Before I start, a quick content warning for this newsletter because, while my discussion of rough sex here is through a kink-positive lens and focuses on consent, I am inevitably going to touch on themes of gender-based violence because that is a big part of the current discourse around it.
I often shy away from writing or speaking on social media about rough sex. It’s something that has been coming up in the media a lot recently, most notably around the so-called “rough sex defence” which is where men who’d killed their partners would seek to argue that she had consented to the violence as part of a kinky sex scene and that it had “gone too far”. Like everyone else, I find this horrifying. As I wrote in a piece for the Indy last summer, as much as I want to de-stigmatise sex and BDSM, it would be deeply unhelpful to use that as an opportunity to point out that some people do actually consent to rough sex.
But the subject keeps coming up. A few weeks ago I talked to you about the leaked messages, alleged to be sent by Armie Hammer which contained pretty hardcore fantasies. And I recently read this piece, also in the Indy, about the author’s experience of having men open conversations on dating apps by asking if she wants to be slapped or spat on. This is not at all uncommon, she wrote, citing “hundreds” of women who she says responded to her after she tweeted about it.
It’s not so much the interest in rough sex itself that intrigues me. I know rough sex is a thing and it’s not a remotely new thing either. In his book Tell Me What You Want, psychologist Justin Lehmiller explains that kinky fantasies such as slapping, smacking, being tied up, held down and otherwise dominated are among the most common sexual fantasies in the world. And in her recent podcast series, “Kink!” Alix Fox talks to historians, psychologists and social anthropologists about the long, long history of humans getting sexual gratification from bondage, domination, sado-masochism, and submission. What I’m curious about is the suggestion that straight men on dating apps seem to have decided it’s now par for the course that the women they’re dating will be into it.
A quick note before I get into that, though: I obviously disagree with the suggestion that all men who like rough sex are misogynists (as many on social media have argued). But it would also be disingenuous to suggest there is never any overlap. What we’ve seen with Armie Hammer, for example, is that he actually does seem to associate rough sex with a genuine contempt for women. When he said he wouldn’t pull his wife’s hair because he respects her too much, it became clear that rough sex for him was not about playing with the idea of disrespect, it was literally disrespectful.
It’s not true to say that no one who practises rough sex is ever going to be misogynistic because inevitably some people are. There’s a lot of misogyny in the world and there needs to be room to acknowledge that there are people out there whose relationship with sex and kink is problematic. But that does not equate to saying that rough sex is inherently misogynistic.
As I said, though, that’s not really what I’m interested in. What I want to know is how we have got to a point where guys genuinely think it’s okay to open a conversation with “Would you like to be slapped and spat on?”
Even on Feeld or Fetlife, where people list their kinks very openly and often in quite a lot of detail, I would still consider it bad manners for someone to start a chat by telling me what they want to do to me. Even in those contexts, I still like a nice friendly intro. I want people to open with “Hi, you look fun and cool, I’d love to know more about your sailor fetish,” or "Hey, I'm into wax too, what’s your favourite place to get dripped on?"
A lot of people blame porn but I don’t buy that. It’s not that I think porn has no influence on us because it does. But it doesn’t explain how people go from thinking “ooh that sounds hot” to assuming it’s completely chill to drop it into conversation.
What I suspect is that, as Justin Lehmiller’s work shows, a LOT of people have kinky fantasies. As kinky subjects get increasingly represented and discussed in the mainstream (including, perhaps, porn), people go from having fantasies to actively wanting to try stuff. However, there is a very, very big gap between wanting to try things and knowing how to talk about those things, as well as navigate the necessary boundaries and nuances of consent. To put it simply, I think that some of these guys have encountered rough sex, are keen to give it a go, and so have simply incorporated it into their repertoire without considering that it might require a bit of extra thought and sensitive handling.
While we can all agree that physically doing something to someone without checking they’re into it is definitely not okay, when it comes to dropping it into conversation with someone you’re dating it’s not so clear. One of the comments I saw on Twitter complained that “I didn’t consent to being asked,” which is a weird one because how do you get consent to ask a question without clearly explaining what that question is and thereby asking it? I think what she means here is that the guy in question didn’t “read the room” which is also a valid complaint. These are the more nuanced parts of consent: The stuff like just paying attention to what the other person is saying and how they're reacting and dipping a toe in the water to see whether they're comfortable taking the conversation in a certain direction.
One of my favourite things I’ve read on this subject is this piece by Jaclyn Friedman where she talks about how we need to move past the idea of consent as a hurdle to be cleared and embrace it as “a humanizing ethic of sex.” And Justin Hancock has a whole chapter on this in his new book Can We Talk About Consent? and one of the key things he encourages readers to do is ask themselves whether the person “has given you an indication that they’d be interested in you asking”. That, to me, is part of what “reading the room” involves.
He also advocates for asking in a way that “gives options” so instead of saying “Do you want me to slap and spit on you?” the guy could have said “How do you feel about stuff like slapping and spitting?” Or, even better, he could have first asked “How do you feel about kink?” and then made the question more open-ended: What sorts of things are you into? as opposed to Are you into this?
This is actually really everyday stuff; we have to navigate whether and how to raise subjects and ask for things all the time at work, among friends, within families but in the context of sex we have somehow reduced the idea of consent to a yes/no binary, which it isn’t at all.
Instead of wading straight in with our demands, let’s try to start conversations about sex in the same, open, collaborative way that we’d start a conversation about where to meet for a walk, what to have for dinner, or what film to watch.
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What’s on my mind this week…
After I wrote about my desire for novelty last week, a few people got in touch to say that they've felt guilty about their own novelty-seeking in the past, or that they’re worried they’ve been on the problematic end at times. I sympathise with this and one of the things I love about this newsletter is that it attracts people who are genuinely interested in interrogating their feelings and desires, even when it leads to unflattering discoveries.
And I must stress that nobody who got in touch was seeking validation or atonement for unethical behaviour, merely acknowledging it. But it got me thinking.
I'm a strong believer in the maxim that you can't control your feelings but you can control your behaviour. No matter what’s going on in your head, you still have a choice about how you treat people and, for me, the pursuit of pleasure and even “self-transcendence” has always got to be balanced against my responsibilities to other people, including the responsibility not to be a twat. I am very much committed to not being a twat to people and that goes for those I’ve just met as well as those I’ve known and loved for thirty years.
When I talk about tapping into our needs and desires, I hope to do so without promoting solipsism. Again, I saw no egocentricity in the responses people sent me but it reminded me of a phenomenon I’ve seen in other forums where people use the language of self-awareness to exempt themselves from twattery. It’s something I might come back to in another newsletter because I have more thoughts on this (and I know some of my readers do) but for now I’ll just say this: no one is exempt from being a twat. For some, it’s a lifelong struggle. But I believe we can do it!
Did you know… data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL 3) shows around half of people in the UK report some type of sexual problem, whether it’s a struggle to orgasm or concerns about their libido. I want to find out why and what we can do about it because the current conversations aren’t helping.
We spend a lot of time in the media talking about how to make sex better - usually with “hot tips” and lists of products to “spice things up” - but we don’t spend any time examining why we need those tips in the first place. I want to flip the conversation on its head. That’s what this podcast series is going to do.
The crowdfunder for the new series of “The Second Circle” is launching next week! I have been working so hard on this and I can’t wait to tell you all about it and let you know how you can help make it happen (spoiler: it involves merch!)
A couple more things to (over)think about…
Gal-dem have done a big investigative feature on transphobia in women’s refuges
There was a great piece on “the orgasm gap” in The Telegraph’s Stella magazine at the weekend
Patrick Strudwick’s review of It’s A Sin (and the myriad of dodgy takes on it) pulls no punches
Keira Knightly said she’s no longer going to shoot sex scenes directed by men which sounds a lot like my approach to dating right now
Oh hello, it’s me! I’m in this month’s Cosmpolitan with a report I did on how the pandemic affected our sex lives. It’s just a small slice of the story, really, but I hope I managed to squeeze in a few useful observations about human sexuality in a time of social deprivation
If you cba to go out and buy Cosmo, Natasha Preskey has also just done a big feature on “a year without sex” which I really liked because it highlights how hard it’s been for many of us
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