Posts Tagged ‘sex’
Only two novels have ever made me sob in a café. I don’t mean that I blinked a couple of tears from my eyes and looked around soulfully. My face was smeared with the tears I’d unsuccessfully tried to wipe away, my nose was running and, as I came up on the worst bits, I made little mewling sounds. I put the book down and breathed slowly to regain control, but couldn’t stop reading for more than a few seconds. One of the books those books was Anna Karenina. The other was ‘Taming the Beast’.
The first time I read it I was in a spin for a week. Near the end I was in a café in Derry, ignoring my lunch, unable to stop reading, but pausing sometimes to search for a dry patch of handkerchief. My boyfriend came back from his errand to find me with a red, puffy face and a bowl of cold broth. I tried to explain: he was dangerous, she was going to let him have her, and I wanted her to, and I wanted him to, and it was so, so, awful. A week later he bought me a copy of ‘The Courage To Heal’, he clearly thought that the only explanation for such twisted thinking was the trauma of abuse. Lacking any such history, though, I’m still looking for other reasons.
I’ve reread the book twice this year. It’s about a girl who loves poems and her English teacher, the affair they have when she’s fourteen and the affair they have when she’s twenty-two. It’s got white panties, asphyxiation, a precocious girl and a stern older man, but my reaction goes beyond my list of kinks. It isn’t porn, there’s an emotional truth it in that I can’t quite decipher.
The first time I read it, I’d just finished ‘Daddy’s Girl’, a story about a woman who plays the little girl to her sadistic ‘Daddy’. It’s a story that starts as porn, for those of us who like that sort of thing: naughty girls being spanked, special clothing to be torn off during rapes in the garden, a rich, sophisticated man who knows his girl is special.* It becomes a story about how reality reasserts itself: Daddy’s doesn’t always know best and sometimes he isn’t there when you need him, you might just have to stand on your own. That upset me, because I want the fantasy of an older man who’ll always love me and always make things right. I want it the same way I think some people want God, as a self-validation and a safety net rolled into one. All the same, ‘Taming the Beast’ leaves me with a greater sense of loss.
In ‘Daddy’s Girl’ the narrator loses her Daddy when she realises that the man can’t live up to the fantasy. Sarah, the narrator of ‘Taming the Beast’, sees her lover’s self-justifications, his blaming her for his loss of control, the fact that his need to beat her is at odds with his position as the sensible, caring adult who should be in charge. Sarah is under no illusions, she knows he’s a sadistic criminal, and she wants it, she’ll give up everything for it. She doesn’t care if she dies.
Then he lifted his head, looked into her eyes and slapped her hard across the face. ‘Dear God, Sarah! Why won’t you let me do this right? Why won’t you let me treat you with respect?’
Sarah knew that he could not see how ridiculous his question was. He didn’t see that biting her legs and slapping her face was less satisfying than a mutually satisfying screw. She didn’t know why this intrigued her when any sane person would be disturbed. She could see the twisted logic, the distorted morality, the dangerous self-justification; it’s just that she didn’t mind.
I think that’s what upsets me. Not only seeing the limitations of the fantasy, as in ‘Daddy’s Girl’, but knowing that the impulse doesn’t dissipate, even when it is demonstrated that it’s flawed. There’s something akin to Sarah’s decision at the centre of most of my kinks, the choosing something without reference to the self. Submission involves a suppression of the self, pain reduces the self by narrowing focus to sensation and shutting everything else out, and pain that seems unbearable is not only engrossing, but pushes you to a limit at which you’ll happily give up anything, if only that will make it stop. Pain trumps integrity. In a sense, my kinks involve chasing dissolution of myself, and I’m sad that I can’t take it as far as the impulse goes, because I have other priorities: staying alive, achieving something, independence from fallible lovers and crutches.
On the other hand, interesting and Bataillian as this analysis is, I do wonder if my feelings are baser. I envy Sarah her story. I want to be the girl whose teacher loves her enough to risk seducing her, beat her, teach her poetry and come back for her eight years later when she’s all grown up. I’m disappointed that I can’t have that in real life, which seems mundane and filled with ordinariness and washing up in comparison. Then it struck me that I did have what Sarah had when I was fourteen, and it felt very different.
I was one of those teenagers who suddenly discovered the power of her sexuality and couldn’t restrain myself to trying to form a relationship with one of the boys of the best local independent. I wanted to be thought irresistible by everyone: the bus driver, the teachers, friend’s brothers, friend’s fathers, and probably any workmen visiting friends’ houses. I remember getting cold in the doorway turning the charm on the pizza delivery guy (and I got cold pizza, too). My school made us wear blue check summer dresses, primary-school style, until we were sixteen (my mother memorably told the head they were ‘a paedophile’s delight’). I used to loll in the grounds under the cherry trees, wearing daisy chain circlets and reddening my lips with sticky cherry lollipops, parodying what I was. Now, I associate the memory of my doing that with one man.
He was a friend’s father. He worked in publishing, in a low-level job that sounded much more impressive at the time. Like Sarah’s Mr. Carr, he told me I was brilliant, intelligent, and understood him like no one else. He showed me his poetry, which he’d shown no one before, not even his wife. He taught me the word ‘pertinent’. He played me the Sisters of Mercy and he told me about Ruskin’s love life. I felt special, beautiful, chosen. Then one weekend, at my friend’s sleepover, in the kitchen, next to the living room where his wife and daughter were having breakfast, he put his hand up my nightdress and onto my breast. I left the kitchen. He sat next to me on the sofa and drew my duvet across his lap. He held my hand. I thought that perhaps he was sorry. He pulled my hand across to his hot, hard penis. I looked down at his daughter sitting by our feet. I didn’t know what to say, so I just pulled my hand away, and put it, which the other, on top of the duvet.
Writing this I feel disgusted, angry, ashamed, let down by all the people who should have educated me about what to do in such circumstances (I had nails!), guilty and sad. I don’t feel turned on. For months I avoided accepting lifts and visits with varying amounts of success, for years I blamed myself, I still feel terrible that I didn’t say something to someone who could have curbed his activities. I realise that none of this was particularly hard-core, but there’s one notable thing about it: it isn’t seductive like ‘Taming the Beast’. I could argue that Sarah’s lover was more handsome, erudite, etc. He undoubtedly was from her perspective, but like me she saw through his conflicting and simultaneously held visions of who he was (and who she was, for that matter). I saw through my molester, too, but it mattered less when our shared activity was preferring poems to chemistry homework. A hand on the penis is a great clarifier: I enjoyed admiration, but wasn’t foolish enough to desire him. I knew, even then, that I was better than that.
I think my tears throughout ‘Taming the Beast’ are for a fantasy shattered. I fall into it again every time, I want to be the girl who knows her Keats so well that her teacher can’t help himself. And then, as the plot progresses, and Sarah gives up more and more (including, eventually, her studies of poetry) I want to follow her, so very badly, but I can see clearly, and I’m sad that what ought to be raging passion turns out to be nothing but gropes beside the toaster and furtive grabbing under a duvet while watching daytime television.* I’m crying for the limited nature of every role play scene, and the fact that I have to be a grown up and look after myself.
I’ve read it twice this year, and I know it backwards. I want more books like this in my life. So, dearest readers, since you’ve made it through 1,500 words of post, will you do one more thing for me? Tell me which books leave you off-balance and make you ask questions about who you are. I do so very much want to know.
*It’s unfortunately got all the hallmarks of paperback pornography, too: long passages during which the author describes her bottom, and a world in which inappropriate behaviour is always an accepted sexual advance. I can’t think what would be said if I decided to take a bath with the door open half way through one of my friend’s parties. I imagine it wouldn’t be, “that Not, she just can’t help doing sexy things!” Feel free to invite me to better parties.
**This point could be made just as well with ‘Lolita’, but everyone’s already read that, and they should be spending more time talking about Nabokov’s amazing language, narratorial perspective and tension, anyway.
My life’s a disaster right now. Admittedly, it’s improved since the week I spent in bed hardly able to speak through the pain and the fug of codeine; I can type, peel potatoes and feed the cat all by myself, but it’s still not working. When I broke my bones I’d just finished my MA and was looking for work. Now, after weeks of enforced idleness, I’m fuzzy-headed and tired, wondering if my brain has wasted away as my muscles have. This doesn’t feel like post-university looking, this feeling like unemployment.
So, somehow, I have too many priorities. I need a job that pays the rent: to find jobs, apply for them, and field calls from recruitment agents telling me that’s an old job that should’ve been taken down. I need to do well at the couple of hours work I have got, tutoring which involves a few weeks’ worth of reading that isn’t counted in my hourly wage.* I need to do my physio and get my fitness back so I can manage a working day. I’m desperate to get out of the inner city area that’s making life look so bleak, so flat hunting’s imperative. I need to do something about the fact that weeks of sitting around have made me horribly, grotesquely fat. And at some point I’m going to have to think about my commitments to other people.
Concentrating on the things I have to do to make my life bearable again, I’m losing the things I did before. There’s no time to write the novel I spent the last year on. I’m not healed enough for dancing or cycling, my arm aches when I try to sew. I’m too tired and stressed for socialising. Last week the lover decided to take me to his house, away from the leaking sink and the unhoovered floor. We made it as far as the city centre before I recalled leaving a window open, and overcome by misery and indecision, stood leaning into the wind feeling the tears turn from warm to cold on my cheeks. I cried all the way home, where we found the window closed.
In this mental state, I’m not interested in sex or kink. I’ve stopped reading kinky blogs, I’ve retreated from sexual, violent books by the likes of Angela Carter into the safety of Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. I don’t want to hear even the mildest of threats or the nicest of sexual compliments. I don’t want to be told I’m pretty, I don’t feel it’s true but I do feel it’s demanding something. And right now I don’t want to have to give it. I don’t even want to think about it.
Where’s the poor lover in all of this? He’s listening to my plans, lifting heavy objects, hugging me when I can’t stop crying in the night and trying very, very hard not to touch me in ways I could interpret as sexual. That’s crap for him. In poly, though, every decision you make involves everyone else. None of us know, truly, what’s going on with the others; we didn’t sign up to tell our darkest secrets to the group, we each became involved with different people, and we share things with them when we want to. The lover knows, therefore, that even if I don’t have any pockets I like to carry my purse if we’re arguing away from home, due to an unpleasant experience in Beijing, but he doesn’t know how deep my sorrow was when I was cast as a sheep in a nativity play. The extended poly group know neither, why would they?
The lover’s with his wife tonight. They don’t know that the corner of the sheet’s come off my bed and I can’t get it back on. They don’t know that, after the lover told me that he couldn’t give me the weekend away from my flat we’d planned, because of commitments to the poly family, I cried about how bleak the next week feels without it. The awful thing is, the ignorance goes both ways. How many nights has the lover spent here looking after me when he was needed at home? How many times have I thought sending him home for quality time with his wife was a good idea when that only took her from her girlfriend?
This blog post is self-indulgent, I imagine I’ll feel embarrassed about it soon. Those emotions serve a purpose. Our own pain, and that of those closest to us, is intense and real, but we don’t, we can’t, feel everyone else’s, we simply don’t have the emotional capacity to let that much suffering in. Talking about mine in such detail is asking you to do just that, and it’s not a reasonable request. In poly, how does one communicate the circumstances emotions create, without demanding that everyone in the group has infinite reserves of kindness not at all restricted by emotions of their own?
Discerning your partner’s needs and asking for your own to be met is a challenge in monogamous relationships, even in the good times. The delicacy required to get it right in poly is probably always going to be beyond me. At the moment it feels like asking for the moon. I wouldn’t give up the freedom of poly for anything, but, God, I wish it was easy.
*I’m tutoring a student who wants to get the same A Level results I did, in the same subjects. He thinks this will improve his career opportunities. I don’t think it’s occurred to him that, ten years on, I’m teaching for a pittance. I’m not going to bring it up.
Non-poly people, on learning I’m polyamorous, always want to know if I’m jealous. I say that I’m not, and receive a puzzled look, then usually a statement that they would get jealous, that they just couldn’t do it, which is strange because I’ve never invited them to. It’s a lie, of course. I do get jealous, I just don’t get jealous about sex. Not often enough to justify telling a partner that my feelings should influence their actions, anyway. I could count my experiences of sexual jealousy on one hand, which is rather convenient, in poly.
But I do get jealous. I get horribly, irrationally jealous. I get jealous of people I hardly know. I’m jealous of friends of friends for being diverting and funny. I’m jealous of kinksters on Twitter who have more play and have better pain tolerances than I do. I’m jealous of friends’ partners because they get to see a side of my friends I’ll never know. I’m jealous of writers who have had their work published, even though I’ve never sent anything to a literary agent. I burned with jealousy when my father praised his girlfriend’s daughter’s cooking. She hadn’t even left home, my reaction was ridiculous.
I’m an only child, perhaps I never learned to share. That’s given me a useful perspective, though: I can’t help but recognise how petty I am. I can’t tell my friends not to have other friends, or boyfriends, no matter how insecure and envious I feel, it wouldn’t even occur to me, because I have no right to regulate their lives. If I did, though, there would be a helpful conversation about my insecurity or a row about the best way to make pastry, depending on our moods. There certainly wouldn’t be any level of acquiescence. Having learned to allow friends their freedom, I can’t see why friends I sleep with should be treated any worse.
Sometimes I can see the workings of jealousy in my petty mind, even as I’m feeling it. My father’s praising about his girlfriend’s daughter’s* cooking hurt. It still hurts, and it’s been a couple of years now. He never praises me, in fact he doesn’t show enough interest to hear of things he might praise me for. And he particularly never praises my cooking, because he never eats it. Offered it, he’s been known to opt for peanuts or crackers and cheese instead. He says that’s because he doesn’t like vegetarian food, but where’s the meat in a packet of peanuts? Where? WHERE?!
The comment that Millie was an excellent cook was like a fissure in the dam, a jet of my anger and hurt spewed out; all the feelings about my father’s lack of interest in me hit me in a flood. Those feelings may be big and important personally, but they really don’t have anything to do with Millie’s culinary skills. Jealousy is all about me, and it’s not going to be fixed by someone else, even if Millie serves something ugly and poisonous at a fancy dinner party. Unless it’s to my father, I suppose.
As far as sex goes, I stave off insecurity by only sleeping with people who I’m pretty confident think I’m attractive. They’re going to think other people are attractive, too, but they’d think that even if they weren’t allowed to act on their desires. I’m comfortable if I’m sure I’m near the top of the list, which limits my range of sexual partners but does wonders for my self-esteem. I do catch myself in little waves of jealousy about play partners’ play partners, which mostly boil down to “she/he has a less wobbly bottom and a better pain tolerance than me.” Those feelings have little to do with the person I’m jealous of and a lot to do with my relationship with my own bottom. I suppose if it reached a critical level I’d have to have a conversation with play partners about whether playing with someone who cries so easily and wobbles so much is fun, and reserve myself for the extremely enthusiastic, as I do with lovers. I’m hoping, however, that kinky confidence will grow with experience, as sexual confidence did.
I’m willing to work at it because jealousy is such a horrible feeling. On a selfish level, I just don’t want the experience of it, but I don’t want to be a partner who limits the people I’m with (rather the reverse). Dealing with jealousy brings freedom. I get the freedom to do what I want sexually, which is important to me because, goodness, I want to do a lot of things! I also get the freedom to refuse what I don’t want. Whenever I’ve been with monogamous people, whether I’ve signed up to those rules or not, there’s been a horrible, horrible pressure. We’re in love. He wants to be with me forever, he doesn’t want anyone else. And may he please suck my toes? And I think, how awful to have a burning desire to suck toes, to want that fulfilment, and never to get it. To go your whole life without this simple thing, to die with it undone, for me. It’s a huge sacrifice. And would it be so awful to have my toes sucked, to provide great happiness to the person who would lay down his life for me? And I try to say yes, but…no, I can’t do it. So I feel guilty, and he wonders why I look so downcast and bake so much. Eventually the relationship ends in guilt and recrimination.
I’m exaggerating (slightly), but the core point about the pressure of monogamy is sincere. To supply everything that someone wants sexually is going to require doing things you’d rather not do. After many years of trying to seem interested as sweet nothings were whispered, look enthusiastic during gentle thrusting, and pretend I like the taste of cock, I’ve come to terms with my kinks. I don’t want to go back to doing things I don’t enjoy. That’s why it’s nice to say to my partner, “You want toe sucking/gentle sensuousness/consensual sex? Go find someone else to do that with.” He can, and he will, in the same way that he presumably does with his desires for blondes, or men, for which I really don’t fit the ticket. And I’m happy, because I like him, and I want him to have things he likes.
In the middle of all this freedom: freedom for me to see other people, for him to see other people, for me to say no, the obvious question is whether there’s a point when I’ll want less freedom and more security. The idea of my lover chatting up men at the Folsom Street Fair this week didn’t trouble me, the idea of him having a fling doesn’t, but how would I feel if someone became so important in his life that he didn’t have time for me? Probably quite hurt. But—and I’ve managed not to say this to a non-poly questioner yet—throwing your lover over for another isn’t a phenomenon restricted to the poly world. It’s a story as old as creation, in fact, wasn’t it Lillith’s first crime? So I’ll take the risk of being replaced as we all do, but comforted by the knowledge that I’ll see my usurper coming. There’s a chance I’ll be jealous then.
*Let’s call her Millie. It’s easy to say ‘Millie’ disparagingly.
A few weeks ago a married vanilla friend, whose understanding of alternative sexualities is not dissimilar to mine of model train making (in that we can both know there must be an attraction, but wonder if childhood trauma is the root cause), asked me about polyamory. Is it not, she wondered, difficult knowing that my lover is going home to someone else? Am I not jealous? And what will I do if I fall in love and decide I want to keep him all to myself?
The same issues—jealousy and what we’ll do if we decide we like each other in a forever and always way—come up in almost every conversation I have with laypeople about poly. I tell them that the built in brakes are the things that I love about it.* If you’re in a socially acceptable relationship, with someone of the requisite age, race and gender, it is easy to get inadvertently caught up in a romantic narrative leading to cohabitation, marriage and Labradors. Even when I’ve been explicit about not wanting that, previous partners have convinced themselves that we’re heading that way. I like being free of all those expectations, and one way to achieve that is dating someone who’s your father’s age, whose parents call you rude names in a language you don’t understand, you or who is already married. It’s rather liberating. No one’s granny has ever said, “So, I hear you’ve seduced Deirdre’s husband, do I hear wedding bells?”
That isn’t to say there aren’t issues. They’re just different to the ones non-poly-people tend to imagine. They are the Perils of Poly:
Those flocks of girls in minidresses and seven inch heels one sights up and down the land can’t each independently have reached the conclusion that was a fabulous outfit; they must be feeding off each other. One evening in my last year at university everyone who lived in my house appeared for a night out in black trousers and a cherry red top. You choose your friends because you have something in common, then you reinforce each other’s choices until you slowly start to match. It reaches its peak in couples who like to take long, isolated walks together and eventually buy matching boots and raincoats. It’s not pretty.
Imagine how much worse it is in a poly family. He chooses you for the things he likes. He chooses someone else for things he likes, too, some of which are the same. And she chooses someone, who shares some shiny qualities with him and is chosen for her shiny qualities some of which may correspond with yours, and on it goes. Which isn’t to say that you’re the same, but your similarities are drawn out by your proximity. The Lover He encouraged me to buy a daringly poufy Vivien of Holloway I’d had my eye on, but lacked courage to buy. And then I decided that, much as my plastic-clasped suspender belt is an excellent icebreaker (people at fetish events respond to, “my suspender clasp’s popped open, could you possibly help me?” with alacrity, I find), I could do with a better one. So I asked your acquaintance (well, the ones whose lingerie I’ve seen and with whom I feel able to bring up the subject of unmentionables) for recommendations, and before I know it, I’m at an event with the Lover’s wife in matching lingerie and dresses.
It’s not just fashion, of course, although that’s where it’s most obvious. Relationships are an adventure of introductions to new things. I introduced the lover to ballet and Malaysian food, he reminded me how much I like 80s goth music. He’s also been an enthusiastic escort to burlesque evenings, which is nice, but I think I might have pursued my burlesque lessons with more determination if I hadn’t had his wife’s girlfriend’s performer credentials in my mind. And maybe I’d try less ambitious knitting projects if he wasn’t telling me to give it a go, but his wife’s impressive lacework makes my one wonky lace scarf look like a cat’s cradle. Similarity can, in one’s less secure moments, give rise to a feeling that you’re always second best, or catching up.
Relationships eat time! And the more people who are in your extended poly network, the more birthdays, hospital appointments, great-aunt’s anniversaries and dirty weekends need to be recognised in your schedule. That’s a lot of diaries to coordinate, even if you’re not attending your lover’s wife’s girlfriend’s (imaginary) book launch, because your lover’s wife is, and your lover isn’t, which makes it a perfect day to make that yarn swift and have lots of sawdusty play.
It’s rarely as simple as that, though, there are hundreds of nuanced scheduling problems: When does two people going somewhere together become a date, and therefore a bad time for another partner to drop by? When does, “I’m staying in and watching telly tonight,” mean, “I’m relaxing with my wife”? Many evenings I’ve held off calling because I think they’re together, later to discover they were miles apart, and many times we’ve chatted for half an hour before he’s admitted he’s abandoned her to watch TV alone.
I take up time I shouldn’t even when I’m trying to give my lover space for his other relationships, so you can imagine the trouble I have when there are actual conflicting priorities. If I need extra care after an intense scene, and my partner’s partner is waiting for him in a coffee shop, he’s in an impossible position. And, with the best will in the world, it’s impossible not to want things that aren’t entirely reasonable, sometimes. When there’s only two of you, only one person has to deal with your unreasonable demands. In poly, your lover’s assurances that he really doesn’t mind happen in the context of his vested interest and his presumably more objective partner. It isn’t comfortable.
One person has asked if I have a boyfriend since I started seeing the lover, and I fell to bits trying to answer. With people in kinky settings, with people who know me personally, I’m very open about it. With acquaintances, the only way of being honest is by telling them details of your personal life that go beyond the scope of what they want to know, but to be evasive implies that you’re somehow ashamed. And to breeze around introducing someone as my married lover may, conceivably, create the odd awkward situation for his wife when a well-meaning person informs her of his infidelity.**
The more difficult moments aren’t the ones when I’m angsting over how to explain, though, their the ones when something slips out without me thinking, and there’s no way to fix it. At dancing a few months ago I had a conversation like this:
“You’re seeing someone?”
“He must have to stand on tip toe,” my partner said as if five foot ten is an absurd height for a woman, and must be a severe handicap on the dating market.
“His wife must be about my height.” I told him. We didn’t speak for the rest of the track.
Get in Line
I don’t want a relationship like my lover’s other, more committed one; I don’t want the responsibilities that come with it, I don’t even want him hanging around my flat for too long. But I don’t want to feel like I’m second best, even if I am second best. I want to feel like I’m special and shiny within the scope of what we have and do together, although that can be difficult to maintain.
I was touched by Abel’s post about relationships outside marriage.
Haron and I are married; we made that permanent commitment to one another many years ago, and it’s a template for relationships that that wider society can understand. And I can’t offer that permanence to either of the other girls; I can’t be that sole, devoted life partner that has eyes for them and them alone; I can’t fulfil all of their long-term aspirations.
I know that; they know that; we know that: we talk and share and trust. And I know too that I never, ever want to stand in the way of what’s right for them. That’s not self-sacrificing; their happiness, long-term, honestly outweighs any selfish personal needs.
No matter how open you are, how loving, how willing to cooperate, marriage is part of the landscape that’s immutable. Each step down the road of a relationship with me is negotiated with his marriage. My relationship takes place in the context of his. I’m sure it’s a challenge for it to adapt, say, to him staying at mine, rather than going home tonight, but that’s the conversation. The expectations of his relationship were established years ago, under influences that had nothing to do with me. Part of poly, for a significant number of its practitioners, is continually accepting the priority of another relationship.
Who will feed the cat?
I have a cat. The lover and his wife have a cat. The lover’s wife and her girlfriend are lesbians, so they’re sure to sprout cats at some point. And we all sleep at each other’s homes often. So when the lover’s here, and his wife’s at her girlfriend’s, who feeds their cat? If I want to spend time at the lover’s, who feeds mine? Life would obviously be easier if we all carried our cats around with us all the time, but this has proved slightly inconvenient. Cat sitter wanted. May save three relationships.
On a more serious note, do readers have any more poly perils to share, or, more importantly, solutions to any of mine?
*Jealousy deserves its own post, but for now I’ll just tell you that I don’t really get jealous.
**You’re probably thinking that’s farfetched, Manchester’s a big place after all, but remember the section on common interests?
My New Year’s resolution, not this year, but the year before, was to give up bad sex. I broke it with a spectacularly awful shag before January was even out. It was gross, but hard to regret, as there’s nothing like reminding yourself what bad sex is like to put you off signing up for it. It was nearly a year before I found myself wanting—really wanting rather than idly fantasising—to sleep with someone else again.
I have taken a lover.* This is the point where I’m meant to tell you he’s tall and domly and swept me off my feet, isn’t it? Sorry to disappoint. We met when I was being shy at a fetish club, where his conversation saved me from having to face crowds of strangers. When he said I ought to mingle I sulked and pouted. I suspect the sulking is where it all began. We stayed in touch, talked about play. Months later he failed, for the hundredth time, to deliver a promised spanking, so I had a tantrum. Is this the stuff romance is made of?
I told my friends about him. “What’s he like?” They asked.
“He has long hair. And he’s married; his wife has a girlfriend.”
“It sounds like a powder keg about to go off.” I was told. I don’t know what’s so dangerous about a ponytail.
Getting into bed with a married man is a bit of a minefield. When is the right point to say, “Would your wife be ok with this?” after the first kiss but before the knickers come off? Do you take his word for it, or call her to check? When you send her husband home late, should you pin an apologetic note onto his coat? Is, “might your wife me expecting sex soon? I wouldn’t want to wear you out,” too personal a question?
I suspect that things are easier if you’re in a Meaningful Relationship. Then you can identify as poly, buy books about doing screwing around ethically and drink coffee, once a month, with the kinksters and hippies who form reassuring and supportive groups. My lover is poly, so’s his wife and so’s her girlfriend. Me, I’m just having sex. And enjoying my lover’s wife’s baking.
If you’re in a Meaningful Relationship, you can demand acceptance from your partner’s (or partners’) partner(s). Since we’re not serious, I hang on the edge; the lover considers me pleasantly shaped and agreeably kinky, that doesn’t imply that his wife has any desire to spend time with me at all, and her girlfriend probably has even less. Alternatively, I can sit alone with the lover wondering whether the others are resentful at my luring him away.
The complications of romance in the poly, kinky world are nothing, though, to the complications of the vanilla, monogamous one. After my adventures in normality the last few weeks, I don’t know how the majority of the population do it.
A few weeks ago, as I waited for my turn at a dance class, a woman approached me and asked, “Are you single? One of my friends might be interested.”
What could I say? The full answer was, “yes, I am single. Happily single, not looking, and in the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I have a lover. And a play partner. Oh, yes, and I’m only interested in kinksters, really. Who’s this friend?” That seemed rather too revealing an answer, with eleven women other women listening in. So I went with, “it’s complicated.”
I should have asked who the friend was, but instead I spent the next few weeks trying to puzzle it out. I narrowed the contenders down to two. At first I thought it was the one who’d paid me more attention that night. Then his interest seemed to wane, and his friend paid me more attention. Every time I thought I had a clue—that one had called me “gorgeous”, say, or monopolised my time for an evening—the other would soon do the same thing, and I’d be back to square one. I’d thought the woman who asked me if I was single was involved with one of them. It didn’t look like it some nights, though, and in any case, who am I to make assumptions about the rules of other people’s relationships?
Finally, one of them made his move. He chose a bad night to do it. I’d met the lover at lunchtime, emerged from bed bruised and sore in the early evening, and rushed to dancing. After half an hour, during which I ignored increasingly explicit signals, he declared his attraction and demanded an answer. I refused to give one. He pestered, and pestered, until eventually I snapped and said, “I spent about four hours** today having sex, I just can’t think about it any more!” The look on his face was something to see.
The next week I intended to set things straight and tell him that the answer was no thank you, for now. He was playing it cool, though, and the narrative tension was lost in the face of his indifference. I tried to regain it with reference to previous plot points, “So I assume it was you who sent that lass over to say you fancied me?” I said.
“What lass?” he asked, face full of consternation. I let it drop. By the next week, though, I was determined to give him my answer. I would have to subtly indicate that I wasn’t the nice girl he thought I was. I had my line planned:
“You don’t really know me. If you did, you would probably think very differently about whether you want to get involved.” As I said it, I realised how much I sounded like a sweet, nice girl who wants to get to know a man before she holds hands. It lacked the sense of doom and foreboding I was aiming at. So I found myself agreeing to get to know him, when what I really wanted to say was, “I’m not the girl you think I am. You don’t want me.”
Several text messages later and he’s asked for a lift, offered a lift, offered a meal out and said he wants my email address. All have been refused. That’s when he calls me for the first time and tells me he’s horny. Tells me I’m hot. As I’m explaining that I already have a lover, that I’m not looking for anything else right now, he tells me he’s touching himself. What’s the polite response to that? I repeat that I’m disinclined to get involved with him. He tells me he’s going to come. I wish him a good afternoon, thank him for calling, and say goodbye.
I give you Exhibit One: The Wanking Man. If this is how people behave in vanilla circles, lock me in a dungeon with the perverts. They normally ask permission before the grunting starts.
The Wanking Man’s claim that he worked alone made Exhibit Two the leading suspect for sending the woman over to ask if I was single, even if he had a physical intimacy with her unusual between friends. Since I’ve been known to participate in group snuggles, I’m hardly one to judge. In any case, time slid by, he didn’t made a move, and I concluded that the moment had passed, and we’d settled into being regular dance partners. I accepted an invitation to his house to practise. I was lucky girl, I thought, to have such an attentive man to teach me.
Have I managed to create an atmosphere of doom and foreboding this time?
I arrive at his house and hand over my home-made biscotti, which is received with a disappointing lack of fanfare. We go through some routines, then do some closer moves, and watch demonstrations, standing with his arm around my waist and my hand draped over his shoulder. Eventually, we kiss. I decide to open the conversation about not wanting this to go too far, before he breaks out the condoms. So over dinner, a quorny concoction he’d made after divining my vegetarianism, I said, “I assumed you were involved with that woman, wossname…?”
“Oh, I am.” He says. Hmm.
We have The Conversation. I tell him about my married lover, play partner, and preference for kinksters. He tells me about his girlfriend, love of outdoor sex, dogging, and irrepressible infidelities. Then there’s spanking and cuddles. What’s not to like? Well, quite a lot, if you’re his girlfriend. Are smacks and snuggles over the line?
And so I give you Exhibit Two: The Cheating Man. Respectable on the outside, a bubbling pit of illicit desire and quorn-based seduction underneath.
Monogamous vanilla men are weird. Give me a straightforward poly pervert any day. At least when I call the lover and ask if he’s free to fuck on Friday, he says he’ll check with his wife. Then tells me, in detail, precisely how much he’s going to he’s going to hurt me. I’ll take good honest complexity over secrets and lies any day of the week.
*This is a contested word. We’ve gone through friend, play partner, shag, another half, fraction, decimal point and in an awful slip of the tongue yesterday I used the word girlfriend. There’s always some slippage, and if you were loving readers you’d have a whip round for a good thesaurus for me.
**It is possible I exaggerated by 30 minutes or so. I was rounding up.
Last night, during the interval in a play about queerness, a friend admitted that he’d popped his head around the door of one of the modern jive venues I go to. He didn’t spot me twirling gracefully across the dance floor and spend the rest of the evening staring and entranced. He retreated, he told me, because the place had all the awfulness of a school disco. His school discos clearly differed from mine, which involved metal, grunge and a lot of painful moshing.
I was filled with shame. I don’t know what his discos were like, but his tone left no doubt as to what he thought of them. Modern jive isn’t cool. I attended my first class because I’d moved back to my father’s house in the centre of middle-class, middle-age, dormitory-village nowhere, and when he asked me if I wanted to come, I thought it may be marginally better than sitting at home alone for another night. I discovered I liked it, and realised, as an ex-boyfriend had pointed out months before, that there’s no one following me around with video cameras judging my behaviour.
At dancing, it’s the activity I enjoy. I know that many of the people there are hopeless, the music is often dismal even from my tasteless perspective, I halve the average age* and proper dancers look down on easy modern jive. None of that changes the fact that I leave sweaty and slightly high, reliving the best moments of the best dances. It also provides a good excuse to buy pretty dresses, a high priority for me.
Reflecting on this last night (read: lying awake mentally justifying my uncool choices) it struck me that I have the same feelings of shame and embarrassment about my sexual and play partners as I do about my choice of dance venues. I know what sort of thing I’m meant to like: lithe young men with long eyelashes and big muscles, or slim young women with good cheekbones and shiny hair. But I don’t. Well, sometimes I do, but not usually for those qualities. I don’t feel good about that.
Some criticisms stick with you. The time my best friend said she knew I thought my girlfriend was beautiful, but she didn’t. The disgust when people find out just how much older than me a new lover is. I shrug and say, “does age matter?” or, “it’s not serious,” trying to play down the issue. It does matter to me, though: I like older men. If I’ll admit my kink for being hit with a rattan cane, why is it so much more difficult to say, “middle aged men turn me on,” or even (and this was difficult to type, I admit) “slightly grotesque men do it for me”?
I’m perfectly able to describe the kink scene without alluding to its lack of glamour. My vanilla friends don’t need to know about the tacky PVC or public sex**. They’re unlikely to turn up at a fetish club, leave in disgust and later berate me for giving the impression that kink was all about reading interesting Victorian journals and wearing pretty shoes. They’re much more likely to make judgements about people. So I don’t mention that a play partner is twice my age, although I find the fact delicious, or bring up my intermittent frissons of attraction to an overweight man with a tendency to sweat.
Clearly, I ought to embrace my lack of cool, as I have been doing in any number of areas (fashion, say, or poetry) for years, and proudly go to my dorky dance venues and seek play from people with whom I’ll enjoy it most. There’s a part of me which will mourn the fantasy of myself as the alluring, transgressive kinkster, expressive of others’ secret, dark desires, but I hope for other rewards. Now, and with those in mind, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see how my new white cotton panties look with my gingham dress. It’s an outfit I hope to have a lot of very uncool fun while wearing.
*This is an exaggeration. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m twenty-six.
**I’ve only ever seen this in one club, but it was the day of my first toe-dip into the fetish scene, and it stuck in my mind.
I think it was the all-girls schooling. Or maybe my father didn’t read me enough adventure stories at bedtime when I was child. Whatever the reason, I simply can’t make male friends. I think I may give up and become a lesbian separatist or a nun.
It usually goes like this: I’ll meet a man who knows something interesting, or tells amusing stories, or is simply there when I’m alone, clutching a wineglass and canapé hoping, desperately, for someone who doesn’t mind me hanging around. We’ll have a good enough time to make it worth exchanging contact details. We’ll meet again and at the end of one of these meetings, I’ll leave thinking, “It was all in my mind. Of course I can make male friends, it’s easy, look how comfortable we are together!” Little do I know that as I’m thinking this, he’s staring fixedly at my receding backside.
If there’s a feeling of disappointment when, on some future date, I check that I haven’t spilled something on my top and realise that there are only two things he could be staring at, there’s also a sense of hope. Any number of people might like me on spec, but to still find me attractive once you know about the unshaven legs and the Ke$ha albums seems unlikely, if not veritably perverse. So when sex or spanking is suggested* I tend to think, “well, at least he’s heard about the schoolgirl outfits, so he won’t run, screaming, freaked out by the kinkery.”
I have fun—what would be the point if I didn’t?—and feel a few smug moments of pity for others who have to put up with blokes there every night making the bed stinky in order to get what I can have for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, if it suits. Then, inevitably, one of two awful things happens: Either he declares his undying love, or he declares that I’ll never be worthy of such adulation. The former generally terminates the friendship. The latter just makes a big mess.
After all, it’s one thing to know that someone thinks you’re fun, worth talking to on the phone and going out of the way to visit. It’s entirely another to be told that you’re good enough to do that with, but not of the necessary material for anything more. That’s perfectly horrid! Suddenly I’m second best (or third best, or fourth, I hate to think! I’ve managed to prevent anyone communicating my official ranking to date). The good times together are sucked dry, it instantly becomes clear that while I was enjoying my friend’s company, he was killing time until someone better showed up. That isn’t a nice thought, even if it’s exactly what I was doing with him.
Fortunately, I seem to be perfecting the process with practice, and it’s definitely speeding up. A couple of years ago it took months for a male friend to work up to a declaration of love. I’ve had two communications of intention not to from men in one season, and neither of them took more than a week. This saves a lot of time and energy, but doesn’t exactly solve the problem.
I feel like I’m playing cowboys and Indians, complete with feather headdress and slightly-too-short Princess Tiger Lily dress, when suddenly everyone puts down their toy guns to tell me whether they’re really intending to go to war. While I’m still tied up. I’m usually enjoying our game, but it feels childish to bring that up while everyone is talking about grown up things.
Can you help? I need to discover the following things:
1. How does one distinguish men who fancy you politely from men who don’t fancy you at all? Is there some sort of handshake?
2. What are rules regulating intersexual friendship? Are there taboo topics for the chaste? (I ask this after realising I discussed my knickers which two men last week. I asked the second if it was inappropriate, but he assured me it was a perfectly acceptable topic).
3. How does one assure a man that he doesn’t need to assure you that he’s not getting overly attached, without inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of insult or slipping down the slope towards in infinite regress of reassurance?
Failing that, does anyone know of a nunnery with spaces for irreligious types?
*Or sex and spanking. According to vanilla custom, sex is suggested, and spanking may be tentatively put forward as a possibility after that proposal is accepted. In the kinky world, it’s the other way around, because we know that sex is the really weird, gross, thing.
Last New Year, as I stood in a crowd watching the fireworks and feeling a stranger’s hand squeeze my bum, I made a resolution. I was going to stand up to gropers, harassers, wannabe-rapists and people who refused to read my subtle signals. I wasn’t going to put up with it any more, because putting up with it only encourages them. If I was to become a shrill harpy of a feminist in the process, so be it. I didn’t have a specific plan, just a vague anger towards the people who think my body isn’t exclusively my own.
I should have made a plan. As it turns out, not suppressing my first reaction usually leaves me feeling guilty as well as grubby and violated. A couple of months ago, when a man passing on the street leant close to my ear and said, “nice tits,” I didn’t reasonably respond with, “I object to your sexually harassing me,” but choked out, “fuck off!” at an inappropriate volume. When a man touched me last week, I said if he did it again I’d kick him in the balls. While he didn’t seem too phased, I’m ashamed of myself for threatening violence. If violence is ever the solution to anything, surely it should be the last resort.
None of my readers have admonished me. If anything, those who responded implicitly supported my reaction. The notion that violence is acceptable in these circumstances seems to be widespread, look at the comments on this post, for example. I can see why. There’s a fire in it. The same fire I felt when I first read this:
Lots of women (men didn’t dare comment on the subject) stood up to publically declare: “How revolting, we absolutely must not consider that violence is an answer to rape.” Why not? You never see news items about girls—alone or in gangs—biting the dicks of men who attack them, or trailing their attackers to kill them or beat them lifeless. This only happens, for the moment, in films directed by men. [...] You see how men, if they were women, would react to rape. A bloodbath of merciless violence. Their message is clear: why don’t you defend yourselves more fiercely? [...]
But women still feel the need to say that violence is not the answer. And yet, if men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their “masculine” urges, and understanding that “no” means “no”. I wish I’d been able to escape the values instilled in my gender that night [when I was raped], and slit each of their throats, one by one.
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory, trans. Stephanie Benson (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009), pp.36-37.
There’s something very seductive in that. I could write all of my pain on the bodies of men who invaded mine, those who raped me, groped me, squeezed me, prodded me with their erect penises or otherwise made me feel violated and afraid.* In so doing I would send a message to all of the others. Maybe if I’d punched that man on Portland Street, he wouldn’t rub his dick against any more women.
On the other hand, maybe he’d have punched me back, harder, and left me bleeding on the ground. I didn’t reform one rapist even after breaking two of his toes. When I hit a colleague, reacting to a girl shouting, “get this man away from me,” my boss told me I’d done the right thing, then went off to advise the man against carrying out his threat of breaking my arm in retaliation. I’d done a great job at de-escalation as you can see!
I think there are two reasons why, on some level, accept a violent reaction in these situations. One is that it proves you meant “no.” I would be very hesitant to turn up at a police station to tell them about rape or sexual abuse without a scratch on me. I don’t think I would be believed. I’d be even more reluctant to fight back hard, though, because I’d rather be raped and alive than unraped and dead or seriously injured. I guess I’m weird that way.
The other reason is that women are seen as weak. Lashing out at men, they can look like the poor, victimised underdogs going after the baddie and grinding him into the dust. It’s an empowering image. The might of the powerful being used against the weak is not. The flaw in this view (apart from its obvious inaccuracies) is that the violent reaction is only acceptable because we’ll lose. Its premise is our weakness, our vulnerability. I’m allowed to hit him, because it won’t really hurt, he’s tough. If we all started punching men who touched us uninvited tomorrow, I suspect the result would be the same horrible power dynamics and black eyes all round. If it wasn’t, soon campaigners would be calling for an end to the reign of terror, and suggesting solutions for the oppressed underdogs: the men.
I got it wrong last week. Threatening to kick a man in the balls felt like standing up to him, but I was positioning myself to lose. I’ve replayed it in my mind many times since, and I still don’t have the answer. It’s nearly a year since I first resolved to do it, and I still don’t know how to confront the gropers. Do you? Will you tell me how?
*Apart from the ones who made me feel violated and afraid in a good way: Sade, Nietzsche and a few others. You know who you are. You all deserve cuddles and cake.
I think that if you met me you would believe that I’m a nice girl. Middle class. Rather shy. Prone to thinking that everyone has read Byron and agrees on the importance of soup spoons. On the first day of my course nice women mothered me and bought me bakewell tart. That’s the girl they bought it for.
Now and again other parts slip out. I forget that in a discussion about pole dancing you shouldn’t admit that you’ve actually seen any, and especially shouldn’t admit that you were in a lesbian bar in Soho at the time. I forget that reading ‘120 Days of Sodom’ on the train will get me funny looks. Mostly, I forget that there are a number of topics you’re meant to come at sideways, and shock people with frankness where they expected allusion.
In everyday life, it isn’t too difficult to keep parts of myself separate. I remember to be nice to my granny when she asks why I haven’t got a nice boy, and don’t need to additionally remind myself not to tell her I don’t want a nice boy, but a big, nasty man who’ll do unspeakable things to me. I don’t need to talk about Kristeva’s theory of abjection when I call Estates to report a blocked toilet. I remember who I’m speaking to, and everything flows from there.
That isn’t the case with writing. When you write something down, anyone can read it, but you’ll never write that sex scene with your granny sitting on your shoulder. In fact, you’ll never write anything if you’re trying to please everyone, and everyone, you see, is your potential audience. Will Milly from the chip shop appreciate that parody of the Commedia dell’arte? I doubt it. Your old tutor, though, author of numerous books on the subject, will probably laugh at your childish attempts. It’s best to put them all out of your mind.
So I conjure an ideal reader. You, dearest, are a reader of Byron, an owner of soup spoons (possibly also a supplier, have you any spare?) and a lover of bakewell tart. You aren’t scandalised by pole dancing or kink, and you’ve read at least the first half of ‘The Powers of Horror’, you’ve met Columbine and Harlequin. You’re perfect, and you’ll reinvent yourself tomorrow when I begin another piece.
If you’re reading this and you don’t fit that description, I consider that to be your problem. There are people whose opinions matter to me very deeply, but all of them have got better things to do than read my ramblings. The rest of you will just have to take me as I am.
If only it were always that way. I’m taking a Creative Writing course. Now and again I have to sit in a room with your readers. Talk to them, lunch with them, see them drink soup from polystyrene cups. How are they going to react if my stories aren’t nice?
I’m not nice. I’m rather monstrous. If I’m to render an honest account of my experience (and it’s the only experience I have to offer) then that monstrosity is going to come out one way or another. I can’t see a way around that. I’ve found myself to be really very bad at writing poems about flowers.
You might say (although you won’t, if you’re my ideal reader) that I should try harder on the flower poems. My thinking is this: Women spend an awful lot of their time pretending not to be the monsters they are (no doubt men do, too); we pluck and shave, bite our tongues and paint our faces, and keep quiet about desire or periods or hating having to do the washing up. It hasn’t done us very much good. It’s one of the reasons we’re still stuck not only with the image of women as beautiful, good and pure, but also with having to do the dishes. To fall in with society’s expectations is to deny what we are, and, in some sense, to tell a lie. The right to write about our whole selves has been fought for in the courts and won. That means that I get the chance to read ‘Baise-Moi’ and think “fuck, yeah!”
The best story I’ve written recently includes a rape. It includes the word “purpling”. It is filled with sticky sexual anecdotes which may not be true to the letter, but are true to the spirit, of things that happened to me. I want to hand it in, but I’m gripped by this anxiety: what will people think of me?
Did Nabokov worry that people would think he was a paedophile? Shakespeare a poisoner? Dostoevsky a thief? Tolstoy an adulterer? I don’t know. It seems quite likely that, soon, all the people on my course will think I’m a weirdo. Perhaps then, in search of acceptance, I’ll begin to value you, my darling, perfect, reader.