there’s still some left yet to read. But it’s already got me thinking.
Boy, has it ever got me thinking.
As is frequently the case, it has me mostly thinking about the stuff that didn’t get mentioned, or that didn’t get talked about as much as I would have really liked.
The book has numerous contributors – D-types and s-types, folks who wrote essays about the experience they’ve had being in their particular type of dynamic or leather-phamily, or what-have-you… and it’s all relevant stuff.
But. (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?)
By and large – with a few notable exceptions, which I’ll talk about shortly – the book is about how to be (or have) a fairly monogamous/monogam-ish submissive in a relationship with a poly/open dominant. Most of the time, the scenario of a submissive with multiple partners was one where she (usually she) had a vanilla spouse and a dominant. Not always, but frequently.
So there was a LOT of information/suggestions in the book for how to calm a submissive’s insecurities, how to acknowledge the vulnerable place they’re in, and all the rest of it. Which is useful information, to be sure – I can extract a lot of the stuff about vulnerability, fears, insecurities and what-not and apply them to my own situation.
What was barely even mentioned in the book, though, was, well, my situation. Being a dominant who is less poly than her submissive, being the dominant one and the insecure one at the same time, figuring out how to Be The Boss and hold your sub the way then need to be held (a) without using your power for evil, and (b) while balancing their time, energy, and attention so you AND your sub’s other partners all get enough face time.
The only contributor (so far – I’m well past the half-way mark on this book, but I’m not finished it yet) to even mention that Dom(me)s get jealous/insecure was Andrea Zanin. And, yeah, being at least slightly familiar with her philosophies on power (and poly), I’m not surprised that it was she who brought it up.
What I am surprised at is that nobody else did.
There were a LOT of quotations from, and examples of, submissives who were hoping their mono dominants would come around to trying polyamoury, and even more on the subject of poly (on the dominant’s part) being a deal-breaker for the submissive in question. It felt like the implication/assumption being made by the author/editor was that a dominant could/would just say “Nope. We’re not doing poly,” or “Nope. I get to have multiple People but, as my slave/sub/property, you don’t,” or some other form of one-sided polyamoury that conveniently means that the dominant in question never has to worry about dealing with hir own insecurities around sharing hir People.
I think this was a mistake.
I mean, yes, it would have been awfully convenient for me, as a “monogamish” owner with a polyamourous Person, if the book had included a heap of essays and anecdotes from dominants talking about how they handled jealousy, time-management, prioritizing, and insecurities while in a relationship with a submissive who was the central point – or the not-so-central point – of an amoeba that included both power exchanges and vanilla relationships. That would have been awfully handy.
But “handy to have had” isn’t the same as “mistake to not include”, and I do think it was a mistake to not include that stuff – particularly a significant amount of that stuff – in a book like this.
Andrea’s essay talked a little bit – very, very briefly – about why it’s important for a person in a position of power to not use that power
for evil to build hirself an unhealthy, “co-dependent”, force-teamed microcosm wherein zi never has to face hir own insecurities. (This applies in pretty-much any situation, btw, but it’s particularly relevant within the context of the intense emotional/personal relationships that one gets in D/s, M/s, and O/p). But I need more than that.
What I said, above, about being able to extract stuff and apply it to my own situation, that’s still true. But I would have really liked to see examples about how a poly submissive can remind hir dominant they they’re still wanted (both in general and) as Large and In Charge without giving off the vibe that getting vulnerable and opening up about feeling insecure was, in some way, not being Dom(me) Enough. I’d also have liked to see stories/essays from individual dominants about how they negotiated their own insecurities about Sharing, how they differentiated between territoriality, desire to provide/maintain control, and straight-up fear-of-loss: How did they mess up? How did they succeed?
The long and the short of it is that I want to know how you – or you, or you, or you – do it with grace and generosity and the recognition that it’s not just you that you’re looking out for when you’re In Charge of someone else’s life.
So that’s my question. Got any suggestions?
 By-which I mean remembering that, as The Boss, it’s your job to guide your sub and encourage hir to flourish into hir Best Self, rather than to use your Control over your sub’s life to build yourself a cocoon wherein you’ll never, ever, ever have to deal with your own Issues.
 The opposite of Using Your Powers For Evil is, in this situation, becoming a martyr by putting yourself last… when you are supposed to be providing your sub with direction and being the center/anchor for hir life.
 She’s poly-fuckerous, too, but by and large she’s far, FAR more likely to wind up loving someone, with or without sexual involvement, than to wind up having a one-nighter. This is both harder and easier for me to deal with than if it were the other way around. I’ll probably have to write a post about that at some point.
 There was one. A fellow wrote about his experiences in a queer leather family with multiple levels in the familial hierarchy that were more complicated than “X is my owner, and we both own Q” or “X is my owner and Q’s owner and we are sibling-slaves”. It was a help, in terms of finding language to describe, say, what Kitty – Ghost’s freshly-collared serving girl – is to me, or how to describe our relationship… which is a little more complicated than “two arms of a V” because of the once-removed power relationships that are also in the mix.
 Example: My Ghost once had a submissive of her own, in another city, and she’d periodically go and visit them for a weekend. But she’d come home and curl up at my feet because she needed that anchoring from me to know that she was home. Her doing that, and needing that, made things easier for me as well.
 Vulnerability, as we know, is sort of where it’s at when it comes to connecting with other people. It sucks that it gets such a bad rap.
 So much of this is also tied up with gender dynamics. The “masculine ideals” of being the knight on the white horse who will die in battle rather than run for safety, the “feminine ideals” of being able to do every, perfectly, without breaking a sweat or getting an eyelash out of place… they both map really, really neatly onto the ideas that dominants “should” be control-oriented and submissives “should” be service-oriented and that, along with that, dominants “should” be invulnerable and stoic and submissives “should” be able to Do All The Things automagically… Gah! It’s just fucking us all up from the inside out!
So I finally finished Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM and the Ordeal Path (ed. Raven Kaldera). What can I say about this book? Well, let me first give you some back-story on why I wanted to read it.
I am, somewhat perpetually, on a bit of a quest to “get my groove back”. More accurately put, I’m on a bit of a quest to figure out how to cultivate things like sexual ecstasy and “top space” (which has a variety of meanings, into-which I will surely go further in the next little while), so that pre-planning a date or a scene with (or for) my sweetie doesn’t tend to include questions around “But what if I get tired before it gets good for her?” or “What if I can’t get into my zone, and wind up feeling resentful?”
(Granted, while I worry about that stuff, it doesn’t tend to happen. What does happen, though, is that I will sometimes talk myself out of jumping my girl if I’m worrying about that stuff happening).
Basically, I’m looking for ways to reliably keep the energy flowing and building, and the desire to find actually techniques to help me do this has been growing in me, particularly over the last six months or so.
So… why Dark Moon Rising?
Well, quite some time ago, I picked up a copy of Dear Raven and Joshua (my review of-which is here), which talked about O/p relationships in a way that – thank goodness – really worked for me. Raven may be prone to blustering (which can be irritating), but he and I appear to occupy roughly the same area on the Service-Control spectrum, and it was a relief and a help to read about this stuff from a perspective that was both service-focused and taken well beyond the bedroom.
So Dark Moon Rising was kind of on my radar already because of that.
And then I started reading a bunch of Lee Harrington’s stuff – a fair amount of which focuses on the intersection of spirituality and sex… and I started getting ideas. So when I found out that he’d contributed to Dark Moon Rising, along with a few other books that Raven’s edited, I figured it was time to give it a shot.
Dark Moon Rising is about Pagan BDSM. I had hoped, when I started reading it, that I was opening a book about bringing polytheistic, sex-positive, earth-centred spirituality and ritual/energetic techniques into BDSM. It’s not. It’s quite the opposite, actually. It’s about incorporating BDSM techniques and dynamics into your polytheistic, sex-positive, earth-centred spiritual practices and rituals. So, right off the bat, it wasn’t what I had gone in hoping for. That doesn’t, however, make it a bad book. So let’s pull it apart.
Dark Moon Rising is cut into six different sub-sections of varying lengths. Part One is a basic intro, including a section wherein a collection of kinky terms are defined with regards to how they’re going to get used in the book. I confess, I skimmed this bit.
Part Two is a series of essays looking at how the tools of pain play – everything from suspension bondage to flesh-pulls to less S/M-related stuff like fisting, tantra, and energy work – can be linked to, and used in, Pagan ritual. Some parts of this section were… a bit of a stretch for me. I wasn’t particularly interested in a rundown of which toys could potentially correspond to which elements when casting a circle, for example. For me, it felt like “filler”.
But, then, I didn’t come to the book looking for ways to incorporate BDSM into wiccan-influenced sacred sexuality. The subsection called “The Invisible Toybox” was rather more what I was looking for: Suggestions on how to charge your toys, or push your aura into them, or similar in order to deliver more (or less) bang for your buck. A handy trick if you’re a top who gets physically tired fairly easily. 😉
But things really didn’t start getting interesting for me until Part Three. This section included a few really beautiful sample rituals (not what I was after, but a great way to see how Sacred Kink can work in a group – or not-so-group – ritual context), but what really got my attention were the sections on “The Way of the Ordeal Master”, “Ritual Catharsis”, and “Sex Magic from the Top Perspective”. Those sections offered some thoughts about, and descriptions of, how to get into a headspace where you are running the scene, and comparing it to getting yourself into a headspace where you’re running a ritual, as well as a bit of a road map of where you (may) have to “go” in order to get into that headspace. While I haven’t tried it in practice yet, just having that map has been a help in terms of understanding what it’s Okay to do.
The description of the four gates to the underworld actually made me cry. I’d like to read more on that subject – like a whole entire book worth of more (hint hint…) – exploring how to follow the red thread of fear or shame or what-have-you into the place your bottom is afraid to venture but badly needs to go… and then how to bring them back up again (which I could really do with learning. Seriously…)
So Part Three had some definitely Good Bits in it.
Part Four looked at D/s from a spiritual perspective. It’s a collection of essays – really interesting essays, actually – talking about things like: The difference in how one trains one’s property when one has an animistic worldview versus when one has a mechanistic worldview, and What it’s like to be the dedicated servant of someone who is, himself, sworn to serve a particular deity. There are also a couple of sample Dedication Rituals that some folks might find helpful. This section includes a poem that really hit home for me – spoken from the perspective of a submissive, it asks “Let me be useful. Use me, because to be put to good use is to be valued”. I need to remind myself of that, periodically, when it comes to my own Servant, so it was good to see it written out like that.
Part Five is a series of personal essays (and some poetry) from different authors, talking about the O/p relationships they have with their patron deities (wherein the deity is the Owner and they are the Property). Part Six is simply a concluding poem. I confess I was kind of “meh” about it, and would have preferred that the poem be included with another essay. But that’s just me.
All in all, I found this book had enough Good Stuff in it, in terms of what I was looking for, to have been worth picking up. Am I glad I bought the e-version (which is waaaaaaay less expensive than the bound version, fyi, when bought through the publisher’s website)? You betcha. But I am glad that I bought it.
Next up, I’ll probably dive into Barbara Carrellas’ book Ecstasy is Necessary, which I have in hard-cover, and then move onto Sacred Power, Holy Surrender, which is about living in a spiritual power dynamic. That said, having read Dark Moon Rising, I’m kind of leaning towards Lee Harrington’s Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths Of Bdsm And Beyond, which is looking like it might be a neat one for actual techniques and altered (altared?) states of consciousness.
 For a given value of “sex” which could be “kink” or “power exchange” or “S/M” or “polyamoury” or a variety of other things that actually go rather beyond rubbing various body-parts together.
So, as previously mentioned, I’ve started a personal blogging project that involves posting on a kinky/sex-positive/feminist/queer/etc topic of my choice, at regular intervals, while basing my topics/titles on the progression of the alphabet. Part of this is to make sure that I post here regularly. The other part, though, is to give me something a little more light-hearted (or not, depending on the week), to put up here in terms of content.
See… Look. “B is for Beauty” is my chosen theme for this post. It’s really tempting to make this a post about “standards of beauty” or working in an industry where, to one degree or another, one is expected to fit those particular standards (Lee Harrington’s post got me thinking about that, actually). But, honestly, I spent a significant portion of last Thursday writing a post so bitter and grouchy that, probably, it will never see the light of day. I’ve been feeling a little “burnt out” (despite not having done “all the work” for any particular Community Event, beyond my poetry showcase, in over eight months), feeling a bit like all I do is knit-pick, find fault, and complain. And, on the one hand, that’s What You Do. “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”, as the old adage goes. But, on the other hand, I’m sick of being angry all the time and would like to focus more on what’s beautiful in my life.
Thense the Greater Granola Blog Project and, thense, B is for Beauty.
I feel like I’ve been walling myself off, avoiding vulnerability, drawing up a false set of options where Option A is “be an event organizer” and Option B is “be a hermit” and there is no third option for “participate” or “create casual social environments in your own space”.
In retrospect, this is perhaps not the healthiest way to be looking at my social life.
So this is my goal: I’d like to focus on The Good Stuff.
I’d like to go poking deeper into the magical and mystical aspects of S/M and D/s (this is mostly being done through (a) experiments in energy work, and (b) reading books – which I will discuss on here as I read them). I’d like to reconnect socially with friends who, lately, I’ve only been seeing in Work and Protest contexts – or as we’re both hurrying in opposite directions on our various vital errands. I’d like to have more dinner parties and share more food with people (I do a LOT of canning in the name of fun and a “negabucks” type of economy. My kitchen is slowly being taken over by jars). I’d like to push for change – small, very localized change, I know, but still – through actions and activities that add to the joy and compassion in the world (instead of just writing strongly-worded letters to MPs whose politics push all my rage buttons).
To that end, also trying to up the percentage of Syrens content that is centered on Stuff I Think Is Cool and Thought Provoking (on the themes to-which this blog is dedicated) to balance out the posts where I’m writing about Stuff I Think is Enraging and/or Problematic.
To the end, a short list of things that start with B:
Bodyslides – Like a massage but rather more involved. 😀
Breakfast – A lovely way to start the morning after, and a great excuse to eat Bacon and Berry-slathered Brioche
Books – I just picked a couple. In addition to Dark Moon Rising (which I got a while ago), I recently picked up Sacred Power, Holy Surrender: Living a Spiritual Power Dynamic and Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic. I’m looking forward to reading them, and am thinking of adding Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths Of Bdsm And Beyond to my list in order to round out the beginnings of my wee collection.
Bondage – Not really my thing as I enjoy holding people steady/in-place through (a) command, or (b) the awesome power of my Body, but it can be very, very pretty. Also, it’s useful for preventing too much flailing on the part of someone you’re hitting with a stick.
Bastinado – For people who love (a) feet, and (b) hitting other people with sticks. I should really do this one more often. 🙂
This has been your speedy post for the day.
 I’m not sure where, along the way, I went from feeling like “If I want there to be X type of event available for me to attend, and there isn’t one, I’d better get off my ass and make one happen” to feeling like “If I’m not organizing ummpteen different events, then I’m somehow letting down my community/ies”… but it seems to have happened. Time to chill out a little, I think.