Sex Is Real (Or Can Be)
In the October 4, 1998 issue of The New York Times Magazine, in an article titled "Sex Advice for the Clinton Age," local sex columnist Dan Savage is quoted as saying:
"All sex is a power play. We like to deny it. We like to pretend that sex is birds and bunnies and bubbling brooks, that sex can't be evil, nasty power dynamics, but that's what makes it hot for people, whether they cop to it or not. Even the most vanilla sexual scenario has a subtle interplay of power back and forth. In the leather S&M scene, they take those seeds and exaggerate it until it's laughable. You watch people having S&M sex and it's the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen. It's like cops and robbers or Indians and cowboys with your pants down."
Whoa! You weren't expecting that sharp right turn, were you? The guy has the world's ear, he's telling them the truth about sex, and then wham! another rude slap on the chaps. Of course, prejudice against gay men who wear leather is still pretty rampant. Yes, we've made progress in the past decade toward winning acceptance in the gay community and, at least through fashion, in society at large. Yet such a put-down in print by a hip sexpert ought to serve as a reminder that we still have a ways to go, that we still have work to do, at least if we care what people say about us. Savage's jab at us cannot be blamed entirely on a generalized, culture-wide fear of anything offbeat; Dan Savage is no Ann Landers. So is there anything we can do to improve our image? It might be worth considering whether we ourselves have contributed to such attitudes. It might be worth considering whether, on some level, we share those attitudes.
Consider the way we talk about what we do. We talk a lot about "playing," by which we mean having the kind of sex we like. We call a particular preferred activity a "fantasy." We stress the importance of "setting the scene" when we play, and by this we refer to things like music, lighting and costumes. We even think about our behavior while we are "in a scene" as being an instance of "role-playing," which might include such stereotypical roles as Master and slave, Master and dog, daddy and boy, cop and perp. We sometimes even adopt pseudonyms, like stage names, within the community that reflect our preferred roles.
In some very important ways, this is all good. For one thing, it is probably salutary not to think always of sex as being so terribly serious, so bound up with religion, law, custom and biology. The therapeutic benefits of retaining an ability to play games throughout adulthood should not be underestimated. Sex can indeed be a very good escape from the so-called real world. Sex can be fun.
What's more, by talking about what we do as "playing," we signal, both to the public and to our partners, that we recognize the difference between the consensual activities in which we engage and the non-consensual activities which they mimic. In so-called real life, flogging someone is a crime called battery. Tying someone up is a crime called false imprisonment. Calling someone a cocksucking faggot is (in many jurisdictions) a crime called hate speech. It is obviously important for the public, and the police, to understand that we are not abusing one another. And it is useful to be able to insure that a potential partner can sense that one is not a dangerous psychopath.
Our activities are not only consensual, they areŅand this is a stricter standardŅalso safe. Regardless of how genuinely one's partner might wish to be physically or psychologically harmed, even to the point of death, no member in good standing of GMSMA would agree to assist in the realization of that fantasy. Our jargon is a sign hanging on the fence that runs along that boundary.
Finally, by acknowledging that we are playing, we affirm our sanity: that we know the difference between what we are doing and what we appear to be doing; and that what we are doing is not psychologically harmful to either of us, indeed is psychologically beneficial to both of us.
And so, all this talk about "play," "scenes" and "roles" serves a useful purpose. It should be retained. On the other hand, such language may also, perhaps, have a price. There may be a price in public relations and a price in personal satisfaction as well.
The price in public relations can be appreciated from Dan Savage's comment and others like it. Some people will simply see us as ridiculous. We affect the appearance of tough guys, but underneath we're homosexuals, and everybody knows homosexuals are weak, right? We appear to dominate or submit, but then one of us is overheard asking the other if the ropes are too tight, and the other says yes. We demand or desire bootlicking, but we first make sure there's nothing dirty on the boots. We claim to trade in pain, but then we explain that for us it's actually pleasure. What we do looks like a charade, and we look like fakes.
OK, maybe many of us don't really care what other people think. Fine, but what about ourselves? Does our theatrical vocabulary come with any personal cost? To blow the question up to Worfian proportions, does our language influence the way we think about ourselves and what we do? Does the tail (language) wag the dog (thought)?
It might. It seems reasonable to suspect that, if we have always in the back of