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Possession

April 27, 2014 Leave a comment

There’s an undercurrent to monogamous norms that bothers me on a fundamental level. I’m not saying it exists in every monogamous relationship, but the idea is prevalent. It’s so ingrained in the narrative of relationships that people can’t seem to wrap their heads around the alternative at all.

The idea is that your partner is *yours*. That being in a relationship means you get to control them. It isn’t even subtle. And it’s more than a little frustrating. Folks have no hesitation about making assumptions about how a relationship works, and starting a conversation without checking those assumptions in the least. In the last month folks have said to me or my partners:

“You let your husband date another woman?”
No. Spouse dates Polly Pocket. I am happy to be in a relationship with him. His relationship with her does not diminish that. I don’t let him do a damn thing; he’s an autonomous human being.

“Can I play with Spouse?”
How the hell would I know? Ask him! I would get this, if context were different. If she were making sure we didn’t already have plans together. But she knew we didn’t. She was asking me for permission to do something with him. I can’t consent for Spouse. I can’t negotiate for him. Those conversations have nothing to do with me.

“No, you want to have sex with her and that’s okay *but*…”
There were about forty caveats. There was hemming and hawing. I felt uncomfortable enough to offer to leave the room so they could hash it out. Almost awkward enough to say nevermind the sex, it’s not worth it. They’re a married couple who are poly, but that seems to mean something very different to her.

“It’s okay, I know I’m not enough for him.”
Bless your heart dear, he don’t need you. Not enough? Is sex like oxygen now? There has to be a certain supply or he’ll fall to the floor in a dead faint and never recover? Please. He don’t need you cause he don’t need anybody. He wants more sex than you do, fine, but that ain’t nothin’ to do with you being enough. Don’t stay and be unhappy because you felt inadequate, that’s good for nobody.

“You know your man’s making out with another woman over there?”
This was said to Z, and her answer was “yep, I make out with her too.” And she did, shortly after she got back to us with drinks. Good times.

“You got two beautiful redheads? You’s a lucky man!”
God, this one pissed me off. He’s lucky, but I’m not? She’s not? Last I checked the three of us were each with two sexy partners. Z and I aren’t the Techie’s harem. He didn’t catch us like fish and mount us on the wall. (Against the wall…that might be another story.) We’re each with him, we’re with each other, and nobody’s “got” anyone. Ain’t none of us trophies.

“Are you taken?”
God, the ways I want to answer this one. “Yes, thank God you asked, I’m a prisoner, please help!” “Oh, yes. As often as I can manage it, in ways you can hardly imagine.” I’m not quite that sarcastic, or quite that lewd. Almost, some days, but not quite. “Wrong question.” has become my go-to response, but I’ve been known to flash the wedding ring (and yes, reinforce the false assumptions about what it means) with the overly persistent.

Beyond things directed at us personally, I see things like this all the time in my Facebook feed:

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“How to keep your woman/man”:
Why do we need different lists for men and women? And imply all women want to cling like dryer sheets and men would rather not engage?
And don’t forget, relationships are for straight people who don’t understand each other because men and women are different species and/or lack common language. And of course, your partner is something to lure, catch, and keep, not a person to build a relationship with such that they want to be near you.

The core issue here isn’t monogamy. If two people decide to make their romantic and/or sexual bonds exclusive, good for them. The assumption, though, is toxic. The assumption is that a relationship (or at least a “serious” relationship) automatically strips a person of the right to make decisions about other relationships. The assumption (made explicit in some scripture) is that a relationship is not an agreement of two autonomous people but a single unit the members of which are incapable of decisions or actions regarding individual needs without securing the other’s permission. And all these helpful outsiders’ comments, no matter how well meaning, come from the assumption that possessive monogamy is the only valid format a relationship can hold. They undercut nonmonogamy.

disclaimer time
I’m not talking about agreed upon D/s dynamic here. Negotiated power exchange is awesome and absolutely ought to be respected. This ain’t about that. This is about norms that erase individual autonomy, that in effect project a specific power exchange onto persons in a relationship and treat them as though they fit it without bothering to treat them as individuals first. This is third parties projecting relationship norms onto everyone they meet and often refusing to listen when corrected.

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The Quest to Prove Bisexuals Exist…

March 27, 2014 7 comments

…is bullshit.

Oh, sorry, do I need to provide more detail? This charming NYT piece about validating the existence of bisexuality with science is so full of rage-inducing fallacies that it was almost a week before I could make myself finish reading it.

I’m a fan of science, okay? I’m a behavioral researcher. Studies are important. They can give us a huge amount of information on a given topic, from the effects of sugary drink consumption on preschoolers to the behavioral and experiential correlates of sexuality. Granted, I don’t have access to the original article and it’s entirely possible that the NYT is just reporting science very badly. However, the abstract alone suggests that the research is based on problematic assumptions, as does the abstract of a later, related paper by some of the same authors. (By the way, if any of y’all has access to those, I’d like to read them in detail.)

So studies are useful. Bisexuality is under-researched. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use a study to prove or disprove a person’s identity. See, bisexuality is having sexual attraction to persons of both the same and other genders. (It’s a little more complicated and for some it includes non-binary-identifying persons and for others it doesn’t and yeah, there are other sources of variability, but basically that’s the gist.) We don’t have a valid and reliable method with which to measure something as variable and nebulous as “attraction”.

Because I have access to it and it’s getting ever so much attention, I’m going to pull a few quotes from the article and tear them apart with my teeth. (Advantage of writing on the Internet: I don’t have to handle this like a professional. Angry Nic engaged.)

The A.I.B.[American Institute of Bisexuality], [Sylla] added, has moved on to more nuanced questions: “Can we see differences in the brains of bisexual people using f.M.R.I. technology? How many bisexual people are there — regardless of how they identify — and what range of relationships and life experiences do they have? And how can we help non-bi people understand and better accept bi people?”

There are exactly as many bisexual people as people who self-identify as bisexual (meaning, identify as such to ourselves. We might not tell you. We’re really unlikely to tell you if you insist on approaching us with a “sure, you say you’re bi, but…” attitude as seen above). How can we help non-bi folks accept us? Maybe start by not second guessing us every single time we tell you we’re real. Just for a start. Maybe try not giving people the idea that our statements and feelings and actions don’t count unless you can corroborate them with an MRI. I understand that bisexuals are an underserved group who can benefit from targeted research. I advocate for it. That research can’t benefit anyone if the targeting mechanism is biphobic. And it is. Looking for a physiological marker of sexuality might possibly be useful. I have issues with it (we’ll get into them later), but fine. I get what they’re going for. However, taking the existence of gay and straight people as given and running a study to establish the existence of bi people only in relation to those groups requires directly holding up the validity of heterosexual and homosexual self-identification as a usable measure. If self-identification is valid measurement of sexuality, it’s valid for all of us, not just the ones the researcher is comfortable with. This isn’t just a point of existential rage: using different measurement tools for different values of the same variable is not a reliable research methodology. If you run a food study that asks people if they eat healthy “never” “always” or “sometimes”, you’re treating all of those values the same way. If the choices are “never” “always” and “fill out this 37 page 3-day food recall and present a blood sample so we can corroborate your statements with your serum cholesterol”, you’re going to get a very different response set. Suddenly there’s added burden on one value. Suddenly one group is being subjected to greater rigor and implied distrust and greater invasion into their lives. It’s not equitable.  Seeing how arousal patterns differ among differently-identifying groups can certainly be illuminating (it isn’t usually, but maybe it can be. Later, I promise). Unless you choose to introduce bias by inconsistent treatment of your identifying groups, of course. Then it’ll tell you a lot less.

Bisexual activists told me that much of what gay and lesbian people believe about bisexuality is wrong and is skewed by a self-reinforcing problem: because of biphobia, many bisexuals don’t come out. But until more bisexuals come out, the stereotypes and misinformation at the heart of biphobia won’t be seriously challenged.

Uh, yeah. Or we could stop perpetrating them in media. Jane’s character in Coupling identifies as bisexual, but because she isn’t turned on by what we’re told is a close-up of female genitalia in a porn mag, her identity is “disproved”. (By this logic I am asexual: I have never once been turned on by live action visual pornography.) I don’t watch Sex and the City, but apparently there’s an episode in which Carrie dates a bi man and all the stereotypes come out. Captain Jack Harkness is delightfully pansexual for much of Dr. Who and Torchwood, but the portrayal settles to completely homosexual for Miracle Day. The protagonist of Lost Girl is bi, but she is literally addicted to sex, which perpetrates stereotypes unpleasantly. The possibility that Shepard could be bisexual or homosexual in the Mass Effect games freaked people the hell out. When we come out, these are the models people hold us up to. These are how people understand us no matter what we say. No amount of people coming out bi are going to change perceptions until the rest of everyone is willing to start listening. It’s ridiculous to suggest it. After all, racial, ethnic, and some religious minorities don’t have a choice about whether to “come out;” they are recognizable on sight. If visibility were sufficient to erase bigotry, racism wouldn’t exist.

According to the 2013 Pew Research Survey of L.G.B.T.-identified Americans, bisexuals are less likely than gays and lesbians “to view their sexual orientation as important to their overall identity.” That feeds into a belief among some gays and lesbians that bisexuals are essentially fence-sitters who can pass for straight for decades at a time and aren’t especially invested in the L.G.B.T. community.

Uh, okay. Or we don’t have a community that integrates our identity like gay and lesbian folks do. Have you ever heard of a bi bar? No. We go to gay bars and only act on gay attractions, or straight bars and pretty much act on straight attraction. Crossing territory lines in either setting leads to ostracization. Bisexuals are essentially expected by both gay and straight communities to practice a very careful and culturally competent mimesis in their respective settings. It’s less important to overall identity because the gay and straight communities we belong to are at best allies, and rarely that. Orientation is something we have to drag out and explain to every straight or gay partner and it’s exhausting and damn right some of us don’t want the stress of letting it be a defining aspect of our identities. It’s notable that there is general acceptance of bisexuality and fluid sexuality in the kink community, at least here. The community is still vastly heteronormative, but the pressure to conform does not seem to be present.

To test male arousal, Rieger and Savin-Williams use a pupil-dilation tracker instead of a genital monitor. The degree of pupil dilation has been found to correspond to self-reported sexual attraction and orientation.

[ . . .]

“Your pupils actually tell me that you’re more bi than gay.”

That was news to me. I felt a sudden kinship with the self-described bisexual men in Bailey’s original 2005 study, who must have been surprised to learn that they had their sexual orientation all wrong. I could imagine a potentially awkward scenario the next time someone asked me if I was into men or women. “Well, now, that depends on whether you believe the sex researchers at Northwestern or Cornell,” I might have to say.

No. No, and fuck you, and no. You don’t need a pupil dilation machine. Just answer a quick question. There’s an underwear model smiling at you. When you read that sentence, are you picturing a sculpted young man, a woman with curves in all the right places, a delightful room full of people of varying genders and sexes. . . excuse me, I’m having a distracting thought at the moment. Who do you picture? How does it make you feel? What do you like? You know better than your pupils. Are you straight? Gay? Bi? Pan? Asexual? Demisexual? Something else entirely? That’s cool. Whatever you feel about it, you’re probably right. Physical arousal is confusing, I get it. People misattribute their own arousal based on physiological response. Fear, disgust, exertion, certain kinds of pain, fever, and more can all mimic symptoms of arousal, if you will. It’s a biofeedback thing. Say I’m lightheaded, flushed, hypersalivating a little bit. Simultaneously, the friend I’m talking to laughs. It makes me happy: I like to see her laugh. Is that arousal? Nah, I’m just hungry and enjoying a friend’s company. But if I tell myself it’s arousal based on those cues, I’m going to start acting as I would if I were attracted. Trying to verify the response. I do the same thing with anxiety: Oh hell, breathing hard, elevated heart rate, I just saw a [whatever]. Fuck, I’m scared of whatever. Panic! Except I’m not scared of the whatever. Maybe I just took the stairs too fast or am on some new meds. It’s isolated. The whatever isn’t scary generally, this is just a thing that happened. It’s a bad idea to attribute a whole personal attribute to it.

He never had “emotionless sex,” he said, and the sex of the person he was interested in was less important than his romantic and intellectual connection to them. Still, he didn’t see himself as bisexual. “I really didn’t think about my sexual identity back then,” he told me.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from bi folks (and demisexual and asexuals): Sex doesn’t matter. Gender doesn’t matter. I don’t care what’s in a person’s pants; it’s the person that turns me on. A physiological measure of arousal isn’t going to pick up this kind of attraction in a laboratory setting because the attraction won’t form naturally. When people watch porn, do they focus on sexual characteristics? It’s a serious question. I don’t much go for visual porn. If a person doesn’t get turned on in a lab, but they get the feels in authentic attraction situations, surely the latter is a more valuable point of data, right?

As out gay men and lesbians, after all, we’re supposed to be sure — we’re supposed to be “born this way.” It’s a politically important position (one that’s helping us achieve marriage equality and other rights), but it leaves little space for out gay men to muddy the waters with talk of Kinsey 4s and 5s.

I hate this so hard. I don’t even want to talk about it. Thanks, gay rights movement, for systematically and consciously erasing bisexuals from conversations about equal rights for sexual minorities because we unnerve and confuse everyone else! It undermines gay rights too, by the way. Still don’t want to talk about it. Some other time.

Szymanski told me about two female friends of theirs who only dated men until meeting each other late in life. “They’re pretty militant about their lesbianism now,” Szymanski said, “but I’ll ask them, ‘Did you have really great sex with guys?’ They nod. ‘Did you have orgasms?’ They nod. ‘Could you still have them?’ They nod. But they insist that they’re lesbians, because, I think, they’re convinced it’s in their best interest to identify that way.”

“Another case of bisexual invisibility,” Sylla said.

“Yes, and it’s strange to me,” Szymanski added. “Because wouldn’t their behavior suggest something different? Wouldn’t it suggest that they’re actually, you know, bisexual?”

“I’m not biphobic/racist/sexist/whatever but isn’t it interesting that..?” No. go to hell.

You know what? These guys might be right. It’s possible they’re not mischaracterizing these women in the slightest. Maybe their conclusion that the women in question are bisexual is correct.

On the other hand, maybe not. Sexuality isn’t that simple. Was the sex with men “great”? That does probably indicate that at some point these women’s sexuality included males. Sexuality can change over time. This doesn’t invalidate it. Do the orgasms mean anything about sexuality? Good lord, no. It’s entirely possible to orgasm from sexual activity with someone one isn’t attracted to. Ever close your eyes and fantasize that someone else is doing the sex things with you? Yeah. That works pretty well. Or if that idea makes you uncomfortable, how about masturbation? That’s not narcissistic self-directed lust (for me anyway); the sexy feels come from the person/people I’m fantasizing about. Or orgasms may not be linked to sexual pleasure at all. Some folks will have a quick de-stress wank without attaching it to fantasy or emotional/romantic sexual arousal. Think of it kind of like the difference between working out a kink in your back so you can get back to whatever with some relief from pain, and receiving a sensual massage. Same physiological release, completely different context. Only one is sexual. Some people have had an orgasm while being sexually assaulted. That does not mean they were attracted to the assailant, or secretly liked it, or any other horrible traumatic implication. It means that a specific stimulus led to a specific reaction, which is not the all-defining criterion for sexuality. Wanting and liking aren’t the same thing. Erasing consent and cognition and very real mental blocks from being valid components of sexuality oversimplifies us. Really, it needs to stop.

The article is awful. We don’t need a scientific quest to prove bisexuals exist. We’re sick of having to goddamn prove we exist. Sick of it. Know what I did the other day? I fucked a cisgender male and a genderfluid person who typically uses female pronouns. I don’t do this because I’m confused or going through a phase or just catering to male fantasy, either. I do it because I’m attracted to them both, because we all want to, and because the sex is amazing. This is not a new or unique experience. Bi folks have been around a long damn time, lusting after and playing with individuals of various sex and gender combinations and generally not giving a damn about your fucking categories when we do so. These attractions exist. If a measurement tool can’t pick them up, it doesn’t mean we’re not really bi. It means the tool isn’t valid. Self-report and genital arousal measures only have a correlation coefficient of 0.66 for men, 0.26 for women. That’s from a meta-analysis of 132 studies. Only ten of them did physiological response have a correlation of over 0.75 with self-reported identity for men. Only one for women. That means 121 of 132 studies used a measurement that failed to find agreement between physiological response and identity at least 1/4 of the time. That’s really bad.

Know how we know we exist? We are sexually attracted to more than one sex and/or gender. That’s it. It ain’t hard.

We don’t have to act on it to prove we’re really bi–there are bi virgins and bi folks who choose celibacy and they’re no more confused about their sexuality than virgins and celibates who are straight or gay.

We don’t have to have an even split, either in experience or attraction, nor do the two need to match. I pure-bodily-lust after more female-bodied persons than male-bodied ones, but have had significantly more sexual experiences with males. Y’know, ’cause most folks are straight so reciprocation of attraction is a lot more likely there. Easier to approach, more likely to receive positive response.

We don’t have to exhibit a genital response. I don’t get immediately physiologically turned on by the sight of an attractive body. Not even if it’s nude, and moving sexually, and belongs to a partner. The body can be dealing with a number of stimuli at once and not feel like providing altered bloodflow and breathing and lubrication. My appreciation of and desire for that person and that body aren’t dependent on a physiological response at any given moment. Anyone who does use such a response as the sole basis for attraction, I’m a bit inclined to worry about. But that type of decision making is what such a study implies.

The science is fundamentally flawed. Because sexuality is not simple physiological response. Because wanting and liking are not the same thing. Because we are whole, complex, rational beings whose sexualities are based not only on pure physiological manifestations of lust but also on cognitive factors. If you call a bi-identifying person gay or straight because his pupils dilate at images of one sex but not the other (non binary options not included, I assume), you remove his ability to self-identify. You tell him it’s invalid to ask that man whose voice makes him weak in the knees to go for a coffee. Get over yourself, dude; you’re not bi. We had you tested.

More than that, though, it’s about consent. In conflating liking and wanting in this way, the piece diminishes the importance of consent. Arousal tells you what you want. What you like. Who you are. You’re not gay if you don’t respond in just such a way to just such a stimulus. Fuck that. I don’t care how the body responds; the body doesn’t get the final vote. Bodily response and identity may match up most of the time, but they don’t have to. Certainly a correlation between the two isn’t necessary to prove one’s existence.

The premise on which the NYT article and (as far as I have access) the research on which it is based are flawed. They’re biphobic. Oppressive. Reinforce stereotypes. It’s about time we stopped allowing cultural perpetration of the myths that keep us invisible. Behavioral researchers: I expect better. I expect cultural competence, an effort to reduce disparity, valid methods, measures and meanings. For shame.

Quaint Little Categories

October 7, 2013 45 comments

Let’s play a game. I’m gonna erase everyone’s sexual orientation and kink identity for a second. Just for a minute. You’re not straight, you’re not gay, you’re not dominant, you’re not submissive. If you were at a party, you could look around and see lots of other people. You’d be attracted to some of them, probably barely register most, maybe see a few that actively repulse you. Your reaction could be based on physical attraction, demeanor, intellect, humor, political views, anything. Doesn’t matter. The point is, patterns emerge. Maybe all or most of the folks who catch your eye are male-bodied. If you female-identify, you’re likely to phrase this pattern as “I’m straight.” If you male-identify, you’ll say “I’m gay.”

Socially, it’s acceptable to rebuff advances by saying “sorry, I’m straight” or “actually, I’m gay.” And I agree with this. No one is obligated to be attracted to anyone else. Being able to say “no” is incredibly important.

But.

What if we imagine the same scenario again, only this time the person who’s attracted to you is of your preferred sex and/or gender. You’re still not interested. So you say “I’m flattered, but…” and what comes next? “I only date people of my own race”? “I’m just not attracted to people who are taller than me”? “I really can’t see myself with a disabled person”?

I’m guessing those all sound a little more uncomfortable. Definitely more polite to just say “no, thank you,” right?

I’m not going to start a rant about racism or sexism or perceived norms regarding what makes a person attractive. That’s not the point here. Let’s just go back to the party and take a look at the patterns again. (you can have your sexual identity back now, by the way. I’m done with it.) If you’re straight or gay you’ve already established that all (or almost all) of the people you’re attracted to are of a specific sex. There are probably other patterns, too: gregariousness, hair color, humor, height, weight, fashion, attitude, interests and competencies. If you’re kinky, you may look for specific behaviors that indicate a certain style of dominance or submission. This is not an attack. These patterns are not a bad thing. If anything, being aware of them shows that you know what you like. Go you!

What confuses me is that biological sex is somehow the one unimpeachable determinant of attraction for so many people. Somehow only liking men or only liking women is (1) normative and (2) treated as the sole basis for sexual identity. Imagine any other trait–let’s say hair color. If someone says “I only like redheads” she’s not a gingersexual, she’s a straight or gay or bisexual person with a fetish for redheads. Or we can pick on me for a moment: I hate having partners who are taller than I am. If I have to look up to meet someone’s eyes when we’re both standing together, I’m going to be irrationally annoyed to the point of distraction. Men, women, intersex, cis-, trans-, or genderfluid; doesn’t matter, there are people I’d be attracted to somewhere in all these groups. As long as they’re not too tall*. But if you ask my sexual orientation I’ll still say “bisexual**”

Same deal with D/s. When I say I switch, it’s almost never taken at face value. Sometimes I’m brushed off as a submissive with too much pride, which I at least understand: I am far more comfortable bottoming than topping in public scenes and most of my kinky social circle is male doms. Sometimes it’s statements that I was a “real brat” in an impact scene with zero D/s involved, or Fetmail from a submissive man reassuring me that I don’t have to pretend to be a switch to get male attention: there are men like him who love dominant women (Gee, thanks, stranger on the Internet. I never knew dominant females were in high demand. Guess I can quit this silly charade now).

I’m not trying to say everyone’s bisexual or a switch or that labels aren’t useful or any of that nonsense. Cisgendered heterosexual male dominant is a perfectly valid identity. The point is that when someone identifies that way, challenges to that identity are going to be pretty rare. Gender-not-quite-conforming bisexual female switch is just as valid. It would be nice to not have it challenged quite so often, especially in a theoretically pansexual open-to-all-orientations kink group.

 

*Even that’s not a total dealbreaker. The Fireman (whom I rarely see these days) is 6’2″. It drives me nuts, but not to the point that he isn’t worth playing with. I always pick really tall shoes when he’s going to be around, though.

**Not wholly accurate. Bisexual implies attraction to two binary sexes/genders, and I’m perfectly happy with anyone anywhere on the spectrum of either sex or gender. But it’s the word I’ve used since age fifteen, so I’m kind of attached.

BDSM Checklists: How Not To Negotiate

April 13, 2013 3 comments

For some reason these checklists have come up with a couple of different people lately. I’m not a fan. This may seem odd at first glance, because I love lists. I make them all the time, and keep notebooks in my purse just in case I feel the need for a new one. Some are meant for checking off: grocery lists, to-do lists, a list of books by a new favorite author. Some provide useful information: the list of prime numbers, your phone’s contacts list, the ingredients list on a loaf of bread. Lists make organizing life and tasks immensely easier. That said, not everything needs a list, and some lists are just plain terrible. BDSM checklists, I’m looking at you.

For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to define a BDSM checklist as any list of BDSM activities that seeks to be comprehensive. Some recommend checking yes or no, some suggest rating each item on a scale, most come prefaced with a disclaimer that everything on them merits further commentary and discussion than simply checking a box can supply. Most come with the suggestion that they can or should be used as negotiation tools. It’s that last part I have a problem with. These checklists have no real advantages over any other form of negotiation (except maybe not negotiating at all), and a dozen major drawbacks.

1: They’re poorly organized. I’ve seen at least half a dozen different kink checklists on the Internet, and they all have one fatal flaw in common: they’re alphabetized. Don’t get me wrong, alphabetization is great. If I go to a used bookstore and find their sci-fi jumbled randomly on the shelf, I’m leaving. But I’m also not shopping at a bookstore that keeps Soren Kierkegaard’s works next to Caitlin Kiernan’s. If you want a BDSM checklist that you can reasonably use, it needs to be better categorized. Some lists attempt this, listing “bondage” a dozen or so times, each entry followed by a different bondage material or body part, but for the most part items are simply alphabetized such that patterns do not naturally emerge. Because the list seeks to go into so much detail (the shortest one I’ve seen is 200 items), “wooden paddles” and “caning” wind up several pages away from each other. This implies that the type of implement is more important than the nature of the impact, and avoids more important questions: just how much pain are we talking about here? Where do you like to be hit? How do you want to feel?

2: They’re overwhelming. Even if you’re clear that it’s not a to-do list and what you really want is to be sure to not cross boundaries and get to know a partner’s preferences better, the point of the list is to cover a huge, varied community’s entire repertoire of skills and interests as quickly as possible. By item 50 I’m skimming at best, and I don’t have ADHD. Having to wade through six hundred kinks to check “yes” to “whipping” before negotiating a scene involving whips isn’t responsible negotiation; it’s just a time-consuming distraction. It reminds me of the forms one has to fill out in the ER: if you’re there because you mangled a knee falling down a mountain, answering three pages of questions about your family’s history of cancer and autoimmune disease are just not relevant.

3: They’re not comprehensive. No matter how long of a list you use, it’s not going to include every kink. It can’t. A lot of them don’t even include punching, which is a pretty straightforward activity. There are a few problems with this. Let’s say the list doesn’t include something you want to try today (or next Tuesday, which is when you’ll finish negotiating if you use this stupid thing). Maybe it’s punching, and you aren’t shy about it but after 700 questions to do with branding and pony play and tea service, you’re not really thinking about the smell of boxing gloves and the thud of impact, you’re having a surreal and possibly unpleasant fantasy about branding a pony girl while she attempts to serve tea to your wife. Or maybe you want to try something that is kind of out there. I know we’ve all got someone (if only the combined voices of the Internet) to reassure us that our kinks are okay even if not everyone shares them. But still, having a less common kink can make a person feel like a bit of a freak. If you give a partner a BDSM checklist, and it doesn’t contain something they really want to do or at least talk about, congratulations, you’ve just drastically reduced the odds that they will ever bring it up with you. Maybe that’s fine, but it’d be a shame if it turned out to be an activity you both liked.

4: They’re impersonal. I mean sure, if you’re going to get kinky with someone you’d better have one or two kinks in common, but these lists run from 200 to nearly 1000 items long. If someone insisted on going through a BDSM checklist as a prerequisite to play, I wouldn’t be interested. I want to play because of chemistry and mutual attraction, not because our 0s and 5s line up pretty well on a spreadsheet. Insisting on negotiation by checklist suggests that one’s partner is just a delivery system for kink. Even with a one night stand, I want to know that we have something else to talk about, whether it’s books or cooking or Dr. Who. After all, if there’s nothing to chat about in the sweaty aftermath it’ll just be awkward. There are two ways to go with a list like this: either you can just look at the list and decide aye or nay based on a compatibility algorithm, which…ech. Or you can spend three hours discussing every item in depth, and while you’re busy agreeing that no one involved is interested in bloodplay, you miss the opportunity to bond or flirt or talk about anything else.

5: The answers could be wrong. Not everyone knows what the kinks listed even are. Someone could indicate disinterest in something that might be a long-held fetish because an unfamiliar term is used. Or worse, maybe you’re dealing with someone new to the scene who sees “water sports” and thinks SCUBA. This is not a random example. I used to dive. Learning that “water sports” was the term for a thing that is neither a sport nor involves water came as a nasty shock. (As a side note,  SCUBA sex should happen. Somehow it didn’t make any of these lists. I’ll just pencil it in, shall I?) There are a number of reasons that someone would fill this thing out incorrectly, purely by accident, and the confusion could be problematic.

6: People lie. Confusion and inexperience aren’t the only reasons someone might fill out such a checklist inaccurately. It sounds obvious, but even so. A list is impersonal. A person who would be able to relax into conversation and gently let you know that e.g. she’s into breath play could easily mark “no” on paper because even on a sliding scale, even with a “comments” box, it’s still answering yes-or-no, does this hold any interest for you at all in writing. That feels vulnerable and dangerous. Expressing interest in that form feels like it requires explanation if one then adds “but not now” or “but not with you.” Worse, there’s a risk that a partner (not a good partner, but this is someone you’re getting to know via list, so…) might believe that a check mark in the “yes” box implies consent. So maybe it’s easier to check “no.” But then how do you take it back without admitting you lied? It’s tricky. The checklist format is too impersonal to really make a person want to open up. And that’s without addressing the lies people will tell about whether they have experience with X or Y. Some folks will show off. It’s easier to tease out the truth in a conversation than on a form.

7: The 0-5 scale is not as universally simple to interpret as you’d think. Take a look at e.g. pain. Suppose prospective partner G is really into pain, can’t get off without it in fact, but only mild-to-moderate pain. Will G check 5 because it’s a favorite thing, or 2 because any higher mean more pain than G wants? Or maybe partner H can take pain or leave it, but if she’s taking it she’s got a pain tolerance that’s yet to discover a limit? Check 2 because pain is “meh,” or 5 because she’s still standing after an hour of heavy caning? How do you answer a question about electrical play if you adore TENS units but violet wands make you want to cry? Again, I know there’s a comments box, but these lists seek to be comprehensive. They are long. I’d bet that very few people have the time or inclination to add detailed commentary to each of 200-1000 different items.

8: They do not address basic safety. I’d like to assume that’s a conversation that everyone knows to have separately, but still. Let’s say your potential new partner is interested in X. He’s never tried it but you have, and hey, X is hot! Too bad potential new partner has medical condition Q (sometimes Y needs a night off, you know. Give Q some love) and it’s really not safe to do X to a person who has condition Q, or a special precaution is necessary. Of course if you don’t know about condition Q, you can’t prepare, and sometimes the connection is not obvious. Sure, you know better than to practice heavy impact on someone with CIPA (protip: it’s not safe to do any damn thing to someone with CIPA. Not that it’ll ever come up) but chronic low blood pressure could lead to a partner passing out in certain situations. It won’t show up in the comments section for activity X, because your partner may not think of it, or may not realize it could be relevant. Or maybe he’s horribly allergic to your pets or your lotion or the peanut butter sandwich you had for lunch. These things can come up. Obviously you don’t want an additional 200+ item checklist of medical conditions: you just want to ask “hey, any possibility of transmissible diseases, chronic conditions, allergies &c that I might need to know about?”

9: Some of us kink on different things with different partners. This is one of the reasons I do not have a fetish list on Fetlife and don’t intend to change that. A lot of people are reaction junkies. A lot. So if we haven’t tried an activity with a partner, we don’t know how it’ll be. Maybe I rate biting as a 5 when I play with A, because he moans and writhes and is otherwise lovely, but only a 1 with B, because she doesn’t react any more to a good hard bite than she would to a fly landing on her arm. If I haven’t bitten you, I don’t know. If I have, we both already know and it doesn’t need to be on the list. So maybe you think I should add “reactions” as a write-in kink, to say that I like “making partners moan.” Of course, different partners come with different desired reactions. Maybe A makes me feel violent and dominant, but with B I want to grapple and be switchy, and I play with C because I like feeling utterly overwhelmed and out of control. It takes some experimenting to see what works with new partners.

10: It addresses the what of kinks but not the why. This is a big one. This is the other reason I do not have a fetish list on Fetlife. 246,305 people on that site list “spanking” as a fetish. Some indicate that they like to give spankings, some that they like to get them, some don’t say either way; maybe they’re just happy knowing that there’s a spanking going on somewhere. Cool. Fine. So your new potential partner lists spanking as a level 5 favorite thing. How do you interpret that? Does he want to be punished, berated, shamed? Does he want to prove he can take the pain while you reassure him that he’s ever so good and brave? Does he want the pain or the sound of it? Is he hoping to look in the mirror and see a pink blush ten minutes after the scene, or a bruise a week later? Should you do it over the knee or standing, with what and on which body parts? Does he want to break down crying or have a little giggly light fun? None of these are things it’s safe to make assumptions about and everything on that list is at least as complicated. If you want to actually have a scene before the Tuesday after next, the way to do it is to say “hey, I’d like to engage in activity C. Here’s some more details about what I’m looking for. How does that sound to you?”

11: If you’re looking for a custom list, many kinky people already have one written out. Many of those kinky people who use Fetlife have a fetish list on their profiles. Peruse potential partners’ profiles. (When you’re done, do please come back and admire my alliteration. It was accidental but I’m quite proud of it.) This guy lists eight different fetishes involving foot worship? Chances are you can suggest a host of activities as long as your toes or favorite heels are intimately involved. That girl’s into a variety of medical play activities? Neat, where does that overlap with your interests? As a bonus you get to learn just how much effort they put into their profiles on Fet, what kind of image they are attempting to portray to the community at large, and whether they have a sufficient grasp of grammatical convention (abuse of the English language is not quite a hard limit for me, but I have to be quite smitten to let more than the odd typo pass without remark, mockery, or straight-up disdain. Long rambling sentences well-sprinkled with parentheticals, on the other hand, are fine. Obviously they’re fine: I use them.)You can learn a lot just by looking at and asking about the things a person is already putting out there. This is true even if they don’t have a fetish list posted (like me) or don’t have a Fetlife account at all: look at how people carry themselves at fetish events, notice what toys we bring, listen to how we introduce ourselves. Some people are one-trick-ponies, only into rope or electricity or whatever. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth talking to. The scene revolves around kink, but all of us involved in it are whole individuals. If you’re not into bondage, it’s still worth your time to sit and chat with a rigger about local restaurants or swap kinky stories.

12: They’re just not sexy. Negotiation can be hot. It should be hot. It should be growling in your partner’s ear that you want to bite his neck and shoulders. It should be telling her how much you want to feel her body wrapped in rope. Or it can be goading and fun (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”). It can be “I saw that scene you did earlier, and I really liked [some aspect of it]. Would you like to try something like that with me?”. It should not be a survey taken on a clipboard to be analyzed by you or your prospective partner.

I’m not saying BDSM checklists are a complete waste of space. I looked at one years and years ago when I was very new to kink but didn’t yet understand what that meant. Seeing just how much ground the term BDSM can cover was helpful in keeping me from saying “I’m up for anything” and in providing a starting point from which to say “I’m curious about. . .” For entertainment alone, it might be fun to go over one with a partner for the giggles and the “really? Sounding? What the heck is that like?” conversations. I just can’t see them as a useful negotiation tool. There are alternatives, but they mostly boil down to “learn to have a conversation and talk about what you like and want, then play, then recap and talk some more about what you liked, what you want, what you’d rather avoid next time.” I enjoy the one page checklist here (though I would add a line to address aftercare: pre-negotiating aftercare is really useful, especially with new partners). When someone tells me they’re up for anything I love to refer them to the sex map. Most people realize pretty quickly that “anything” covers a lot more than any one person can realistically enjoy.

I get what the BDSM checklist is trying for, really. I just think it fails. There’s nothing wrong with looking at one to start thinking about what interests you and why, or going through one just for fun, but as a negotiation tool they seem like a staggering circumnavigation of more important questions.