The FAQ List

Part 2 of 3

Is anal sex safe? Why do people do it?

Anal sex, practiced properly, is as safe as any other kind of sex. And people do it because it feels good--the anus can be an intensely erogenous zone. In fact, far more straight people than gay people practice anal sex! The anus contains more nerve endings than any other part of the male body, and more than any part of the female body except the clitoris. It's no wonder that anal sex is a part of many peoples' sex lives.

"Anal sex" can range from simply stroking your or your partner's anus with a lubricated finger, to actually sliding some fingers inside your partner and stroking them, to full anal intercourse. All these things are physically very pleasurable, and if you simply wash your butt, there's nothing repulsive about them. The anal taboo is very old, but there is no necessary medical reason for it if you know what you're doing. If you're concerned about staying clean, by all means make sure you've gone to the bathroom before playing, and wash your ass--outside and, if you wish, inside, with an enema. If you want to feel clean in order to enjoy anal sex, it's not hard to be as clean as you want. (It is also very important, though, to use safe sex techniques, which I describe a bit further on.)

The main guidelines for anal sex are Communication, Relaxation, Lubrication. You see, your anus consists of two rings of muscle, dubbed the external and internal sphincters. Your external sphincter is under your voluntary control--you can relax it at will. But your internal sphincter is _not_ under voluntary control. If you are tense, your internal sphincter will be tight, and trying to force anything into it will hurt, which will make you (and it) even more tense. So the rule in anal sex is to go slowly; you can't force your way into enjoying it.

Communication: talk about what you're going to do before you do it! Don't just roll your partner over and surprise them; they won't be relaxed and it won't be fun. Make sure you both are comfortable with the idea of anal play. Relaxation: listen to your body. If your ass wants to be played with, you will know; if it doesn't, don't rush anything. Lubrication: your anus doesn't lubricate, so you need to use a WATER-SOLUBLE lubricant such as KY Jelly or Probe. Use LOTS of it; it's clean! The more lube you use, the more comfortable you will be. And finally, communication again: if you haven't played with your anus before, the sensations will be intense and strange. You may feel like you are having a bowel movement when your partner slides their fingers out of you; it takes some experience to realize that this feeling is deceptive and that what you're feeling won't result in a soiled bedsheet.

It's not enough to just clean your anus, though; your partner should also use a latex barrier (a glove for fingering, a dental dam or a piece of (non-microwaveable) Saran Wrap for licking, and a condom for fucking) when having sex with you. This is true in general, but especially true for anal sex; unprotected anal sex is the riskiest kind of sex with regard to transmitting STDs of any sort. Also, using protection often increases the sensation of safety and clean- liness, which helps many people relax and enjoy the experience more. (Some say that anal play isn't as risky as all that. The facts are that in some cities intestinal parasites, spread by unprotected anal sex, have been considered a serious sexually transmitted public health problem, with thousands of people infected. Decide for yourself how much risk you want to accept.) And anything that has come in contact with the anus should be cleaned thoroughly (or thrown away, in the case of latex barriers) before coming into contact with the mouth or vagina.

I already mentioned that it's not a good idea to force anything. Let me be more emphatic: if you feel pain in your ass while you're having anal sex, stop. Too-rough anal sex can stress and possibly tear the anal lining, which can lead to very serious infections. Anal sex does not mix with force, and should NEVER be used as a way to inflict pain. And if you find yourself bleeding from the rectum, go see a doctor immediately. (Don't be embarrassed--they've seen it all before... just get yourself taken care of!)

That said, I need to clarify what I meant by stop if you feel pain. That is what you should do: stop moving. The pain may just be your sphincter muscle complaining about stretching a bit, and when you stop pushing it will stop hurting--and possibly relax some more. If it doesn't stop hurting when you stop moving, then you want to pull out (slowly) and take appropriate action. If it does stop, wait a little, then begin again... your ass will let you know if it wants to stop altogether. (So pay attention to it! Getting drunk is not a good idea, as you don't want to block out any pain you may feel. The FAQ List No-Prize for Worst Sexual Product goes to an "anal lube" that contained oil (and therefore couldn't be used with gloves or condoms), and which advertised itself as being best for anal sex because it contained benzocaine "for greater comfort"! If anyone did hurt them- selves through using it, I hope they sued the hell out of the company.)

If you want more information about anal anything, see Jack Morin's book, listed at the very end of part 2.

What is "fisting"?

Everyone (well, almost everyone) knows what finger-fucking is. Whether in ass or pussy, it's terrifically enjoyable to stroke someone inside. (Fingers up a man's ass, if aimed properly, will tickle his prostate gland, which feels amazingly good... just a little tip!) And people are generally comfortable with the idea of finger-fucking with more than one finger. But not as many people have been exposed to the idea of inserting a _whole hand_ into the ass or pussy... which is, in simplest terms, what fisting is. Yes, it's anatomically possible, and yes, it's extremely (so I've heard) pleasurable.

That said, it's now very important to explain what fisting is not. You do not make a fist and ram it home. Fisting is one of the most intimate and complete ways to touch another human being, and it is something that has to be worked up to slowly and gently. There have been many posts about fisting on a.s.b, talking about the proper technique, the safety concerns, the fantastic feeling of openness and connection, the magical plane that two people fisting can attain... it's an incredibly intense way to make love. I can't do justice to the firsthand descriptions others have written, but I can mention some of the safety concerns.

First of all, cut and file all your nails until every finger is as smooth as it could _possibly_ be. Your fingers will be in some very delicate places--places that may not have pain receptors. You want to make sure you minimize all chance of causing damage.

Use latex gloves. AIDS is a matter of life and death.

You will probably want to clean your bottom's GI tract out. What else are enemas for? Be gentle with enemas; warm water is best. Don't use detergent in enemas. Some people enjoy putting alcohol in enemas; if you do, use a very very diluted solution, since it will get absorbed real fast, and the bottom won't be able to expel it if they get too drunk.

Use lots (and I mean LOTS) of lube. Push it in with your fingers. Make a huge mess. Get it all over your hand, the back of your hand, between your fingers. Keep applying it as you go. You can't have too much lube. Remember, oil-based lubricants dissolve latex. Some people like KY jelly; others say it dries out too quickly. In the UK, a substance called "Aqueous Cream" is the creme de la creme. Others use "J-Lube," which is a powdered concentrate that when added to water produces incredibly slippery goo; it's sold in veterinary supply houses! (Some people still use Crisco with latex gloves, on the theory that the Crisco is just the best lube, and the gloves don't break down _that_ fast. This is risky, but it's an option.)

Go slowly. Start with one finger and work up. DON'T RUSH. Be sensitive to your bottom's feelings. You are trying to persuade part of their body to open for you, to admit part of you deeply inside it. The energy will move back and forth, and you'll ride it, coaxing and pushing, in and out, moving your bottom into a trance. Keep communi- cating with your bottom; gags, or role-playing where the bottom feels inferior or is told to stay quiet, are not conducive to the kind of relaxation and open empathy you'll need.

If your bottom suddenly hits their limit, you'll know; their orifice will clench tight shut suddenly. DON'T PULL OUT. Stay right where you are until the contraction ends, then start pulling out. You can pull a muscle or two if you try to back out in the middle of a reaction like that. If this happens, it's OK; you'll know to go slower next time (if you both want to try again). But assuming all is well....

When you reach five fingers, you're almost there. Now is when you want to be most sensitive and most aware. Your bottom is going to be flying on pain and pleasure; a sudden flinch and you'll find the asshole (or whatever) doesn't want you anymore. Respect that, and pull out (slowly!). But if your bottom's bottom wants it, then you'll slip your knuckles inside, folding your thumb inside your fingers, and (so I've been told) your hand will naturally form a fist--you don't need to clench your hand or anything else!

Now the real fun begins... explore, entice, pleasure your bottom, who will be in heaven... and when it comes time to pull out, do so slowly and naturally!

If you have more questions (as always), post to a.s.b; there have been some GREAT pieces on fisting in the past, and there will be more if you ask for them.

Does the way I play qualify as "real" SM? What is "real" SM, anyway?

Sometimes on a.s.b, people will post wondering if what they do is "heavy" enough to be worth talking about. How can a mere novice who just got spanked for the first time presume to post about how it felt, when there are people out there who wouldn't even have noticed it?

The answer to that is twofold. First, there are an infinite number of ways to play. This is one of the reasons I like SM to mean Sex Magick; Magick doesn't need to involve pain, or intensity, or bondage, or role-playing, or anything at all. Sex Magick is whatever you do that fulfills a fantasy of yours. There is no right or wrong way to do SM, as long as it is consensual. If you agree to it, and if it feels good (during and after the scene), it's the right thing for you to be doing. This FAQ list is really just a series of suggestions; take them or leave them, it's totally up to you.

(There are players out there who get way heavier than I ever will-- into realms that I personally consider unsafe and even a little insane. Heck, for some people, being whipped is an insane idea. But the most important thing is the consensuality and the mutuality of the play--that everyone involved in the play wants to be doing what they're doing, and that everyone can call it quits if need be. What other people think is not relevant; it is their play, and their choice as to what risks they wish to assume.)

Second, the "intensity" of a scene has very little to do with the level of "physical sensation" involved. Again, the magic is in the way it makes you feel. We were all novices once; we all know the thrill of trying something new, taking your dreams and making them real. That is what makes SM intense and enjoyable--that ineffable rush of new horizons unfolding, the incredible sensation of trusting someone else with your body and your mind, or of receiving the gift of control over someone else. It doesn't matter whether you get there through S or M or B or D or none of the above; once you're there, it's fantastic! And, it's worth posting about!

Sometimes, discussion on a.s.b veers into a heated debate about what is involved in "real" dominance and submission or "real" BDSM play. The fact is, given the diversity of players and playstyles in "the scene"--and in fact the number of separate "scenes" in "the scene"--it is hard to pinpoint any one behavior as the benchmark by which "real" is defined. The principal common thread I can see is that people into SM are seeking to explore their fantasies about power and/or sexuality, to bring some of their dreams into their personal lives.

One thing is sure: attempting to set strict boundaries around what is and isn't "real" SM, or what is and isn't "true" submission or pain play or roleplay, is an endeavor fraught with peril. More often than not, people who believe they know the definition of "true" SM are interested in flaming others who disagree, rather than in honestly sharing their perceptions while remaining open to the views of others. As with any labels or preset "norms" of human behavior, one can debate endlessly about whether the "norm" is really "normal", or one can speak from one's personal experience. The latter generally leads to better and more revealing discussions.

One topic that does come up in this context, though, is whether only consensual SM is real SM--or rather, whether the term "SM" excludes any behaviors that are not consensual. As I stated in the beginning of this FAQ, I use "SM" here to refer to acts between consenting adults; most a.s.b posters and people in the scene likewise use "SM" as short for "consensual SM." There is no doubt that many people who practice consensual BDSM enjoy fantasies involving acts of nonconsensual bondage, dominance, submission, sadism, and/or masochism. But when it comes to real life, consent is of fundamental importance. A story may include nonconsensual acts and yet be an SM story; an SM relationship can become abusive while remaining an SM relationship; but when people here on a.s.b and in the larger scene talk about SM as it ought to be and should be (and in my experience, as it usually is), they mean consensual, healthy SM. (See questions 21 and 22 as well.)

Some people state, "SM originally referred to the practices described in the writing of the Marquis de Sade [to whom consent was irrelevant], so modern SM people are lying when they say consent is important in 'real' SM!" They're simply playing the "change the definition of 'real' to one which I can flame about" game. Besides, if we were all lying in order to deceive people into playing with us (so we could then abuse them), we would be doing ourselves a massive disservice by educating people about consent and about negotiation--knowledge which would serve to protect people from us! You'll need to judge whether we mean what we say about the importance of consent.

A frequently heard acronym on a.s.b is "YKINOK"--which stands for "Your Kink Is Not OK." a.s.b is largely composed of postings by people whose sexual practices are considered unhealthy or at least weird by many others. We recognize here that different people really do have different sexualities, and different preferences. Hence, we try to avoid blanket statements such as "Behavior X is WRONG!" or "Behavior X is NOT OK!" or more generally, "Your kink is NOT OK!" We would instead say, "Your kink would not be OK for me. Here are some of the risks I see in that kink. How do you deal with them?" From that point, discussion and education can flow, as they cannot from a flat YKINOK. (And conversely, we don't say, "Your kink IS OK!"--since there are almost no behaviors that everyone enjoys. The OK-ness of consensual practices is, and must be, determined on an individual basis.)

What is it about leather/latex/high heels/corsets/other fetishes?

All these things--erotic clothing or objects of whatever type--are "fetishes". A fetish is any object which has sexual connotations for you. If it makes you feel sexy to wear it, or to see it on someone else, it's a fetish. There's nothing wrong with having fetishes; in fact, it's a rare person who doesn't have any! Some people are turned on by armpits; some by painted toenails; some by good old lingerie. The techniques of negotiation and communication that I've already talked about can also come in handy in exploring your particular fetishes, whatever they are.

Leather is one of the most basic fetishes in the scene. Leather skirts, leather chaps, leather harnesses, leather cuffs, on and on. Likewise for latex. Much of the appeal of these two substances, it seems to me, is in their tightness and their shininess; clothes made out of them enhance your awareness of your sensual self, and restraints made out of them can cling like a second skin. In general, leather and latex are two really big categories of fetish--and a fetish is defined as something that turns some people on; if you have to ask, you probably won't understand!

Leather clothes absorb fluids; don't get them wet. Plain water will damage the leather; blood or other bodily fluids will also leave their scent in the leather. You can use saddle soap and water to clean your leather, and neats-foot oil to keep it supple and in good condition.

Latex doesn't absorb water-based fluids, but oils will damage it, and prolonged exposure to sunlight will cause it to break down. When putting your latex on, apply lots of talc to yourself and to the insides of your latex; this will make it easy to slide it on. Don't pull the latex with your nails, or it'll rip; likewise make sure you cut your toenails before putting on latex stockings. After removing latex clothes, wash them with water to remove oils, then dry them (and some say powder them) for storage.

There are also PVC clothes ("wetlook" clothes), which are usually black, shiny, and stretchy. PVC is basically plastic-coated fabric, and is washable, as well as relatively inexpensive.

Of course, good old lingerie can be very arousing indeed. It's often true that a little clothing is even sexier than none at all. Erotic costumes and attire can add a lot of spark to a scene; they can set the stage like nothing else. The mind is the biggest erogenous zone, and role-playing and mock acting can be very very hot. whether combined with any other elements of SM, or not.

As for corsets and high heels: they're both restrictive garments that enhance the curves of the body, and that work really well as part of SM play--they can enhance the domineering tread of a mistress or hobble the steps of a slave. They are some of the classic fetish items. High enough heels can make it altogether impossible to walk, which can be very sexy! Corsets, properly applied, can dramatically change the shape of your body, while intensifying sensation through- out. And corsets and high heels, like any fetish, can be combined with many many different kinds of scenes.

Other fetishes: dirty jockstraps, boxer shorts on women, formal clothes on men, cowboy gear, uniforms (police/military/what-have- you), nurses' outfits, harem girl attire... the list goes on and on. If it turns you on to wear it or to see your partner wearing it, why not make it part of a scene? (A button I heard about recently: "Are you into casual sex... or should I dress up?")

In general with fetishes, anything goes! If you find yourself becoming more involved with a fetish than you want to be, then you can take steps to look at your behavior and determine if you want to change it. But if you like it, and your partner likes it (or likes that you like it), and if it's consensual all around, then go for it! And if you like fetish clothing, check out the newsgroup--it's young, but it's growing....

What about shaving body hair and/or crossdressing?

Another fetish many people have is smooth skin, with no body hair. Shaven skin is silky soft, completely and utterly naked, and very vulnerable. Shaven legs, armpits, or genitals can feel very different indeed than hairy ones... and since the name of the game is sensation, naturally shaving and SM can go together!

Since shaving is conventionally a female activity, it carries an added charge when men are shaved. It can be at once humiliating and enormously arousing. Many men enjoy shaving themselves in order to play with cross-dressing (dressing as a woman); hence I mention these two topics together. Shaving first.

How to shave? Use a sharp razor and a bowl of hot water; splash water over your leg (or wherever) and lather with shaving cream. Then shave with the direction of the hair (i.e. shave down the leg towards the ankle, or shave from the navel towards the crotch); going against the direction of the hair can lead to ingrown hairs when it starts to grow back. Shave with short strokes, dipping the razor frequently in the bowl to remove the hair. If you shave only seldom, you may go through a couple of razor blades doing your legs alone.

Some people who shave infrequently use an electric razor first to remove most of the hair, then a hand razor for the remainder and on the sensitive areas. (Electric razors tend to pull hair, and they are most annoying on genitals.) Some people swear by waxing (using sticky wax to pull hair out) or by other non-shaving methods of hair removal; to each their own. Shaving can be part of a scene; I've seen many gay-male SM movies with big male tops forcibly shaving their prisoners, and I've also seen dominatrixes washing then shaving their bottom's asses. (It's hard to reach back there yourself, and being bound while a razor gently strokes your most sensitive region is... well... very intense!) Then once they're shaven, you can go on to all sorts of other fun.

About crossdressing: many men enjoy dressing in female clothes, either because the clothes feel good, look good, or are humiliating to wear. Whatever the reason, there's no doubt that lots of people enjoy this sort of thing. Makeup is often part of this sort of play, as well. Many women also enjoy dressing up as men; switching gender roles can open up a vast range of possibilities. Some people call this "gender- fuck"--i.e. fucking with one's perceptions of gender, or fucking someone who's assuming a different gender, or both.

There is a spectrum of attitudes among those who play like this. Some just enjoy wearing opposite-sex clothes because they feel nice. Some fantasize about actually being a person of the opposite sex, and use those fantasies in their scenes. Some people want to take it to the point of going out in public dressed as, and acting like, the other gender so accurately that they pass--i.e. are mistaken for the gender that they're assuming. They may find doing this enjoyable because of the fun in faking people out, and/or the thrill of successfully transforming oneself into one's fantasy image.

Some people actually feel that their biological sex is fundamentally at odds with the gender they feel themselves to be. They may feel like a man who happened to be born with a woman's body, or vice versa. These people are known as transsexuals, and may have operations to change their bodies and genitals to more closely correspond to the gender they most identify with. Transsexuals are still very widely stigmatized; it is not easy to live in this very gender-based and sex-role-oriented society if you don't conform to the standard pattern, and transsexuals definitely do not. And while many of the kinds of genderfuck I mentioned are "play", transsexuals are not playing; their gender identity is a vitally serious issue to them. (Though when they want to play, there are few people who know more about it :-)

It's important to realize that these groups of people are distinct; just because a man enjoys wearing panties underneath his business suit does not mean he has any desire to get a sex change operation. As with all aspects of human sexuality, gender and gender play encompasses a wide array of levels, and honest communication is the only way to know what a particular person is into.

Gender play can be combined with all the other things in this list to create some extraordinarily powerful sex magick. As always, listen to your desires, decide how much you actually want to make real (and how quickly), communicate, and play!

Why am I defending SM?

One of the problems with SM is the social programming against it. Our culture isn't used to the idea that sex is fun and pushing one's limits in search of pleasure is a damned enjoyable thing to do.

In this FAQ posting I have attempted to explain the ways I feel and my friends feel about SM. I am doing this because I used to know very little about SM; I only knew I was interested. Through a.s.b and lots of new friends and LOTS of wonderful experiences, I learned. My life has been enriched and my relationships deepened and strengthened, by my experience with SM, by the communication skills I've learned, and by the sexual introspection I've performed. Now I want to describe all that in as open and frank a manner as I know how.

Sometimes that openness and frankness slops over into apologia. I am trying to avoid that, as I think there are few people sicker than those who believe they have the right to tell others how to live and love. If you believe SM is sick or disgusting, I tell you you are simply wrong; some of the greatest acts of love I have ever witnessed have occurred in an SM context. If you don't think you'd like it, that's more than fine with me; I would just ask that you be open to what the SM community may have to teach about consensuality, negotiation, safety, and exploration.

When I first started fantasizing about SM-related activities I was very young indeed--under ten years old. I don't know where these aspects of my sexuality came from; certainly not from my family. But when I started learning about SM, I was first excited that there were others out there who enjoy these things, and then depressed that there is lots of wrong and harmful information out there about SM people and what we do. This FAQ list is my attempt to help spread some better information, in the hopes that the more everyone knows about what SM really is (and what it is not), the harder it will be for people to use twisted facts to condemn others because of their sexuality.

Also, there are things I'm describing that I don't enjoy (at least not yet :-) This is not the FAQ List of the Gods, so don't take it as such; listen to what I say and draw your own conclusions. And fer pete's sake, post to with your questions and thoughts and fantasies and dreams; the blood of a.s.b is always freshened by new posters! (It helps distract us from the flame wars!)

Is SM degrading or abusive? Were most SM people abused?

Often people approach SM with nothing but negative stereotypes in their mind. The will-less slave dominated by the overbearing thoughtless master. The pervert who enjoys being hit because he thinks he deserves no better. These images, negatively charged with connotations of abuse, do not reflect the reality of consensual SM.

First, were SM people abused as children? This is a common stereotype. Straw polls of people on a.s.b seem to indicate no particular pattern of abuse, and there have been very few, if any, scientific studies of the question. Some people see an increased correlation, but there is little actual evidence.

This stereotype is usually just assumed to be true, as an expression of SM-negativity--"Oh, anyone who likes that must have been really damaged as a kid." Similar claims were once widely made about homosexuals and homosexuality. (As one data point, I personally wasn't abused as a child, for which I'm grateful. And I'm very into various aspects of SM, for which I'm also grateful.) In general, in fact, no one seems to have any idea of why some people enjoy SM behaviors or fantasies, and others don't. Rather like no one really knows what determines sexual orientation, or preferred body type, or much of anything else where human sexuality is concerned. The notion of a "normal" sexuality is widely overrated... the range of variations is incredible.

Once you actually look at people who are involved in SM, and at what they do, you realize that what is actually happening is a powerful expression of love, which expands into sensual realms outside the ordinary. True SM is consensual, strengthening, and sustaining; true degradation is not. Therein lies the difference, and it is truly an all-important difference.

Occasional debates on a.s.b revolve around the (relatively few) people who practice full-time dominant/submissive relationships. Such relationships require lots of self-inquiry and self-examination to see that both partners are benefiting and growing. Sometimes the claim is made that such BDSM relationships are just ways for the dominant to break down their submissive's will, and to accept abuse because the submissive (according to the dominant, and perhaps also in the submissive's own opinion) deserves no better. (This is essentially what a wife-battering husband does: he takes control of his wife's self-perception, and convinces her that the abuse is the necessary price to be paid for her to remain with him; it is no more than her due. And moreover, she is not to complain.)

This kind of relationship is not a consensual BDSM relationship; the dominant in a consensual relationship listens to and respects the limits of their bottom, and does not seek to break down the bottom's personality, but rather to build it up through the kind of relationship that both enjoy and desire. Such relationships almost always contain an "escape clause," such that if the bottom is truly feeling deprived or abused, the bottom can ask to set the roles aside and talk with the top as equals. (In other words, a relationship safeword.) Such concern for clear communication when things don't go well (as well as when they do) is the hallmark of a healthy BDSM relationship. And every text I have read about long-term BDSM relationships stresses the importance of emotional safety issues. (As I mentioned previously, people who have issues around their sense of self should be aware that SM is potentially risky in that area. Of course, any relationship is potentially risky for such people....)

Doing SM as part of a mutual, consensual relationship can be enormously affirming. SM can be a way to give yourself to your lover more deeply than you ever thought you could, and can give outlet to fantasies you never imagined could come true. This kind of active, dynamic self-expression can give a tremendous boost to the self-esteem and the psychological well-being of both partners. Getting what you want out of your sex life may not be a cure-all, but it can sure help a lot. I recommend the book Ties that Bind, listed at the end of part 3, to people exploring these issues.

(Some call all this doubletalk, denying that anyone could ever really benefit from submitting to a lover whom they trust. All I can say to that is, my personal experience is far otherwise, as is that of many of my friends, and many professional therapists acknowledge that it's quite possible for a submissive in a consensual relationship to be very psychologically healthy. Decide for yourselves whether we are to be believed.)

Another root of the negative stereotypes is simple aversion to sexuality in general. The concepts of "limits" and "negotiation" are inherently revolutionary, in a world where many people can't bring themselves to talk about anything related to sex. Yet without understanding these concepts, it's hard to understand SM. Everyone who first looks at SM needs to do some amount of pushing past their prejudices; for some it's harder than for others.

Some people wonder how women into SM can consider themselves feminists. Isn't feminism about controlling your sexuality, about not submitting to anyone else, ever? Personally, I believe (and many women on a.s.b agree) that feminism is about empowering women to make their own choices, to live life their own way, without being limited by ideas about what women "should" do or how they "ought" to behave. And in that light, it makes little difference whether the limiting ideas are those of the patriarchal CEO or the "radical feminist" criticizing SM in Ms. magazine; both the CEO and the writer are attacking womens' right to do as they choose.

At this point I want to include some material sent out by the Leather/Fetish Celebration committee about abuse in the SM community. This is valuable stuff for anyone interested in distinguishing consensual SM from abuse; while no list of questions can substitute for personal inquiry and knowledge of the people involved, this list is at least thought-provoking. (There is no consent-o-meter to determine whether someone is consenting to SM behavior; the best we poor humans can do is look at situations on a case-by-case basis.) Thanks, Leonard.

Why is SM taboo, and is SM criminal, unnatural, immoral, unethical, or unhealthy?

If what I've been saying in this FAQ is accurate, then why haven't more people heard this? Why are the prevailing images of SM so negative?

There is no doubt that they are negative. Not long ago I was informed that there are some members of the Winnipeg (Canada) police department who believe that is "a textbook on how to torture women for sexual pleasure. It's obscene." Said police were considering how to deal with a.s.b on obscenity grounds. Last year in England, a group of gay men who had gathered for an SM play party in which they were using whips for pleasure were arrested and charged with battery, EVEN THOUGH they had all agreed to be doing exactly what they were doing, and WANTED to be doing it. Consensual SM is illegal in England. How can this be?

The crucial distinction here is between consent and non-consent. The difference between whipping someone in a scene and assaulting them on the street is the difference between sex and rape. If everyone involved agrees to what is happening, it is not a crime. If they do not, then it is. This distinction is not in principle difficult to understand, and being involved in SM makes it very clear. SM practitioners are more familiar with consent issues than most, and as such are less likely to commit crimes of the sort that people confuse with SM. And none of the material in this FAQ advocates any kind of nonconsensual, criminal behavior.

Unfortunately, there are many who would be arbiters of what others may and may not legally consent to do. I believe that consenting adults should be free to do as they wish in the privacy of their homes. There are many who don't believe this is acceptable. It serves them to confuse the issue by claiming "SM people are sadistic rapists" when in fact we are nothing of the sort. Criminalizing consensual sexual activities (sodomy, SM, even prostitution) is an old tradition, but in my view, an unjustifiable one.

This problem is exacerbated by the body of "scholarly research" on SM and related practices. Almost all the books written about SM and other alternative practices in this century have been written by psychologists and therapists (i.e. people outside the scene), and almost all have portrayed SM as a dangerous practice, indulged in only by "unhealthy" individuals. The reason? Healthy individuals weren't the subjects being studied; rather, the subjects were all seeking psychological treatment from the authors of the books! The "studies" completely ignored the many many well-adjusted, happy people who were also into SM. It's easy to conclude SM is harmful when your only experience is with psychologically maladjusted SM people, and when you aren't interested in presenting a balanced view (as few authors are-- psychologists can be as sexually judgmental as anyone).

More recent events in the psychiatric community have shown a change in opinion about SM. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Conditions is a document produced by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-III, published in the late '80s, classified "sexual sadism" and "sexual masochism" as disorders for which treatment was recommended. The APA, in the DSM-IV, reclassified SM as not necessarily a disorder, unless the practice of the SM produces clinically significant ongoing emotional trauma, or leads to death, serious injury, or disability. The DSM-IV is recognition by the theraputic community that SM can be practiced in a psychologically healthy way.

As for "natural": people have practiced SM behaviors throughout history. Many are the saints who scourged themselves in the name of the Lord. Using intense sensation to reach altered states of mind is a practice as old as humanity itself--and hence can be considered in no way "unnatural".

Our society (as do most societies) tends to ostracize the different. If you don't fit the mold, you're weird and dangerous. People into SM don't fit the mold. This is why there is such pressure to remain anonymous in the scene; people have lost their jobs, partners, children, and liberty by having their sexual preferences revealed to their community. This stems from the same source: lack of understanding of what we do and why, and lack of respect for what is different.

Of course, there are plenty of people who just aren't into SM. (Most people, in fact.) There's nothing at all wrong with not being into SM, or with not wanting to be exposed to people who do various forms of SM; many people have emotional issues with some kinds of SM activities and may be repulsed or disturbed by witnessing them. These people should clearly avoid SM (and probably should avoid I would hope, however, that even these people would manage to learn about consensuality as it relates to SM, and learn how SM, practiced carefully, is not abuse.

Some people feel that any power exchange between people is unhealthy. The argument is that giving power to someone else is tantamount to giving away your essential right to self-determination, which must be considered an unqualified evil. Moreover, there is no doubt that many social evils--wars, abusive relationships, et al.--derive from one group of people seeking power over another; therefore, the argument proceeds, it is always wrong thusly to seek power.

In reality, there are many situations in life in which someone chooses to give some of their power over to another, because they trust that other to use that power wisely. Examples include entering the Army (which regulates your life for the duration of your service); getting married (which is often a commitment to abandon some of your personal autonomy); taking a job (which restricts your choices of how to spend your time); and, of course, entering a BDSM scene (during which your top has authority over what goes on). All these power exchanges are mutually agreed upon, and are mutually beneficial; when they stop being beneficial, the exchange itself should stop.

People whose moral codes state that all power exchange--consensual or otherwise--is wrong should clearly not be involved in BDSM. Certainly such people have a consistent ethical system that defines BDSM as immoral. Short of such an ethical system, however, it is hard to see how a BDSM relationship is any more intrinsically immoral than a stint in the Army, or a traditional 'death-do-you-part' marriage. As for me, I believe that in a free society, morality requires permitting each citizen to make his or her own choices of how to live, and how to express themselves, including sexually. Sexual rights are human rights. If we lose our freedom to love as we choose, we lose a vital part of what it is to be human.

These issues are very controversial, even now. In the 1992 Oregon state ballot, voters narrowly overturned a measure named OR 9, which contained the following paragraph:

"State, regional, and local government and their departments, agencies, and other entities, including specifically the State Department of Higher Education and the public schools, shall assist in setting a standard for Oregon's youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided."

Homosexuality, sadism, and masochism are neither wrong nor unnatural. All three are consensual ways of living and loving that many people enjoy. They are not for everyone, but nor should everyone be told that they are for no one. Note also how this measure seeks to confuse the issue by grouping homosexuality, sadism, and masochism together with pedophilia, a practice which is in most places legally nonconsensual. (It is not my intent to enter here into the debate over whether children are ever capable of fully consenting to sexual acts. Suffice it to say that whether they can or not has no bearing on the fact that adults can consent to SM play.) Legislating what consenting adults may and many not do in private is neither healthy nor democratic.

(In recent years there has been a spate of articles about how SM is entering the mainstream. Madonna's book Sex, her movie Body of Evidence, and the movie Exit to Eden are examples of this trend. Hopefully this will lead to more people feeling free to express their love as they choose--so long as it's consensual!)

The most extreme forms of SM come closest to the line between consent and non-consent. Most SM people have established safewords which they will use if need be, though if they've known their partners for long, that's rather seldom. Some people, though, do play without safewords--whether because they know their partners well enough to stay within their partners' limits and read their partners' responses, or because they enjoy the rush of playing without an escape clause. This latter sort of play is sometimes known as "consensual non-consensuality," and involves scenes in which the bottom literally cannot escape from whatever the top wishes to do. This is very advanced SM; it requires exponentially more negotiation and introspection, and even then is hazardous. Not many people do this, or want to, but some people do, and find it exhilarating and uplifting. More info is available on a.s.b or in some of the references... or on a.s.b itself, which is one of the best places in the world to hear a myriad of voices speak out about their individual ways of doing and living SM.

Isn't the bottom always in control?

One of the paradoxes of SM revolves around consensuality. Everything in SM is consensual; although the top is in control, it was the bottom's choice to allow the top to be in control. And since most of the time the top is trying to keep the bottom happy, and since the bottom knows that, isn't the bottom really in control?

Yes, if your definition of "in control" is "can stop the scene". The bottom can always opt out, if it's consensual SM. But the top can go a long way towards putting the bottom under the top's spell, making the bottom submit to really strenuous bondages or beatings, using the bottom as the top pleases. One friend of mine, for instance, takes great pleasure out of hog-tying his girlfriend with her breasts bound and her hands behind her back and her ankles tied to her ponytail, then putting her on the edge of the bed and sticking his cock in her mouth. She has no choice but to suck it until he comes. Which of them is "in control"? Both of them would say that he is, and both of them are getting off on that fact, so the paradox in practice doesn't matter too much.

Furthermore, negotiation can involve give-and-take; the bottom can agree to endure some pain to please the top, and the top can then (say) tie the bottom tightly and tease to the point of orgasm. A particular activity in SM can be enjoyable for its own sake, or because it's a favorite sensation of yours, or because it turns your partner on so much to do it to you or with you, or because you want to endure it out of pure stubborn pride. The paradox of control can take many forms.

(As mentioned previously, some especially intense players may negotiate scenes during which the bottom cannot opt out. This sort of play is definitely in the minority, but it is nonetheless possible to consent to giving up your ability to withdraw consent. These scenes are sharply bounded by mutual agreement between both partners, and must be accompanied by much discussion, before and after the scene. And if the bottom later feels like the scene went bad, the negotiation should be redoubled before the next scene, if any.)

Can someone "really" be someone else's slave?

This is the last question in another guise. Is it possible for there to be consensual non-consensuality? That is, can someone agree to be in a situation from which they cannot escape, and to live that way?

This topic can inspire flame wars, as follows: historical slavery was totally non-consensual and enforced by the state; at the worst of times, the life of a slave was in the master's hands. Our society today does not recognize such an arrangement. Does this mean that someone cannot truly become someone else's slave, as society would always permit the slave to back out? Or is true slavery possible as a bond between one person and another, regardless of society? You expect an answer in a FAQ? Sorry, here there are only more questions. (Though see question 17 for more on the hazards of that pesky word "real".)

What are the "codes"?

Often the "hanky code" is mentioned on a.s.b. What is it? It's a tradition in the scene that if you're into certain types of activities you can indicate them by wearing a handkerchief in either your left or right back pockets. The color indicates the activity; the side, the preferred position (left is top, right is bottom). Some of the colors are gray for bondage (left is you like to tie, right is you like to be tied up), red for anal fisting (left fister, right fistee), and black for heavy SM (piercing, serious whipping, etc.); there are many many many more. I don't have a list handy.

Sometimes the same thing is done with keys or handcuffs--keys on the left means you're a top, on the right means you're a bottom. It's all just a way to signal your preferences in a public place.

Despite persistent rumors, there seems to be no "earring code" involving earrings on the left/right/both/whatever.

Hope you learned something! Remember, your sexuality is wonderful; treasure it and nourish it! (And see parts 1 and 3 if you haven't already!)

Contents copyright (c) 1994 by Rob Jellinghaus. Redistribution of this FAQ from to any BBS or other electronic forum, or to the newsletter or membership of any BDSM organization, requires permission of the author. Copies for individual use are OK. (This clause is mainly so I can keep some track of where my words are going, rather than because I like to litigate. Thanks for spreading the knowledge.)

Rob Jellinghaus

Converted into HTML format by E. Lloyd Olson, Esq.