Sarah Prickett’s Ambiguous Aside
A lot of my friends really loved this piece, and as I read it I was agreeing with them — right up to this part:
If you can’t get off on just straight-up sweat-and-vanilla fucking, you should go get professional help, and I do mean that kind of pro.
Standing alone, or in a different piece, I might take that as pretty unambiguous. But then, it’s not fair to take it out of context. Here’s the surrounding text:
If you read it in a magazine, don’t do it.
If your ex-girlfriend liked it, do it.
I don’t mean whip out all your kinks at once. Let’s have a little mystery. Let’s not do anything that could land us in emergency because, just a guess, you’re not going to be in love with “the moment” when that moment is “please state your relationship to the patient” on an official form. Besides, I don’t need you to be different when you’re already this whole new boy in my bed. If you can’t get off on just straight-up sweat-and-vanilla fucking, you should go get professional help, and I do mean that kind of pro.
As for me, I’m trying not to be a whore. I’m not doing this for love or affection or anything in exchange. I’m doing it for the only reason anyone should ever have sex, which is: I want to. All I want to feel is want. And, yes, wantedness and wantonness. All that.
Make me cum. Again: you’ll know. Orgasms are like the price of heels at Balenciaga. If you have to ask, get the fuck out.
(Emphasis mine.) There’s a few ways to take that. The operative words are “vanilla” and “can’t.”
One way to read it might be “you sick BDSM people need to stay away from the normals.” Using the word “vanilla” implies that she means to distinguish what she wants from BDSM. But that would read out the part where she says “I don’t mean whip out all your kinks at once”, which would suggest she’s at least open to some things she herself considers non-mainstream. That’s where “can’t” comes in.
Here’s a little background. One of the ways that alternative sexualities have been pathologized within the medical community is with the diagnosis of paraphilia. Paraphilia means a kink that upsets your healthcare provider, but that’s not how they describe it in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the book used to diagnose mental illnesses. Folks who have followed the history of GLBT issues are probably already aware of the DSM, and there have been major issues over sexual orientation, gender and alternative sexualities with the DSM for decades. When folks talk about homosexuality being dropped as a mental disorder, they mean it was removed from the DSM.
So when I hear “can’t” get off without it, I think of the DSM the way it was when I went off to college, where one of the criteria for a paraphilia was “can’t get off without it.” I wouldn’t say I can’t get off without BDSM, but there’s some kind of non-mainstream sensation play or power dynamic in the vast majority of my sexual experience, and always was. So when I read that I think of a history of pathologizing.
She doesn’t say to get psychiatric help, though. In fact, she says “I do mean that kind of pro.” In its way, that statement is almost more problematic — suggesting that people who should stay away from her are nonetheless appropriate clients for sex workers, as if it’s the sex workers’ job to take the dangerous and the creepy off everyone else’s hands … *shudder*. And I, of course, do not accept that seriously kinky het men are relegated to paid partners. Serious kinks are not the sole province of men; some of my friends are exactly the seriously kinky women that seriously kinky het men might find for a consensual, negotiated kinky hookup.
But there’s a more charitable case to make for what she wrote, and what she said resonates with people I respect, so I’m inclined to give it a generous hearing. I think Pickett may not have meant the pathologizing stuff that came across; I think she may have had a much better point. It could be that some things — rough body play and elements of power exchange that I’ll generally call “rough sex,” though that’s a pretty approximate term — have become something that the men she’s having sex with assume are acceptable, instead of raising and talking about. If that was her point, I’m in full agreement. It’s a problem, and it needs to be called out.
I read something Violet Blue wrote, maybe three years ago (that I can’t find now) that spoke directly to this. She said the rise of rough sex and sort of BDSM-by-any-other-name in gonzo porn wasn’t a good thing: that it brought with it the physical and psychological aspects of BDSM (I’m paraphrasing here) and popularized them with a mainstream audience, but didn’t normalize all the ethical tools of negotiation and communication that should always go with that stuff.
What Prickett may have been talking about was something I’ve heard from y0ung women about guys in their twenties in the last few years: that some of them think they can or are even expected to slap and pull hair and say demeaning things and cause pain, but they don’t think they need to or even should ask if their partner likes this stuff. That’s awful. But in a sense, Prickett walks right into that by saying, “if your ex-girlfriend liked it, do it.” If his ex-girlfriend is also my ex-girlfriend, Prickett really needs to know more information before telling him to go ahead and do whatever she liked.
My concern isn’t that some kinks are being normalized. I am concerned that things that are dangerous are being normalized without the right safety structures. That’s the specific concern. But I also have a general concern, which I’ll return to. If people are going to be slapping and choking and holding each other down and doing things that can be painful and scary and also really hot, they need to know enough to do it safely. And they need to know how to do it consensually. That means making sure they’re on the same page beforehand. It may mean establishing a safeword, but those are neither perfect nor always necessary. They’re a tool, and no more. Read the post for more information, but long story short, “no” means “no” unless people agree otherwise, and also some people get into a place mentally when they can’t remember to safeword or become nonverbal, so a safeword isn’t a get-out-of-responsibility card. If you’re slapping and choking, you’re topping, whether you call it that or not, and you become responsible for your bottom’s experience, from negotiation to scene to aftercare. That may not be a statement that gets universal agreement, but that’s what I say.
As a BDSMer, I bristle at the notion that people are coattailing a lot of things on the social acceptance that has been gradual and hard-won for us, or using what I do for cover. I’ll be blunt: me and my geeky, kinky kind are not the same as some Tucker-Max reading dude-bro who slaps his hookup across the face to see how she’ll react, or because he really hates women and he figures doing it during sex gives him cover. I don’t want to provide cover for that asshole. People who do what I do have been shaving pubic hair since before it was common (it’s a lot easier to take off candle wax if there’s no hair, for one thing), but we didn’t do it so dickhead could act like it’s a rule, placing “no public hair” in the sexist canon with “no fat chicks.” If some guys are watching some genres of commercial porn and deciding that their partners must look or act like the women they see in porn, that’s a huge problem. I could rail against commercial porn for that — I’m not so warm and fuzzy on porn as an industry, even if that annoys some of my friends — but I can’t make the industry go away and I don’t have an easy answer.
Returning to my general concern: “normalizing” anything in sexuality is going to be wrong. It creates the impression that each of us wants to have sex in the same way, and to get the same things out of it. We don’t. You’re not me and I’m not you and the only way I know how you like to have sex is to communicate with you. Maybe that’s verbally and maybe that’s at least in large part physically, but if I go in thinking I already know what you like, I stand a really good chance of being wrong.
Porn is not a substitute for communication. Essays are not a substitute for communication. Education is not a substitute for communication. There is no substitute for communication.