Do rough sex fantasies compromise your sex-positive ethics?

This new essay is also the introduction to my new book, Sweet & Rough: Sixteen Stories of Queer Smut, available September 15th. Preorder it on Smashwords now!

I firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with my personal rough sex fantasies, nor is there anything wrong with your dirtiest fantasies. I believe that because I trust that you and I are adults who understand that fantasy is different from reality, and while we may think one thing to get ourselves off, we probably conduct our sex lives slightly differently.

Erotic stories are fantasies, yes, but they can be more than just that—they can show us a piece of the path, and encourage our erotic selves to blossom. So what’s my responsibility as an erotica writer to make the stories that I write down ethical and responsible?

I am both a sex educator and a smut writer, and sometimes those worlds seem to conflict. For example, in the BDSM and sex education worlds, educators and advanced practitioners stress consent in play scenes. And not just consent—we stress enthusiastic consent, not just an absence of “no” but a ready joyous abundance of informed and eager “yes.” We also stress safer sex practices, barriers, knowing your status, and sexual health and wellness. We stress responsible scenes, and warn about playing while intoxicated.

In some of my erotic fiction stories, these practices that are deeply held values in my personal life aren’t readily apparent. That’s because my stories are fantasies—you know, the things you close your eyes and think about when you’re getting off all by yourself, not necessarily (though perhaps sometimes!) the things you do with lovers. The characters in my stories sometimes don’t negotiate or have a conversation about safer sex, not because things like safer sex or negotiation are unimportant, but because the main purpose of the story is to turn you, the reader, on.

Frequently, in the sexuality education communities and conversations, we talk about how porn and erotica are different from sex education. I discourage people from learning how to give or receive a blow job from porn videos, for example, where deep throating and playing with ejaculate are overly common. (See Cindy Gallop’s online project Make Love, Not Porn for a variety of other examples of the difference.) Similarly, I discourage people from learning about power dynamics from Laura Antoniou’s book The Marketplace (though I happen to love the whole series), and would never suggest recreating a scene from 50 Shades of Grey (don’t even get me started). Both of these books are worlds away from the people who pursue and practice power dynamics, ownership, dominance, and submission in their personal relationships.

But the fantasies? We, as readers, love devouring them. We love the fantasies even more than we love the reality. The reality is messy, with STI scares and condoms breaking. The fantasies are escapist, sensual, and by definition not real.

I think when we start coming into our own sexually, when we start realizing that there’s more to sex than what our completely antiquated and puritanical sex education system taught us as kids, we start familiarizing ourselves with some of the most basic topics in sex positive communities. We learn about consent, agency, negotiations, communication, and safer sex. When we don’t see that reflected in the erotica or porn that we are consuming, sometimes it can seem like the erotica or porn fantasy is discouraging that kind of sex positive responsibility.

I am explaining all of this to you because I don’t want my erotic fantasies to discourage you from being responsible in reality.

I know that the educational workshops I teach encourage sex positive responsibility. But in my erotica? That issue becomes a little more nuanced and complicated, because of the aspects of art and fantasy. For example, I am aware that there are some points in the Sweet & Rough collection of stories where characters protest or resist or drink a lot of whiskey. I think there is nothing wrong with playing with resistance and force, consensually and carefully, but I also think that requires a lot of negotiation, a lot of trust, and safewords, in order to be done responsibly in the real world. That part of the story often isn’t revealed. Like the porn scene that cuts out the part where the fluffer comes on stage and someone else adds more lube, the erotic story often excludes the getting-to-know-you, the subtle body language communication, the character’s histories with each other, and what they have negotiated “off screen.”

I deeply believe that the personal is political and that being transparent about one’s life is a spiritual path. Since writing Sweet & Rough, I have shifted some of my erotica writing to be much more consciously inclusive of things like negotiations and safer sex. Most definitely because that stuff is hot, but also because I want to show more of the reality and less of the fantasy.

However, those things are frequently excluded from Sweet & Rough. And here’s why: These stories are collaborations. Most of the stories in this collection were written and published on Sugarbutch between 2007-2009. Many of them came out of the “Sugarbutch Star Contest” where readers sent in some basics about a scene (who, where, what the characters did) and I wrote up the story.

It was a huge period of growth for my writing, and I pushed myself hard to write the fantasies that were outlined for me. Sometimes, they were much more forceful than I’d usually write, although they more closely resembled my own private fantasies. I am aware of my access to privilege and unconscious entitlement as a masculine person and as a dominant, and it is important for me to stay conscious in my sex play, especially when it comes to gender or power dynamics.

Often, my early drafts of these stories included a lot of internal processing and negotiations, but the fantasies of my collaborators challenged me. I remember when writing “The Houseboy’s Rebellion” (which is a b-side story included on the USB version of Sweet & Rough), when the collaborator read the draft of it, she said, “No way. Make my character more mean. Take out all this negotiation. Just take me.”

Because of how strong the service top in me is, and because I liked it, I followed her desire. And I believe that story—and others, when I received similar feedback—are stronger for it.

The stories in Sweet & Rough are fantasies. I know fantasy erotic writing still greatly influences our real sexualities, and I don’t dismiss that connection. But these fictions are not necessarily models of sexual responsibility. Some of it is “problematic,” and I wouldn’t claim otherwise—but they still have so much value, and can jump-start our erotic engines or show us how much more can be incorporated into our erotic lives.

I encourage you to continue practicing being a responsible, ethical, sex-positive kinkster who operates from integrity. And I encourage you to read erotica stories that are edgy, full of force and lust, from authors whose ethics you trust, and to believe that the responsibilities are filled in behind the scenes, just off the page, stripped out so you can enjoy even more of the sweet sex and rough play that gets you going and gets you off.

Sweet & RoughYou have just read the introduction to my new book of erotica short stories, Sweet & Rough: Sixteen Stories of Queer Smut. It is all ready to go and will be released on Monday, September 15th! Preorder your copy on Smashwords, or if you are attending the Catalyst Conference in LA this weekend, I’ll have special pre-release copies on a USB drive (which will have a special, USB-only b-side story included!)

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Andrea Zanin: Applies to All Relationships, Not Just Poly

Andrea Zanin aka Sex Geek, sexgeek.wordpress.com & 10 Rules for Good Non-Monogamous Relationships

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

To preface this, and my other answers here, I don’t think much of what I have to say is particular to polyamory. It’s about relationships, and it so happens that I’ve been doing polyamorous relationships since my very early twenties, so for nearly fifteen years now. But I’m pretty sure most of this would still apply if I were monogamous.

I’d tell my younger self that it’s okay to break up—that breaking up does not mean failure, and that there’s no bean-counter in the sky judging me if I haven’t tried absolutely every single possible thing to save a relationship. Deep joy is crucial. If a relationship drains you for a little while as you work through something difficult, fine. But if your experience is one of constant drain, pain or sadness, and there’s no realistic way that’ll change substantially in the foreseeable future, then it actually doesn’t matter how much you love someone, or how much they love you, or whose fault any of the bad stuff is. It’s okay to leave just because you’re unhappy. You have permission.

I’d also share a term I came up with just a few months ago: “terminal issue.” All relationships encounter challenges, right? Sometimes we don’t even register them as such because we deal with them so easily and quickly. Sometimes they take up space for quite some time, or are especially big and painful, but then we resolve them and they don’t come back. But sometimes they last, and last, and last; or they get worse over time; or they arrive in one fell swoop, but are so gigantic they stop us in our tracks. Eventually, those big or long-lasting issues, if they’re serious enough, are the ones that can lead to a split. Those are what I call terminal issues.

In my experience, the terminal issues are rarely about circumstance or outside events, though outside events can reveal or exacerbate them. They’re the ones that relate to deep-level incompatibility—the structural components of two people’s personalities, psyches and life philosophies that simply aren’t going to budge enough to accommodate one another and result in mutual joy. To wit, if I look back at my past relationship splits, the terminal issues are ones that would still be present today if I tried to get back together with the person, even many years later. Neither of us magically changed after a split. No amount of work would have made us fit better. I think that the more clearly I learn to discern workable issues from terminal issues, the more I understand how compatibility is crucial, and the less important it becomes to figure out who’s at fault when that compatibility is absent in a given area.

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

It’s been challenging to understand the difference between poly as a value system and poly as a concrete practice. For me, they go so closely together that I make no separation, but I’ve learned that for many people this is not the case, and it’s been a painful lesson. For some people, poly is a value that may or may not translate into practice for any number of circumstantial reasons (health, time, emotional readiness, etc.). For some, it’s a practice that may not relate to a value system; it’s simply helping them meet a need (sex, closeness, whatever) at the moment. Neither one is inherently better, but they do lead to two very different ranges of assumptions, some of which may clash. I am definitely better off being involved with other people who, like me, hold polyamory as a core value or a key element of their identity. I was devastated once, for instance, by a lover who took for granted that if she got seriously involved with someone, we’d split up (I didn’t know this). So when she announced she’d found a partner, for her that was a breakup conversation, but I was just happy for her and still looking forward to our next play date. To her it was obvious: a real relationship meant no more playing around with me. To me it wasn’t obvious at all—after all, we were playing around even though I was in two serious relationships myself! Clearing that one up was pretty ouchy. Definitely it taught me to ask more questions about value systems from the get-go.

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

It’s allowed me to live by my ethics rather than accept the ones that were fed to me as a child. Full honesty, not just honesty about the stuff you’re supposed to think and feel and want, and denial about the rest. Real, vibrant, living desire, not duty. Deep, gentle commitment to everyday relationship quality, with longevity as a by-product, rather than a gritty commitment to stay together til death do us part while ignoring the daily cultivation of intimacy. Poly has also allowed me to co-create the kind of family I deeply value, with long-term partners, metamours and friends who are, frankly, amazing people.

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

I learned the word “idiolect” the other day, and I think it’s a really handy one. It’s a linguistics term that essentially means each person’s totally unique, individual way of speaking a given language. I think the concept can apply to emotions, too.

Think about the experience of physical pain. It can be very real and intense for the person experiencing it, but anybody looking on can only ever understand it from the way it manifests. If different people are experiencing identical pain, one might scream and cry, the second might grit their teeth and be stoic, the third might giggle and make light of it, the fourth might faint, the fifth might get angry and kick the wall. They’re all legit pain responses, but an onlooker might have a very different read on what’s actually going on in each situation.

The same is true for most inner experiences. The way each person expresses, for instance, respect, care, desire or anger is all just their individual manifestation of what’s going on inside. Figuring this out means it’s become easier for me to ask questions about the inner experience instead of interpreting it all from the outward manifestation and reacting only to that. Questions like, “What does X mean to you?” “What is your reasoning behind Y?” “What is your intent when you say or do Z?” “When you act in this way, what’s going on inside you?” When I start to understand how their emotional idiolect works, I have an easier time immediately “hearing” what they’re “saying.”

So, for instance…
Manifestation: Partner is unfocused and keeps changing the subject.
Interpretation: If I were doing this, it would be a sign I probably wasn’t too interested in the conversation, or had a big issue on my mind.
Question: You seem distracted. What’s going on with you right now?
Inner experience: This means they have low blood sugar, not that they don’t care what I’m saying.
Solution: Feed them now, talk later.

I find that if I remove the focus on the outward expression and look to the inner experience instead, it’s relatively easy to empathize with my partners or explain what’s going on with me. From there, if someone’s outward manifestation is a problem, it’s much easier to tweak, since it’s not loaded with the added emotional weight of misinterpretation.

kiss & tell

The inside of my bottom lip is still swollen and a bit tender where she bit hard. And I’m bursting to write about it. Instead, perhaps I’ll write about something else: kissing & telling.

I’ve been thinking about it: I don’t really know what the rules are. I only know that, on occasion, the chivalrous guys in films or in literature say things like, “I don’t kiss and tell.” This seems to be one of those straight social dating conventions that I have somehow never really understood, like the waiting-to-call after a date, the I’m-not-interested games, etc. (Living with my straight sister has brought all sorts of new social dating conventions into my life. Actually, I’ve never lived with a straight girl before, and the only straight boy I lived with, I was dating at the time. Since then I’ve only ever had queer roommates. Interesting …)

This kiss-and-tell thing seems to be for straight men more than anything else. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen straight women (I’m racking through the Sex and the City archive in my brain – surely, if straight women do that, it was depicted in that show) talk about kissing and telling, and there’s little hesitation to talk about how the kissing was, or even how the sex was, between women. And, do we see this as rude, when women talk about sex? No – at least I don’t – I see it as HOT.

When men talk about the sex they had, though, I do sometimes see it as rude, because of the way it is depicted. It’s different to see a guy sit down with his friends and say, “Wow, I had a fabulous date on Friday, and we ended up going home together – gosh, she was so great in bed,” than, if he said, for example, “Dude I totally hit that, she was beggin’ for more,” (which is not the best example, but you get the point).

So that means, for me, it’s actually about the respect given to the people these folks are sleeping with. I imagine I could hear women – straight or gay or queer or whatever – talking about a sexual escapade and be totally offended by the rude, lewd, lack of respect, more than who is actually doing the talking.

Even so: it is so much more common to hear (straight) men speaking inappropriately about their sexual conquests, probably (ya think?) because of the sexism in this culture, not only the treating-women-poorly thing but also the notion that women aren’t inherently sexual creatures, that we are either/or mothers or whores. There’s also that machismo guise within masculinity that says that you’re a “real man” if you conquer women.

Well so, it would make sense, then, for “I don’t kiss and tell” to evolve out of that type of culture, as a social convention to keep the lewd sexual misogyny in check.

So how does it apply to women, if at all? And how does it apply to lesbians?

I mean, to a certain extent it is incredibly tacky to talk about your sexcapades with your friends. For example, if you start sleeping with your best friend’s ex, you probably shouldn’t go into details about how you fucked her up the ass with a strap-on last night. And if you happen to be dating your buddy’s sister, he probably won’t want to know how she likes to be roughed up a bit.

But aside from disclosing the sexual details of people your friends actually know (which, it seems, shouldn’t be disclosed primarily because it’s private information. Which is interesting, that some things are more private because a friendship exists, rather than keeping a stranger’s details private, which isn’t as important), how much is it okay to talk about sex?

I like sex. Not that I expect that to be a surprise to you, but I love talking about it. I love hearing about what other people think and do, because hey, I just may learn something – not only about my friend, and what they like (and that can sometimes be incredibly deep held beliefs, psychological complications relating to other aspects of their personality, which can be fascating) but I also might discover more about what I like. Or I might understand something in a new way, I might “get” a fetish or sex act in a way I never understood before.

Also? It is oh so important to be open and honest about what’s going on in our sex lives, I think, because a lot of strange damage can be done there. A lot of healing can be done, too – but it’s similar to the reason why I believe we should talk about our relationships, in depth and often, with our close friends. Our friends (one would hope & assume) watch out for our best interest, and if something strange is happening, if red flags are going up and up and up, hopefully our friends will be able to tell us those things. Our relationships should be socially monitored. And, perhaps, so should our sex lives, to a certain degree.

So. Back to kissing & telling. I think that means, for me, I believe in talking about my sex life.

Not that you’re surprised, I know. I’ve been writing about it here – explicitly – for more than a year. But I’ve never quite gone all the way into the kiss & tell argument, so I’m glad to now know where I stand, and why.

But I’m still not going to tell you what happened Saturday night.

(At least, not until she gives me permission.)