What’s In A Name?
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.