I’m writing this partly to think aloud about something that’s been churning around in my head since last weekend at Shadow Lane, but I’m concerned that if I write it well enough so that I’m not misunderstood it’s going to be mostly caveats. Because what this is about is a wonderful, joyous thing, which nevertheless gets under my skin in a bad way, and I’m not sure why. I really, really don’t want to even indirectly imply that there’s anything wrong with it, but I do want to explore some of the reasons why it jars for me — hopefully the thoughts will have some usefulness, if only for me.
I’m reminded somewhat of this piece I wrote a while ago about the layers of consent in BDSM/CP play, and how they’re different. The aim of that piece was to champion the idea of a bit more explicit negotiation in CP play. The issue that’s in my mind now is similar, but comes from the other direction: the flirty negotiation that’s quite prevalent in CP circles, which — and this is the essence of it — plays with non-consent, or semi-consent, makes me uncomfortable to be around.
To be clear, my discomfort doesn’t come from misunderstanding what’s going on, and thinking that there’s any absence of consent — although I do have a teeny tiny concern that inexperienced attendees in that sort of party environment might not be aware of the tacit layering that’s going on, or think that the encoded flirting is an expected protocol. But, no, the issue isn’t lack of consent; it’s much more to do with how consent is performed, especially in public.
The flirty male-top metaphor that I always tend to reach for is “moustache-twirling”, but the game involves participants of all genders and orientations. A metaphor in common use at Shadow Lane, and among the attendees in other mediums, is “throwing under the bus”, which serves as code for getting someone else into trouble. Or, rather, into “trouble”, trouble itself being an encoded form of showing desire to play. There is, of course, no bus, just as there’s no real trouble — absent a real-life punishment relationship, but that’s not the sort of thing I’m talking about here.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of the dance that this sort of flirting represents. It’s light, and fun, and playing with the idea of non-consent can be really powerful and resonant. Even without the frame of a clearly-defined, consented-to scene, within which non-consent can fly freely, it’s not the case that there isn’t a frame of consent. The frame is just defined differently, with a more implicit protocol — but no less a protocol for being implicit — of back and forth signals. And it’s a very easy way into play for people who want to just dip a gentle toe in.
So why should it bother me? Why would I have found myself at one point over the weekend having to bite my tongue to stop myself snapping at a roomful of people having great, flirty fun, that if they wanted to play with person X, they didn’t have to pretend that, Oh No!, they’d said something inappropriate and would have to be punished. Or whatever. They could, you know, just say that they wanted to play. What a fucking killjoy. (And, yes, I do see that removing the flirting would be removing an important part of the play itself.)
I don’t know why. It’s a visceral reaction, and because of that hard to poke around in. Some possibilities that I’ve considered:
Because I very rarely play publicly, and prefer to both negotiate and play in private, the teasing, flirting party protocol is a bit alien, and because of that creates a space that I don’t feel that I quite fit in — analogous to being in a space where everyone else is speaking a language I don’t understand, or following some protocol that hasn’t been revealed to me.
I don’t particularly enjoy feeling like an audience for other people’s play. If I know play is coming, I can choose whether to be around it or not. But play which occurs spontaneously — as is typically the case with flirty play — can change the mood of a room in a second, taking attention away from whatever was happening, or being discussed, and turning everyone into a perhaps-unwilling audience. When play can begin at any moment, there’s a quite different atmosphere in a room, a heightened tenseness that works (for me) against quiet and relaxed discussion.
In general, I much prefer to be clear with others what I want, and hope that they feel able to be clear with me. I react to encoded requests — even those which are intended to be politer or gentler by way of the encoding — with annoyance, frustration, and a kind of passive-aggressive deliberate refusal to understand. This reaction might well translate to a CP setting, where encoding is perhaps even more part of the protocols of negotiation than in daily life.
Finally (and it’s only finally because I’m stopping here, and not because I probably couldn’t come up with other potential explanations), I wonder if, despite every caveat and qualification I’ve included above, I react viscerally to the use of protocols which seem to imply that it’s possible for person X to “deserve” some sort of consequence for this action, or those words, because they do on some buried level echo social structures in which that cause and effect would in fact have been the norm. This might be especially the case for M/F play, which is dominant at Shadow Lane. Maybe.
Okay. That’s enough digging a hole for myself. In the end, the moral here isn’t anything other than that I should be aware of how I react in certain situations, and avoid them a bit better. Aside from anything else, no-one’s play is improved by having a cranky Paul about the place.