A peek inside Submissive Playground! The syllabus and Subplay “tracks”

So how come I, as a dominant, am running a course for submissives?
What are the goals of the Submissive Playground course?
What is on the syllabus of the course?

Let’s explore some of these questions that are asked frequently.

As a Dominant, I believe my job is not to teach you how to submit—other submissives and your own inner wisdom holds techniques and tips for that. (That’s why the course has sixteen guest educators who are mostly switches and submissives.)

My job as a Dominant is:

  1. To create a space for your submission to walk into and feel held, safe, and able to deeply explore.
  2. To set you up with rules to follow, protocol to practice, and goals to meet that are reasonable, clear, and manageable. I want you to go away from encounters feeling awesome, strong, bad-ass, energized, well-used, respected, and maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll both feel a little bit transformed.
  3. To keep checking in to the Big Picture of our mutual goals, and keep tweaking our rules and protocol so that we are doing the best we can to move closer to them.

In Submissive Playground specifically, my goals for the submissive “players” who participate in the course are:

  1. To have fun! To identify and suspend some of the judgment we’ve accidentally absorbed about what “real” submission is and what it means to submit well, and to instead dive into myriad ways to do it, and figure out what works best for us right now.
  2. To do experiments with our bodies (and hearts and minds), to “collect the data” from the experiments, and to keep moving forward.
  3. To connect with community and witness the many ways a D/s path is possible, and to support each other in the different ways that we pursue these arts.
  4. To support you in identifying your “growth edges,” the places you’d like to transform and learn and grow, and to offer resources on your journey. (And to identify some of my own growth edges, too!)

These goals, and this premise, is what the whole Submissive Playground ecourse is built on.

The content in Submissive Playground keeps growing. This is the fourth time rife & I will be doing the course and we fine-tune it every time.

So let’s go over the Submissive Playground syllabus, so you know just what is going on in the course.

Each unit has two weeks between it to consume as many of the materials as possible, do the experiment, and fill out the homework worksheet.

Unit 0: PRE-COURSE MATERIALS

  • Read the Protocol document
  • Fill out the Foreplay & Negotiations questionnaire
  • Introduce yourself in the Sandbox (the course message board)
  • Sign up for the webinar service
  • Determine your course folder
  • Determine your course object
  • Take the What Kind of S-Type Are You? Quiz

Unit 1: BONDAGE

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  • Attend the live webinar introducing the course and opening the Bondage unit
  • Read “Tart Cherry” erotica by Kathleen Delaney-Adams
  • Read “Self Bondage” by david stein
  • Watch Lee Harrington’s video, “10 Things I Wish I Knew as a Bondage Bottom”
  • Watch Madison Young’s tips for bondage and the fetish of rope
  • Watch the guest video from Axe, about being more attractive to your dominant
  • Watch the guest video from Maisha Najuma Aza on submissive stereotypes
  • Watch Mx. Sexsmith’s demo of a simple bondage tie
  • Do the experiment!

  • Do your submissive journal homework
  • BONUS: Fill out the BDSM Checklist
  • BONUS: video by rife about getting more kinky play

Unit 2: DISCIPLINE

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  • Attend the live webinar wrapping up Bondage and opening the Discipline unit
  • Watch the guest video from International Master 2011, Liza, on the types of punishments
  • Watch the guest video from International slave 2011, Jody, on what motivates us to submit
  • Watch the guest video from Princess Kali on punishment and “funishment”
  • Listen to an interview with Raven Kaldera about discipline and punishment
  • Watch a short video of SkinDiamond practicing the Kink.com slave positions
  • Watch an erotic video with Nina Hartley incorporating some discipline play and positions
  • Read a document describing all the 12 kink.com slave positions
  • Read the queer erotica story “Call Me Sir” by BB Rydell
  • Do your experiment!

  • Do your submissive journal homework
  • BONUS: A worksheet from the (out of print) book Discipline by Lily Lloyd about making new rules & protocol
  • BONUS: Integrated Life Matrix infographic

Unit 3: SERVICE

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  • Attend the live webinar wrapping up Discipline and opening the Service unit
  • Watch the guest video from Sejay Chu, professional service sub and experienced switch
  • Watch the guest video from rife on cultivating a service mindset for more joy and less resentment
  • Watch the guest video from feminist queer master Andrea Zanin on receiving service
  • Watch the guest video from International Ms Bootblack 2009 kd diamond on bootblacking and other service skills
  • Read an excerpt from “Real Service” by Joshua Tenpenny on motivations
  • Do your experiment!

  • Do your submissive journal homework
  • BONUS: Take the Lust Languages quiz and ponder the ways you express and best receive lust
  • BONUS: A porn poker scene from Tristan Taormino’s Rough Sex 2

Unit 4: MASOCHISM

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  • Attend the live webinar wrapping up Service and opening the Masochism unit
  • Watch the guest video from Tina Horn, queer porn star, about spanking
  • Watch the guest video from Tillie King, switch and BDSM educator, on pain processing
  • Watch the guest video from Midori, on masochism
  • Listen to the interview with shiris about masochism and pain processing
  • Watch the short video “Impact” by Mollena Williams for fun
  • Read an erotic story with a cathartic pain scene called “Lost River” by Jeff Mann
  • Do your experiment!

  • Do your submissive journal homework
  • BONUS: Theory article, “Pleasure Not Panic: The Art of Processing Pain” by Joseph W. Bean

Unit 5: POST-COURSE

  • Attend the live webinar wrapping up Masochism and closing the entire course
  • Fill out the Aftercare worksheet
  • Say thank you to a course guest contributor
  • Book any remaining sessions you’d like to have
  • Further reading & resources PDF
  • BONUS: Wrap up any threads in the Sandbox
  • BONUS: Download any course materials you’d like for further study
  • BONUS: Join our Fetlife group for graduates
  • Update your submissive resume with your new training and anything else you’ve learned
 And that is pretty much covers the course!  

Ready to join us? Click here and sign up for Submissive Playground!

Of course, it’s a little bit different when we’re doing it live … a LOT of things can come up when we dig around in your relationship to submission! And there’s the community aspects, too.

Sound like a lot of materials? It is. But hey—I don’t want to add to your endless to do list! You’re busy! And you should be out making money and getting laid and changing the world for the better, I don’t want to get in the way of that kind of important stuff.

Remember: All the materials are optional.

Plus, many subs are the A+ student type.
You don’t need to put that kind of pressure on yourself on my behalf. You can still get TONS out of this course even if you don’t do half of it. And, you can always download the materials after the course if you want to keep them and do them later!

Check out the various contents, decide which one or two or three you are going to prioritize, and leave the rest behind. Sure, you can dig in to them if you find yourself inspired, but you will know you are totally on top of your commitment to the course when you finish up the work for your Track, and you don’t have to feel guilty about not doing more.

Maybe your work or home schedule is such that you just can’t make the webinars, for example. That’s okay! You can watch them later, or you can skip them altogether and dive into the materials yourself. (Sometimes I give a context or some content in those video sessions that I am encouraging us to explore during that unit, but you can do it on your own.)

Does that all make sense? I want this experience to be exciting, fun, and energizing for you, not a drain or an extra obligation. And rather than dropping off mid-course because you aren’t caught up, what if you set lower expectations on yourself and then felt AWESOME when you completed them? This is recreational, for your growth and pleasure.

Because remember: as a dominant, I want to set you up to succeed, and to thrive.

So here’s the different Submissive Playground “tracks” you can focus on

1. The Materials

That would be the dirty stories, how-to articles, and porn that I’ve already mentioned. It’s all the things to read and watch and interact with, the graphics rife has made, a custom-made Lust Language quiz, plus some BONUS materials when rife and I had too many good materials not to include.

2. The Experiment

This is the “go do this activity” part. There’s one per module (and four modules total—Bondage, Discipline, Service, and Masochism) and it’s the thing that you go try out in your life—there are ways to do it with a partner or by yourself.

3. Submissive Journals Homework

The journals part of the homework is thoughtful written responses to #1, The Materials, and #2, The Experiment. It is kind of like discussion questions in a class, a series of questions to get you thinking about and interacting with the materials and your experiment in a deeper way. This has been a big hit for journallers, folks who are into self-reflection and self-examination, and who like writing.

Doing #3 kind of requires that you keep up with #1 and #2, at least in part.

4. Webinars for each unit

This is the “live” part of the course. All the participants, plus me and rife, meet up every other week throughout the course to talk about all the #1 Materials, #2 Experiment, and #3 Homework, and to share our stories of discovery with one another. This happens in Spreecast, so there’s a chat function and you can come on video (but only if you want to) and talk to me and everybody in the course. These have been so very fun! They have set dates & times:

  • BONDAGE: Thursday, September 24, 6-7:30pm PST / 9-10:30pm EST / 1-2:30am GMT
  • DISCIPLINE: Saturday, October 10, 10-11:30am PST / 1-2:30pm EST / 5-6:30pm GMT
  • SERVICE: Thursday, October 22, 6-7:30pm PST / 9-10:30pm EST / 1-2:30am GMT
  • MASOCHISM: Saturday, November 7, 10-11:30am PST / 1-2:30pm EST / 5-6:30pm GMT
  • WRAP-UP: Saturday, November 21, 10-11:30am PST / 1-2:30pm EST / 5-6:30pm GMT

And they are all recorded so you can go back to them and watch them later if you aren’t able to miss the live calls.

Oh wait! Let me tell you about The Star Chart!
Throughout the course, Star & Mentor Players have access to the Star Chart, which is a place to keep track of the different pieces of the course and what you’re consuming. It’s like having your own sticker chart on the wall where everybody can see how you are doing your chores.

5. Submissive Community

This is the part, more than any of the others, that participants have said was really life-changing. Making connections to folks on a similar submissive path from around the world has been amazing! Friendships have been born and connections have been made. I firmly believe that identity explorations are easier when there’s a community context, because you have not only support but also many representations of how this particular identity manifests. In the course, we have a chat during the live video sessions, there is a message board available for your perusal and in-depth conversations, and you’re hooked up with a “subby buddy” with whom you can dive in and converse more deeply about the course.

6. One on One Sessions

Last but not least, the individual sessions track of the Submissive Playground course is where you and I get to dive deeper into your particular journey with submission and offer some support around whatever your growth edge is. One session is included with the Star Package, and FOUR sessions are included with the Mentor Package (which is why it’s called the Mentor Package, cuz you get some significant mentorship for your D/s path over eight weeks). Anybody in the course can add on additional sessions for a reduced rate, though, so just contact me if you want one. (Note: I’m not really doing 1-1 work with clients this year, instead I’m focusing on teaching and ecourses. So this is a great way to have some 1-1 time with me!)

Oh yeah, and rife is also limitedly available for sessions. After watching his videos in the course and hearing him speak about submission, you might really want some support directly from him and his brilliant submissive theory.

And that covers the entire course!

Come on and join us! It’s been an incredible journey so far and I learn so much every time I run it. I love talking to submissives from around the WORLD about what their D/s relationships are like, where they could use some support, and what they’ve learned. It’s taught me so, so much about D/s and power dynamics and how I want to build my own D/s relationship.

Click here and sign up for Submissive Playground!

To All the Tops Who Are Afraid to Make a Move

One of my biggest challenges as a top—and as a feminist dominant, and as someone who is well versed in and vehemently requires agency and consent in my sexytime play—is making assertions of what I want. This is especially hard if I’m meeting or playing with somebody new. I want to be bold, domineering (in good ways), bossy (also in good ways), sexy—toppy. I want to demand and take and get just a little more rough than expected.

But: I won’t do that, until I have consent. Until I have a very, very clear green light that my advances—my dominance, my toppy-ness—is wanted and desired.

Nothing wrong with that, right? I want to do dirty things with the people I date and play with, and I want them to want me to do those things, otherwise I don’t want those things. In fact, one could argue (and I do) that my wanting to do those things is contingent upon them wanting me to do them. I won’t get it up for somebody who doesn’t want me.

But see, sometimes because I am not making big bold moves, or acting with brassy ballsy swagger, people think I am not flirting with them, or don’t like them, or aren’t interested, or am “not that dominant.”

(Well, in terms of that last one, they can suck it—I believe in consensual dominance, and I don’t believe doms (or anybody) has a right to go around spewing their swagger on anybody they come across. I take up my space, you take up yours. Unless we’re in a explicit power dynamic, I don’t assume that I get to be dominant with you. I guess that’s called boundaries.)

But those other things … that depends. Sometimes I really, really, really, like somebody, and I want to do things with them to them for them, but I am not getting a clear green light, so I do nothing.

And this can be crippling! This can mean that a perfectly good top wrings their hands and wonders, wonders, wonders, whether or not they should make a move, but that the other person is simultaneously thinking, I thought they were a top? Aren’t they going to do something?

That sucks, right? Here’s a few ideas.

1. Make it clear you are (kinda sorta completely) inclined to topping

Talk about it. Bring it up. “I tend to like to be in charge in bed.” Talk about topping and bottoming. Talk about the kind of things you like to do. Do you like rough sex? Extensive amounts of bondage? Strap-on sex nine times out of ten? Always being the one who orders at a restaurant? Opening doors? Holding someone down while they struggle?

And … ask them what they like. Talk about it. Get their Fetlife fetish list from their own expressive mouth. Ask again. Ask about specific things. Be fascinated by their answers. Listen closely.

This might be elementary for you, but I find that just about everybody doesn’t talk or communicate about their own desires enough. ‘Cause here’s the thing: They change constantly. Most of us don’t want the same thing all day every day. So it is a constant practice to be in the moment, figure out what we want, and communicate it clearly.

2. Make it clear you are waiting for a green light

Or, explicitly ask for a green light. Many people who are inclined to bottoming or submission, or, often, those who would be into going out with a top, are frequently waiting for the top to make the move. Perhaps they think that the way they’re batting their eyelashes, or the way they shined their leathers, or the way they are rubbing their thighs together, is so fucking obvious that of course you know they want you. But still, you are waiting for that green light.

So tell them that.

“I would so love to kiss you, but I’m waiting for the right sign / you to ask me / the perfect moment.” “I know I said I’m a top, but the only way I get all … toppy with somebody is if I am clear they want me to. Are you into that?” “I have this thing about consent—it’s super important to me. So I tend to wait until I get a really really clear green light to make any sorts of moves. But after I get the green light … ”

(Then do that sexy-ass sly top grin you practice in the mirror. Come on, I know you do.)

And then, pay attention to their reaction.

So if you growl, “I really want to throw you down, right now,” and their eyes get all huge and they start thinking about all the grass stains they’ll get, and they say, “Uhhh…” you will know that is not consent. But when they take a step closer to you and say, “I have a really good mattress at my house,” you’ll know they are at least interested.

I hesitate to talk about how consent can be expressed non-verbally, through physical communication, though I do believe that it can be. It’s just harder to pinpoint and talk about, and much easier to misconstrue, miscommunicate, or mistake. For the sake of nervousness or fear or making big bold topping moves, it is always, always safer to get enthusiastic verbal consent specifically.

Regardless of how much explicit consent they give you, always be paying attention for hesitation in their body language or speech. That probably means it’s time to back up, and slow down, and check in.

This can be used when escalating all sorts of play, by the way, not just the first kiss. It could be useful for that moment when you want to get your strap-on out, or when you want to put them in spread eagle bondage, or when you want to hold them down and rough them up, or when you want to ask them—tell them, demand them—to go into the bathroom and take their panties off and give them to you. Sometimes you just don’t know if it’s the right time to do something new, or to escalate, and you don’t know if you have their consent for it. So ask. Make it clear what you’re looking for, so they can give it to you (or not). They just might not know that’s what you’re waiting for.

Sometimes, when I start getting the feeling that it’s time to move in for a kiss or to escalate physical touch with somebody, I make a move kinda like I’m about to do the thing I want to do, but then I catch myself, and say, “Oh, sorry—I really want to kiss you / put my hands on your stockings / grab your belt / take you down right now. That okay?” (Sometimes I say this in a sexy growly voice near their neck or ear while I decidedly do not touch or kiss them because I don’t know if that’s okay—yet.)

And I wait. For their reaction, response, and enthusiastic consent made clear.

3. Still afraid you’re being an asshole?

Here’s the thing: Asking somebody for something, or asserting a decision or a preference, is not being an asshole. You’re not being an asshole when you say, “I’d love to take you out. How about we meet at this great cafe I love on Sunday for brunch?” You’re not being an asshole when you’re on a wandering-around-the-park date and you say, “I’d love a coffee. Want to duck into this coffee shop for a bit?” You’re not being an asshole when you point at a shady spot under a tree and say, “Let’s go sit there.” You’re not being an asshole when you get back to your place and they are on your couch all sexy and biting their lips and you say, “I can’t wait to play with you.”

You absolutely are being an asshole when you don’t honor their response to your suggestion or offer or preference.

If you say, “Let’s go to this great steakhouse!” And they say, “I’m a vegetarian …” When you say, “Great! Meet you there at 7,” you are being an asshole.

Wah waaaaah. Sad trombone. Don’t do that.

But making the offer? Not an asshole. Suggesting a change in place? Great! Shows your flexibility and thoughtfulness. Requesting a date at a particular place? Not too much (until, you know, they tell you otherwise).

Sometimes, being assertive and suggesting things is a relief to the other person. We often defer to each other (especially people we like), saying, “Whatever is fine!” And we mean it! But when someone drives the social decisions, it can be very useful. What’s not useful (have I made this clear yet?), and is firmly in asshole territory, is overriding what someone else expresses they want or don’t want.

So make suggestions. Request—and get—the green light, so you can be confident that your glorious toppy-ness is fully desired and wanted.

PS: I hope this is clear, but just in case it isn’t: This has absolutely nothing to do with getting someone to do what they don’t want to do. Fuck that. This has to do with communicating enthusiastic consent. Okay, clear? Cool.

Open Relationships Mini Interview with Ashley: Love is Infinite

Ashley Young, http://indigostheory.wordpress.com.

1. What insight about polyamory/open relationships would you share with your younger self?

I would definitely tell myself not to be so cynical and that love is real, no matter how confusing it might be. Oh and I’d also tell myself ‘you aren’t going to end up a lonely spinster in the woods writing books like you planned’. When I first started to attempt poly, I didn’t even know it was possible until I had a loving partner to encourage me. I think if I could go back, I would give myself permission to explore love, sex and relationships, despite how overwhelming and scary it might be.

2. What has been the hardest thing about navigating multiple relationships, and how have you overcome that?

There have been a few things that have been hard about being poly. At first it was jealousy. Seeing my partner with other people was hard but when I started to see the benefits of sharing her with others – these benefits being my partner’s happy and poly being a full expression of herself – I got over it. Once I realized jealously had nothing to do with my partner and had everything to do with my own insecurities, I started to deal with my relationship shit instead of dumping it on my partner.

The next challenge was stepping up my communication with my partner. I used to be so afraid to say what was on my mind but when I realized sharing doesn’t actually make me explode or expire, I started talking. My partner and I both worked very hard on our communication early on in the relationship before becoming poly so I trust her. I learned earlier on that trust is key in polyamory. To maintain the trust, we in a sense created an intimate poly language that works for us and talk constantly and openly about our issues with each other first.

After I got over my jealousy and learned how to communicate, I started dealing with my own shit. Dating others has made me continue to confront fears of intimacy and acceptance and discover the power and beauty of my evolving sexuality. The biggest challenge has been accepting my poly, queer, kinky self and creating relationships that work for me. I’m still working on that one!

3. What has been the best thing about being open/poly?

I discovered I’m not a misanthropic and jaded as I used to pretend to be. I love people, I love bodies and I love sex. I love conversation and connections and being in a poly relationship has reaffirmed that for me. Plus, the more people I love, the more in love I am with my partner.

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

Love is infinite, not finite. Spread it.

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Kyle: It Can All Change

Kyle Jones, www.butchtastic.com

1. What insight about open relationships do you wish you had when you started?

I assumed that there was ‘a way’ to do poly and that if I learned that method, everything would work out perfectly. What I learned was that there are as many ways to open up a relationship as there people doing it. I’ve also learned that it can all change – people change, their needs and circumstances change. When that happens, your approach to poly may need to change – temporarily or permanently. And, this one has been the hardest, a person can identify as poly at one point in their life and as monogamous at another point in their life. Even though I was strictly monogamous for the first 40 years of my life, it never occurred to me that a person could go the other direction. So I guess in the beginning, it might have helped to hear from someone with more experience that things can change, in all directions, and the best thing to do about that is to have really excellent and honest communication with your partners, and work on those while it’s easy, so you are more capable of communicating well and handling change when it comes.

2. What has been the hardest thing about opening your relationship, and how have you overcome that?

When my wife and I opened up our relationship, I knew I’d go through a period where it was hard to deal with her being with others. I was determined to work through that and I was lucky to have good friends to talk things through with. I also had someone I was seeing outside our primary relationship, so the NRE and excitement of that carried me through a lot of the more difficult initial stuff. What I wasn’t prepared for was the differences in how my wife and approach being poly, and how that would effect our relationship. I am truly polyamorous, I am happiest and healthiest when I love, and am loved by, multiple people at the same time. My wife comes from a ‘friends with benefits’ perspective. She is leery of and steers clear of people who are likely to develop a romantic love for her. This has been a source of conflict for us, as she has been very critical of my approach. When things get challenging in my other relationships, she has a tendency toward ‘I told you so’ comments, which I don’t take well. She would be much happier if I’d manage my other relationships the same way she does, but I’m not wired that way. This difference and conflict is not something I was prepared for and remains a source of stress between us, though not as much as in the beginning.

3. What has been the best thing about your open relationship?

I’m not as angry, resentful or depressed as I was before we opened things up. Since I was looking to my wife to meet all my intimate relationship needs, when it became clear that some of my needs were not going to be met by her, I grew angry, resentful and depressed. Having the opportunity for other partners means I’m not angry with her for not being everything for me. As time went on, and I became interested in pursuing my interest in kink, it was really, really good to know I could, even though my wife has no interest in BDSM. Over all, I’ve learned a lot about my capacity to love and hold space for multiple people. I am a much better communicator now, I think I’m more empathetic and slower to judge. As time goes on, I am more gentle with myself, less likely to judge myself for emotions that are generally seen as negative – jealousy, fear of inadequacy, insecurity. Learning to recognize those reactions as valid and honest, learning to express and own them and learning to accept them with less judgement has been a very positive experience. Also, I’ve been learning the lesson that in order to do well in a relationship, to give to your partners, you have to make sure to give to yourself, too.

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

When people say that communication is the key to successful polyamory, they are not just saying it because everyone else does. It is absolutely essential to continuously practice honest, open, sincere communication with all you partner with. But not only that, you need to practice it with yourself. Be honest about what you need and what and expect from the relationships you are in. If you find yourself giving up on your needs and wants, that is a warning sign. You need to be very careful about giving up your needs in order to make things easier with a partner. That road leads to resentment, insecurity, depression and a breakdown in the relationship. If you’re not happy and feeling good about the relationship, you’re not going to do a great job in it. Self-sacrifice has its place, but if that’s all you’re doing, you’re not having a relationship based on equality and balance.

The things that make good relationships between primary partners, make good relationships between all partners. Since everyone will naturally have different expectations and assumptions about relationships, discussing those assumptions and expectations — not just once, but regularly — is a core part of healthy poly. Expect change, come up with strategies for handling change, both within yourself and with your partners. Don’t assume you know what’s going on, ask, listen, ask some more. Cultivate friendships with poly knowledgeable people who aren’t partners so you have friends to go to for feedback, or just to safely rant about things. Realize that for most people, jealousy, fear, competitiveness, feelings of insecurity — emotions we tend to judge as negative — don’t just go away when you’re poly, people who are poly aren’t less likely to experience those emotions.

Now, if you want to ask about long distance poly relationships, that’s gonna generate a lot more paragraphs :-)

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Sara Eileen: They Shouldn’t Be This Hard All the Time

Sara Eileen, @saraeileen

1. What insight about open relationships do you wish you had when you started?

My first few open relationships were, in retrospect, fairly awful. In one (my very first) a husband and wife team had the very bad habit of communicating different rules to me about the same interaction, without talking to one another first. In another my partner was monogamous, and had a guilt complex about being monogamous. In a third (by far the worst, and also my longest relationship to date) we dealt constantly with passionate, rage-filled jealousy, almost all from his side.

At no point in any of these relationships did I question identifying as polyamorous; it’s a part of my identity that has always felt extremely stable and sensible. But when I was starting out I heard frequently that poly relationships “take more work” and “are just harder and that’s the way it is” and to some degree I’d internalized that. I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her that yes, relationships are absolutely hard work, but they shouldn’t be this hard all the time. My more recent experiences with open relationships have been easier, more loving, and much happier, and have taught me that while it’s critically important to work with my partner and communicate well together, those past relationships had problems that extended far beyond our failing aspirations toward healthy polyamory.

2. What has been the hardest thing about opening your relationship, and how have you overcome that?

The hardest thing about being open in my current relationship has been trying to find new individual partners while sharing much of the same dating space and opportunities. I would call that less hard and more confusing; we are both interested in pursuing new partners, both a little (or a lot) awkward about dating and approaching new people, and tend to stick together in social situations within our shared community. I think that when one of us decides to date with more dedication we will probably solve this problem by literally separating ourselves into different dating spaces, but at the moment we’re very entwined with one another and we’re trying to navigate that in all of its lovely and sometimes incredibly awkward glory.

3. What has been the best thing about your open relationship?

The best thing about my relationship is that my partner is amazing for me, and I’m fairly certain that the feeling is mutual. The best part about my relationship being open, and capably open, is that it feels like a good, healthy space to occupy with someone I love. It is literally the only way I could see myself in a primary relationship with another person, so perhaps the best thing about being in an open relationship is simply that we are. We found one another, we’re happy, this makes sense for us. That’s pretty great.

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

If you’ll forgive the extended metaphor, I’ll share something I wrote to a friend recently when trying to explain my ideas of a poly partners bill of rights:

Imagine that having a relationship with a person is like taking a walk with them. In poly, you’re agreeing to take multiple walks with different people at the same time; some of them are short, sweet walks that only last a night, while others are long, committed walks that could last your entire life.

Now imagine that communication is the material that makes your road wider. People who communicate clearly and honestly with one another about everything that’s important to them, and who use that communication to make agreements about how they will each take other walks as well as the one they share, have laid out a nice, wide road to walk on. It lets them run around and be playful and try new things, all on the security of that wide open, solid space. The width of your road is not measured by the number of words you exchange; it’s measured by the confidence, trust and clarity provided by those words.

People who don’t communicate with one another about their expectations, feelings and roles are walking a narrow path; it’s possible to walk it, but the littlest breeze can come along and tip one or both of them over into a ditch. Our roads change size as we go through each relationship; something wide and solid at the beginning can become increasingly narrower until both people fall off, or vice versa.

These walks cross over one another as different people in one’s life meet one another. Narrow paths can be widened by meeting wide roads. Narrow paths that cross often leave room for no one to get by. Wide roads that meet one another have plenty of space for everyone to get what they need. And, most critically, everyone has the right to decide how wide of a road they need.

Also thanks for doing these interviews; they’ve been fascinating so far!

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Mysty: Advanced Relationship Studies

Mysty Mayhem, Women Writing the Weird

1. What insight about open relationships do you wish you had when you started?

It’s ok not to have the answers. My husband and I joke now that we are in Advanced Relationship Studies, and that when we began exploring 13 years ago we were in Relationships 101. It’s definitely a learning experience and should be treated as such. The opportunities for growth are endless, but you have to be willing to admit failure and learn from mistakes. There is no “right” way to be in an open relationship. You have to find what works for you and your partners. Also, communication communication communication.

2. What has been the hardest thing about opening your relationship, and how have you overcome that?

We have been open since the beginning, really. When he and I started dating, I had a grrlfriend and I was very honest about my desire to be physically with other people than him. He was raised in middle class white America with the model for Leave it to Beaver in his home life, so he was somewhat resistant at first. I was (and am) unapologetically Queer. Open communication was the key to our success. I don’t gloss over my needs and wants, I try to be very transparent. This helped him to understand not only WHAT I wanted, but WHY I wanted it.

3. What has been the best thing about your open relationship?

Building strong bonds with so many fabulous people, having a large, loving, caring support system to share my life with, learning more and more about my primary partner, growing emotionally, mentally, and sexually in ways that would have been impossible in a mono relationship. And the sex :)

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

Sugarbutch fucking rules. That is all.

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Spark: Free Agents

1. What insight about open relationships do you wish you had when you started?

This certainly doesn’t apply to every relationship. But in our case, I wish I had realized that we are both interested in very very different sorts of people and have very different communication styles, and that it works out much better if we are not trying to play with the same person as a couple. In the beginning, it tended to happen that one of us would bring someone in to play with, and the other would be lukewarm but go along with it anyway. This always lead to a lot of awkwardness and bad situations where one of us would no longer want to play with the third but the other did… For me, it works out much better if we are both free agents.

2. What has been the hardest thing about opening your relationship, and how have you overcome that?

I identify as queer and have always had attractions to a wide range of genders, but my wife has always been very uncomfortable with me playing with cisgendered men. It’s something we’ve dealt with in a variety of ways with varying success… initially, there was a lot of resentment and misunderstanding and hurt feelings, then a long period of time where it was an unquestioned rule. Since then we’ve had some really good conversations about why she feels that way, and started to put it back on the table as possible. When I didn’t understand why it was her request, I abided by it but always chafed and resented it…when she started opening up more to me about it, I had a lot more empathy and could accept it. So communication has been paramount. And really, I think age and experience has mellowed us both significantly.

3. What has been the best thing about your open relationship?

The ability to play around with other people! I really am at my absolute happiest when I’m juggling two or three flirtations, and I love the tension and excitement of sorting out new partners. I’m deeply unmonogamous by nature, and I would have a very hard time settling down with one person forever. I could do it of course, but I’m much much happier not having to!

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

My wife and I have been together since high school, and open pretty much the whole time. Our relationship, our own identities, and our “outside” relationships have both changed so much over time, and there have been periods that were very difficult. But in the past year or two it feels like we’ve made huge breakthroughs both personally and in our ability to communicate with each other and know what we want. It feels like we’re finally settling in to a good, solid open relationship style.

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Yarrow: Complex Organic Poly Web

On Friday, I sent a request for information from friends and acquaintances and smarty-pants folks in my life who I know have experience with polyamory and open relationships, as an attempt to mine my network for more insight and information about some of the difficulties of open relationships that Kristen and I have been going through lately. The interviews have been pouring in! I’ll be publishing them periodically in the next few weeks, and at the end of the series I’ll open it up for your input and thoughts on these questions too.

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Yarrow

Yarrow, sunflowerriver.org

I always feel like I should state my subject position when coming into this kind of dialogue, so, for full disclosure/context: I identify strongly as poly, and have been functioning that way since 1998. I’ve had exactly one monogamous relationship ever (though at the very outset, I didn’t have language adequate to describe my desires or lifestyle, besides “dating around”), and when we tried to open it up to polyamory, it didn’t go very well. That was 1998; a lot has happened since then. Presently, I have two long-term primary partners with whom I live in an intentional community (I’m married to one of them), and two friends-with-benefits relationships with other people. My partners also have other partners. This web changes regularly, in a highly organic fashion. Nobody has “veto” power over anybody else, and we all place a high value on communication and emotional integrity. We tend to describe ourselves as an organic poly network. There are lots and lots of ways to be poly in the world; this is what we do.

1. What insight about open relationships do you wish you had when you started?

I mostly wish I had had access to good role models, or any recognition that there is no single, one-size-fits-all, right way to do this. I knew very few other poly people when I began to recognize it in myself, and I developed all kinds of wrong ideas as a result. So: just because you’re dating someone, doesn’t mean you need to date the other people they’re dating. It also does not mean you need to love the people they love. It helps if you like them and you can all have dinner together, but it’s not required. This seems self-evident, but it’s not, and I see other people go through this as they move into polyamorous expression. Also: reality checks are vital, particularly with regard to one’s partners’ other partners. It is way too easy to tell yourself a story about what that person thinks and feels, to over-interpret casual actions or statements, to invest everything with excesses of meaning. And it’s very important to not do that. You want to know what they think or feel, ask them. And trust that they are honest with their response. Don’t try to “read between the lines.” Have integrity with your own responses to such things, engage in full disclosure (gently and tactfully, but with complete integrity), and other people will generally do the same.

Also: over-communication can be just as damaging as under-communication. Balance is important. Learning to identify when I am overwrought and will change my mind tomorrow, or feeling something too strongly to know what I will want the next day, was an incredibly important step towards functional polyamory. Another way to say that: sifting the apparent needs of the moment out from long-term needs is an extremely helpful step.

2. What has been the hardest thing about opening your relationship, and
how have you overcome that?

At first, when I was in a mono relationship opening to polyamory (about 14 years go) the absolute hardest thing was to be honest with myself about what I wanted. To have internal integrity. I believed strongly that I was supposed to want certain things: a single life-long love, that elevated my existance to a meaningful plane; a soul-deep connection with a single other individual that would permeate all aspects of daily life and make them extraordinary. (Culturally, we teach our children to want this. And I’m not saying it’s not out there, BUT: it’s very much not a one-size-fits-all solution to the idea of relationship; it doesn’t have to take place inside the context of externally-committed monogamy; and where it intersects with the abdication of personal responsibility, it can be completely unhealthy, and can create dangerously unrealistic expectations.) So, I was mired pretty deeply in an internal struggle with that paradigm. And I lied to myself that I wanted that level of daily-life-interweaving, instead of independence. And I lied to myself that I wanted to want only one partner. I lied to myself about what I wanted from that partner. Getting through that tangle took a couple years, and completely destroyed that relationship (I am very fortunate that we are still friends). The hardest part about it, was figuring out what I really did want, and then ACCEPTING that. Making it be okay to be who I am and want what I want. No matter what that looked like to the overculture. Figuring that out, and then being able and willing to communicate it to my partner, was earth-shatteringly difficult. But once that happened, and we recognized that we needed irreconcilable things in a partnership, we were able to move forward (by breaking up and letting each of us take our own paths), and each of us was able to grow emotionally and spiritually, to come into ourselves, much more fully. Getting past the self-deception was the most challenging thing.

3. What has been the best thing about your open relationship?

Self-actualization, and full actualization of each relationship I find myself in. Each new connection with another person can become whatever it is meant to become on the entire spectrum of friendship and intimacy. I am free to fall in love, and my partners are also free to do so. And we have each others’ full support in doing so, and in getting through hard times in relationships with each other or with others. Having several perspectives when something goes wrong is incredibly helpful; different people can offer fantastic insights into events and situations, and help the affected people see their way through difficult things. I have partners with whom my emotional relationship is profoundly deep, rich and complex, and others where our connection is more playful, and i get to have all of those things. Also, I get to *be* different things for different people; nobody around here has to be everything for anybody. If I really want something and it’s not going to happen in one relationship, it may come very naturally in another. I thrive on variety; this rich complexity satifies very deep needs in me. I am an independent agent who lives fully and deeply enmeshed in a strong, complex web of support, encouragement, and connectivity. I love everything about that.

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

I experience polyamory/monogamy as a type of orientation spectrum, not unlike gender or sexuality. This can be a really helpful way to think about it; some people are really wired to be happy one way or another, in a monogamous relationship only, or in open relatinships only, while lots of people live in the flexible middle ground somewhere, and could be happy with any of a number of relationship styles when things line up right. People’s relationship orientation can grow and change over time, just like their sexuality, gender orientation or gender presentation. Where a given individual falls on the spectrum at a given time is not something to attach value judgement to — you get a certain thread in the poly community that believes that polyamory is “more evolved” than monogamy. that’s bullshit. putting each other down to lift ourselves up only creates more division instead of creating understanding and community. there’s no right or wrong about wanting to be with a single partner or multiple partners, any more than there’s a right or wrong about being with a male or female or genderfluid partner.

Ask Me Anything: Becoming More Dominant

From the Ask Me Anything questions from Sugarbutch’s 4th anniversary:

What are some tools/techniques that help someone to “try on” a dominant persona? … How can I help her to get into the right mindset? How would you advise a new, and perhaps, reluctant dom to become more comfortable with her power? —Sophia

Great question. Wish I had had some guidelines, or someone who could’ve given me some pointers, when I was starting to come into my own dominant/top orientation.

I think it’s important to have conversations, outside of the bedroom, about your interest in playing with domination and submission, and to do some assurance that you want to be submissive—that you really really want to be submissive, and oh aren’t you so lucky that the two of you can play with that together. You might have to continually assure them of your desire to submit—before, during, and after. I know from my own experience, it sometimes boggled my mind that someone would let me do all those things I wanted to do to them, but I still felt that twinge of guilt and worry that I was going to hurt them, somehow. Assure them that they will not hurt you—or rather, that a) you want them to hurt you, and b) if they hurt you too much, or in a way that you don’t like, you are fully capable of using your safe word and getting out of the situation. They have to trust that you can take care of yourself if things get to be too much. You have to be fully capable of saying no for the yes to have any meaning.

Talk about what might happen if they do hurt you in the wrong ways—that you’ll stop, that you won’t both jerk away and get all distant, but that you’ll have a minute to talk about it, assure each other that it was not intentional and you both know the other wouldn’t do something that was too much on purpose. Apologize, and try to understand why it was too much, if it was just circumstantial (we’ve done this other times and right now it just wasn’t right) or if it was the actual thing (you tried this new thing and it went too far), or something else entirely.

There are some exercises you can do around this, if you want to. For example, you could do some light play with the intention of safewording out of it, at some point, to practice. And when you do safeword out, practice that moment of coming back together, taking care of each other’s needs, and then getting back into the play. A safeword doesn’t have to mean “stop forever and ever I need hours to recover,” it could just mean “okay I really need a break from this for just ten minutes and they don’t seem to be letting up.”

Say things like, “I liked this and this and this that you did, but this one small part was just too much for these reasons.” Assure and re-assure, especially in the beginning. Tell them what you liked, what was working.

Remember that your safeword can also be no or “stop” or “enough” if you aren’t playing with power exchanges where those words are used to arouse.

It really helps to have some parameters when playing with dominance or topping and trying to bring about a more dominant persona in bed. Those parameters can be various things: time, clothing or costume, dirty talking, or assuming another role with certain expectations.

Using time as a parameter can be a great way to start. Put a timer on and say, “I’m going to spank you for 5 minutes, and then we’re going to make love.” Or count: 30 spanks with my hand, 5 minutes of warm-up with the flogger and then 10 really hard strokes, 5 strokes with the cane.

Sometimes certain clothes can really enhance an exchange, and sometimes just one key item can transform a scene from “us” to “play.”

Dirty talk has been key for me in getting more comfortable with my dominant persona. Not only was it key for me to hear a semi-constant reassurance from people I was sleeping with that they liked what I was doing, it is also a way for us to keep in better contact during play, because we’re engaging our brains instead of possibly zoning out.

Role play can be a fantastic way to try on a dominant persona and get more comfortable inside of it, because you can hide behind both the fantasy and the role. Most role plays requre some sort of negotiation before hand, especially if you’re talking about what you’re doing (or what you’re doing in the fantasy). Say you decide that you’ll be a student and they will be a teacher, and you’ll do anything to get a better grade on that test, even bend over the desk. You’ve established a power dynamic, it’s within these specific constraints (because you’ll just go back to being yourselves when you’re out of these roles, you don’t have to own the desires quite as much when you’re stepping into another persona), and you’ve already established some guidelines about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to yeild that power such that your partner consents (“anything” for that better grade, even bend over the desk). They know this, because you already talked about it.

That kind of scenario gives someone permission to play with variations on a theme. They know they can bend you over the desk—but what happens if they try to get you on your knees first, or to sit on their lap? They know they have permission to do these kinds of things (especially if you’re good at the dirty talk, egging them on: “What do I have to do? Tell me, I’ll do it, you just tell me what to do. I have to get a good grade, I have to pass this class, I just have to.”).

So: negotiate, talk dirty, role play, fantasize together, work on your trust.

And don’t forget to assure and re-assure. Do it sincerely, don’t push it too hard, but step up and express the things you loved, the ways you felt, what you’d like to do again or more of. Write it down in email or chat (or a shared Google document) if it’s hard to do in person. Do it in pillow talk right after, if your tongue is more loose at that time.

Hope that helps.

The Ongoing Quest to be Sexually Fulfilled

That’s where that whole online writing project (aka blog) of mine started, really: in an attempt to write myself into a better sex life, and into personal relationships about my own sexuality, gender identity and expression, and sustaining relationships. For the first three years, I was attempting to write myself into a long term, stable, sane relationship, in part because I wanted to have a better sex life and in part for all the rest of the good stuff that comes with intimacy, cohabitation, and love.

And now, I’ve found the girl I’ve been with for a year and a half, Kristen. And the longer we’re together, the longer it seems we’ll last.

So, now what? Is my quest for a fulfilled sex life over?

To some degree, yes—many of the problems and questions that plagued me as a single butch top, such as, “When am I going to get laid next?” and “Who’s it going to be with?” and “How do I know if she’ll be into what I’m into?” are no longer a factor. I love that I am with someone as open and eager to explore sex as I am, if not more so. I love that our sex drives are pretty well matched. I love that I am with someone whom I can try out new toys with (it was much harder to be a toy reviewer when I was solo, that’s for sure).

But that is not necessarily a recipe for perfect sexual compatibility, or ongoing sexual fulfillment. Note the key word there: ongoing. A sex life is just that—a LIFE—which means it happens every day. And like any other aspect of life, it is interwoven tightly with all sorts of other aspects, and can be different, feel different, or present unique new obstacles at any time.

How does one navigate fulfillment with all sorts of other things—bills, work, health, family, projects, friends—are also vying for attention? How do you keep the spark going?

Perhaps this relates to my theories around general relationship intelligence and the lack of depiction of many stable, sane, healthy relationships in the various storytelling arts. Most romantic comedies or dramas, for example, focus on the part of a relationship story where the couple is overcoming obstacles in order to begin their life together. At the beginning of the film, the couple is not together; the dramatic action focuses around their miscommunications, struggles, possibly sex, expectations, who called (or didn’t call) who, and who can get over their issues in order to fully embark on a committed monogamous relationship; then the end of the movie shows the couple, triumphant, and we are happy, having been rooting for them all along.

But we see very little of what happens next in the relationship. How the couple communicates, negotiates, reaches consensus, struggles, forgives, fights, and maintains a balance between their individual separate selves and their collective togetherness. So rare is a film where the couple is together at the beginning and the end, where the dramatic action centers around the relationship trials or the couple coming together to solve outside problems.

Without such good models of problem solving in long term relationships, and with such high divorce rates, meaning that for folks my age it is rather rare for our parents to still be together, or even to have an older couple in our lives as mentors, how can we be expected to have the relationship skills to sustain our own long term relationships?

And isn’t it similar with sex: when we are single, we expect getting into a relationship will fulfill our sexual needs. The smarter folks among us know that getting into a relationship isn’t quite enough, but that we need to get into a relationship with a person with whom we are sexually compatible. A subtle but key difference!

Yet still—life happens. Even if you find that special someone, there is still ongoing navigation to keeping it up and getting off. And sharing a life with someone means distractions, miscommunications, unforeseen occasional tragedies, and our ever-changing bodies and lives.

This is what I have been puzzling through in my own relationship, as we are increasingly sharing space and continually sharing our lives.

My relationship with Kristen started as almost purely sexual. She lived a few hours away from me, and worked in another state, and would come visit on weekends. She’d lived in New York City before and planned to move back, which is how we met in the first place. We spent whole weekends in bed, rarely leaving my apartment, rarely leaving my room except to eat and shower and rest our bodies. After she left, I would spend the whole week playing over and over the last weekend, often writing about what we’d done, how we’d played, and planning some new ways to play when she came back.

I would pounce on her as soon as she walked in the door. Already hard packing and waiting anxiously to feel her again. Not even letting her put her things away before shoving her up against something, so eager and grateful to have someone who let me play with dominance, someone who was open to play.

It was erotic, connected, passionate, heated sex, full of longing and relief and release. Plus, we continued falling in love, discovering all the ways we enjoyed each other’s company outside of the bedroom.

It’s easy to look back and see the bliss, but equally present was the ache of longing, the fear of the fragility of a new relationship, those days when we would have given anything to come home to each other, all the fetishizing and idealizing of a shared domesticity. I brush over those feelings now because that wish was granted, I no longer have to long to share other parts of my life with her, as our lives are increasingly entwined.

Now we have the new obstacles of sustainment: Am I getting what I want in bed, in this relationship? Are we having sex often enough for me? Are we having the kind of sex I want, or am I longing for something else, something new? How do I ask for more, or different, sex? How do we keep the spark of eroticism, passion, longing, and eagerness when we are available to each other, in so many ways, constantly? How do we keep it fresh and new when we’re willing to do, and have done, so much experimenting already?

Maybe this sounds like a trite problem, especially to those who don’t have partners, don’t get laid, or don’t prioritize sex as a serious hobby the way Kristen and I do, but I suspect many people in reasonably satisfied relationships ask these questions at some point or another.

I’m sure all of our relationships have a unique set of circumstances behind these questions. For me, it seems to be that my girlfriend would like to have sex more often than we do, and in part because of our dynamic and the sexual roles we like to play with of Daddy/girl and domination/submission, she has a hard time asking for more. She feels greedy and unwarranted. I know I also have a hard time allowing myself to be seduced, so even when she does feel bold enough to make her desires clear, I don’t always respond with what she wants. I adore our dynamics and they are a key important part of this relationship, roles I have been eager to explore for years and I am grateful to do so. But precisely those dynamics erase my own desire for the chase, since she is constantly available to me, sometimes my desire runs a little low. I crave some denial, something to conquer, something to come up against in order to create friction.

We have discussed this; and of course I don’t want her denying me just for the sake of denying me, of turning me down when what she’s really interested in is playing, but we are still working out the details of dynamics we have chosen.

I’m pretty confident that we’ll figure this out, but I’m not exactly sure how. For now, we’re talking about it (though hopefully not too much), being open with each other, being honest about where we’re both at and what we want, and of course, working on our own shit in therapy. Every relationship is complicated. Every relationship has triumphs, low points, complications. I don’t know how things will get resolved, but things are improving, we are talking well to each other, still having great sex, and enjoying each other.

Really, does it get any better than that?

This post first appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

On Processing & Analyzing

Here’s the thing.

People have told me—in comments, in emails, sometimes even my friends in person make little comments or raise their eyebrows incredulously—that if my relationship with Kristen needs this much processing, perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with it, perhaps we just aren’t “meant to be.” This argument usually continues with something like, “My girlfriend and I have been together for x years and we never need as much analyzing as you do,” or, “Real couples don’t need to work this kind of thing out so constantly, I should know, I’m in a relationship and we don’t do that,” et cetera.

Well.

First of all, these comments have discouraged me from posting the analyzing, which I’ve been realizing lately I’ve been a bit nervous to do, precisely because of this occasional feedback. But not posting them publicly doesn’t actually solve this complaint, and isn’t actually a rebuttal to this argument.

And I just flat out don’t agree: I know that I am in a good, solid, beautiful relationship, and it is incredibly important to me. I’m not about to end it, certainly not because a stranger says my relationship is no good, and certainly not because we process (according to someone else’s standards) too much. But, yes, we do tend to talk (and talk and talk) about our inner psychological landscapes, about our feelings and histories, as a way to work things out, both individually and within our relationship.

So I got to thinking about that.

I think some people are just more or less analytical than others. I think perhaps we have some sort of “processing orientation,” that some people want to talk and process and analyze interactions and emotions constantly, and others despise doing so, and would even see that as a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

I don’t think one or the other is any more healthy—I think it’s just the way an individual works, or doesn’t work. I do think it’s important to be able to express our emotions, of course, especially to our partners, especially when there’s something bugging us, be it about our partner, about our relationship, or about our life in general, such that the relationship and our partner can be a bit of a sanctuary for us, but that looks differently for everyone.

Given that we all have a slightly different orientation toward processing and analyzing, then, what is important is not whether or not the analyzing and processing is happening, but to what degree, and whether the two people in the relationship are satisfied with that degree.

Despite our frequent verbal processing and analyzing, Kristen and I still have very different processing styles. She likes to talk quickly and immediately about what is going on, and I tend to let things sit, settle in, and to go over it all in my head or on paper before being able to express it to her. She figures things out as she talks, and I talk only after I’ve figured something out. It’s really hard for me to talk through something that I don’t feel I already know. Sometimes, that is really infuriating for Kristen, or so I’ve gathered, as she wants to talk now now now and I am still off in my own land of my head.

(I’m working on this—both by accepting that that’s the way I tend to work and by attempting to be more communicative when I’m off in my own head, even if it’s just to say, “please, can we talk about this a little bit later, I need a bit of time to think.” And by attempting to talk through things, even if it’s not entirely comfortable of my preference, when it is very important to her, and recognizing that it’s not pressure, it’s just part of how she works.)

It’s not as if it’s a perfect system, this human communication thing. We all bring so much to the table, and no matter how much we unlearn, no matter how much we practice being in a state of absolute Bodhicitta, there is so much in our minds, so many complicated moments folding over onto themselves in my muscles and tendons, in the grey matter of my brain.

And sure, it is possible, even (or perhaps especially) for those of us who are inclined toward emotional processing and psychological analysis to overdo it, to spend entirely too much time going around in circles micro-articulating every little thing. Sure, I’ve been guilty of this in the past, even in the past as recently as yesterday. I’m not trying to say that every aspect of processing and analyzing is necessary, just that perhaps we all have different levels of tendency toward these skills, that some of us see the world in a more analytical way and seek to understand our own emotions, psychology, and relationship in these ways. I’m certainly trying to find that balance, that place where I am understanding and expressing my emotions in clear, healthy ways, while not being indulgent or repressing how I feel. Where I am listening and being open, coming to new conclusions or altering my understanding of the situation as needed, and then, and perhaps this is the key part, moving on. (Sometimes it’s easy to just stay in the analysis part.)

So yeah, maybe I do have a tendency toward over-analyzing or over-processing. It is certainly possible that I process or analyze more than you do. Maybe you think it’s unimportant or that I am dwelling or making things harder than they have to be. But just know that we all have different levels of our tendencies to do this, and just because mine is not the same as yours doesn’t make mine or yours any better: it just makes it different.

How Do I Let Go of a Past Hurt?

After some strong realizations about what really is the strength and foundation of my relationship with Kristen, I’ve been thinking a lot about healing past wounds, especially in terms of former lovers and broken hearts.

I often notice some sort of snag or conflict come up between Kristen and I, and using those things I mentioned are the super strong foundations of our relationship, we can usually talk through it, understand where we’re both coming from, and explain how we got there.

My part of that often looks like this: “You did x, and x is very familiar to me because in my past relationship x had this kind of role and did this kind of damage to me, so it’s really hard for me when you do x, because I feel triggered and panicked.”

Another important part of this is: it’s pretty likely that she wasn’t intentionally doing x, or at least she certainly didn’t mean to hurt me; I do keep that in mind. Probably it was a by-product of her attempting to do something else. And usually she can express that explanation and I can hear her and I don’t get mad at her for doing it, generally I understand what she was trying to do.

But somehow I am still stuck in this past relationship, this past me, where that feeling was true and x meant something specific and my reaction is to PANIC. And I am starting to ask myself: is that happening in this relationship, right now? No, usually it isn’t. That is something else, that is in my past, that is an old wound that this new thing is pulling on, but it’s not the same wound. I am not becoming re-wounded there. I am not at danger of falling back into that wound.

So. Clearly, I need to “let go” of that old reaction. But how does one do that? How do you let something go when it feels like it’s so fucking hard-wired into the way my brain works? How do I not be scared and feel triggered and panicked when these things come back up?

This is what I’ve been contemplating lately, as things between Kristen and I are improving after another brief panic. One of the things about relationships that I deeply believe, indeed one of the POINTS of being in an intimate, loving, romantic, sexual relationship, is that they teach you things about yourself that you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn, and if they are strong and founded and good, they also can be the space in which you have enough support to actually practice the growing, someone who is patient with you and who recognizes how hard you’re working to rewire yourself, who can gently remind you when you’re falling back into old patterns, and who can support you and encourage you as you try on new ones. Plus, they provide endless opportunities to use those new patterns, since conflict and difficulty and triggers from old broken hearts come up in relationship all the time. Isn’t that lucky!

I think what I’m talking about, in this question of “how do I let go,” is becoming more aware, becoming more mindful of what triggers what and what means what, especially in my relationship. I’m tired of all these old ghosts coming up. I have done a shit-ton of work to put these ghosts to rest, but the pathways in my brain are still carved out in many ways.

So I guess it kind of looks like this:

  1. I have a reaction to something that’s happening in my relationship (usually a negative, bad, “unreasonable” emotional reaction)
  2. I realize where my reaction is coming from (usually a past lover, wound, broken heart)
  3. Let go of the old reaction, be in the present (instead of gripping onto and explaining myself through the past). How to do that?
    1. Well first, I need to be able to release my grip on #2, to be able to ask myself, How did I come to this reaction? Where did it come from, and how did it serve me? What remains unacknowledged about this old wound that means I still think I need this protection? Can I heal that wound and know I no longer need that protection? What is asking me for acceptance?
    2. Then, I need to be in the present. I’ve noticed myself grasping at these old stories, justifying my high emotions, so much that I am not sitting with what is. So I must learn to ask myself: What is happening now? Is this old pattern that I fear actually present?
  4. After letting go of that old reaction, I can have a reaction to what’s happening now, with Kristen, with me, and aim, as always, to respond and react with lovingkindness and care and awareness and openness and love.

That seems fairly straightforward, actually. I think that is possible.

I spoke with a lovely friend and mentor recently about this exact problem, and she suggested a fairly simple rephrasing of relationship needs. I think that too will help in conquering this “how to let go” question. For example, if I notice this process happening, and get to step #2, realizing that I’m being triggered because it’s relating to a past hurt of mine, if I go on to say, “Okay, I need you to not be x like my ex,” that brings a lot of baggage into the conversation, a lot of layers and complicated past ghosts and old wounds and old ways of working and whoa suddenly it’s a whole lot more than just me and my beautiful girlfriend trying to talk through a little snag in communication or interaction.

Let me be a little more specific for this example, I think it’ll make more sense that way.

So one of the things that triggers me heavily is when someone in a relationship with me is withholding. It reminds me of my former lesbian bed death relationship, among others, and I get panicked that I’ll never again know what’s happening in her head and will spend years trying and it will eat me up. Ahem.

But this plays on other ways I work too, especially in that I am a very insightful, observant person who often knows what’s going on with another person’s emotional landscape even better than they do (especially if they aren’t too self-aware), and I have the tendency to constantly check in with them (silently, emotionally) to see where they’re at. If they aren’t telling me where they’re at, and in fact are deliberately putting up a wall and withholding that information, saying “I’m fine,” or “I don’t want to talk about it,” when I ask, I tend to assume something is brewing and will bubble up and explode later, which makes me way anxious.

I know, this is a totally unique situation that nobody else has ever been in, right? Nobody else has this problem, ever.

So, instead of having the reaction of “I need you to not be withholding like my ex!” I can rephrase it to something like, “it’s really important for me to know what’s going on with your mental/emotional landscape.” Not that we have to spend hours processing that, but I can briefly explain why I need that, and if she can just say, “oh, I’m feeling anxious about work, but I don’t want to talk about it,” that’s enough. Some broad-stroke explanation of what “that feeling” is that I am reading on her face but she’s not expressing.

Knowing what is going on with someone else’s emotional landscape one of my basic relationship needs, in fact! And in some ways it has nothing to do with my ex, it has to do with ME. It just reminds me of a time when this basic relationship need wasn’t met (and was probably taken advantage of), and what’s important is that the need be acknowledged and get met, not that there was a time in my past when it wasn’t met. (I mean, that’s important too, but I have done enough healing to hopefully not stick a rock in that wound to keep it open.)

Whew. That feels like a lot, but it feels like a relief, and like I’ve hit on something important.

One of the things about the ways that I work, and the ways I grow and change and get over capitol-i Issues that plague me, is that generally, as soon as I can articulate what’s going on for me and write—that’s the key here, WRITE—out a possible solution, or at least a path to try, I often find that I can rewire myself through that process. By time I articulate it, by time I name it and label it and say OH that’s what’s going on, and OH here’s what I can do to do that differently, those skills and awareness have kind of already integrated. This isn’t a 100%-true-always theory, but I have noticed that this tends to be true, and that too feels like a relief.

Okay so: how about y’all? How have you addressed this problem of past hurts in your current relationships? Any tips for me? Any tricks to keeping your own mindfulness and awareness up while dealing with things that are triggering and hard? Anything I might be missing here? Does this make sense? Can you relate to it? Or does it seem like I’m way off base?

PS: A teeny colophon note: I’ve been making some changes to this site’s sidebar and structure in general. A little bitta spring cleaning, if you will. And as such, the category formerly known as SSU has been renamed Critical Theory. It might change again, there are an awful lot of C categories over there in the list, but that works for now. Do not be alarmed, it’s still there.

Also, if you aren’t following my Tumblr log, mrsexsmith.tumblr.com, you might be missing out on some of the things I used to frequently put on Sugarbutch, like for example calls for submission for queer and kinky and feminist anthologies, eye candy photos of hot butches and femmes, media like youtube videos, announcements for other events, and more. It’s easy to subscribe by RSS or pop over there and check out what’s going on.

Yes, No, and Consent

In much of the workshops and trainings around sexuality and sexual expression that I have attended, we have often started with one basic concept: saying no.

For example, I have been part of a circle of pairs where the instruction was for the person on the outside of the circle to think of a place on their body that would really like to be massaged right now. Hands, feet, wrists, scalp, shoulders – wherever there might be some great tension released. And the instruction was to ask the person on the inside circle, politely, “would you please massage my ____.” The person on the inside was instructed to say “No.” They could say, “I’m sorry, not right now.” Or, “I really can’t, no.” Or to couch it in some other softer “no,” but the instruction was specifically to practice saying it – even if they actually wanted to give the massage! (There would be time for that, later.)

The point of that exercise is to practice saying no. To know that it’s okay to say no. To have permission to say no – to have instruction, even, to say no. It’s actually really hard! But it’s so, so important, especially when building trust, especially when deepening a relationship, especially when working to assert your own needs and desires, as I feel probably all of us struggle with, in some ways.

The idea behind this, in erotic work is without no, there is no YES. And the YES is what we’d like to get to. The delicious, hungry YES, which is so excited and juicy and ready for what’s coming.

Without the ability to say no, the yes is virtually meaningless. Without the reassurance of my partner or girlfriend or lover or wife or toy or submissive saying no to me every once in a while, how can I be sure that she really can say no? It feels good, to me, to hear someone create limits on something, because then I have a better idea of how far I can go. I hate to discover dealbreakers in the middle of something, that is not good.

That’s pretty explanatory, right? The no-gives-yes-value thing?

This happens in relationships, too, not just with sex. For example, my friend and her girlfriend were planning to do something, one of those big relationship things. The details are a bit unimportant, but it’s something her girlfriend had expressed skepticism about in the past, and my friend was really into it. At the last minute, her girlfriend decided no, actually, it isn’t something she wanted to do. Oops sorry! My friend was mad, for a while. We talked and talked and she was upset. After the dust cleared a little, though, my friend said she was really grateful to her girlfriend for being honest. She was really grateful that her girlfriend wouldn’t be the kind of person who would just go along with something her partner wanted, even if it wasn’t something that she truly wanted herself. How much worse would the resentment build up if she had gone and done it anyway, secretly knowing she didn’t want to! How much more tension and stress would their relationship be under! My friend’s girlfriend risked hurting my friend’s feelings, and risked the consequences of being honest, but also has a lot of trust and faith that they will be able to talk through things, to reach some sort of mutually appreciated conclusion. And my friend has said, many times, since, I value honesty over consistency any day.

They are closer, as a result. Telling the truth doesn’t have to mean being disappointing or disappointed, it doesn’t have to mean steps back in a relationship. I would rather be with someone who I could trust to tell me no when they felt no and tell me yes when they felt yes. And if she never tells me no, can I be sure she really can?

Audacia Ray has said that working in the sex industry taught her to say no. She’s also said, “‘No’ is a complete sentence!” (especially when she and I have talked about how overcommitted we are), which I find myself saying to myself in my head frequently. Lots of the productivity blogs talk about turning things down as a way to really take control over your own time and owning your own sovereignty. This is important in sex play and relationships, too.

I know lots of these concepts around “saying no” are taught in sexual assault, survivor, reclaiming sexuality, and power play workshops all over, but I want to reiterate where it comes from, because the next part is this: about saying yes.

As I have been writing about a bit lately, I have struggled with being a top and dominant in bed. Sometimes, upon expressing to my lover something that I’ve wanted to do, and after they say, excitedly, that they have always wanted to do that too, I still have trouble, I still doubt that it’s okay, I still hesitated.

It’s like what J. said, in a comment on the Reconciling the Identities of Butch Top and Feminist essay:

Recently, my partner and I have been experimenting with some new things in bed and I was constantly asking her if she was okay with what we were doing. I was so worried that I asked her several times in a row, not taking her first yes for what it was. She told me that if I’m going to trust when she says no, I also have to trust when she says yes.

Bingo. I love that explanation of this process – so succinct. Yes, exactly.

As the dominant, I think I can ask whether my submissive is okay with what we are doing (or going to do), even more than once, until I am satisfactorily convinced of her consent, but – BUT! – it is also my job to trust her answer, to believe her, and to let that be enough.

If she consents, and uses it against me later, that is, most likely, NOT MY FAULT and she is a jerk. (See Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast Episode #165 where a guy gives his boyfriend permission to fuck other guys, then gets completely pissed and refuses to see him again after he does. Not okay!)

If I have chosen to date this girl, then personally I do have some sort of assumption that her consent means that she knows herself, and she is able to gauge her own reactions, and has enough self-knowledge that she will know whether being in whatever situation we’re discussing will make her freak out or not.

I can, of course, check in with her during the scene (hopefully in ways that do not break the scene entirely – see The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book for more about that), but I also have to accept that if something was wrong she would tell me or communicate it to me somehow, and that it is not my job to be a mind reader. It is my job to ask when I notice something, it is her job to communicate with me actively.

This is one of those ways that BDSM is actually Relationship Communications 401, way beyond the basics. And this is why I personally have had a tough time playing with people who were not self-aware, people who were not impeccable communicators, and people who were not afraid to be honest and assert what they needed.

This stuff is really damn hard, I know. Sometimes I don’t even know what I want, let alone being able to articulate it. But if we can’t trust each other to say yes, and no, and mean it, then we can’t go farther, we can’t play with consent and force, we can’t establish deeper trust to be able to get to the darker, juicy stuff, like domination and submission outside the bedroom, and role play, and deep, late night conversations untangling some of our control issues. Ideally, a good relationship works to bring parts of you to light that weren’t quite visible before, and supports you as you work through them, and possibly enhance or change them – and I have found no better tool for that than the many varied practices of BDSM.

Fucking & Making Love

She looked so damn hot yesterday.

I don’t know what it was exactly. She was in an outfit I’ve seen, tight slim jeans, her girly black tank top with the silver star pattern, little yellow sweater with the clear buttons. Maybe it was her hair, she’s been letting it grow and it’s getting longer, almost to her chin, it’s thin so it’s starting to flip up at the ends. So. Fucking. Cute. Maybe it was the earrings, simple large silver hoops, the ones she’s worried are a cliche but I keep trying to assure her they’re classic, sexy.

Off hand, she said yesterday that I am obsessed with my hair. I said ‘obsessed’ was a bit strong, but I see her point. Maybe it’s not just my hair, either, but hair in general. Still, I don’t want to pressure her into doing things like growing her hair long because that’s what I like – I hope it’s okay for me to state my personal preference while at the same time accepting however she prefers to present. Because while it’s true, I do prefer long hair, even more than that I prefer her to make decisions based on her own wants and needs and personal expression, not on what I desire.

Still. Her hair was so much shorter when we met, nearly as short as mine is now; I’ve been growing mine too, going for that early Elvis look. I’d dye it blue-black like his but I really like the few strands of gray that are coming in at my temples.

I guess I really am obsessed with hair.

Point is: she looked so, so good. Fun, flirty. Femme.

We chatted on the couch after I got to her house. How are you, how’s your day, how’s your sister. Maybe it was that I hadn’t seen her in more than a day after spending many days in a row with her. I felt my appetite for her growing, bubbling up. At one point she tipped her head just slightly sideways, her hair doing this little flip on both sides, the lines of her silhouette so perfect, those big hoop earrings brushing her neck, and she gave me a little smile, eyes twinkling. If I’d been on a TV show, it would’ve cut to a shot of me, my spine becoming jelly, my hands to my face, crying OH GOD as I slide off the couch before springing up and throwing myself on her, wrapping around her and kissing her hard, my mouth wherever she’d let me put it, then the camera would snap back to the shot of us on the couch as we were before and nothing would’ve actually happened, just me, sitting there blinking, in awe, probably totally transparent and readable and ooey gooey in love. Am I so obvious? Moments like that I feel oafish, bull in a china shop, too big and awkward next to such grace and elegance, like I am certain how much she knows she’s got me wrapped around her little finger.

Oh and here I am being all dramatic and admirational again. Are you bored of this femme-worship yet? Three and a half years of Sugarbutch and I only love femmes more, I am only more certain of my orientation to them in such a specific way. Only three and a half years of Sugarbutch, but I met my first femme nine years ago, and I knew then … what? Something. The way she shocked me to life, lit up the night like a shower of sparks from fireworks.

And I’ve never had it this good. I tell myself that every day: every day of this relationship I am grateful, so appreciative of every minute we have together. I’ve not known a bliss like this and I’ve never known it to last this long.

When Jesse was here, she had a brief little snag with Violet, some conversation where it wasn’t quite perfect, but she didn’t let it phase her or lose her unwavering faith in their relationship. “We’ve always been able to talk it through, whatever it is,” she said. And so far, Kristen and I have that too – not big explosive fights and feelings getting deeply hurt, but conversations of honesty and self-awareness and accountability and care. There are some things looming, a little, I’ve felt their weight lately, our differences and complications and inadequacies and places where we need more support, but we have always been able to talk things through, even if the journey is more illuminating than the destination, even if the only conclusion is, “well, now we know, that’s how we work, that’s my particular quirks and assumptions coming up against yours in our unique relationship way. We’ll just have to watch how this plays out.” We still come back together, appreciate each other, speak the deep truths. I feel like I am heard, always. And oh how important that is, what a relief to have it in my relationship, with her.

Dacia has a piece she’s read in public a few times lately which has the lines, “I write about the relationship I wish I was having,” and “I buy my own bullshit.” I’ve done that, here, in the past. I’ve written myself into love, used this site to woo and court. I haven’t wanted to do that with Kristen. It’s too precious, too real; I’ve learned from my mistakes, or rather, I am learning, I am trying to learn. That is a major reason why I haven’t written about her like I have others.

Plus, I’m all the more protective of my heart these days. How many heartbreaks is one heart made to withstand, anyway? I love writing about my relationships, but it can also be a crutch – I become obsessed with micro-articulating my feelings and emotional landscapes in writing, sometimes to my own detriment, overdramatizing and letting the articulation of the emotion be more important than the experience, the story, the audience, the effects.

I don’t want to do that anymore.

So I am protective of this relationship, as it has swelled and sometimes burst, its ups and downs. I haven’t chronicled it all here, preferring instead to articulate it to her as best I can. And there are things, snags, places between us which are murky and lurking a little for me right now, things that have come up and we’ve said “we should talk about that more later,” but now it’s later and I don’t even remember what they were, so that makes me all the more nervous. The unknown rather than the known. I should’ve kept a list, I keep thinking. But I’ve got to calm my nerves about this, not let it affect the really good highs inside of which we still so easily slip. So far, we’ve been able to talk through everything, and for now I’ll rest comfortable on presuming we’ll be able to do that in the future, too.

Yes, I was high when I reached out for her upper arm and pulled her onto my lap, and she’d just told me about how she’d done her homework this morning by playing with her ass while getting off, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t also in love, wanting to make love, wanting to be inside of her, drinking her in as I sucked her nipples into my mouth and left bite marks on her neck and shoulders. She cried out and I thought, someone should be videotaping this she is so goddamn hot.

In the bedroom we slipped off her clothes. “Take off your shirt.” I slid her tight jeans down her legs. She was in this matching bra and panties I hadn’t seen her wear before – she does wear the bra, a little white one with pink polka dots and pink satin bows, very femme, but the matching panties have layers of ruffles. I’ve never seen her in them.

I didn’t take them off.

“I want to see your ass. Turn over.” She does, gets on all fours. “Show it to me. Get down on your elbows.” She parts her knees a little and arches her back, I run my hand over her curves and feel the outline of her cunt and ass under the thin fabric. I let my fingers trail over her softly, slowly. My mind raced. There’s so much I wanted to do to her, with her. All that ass talk earlier made me want my fingers in her there, to get out the little plug I’d brought to leave at her place (her further homework), wanted to plow her ass hard and make her scream. I won’t do that, yet, of course, it’ll take some time to work up to it. I wanted her to stay on her knees, ass in the air, while I gripped her hips and fucked her slow and hard. I wanted her on her knees, mouth full of spit eyes looking up at me as she sucked me down.

But most of all I wanted to be close, pressed against her, kissing her, wrapped around each other. So I strapped on, peeled off her pretty bra and panties, told her to turn over, slid inside, and got lost in her, got lost in the way we wind around and hold each other. We barely spoke, just felt each other, just took it all in with our bodies.

There were a few times I slowed down, savored her, looked at her, but the vibration was so strong between us, I couldn’t didn’t want to stop. Sometimes I wondered if I should, if her hips were okay, if she needed more of a break, but I kept getting so close and ultimately was able to come inside of her for the first time in a long time, I was glad I didn’t stop. (I don’t know why I haven’t been coming lately. I broke out the Spartacus harness I’d retired hoping that would help. It did, apparently.)

Later, she said, “I thought you were going to stop … but you didn’t. That was good.”

Yeah, that was good. And I’m glad she said that. Always affirming to know I wasn’t pushing her. I want to push her, I want to have that kind of power and trust and knowledge and skill, but that has to be earned, that has to be worthy. I want to do so much more with her, to her, want to take her to all sorts of dirty places and cradle her and worship her and honor her and fuck her and smack her around and force her and hold her and let go with her and trust her.

There’s time. It’s been almost a year, but I know enough to know that we’re in this. And that we’ll keep building, and exploring, as this keeps getting deeper and stronger.