Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Twenty-One: Domme

I was exchanging messages with someone who's worked as a professional dominatrix in both Manhattan and Sydney when it struck me that the two of us approached s/m with very different views. We weren't talking about s/m as such. We were actually talking about the latest issue of Artforum and about a film she'd seen at BAM not long ago. So I have no idea where the thought came from. But there it was. Now she'd told me tales of some of her clients and experiences before, so it's possible the thought was simply lying fallow. She likes s/m; it's not just something she's done as a job. I like it, too, but for different reasons.

I've always said that I like s/m for the ritual and for the aesthetics. I've always liked the class markers behind high-end s/m, and I like the idea of it as highly intellectualised, abstract sex. My dominatrix friend likes s/m for the physical release, for the chance to see how far she can go. She likes the physical activity of wielding a whip; her own release depends on what she can push a submissive's body to feel. There's a divide there: "cold" v. "hot" sex. I'm happier with "cold".

Now she's worked as a professional domme. The male clients who came to her expected to be punished, to be humiliated. They're paying to be humiliated. That's not a word I've ever worked into games or scenes. She's come to associate s/m play with scripted humiliation and punishment, and those routines leak over into her own, off-the-clock games with both the boys and girls in her life. Those aren't things I've ever been interested in making part of s/m.

It might be that I feel a certain sense of wariness when I'm part of an s/m scene. I'm male, and of a certain age. My partner will be a young companion, someone female and much younger. It's all too easy for s/m games to take on political overtones or to seem too reminiscent of actual violence. That might be part of it.

The major part, I think, is that I'm not interested in "punishing" a young companion. I'm certainly not interested in being addressed as "Master". I'd rather have a girl address me by my name or as "darling" during scenes. Silk and masks and blindfolds and candle wax and riding whips are all things I like, but it's the ritual of them I like more than the physical effect. I like it that a young companion is willing to push past her limits, or willing to place her trust in me. Those are gifts, and they shouldn't be about humiliation. I'd feel silly telling a girl she was being whipped for being "bad", and the thought of actually saying the things male dominants say in s/m novels and videos say really does make me dissolve into laughter. I'm more used to silence and kisses during games. What I like about what's being played out is the sense of being in something formal and yet dreamlike. Formal, yes. I wouldn't play out Spanking The French Maid or Spanking The Naughty Schoolgirl. Masks and silk scarves, yes. Candle wax and riding crops, yes. But not spanking. That's not a marker for the world I'd want the scene to create.

My dominatrix friend tells me that it's now hard for her not to go into domme-speak when she's with someone male, hard not to try to break them down. She can, she says, turn a hipster boy into "a simpering bitch" in a few minutes. I don't doubt that she can. And the stories she comes away with are often wonderfully funny. But it's just not my take on s/m. The proper thing to say to a lovely girl with drops of candle wax on her nipples, or who's just been whipped, is always and ever, "Thank you, darling." And it  needs to be said softly and with complete sincerity. You've been given a gift by a lovely companion: be aware of that.

It's not likely that my dominatrix friend and I will ever be together for a scene. I'm not looking for a domme, and I'm not interested in being humiliated.  I like her, now. She's smart and funny and quite lovely. But our views of how s/m should be played diverge. In the end, I expect sex (and s/m is a key kind of sex) to be stylish and based on an odd intersection of romance and cool abstraction. Domme-sex is too physical, and too much about breaking down self-image. I'm interested in formal poses and enhancing images, creating new images.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Twenty: Elegy

This is Theodore Roethke's poem "To Jane: My Student Thrown by a Horse”: something sad and lovely. A student of his had been killed in a riding accident, a student whom he loved--- from a distance, without touching, as someone with whom he shared a love of literature. The last lines of the poem are heartbreaking in an unexpected way. They're about the anguish of not having the standing to express grief, of not being in a role where one is allowed to express grief where someone the poet has loved has died. English has words for love in its varied forms, but we use them so awkwardly, so uncertainly. And here in the new century, we're so afraid and so suspicious of love. We place far too many limits on who can speak of love or loss, on who we're allowed to love. As open as we are about so many things, we use the words for love with less and less assurance and--- increasingly ---with a hint of shame and suspicion...

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.
O, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.
My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.
If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nineteen: A Walk In The Morning Light

There's a small kerfluffle around the web today about an ad from an "upmarket" chain called Harvey Nichols. The ad is simple enough. It shows various girls coming home in last night's party dresses on what's now known as the Walk of Shame. The point of the ad is that in a Harvey Nichols dress, you'll look both fashionable enough to be out at night but still elegant and professional enough to pass as in daytime attire--- thus avoiding the Walk of Shame look. It's a reasonably cute ad, but it has drawn fire both for what's now called "slut shaming" and for "class privilege". The second claim does perplex me, and I'm not sure how its proponents justify it, or just what privilege it is to shop at Harvey Nichols.

There is a difference between the dawn walk home for males and females. That much is true. I've walked home from young companions' apartments in the morning in last night's clothes, but I've never thought of it as a Walk of Shame. I'm more likely to think of it as a kind of victory march, and I'm likely to recite Housman to myself: Soldier from the wars returning, spoiler of the taken town.... I will add here that the victory isn't over the young girl I've left sleeping in her bed. The victory is over time and fate and entropy. Walking home with a jacket over my shoulder and a tie stuffed into a pocket, I do feel like I've won something, or proven something. But never at my young companion's expense. The goodbye kiss as I left her bedroom for city streets was heartfelt and had no small amount of thank-you to it. Walking home, what I feel is elation. If the world and all the passers-by can tell that I'm returning from a lovely girl's bed, all the better. I've defied time and age and social expectations, and I've been given a whole nested set of gifts: pleasure, certainly, and a sense of renewed life and potential.

I'm usually at coffeehouses early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and there's always a steady inflow of Walk of Shame girls at the ones near the university--- hungover, tired, often carrying last night's stiletto heels. I can understand why they're walking. It's a close neighbourhood, bars and clubs and undergraduate apartments all together. (I've never understood girls having to do the Walk of Shame in places like London or New York; you'd think last night's partner would have the grace to offer cab fare.) I'm often amused by the girls--- who avoids her friends' eyes, who sits with other returning girls to share stories or commiserate, who's too hungover to do more than try not to go face down on the table. Amused, but never contemptuous. That's a distinction worth making. I enjoy watching them and inferring stories, but I don't feel contempt. I do feel envy, of course, the standard male wish that one girl or another had been in my bed last night. And there's always the fact that last night's party dress may be delightfully revealing in morning light. I can't deny that, and I'd never think of denying it. I will always turn the Male Gaze onto youth and beauty. But there's never contempt or derision. Why would there be?

Well, I still don't understand the "class privilege" attack on the Harvey Nichols ad. The remnants of the class system in Britain are as mysterious as ever the older system was. Is it only that the dresses sold there are expensive? I'll leave that for readers' comments. I will just say that I like seeing Walk of Shame girls--- though I certainly have no interest in shaming them. And while I think of my own dawnlight returns as a small Roman triumph, there's no reason at all why a lovely girl shouldn't stride home with her own sense of victory.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Eighteen: Sleeping Beauties

I read Kawabata's "House of Sleeping Beauties" years ago, and I have seen the German film version done a few years back. There's a new version out this season--- "Sleeping Beauty", with Emily Browning. The reviewer at New Yorker was very much taken with Ms. Browning--- certainly understandable ---but less than taken with the premise of the film.

The reviewer despised the clients in the film--- the older men who pay their money for the chance to lie there next to a beautiful girl who's been given a sleeping draught. "Foul and foolish" he calls them.  Kawabata's novella and the German film both had more sympathy for the elderly clients. Foolish, yes, in those versions. But also deserving of sympathy. Kawabata wrote the novella in late middle age, and he understood that age not only takes away one's own beauty and power, it disqualifies one from being around youth and beauty. I identified with his hero, just as I identified with the main character in the German film. A film made for Australian and American audiences here in the new century can't show any sympathy for the older men who purchase nights next to Emily Browning' s character. The politics of the day don't allow for sympathy for older men who'd buy time with a sleeping girl.

The reviewer at New Yorker disdained the whole idea of ritualised sex as well. He dismissed high-end, high-fashion s/m costumes as looking "like Victoria's Secret had been bought out by the Freemasons". He also found something distasteful in all efforts of males (meaning especially older males) to make sex seem "grand and sinister", efforts that he claimed only and ever emphasised how ridiculous ritual sex is and how pathetically ridiculous the men are.

We're back to Andrew Holleran's claim that "intelligence leads directly to s/m", I think. That's a phrase I've agreed with all these years. Well, more specifically, being literary and bookish leads to s/m, or at least to ritualised sex. I came to sex through books, and expected that all the actions and settings for sex would be like those in books I'd read. My young companions over the years have all shared that. The lovely girl sitting across a table and kicking off a ballet flat under the table to graze an ankle or a bare foot along her lover's leg learned that from somewhere--- a book, a film ---and is re-enacting a scene. And the seduction, the conversation, going on across the table is its own re-enactment of scenes read or viewed.

I have to have sympathy for the older clients in "Sleeping Beauty". After all, who am I but one of them? Though it is hard to imagine what I'd do with a girl--- however naked and lovely ---who'd been given a sleeping draught. Sex for me has always been based on conversation, on building up stories and exchanges as my young companion and I create scenes and try particular things. I can imagine kissing a sleeping girl--- lips and eyelids and all the places I've loved ---and I can imagine brushing fingertips over her. But penetration at all wouldn't appeal to me without conversation, without stories being exchanged. Paying for the services of a lovely girl is beyond my resources, but I have no moral or political problems with the idea. What I'd pay for, though, is the stories as much as the flesh or her skills with mouth and hands and hips.

I've always sought young companions who can tell stories with me, who can create worlds with me. A sleeping girl is a beautiful nullity. She's not even the girl in fashion/erotica photos. Talking to a sleeping girl isn't sex. It's only emptiness. I need voices to catalyse beauty, to bring beauty to life, to metamorphose beauty into stories and rituals.

Do I expect sex to be "grand and sinister"? That's not a bad idea, though I expect things less "grand" than simply crafted and literary. I can't imagine sex that isn't at least those two things. As far as I can tell, even sex that's nominally purely carnal and wordless and only about physical urges and acts is all mediated through what we've seen in films or read in novels about raw, overwhelming passion. I haven't been able to imagine sex that isn't about the artificial and ritualised and mediated since I was...in my teens? None of that dispenses with love or affection, mind you. But it does mean that we have a repertoire of acts and costumes and poses and words in our memories and imaginations that's based on books and films and photographs, a set of tools and references that we use to build up the worlds we need for love and lovemaking.

I want to see Emily Browning in "Sleeping Beauty". She's a lovely actress. But I'd want her fully awake across a futon from me, fully awake and going through a set of shared rituals. Costumes like "Victoria's Secret bought out by the Freemasons"? Well, why not? We'd both be aware of having constructed a world for intricate games. And I'd want her to respond to my touch and kisses with stories and carefully choreographed shared moves.

My age may make me ridiculous, though there are young companions who've found it an asset. I do have stories and a sense of craft to offer. I have a sense of safety in the dance to offer a young, literary companion. All sex may be foolish, though sex and love are always examples of where a bit of foolishness or even madness is welcome. But there's nothing "foul" here. I won't give the reviewer at New Yorker that.