When BDSM Mirrors Misogyny
by Alta Viscomi
Aaron and Annemarie are young, beautiful, punk and very much in love. It's a love their extended social circles are frequently reminded of, for rarely a day passes without a social media post celebrating it. I recently awoke to a picture of them on Aaron’s Instagram of Annemarie sprawled on their bed with her thumb in her mouth, looking softly at the camera. Caption: “ Annemarie got a raise and makes more money than me, and I couldn't be more proud or in love. Now what cuties are gonna give her kisses to celebrate with me?” Seventy-four likes as of 7:15 a.m.
Aaron’s question isn't rhetorical. Aaron and Annemarie are polyamorous and have been for the entirety of their two-year relationship. As in any healthy polyamorous relationship, the exact parameters of their openness are subject to endless discussion and revision. When I met them, they were allowed to make out with random people (with a preference that these people be from outside Burlington, their hometown) and go further provided they discussed the possibility beforehand. Aaron has capitalized on this stipulation more often, primarily because his punk band has completed multiple tours of Eastern Europe. But they really don’t have a lot of separate interactions, Annemarie explained to me on our first date (sans Aaron). Since their engagement this spring, they mostly date as a couple. When I remember the moment she told me this, I imagine myself taking a gulp of coffee and looking directly into an imagined camera, making the foreboding uh oh, where is this going face.
For my part, I wanted to pretend that Aaron didn't exist. On our date, Annemarie wore a rose covered sundress that showed off her tattoo sleeves, and I laughed at her stories about the preschool she worked at and her early punk show days. However, the reality of Aaron became difficult to deny by our second date, when they invited me over to their new apartment. I had to admit that Aaron was cute, even for a dude, and he had endless enthusiasm that reminded me a of camp counselor I had a crush on at circus camp. By the time I was regularly invited into their sex life, I had accepted his place in the relationship.
The first time I met Annemarie, she glowed every time Aaron came up, which, because they're engaged and live together, is often. The (admittedly sweet and romantic) pictures of the two of them now populating my Instagram feed, often featuring Annemarie’s naked ass, include captions like #withpermission. Aaron and Annemarie have an established sexual dynamic in which Aaron is the dom and Annemarie is the sub. These terms are generally used within the BDSM community to designate the dominant and submissive roles in sex or in everyday interpersonal interactions. They’ve experimented outside of these roles, but over their two-year relationship they've comfortably and intentionally settled into dom-sub, a dynamic I was invited into for the majority of my summer at home. Despite their obvious love and evolved approach to consent, pre-discussion and aftercare, I (shakily and abruptly) cut off contact with the two of them after seven weeks. There was something about our dynamic that put me on edge.
“Would you say you're more of a dom or a flip?”they ask me about a week in, as we're sitting on the floor of their tiny kitchen, playing with their new kitten. Before I can answer, Aaron says “You start to get squirmy whenever we turn the attention on you, so I think you're more of a dom.” Annemarie nods her pointy chin, turning her attention back to something vegan and garlicky she’s stirring in a pan on the gas stove. Aaron begins popping my toes and fingers, a small ritual for us. “From what I'm seeing so far, yeah, more of a dom,” I answer, and see them exchange looks. Aaron and I have developed this dynamic of “co-domming” Annemarie. It feels like an apprenticeship, the kind that would exist in Northern Europe. During our sessions, he coaches subtly, keeping his voice passive but always engaging me. I try to appear unaffected, stone-faced and cool with every suggestion. I carefully do my makeup and pin back my hair before. Despite Aaron's mentor role, I feel no more initiated as the sessions continue. Sometimes I feel an eerie sense of floating outside my body, passively watching the situation from above.
We tried out a lot of scenarios during our seven weeks together. My favorite, though it was technically just a warm up, was “Annemarie is a human doll with a great lingerie wardrobe.” Aaron and I would lie on their bed and make Annemarie cycle through 20 options of what lingerie she would wear that night. She wasn’t allowed to voice any opinion in her outfit, and she had to wear it, posing in whatever positions we specified until we wanted to do something else, although she would occasionally blurt out, “This corset is vintage, be careful.”
I got a few rope lessons too. Aaron and I would perch over Annemarie, Boy Scout and scout master, as I learned my knots. It reminded me of a brief flirtation at the CC climbing gym freshman year. “Here, you have to make sure you can fit two fingers between the rope and her neck, and if you tie it around the bedpost like this, you can pull it free with one tug.”
I didn’t mind the ropes, until we used her neck. Once, I almost jumped out of my skin when Annemarie let out a kitten-like whimper as the rope tightened too quickly around her neck. Aaron loosened it another inch, stroked her collarbone and assured her she was safe.
The night I cut off contact had been followed by a day of “foreplay texting” between Aaron and I, under the pretense that he would tie Annemarie up after she got home from work and leave her in the bedroom for me. “Which underwear do you want her wearing?” He asked, texting me pictures of my options. That text, and the implications of what would be happening later, drove me over the edge. I reduced contact, then ended the sessions.
Now, a little context. Not all couples or groups engaging in kink/BDSM assign roles of sub and dom, and for those who do, there are always varying degrees of intensity and flexibility. Unlike “live-in slaves” or anything else that sounds terrifying and totally out of the realm of my experience, Aaron and Annemarie’s sub/dom dynamic did not extend outside of their sexual life. They told me about their aftercare rituals meant to counteract Annemarie’s tendency to act emotionally submissive: Annemarie stands above Aaron, on a table or bed, and shouts what she’s feeling. “Be a tower!” Aaron tells her.
Aaron and Annemarie’s eight year age gap, and his early high school explorations of BDSM certainly weighs the advantage of skill mastery and comfort in his favor, but he always insists that Annemarie is “such a natural” at kink and in her position as a sub. They consider their relationship to be unusually communicative, and jump at the opportunity to show this off. It isn't uncommon for them to interrupt the flow of our conversation to explain to me the context of an exchange they've just had. Aaron once explained, “Annemarie knows I tend towards Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and she helps me stay in check” and another time said,“sometimes I think Annemarie’s being too quiet about her needs, so I try to get her to speak up.”
A month after cutting off contact I'm seeking out a few experts, or at least a non-amateur opinion to get a little context for my alternative summer fling. Partly, I want some sense of validation about abandoning the relationship, some explanation I can point to as an excuse for what feels like a failure. I could also nobly say that I want other people entering similar situations to feel better prepared than I was.
Of course, I talked to Tara Misra, CC's very open and friendly Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC). Tara is committed to inviting speakers and giving talks about issues surrounding consent and safe sex for the past year.
On her charming front porch in Old Colorado City, I ask her about resources other BDSM newbies should access as an alternative to Wikipedia and Pornhub. Online blogs, she tells me, or feminist erotica. Anything by Tristian Taormino, or fem-rotica edited by Blue Violet. Unfortunately, in Tara's opinion, and I'm inclined to agree with her, there isn't a lot about CC hookup culture conducive to safe, sane and consensual (a popular, positive tagline) BDSM experimentation.
“I see people having a lot of intimacy without the trust, which tends to be built over time. Within the hookup culture, there isn't a lot of responsibility or commitment, and there is unfortunately a lot of room for abuse.”
If you like to stay current with your hookup culture conversations you should mention a contemporary development; the permeation of nebulously kink practices into the mainstream. From my conversation with Tara, I gather two explanations of the source; Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and, according to Tara, “Porn. A lot of these young folks are just burned out on 'normal' porn and people will continue to explore boundary pushing material.” Young folks burnt out on normal porn might not seem like a campus or societal epidemic. I bet a lot of us, myself included, would like to believe that our partners aren't really following porn trends, or allowing porn to influence the interactions they expect from us. Porn sets a fairly unrealistic standard, and don't we want our partners to be open about with us about their fantasies?
But first, an important word about fantasies from Tara: “Fantasies, you are in complete control of. Reality, particularly when you involve another person or multiple people, you start to lose control right quick. Even if someone’s just like ‘oh Tara I'm thinking about having a threesome,’ I think it’s important to get together and have a conversation. The thing about consent is that you really want to be explicit. It’s good to set some guidelines early on.”
Explicit guidelines were certainly established in my foray. A policy that endured during the entire relationship was my hard rule that Aaron wasn't allowed to penetrate me. We discussed this ad nauseam when we weren't in a sexual environment. He made known his desire to do so, should I become comfortable with it. The idea loomed in my mind for the remaining weeks. Despite the steps Aaron took to avoid “projecting any sense of obligation” I felt the question linger in our every interaction.
I also sought out a few answers from Adison Petti, a CC staff member who is thankfully very open and reflective about hys experiences. Evolving parameters and dynamics have been an incredibly enjoyable part of hys relationship with hys partner of four years, a woman he describes as high femme, who originally enforced a strict no penetration rule.
The difference between my and Adison’s situation (besides a scant three years, nine months) might be the presence of intimate intelligence, a concept Adison introduced to me. “I don’t think we have very good intimate intelligence in our everyday lives, and I pride myself on having good emotional intelligence, or trying to cultivate it. If someone isn’t emotionally intelligent and they enter a BDSM relationship, it can seem very troubling or potentially problematic.” Adison’s explanation made sense. All of the discussion and bonding present in a developed BDSM relationship cultivates a high intimate intelligence.
To put this in the context of my situation, Annemarie and Aaron—very much on the same page, advocating for themselves and each other. Me—stumbling in the dark, at about the 4th percentile of emotional intelligence. I might argue in hindsight that it was irresponsible of my partners to see such a glaring difference in emotional comprehension and proceed with our relationship anyway. Or maybe I was too good a faker.
Another question: What’s with this not-so-subtle sub-hate I've been picking up on? If you go back about 14 paragraphs, Annemarie and Aaron made it pretty clear that they weren't looking for another sub in their relationship. They made it sound like extra subs just lay around and don't pull their own weight, leaving all the creative and physical work to Aaron. I think I internalized this strongly, and convinced myself that I was a total dom, leather chaps and all. Being a sub was being passive, weak, oppressed and not feminist. Thankfully, Adison set me straight.
“Just because I'm submissive does not mean in any way that I don’t have a desire to do something that is maybe not allowed. Just because [my partner] has said no penetration does not mean that I don't desire that. In fact, I desire it very much. Part of it means to be in a relationship where you sacrifice some of your own needs and your own desires, but don't we all have to do that in various ways to have partnerships to begin with?”
Tara, too, helped correct my understanding of subs and fantasies of submission.
“Just because you have a fantasy about something does not mean that’s what you want, and I think that’s important when we’re talking about 'rape fantasies.’” Generally, when people refer to rape fantasies, they are referencing the desire for a person to be so consumed with desire and want that they cannot control themselves, nor can they be controlled. “This is a myth about rape that it’s about desire. Rape, actual rape, is about power and control. By desiring something, it’s not rape, so therefor rape is a misnomer. It might be more of a domination fantasy, and with degradation and domination, by wanting that, it is consensual.”
Annemarie wanted to be tied up, to be slapped and spanked and to be ordered around. She wanted to feel her sexual partner(s) both strongly desire her and desire to control her. But what’s important here is that she wanted those things. She discussed her expectations, her desires, and her soft and hard limits explicitly. Equally important is that, at any time and for any reason at her word or physical indication, we would stop all activity, either to make adjustments or to end the session.
Tara told me that people began studying “rape fantasies” in the 1940s, analyzing the pathology of women with these desires. The guiding idea was that women are masochists and just want to punish themselves. “I do believe that many women are conditioned to be divorced from their sexuality, and domination fantasies give permission for that, because someone else is acting upon them, so it takes agency out of sexuality.” I can see how this could be true, but just hearing the way Annemarie would talk about sex, I could never describe her as avoiding sexual agency. She was an incredibly hot sub because she was clearly in her sexual element. I also like Adison’s perspective on submissive sex: “Sometimes you just need to have the heavy weight of a body on top of you to push against” and more candidly, “Sometimes you just need someone to slap your ass to get you out of your funk.”
One last thing; my original point of tension in this relationship, now two months behind me. Aaron is a cis man who is stronger, larger and older than Annemarie. Annemarie has the face and body of a 15 year old. Can I witness their dynamic, even be incorporated into it, and not feel that something akin to misogyny might be playing out? This question especially strikes me now that I'm not a part of their sex (though I don't for a moment think they've retired from the group dating scene since my departure). But don't cis/hetero couples with female sub/male dom dynamics deserve the right to explore that relationship, just like everyone else? I voiced this concern to Adison, and the conclusion we arrived at was this, “It comes down to a cultural trust; this is part of a bigger question of full cycle liberation. What would full cycle sexual liberation look like? It would be collective trust, and that comes from collective voice ... we need to feel that our society is a space where everyone can voice their needs and hurts.” When I see Annemarie and Aaron, a voice inside me whispers that their sexual dynamic looks like the embodiment of a very real problem I see every day, a problem of women being beaten, murdered and suppressed by their partners and by other men. I do know that a snapshot of their sex life doesn't give credit to the immense support and communication in their relationship. BDSM in its ideal, with communication, consent, sexual fulfillment, and aftercare, still exists in the same society as rape, fatal misogyny and intimate partner violence. I only hope that the lessons of one can be a part of the movement to eradicate the other.