There’s this thing called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as “the DSM.” To put it bluntly, the DSM is a big dictionary of mental health “problems” that stodgy old bigots use to pretend that they’re justified in calling people who do things differently than they would like “mentally ill.” An entire section of the DSM is devoted just to “sexual paraphilias,” which, again, has historically been used to jail, drug, or murder people who don’t conform to hegemonic power structures like, “Make me a sammich, woman!” Some super famous people were treated this way, like Alan Turing, who was considered mentally ill because he was gay (that is, he identified as a man and only got turned on by two dudes fucking).
Here’s the thing about the DSM, though. It’s blatantly self-contradictory. Check this out.
In not so many words, the DSM describes a fetish as “something whose presence is required in order to experience sexual gratification.” So, for instance, someone with a “shoe fetish” simply does not feel aroused in sexual situations wherein they cannot focus on shoes. Likewise, someone with a “spanking fetish” needs sex to incorporate spanking in order to get off on it.
Fetishes are diverse, and sometimes amazingly specific (which I always thought would kind of suck, because dang, how unfortunate for the dude who can’t really enjoy getting off unless he’s masturbating in the rain while sucking on someone else’s toes, right?), but the central point is that they’re required to satisfy that person’s sexual tastes.
We all grew up being told over and over again that fetishes are weird, strange things that only perverts and not “normal people” have. Almost no one really questions the mechanism, the logic behind this assertion. We just kind of take it as axiomatic that if you have a fetish, you’re a pervert. And if you have a particularly uncommon fetish, you’re even more perverted.
Here’s what’s weird about that.
People without fetishes get called perverts, too, because of their lack of certain, very specific fetishes. It turns out that the only people who mainstream society, absurdly “legitimized” by ridiculous documents like the DSM, don’t consider “fetishists” (and thus “normal”) are people with very specific, culturally approved fetishes. Here’s a list of a few of them:
- Straight men.
- Straight women.
Actually, okay, that’s pretty much the entire list, right there.
Think about it: a straight man is declaring himself to have a femininity fetish. He’s not even shy about it. His whole identity is constructed around the very simple concept that he requires the presence of feminine-presenting people to get turned on. He boasts about how much of a man he is by amplifying the strength and importance of this very specific fetish. Things that signal femininity to straight men are turn ons, while things that signal something else, like masculinity, are not.
Dude, that’s the definition of a fetish. You have a fetish for women. And, like, that’s cool, bro. Fap to it, man! But let’s call a spade a spade and at least acknowledge that you have a fucking fetish, all right?
The same is true for straight women. They are masculinity fetishists. Same logic applies. In fact, so are gay men. They’re pretty hardcore masculinity fetishists, too, and that’s somehow not at all hard for most folks to understand. But call a straight man a “woman fetishist” and his tiny little culturally-imprisoned mind is likely to explode in your face. (So, y’know, be careful with that. Exploding straight dudes’ minds is an extreme sport much like bullfighting, not to be undertaken without extensive practice and possibly protective gear like a bunch of your friends backing you up.) In fact, you can describe all identities whose definition is based on what kind of characteristic they are attracted to in this way: S&M “dominants” are submission fetishists (and also by definition rapists).
Looking at things this way, it’s suddenly not at all strange to note how many “straight” men and women “discover” their “bisexual side” when they first experience sexual arousal from a gender presentation they didn’t expect. It’s not that they’re “bisexuals,” per se, it’s that they don’t have a heterosexuality fetish. And that’s cool, too, y’know? It’s just like how some people don’t have shoe fetishes, and some do.
From this perspective, you know who the least fetishistic people are? Yeah. Queers. Go team.
What’s totally crazy about society is not that fetishes exist. It’s that people without fetishes are considered “deviant,” even while the very definition of the word intentionally implies deviance and perfectly describes most people for whom the definition is never actually applied to. How many of the DSM’s authors had a heterosexuality fetish? Certainly not none of them, y’know?
After all, a fish will never discover water.
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I’m puzzled that neither you nor any of the subsequent commenters mentioned the work of maymay, both in exposing the problems of Fetlife and providing a work-around for the problem of abuse reports being censored, namely the PAT-Fetlife browser extension. It highlights people who’ve had abuse reports against them in yellow as you browse the site, and you can find out what the reports are (and whether to ignore them or not - some are just trolling) by clicking their profile. Maymay’s been doing some pretty unethical things to promote the tools (a viral marketing campaign telling people to ‘kill themselves’ on twitter for instance) which I don’t agree with, but I think the tools themselves still should be publicised and used. The code for them is publicly available, so they could be taken from maymay and hosted by someone more impartial and trusted. The more of us who use them, the safer Fetlife becomes for those who still want to use it.
It seems unlikely that you’d accidentally leave maymay out of a discussion like this (even just to disapprove of them) so my conclusion is that you’re trying to deny them the oxygen of publicity because you disapprove of their methods. In which case, perhaps this comment will not be published. I do think the PAT-Fetlife tool is too important to ignore, though.
Comment by Anonymous on Safe Words, one of a slew of articles talking about the undeniable epidemic of rape perpetrated by supposedly “consent-positive” BDSM community members that totally ignores any mention whatsoever of, well, anything that might actually make a difference.
Also, I didn’t realize telling people whose first interaction with me is telling me that I’m “garbage” to kill themselves amounts to “a viral marketing campaign,” but, hey, at least this person has the right idea with respect to what marketing campaigns are: efforts to get you to kill yourself.
If any of you are marketers, kill yourselves. But seriously. If you are, do.
- An easily searchable interface to all reports in the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife
- Disrupting Dinner Parties’ extremely thorough treatment of all the ways that FetLife intentionally protects rapists and silences rape survivors
- Screenshots of more Predator Alert Tools
- FetLife userscripts exposing the company’s lies and piss-poor practices, such as the FetLife Video Sharer and the FetLife Age/Sex/Location Search script.
- Dominants are rapists, and the subsequent “Explaining ‘dominants are rapists’ in excruciating detail,” which detail why rape in the BDSM community is not an anomaly, but rather the central and most fundamental pillar of the community’s existence.
In other words, rolequeer petplay probably looks less like BDSM than it does like furry sex. Yes, we’re just that uncool. ;)
On Twitter this morning, @aliensnipehuntr asked “what exactly ‘rolequeer’ play is like.” The way they asked smacked of someone wondering “what do two girls do in bed, anyway?” (We roll around like giant pandas, duh.) So maymay and I both snarked back — but I also linked them to my exploratory description of what rolequeer play might involve.
Obviously, I can only speak about specifics from my own and some of my partners’ experience. There will be other rolequeer folks out there whose play looks nothing like mine (and that’s the point.) But one thing seems worth pointing out:
Rolequeer play is about breaking power dynamics — both ones that are internal and ones that are external to a given “scene” — and as such, it is oriented towards developing increasingly egalitarian sexual and social relationships. This is different from “vanilla” play, which begins from the assumption of a (fictional) power equity between partners; rolequeer play begins from the assumption of a power differential and makes power equity its goal. (The hotness is in the process. ;D)
Still, many people consider the difference between “BDSM” and “vanilla” play to be the existence or lack of an (explicit) power differential. Since rolequeer play involves intentional and increasing periods of power-equity, rolequeer play will often appear more “vanilla” on the surface than much of the “BDSM” you’re used to. (Or, y’know, it might look like furry sex. Or drama therapy. Or like a really long conversation.)
That is all.
The key point here is the breaking of the D/s binary from all angles. It is never true that someone is only ever submissive and someone else only ever dominant. It is never true that someone is only ever victimized and never an abuser. It is never true that someone is always consenting and never coercing. Those binaries are only true in the (narrow) context of a given story about what’s going on in a complex world.
And, if your goal in our complex world is to activate the willingness of people in a position of power to do ethical things (say, resist worker exploitation), eroticizing those ethics proves pretty useful. In that light, eroticizing dominance—and especially brainwashing whole demographics of people to think they have to be dominated in some way to have some need met, such as being fed (i.e., workers, via Capitalism), or experiencing sexual intimacy (submissives, via BDSM)—is just downright WRONG. (See: Secretary.)
If that’s not your goal, then my sincere intention is to kill you, end your way of life, and forever eradicate your belief systems from the face of the universe. (This is directed at the general “you.”) I.e., “eat the rich.”
Rolequeerness is not about sex. It’s about power. It’s just that power, in rape culture, is about sex.
I really appreciate seeing vdsdisc’s internal monologue and thought processing here, so, reblogging. Also, thanks, vdsdisc. Also, I have some thoughts. :)
This is a great example of what “trying to be a cool kid” looks like. It’s a (possibly unintentional) habit learned from the “social justice” Scene that makes people think that in order to do something, you have to be a certain thing, first. It’s a trap.
Let safeword show you how to do it wrong:
wait can i still be rolequeer by supporting the breaking of those higherarchies and binaries even if my personal behavior always does fall on one side of the binary that i oppose and that has been defined by others?
like what if i’m not “submissive as hell and cocky as fuck about it”? what if i’m dominant and not a fucking douche about it? is being a deeply, radically consent-aware dom who resists and subverts oppression in my practice queering the definition of “dominance” enough to count?
i want it to!!
Labels being personal things, this isn’t something people can really decide for each other. If someone feels it fits them/works for them, then so it is. But if you’re looking for opinions - I’d say, absolutely you can. I mean, I don’t identify as submissive either (though for me it’s that I’m not D/s at all). And I think it would be very odd/not-right/cognitively dissonant if an identity centrally about “disrupting binary notions of … Dominant/Submissive” only took people from one side of said boundary.
If someone disagrees about who can use ‘rolequeer’ - well, as everything from ‘bisexual’ and ‘asexual’ to ‘feminist’ shows, conflicts over labels show up quite a bit for both sexuality and anti-oppression work. I guess this one would just be starting rather early.
First of all, I don’t give a shit what you are. But as long as you’re asking about this, safeword, you should know that you’re already “doing it wrong.” Very wrong.
Earlier, you wrote:
And later, in almost no time at all, in an edit to that same post you concluded:
on a closer rereading of the first article i am now pretty confident that i am not one of the doms that are being discussed here because i am not a shitty person
I wasn’t gonna say anything but your most recent post asking if you can “still be rolequeer” is just dangerous ignorance masquerading as self-questioning. Exactly contrary to your assertion “that [you] completely understand the crux of the argument,” you very clearly don’t.
UnquietPirate hinted at exactly this happening. Lyricalagony, you should pay special attention to this:
One of the hardest things about calling a cultural institution, rather than specific individuals, out for being abusive is knowing that the people who need to hear it least are the ones who will take it to heart most.
The people for whom the criticism is most intended will be the most likely to ignore it, write it off, attack it, or decide it doesn’t apply to them.
What safeword did was that very last thing: “decide it doesn’t apply to them.”
(Not) Sorry to burst your bubble, safeword, but the fact that you did that proves how much our “Dominants are rapists” series directly applies to you.
I don’t really care what you (or anyone) calls yourself. You can “be” rolequeer, Martian, heteroflexible, it doesn’t matter. Use whatever labels you goddamn want.
But you cannot actually “break those [Dominant/submissive] binaries […] even if my personal behavior always does fall on one side of the binary that i oppose and that has been defined by others?” because then you’re not doing anything other than maintaining the status quo at all.
And this isn’t some kind of complex meta-philosophical point, it’s basic logic. Safeword’s asking “can I say I built a bookshelf even if I never do anything that actually builds a bookshelf, and still call myself a carpenter?” Well, yes, you can still call yourself a carpenter, but your words are totally meaningless, and you’re an incompetent carpenter. But, yes, you can totally still call yourself a carpenter if you want, so feel free.
But don’t act all surprised if a bunch of other carpenters get upset with you about your use of the word. Moreover, they’d be totally within their rights to tell you to fuck off.
(I am telling you to fuck off, safeword, that you are adding nothing of value to the conversation about rolequeerness and that you should probably STFU for a good long while about it.)
Look, it’s not that complicated. There aren’t “anti-coercion dominants” and “pro-coercion dominants.” Dominance itself is about coercion. Sexual dominance is always pro-rape. Period. This is the same exact ontological idea as the structural truth that there aren’t “anti-racist white people” and “racist white people." All white people are racist. All dominants are rape apologists.
LyricalAgony is being very nice to safeword for absolutely no good reason. Cut it the fuck out.
Just a smattering of thoughts for later:
* There is danger in rigid identities. I have to think about shit like this like stickynotes with little explanations on them. Every label/identity claimed has a REASON and the ‘because’ tells me where my thinking is. If I get tied to the identity and lose sight of the reason, it’s dangerous as FUCK. Why the fuck do I claim a particular identity? Why the fuck do I claim a particular label? It’s goddamn fucking okay to interrogate my reasons. Stickynotes are made to come off but damned if they aren’t useful for transferring info.
* Oh. ‘dominants are rape apologists’ because people who claim a dominant identity benefit from the system defacto. System broken. Everything sucks. That’s not a particularly complicated concept, but it’s easy for me to forget that claiming an oppressor identity MEANS things. Sometimes really shitty things. Also: surprise, me! Dominant is an oppressor identity because BDSM is a subculture that replicates and amplifies the culture it comes from. Goddamnit, fuck everything.
* Hard to wrap my head around: Dominance always about coercion? ALWAYS? How? And how does this interact with ‘Dominants benefit from structural oppressions’ thing? It feels the same but different. ‘Dominance’ with respect to oppressions and the replication thereof… yes. So- what am /I/ doing when I do things that look the same but are also play? Damage?! Perpetuation? Subversion?
* Okay, so how does the stuff I like interact with this whole conscious rolefuckery stuff? *squints at it* *tilts head* The stuff I like doesn’t NEED to be predicated on a blanket identity of dominance. Why is the knee-jerk to be ‘dominant’ to enter into the kind of play I like? What happens if I’m not dominant or the stuff I do isn’t dominant? (What happens if I’m not coercive and rapey and the stuff I do isn’t coercive and rapey?) What positive/negative things did I get from my layover in the BDSM scene if put into an oppression context? What aspects of the play I like still cleave to my current concept of responsible (ethical) power exchange? Are the terms D/s and power exchange no longer interchangeable? Does power exchange properly describe the concept I’m trying to get across or is it equally as bad? (Exchange meaning that all parts get what they want out of it, or else the exchange fails.) How do I need to update my concept of ethical power exchanges with current new information? Do I need to scrap the concept and start over again?
* Rolequeer?!? Further investigation needed.
/questions for now
I think one of the things that trips up a lot of people in all this is the idea of exchange. “Erotic power exchange” is just a very polite way of describing permission-predicated rape threats. This shouldn’t come as a surprise if you understand that all systems of exchange when employed in a coercive context (like, say, capitalism, or rape culture) are basically a cascading series of threats.
Relationships that are founded on a principle of exchange are always and forever going to be coercive. That doesn’t make them categorically bad, it just means that they’re going to have at least some important coercive elements. Coercion itself is not “bad.” But “bad things” are usually coercive.
In a non-sexual context, you can take some inspiration from mutual aid and collective action organizing. When you “work for” someone (like, in a job), that’s a coercive situation, because your alternative is impoverishment and, possibly, starvation. In reality, I think it’s pretty obvious to pretty much everyone that "doing work" has nothing to do with "having a job."
The important point about workplace coercion is that the product or result of the “work” isn’t actually advancing a situation in which the worker (the people who “do labor”) are able to extricate themselves from. When you have a job, what you are doing is perpetuating a system that necessitates the having of jobs in the first place. This is true regardless of the kind of job you have; it’s not actually structurally different if you’re a banker on Wall Street or if you’re a teacher in an overcrowded school. This is even true if the job you have is your “dream job,” because a dream job is just a different kind of nightmare.
When you “have a job,” you’re participating in a system whose entire purpose is to cascade a series of finely tuned threats onto you, so that you are forced to pass those threats along to someone else. That is what money in a capitalist global economy is: money is just a cascading series of threats.
But we can’t just not conceive of relationships. So if we’re not going to conceive of relationships as a mechanism for facilitating exchanges, how can we reframe them? Rather than exchange, how about exploration?
Relationships that are based on exploration are a lot less coercive, by design. That is not to say that they are therefore never coercive. Moreover, I don’t think a reasonable or helpful goal is to ”never utilize coercion.” Rather, I think that where explorations in relationships are coercive, the one and only circumstance in which coercion is ethically utilized—that is, where the person doing the coercing can integriously consider themselves “not an abuser”—is a situation where the person doing the coercing acknowledges that situation to be coercive, and is choosing to do that at the behest of a person desiring to be coerced. That is, coercion is ethical only when someone is (meta-)consenting to having their consent violated and the coercing party is mindful of both these conflicting layers.
Instead of approaching a relationship or an interaction with some pre-scripted “goal,” an attitude of conquest, we could approach a relationship or interaction with nebulous interest, an attitude of curiosity. The relevance to rolequeerness of critiquing an eroticization of dominant and submissive behaviors is that it provides a backdrop against which we can begin an exploration by moving away from that: rolequeerness is related to D/s only insofar as rolequeerness is not D/s. That’s why “rolequeer” is also not interchangeable with “switch.” Unlike switching, which is about moving power between people as if they were on a see-saw, rolequeering is about everyone involved helping everyone else divest of their abilities to use the power they have coercively. This is what is meant by “a methodological framework for downward mobility in the power gradient of oppression culture.”
In a workplace, a rolequeer boss might do everything they can to support an employee’s professional development and then, rather than offer a promotion, that boss would encourage employees who mastered the job to quit. In a school, a rolequeer teacher might jettison the school’s curriculum and start sharing information about how to drop out of school and not be treated “like a drop-out,” covertly if necessary. A rolequeer parent or legal guardian would teach their legal charge about “parental controls” software, not activate any of them, and then explain how to get around any of those controls when they are active.
In a workplace, a rolequeer employee might share their salary and benefits details with other employees, especially against company policy. In a school, a rolequeer student might let other students cheat on bullshit tests by copying their answers. A rolequeer child might lie to an angry parent about their sibling’s supposed infraction to cover for them.
In all of these examples, the important point is that the activity intentionally undermines the rolequeer person’s ability to control, manipulate, or coerce other people. In each case, taking the action described puts the person who took the action in a more vulnerable position in relation to some entity that has more power over them, like a school board chairperson, the CEO of their company, or even fellow employees. That’s why we say “rolequeers are submissive as fuck and cocky as hell about it,” and also why we say “you cannot be a Dominant-identified rolequeer.” These are activities, behaviors, and beliefs that are at this point in time extremely dangerous, but create the possibility of disenfranchising the system of coercion itself, rather than other individual people. Dominance never does that. After all, there’s a reason employers support social norms that discourage employees from sharing information about their salaries: that norm hurts employees, not employers. There’s a reason monogamous cultural norms discourage talking about one’s exes; that norm helps abusers, not survivors.
One of your questions is “Dominance is always about coercion? ALWAYS? How?” If you stop thinking about sex and start thinking about dominance itself (the ability to dominate), the answer becomes obvious. For instance, the “dominant” employee takes a promotion, an act that grants them institutional power over fellow employees. (“Dominants play to win.”) The rolequeer employee quits the company. (“Rolequeers play to quit the game.”)
Again, the central point here is that “rolequeer” is not just some subclass of BDSM activity. It’s about the way we orient ourselves to power—in every context—and doing something with that power that’s “the opposite of what’s expected,” or at least something unexpected.
In a blog post exploring gendered behaviors in partnered dance communities, and specifically in breaking out of gendered dance roles like “lead” and “follow,” Kat Whimsy independently coined the term “rolequeer” even before I first popularized it on Twitter. Kat wrote:
Where do we draw the line between “new dancer, who should be coddled” and “experienced dancer, who can deal with wackiness”? I am willing to make the sacrifice of dancing “normal” in order to help out people who have never danced before. I’m willing to make the sacrifice for people who have only danced once or twice. But where does it end? Most dance forms don’t have magical level tests you must pass to determine whether or not you are “experienced”, and even if they did, experience from skill level is very different from experience from time spent doing the form.
Additionally, is it misleading to dance normal for a new person, especially in a group that doesn’t regularly do that, or has a regular population of ambidancetrous or rolequeer persons? After all, the status quo for that specific population is to have certain people dance against the norm. If they all dance normal for newbies, then will the newbies be more confused when suddenly people start switching roles again?
I like Kat’s use of “rolequeer” here because it’s spot-fucking-on and emphasizes the kind of exploration I’m talking about, above. Dance is a great example of a prescribed social interaction with a clearly defined “script.” The interaction is often very rigid: left foot here, right foot there, hands like this. But the ideal outcome of “a good dance” is extremely vague. In that way, it’s not unlike sex.
Of course, while heteronormative sex is very scripted (insert tab A in slot B, remove, repeat), sex is actually more like the generic concept of dance than it is like any particular kind of dance. Sex isn’t the foxtrot, or a tango—it’s not necessarily a given activity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do a given activity (like the foxtrot, or a tango) as sex.
This makes both dance and specific sexual communities of interest (like the BDSM Scene) useful microcosms in which to practice rolequeerness. Since my personal genesis spawns from the BDSM community, and my most intimate traumas are rooted in sexual violation, it just so happened that I rolequeered the fuck out of my sexually submissive behaviors and identity, and I say “I’m rolequeer” because I’ve always been doing that. But if I were a dancer, well, I might’ve been writing a blog more like Kat’s.
So, here’s the point: both Kat and I are talking about the same thing.
Rolequeerness isn’t about BDSM. And it’s not a word for BDSM’ers. This isn’t about sex. It’s about power. It’s just that power, in rape culture, is very much about sex.
And, well, given that, interrogating one’s own “knee-jerk” desire to “be ‘dominant’” seems really fucking important. Which, of course, is also why most sex-positive, liberal feminist, BDSM’ers will fight tooth and nail to avoid doing that. 'Cause, rapists.
The term “rolequeer” was coined by Relsqui in 2011, first popularized by maymay via Twitter, and has up to this point primarily been theorized by R. Foxtale, in conjunction with maymay and others. It was first explored publicly by Kristen Stubbs at a Transcending Boundaries 2012 workshop entitled “Queering Role in BDSM Play.” Key discussions of the concept can be found at bandanablog.wordpress.com and malesubmissionart.com.
“Rolequeer” was initially conceived of as an identity within the context of the BDSM subculture, but it ultimately extends beyond that scene’s narrow bounds and describes the experience of many people who have little or no association with BDSM. At its most fundamental level rolequeerness is about “queering” — or disrupting binary notions of — human relationships to power.
There is a widely held belief in both BDSM and mainstream culture that the erotic is dependent on a power differential, on the tension between and ultimate overpowering of a “passive” participant by an “active” participant. Radical feminism rejects this notion of the erotic as fundamentally rooted in oppressive hierarchy. And rolequeerness begins by drawing on that rejection, but it goes further, theorizing possibilities for complex, agentic, and ultimately liberating erotic interface with various positional orientations towards power. (As opposed to the suggestion by contemporary radfems that we should simply somehow eliminate power dynamics from our play.)
In conjunction with troubling the “Dominant/Submissive” — or Powerful/Vulnerable — binary, rolequeerness also complicates binary opposition between “sex” vs. “violence” and the binary opposition between “abusive” vs. “consensual”, arguing that these can never be cleanly differentiated categories within a holistically coercive and violent oppression culture. It points out that, if we are truly concerned about respecting each others’ agency, we must insist on a higher bar for “obtaining consent” from our fellow humans than simply being granted permission to treat each other in violent and abusive ways.
As with other types of queerness, “rolequeer” does not simply refer to how we play in the bedroom or at the club; it describes our relationship to the world around us, to the roles that we have been handed via our positionalities within oppression culture.
Ultimately, rolequeerness centers acts of self-liberation and co-liberation by encouraging (and eroticizing) a traitorous relationship to our own power and a compassionate celebration of each others’ vulnerabilities. Rolequeerness provides a methodological framework for “downward mobility” inside the power gradient of oppression culture. As such, rolequeers refuse to accept cultural capital as a consolation prize for victimization. We maintain that, in a culture in which power corrupts, choosing vulnerability is a move toward freedom.
Rolequeers are submissive as fuck and cocky as hell about it. Break the cycle. Quit the game.
- Bandana Blog - Rolequeer: Defining Our Terms