BDSM 101: Consent, consent, consent

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. In the previous three days I’ve covered mythbusting, finding out more, and figuring out what you’re into. Today – to finish – I’m focusing on the most important issue of consent.

Consent, consent, consent

Despite what you might think from Fifty Shades, consent is not just a matter of having a safeword! In fact we can see from Fifty Shades itself that safewords are not enough. The first time that Christian spanks Ana she’s really not sure if she likes it. Her feelings about it change from when it happens to later when she reflects on it. She has similar ambivalence on other occasions but clearly doesn’t feel that she can use her safeword to express that uncertainty.

There are huge cultural pressures around sex. We often feel – as Ana seems to – that we must have certain kinds of sex a certain amount in order not to lose a relationship. We feel that we should ‘perform’ certain kinds of sex in order to be a ‘real’ man/woman, or a ‘proper’ straight or queer person. We feel like if we’ve had a kind of sex before we’re obligated to have it again. We feel too embarrassed or awkward to say we’re not enjoying something. We feel that because we’ve done one thing we should automatically do others. All of these are deeply problematic ways of thinking about sex which hurt us badly, but they are also really hard to completely step away from because they’re so engrained in our culture.

So, when it comes to consent, we can’t just rely on partners to say ‘no’ or safeword if they’ve stopped enjoying it. Instead, consent should be about trying to minimise the pressures that they – and we – are under, so that we can be as confident as possible that what we’re doing is consensual. How can we do this? Well it is definitely worth talking about the messages we’ve received about sex and reassuring the other person that we really wouldn’t want them doing something they don’t enjoy. We can also deliberately avoid making any suggestion that kink or sex should involve certain things (e.g. genitals, pain, orgasms, or fancy outfits) or that certain things are more or less normal.

power

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BDSM 101: Figuring out, and communicating, what you’re into

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yesterday focused on finding out more. Today I’m covering how to figure out, and communicate, what you’re into.

Figuring out what you’re into

There’s a sense in Fifty Shades that the kind of ‘kinky fuckery’ that Ana finds herself enjoying is fine, but that the kind of ‘real’ BDSM that Christian is after is not okay. Please put these kinds of distinctions from your mind! People are always trying to draw lines between what kinds of play are okay and what kinds aren’t. For ages it was that missionary penis-in-vagina man/woman sex was fine and nothing else was. Then it expanded a bit to any kind of sex involving genitals was okay, but other stuff wasn’t. Now, after Fifty Shades, we’re told that a bit of light spanking and fluffy handcuffs is okay but anything ‘more than that’ isn’t. All this focus on what counts as normal, right, proper sex (and what doesn’t) takes us aware from far more important questions such as what the people involved actually enjoy, and how to do it ethically.

Fifty-Shades-Grey-Trailer

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BDSM 101: Finding out more about kink

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yesterday was an introduction. Today I’m focusing on how to find out more about kink.

Finding out more about kink

In Fifty Shades Christian swears Ana to secrecy about their kink relationship so that she can’t talk to anybody else in her life about it. This is a terrible idea! It’s a huge warning sign in a relationship if there are areas you’re forced to keep secret. Given how common kink is there may well be people already in your life who you can chat openly about your ideas with. However there is still stigma around kink, so you might prefer to talk with people who’re already involved in BDSM.

If you’re new to kink, there is a huge wealth of information available to help you get started. It’s definitely worth checking this out and learning from people who have been there and got the Tshirt.

Tshirt

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BDSM 101 (or what to do and what not to do from Fifty Shades of Grey)

The film of Fifty Shades of Grey is out this week to much excitement and media attention. As somebody who has researched with BDSM communities for over a decade, and written about the Fifty Shades books, I thought it’d be useful to give my suggestions for people who are thinking about getting into kink for the first time having watched the movie.

So, over the next four days, I’m going to cover the following topics, including where I think Fifty Shades gets it right, and where it has a lot of room for improvement:

Before we go on it’s important to say that pretty much everything covered here is also true for any kind of sex – not just kink. It’s sad that people often don’t think about tuning into what they enjoy, or ensuring consent, until they’re considering BDSM. So you might well find it useful to read on even if kink isn’t something you’re particularly interested in.

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Consensual Relationships Revisited

Applying the concept of consent to all relationships in various ways.

Content warning: abusive relationships and abusive sex are touched on briefly in this post.

Recently I wrote a post here about open relationships. It explored how the concept of openness might be applied to relationships more widely than just open non-monogamy – which is what people usually mean when they talk about open relationships. Whilst my research with polyamorous communities started by focusing on non-monogamy, I think that openness is a useful concept to apply to all kinds of relationships, not just non-monogamous relationships or just partner relationships.

A similar thing has happened with my research on kink, or BDSM, communities. Initially, like many of the researchers who have tried to learn from – rather than explain – kink, my focus was on the ways in which people ensured that their play was Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC) or Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). Those terms are the mantras of the kink communities. Whilst RACK recognises the problems with the idea that the things people do could ever be entirely safe, or completely sane (whatever that means), it retains the idea that consent is the vital cornerstone of BDSM sex.

However, my latest piece of research with kink communities was all about how common ideas about consent are currently being questioned, and reconsidered, by people in those communities. Online conversations over the last three or four years have radically challenged understandings of consent in ways that I think are useful for everyone, far beyond just kink communities.

consent

The Consent Culture movement has argued that the idea of consent needs to be expanded out in a number of ways.

Consent is about:

  • All sex, not just kinky sex
  • Enthusiastic mutual agreement, not just the ability to say ‘no’
  • The whole relationship, not just the sex parts
  • All relationships, not just sexual relationships (including the relationships that we have with ourselves)
  • The whole culture, not just the individuals within it

The idea is that unless we aim for consensual relationships beyond the bedroom, with all the people in our lives, and in our wider culture, it will be very hard – if not impossible – to ensure consent within sexual encounters, whether those are kinky or non-kinky. It isn’t possible to isolate just one aspect of human behaviour (sex) and ensure that it is conducted under a completely different set of rules than the ones that we use when managing the domestic chores,for example, or  inviting someone out to a social occasion, or putting structures in place for how our work projects will be conducted.

I’ll take each one of these expansions in turn now, and explore how we might encourage all of our relationships, networks and communities to become more consensual.

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Sex therapy: Stop trying to be ‘normal’

Yesterday The Observer published its special issue on sex. Based on their survey of British sexual attitudes and practices, the issue contains several interesting articles about current understandings and expectations around sex. They interviewed me and a couple of other sex therapists about what we thought was going on in this area, from our work with clients. You can real those interviews here, and I’ve included the full version of mine below. I addressed a few points in greater depth than they could cover in the article.

BarkerObserver

Overall I was pleased with the interview they published, especially with the fact that they used my quote ‘stop trying to be “normal”‘ as the headline. However, in retrospect I think I might have added a caveat: ‘stop trying to be “normal”. But that is really really difficult to do in a culture that puts so much pressure on people to conform to a certain idea of “normality”, so go gently on yourself.’

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Guardian article – Relationship FAQ

Yesterday The Guardian interviewed a bunch of sex and relationship bloggers to find out our answers to our most frequently asked questions. The article is here and you can read my answers below – hard to capture all the complexity in 130 words a piece!

Question 1: What kinds of relationship are most successful?

I write a lot about different possible ways of doing relationships: monogamous, monogamish and openly non-monogamous relationships; living apart together and long distance relationships; sexual and non-sexual relationships. Something I’m often asked is whether a certain form of relationships can be successful. My question back is always ‘what do you mean by successful?’ It generally turns out that people mean longevity. While studies have found that all these forms of relationships can last over time, I question whether that is the best measure of relationship ‘success’. Perhaps that is something else that is worth thinking about.

Question 2: Will things get easier if I change how I do relationships?

When people contemplate a different kind of relationship – such as an open relationship or polyamory – they often imagine that it will solve all of the problems they’re currently having. I’ve called this the ‘poly grail’ (although it happens with all kinds of relationships). Sadly the answer is that any different way of doing relationships has its own challenges. It’s tough to be in monogamous, it’s tough to be single, and it’s tough to be non-monogamous (whether you do that openly, or secretly in the form of affairs). It’s well worth finding a kind of relationship that works for you, but it’s far too much pressure to expect to find the ‘one true way’ of doing relationships, just as it’s too much pressure to expect to find ‘the one’ partner who’ll fulfil all your needs.

Question 3: How do I go about finding the kind of relationship that works for me?

Instead of searching for the perfect relationship, it’s helpful to figure out what’s important to us, and to communicate about that. For example, where do you stand between wanting just one very close person in your life and wanting lots of friends or partners who are equally close? What about between sexual exclusivity and having many sexual encounters (online or offline)? Is it important to have a clear agreed contract for how you do relationships or for everyone to be free to make their own decisions? Do you like to be private or are you keen to share everything with partners? Communication won’t resolve all the differences we have in relationships, but it definitely helps to be open about such things from the start and to accept that people can feel very differently about them.

 

What can we all learn about sex from The Sessions?

I urge you to go and see the movie, The Sessions, which is currently out in cinemas. Not only is this a quietly beautiful and uplifting film about life and love, alienation and connection, in the same vein as another favourite of mine, The Station Agent, it also has a lot to offer on the topic of sex.

The Sessions

The film, based on an autobiographical essay On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, follows Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) as he attempts to find a sexual relationship. At 38, Mark has had to spend most of his life in an iron lung since having polio as a child and is only able to be outside of the machine for two or three hours at a stretch, still lying on a gurney and reliant on his mouth for typing or making phonecalls, and on paid carers to move him around.

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Multiple (perspectives on) Orgasms

During the last few days I have been attending the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) conference up in Glasgow. Right before that, on June 11th, we had the conference of the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT), which is the key British organisation for this group of practitioners.

I organise the programme for the COSRT events and, to make it go with a bang, this year we decided to focus on the orgasm! On Saturday we spent the day learning about the science and art of orgasms, and on Monday we brought our various perspectives to the attendees of WAS in a very well-attended symposium on the subject. Here I want to give a flavour of just some of the ideas that were presented over the course of the two events.

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