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What’s In A Name?

March 25, 2010

I have heard and read a fair amount of feedback about my Yes Means Yes essay, Toward A Performance Model of Sex, since its publication, and my readers have given me a lot to think about. One issue that comes up fairly often is that the term “performance model” brings connotations to the table that rub people the wrong way, and that I did not intend.

The essay started out as a comment on Jaclyn’s post at Feministing. As I tend to do, I threw an idea out there at some length, but not really edited, so it could be kicked around. The “commodity model” and “performance model” terminology were part of the original comment. I picked the terms sort of off-the-top, and what I had in mind with “performance” was really performing arts, which fits the references to music, and to a lesser extent dance, in the essay. When I expanded the comment to essay length for publication, I stuck with the terminology without really thinking about it.

One thing people have taken from it that I did not mean to import was the concept of an audience. All of femaleness, and female sexuality, is often framed as a performance for an assumed male gaze. I meant to import the meaning of performance from the performer’s standpoint, which is why the essay talks in terms of the performers but only in passing an audience other than fellow performers. I didn’t envision people behind a “fourth wall,” but the language offers that read.

Another connotation that people have picked up on is the concept of measurement by achievement, as the term is used in, say, sports or business. I have a more complicated relationship with this concept because, on the one hand I did not consciously intend this implication; but on the other hand I have to be honest and admit that it’s not a complete accident either, and is a product of my own biases.

I did not mean to imply that sex should be measured as successful based, for example, on the number of orgasms produced, and I don’t think that. But to a certain extent, even things that cannot be measured by objective criteria can be analyzed as more or less successful as achievements. Aretha Franklin is one of the great vocal performers of all time, and I can say that not because there is an objective measure for that, but because in ordinary langauge we recognize that this is a cognizable concept even for something subjective. Further, we recognize that there is craft in what she does, that the vocal skillset she displays is wider and more refined than those of others.

So I have a bias that, in the same way that musical performance is subjective but it can produce recognizable craft and greatness, there is also craft and greatness in sexual interaction. Partnered sex, and even solo sex, have skillsets that reward experience, learning and practice. This may be more apparent to me because I’m a BDSMer, and I’ve quoted Matisse on just this subject before:

It’s a neat refutation of that nonsense I occasionally hear about how So-And-So is a “natural” dominant, and thus doesn’t need to educate themselves or practice their craft. It just happens, like magic. Hah. You may have talent, my friend, but the way you get to the Carnegie Hall of kink is practice, practice, practice.

So, that connotation is not necessary to my argument for the Performance Model, but it snuck in because it is in some ways consistent with some views and biases of mine.

If I were writing it again, I might balk at the word “performance” for these reasons, but the essay is out there now, so instead what I want to do is clarify what I did and did not mean. And there it is.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Wendell permalink
    March 25, 2010 1:00 pm

    Initially, I had qualms about “performance” as you describe in the second connotation here. Eventually, I found it something I could move beyond, just as choosing not to partner with people who think within the commodity model, which I’d argue includes the second connotation (before you reframed it as craft).

    The last portion of this post brought one of those cognitive links that I dig so much–just as Judith Butler spoke of gender as performance, there is that element to sexual interaction, as well. It is all too easy for those of us more vanilla to fall back on models of sex as instinctual or natural, instead of understanding and accepting how our culture, who we are at that time, our present frame of mind, etc. are all brought to the table.

    I’m starting to think that the crux of the problem may be how people confuse sex bringing us into the present moment with “instinct.” (Even though it doesn’t always bring us into the present moment! See “frame of mind.”)

  2. christopher permalink
    March 25, 2010 1:56 pm

    Did you ever consider dancing rather than playing a musical instrument to illustrate your point? Neither is perfect, but I feel the former seems a superior platform and a makes for a much better argument.

    • March 25, 2010 2:01 pm

      You may want to read the OP. Or the essay. Or the comment I linked.

      • christopher permalink
        March 25, 2010 2:19 pm


        I guess I only saw excerpts from your essay… I thought it was the whole thing. I’ll grab the book.
        I’ll check out the thread on feministing in a few.
        Not reading that website. It’s against my values. Nothing again BDSM but not so keen on BDSM for cash.

      • March 25, 2010 2:30 pm

        Not the Matisse site — the link to the comment at Feministing, where I mentioned dance as well as music. Then, in the essay, I reference dance as well as music. Then in the post, I mention that I referenced music, and to a lesser extent dance, in the essay. Yes, I thought of dance as a metaphor. I’ve been pretty clear on that.

  3. christopher permalink
    March 25, 2010 2:49 pm

    I have more reading to do, but quick question. Matisse is indeed the commodity model right?

    • March 25, 2010 3:27 pm

      Long story short, I was not taking shots at sex workers in Toward A Performance Model and I’m not now. If they don’t have other good choices then criticizing them for sex work is just shitty; if they do — like Matisse — then they also have a fair amount of discretion in who and what they do for money.

      The commodification issue, IMO, arises on the demand side of sex work, where agency is generally a whole lot freer. So I’m as pro-sex-work as I can be without being pro-sex-consumer.

      • christopher permalink
        March 25, 2010 3:47 pm

        Ok. That explains your view. Thank you.

        I am pro sex-work without a choice (impoverished) and pro sex-consumer without a choice (the physically disabled and such)
        But adamantly anti sex-worker with a choice and anti sex-consumer with a choice. I was curious where Matisse fell on the spectrum.

  4. March 25, 2010 5:20 pm

    The essay title & references it throughout bothered me because of that achievement model. I figured you probably didn’t mean it this way and I’m glad you’re clarifying now, because when I read the performance model of sex essay I just couldn’t get past this thought: “We already have a performance model of sex. That is where you perform and you either do a good or bad job.” I guess the audience in that case is your partner if you have one.

  5. March 26, 2010 10:50 am

    One of the problems I had with the “performance model” was that it presented music like it was a hobby and was always done for the love of the craft and in a spirit of joyful collaboration.

    The problem is, music is also a business and a job and has it’s own hierarchical relationships – if Wynton Marsalis hires you to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center, you work for Mr Marsalis and you have to play his way or he’ll give you your last check and show you the door and that’s true for any small time unknown artist hired by any big name.

    So the whole music analogy was a really bad analogy and didn’t seem to fit the topic at all – plus it didn’t seem like you had any real understanding of how the music business actually works for the average artist – like you thought it was the same for them as it is for the amateur who plays for fun.

    In general, the chapter seemed to hang up in the air and be very abstract – it didn’t seem to have any relationship to real world sex at all.

    It was this nice idealist idea that everything should be equal in sex that was totally oblivious to the lived reality of inequality between men and women and how that affects real world cisgendered straight sex.

    That’s why I’ve always felt that your chapter was – by far – the weakest chapter in an otherwise excellent book that changed my mind on a lot of stuff and actually really reached me (at least when the book kept it real and kept it’s discussions of sexuality tied to reality, not to bad analogies).

    Gregory A. Butler

    • Wendell permalink
      March 27, 2010 9:33 pm

      I took the metaphor of music to mean it’s a creative act. Music is, IMNSHO, the best art form for collaboration with other artists, whether a smooth-flowing improvisation complete with stirring call-and-response, or a halting yet progressing collaborative score which can be played later.

      Creativity in how we interact is a good way to find out whose “music” works best with our own, and either/any potential partner has every right to not participate as they see fit. In my experience, cis-het (het-gemonic? Ha!) men see having sex with women as too integral a part of their identity (numbers game, bragging rights, etc.) as opposed to something fun and pleasurable they share with someone, and thus have more difficulty walking away from a potential “collaboration.” To me, though, someone leaving a group of musicians is more saddening than someone not returning my interest. 🙂

      • March 28, 2010 1:49 am


        Yeah, I think I get what Thomas aspires towards when it comes to male-female cisgendered heterosexual sex.

        What I did NOT get was how he intends to get from the cold hard reality of commoditified gatekeeper model sex (which is how the vast majority of cisgendered straight sex happens in our society today) to the pretty dream of yes means yes sex.

        Even with his analogy – music – the reality is, most serious professional musicians have to compromise their art to fit the reality of the music business.

        With sex, it’s the same deal – maybe there are a few subcultures where Thomas yes means yes vision prevails, but for most folks it’s just not like that.

        And Thomas presents absolutely no vision as to how we could ever get to that place he envisions.

        Gregory A. Butler

  6. k not K permalink
    March 28, 2010 12:03 pm

    As a student of urban design, I’ve learned a ton about performance in the context of what people do in different types of spaces. So everything you do can be considered performance: how you walk down the street, how you modulate your speech depending on your audience, how you dress. How people express themselves in a space creates, shapes and changes it, like writing new lines of a story over the top of old words in a palimpsest. Placing sex in that context makes perfect sense to me.

    When you consider spatial models like Léfebvre’s or de Certeau’s, in which “space” can be a physical, a social, a political or a symbolic space, it becomes pretty clear (at least to people who read too much theory, like I do) that just you performing how you want and need to is the way society can change. Introducing “yes means yes” into the public dialogue and encouraging people to perform enthusiastic consent with one another will change the social, political, and symbolic mores of our society when it comes to sex.

    If you doubt that this can happen – and that modes of performance restricted to certain subcultures can gain a foothold in mainstream society – just look at the way the usage of public space has changed in the last century. In parks, for example, it used to be completely unacceptable to sit on the lawns. The greens were intended by their designers simply as decorations for the eye to enjoy. Picknicking on them used to be completely taboo.

    It was young people’s decision to grab a blanket, a baguette and a bottle of wine and simply SIT ON THE GRASS that eventually made picnics in the park the most harmless, mainstream activity we can imagine.

    So, it’s not hard for me to imagine that if I read about and internalize the performance model of sex, if I talk to my friends about it, if I demand that my partners and I fuck according to it, the way I perform sex will change and my performance may change the standards of others around me. Society at large will need a long time to catch up to this model, I think, especially in the political/legal realm. But it’s possible.

    That’s what I get out of the words “performance model of sex” anyway. It is a new framework to understand the practice of sex in the real world, and a goal for social change, at the same time.

    • Wendell permalink
      March 29, 2010 3:43 pm

      I didn’t know that about the grass and picnicking in parks, k. Interesting stuff. I’m working my way through Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and she calls out much of the assumptions about how parks/green space are good for the gentry. The history of parks is fascinating, especially with its roots as something the upper classes thought would bring culture and civility to the lower classes just by being exposed to nature.

      And good point on how we ourselves are part of this society, and as we change, so does that portion of the webbing of society.

  7. Ursula L permalink
    April 7, 2010 7:21 pm

    Part of the problem, I think, is that most people do not regularly experience music a a participant rather than as an audience. If you don’t know the high that comes from singing in a great choral performance, or the joy of getting together with a friend to play duets, or even the fun of singing in the car with your family as a child, just because everyone likes to sing, then the analogy lacks a focus.

    I’m not sure what would be a good analogy, that most people have enough experience with to understand on an instinctive level. Children working together to build a tower of blocks, perhaps?


  1. booknotes: best sex writing 2009 | the feminist librarian

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