A couple of months ago, Gloria Brame wrote a short piece on her blog about the relationship between BDSM and orgasm, suggesting that there’s been a historical (mis-)perception that BDSM play is far more non-sexual than it actually is — mostly because the public face of BDSM has avoided portrayals of sex for legal and protocol-y reasons. Fair enough. The piece then headed in a direction that struck me as a huge leap:
But the reason we DO BDSM in the first place is because it turns us on, and with the right partner, we are going to cum and cum again and then some more. If you’ve never had orgasmic sex WITH your BDSM, you just don’t know what you’re missing.
A couple of things bothered me about this. The first is the projection (“with the right partner, we are going to cum and cum again and then some more”) of what might well be a common experience, but definitely isn’t universal. (Aside: Can we be done already with the idea that “cum” is a word that belongs in anything remotely serious? Merriam-Webster, which is as loosely descriptive a dictionary as they come, doesn’t even recognise it. If you want a word that’s informal, “come” is plenty informal already. And Brame is a sexologist.) The second is the slightly smug, slightly patronising, certainly essentialist attitude towards someone who doesn’t mix BDSM with sex (“you just don’t know what you’re missing”). From someone who’s written widely about kink, it’s surprising and unhelpful. I hammered out a self-righteous comment:
Saying that “If you’ve never had orgasmic sex WITH your BDSM, you just don’t know what you’re missing” feels a bit one-true-way. There are plenty of people out there who practise BDSM without sex, and aren’t missing anything. Your wording implies that their position comes from being blinkered, or inexperienced, and that strikes a bad note here.
Brame’s reply didn’t help much:
OK, then, let me put it this way: if you are into orgasms, and you are into BDSM, combining them is a peak experience.
I’m a sexologist. I see everything as sexual. Especially BDSM. I am open to hearing from people like you [who] don’t combine BDSM and sex. I guess my first question to you is why? Or, rather, why not?
(If all you have is a hammer….) Again, this is a faulty projection of a personal preference and experience onto the universal. I tried to explain:
“If you are into Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, and you are into boeuf bourguignon, combining them is a peak experience.” That’s facetious, but it does capture how distinct orgasms and BDSM are for me, and how adding two things I like together might subtract, rather than add.
I do like orgasms. My sexuality might be weird, but I’m not asexual. But orgasms are a solitary thing for me; I need/want to be entirely inside my own head, and alone. BDSM play (which for me is part head play, part impact play), on the other hand, is about connection with another. And I’m not denying myself sexual pleasure during BDSM — it genuinely isn’t on my mind either during or after play. What there is instead is a buzz, and a calm, and a connection, that for me hugely surpasses the junky hit of an orgasm. If an orgasm for me is the Creme Egg, BDSM play is the boeuf bourguignon, and they don’t mix.
I have no idea if this helps. It’s as obvious to me as mixing sex and BDSM is to you, so it’s hard to describe well. My bristling was at the idea that sexual BDSM is for everyone, and if they don’t feel that way, they just need their eyes opened. Society bombards us with images of normative sex all the time, and kink should be about being aware and understanding of the different.
Brame’s reply to this (of which the following is just an extract) was better, but still betrayed a certain bafflement with non-sexual BDSM:
For those who sexualize BDSM (which is what I was referring to), the experience of orgasm mixed with BDSM as the ultimate sensual pleasure is what many of us do feel. For those who come to BDSM for other reasons, I can only suppose it’s a more visceral thrill.
Adding “[f]or those who sexualize BDSM” is a big help here. That’s where the exchange ended, so I’m not sure whether Brame really, truly gets people for whom BDSM is non-sexual, or if she was just being accepting (“I can only suppose”) of what I was claiming for myself. (I should clarify here, because “non-sexual” for me might well not even be the same as “non-sexual” for someone else. “Non-genital”, or “non-orgasmic”, might be more helpful. For example, anal play might be sexual as hell for someone else, but it’s well within what I’d think of for myself as “non-sexual”. It’s not an essential part of my kink, but it’s there, and when it happens it involves neither genital contact (much less penetration), nor sexual arousal.) Also: more visceral than sexual pleasure? All of this is visceral; that’s why it’s hard to communicate.
This stuff bothers me for a couple of reasons. I know I’m not the only person out there for whom BDSM play isn’t sexual, and I’d like to think that non-sexual BDSM can be promoted by people with kink clout as potentially fulfilling and complete, and not as flawed or (maybe worse) immature.
But it also taps into what I suspect is a genuine insecurity that sex in fact is the “ultimate sensual pleasure”, and that my lack of interest in sex makes that pleasure inaccessible. More than that: that there’s a profound connection and intimacy to be had from the sex act — because, I suppose, of millions of years of reproductive hard-wiring — that I’m incapable of feeling, and that the connection with a play-partner I feel through non-sexual BDSM play can only ever be a pale imitation of that. I’m not sure I do actually believe that’s the case, but when accounts such as Brame’s present sex as the ne plus ultra of human experience, there’s a nagging doubt; and there’s no shortage of reinforcement of that idea in both popular culture and kink narrative. BDSM play is all well and good, but in an ideal world it’s only really preparation for the climactic fuck, which is where the story ends.
If I don’t accept that position — if I believe, or hope, that the full range of both personal pleasure and interpersonal connection is accessible to me through non-sexual BDSM — then it’s worth considering how the conventions and language of sex might map onto non-sexual BDSM. If non-sexual BDSM is the extent of my sexuality, does that mean that all BDSM play is, for me, sex? If it is, it casts the play in a very different, unsettling light. If it isn’t, then which play is sex, and which isn’t? Is some of the play fucking? Can I fuck, if I don’t, you know, fuck?
Tears are sometimes described as a quasi-orgasm in spanking/discipline play. The mutual trust of real-life punishment might lay claim to being an analogue of fucking. And the endorphin rush of a heavy impact scene has a similar effect of transportation. But these are arbitrary, and vary from person to person. More appealing is to suggest that what’s important is the shared intimacy and intensity of experience, no matter what shape the play has. This has the curious effect, though, of pointing out that we don’t assess sex in the same way — though perhaps we should. Sex on a hardcore porn shoot is still sex, though the participants might not be emotionally connected. A loveless fuck is still a fuck. If “sex” is deemed to be one of a set of specific and finite acts, no matter how intensely the participants feel, should we hold non-sexual BDSM play to a higher standard, in which emotional connection is necessary?
An interesting, unsettling corollary of the notion that some, but not all, non-sexual BDSM play is analogous to sex, is that “sex” for one partner might not be sex for the other. Separated from a specific physical act, understood by both participants, the notion of sex is entirely personal, and asymmetric. This obviously has all sorts of interesting social complications.
So. Can I fuck if I don’t fuck? I suppose so. I hope so. I certainly aspire to the intensity of personal experience and intimate connection that’s traditionally ascribed to conventional sex, and I hope the toolbox my brain has provided me with allows me to get there. It’s the sex itself I can do without.