By Russell J. Stambuagh, PhD, DST, CSSP
“I Can’t Drive 55” — Sammy Hagar
“Anything worth doing is worth over-doing”! An anonymous wag
“So put me on the highway, and show me a sign,
And we’ll take it to the limit one more time” — Glen Frey, Don Henley, and Randy Meisner
“Roads? Where we are going, we don’t need roads”! — Emmet Brown
Limits, and the Problem of Idealization:
This exploration of the need for resilience, repair, and reconciliation begins with limits, and the chosen quotes highlight just how ambivalent our society is with these. Likewise, organized kink, with its transgressive impulses, desire for safety, genuine reverence for equality and freedom, and its love of exceptionalism, is similarly split. It took NCSF over 6 years to hammer out a satisfactory definition of ‘consent’ among its coalition partner organizations to use in NCSF literature because of the huge diversity of what that term ‘consent’ might mean, and because of the fear that someone’s freedom might be sacrificed to someone else’s sense of limits. Safety is not the prime directive for kink, notwithstanding its pride of place in our PR slogan. Those who truly want safety above all else, are probably best advised to stay home!
But limits are particularly problematical because novelty is exciting. Risk is a turn on. And the role definitions of good kinksters feature facing fears, giving up control, embracing stress and pushing one’s personal limits. In this regard, some kinksters sound like athletes. Often, their mission is to play by the rules, but to transcend limits. Some good submissives want dominants to push their own limits. Some good tops want to do exactly that to others. The Mother-May-I style of consent might be worth trying on a lark, but almost no one wants it to be the backbone of their playing style. NCSF and the therapeutic community agree that continuous affirmative consent needs to be maintained at all times, and there are many ways this can be accomplished that are not wooden and mechanical, but there is great variety among people into kink about how this is understood and implemented. Continuous consent can be very hot if done correctly, but, like everything else in kink, not everyone is in to that.
Role playing aggravates this, because our role descriptions are infiltrated by idealization. Helen Fisher blames this on the neurotransmitter serotonin’s influence on the appetitive or courtship phase of human mating. I say we develop fantasies about our ideal partners and go seeking them. Fisher says millions of years of evolution has built brains that do the work of getting us so attracted to someone that reproduction might occur, and that means using the neurophysiology of obsession. Fisher and I are each at least partly right. Long before our observations, Romeo and Juliette said this:
“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliette is the sun.
Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, for she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off!
It is my lady! Oh, it is my love.
Oh, that she knew she were!
She speaks, yet she says nothing! What of that?
Her eye discourses, I will answer it.—-
I am too bold. “Tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their sphere ‘til their return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of those cheeks would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp. Her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See how she leans that cheek upon her hand.
Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek.”
“What is in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called
Retain that dear perfection that he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself! — William Shakespeare, ‘Romeo and Juliette, Act II, scene 2’
It seems that Romeo and Juliette have it bad for each other, each is deeply in the throes of romantic idealization. Elizabethan playgoers recognized excessive romanticism in this famous poetry over 400 years ago. And this illustrates that idealization is a danger not just for kinksters, but for lovers of all preferences and identifications. But idealization is particularly dangerous for kinksters because lust is privileged in the kink communities. Shakespeare here is saying that love is the close cousin of madness. Having resisted stigma, risked contact with people who may or may not be all that safe sane and consensual in the name of lust, kinksters act like lust matters.
Cognitive dissonance alone acts to build commitment to kinky passion and relationships. We value what we have suffered, sacrificed, and worked ardently to achieve. And having done all of this, we would like to imagine that our partners are specially, even magically gifted and committed. Even kink educational efforts, which are designed to inject a measure of reason into how play is conducted also wind up defining good and bad role playing. Kinky folk challenge themselves to be good masters, good slaves, and good masochists just as we all strive to be good citizens, good parents, and good professionals. Consensual non-monogamists do it too. I remember overhearing in the hallway at an event one man telling another how he would never attempt to maintain 6 paramours at a time again; five was too many! This left me wondering if the Turkish Sultan ever had a garage sale!
This can make some dominants want to hit harder, be more demanding, and be pushy. It can make some submissives feel like they are being bad at their role if they use their safeword or fear they will harm the performance of their partner if they stop a scene. Novice submissives not only need to be taught that they cannot have every piece of candy in the store on the first trip, but that it is a sure sign of inexperience to proudly declare they have no limits and will try anything. As endearing as such devotion may feel, it is more wisely understood as a failure to recognize one’s own limits, rather than the communication of ultimate affection. This collision between inexperience and idealized roles is largely responsible for the 2014 Consent Violations Survey finding that 75% of the violations occurred either before, or within the first three years of our respondents’ involvement in the organized kink community.
But problems with limit setting and consent violations do not simply end after three years of training and experience. As kinksters become more experienced, they learn their limits, and some wish to push those limits. They often are exposed to new experiences where they have yet to learn their limits. Some relax their guard. And with increased intimacy and commitment, lovers want to please each other more, not less. The problem of being edgy may get better with self-knowledge and kink education, but it never disappears. And for some pushy kinksters who constantly seek to know their limits, it is hardly possible to know one’s limits without ever exceeding them.
From Consent Violations to Consent Incidents:
In our previous research, the NCSF 2014 Consent Violations Survey, my colleagues Susan Wright and Derrell Cox and I decided to use the term ‘violations’ because we wanted to cast the broadest net possible to capture problem experiences that might illuminate any systematic problems in how organized kink handles consent. That NCSF team had been working hard for several years with NCSF’s Coalition Partners to define a broadly acceptable concept of consent, and this research was meant to be a reality check about how well individuals thought consent worked in local organizations and events. We were looking for problems, not strengths.
Our results showed some problems, and we have reported back on these, but we also learned that many consent ‘violations’, while they constituted situations in which respondent’s play experience did not meet their expectations, did not really constitute ‘violations’. Our respondents, astute readers, and we investigators recognized that these unmet expectations could be painful, scary, and even traumatic, but did not stem from behaviors that the respondent viewed as malevolent. The best alternate term was volunteered by Charlie Glickman; the more neutral ‘consent incidents’. Although we knew from the start asking the questions this way loaded the dice, it was a new perspective for me to consider that we might have created a less sensitive instrument for investigating coping strategies for consent events that focused on individual participants’ responsibilities for resolving incidents because of our a priori emphasis on organizational solutions. It is clear from the diversity of incidents however, that every bit as important as organizational solutions; dungeon masters, complaint policies, mentoring, safeties, and educational programing might be in reducing predatory behavior and novice vulnerability, education in self-protective preparations is important, too. A great many consent incidents constituted success stories about overcoming problems that are somewhat routine, and in our next survey, every effort will be made to be less fixated upon primary institutional prevention, so we can mine the wisdom inherent in such successes. …