Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers - Amanda Jones, An Open Book, One Sub's Mission, Polyamorous Parenting, Post Modern Sleaze, and Rarely Wears Lipstick - will write about their views on one of them. This month: Needs and Wants.
A well-timed post, given that Ganymede and I have just gone through what an old school kinkster might call "the negotiation phase". Other people might blanch at the level of organisation, bullet points, formalised writing and spreadsheets which are involved in kick-starting a D/s relationship with me. It's a tribute to the (sickening, sickening) level of fit between him and myself that all of this has been reassuring rather than terrifying, powerfully protective instead of creepy and detailed instead of obsessive. We've both been in and out of those "are we, aren't we?" relationships where little clarity was offered and both felt insecure and anxious as a result.
I'm going to sidetrack to a bit of kinky history, just for background. There are old-school ways of forming BDSM relationships, including specific types of collars and collaring processes, such as a "collar of consideration" or "training collar" where someone is given a specific collar by a dominant, usually more workmanlike and less pretty than a "real" collar. This tentative, patient movement towards a D/s relationship is a reflection of previous, formal and hierarchical arrangements where the outward appearance was often very considered and ran according to particular group protocols. I've even heard tell of BDSM subcultures where all dominants must spend a certain number of years as a submissive, regardless of their actual sexual desires in this area, in order to learn what it feels like. As a switch, I approve of this idea, if not of the actual method. Kinksters, like all nerds, have rules about what is and isn't the correct way of behaving. It creates a system where one didn't exists and therefore helps us assert our authority and our right to live the way we want to.
Over time, we have become (slowly) more accepted and (slowly) less closeted and (rapidly) more on the internet, we've become a little more relaxed about these formalities. Or perhaps we've just moved to other, electronic formats. The processes of forming BDSM relationships have changed and the idea that a particular specific set of things must be done in order to be "doing it right" has been, correctly, eroded. However, there are still stages and points in time, as well as tools, which are incredibly valuable to kinksters and I hope will never fall by the wayside.
Lets start with negotiations. It's a great fallacy of BDSM that the dominant decides everything and the submissive has no input. Needs and wants is not, in my experience, a written-in-stone tablet that the dominant presents to the submissive. Perhaps some people do that. I don't. There are some very good negotiation spreadsheets around which are useful for all kinds of kinky encounters. They give long lists of BDSM activities, from physical play to emotional and much more, with space for notes, for colouring in red, amber or green or for detailing whether you want to try something, want to be made to try it, are nervous about it or will stab someone in the eye if they even suggest it. After a few text based exchanges I sent one of these over to Ganymede and we now have a shared document which is a wonderful "what shall I do to you tonight?" menu for me.
In our negotiations, I sent over some very specific points which outline the type of relationship I want, some notes about how I view consent, the kinds of things I like doing and my own personal "wash and care" instructions, a few notes on how to take care of me. Regular feeding, sleeping and fucking are required, along with the ability to make gin and tonic and to only serve me decent coffee. Even if you do like having hot drinks spat in your face countermanding the latter is not encouraged.
I asked him for similar thoughts and then we looked into specifics, or picked out any areas of difference or points that needed expanding upon. We tried to cover as many potential situations as possible. As a dominant I work with rules and protocols to manage our relationship, so that we both know what is expected of each other. The less I can get away with the better, because I don't like having lots of things to remember and I like being able to react based on how we are both feeling at the time. However, there are some rules that need to be agreed upon. The way you decide you are going to approach other people is something that should be tackled as early on in the discussions as possible. Starting with the question: "do you want to be open or non-monogamous?"
For us, it was simple. We have no other partners. We are both very keen on a firm D/s commitment and we are non-monogamous in terms of sexual appetite. We're also open to the possibilities that alternative relationship set-ups might give us in the future, but are conscious of being new to each other. I am keen to keep ourselves to ourselves for a little while on an emotional level, certainly. We know that we are keen to fuck and to play with others, and have already made inroads in arranging this, we also know that another boy would be a good play addition. We're also both very happy spending an afternoon in a sunny coffee shop in Soho deciding who from the passers-by we would corrupt, and how.
For BDSM, the type of D/s relationship can vary massively, and it's good to work that out early too. Not every dominant matches every submissive - far from it. There's a terrible assumption in some circles that just because I like rope, for example, I will like being tied up by anyone. Just like the assumption by well-meaning parents or friends that because a particular chap shares certain interests with me, we would be a lovely couple. So, alongside the obvious things of how you want to spend time together, the sorts of exciting sex and kink you can have, you also need to think about what the power exchange might look and feel like.
One of the best ways I've ever heard of describing a D/s relationship was through the use of avatars to elucidate the type of person you want to be. For me, my dominance is styled around being a "trainer" - I develop submissives into something even better. I'm caring, but firm and I use a lot of small, ongoing behaviour modifications to refine my darlings. I'm also a "Daddy" figure, authoritarian but proud of my charges and loving. When I'm in darker, filthier moods I'm also a "groomer" and a "torturer" I coax and force them into doing all kinds of things. My wants in this is to be a powerful figure within their life who provides support, stability and is served or attended to in turn.
For Ganymede, we are using words like "toy", "object", "pet", "slave" and "boy" - all his words, naturally. From those I'm able to pick up on what he is interested in, the specific sorts of control and ownership that turns him on and makes him happy.
After you've done the negotiations, you create the contract. A solid D/s contract can be many things. At its most basic it gives both (or all, though in this case we are two) parties the opportunity to highlight what they want from the relationship. Needs and wants. What you are looking for, what you can give, what you can't give. This covers a lot of things, time spent with each other, who you want to be for each other, future plans, sexual preferences. BDSM codifies a lot of these in the form of a contract, and some people do indeed write up and sign documents.
My contract is simple, it's designed to be "always on" so not matter what else happens, this basic statement covers who and what we mean to each other. It's also flexible in terms of what it could potentially include, easy to understand and, importantly positive.
You are mine: you will serve and obey me; I will train and look after you
It starts when you accept, it ends when we decide it ends
We will make each other's lives better
The email thread includes all the negotiation emails we've sent backwards and forwards, with the requirement that certain key points are replied to with an agreement or acceptance. One of the reason why I like contracts is the sense of rigor and permanence, which a casual pillow-talk conversation does not, no matter how sleepy and seductive. Things get forgotten, or if half-murmured whilst fucking can be cast as in-the-moment cries of passion, signifying nothing.
The final thing I want to touch on, briefly, is collars. These, or other pieces of significant jewellery, "seal the deal" in many ways. Signs and symbols are important to all kinds of human interactions, and contracts can sometimes seem like words or pixels. A physical reminder of what you have agreed, of what you mean to each other is very potent. The gift, in and of itself, is powerful, it is an endowment, a very solid reflection of what has been agreed. A collar need not be a collar. Ganymede now has a fetching silver chain coiled around his neck. Discrete, but of a solid weave. Given once all the agreements have been made, and representative of them. A little light touch of me upon his neck, glistening in the sun.
Whether or not you are kinky, the important thing about all of this is that genuine, honest conversations have been had and decisions have been made. Together. To my mind, the best relationships are ones in which this negotiation process is never finished, where the conversations about who we are and where we can go continue forever, always learning and always exploring.
I've had situations where it has not been quite so simple, not quite so neat as I'm making out. Either because the conversation never really happened, such as with The Photographer where there was no negotiation, the situation was a done deal and my inexperience didn't prepare me for what was actually being said. That has led me to perhaps be more careful, more clear in my own dealings with people. No bad thing. I've been in situations where I've tried to have conversations and felt ignored or given lip service, where the desire for what I offered was greater than the actual ability to deliver it. I know that my reliance on email can cause confusion for people who are not used to thinking strategically or tactically about relationships, sex and emotions. And situations where the requirement to make time to even have the conversation in the first place was a battle, where documentation was ignored or the entire process caused upset - a failure on all sides.
I've learnt a lot. About myself, about people I have loved and lost. Not everyone will be keen to have these kinds of conversations, not everyone will want to be in a D/s or an open or polyamorous situation. Part of the point of outlining needs and wants is that you are clear in yourself what you want and can explain it to others. The perfect goal is that everyone gets what they want, but an outcome you should steel yourself for is that you do not get what you want but that people are not misled or hurt by the process.
Sounds business-like and transactional? Well, yes. A bit of business nouse goes a long way in creating a bedrock you can benefit from. It doesn't mean that you have to then set up weekly, minuted board meetings for your relationship - although if one party was interested in wearing a pencil skirt and taking dictation that could work for everyone's benefit. What it does give you is a written document - in our case, series of emails and a googledoc spreadsheet - that you have both created together which defines and outlines the edges of your relationship.
Where you go from there, is up to you. But at least things are a lot clearer.