Sexual Etiquette


I recently reviewed a book from Circlet Press titled Kneel to Me. Before I realized that it was a collection of erotic fantasy stories by Lauren P. Burka, I thought the title suggested a book of BDSM (bondage/discipline, etc.) etiquette, with chapters on how to show respect to a Dominant Person with whom one does not have a personal relationship, how to know whether verbal humiliation (“you miserable worm”) is flirtation or a flat-out rejection, and how to approach a self-defined inferior for sex in a way which is Dominant but gracious.

There are books like that, of course. The classic BDSM manual, Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns by Philip Miller and Molly Devon (Mystic Rose Press) includes much common-sense advice. Rules of etiquette are an essential element in the work of BDSM fiction writers who have created elaborate fantasy worlds in which consensual Dominance and submission are part of the social structure.

In general, the roles in these worlds have roots in old social hierarchies such as the British peerage, including the Royal Family. And on that subject, woe betide the Commonwealth official who forgets, for example, that Her Majesty must have an umbrella held over her in the rain, and that no one, even during an outdoor walk, should ever turn his/her back on the royal presence. I witnessed a breech of this rule in a summer downpour when the Queen was on tour in the Canadian prairie town where I live, and the incident was shown over and over on the TV news.

Despite the parallels between correct modes of behavior in the BDSM world and in the world of diplomacy, the importance of etiquette or manners is possibly the thing that most distinguishes BDSM sex from the more “vanilla” kinds. Although the use of tools such as whips and handcuffs often seems to be the most titillating topic when a pro Domme is interviewed on a TV talk show, a kinky context of roles and rituals is likely to seem more exotic than pain, as such, to anyone who thinks of sex as instinctive, inherently uncouth and below the level of human culture.

Does anyone outside the BDSM world need a guidebook on sexual etiquette? At the risk of sounding rude, I say Hell, yes. As self-defined experts in etiquette are always pointing out, specific rules (about where to place a salad fork, for instance) are less important than the principles behind them. And the basic principle of etiquette is to allow social interaction to proceed with a minimum of discomfort for all.

Consider the possible consequences of a lack of sexual etiquette. Ignoring a partner or designated victim who says “no” or “please don’t” while pushing one away can result in trauma, injury and legal charges. Groping someone else’s date or mate can also result in regrettable outcomes. While the edgiest sexual fantasies are advertised as “transgressive” (meaning this is what all the cool kids get away with), the crucial difference between transgressing prudish conventions and transgressing common sense or human rights is rarely explained in a publisher’s blurb.

“Menage” erotica, in particular, raises questions about sexual etiquette which are only dealt with honestly in the more serious scenarios. Polyamory, as the lifestyle of people who can love more than one other person at a time, has been shown to require absolute honesty and hard emotional work. Swinging could be described as calorie-reduced polyamory: a temporary break from a one-to-one relationship. Cheating is a whole other can of worms, no matter who tries to justify it. Anyone who was raised on nineteenth-century novels of adultery (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina) knows that deceiving a spouse was one of the best ways to wreck one’s life in times of yore. News flash: it still is. Check out the latest celebrity scandal to see how this works.

Much misery in a sexual context can be analyzed as a result of someone’s lack of manners. Consider, if you will, my experience of “sexual freedom” in high school, at the end of the transgressive (or “swinging”) 1960s.

Somehow I acquired a boyfriend in an innovative Fine Arts program for creative or at least unconventional students. The program enabled me to love school. At first, I was also willing to love the boyfriend – but he already had a posse. He hung out with the dope crowd, a group of weekend hippies who spent their spare time in altered states of consciousness. They seemed to have access to a smorgasbord of illegal substances.

When Boyfriend brought me with him to hang out with the posse, he never introduced me, and they made no effort to get to know me. When I awkwardly tried to join their conversations (which, as I remember, mostly consisted of “I mean, like, you know?”), I was usually treated to a stare (Who are you and why are you here?) and a change of subject.

Well okay, I thought. They have a reason to be suspicious of anyone who could possibly be a narc or a snitch. But how does anyone join this crowd?

I must confess I remained “straight” (a dope virgin) only by default. I didn’t know how to ask the owners of illegal dope to share their stash, and they didn’t offer. The prospect of finding a dope dealer and a way to pay for my own dope terrified me.

As a geeky wallflower-type (winner of a national student writing award in my last year in high school), I knew that formal education was likely to be my best route to long-term survival. I didn’t think I would do well in prison or on the street.

When I repeatedly asked Boyfriend to introduce me to his friends (i.e. persuade them to accept me), he always told me that his crowd didn’t believe in introductions. According to him, manners (the rules of Emily Post) were stupidly bourgeois. Apparently, so was I.

The longer the Fine Arts “heads” thought they knew me, the more my “straight” image seemed to harden. Nothing helped, even though I used my solitude to make hallucinogenic drawings in the Art Nouveau Revival style that was currently popular in rock posters, album covers, and “underground” magazines. Even the stream of draft dodgers from the U.S. who stayed briefly in my family home didn’t add coolness to my public image. Boyfriend increasingly left me at home when he spent time with his friends.

Sex with Boyfriend, under these conditions, was better than celibacy but less than mind-blowing. Our breakup, at about the time of our graduation, surprised no one.

In retrospect, my introduction to the Counterculture was mild. Since then, various other “alternative” communities have arisen among adults (and some of the culture eventually sifts down to the high school level), presumably to promote freedom, pleasure and enlightenment. Sex is usually a major focus of non-mainstream culture, and its members usually ridicule conventional etiquette along with conventional morality. In the long run, “alternative” culture seems absolutely necessary to the evolution of the mainstream. In the short run, someone always gets hurt.

Consider some of the experiences I had in the local GLBT (gay/lesbian/bi/trans) community as a single woman in the 1980s. At that time, the “gay” bar was the only reliable place to meet potential dates, and they were likely to be drunk.

Remember the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar? At the time it first appeared in 1977, it was widely seen as a cautionary tale about what could happen to a heterosexual woman trolling the bars for male studs – such reckless behavior could get a girl killed!

While bar dyke culture included violence in the form of drunken fights, date-rape in that context seemed unknown. Violence is relative, and I thought I could steer clear of the most extreme kinds by steering clear of men.

However, I had to rethink my assumption of safety when a friend-of-a-friend in the bar staggered into my orbit, grabbed me for a flirtatious good-night kiss and wrestled me onto the nearest sofa. Our amused mutual friend told me the assailant was a security guard, and predicted that I couldn’t escape her hold until she let me. Her mouth was so firmly pressed to mine that I couldn’t make a sound. The audience intended to watch, not to intervene.

Desperation breeds inspiration. I was able to fend off a woman who seemed to have three times my strength by relaxing just long enough to win her trust, then pushing her off me with all the force I could muster. This move worked, but then she seemed offended by my pushiness, and I actually tried to resolve the situation by explaining myself to her. As in most discussions of male violence with men, I felt unheard. During the conversation, I foolishly let slip that I was a graduate student at the university.

The next day, a frowning secretary in the office of the English Department summoned me to the telephone to hear my assailant’s rambling, gushy offer of a date. She still sounded drunk, and the endearments she lavished on me could be heard by everyone around me. At the time, lesbianism still seemed as unthinkable to most inhabitants of my town as it apparently was to Queen Victoria (for whom, in fact, the town was named).

I could feel my hope of a safe, clean, academic future slipping away. I hung up after telling her never to call me again, but I was afraid the harm was already done.

Do I need to point out that this kind of behavior is unacceptable anywhere? The twelve-step explanation that every addictive substance is a kind of demon that possesses the innocent user doesn’t change a thing.

Luckily, the English Department turned out to be a more liberal environment than the Fine Arts program in my old high school, and it has been my home-away-from-home for many years now. I now have enough of a social life not to seek new friends in the bar. I still wonder about the safety of newcomers to the community.

Lest you should think that substance abuse, rather than a lack of manners as such, is the subject of this sermon, I could give other instances of uncouth behavior in the cultural margins: new acquaintances who strike up a conversation about (say) the latest earthquake/tidal wave in a major world city, then abruptly ask “My place or yours?” (apparently using “the earth moved” as a sexual hint). And “friends” who sneer about one’s sex life behind one’s back. Not all this bad behavior is fuelled by booze, weed, hash, acid or crystal meth, and it wouldn’t necessarily stop if all these items magically disappeared.

Sexual etiquette, like safe bondage, seems to be a topic that always needs to be addressed, again—and not only in marriage-preparation classes hosted by churches.

Jean Roberta
May-June 2010

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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