To the list of tech stuff that I’ve been around to see both the beginning and the end of (VHS, Concorde, the Space Shuttle…), I can add something that’s a bit more personal: kink on Usenet; specifically, the Usenet group soc.sexuality.spanking (SSS), and its predecessor (ASS). I hope I’m wrong about seeing the end, but it’s hard to summon up a great deal of optimism.

My first sight of ASS, in the early ’90s, was magical but sporadic, through a string-and-sealing-wax web-interface to Usenet running on a server in the Czech Republic — my only ‘net access at the time being through my work, a place with liberal attitudes and an early installation of Mosaic. I posted a little, under a hastily-chosen pseudonym, but there were gaps. Reliable access came later, with my move to a university system, and I ended up being part of the group that huddled together in long and emotional negotiation of the formal proposal for the creation of SSS — whose place as the very first sexually-oriented group in any of the “big-8” Usenet hierarchies made it a political issue far wider than its own remit.

And then, off-and-on (but mostly on) for the last 14 years, I’ve been one of the moderators of SSS, the last few as its technical bod, responsible for keeping everything working smoothly. Add to that thousands of postings over the years, including original fiction posted there first of all; the creation of friendships, including a long-term relationship; annual short-story contests; the loss of friendships to untimely death; and spam, and trolls, and many, many ferocious arguments.

But now, for reasons too many to enumerate, Usenet is being slowly forgotten, and my own ability to give it time and energy has more or less gone. A couple of days ago I posted my intention to resign from the job, and that post itself has echoed in a bit of a void, which tells its own story.

For a while I had pipe-dreamish plans to build a nifty web-interface to the group that would help pervs new to the ‘net both to find the group — “Can you give me the web address of the group?” being an understandable but frustrating and impossible-to-answer question that we frequently encountered — and to interact with it in a way that wasn’t so far from their experience of web == ‘net. But even if I had the time for that sort of work, it’s likely too late. Even with a spiffy new front-end, Usenet can’t really compete for the attention of users used to Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and Fetlife and on and on.

All of this seems a shame, since the bones of Usenet are still extremely strong. It’s a bomb-proof, self-owned system, more or less as impossible to shut down as the ‘net itself. Those features aren’t any less important now than they were when Usenet was something like the only game in town for global discussion. Being dropped by some large ISPs — notably AOL, though at the time an AOL in decline — wounded Usenet a little, but it has the ability of Python’s Black Knight to not care much about losing a limb.

I do still have some pipe dreams. I can imagine a social media system which used Usenet as its distribution layer — SSS for textual content, ABPES (or somesuch) for image content — hidden below an application layer that could run on thousands of servers across the world, packaging together text and image content into a rich user experience that made use of Usenet’s strengths while accepting that its geeky weaknesses are a serious barrier to new users these days. It would be owned by no-one, just as Usenet is owned by no-one, with distributed management of independent, non-commercial nodes.

In the end, I think I probably stuck around on Usenet for too long. Notwithstanding the fact that finding replacement moderators was flagged as a problem even a decade ago, causing my reluctance to leave, for at least a few years my input to the group has been token and joyless, and perhaps even drained my ability to experience the kink as a source of plain fun. Turning one’s sexual self into an administrative drone will do that. But I’m nonetheless glad that I had the opportunity to help in the building of what was genuinely a community — social media before anyone had thought to call it that.

Now, though, I’m trying to re-learn that enjoying kink isn’t something to do once the spammers have been dealt with, or in-between flame wars, and that it’s not an indulgence — at least, not a bad indulgence — to see kink as pure personal expression, rather than something that’s primarily a worthy community-building imperative.

Just have to get rid of this damn job.

Grounding Consent

One way in which my approach to kink is closer to (what we stereotypically think of as) the BDSM way of doing things, rather than (what we stereotypically think of as) the spanking/CP way of doing things, is that I’m much happier with clear and explicit negotiation and consent. I don’t mean to imply by that that negotiation and consent are necessarily lacking in the spanking/CP community, but the style is generally more informal and — and this is the key point here — more flirty. It’s not hard to see how this came to be the case: BDSM play is typically more planned, more structured, and more abstract; spanking/CP play can tend that way too, but its most accessible form bleeds very easily into/from non-kink activity. Someone who turns their partner over their knee for a spontaneous hand-spanking for being pesky isn’t necessarily doing BDSM; someone playing with Japanese rope-work pretty much necessarily is. So (what we stereotypically think of as [and that’s the last time I’m saying this; feel free to add it yourself in the following]) BDSM activity both has greater need for a more planned, formal approach, and has naturally developed such an approach.

In an earlier post, I characterised a common spanking/CP way of negotiation of consent by analogy with two modems following the handshake protocols by which a connection between them is established:

Person #1: *pours water on Person #2* [Hello! I’d like it if you spanked me! Is that okay?]
Person #2: “Do that again, miss, and there’ll be trouble.” [That would be fine, but I’d like to confirm I have your consent.]
Person #1: *pours more water* [This is confirmation that I want you to spank me, and am giving my consent.]
Person #2: “Come here!” [Your consent has been received!]
Person #1: “Ouch! I’m being spanked by you!”
Person #2: “I’m spanking you!”

The part of that analogy that’s relevant here isn’t the back-and-forth, but the fact that the human protocols involve encoding of the negotiation as subtext. The surface form of flirting carries embedded within it a request for consent, a giving of consent, and an acknowlegement that consent has been agreed. That approach can work, and often does — though is liable to be broken, with nasty consequences, if and when appreciation of the subtext is poor — but I find I’m not drawn to it. I like the clarity and honesty of clear consent.

What that doesn’t mean, however, is that I’m not into flirting. I just want the whole process to be grounded somewhere; to bring in another analogy, I want the logical deductions to be grounded by really clear and solid axioms. In order to feel free to flirt — never mind to play — I want to know that such flirting is consented to, and what the ground rules are. Without going into Jay Wiseman-ish fetishisation of the very process of negotiation, I suppose I want to know that I’m not being a pushy and tedious and inappropriate asshole.

This was clarified for me by something I wrote in an e-mail to a friend a few days ago:

There’s definitely such a thing as consent for flirting, over and above consent for play. What I think a lot of spankos do is negotiate the consent for flirting by flirting, which gets a bit messy. Much better to basically give explicit consent for flirting, and then one can be a lot more playful, knowing that it’s completely welcome/reciprocated.

The part of the process, then, that I missed out from the modem negotiation analogy, is that flirting in the spanking/CP world is often not yet encoded negotiation for play, but actually encoded negotiation for the act of flirting itself. We flirt in order to find out whether flirting is okay, hopefully reading responses appropriately and calibrating onwards from there. (I will note in passing only that such reading of responses in this situation often doesn’t go as planned.) This, again, bleeds into/from non-kink life. Young people discovering whether they’re into each other don’t ask for permission to flirt, they just dive in head-first, and damn the consequences.

It’s clearly the case that many people much prefer this approach, and see explicit negotiation as numbing of their desires — insofar as they even consider that there’s an alternative to flirting in order to request implied consent for flirting. The effect is one of ungrounded consent pulling itself up by its bootstraps. The BDSM tenet of more formally negotiatied consent is clearly an abstracted construct on top of the natural social interaction, but I find I’m much happier in the space created by explicit consent to flirt. What happens from there onwards can be flirty as hell, but it’s grounded by the knowledge that both people are inhabiting more or less the same conceptual space. It feels liberating, rather than restrictive. Can we have a bit more of it, maybe?

The Spanking Collection

[Update: You can now download my story from this collection for free.]

Well, hello there kinky reader. (And also hello there potentially-kinky-but-not-quite-sure reader.) How does helping to cure cancer by reading 250 pages of high-class smut sound? You with me? Good. Abel & Haron of the Spanking Writers have put together a collection of original spanking fiction by twenty of their favourite authors, including both of them, Pandora, Zille, Serenity, Graham, Casey, and lots of others. Go to their site to get the full details.

Yes, there’s also a story by me in there, “Watching Xanadu”. I don’t want to say too much about it, except that I think it feels to me to be quite dark and edgy. It’s spun from scraps of reality, and this song, but isn’t real, and it’s definitely not fantasy. It contains the words “fucking”, “cosplay”, and “knee-socks”, and might just involve @xan_a_duu and @S_T_Coleridge. To find out more you’ll have to buy the collection. I’ve read all of the stories, and apart from being high-class smut, it’s a brilliant demonstration of how diverse our kink can be. The stories come from all sorts of directions and perspectives.

All of the proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK, so clearly you need to buy a copy for all of your friends as well. You can get very-nicely-printed-and-bound copies at Lulu, and Kindle copies at Amazon. Go to Abel & Haron’s blog to see the other options.

Feet of Clay and Bathwater and Stuff

[A comment made elsewhere, turned into a rough-and-ready post here, because it mostly stands on its own.]

IMO one of the best things about approaching the world from a rational/sceptical perspective is the ability/willingness/whatever to avoid either ad hominem attacks or argument by authority: arguments are supported and agreed with, or otherwise, because of their intrinsic strength, and not because of who makes them, or — and this is kind of the point — what their other beliefs are.

I’ve always found it both infuriating and admirable about Dawkins, for example — not that this is solely about him, obviously — that he seems able to value arguments made by others that he agrees with on that matter, and to not let other disagreements — even significant ones — get in the way of that. I’m thinking specifically here of Hitchins’ position on the invasion of Iraq, but there are other examples.

I do think this ability is admirable — because it means we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we don’t feel that we need to agree with everything someone says to champion anything they say. It feels like a very intellectually grown-up attitude. But it is also infuriating, because — whether it’s meant or not — it’s hard to avoid an implied support for all the other crap that someone might spout. It’s also infuriating because of how hard it is to do. It’s very very easy — perhaps even natural — to want to agree with everything someone says, or nothing.

This tendency is, I’d say, one of the causes of the magnitude of the genuine distress over what Dawkins said. When someone has been as prominent as he’s been over the past twenty years, and as much of a standard-bearer of sorts, we want them to be perfect. We want to agree with everything they say. We don’t want them to show feet of clay, as Dawkins seems to have done. That situation is, perhaps unfortunately, far more common than the opposite, though. Bill Maher is indeed a dick about many things. Penn Jillette has political views that to me are a bit revolting (and which seem to be largely unmentioned in the sceptical community). Hitchins’ position on Iraq is a long way from mine. And so on.

It does seem to show a maturity in a community that it’s possible to go beyond circling the wagons when an insider is an idiot, and trying to defend them against criticism specifically because they’re an insider. There’s a obvious, and understandable, tendency to do that when a community is small and feels threatened from outside. But if it’s going to grow, and especially if it’s going to grow in a way that’s consistent with principles of intellectual honesty and rigour, it’s entirely right and good to criticise that which deserves it, no matter where it comes from. But it’s every bit as intellectually honest and rigorous to support that which deserves it, no matter where it comes from.

Twitter and the Social Contract

A few days ago I was a bit of a dick on Twitter, about Twitter. The specifics of the issue aren’t really worth rehashing — except to be clear that they related to private accounts and the swirl of surrounding etiquette. This post is more of a general tour of some thoughts about Twitter, and shouldn’t be seen as necessarily related to the dickishness, either to back it up or retreat from it. It’s more about context, since Twitter itself isn’t very good at back-story.

In the abstract, while acknowledging that Twitter users have every right to make accounts private — and while also acknowledging that some have positive cause to make them private — the use of private accounts does seem to me to work against what makes Twitter valuable. In practice, of course, what the designers of Twitter created turns out to be extremely mutable, and to fit into very different models of communication, according to need. If one sees it as microblogging, as it was originally presented, the model is a very open one, a stream of posts and comments crossing and merging with streams of others’ posts and comments. One can also choose to use it to create walled-garden sub-communities of friends and like-minded individuals, in which case the model might be a private and moderated mailing list or IRC channel of old. Synchronous back-and-forth interaction with individual friends or groups of friends further subsumes the functionality of an IM client. And asynchronous direct messaging can even replace much of the need for e-mail. This mutability goes a long way towards accounting for Twitter’s success, I think. We like multi-use appliances.

But Twitter’s value for me, specifically, is connected to its openness — more than that, its openness and lightness on its feet. The 140-character limit, which seemed so restrictive and gimmicky at first, is actually enabling, liberating, and democratic. Meme-ish and valuable content propagates with lightning speed. With just a few Kevin Bacon-ish steps I can follow anyone, anywhere. I can dip in and out of feeds, see images from across the world within seconds of them having been captured, track trends and breaking news stories. I can interact with writers, actors, comedians, who wouldn’t ever have reason to follow me — and who seem to comprise most of my incoming feed — this interaction licensed by Twitter’s openness, and its avoidance of commitment to long screeds which demand long replies. Clusters of private accounts inhibit this model like bits of atrophied brain forcing synapses to rewire around them. They dead-end the flow of information.

But what about privacy? Isn’t that important? Of course. I find that pseudonymity and the ability to block buys me all the privacy I would ever want. It’s all that Usenet ever provided, for example. If others need or want more, that’s great, but it seems a shame. The walled garden they create both prevents their exit — only hand-picked followers can see their words — and others’ serendipitous entrance. A reply to a non-follower from a private account vanishes without trace, and a useful interaction is lost. Anyone deterred by the price of admission — not the least aspect of which is the possibility of having the submission rejected — to the walled garden sees nothing, and potential friendships are stillborn.

That’s the abstract argument dealt with — the argument that Twitter is just a better, more effective space when it’s made up of open accounts. For my own part, being certainly non-social, if not actually anti-social, I don’t see Twitter as (especially) a place to interact with people I already know, or to continue friendships made elsewhere. It’s a much wider world I’m interested in. Twitter is primarily a network of microblogging for me, rather than a social network, and having a private account would make as much sense as having a private blog — none at all. There’s something else, though, something more personal and visceral and idiosyncratic. It’s basically this: faced with the need to send a “request” to follow someone, or to “friend” them, or to “join” this or that closed community, I will almost always turn back, for reasons that aren’t especially easy to describe. It’s one reason why Facebook represents a minor horror, and why any Facebook-isation of Twitter feels like a bad virus in a healthy body.

A trivial reluctance arises from the simple fact that private Twitter accounts aren’t just blocked for replying — in the way that some public forums are read-only to non-members, for example — but for reading too, so it’s not possible, even with respect to an existing acquaintance, to have any confidence that a feed is interesting and relevant, until one can see it. The consequence is a process of speculative requesting, and almost certainly a great deal of subsequent unfollowing, which does strike me as rude and disrespectful of others’ time.

I also bristle somewhat at the very notion of “requesting” access (“Please let me read your tweets! Please!”). “Requesting” access to the feed of a genuine friend might be a simple hoop-jump unwanted by the friend and imposed from above by a crude system, but it still wrankles. A request made of a more distant acquaintance, or no acquaintance at all, is gnarlier. Access, in such a situation, is a privilege granted to a chosen few, and I really have no desire to ask for privileges: if someone is happy to let me read what they write, their feed should be open to me. There’s little that’s welcoming about a private account.

But my largest objection to the process, I think, concerns the fact that a request to “follow”, or for “friend”ship, or for membership, amounts to a social contract, and it’s a contract I’m very very rarely willing to make. Some years ago I was invited to join a somewhat-secret, invite-only, kink-related mailing list. I hemmed and hawed a bit, but eventually accepted the invitation and joined. Within days I’d caused a minor storm by questioning whether a particular post made by another member was appropriate for the list. The fuel for my objection wasn’t so much the post itself, but that, given the fact that one of the rules of the list was that arguments weren’t allowed (I forget the wording, but that was the gist), I had no way to argue against the post in a way that was consistent with the list rules. I felt silenced. The social contract I’d bought into with the list membership wasn’t one I was comfortable with. I stayed with the list for a year or two, never really engaged with it, and eventually left.

The analogy here works for me. Even though the social contract which comes with requesting access to a Twitter feed is only implied, it feels clear to me that it’s restrictive. How could I ask to follow someone and then potentially respond to something I disagreed with — potentially strongly — in a way that was consistent with the social contract? That implied social contract is almost certainly differently-worded in the mind of every single private account holder on Twitter. It follows that I can’t be sure of the agreed terms, and that the contract I have to follow is the one in my own head, which is unavoidably attached to the deal: if I request access, I have to play nice, and I don’t necessarily want to play nice. Friendship isn’t a situation in which one feels compelled to avoid argument; it’s a situation in which one can feel free to argue without weakening the relationship, or breaking the social contract.

Twitter, then, at its best, is social networking without a social contract. I write what I want; you read what you want, and reply how you want. You write what you want; I read what I want, and reply how I want. This is why I have a more-than-token presence on Twitter, but not on Facebook, or FetLife, or Google+. A spread of private accounts works partly to introduce a social contract that was never consistent with the structure of Twitter’s brain, and serves as a lobotomy of sorts.

Men* of an Uncertain Age

I don’t come either to praise or to bury them — not least because I count myself among their number — but to acknowledge the existence of, and characterise in a very low-rent amateur psychology sort of way, a generation of men in the kink who, due to temporary and never-to-be-repeated circumstances, are more than usually fucked up.

The men I’m talking about are those whose traditional period of sexual and emotional development — basically, puberty and adolescence – occurred before the popularisation of the Internet, but who then landed in a post-popular-Internet world in young adulthood or middle age with desires and skills that suddenly had a place and a value, but without the hardening and emotional maturity of years of relationship beginnings and endings when those would normally have occurred.

It’s probably bizarre to the point of Four-Yorkshiremen-sketch quaintness how meagre the scraps available to pre-‘net kinksters were — at least those with a measure of insecurity or introversion sufficient to keep them from the small, secret, metropolitan underground. For most, the experience was of differentness and isolation, with no particular expectation of that situation changing. At best, there might have been unfulfilling vanilla sex — society’s pressures to conform being pretty strong — and clumsy fumblings towards BDSM. At worst, vanilla sex not being interesting or fulfilling at all, the engine which powers adolescent connection never really got going, and the result was a turning inwards. In any event, the exploration and maturation of what they were really into was retarded, delayed, postponed, perhaps indefinitely. Crucially, not only were idiosyncratic BDSM desires not explored and understood, but the basic social grammar of relationship management wasn’t learned by direct experience. Crushes were distant, and hearts didn’t get used to being broken and put back together again by the next fling.

For previous generations, this situation was just how it was, and for most entailed a settling into an incomplete but safe relationship, perhaps with an illicit cherry on the side. The Internet changed all of that, offering education, kinship, and the possibility of a complete and fulfilling expression of kink. And so a generation of kinky men launched themselves into a brave new world in which their desires fit, and were valued, with raging hormones and long-held fantasies, but little in the way of relationship skills and experience. Being male and middle-aged in this world was/is no particular disadvantage, since father figures are highly sought after — ironically for the experience that many such men conspicuously lack.

All of this is old-hat and uncontroversial, but I’d like to add something that I think is a key aspect of the dynamic. Many kinky men whose sexual and emotional development was pre-Internet, but whose expression of kink is post-Internet, missed the learning curve that ought to have come with normal relationship patterns, but they also missed something else: affirmation of their desirability. And also: absent some pretty expensive therapy and self-awareness work, for many I’m not sure that lack ever goes away. The corollary is to see kink expression as an adult as a search for affirmation that one is desirable; that what one can do, or provide, is cherished and valued.

If the search for affirmation never goes away, how does it express itself? There are lots of ways, I think: men who keep a pseudo harem of partners, for example; or who flit from one bright young thing to the next; or who seek out models as trophy play partners or “interviewees”. In myself I recognise that, curiously but revealingly, I value the fact that someone might express a desire to play with me more than the play itself. The play might be fulfilling, but the expression of desire is affirming. I would rather know that someone I found desirable found me desirable in a kink setting, but we never played, than play with someone for whom the desire wasn’t there in the same way. This might seem self-evident, but it clearly isn’t universal. It’s one reason — in a mess of reasons — why I’m very unlikely to make a first move towards playing with someone: one can have greater trust in the existence of desire if asked to play, than if one’s own request is accepted.

It’s obviously true, but worth reinforcing anyway, that even if any of the above is true, it’s a small part of a complex of emotional issues that men have with kink relationships. But I do think that the pre- and post-Internet aspect of this issue for a specific generation of men is significant. Assuming there’s some validity, is it just kink-related? Probably not, but it’s what I have the greatest experience and visibility of. It seems likely that any emotional or sexual trait which led to a difficulty forming significant relationships during childhood and young adulthood — and a consequent lack of affirmation — but which difficulty was then alleviated by the popularisation of the Internet, would contribute to similar patterns of male fucked-upness.

It’s also worth reinforcing that none of the above is meant to condone being a wanker, just to discuss some of the context. In any event, it won’t be very long before time helps to work this out; pretty soon, “pre-Internet” will go the way of “WWI veteran”, or “Titanic survivor”.

* I’m only talking about men here, partly because I don’t feel qualified to do anything else (and barely even that), and partly because the situation for women is/was somewhat different. For example, a woman launching into a kink world in middle-age is faced with a very different landscape than a man of the same age.

Leaving Los Angeles

I’m leaving Los Angeles. Not tomorrow, not next week, not even later this year, but tempus doing the fugitting thing it does will mean that it seems scarily soon. At any rate, it’s something I’m working towards, and that’s a good thing in my life. It’s not hard to come to the conclusion, looking back at the last ten years, that I just haven’t really made it here – not in the Sinatra sense, but merely in terms of not having properly settled emotionally.

Maybe I never could have. I’ve already lived here longer than anywhere else except my childhood home, and all the other places that seemed like the perfect place at first grew not to be sooner or later. I’m not sure I’d call it wanderlust, exactly, but I do seem to feel a need to move around. I have a nagging fear somewhere in one of my mind’s rummage drawers that it’s not so much wanting to experience all that the world can offer, and more that nowhere really feels quite right enough to call home. The north-east of England is my home in the sense that it’s in my bones, and where the voices are the most familiar, but is it home in the sense that it might still feel like the centre of the universe? Not sure. Maybe that’s a price of a peripatetic life: home has to be something of a virtual construct – wherever you lay your MacBook.

LA is an odd city for Brits. Our images of it from a distance are all pop-culture icons and movieland, beyond which it’s a bit of a blank. Actors who decamp to LA are either swallowed up and assimilated, or return older and wiser, as if from the belly of one of Joseph Campbell’s beasts. It has a very different bauplan from the European cities of my experience and mental model. Rather than the bell-curve accretion of historical strata, LA’s purpose is to be a clean slate onto which people can write and rewrite their stories: actors, musicians, immigrants. There’s a conscious LEGO-brick impermanence about both the flat, gridded architecture and the accelerated cycle of modular renewal.

None of which is intended to mark the place out as anything less than a great city. David Rieff’s encapsulation of Los Angeles as the “Capital of the Third World” might be a backhanded compliment, but it does capture its significance, and hints at some of the city’s strengths: massive diversity of culture, food, and the arts; as well as the sense that its constant remaking allows for all contributors. It’s not a place petrified by centuries of tradition into massively vertical feudal structures.

But more and more there’s something I’m missing. Los Angeles isn’t a bad place, but I think it’s the wrong place for me. It’s a bad fit. Many of the city’s strengths are things that aren’t especially important to me (great, cheap ethnic food; cinemas everywhere; the Pacific Ocean just down the street), or are actually a problem to some degree (a climate which, while reliably bright and cheery, means I have to cover almost every inch of skin or burn to a very British lobster-pink), and some of the city’s weaknesses loom quite large. With some minor exceptions – though even these are quite compromised by that burning sun – LA just isn’t a walkable city, public transport is patchy (and cripplingly dependent on overworked buses), and there are no significant communal spaces which are not shopping malls, sporting arenas, or bits of deliberately undeveloped desert. There are no great parks, no great plazas, not even any iconic behemoth department stores. An inevitable consequence of LA’s profound cultural diversity is its cultural fragmentation: it’s closer to a dozen far-smaller cities beneath a thin administrative umbrella than it is to a single metropolis, so it misses out on the grand civic gestures that can bind city-dwellers together.

What brought me to Los Angeles was a relationship, rather than the city itself, and that was a new experience. Before that move I’d had the self-indulgent freedom to choose places to live which themselves felt right for me at the time, in addition to being where the right job was, or the right education. I might have underestimated the importance to my emotional health of living in the right place, but I think I was always a bit sceptical that Los Angeles would feel right – just reluctant to give in to the safe and familiar, and to make that more important than love. It was an adventure.

What I miss – what I’m hoping to move (back?) towards in the next couple of years – is partly the specific practical logistics and feature list I’d willingly given up, whose warm glow turns out to be more important to me than that of the LA sun: public transport, parks, communal civic spaces, and so on. It’s also a longer-term escape from feeling held hostage by the every-man-for-himself of US healthcare. And it’s also – and not insignificantly – a strong desire to spend a lot more time with my family, to whom I’ve been a pretty terrible son and brother for too many years; I’m just not good at all at maintaining relationships at a distance, and have to stay aware of that.

But I can’t avoid the fact that something I miss rather profoundly is Britishness. Not a twee half-remembered expat Britishness of faux patriotism, but the stuff that’s so much a part of who we are that we don’t even see it until it’s not there. I miss cynicism, and taking the piss, and the fact that dark and dry humour runs through everything we do. I miss public service broadcasting done right, and the shared cultural experience that comes from that. I miss wild green space that isn’t managed and manicured and doesn’t have sprinklers embedded in it. I miss that pies are meat, and bacon is back. I miss Greggs, for fuck’s sake.

A danger here – and I’m quite aware of it – is of comparing the worst of today’s realities with the best of yesterday’s memories, and there’s probably some of that mixed in, but only some. I’m aware that Britain sucks in many ways. Another danger is the re-emergence of the complicating effects of a long-distance relationship. When I moved to Los Angeles I (very willingly) took on the weight of dislocation from family and culture. Moving – in my case – back to Britain would amount to me asking A. to take on that weight, and I’m aware of the size of the request.

There is even a kink aspect here. Though my kink was forged by my cultural Britishness, I owe a huge debt to US culture – and the US scene – for bringing it out into the light and allowing it free expression. I never felt especially comfortable in the UK’s Janus-world patriarchial scene of moustache-twirling men, its shady legal position, and the rank hypocrisy of a press which sells kink stories while tut-tutting at its participants (and, for that matter, a public which buys kink stories while tut-tutting just as hypocritically). If I could take the wondrous openness and pan-sexuality of a San Francisco spanking party A. and I attended, and the hard-earned legitimacy of Shadow Lane, but mix in the iconography and tone of the British scene, I’d be very happy.

So I’m leaving Los Angeles. It won’t be an uncomplicated move, either emotionally or logistically, but it’ll be a move in the right direction, at this point in my life. Moving back to Britain, specifically, feels like an adventure to my own country, and there’s no better reason than that to have been away for some time.

Spanking, Control, and the Hypnotism Thing: Experiments in Bottoming

I came to think of myself as a theoretical switch. At Shadow Lane parties, for example, when I’ve deigned to fill in the name-badge orientation bubbles honestly – and didn’t fill them all in, or fill none in, in a petty and self-righteous attempt to deny any categorisation – it’s been “Switch” that I’ve chosen. But it always came with lots of unsaid caveats. And while I’ve pretty much always brought some configuration of school uniform with me, it’s never been used there, and I haven’t ever genuinely expected that it would be. To be clear, my failure to express this side of myself in any significant way is solely down to an inability to find a way through the thicket of insecurities and dissonances and emotional barriers that surround the side of me that sometimes wants/needs to be a spanked and disciplined boy: in short, it’s my shit. This piece is mostly about those insecurities and barriers, but it has a positive conclusion.

Some of the outer layers can be cleared away quite easily. I’m not a masochist. To the extent that kink play involves pain, it’s quite incidental for me. There’s no brain alchemy that translates impact play into arousal, say, or some other pleasing emotional state. I did play once – documented elsewhere – where the scene was more or less context-free impact play, and it was heavy enough that the endorphin after-rush from the physical effects was a happy, druggy glow, but the ratio of hurt to happy was far too high for it to be anything more in my life than an interesting learning experience. It turned out to be a endurance test with a nice little payoff, but an endurance test nonetheless. What this means in practice is that impact play on its own is an empty and frustrating experience for me. Some pain in the right context is a consistent part of the deal – though the symbolism of kink is important, kink shouldn’t be only symbolic – and it’s the context that matters.

Nor am I a role-player. This might seem inconsistent with talk of school uniforms and being a “spanked boy”; if it still seems that way by the end of this piece, it means I’ve failed to explain how my head works. In many ways I regret that role-play is so alien to me. It’s an endlessly mutable form which allows all manner of interaction. My kink often feels quite narrow, and wouldn’t be hurt if it had access to that range of expression. Nor would it be hurt by the bonds of shared experience that role-play can provide; I’m aware of the fact that my kink feels somewhat alienating even from the community of friends and acquaintances around me – rather than something that brings me closer to them. Much as I might rue the fact, it’s nevertheless true that role-play – for me – doesn’t seem like a different path, so much as the right path but in the other direction. If the goal is for kink to be resonantly personal, isn’t it missing the point to start by putting on a mask?

It might make sense to see me as an anti-role-player, because – and we’re getting rid of some more of the thicket here – the reason it seems so unhelpful to express kink by putting on masks is that I’ve lived my whole life with masks of my own, and don’t need any more. My weaknesses and vulnerabilities have always been protected – or numbed, if you like – behind a reassuringly thick carapace, which is extremely hard to lower, and which I’m not about to even try to lower except in the right place, for the right person. It’s about control, of course: control of myself, control of my emotions, and also control of what I allow of myself to be seen by others. Almost nothing coming in doesn’t get dampened and intellectualised until there’s nothing raw left. And almost nothing going out doesn’t get checked and checked again to make sure that it’s really what I want to say, or to show. These are neither healthy nor helpful, of course, but I try to see them as features rather than bugs, both because they’re entirely instinctive, and because they’re not going away. Nor do I honestly want them to go away; they’re as much a part of me as my big nose. What I look to kink to provide is a venue, and a tool-box, to lower the carapace now and again, in a controlled way. This is true when I’m topping – if a top doesn’t make themselves emotionally vulnerable when they play, they’re not doing it right – but it’s especially true of my bottoming desires and fantasies. I see kink as both a way to help reveal the vulnerabilities and insecurities and weaknesses, and then to look after them – honour them, even. Ah, but, one might argue, role-play is another way of doing exactly that! Yes, absolutely. Just not for me.

There are, of course, fears and insecurities about the whole process, some more significant than others. It’s hard not to be aware of the fact that I’m a six-foot, 280-pound, middle-aged man. I don’t, therefore, make an especially convincing schoolboy, even if the accessories are authentic. Nor is a fantasy of being spanked while draped across a disciplinarian’s lap – feet dangling helplessly – necessarily likely to be practical. It’s worth saying a little here about the value of fantasy itself. Chambers provides a definition – “something longed-for but unlikely to happen” – that neatly captures that there are two aspects: that we long for something; but that it’s unlikely to happen. The mistake we too often make in kink is to feel that the goal is to pull the “unlikely to happen” towards the “longed-for”, such that it then becomes realisable, missing that a key purpose of fantasy is to capture the unrealisable and give it a virtual existence in our imaginations. We talk pejoratively about “living in a fantasy world”. If that’s all there is to life, then of course the balance is wrong, but it’s equally lacking in balance to feel that the way to approach fantasy is always with the goal of making it “real”. Perhaps we can make it real – perhaps it’s about the “longed-for”, rather than the “unlikely to happen”. But a crucial reason why something might be unlikely to happen is that it’s literally fantastic: unrealistic, incredible, impossible to realise. We then diminish fantasy by deeming it unfulfilled or incomplete. The trick, I think, is just to recognise the separateness and to value both. I can hold in my head the perfect image of the perfect disciplinarian in the perfect warm cosy study, holding perfectly-manageable me across her lap in my perfect school uniform, spanking me to a Goldilocks just right-ness. I can also muddle through with the real 280-pound me, and the uniform that kinda sorta works, and my awkwardness with impact play, and that can be fine. But I want to hold onto the idea that the latter might not work, and regard the fantasy as undiminished because of that.

A further insecurity concerns a fear of selfishness. I’ve always tried to live my life as self-sufficiently as I can, meeting my own needs as much as possible, and avoiding any imposition on others. I actively dislike being fussed over or served, and I’m generally very uncomfortable being the centre of attention. It’s perhaps a sign of inexperience in the process – as well as the obvious insecurity – but the act of bottoming feels a very selfish one for me to tend towards, and I struggle with that. Submissive men in the scene are often quite blindly selfish and needy. I don’t honestly think that I could behave that way; my actual concern is perhaps that an acute conscious awareness of not wanting to go there might result in an additional perverse reluctance to open up.

But the greatest fear I have with respect to bottoming – both in the sense that it’s the most looming, and the least to do with irrational insecurity – is that I might not be able to feel enough; that all of the instinctive barriers protecting my vulnerabilities might remain in place, and that the process might therefore just fail to get anywhere. Worse than that, I worry about something that I think of as “the hypnotism thing”. Conventional wisdom is that the apparent ability of stage hypnotists to compel their (un)willing subjects to perform bizarre, out-of-character acts is mostly explained by social pressure: they comply because the situation seems to require them to – it would be more awkward not to do what they’re told – and not because they’re under any particular control. The analogue for me would be finding myself in the middle of a scene that was plainly failing to resonate, and going through the motions mechanically. The source of difficulty wouldn’t be an inability to stop things – discomfort caused by lack of a safeword, for example – so much as a vivid emptiness, a sense of sucking at something I would quite like not to suck at. It would hammer home how inaccessible the relevant emotions can be.

Even with my limited experience, I do know that there are some things that help me to lower my defences. Perhaps obviously, perhaps paradoxically (I can’t decide which), being tired creates a mood of openness; not so much tiredness at the end of a long day, as the calm exhaustion that comes from having experienced a period of considerable stress and endured it. Being around the right person clearly is significant, but short of encountering my old French teacher – who seemed to know exactly what was in my head, whom I adored, and the only teacher who ever gave me a detention – in an extremely surprising context, that’s not something I have much direct control of.

Notwithstanding what I’ve said about role-play, the physical trappings of kink are also greatly helpful to me. They might not always be sufficient for resonant play, but they’re necessary. A couple of months ago, after a day of quiet work at home, I went with a urge to try on a pair of (very short) grey school short trousers that I’d nabbed from eBay a couple of months before that, but not yet properly worn – and which still had tags on. They turned out to be a little snug here and there, but no more than that, so I picked out some more pieces – white shirt, grey knee socks, sensible black shoes, brand new schoolboyish M&S white underpants, real school tie, and took ten minutes to see how it all looked and felt. The answer was: good. I tweeted as much, then took everything off and put it away before I was no longer alone in the apartment.

Flash forward a few weeks, and the morning found me putting on the same uniform, although with a little more care this time, for what turned out to be a largely unplanned day of structure and gentle discipline with A. I won’t simply repeat her account here, but I would like to take a couple of points and expand on them.

In her piece, A. talks about the significance of clothing for a scene – dressing the part. That’s just as true for me, but – I’ve come to realise – not for the reasons that one might necessarily assume. If I put on a school uniform, I’m not adopting a different persona or age: despite the obvious associations of the uniform, it’s neither role-play nor age-play. It’s me, wearing a school uniform. Where, then, is the significance? Setting aside the object fetish – the power of which I’m not going to deny, but which isn’t quite the point here – the significance of wearing a uniform, of having to wear a uniform, is in the control of the body. The carapace that I carry around with me day-to-day includes control of my immediate physical space, and how I present myself to the world: notably, what I wear, since that constitutes a big part of what people see. Desire for that control is sufficiently strong that being required to wear something else punches quite a big hole in my psychological defences. The effect is only compounded when what it is that I’m being required to wear is both so radically different from what I choose to wear outside of kink – as anyone who knows me will be very conscious of – and such a clear signifier of someone subject to discipline. My ability to control how I appear to the world is deftly cut off at the knees, because I look – six-foot, 280-pound, 42-year-old Paul Bailey – like a schoolboy. Every movement I make is also a reminder to myself that I’m not in control of my physicality: the stiff collar around my neck; the glaring incongruity of the formality of the school shorts and their embarrassing shortness; the need to keep my knee socks pulled up; all that scratchy polyester. School uniforms might well have been designed for the specific purpose of drawing attention to themselves, both for their wearer and the people around them. This is as powerful an act of submission as I’ve yet encountered for myself.

Uniform Day

Surrender/taking of control over my body is also the key to the significance for me of over-the-knee spanking, because it’s the position which enables genuine letting go of physical control. If I were required to bend for a caning, contrariwise, I’d be using the control I still retained in order to comply. Even lying across a bed, or pillows, control is retained, even if it isn’t used. But to completely rest one’s body across the lap of a spanker, feet lifted from the floor, hands perhaps managing to stretch at most for a chair-leg, is to transfer all the control that one has. Obedience and submission are not necessarily the same thing. When A. put me across her knee for a spanking, I tentatively rested all of my weight on her lap, then lifted my school shoes off the floor. She held me.

It wasn’t the perfect moment of fantasy, but it was good. I’ll happily keep the fantasy intact, and experiment with what’s possible for the very imperfect me.

The Problem with

[Note added April 12, 2011. I’m afraid I did speak too soon. It now looks like the temporary equality of M/M content on was a transitional thing to do with updating their software. Not only is M/M content now hidden from the site’s home page once more, their FAQ now describes their approach to such content: “Male / Male Videos are allowed but are only available if you go under the Channels section and choose a M/M category.” This is unequivocally a discriminatory policy, and not some bug or software artifact. I leave my speculations in the piece below about why they’ve chosen to do this, but it’s clear that discriminates by sexual orientation for its own purposes.

Note that recent minor changes to the site, referred to in my last note, mean that the original post doesn’t quite accurately represent the search terminology the site now uses – “categories” are now “channels”, for example. But the crucial facts remain true: M/M content is ghettoised away, and misleadingly omitted from searches which produce results for the site’s home page.]

[Note added March 26, 2011. I’m leaving this post up for a week or two, until it’s clearer how things pan out, but recent changes to look like they’ve fixed whatever exceptional treatment of M/M content was happening. If this continues, I’ll be very happy to take the post down, and infer that the previous oddness was incidental, and not policy.]

A quick preamble. A good amount of M/M spanking porn hits my kink quite well – especially domestic and school scenarios, with lots of ritual and the right sorts of iconography. That it’s M/M, rather than F/M, is mostly irrelevant, or at least made less relevant by the presence of the right elements for the me that would be the /M. I don’t often seek out M/M stuff, but it’s a very nice bonus when I see something with the right tone. Full stop. New paragraph. is more or less exactly what you would expect, given the name, which deliberately echoes It’s a free service which allows anyone to upload spanking videos and to make them available to a worldwide audience. The business model seems to be based on using the free content to generate an audience which can then be encouraged to click through to other services: either paid advertisers, paid hosting for users looking to sell clips, or more overtly commercial sites run by the same parent company, HarbeJoe Marketing LLC. Since is the second Google hit for “spanking videos” (as of a few minutes ago), the site’s range and potential are significant: many of the over-3500 videos it carries have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times; the site itself has over 42000 registered users, and presumably many more unregistered ones. As was the case with, the site has relatively quickly become an extremely popular way to share and publicise content. All of which is fair enough. End of preamble.

Over a period of months, I started to notice something slightly odd when browsing through’s recent uploads. From time to time, content would appear in the “Related Videos” section, displayed along with each video, that I hadn’t seen elsewhere – and this unseen related content seemed typically to be M/M. I didn’t think much of it, but eventually my programmer brain started to dig around a bit deeper to figure out what was going on – and not just because I was worried there was some nice M/M content I was missing out on. In a nutshell, what I found is that videos at categorised as either “Male/Male Spanking” or “Male/Male Bondage” are absent from the results of most – not all, but most – content searches that the site allows.

There are basically three ways of finding content on the site:

  1. By choosing a category. Clicking on the main “Categories” tab lists all of the categories used to organise content: “BDSM”, “Bondage”, “Caning”, “Femdom”, etc. “Male/Male Bondage” and “Male/Male Spanking” are two of the available categories. Clicking on each category lists the videos marked as such. This works fine for M/M content, which appears both under the relevant M/M categories (when marked as such), and also under any other categories used to mark the same content – a video categorized as both “Spanking” and “Male/Male Spanking” appears under both categories, for example.
  2. By searching for keywords. This is a conventional search for keywords both in user-generated video descriptions, and user-generated keyword “tags” applied to videos. Comparison between how videos are tagged – orthogonal to the system of categories – is also the basis for the generation of “Related Videos” shown alongside each video. M/M content appears as expected in the results of keyword searches and in lists of “Related Videos”.
  3. By sorting content according to a variety of criteria: “All”, “Most Recent”, “Most Viewed”, “Most Discussed”, “Top Favorites”, “Top Rated”, etc. Here, things don’t work as expected. All but one of the sorting criteria omit completely any videos categorised as either “Male/Male Spanking” or “Male/Male Bondage”. They just don’t appear. This can be seen most clearly by making use of the fact that the sorting can be filtered to show only videos in a specific category. A search for “Most Recent” “Male/Male Spanking”, for example, returns no videos at all. Of the sorting criteria, only “Most Viewed” includes any content categorized as “Male/Male”.

Of the mechanisms for finding content on, those described in #3 are the most important – as, therefore, are any quirks or glitches in their implementation – for two reasons. Firstly, they are the mechanisms presented most prominently on the site, and therefore – I am assuming – are the mechanisms most commonly used to search for content. Certainly they represent the great majority of the search options available on any page, and occupy the great majority of the screen real estate. Secondly, such criteria are the basis for the automatic generation of the videos displayed on the home page at any time: “Videos Being Watched”; “New Videos”. (“Editors Picks” [sic], the other section of videos on the home page, which presumably is not generated automatically, hasn’t yet featured any M/M content.)

There are several key practical consequences of all of this. One is that it is extremely unlikely for any content categorised as M/M to be shown on the home page of the site, even if it should notionally qualify. “Most Recent” videos don’t include any M/M content, even if it is the most recent. “Most Viewed” videos do include M/M content, but since M/M videos get significantly fewer hits than other orientations (the most-viewed M/M video is currently on the 30th page of results, way beyond where most people would have stopped looking), they are de facto invisible. It might well be the case that the audience for M/M content is smaller, but when the site makes it much harder to find M/M content, it’s not a level playing field.

A related consequence is that, unless someone is explicitly looking for M/M content, and knows which searches work and which don’t, they’re unlikely to see it. Notably, a casual user of the site might never be shown M/M videos. The site searches which aren’t based on video content, which cut across all orientations, and which therefore would be expected to treat all content and all orientations equally – “All”, “Most Recent”, “Most Viewed”, “Most Discussed”, “Top Favorites”, “Top Rated” – actually treat M/M content as a special case, and omit it entirely.

So. Is how treats M/M content deliberate policy, or just the result of some bug/s? I sent the following e-mail to them on November 15 this year, via the site’s own contact form:


I’ve recently noticed that there are some issues with your search functions. Specifically, almost all of the search functions you provide fail to include videos tagged as “Male/Male Bondage” or “Male/Male Spanking”. Even a search for “Most Recent” “Male/Male Bondage” or “Male/Male Spanking” returns nothing, despite there being plenty of those videos in your system.

Going through your “Categories” section, and choosing the M/M categories, does return the videos, and M/M videos do appear in the “Related Videos” section sometimes. But the main searches of the site seem to leave out anything tagged as M/M. For example, the “New Videos” section of your homepage doesn’t include anything tagged as M/M, even if there’s something tagged M/M that’s very recent, and should be there.

Can I ask if this is just a bug in your search code, or if it’s something you’ve set up to work that way?

Thanks in advance.


I hadn’t received a reply by December 17, so I sent the same e-mail to the site’s webmaster address (which is advertised as the address to use for the “Custodian of Records”). I still haven’t had a reply to either e-mail, nor has the site’s behaviour changed since then. At best, the site’s owners are oblivious to or disinterested in a glitch in their site which discriminates against M/M content. At worst, the discrimination is deliberate policy.

Without a reply from them, I can’t be sure which it is, but there’s some circumstantial evidence suggesting it might be deliberate – other than the lack of response from them to my e-mails, and the continued behaviour of the site. Every page on the site contains a sidebar which lists various links to other sites, typically commercial, and typically set up with an affiliate code, so that gets a small cut of subsequent sign-ups. The links are categorised in various ways: “Favorite Links”, “Mega Sites”, “Great Spankings”, “Institutional”, “Individual Model”, “FemDom”, “Video Only”, “Sex and Spanking”, “Bondage”, “Device Bondage”, and “Webmaster Programs”. None of the links in any of these categories are to M/M sites, despite the fact that most link categories are not gender-specific. The site does in fact carry some sidebar links to M/M sites, categorised as “Male/Male Spanking” and “Transexual, Bi & Gay Bondage”, but these appear on only two pages on the whole site: the main category listings for “Male/Male Spanking” and “Male/Male Bondage”. This suggests a clear intention to treat M/M content as a special case, which would be consistent with a deliberate omission of M/M content from most prominent searches.

Why would a policy like this make sense to’s owners? Given that the affiliate links to the M/M sites make money for’s owners in exactly the same way as all other affiliate links, why only display them on the M/M-specific pages, when all other links are displayed throughout the site, including the M/M-specific pages? Perhaps the thought is that the presence of M/M links would somehow deter what the site believes to be its core (straight male?) audience, such that the net effect of showing M/M links prominently throughout the site – and especially on the home page – would be negative. This being the case, the proposed effect would presumably apply all the more to the prominent display of M/M content.

I’d like to be clear why I think this is important, and why it bothers me. There’s an attitude disturbingly prevalent in the spanking scene that M/M is something very different from any other orientation. It’s not hard, for example, to find parties that explicitly exclude only M/M play. Various rationales are given, some of which plainly misunderstand that M/M play/content is more than merely fine with most non-gay-men, it’s interesting and hot; and some others of which are just expressions of soft homophobia. In the case of party organisers and content producers, one might seek to enlighten their attitudes a little, but in the end it’s their ball, and they can take it home if they want. is a little different. The site’s modus operandi might be commercial, but it relies on a symbiotic relationship with content producers – both professional and amateur. It presents itself as a free way for anyone to upload their content and get it out to the world – much like before it. That the content is used to leverage advertising revenue is a fair and reasonable part of the deal, and the site’s users can see that’s how it works. What’s not clearly part of the deal, is that if the user happens to upload M/M content, they should expect that it’s misleadingly hidden from searches, and ghettoised away from the view of anyone who might not be part of its narrow, assumed audience, for fear of scaring away Mister and Missus Average. That’s a basic mistake about who might be interested in the content. But far more importantly, it’s a way of deceptively discriminating against a single orientation based on a crude commercial judgement. That a site as prominent and widely-used as can – at best – allow this to happen, or – at worst – cause it to happen, is a real concern.

If I was someone who used to share content, given the above I’d be seriously reconsidering, until and unless the problem – whether software bug or shortsighted policy – was fixed.

[For more on this issue, see posts by Mija and Indy.]

Never Let Me Go On and On

[Many spoilers ahead, so caveat lector.]

Among many other factors – financial, emotional, psychological – the theoretical factor that drove my work towards a PhD (in automatic story generation) off that Thelma and Louise cliff was the growing realisation not just that meta-level processing by readers/viewers of a story is, if anything, a greater part of the entire mechanism than non-meta-level processing, but also that there was no way I could even approach an accounting of that in my model that I would be happy with, given the constraints of time, money, and sanity. Meta-level story-processing is everywhere you look, and the deeper you look the deeper it gets. We learn about stories primarily not from the real world, but from other stories, and to account for how humans process fictional narratives without that reflexive aspect isn’t just limited; it misses the point completely.

To clarify, what I mean by “meta-level processing” of stories is the fact (I would claim) that the relevant and significant knowledge we bring to the table when we consume a story, which creates and determines our expectations of how the narrative will proceed – the assumptions we make and the questions those assumptions raise for us as a consequence – comes at least as much from our experience of other stories as it does from our day-to-day life. Such processing is every bit as culturally-determined as our day-to-day lives, of course, because different kinds of stories proliferate in different specific cultures – and are part of defining what that culture is. There are further aspects of our meta-level processing specific to individual fiction genres: the expected structure of a revenge western is not the same as the expected structure of a whodunnit. Sub-genres refine the expectations even further: Hercule Poirot (or Miss Marple) gradually deduces the identity of the murderer, and typically gets there before we do – otherwise the final gathering and enumeration of motives and alibis would be redundant; Columbo, on the other hand, figures out what’s going on right at the start, not long after we’ve been shown the murder, and what’s left is the cat-and-mouse. The point here isn’t that there are different structures; it’s that these are structures we expect, and that those expectations are part of the whole process. We also, of course, have a unique individual contribution to the process – the narrative analogue of an idiolect.

Yet more levels of meta-processing are attached to the medium in which a story is told. I’m particularly interested in film narrative, which has evolved a highly-stylised and tightly-parsimonious form, characterised by the density of its structure and the neatness of its packaging. These aren’t in themselves markers of an interesting narrative, but since the constraints of modern film push narrative structure to the limit, film is a good place to look at how it all works. Perhaps because of an awareness of its limitations of space, film narrative is sometimes wilfully greedy in its co-opting of other narratives for deliberate effect. This has become a staple for film comedy, for example. Airplane, which initiated a massively-referential style, doesn’t just look back to a fertile sub-genre of disaster film; it takes actual specific character names, plot devices, and even complete lines of dialogue from an earlier film, Zero Hour!. Homage to this degree isn’t crucial to priming the viewer’s meta-level processing, but it reveals the extent to which modern film is often a kind of narrative mille-feuille.

The massively-layered meta-processing of modern film extends upwards to the casting process. Witness the fuss made over the fact that Steven Seagal – at the time an action-movie top banana – was killed off halfway through Executive Decision. Just as often, casting distorts or pre-empts the narrative in ways that the filmmakers didn’t see – or didn’t think significant. In the otherwise sure-footed film of Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone, Morgan Freeman plays a police chief whose significance to the narrative seems, for much of the film, to belie the actor’s stature. But right on cue, there’s a late twist which reveals him to be the centre of a villainous plot. Film critic James Rocchi calls this the Suspiciously Good Actor Effect. The effect is familiar – although not with regard to casting – from Scooby Doo, in which a meta-level expectation quickly develops that it’ll be the janitor at the disused funfair scaring everyone away by pretending to be a ghost, for some nefarious purpose. In the case of Scooby Doo the expectation partly derives from the paucity of possible suspects – it literally could hardly be anyone else. I’d like to add my own meta-rule:

The bigger the star, the closer their big scene is to the end of the film.

This rule isn’t always followed, of course, but it’s typically our expectation, so we notice – even if not consciously – where it’s not and are genuinely surprised when it’s explicitly not followed (cf. Seagal and Executive Decision). A meta-level flaw in the structure of the film of The Silence of the Lambs is that Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lector so dominates those scenes of the film that he’s in that we genuinely expect him to reappear as part of the conclusion – which he does not, except in the epilogue, to deliver an ill-advised punchline. This expectation is motivated by nothing within the film’s narrative; it comes only from the meta-level expectations we’ve learned about film as a narrative medium.

A curious and paradoxical effect can occur when we sometimes fail to distinguish between those narrative expectations we have based on our knowledge of how the real world works, and meta-level narrative expectations based on the stories we’ve seen so often they’ve become internalised. We react with an irrational impatience or disbelief when a character seems to be unaware of what sort of story they’re in, and what its rules are. The teenage girl creeping up to the dark house seems oblivious to the fact that she’s in a slasher flick. She later turns away from the prone body of her vanquished assailant, apparently unaware that he’s obviously not quite dead yet, despite the fact that they never are.

A more concrete example. Tony Gilroy’s estimable Michael Clayton turns on an entrapment scene in which our hero wears a wire while drawing his corporate enemy – by now way out of her depth – into revealing all. Gilroy stages the scene perfectly: it’s Clayton’s last throw, and he’s fully aware of the risk and the low likelihood of success; Karen Crowder, his nemesis, is close to a breakdown, and not thinking clearly. Despite the fact that the motivation for the scene – and its outcome – is sound, it nevertheless drew criticism for being implausible. Such criticism – that Crowder would never fall for such an old trick – is instructively muddled. On a superficial level it assumes merely that the viewer doesn’t buy Gilroy’s careful exposition of the characters’ motivations. But the crucial muddling is between the viewer’s real-world and meta-level expectations. The entrapment scene isn’t intrinsically implausible; nor is it implausible within the world of characters and events that Gilroy has constructed. It’s only implausible if the viewer expects not only that the characters are familiar with the – somewhat clichéd – narrative device of entrapment by someone wearing a wire, but also that the characters are aware that they’re in that sort of narrative. It’s a droll, comedic observation that fictional characters don’t inhabit worlds in which they themselves exist as fictional characters – James Bond isn’t aware of the James Bond character, for example – but that’s not quite the point here. For the scene to be implausible, it wouldn’t be enough for Crowder to be aware of the entrapment cliché in (her world’s) fiction; she’d have to be aware of that cliché and believe herself to be in a work of (her world’s) fiction. In our real lives we don’t (usually!) bring our meta-level expectations about fictional narratives with us as we assess what’s likely to happen. Yet there is, at least for some viewers, a dissatisfaction which manifests itself in claims of implausibility when fictional characters fail to do exactly that.

An unfortunate conclusion might be drawn here. It is entirely possible that narrative devices can be so overused that they more or less permanently breach the line between how we perceive stories and how we perceive the real world. Such devices are then rendered practically unusable in stories, not because of any actual real-world implausibility, but because we can no longer suspend our disbelief that the characters aren’t aware of them. At that point we fail to distinguish between the real world and the story world.

Most of the above is scene-setting for a discussion of a remarkable aspect of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go – and its recent film adaptation, written by Alex Garland. The response to both novel and film by their readers/viewers – as even a casual glance through feedback at Amazon and the IMDb shows – pivots to a large degree on a single question: and not so much how the question is answered, as whether the question is asked at all. Ishiguro’s story of cloned children raised to provide spare parts for “normal” humans is, on a superficial level, a familiar one. A recent comparison is with the sound and fury of Michael Bay’s film The Island; an older comparison – not involving cloning, but with a congruent dark secret – is the 1976 film Logan’s Run (somewhat modified from an earlier novel). Both The Island and Logan’s Run involve a BIG REVEAL of the fact that life isn’t what it has hitherto seemed; a protracted chase sequence, at the end of which the protagonists manage to escape their pre-arranged fate; and a conclusion in which the facade is smashed, and tyranny is destroyed.

Never Let Me Go has radically different intentions. Ishiguro’s goal is to set up a world in which clones reared as organ donors know, and accept, their fate – more or less – and then to explore the nature of such a life, and such a death. He very conspicuously is uninterested in being distracted from his task by either the lure of the dizzying plot twist, or getting stuck in fastidiously accounting for the mechanics by which the clone world is managed and secured. Exposition is gradual and open to the reader, much as it appears to be to the clones themselves as growing children. There are no great secrets. By barely even touching upon methods of enforcement of the system of clone rearing and organ “donation”, Ishiguro permits himself the freedom to take them for granted, and to focus on the emotional and interpersonal, rather than the mechanical and schematic. He also, paradoxically, perhaps implies to the reader something even more terrible than we could ever be actually shown: a reason that we’re not shown a system of enforcement might be that it is so complete, so draconian, so assumed, that escape is never even considered. (Garland’s screenplay actually breaks this silence by showing – albeit gently, and in passing – the older clones wearing electronic tags by which they log their movements. This very mention of the idea of a security system raises the issue, and might be seen as a distraction from the purity of Ishiguro’s focus. It is perhaps a more knowing, pre-emptive nod to the requirements of the medium of film.)

Notwithstanding Ishiguro’s clear design and interests, and that which he takes to be axiomatic, many readers/viewers seem compelled to ask: Why don’t they run?

That is, why don’t the clones of Never Let Me Go do everything they can to escape their fate – like the protagonists of The Island and Logan’s Run? This is the question which appears to comprehensively divide readers/viewers of the story: whether the question is even asked, and whether a satisfactory answer is found.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the question at face value. Why don’t the clones run? They’re perfectly aware of a world outside of their own, and would seem to be indistinguishable from non-clones; blending in is at least an option worth considering. The facile answer – but also in a real sense the correct answer – is that the clones don’t run because Ishiguro doesn’t want them to. They’re his characters, and he’s just not interested in that sort of story. As readers/viewers, that might be enough for us. We might also ask whether Ishiguro has created a world in which the clones not running is plausible. Although he’s not interested in spending much time constructing systems and mechanisms of enforcement, he does hint here and there at how it’s achieved. At Hailsham, the school – somewhat isolated, we’re led to understand – where the clones spend their formative years, rumours of vague but violent things happening to those who stray out of bounds circulate among the students. Later, once the clones have been granted a measure of autonomy of movement, Ishiguro shows how their extreme social ignorance and clumsiness serve to reinforce their awareness of separation and differentness. It’s clear to them that they don’t belong, and quite likely couldn’t pass. It’s notable that the enforcement mechanisms Ishiguro does refer to are non-technological. To the extent that Never Let Me Go is science fiction (and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t), it’s science fiction which doesn’t much care about technology; the system of electronic tagging is Garland’s addition for the film adaptation – or at least credited to him.

It should not be overlooked that the protagonists of Never Let Me Go do in fact attempt to break free from their situation. Following a series of rumours, which seem to be passed down as a kind of false folk-memory among the clones, they seek out those in charge of their school – long-since closed – to apply for a “deferral” in their schedule of organ donations, which they have been led to believe is available to clones who can prove that they are truly in love. This attempt, of course, pathetically naive and misguided as it is, and conducted within the system they belong to, rather than to escape from that system, merely reinforces that the clones cannot genuinely conceive of any other possible life for themselves. The failure of the application for a deferral – because no such contingency has ever existed – essentially constitutes the end of the narrative, and the end of their lives.

Given, then, that Ishiguro’s intentions and interests are clear, and that he describes a coherent but alternate reality in which clones are raised in such a way that thoughts of true escape simply do not occur to them – and, crucially, the first-person narrator is herself one of the clones, so we’re not required to infer how they think – why is the question of why the clones don’t run nevertheless so significant for so many readers/viewers? It’s even an issue for some top-of-the-range critics, such as Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian:

Michael Bay’s The Island, however ridiculous, did feature people who raged against the truth when it was revealed to them, and tried to escape. This never seems to occur to Ruth or Kathy or Tommy[…]

Faced with the undeniable fact that it genuinely doesn’t occur to the characters, the reader/viewer can react in one of two ways: they can accept Ishiguro’s axiomatic “what if”, and proceed from there to the internally-logical conclusion that he draws; or, they can simply refuse to accept the axiom, and consequently refuse to accept the conclusion. It will come as no surprise when I claim that different meta-processing of the story (and of stories generally) is the key here; specifically, whether the reader/viewer’s meta-processing allows acceptance of a fictional world – no matter how well imagined, no matter how sound the internal motivation – in which clones created as organ donors are aware of this situation and do not attempt to escape it.

I’m going to suggest two aspects of a reader/viewer’s meta-processing that might be significant here – with no claim that other aspects might not also play a part. The first aspect is the extent to which the first act of Never Let Me Go causes the retrieval for the reader/viewer of other, (superficially-) similar stories, which process then creates the expectation that this is that sort of story. This might well begin even before the story itself is processed, of course, as the reader/viewer reads reviews and sees promotional material. Besides The Island and Logan’s Run, there are many other examples in popular film alone of a protagonist discovering – or being shown – that they have been living in a deceptive or illusionary world, and then seeking escape: The Truman Show, John Carpenter’s They Live, Total Recall, The Matrix. Particularly if Never Let Me Go is approached as science fiction – and the central premise of cloning makes this likely – the stories most liable to be retrieved as part of the meta-processing which involves predicting how this story will pan out are those in which a protagonist does in fact triumph against the powers of deception and illusion. To be sure, there are those readers/viewers for whom the discovery that this isn’t one of those stories is itself a pleasurable experience – confounding the conventions of genre cliché has its own merits. But for many, perhaps most, that same discovery has the bitter flavour of betrayal.

A second aspect of meta-processing relevant here is the extent to which the reader/viewer seeks/wishes to identify with the protagonists. Such identification transforms questions and expectations about what the protagonists will/should do, into idiosyncratic assessments of what the reader/viewer would do in their place – or, at the very least, emotionally-invested hopes that the protagonists behave in this way, or make that choice. With regard to the latter, it would be a strange reader indeed who hoped that the protagonists would die on the operating table after donating one organ too many. But more or less any identification with fictional characters is based on a muddling of real-world and story-world expectations, and a simple refusal to take seriously the author’s intentions. In the case of Never Let Me Go, it is likely to make the story more or less unacceptable.

It might further be argued that the plain, unremitting sadness of Never Let Me Go – its theme of the failure to escape – makes the story unacceptable to many, for whom the purpose of fiction is itself escapism. This would be too simplistic, I think. The story is certainly tragedy, but so is James Cameron’s Titanic, and a more dreamily romantic story than that could scarcely be found. The essence of the tragedy in Never Let Me Go is that the protagonists (by design) lack the resources to even think about running. Jack might drown as the ship sinks, but he tries, and he dies saving Rose.

A better comparison might be with the knowing advance of First World War infantrymen to their deaths – the whole exercise suffused with the rigidity of class and status that marks Ishiguro’s work. Dignity and nobility in the face of madness are qualities Ishiguro’s clones do possess, and it could hardly be argued that the clones do not likewise go willingly to their deaths in the service of others. Why, then, is a story of First World War heroism acceptable, in a way that Never Let Me Go might not be to many readers? The difference, of course, is the inevitability of a historical account, which anchors the tragedy, and resists the creation of competing expectations. If it were a story of tragic history, Never Let Me Go would play quite differently. As fiction, it remains vulnerable to the many and varied expectations, needs and desires we bring to it, so it’s a different story for each of us.