Several years ago I used to go to a small salon where the owner gave the most amazing shampoos. The water temperature was adjusted to your personal preference, she made sure it was just the way you wanted. She spoke softly to you in her wonderful French Canadian lilt - slipping from accented English to French and back again. She would lather up your hair with some delicious smelling shampoo, working the pads of her fingertips in circles across the scalp. She never missed a spot. When she got to the conditioning, she'd get into some serious scalp massage. By the time my hair was fully rinsed, I was zoned out and completely relaxed. Recognizing my state of mind, she'd offer a chocolate or candy to help ground me so I could get from the shampoo chair to her styling station. She was careful never to rush it and it always took at least ten to fifteen minutes, sometimes longer. She charged well for her services and yes, I tipped her more than I've ever tipped any other stylist. I was always feeling pretty satisfied even before she picked up her scissors. ;-)
This, however, is one of the few hedonistic pleasures we allow ourselves. There are others of course, such as therapeutic massage, manicures/pedicures, saunas, body wraps, and other “treatments” one can choose from the menu of any spa or good quality salon; however, there are tight controls around any such pleasure that involves touch between consenting adults.
The experience got me thinking about why we associate physical pleasure primarily with the sexual act when there are so many ways to experience pleasure through the senses, and more importantly, why we seem to have so many hang ups about seeking physical pleasures with another consenting adult. Thinking back to the example above, imagine for a moment that I was speaking of having sought the services of a professional Dom/me. Suddenly the concept of seeking service takes on a whole new meaning, and likely a more secretive undertone. The secrecy would likely be needed due to the perception of its very illicit nature, as if the need for a good spanking or to be physically restrained must somehow be more deviant than the need for a good massage or scalp treatment. Having experienced a sound spanking and a painful but satisfying therapeutic massage, I can say with certainty that one is no less meaningful and necessary to the body and the psyche than the other. Given that nether involves ingesting illegal or intoxicating substances, involves no illegal act (provided no money is exchanged for the performance of a sexual act), I actually resent that one is so much harder to obtain than the other. But then it all gets back to what is culturally sanctioned. We in the Western Hemisphere like to think of ourselves as forward thinking; however, our attitudes towards sensual pleasure have a long way to go before they can be truly considered enlightened.
I think our problem starts in childhood. As children, we are not encouraged to explore how our bodies work, or at least that was the norm in the 1960s and 1970s. There may have been “free love” at Woodstock, but it was not part of mainstream school curriculum. By the time we hit adolescence, we were awash in a sea of hormones and the information women of my generation received was limited to what sanitary products to use during menstruation, and a rudimentary introduction the human reproductive system and sexually transmitted diseases. Sexuality was portrayed as secretive, dangerous and not to be dabbled with, especially by the likes of teenagers. Instead of informing us of practical and enjoyable ways to achieve release from the hormonal angst we all experienced, we were told to pretend it didn’t exist or to say “no” to peer pressure to engage in “petting” and sex.
If it wasn’t for “girlie magazine”, I can’t imagine how else I would have discovered masturbation. I was in my mid-twenties before I ever heard the word spoken aloud in conversation. Certainly no one showed me. I was curious about how the women in the girlie magazines appeared and the way they seemed to touch themselves. Of course the still photos couldn’t show action; however, I mimicked the models’ body postures and static gestures. Then I filled in the blanks thanks to details provided by a couple of erotic stories a friend of mine had found and stashed in her bedroom. It didn’t take long before my young body responded and I was having orgasms every night before I drifted off to sleep. It actually helped me to “just say no” in that I was not as driven to engage sexually with others. I had learned how to find my own release. When I read stories today of how so many women go for years not knowing what it is to experience orgasm, I can’t help but regard this as an utter injustice and a waste of the bodies they’ve been given. Of course, the access to information provided by the internet has changed this. But while there may be more how-to information floating around, our attitudes towards seeking sensual/erotic pleasure have not kept pace. We are still not encouraged to view our bodies as vehicles capable of achieving sensual/sexual pleasure.
Sensual pleasure involving interaction with another is still largely deemed as appropriate in the context of a monogamous relationship (fine dining, massage therapy, beauty salons and spas not withstanding). The notion that a person might seek pleasure from another outside of a primary relationship is still considered scandalous and reason to seek a divorce. Sensual pleasure is closely linked with sexual pleasure, even though they can clearly be separate pursuits, and either sought outside a primary relationship is usually viewed as the ultimate betrayal, yet this is the same culture that originated an expression, cautioning us about having all our eggs in one basket. Is it any wonder so many relationships fail? Our partners/spouses have to be “our everything,” or the relationship is viewed as somehow having failed to more or less degree.
The dynamic and type of activity sought by some are not considered mainstream. For example, perhaps I have a strong desire to be spanked and enjoy the sensual pleasures brought by mild to moderate impact play: the stinging and warmth, followed by the heightened sensitivity. Or perhaps, I enjoy relinquishing control and being restrained. Or perhaps I am seeking to achieve what is called “sub space” in the BDSM community, an altered mental state brought about by repetitive stimulation through paddling, flogging, etc. There is an element of danger in each of these pursuits. Just like I know I shouldn’t bleach my own hair (and I don’t), I know I’ll likely be safer, especially first time out, if I seek the help of an experienced, if not professional) Dom/me as I explore spanking, rope work, etc. If I was still married and taking this route, as a number of my new kinky friends are, I would find myself stymied, if not by my own ingrained attitudes, then certainly by my partner’s. I’ve read that some couples manage to foster more openness in their relationships to allow for mentorship or outside play partners, but I get the feeling this works much better if both partners are kinky.
Within the BDSM community, some individuals have multiple relationships, where they may be married or otherwise committed to one person, but engage in “play” with others, with or without their spouse. Some are part of polyamorous groups or households. On the surface, it may be tempting to dismiss this as nothing more than an individual trying to have their cake and eat it too. But is it really that simple or is this sort of dismissal nothing more than culturally ingrained fears of rejection meshing with religious tenets which demand monogamy and a certain brand of fidelity? There is a distinct possibility that a couple that engages in play with others is very clear on why they are and remain a couple. And it is certainly not because each is the “one and only” for the other. This sort of arrangement requires the participating couple to have discussed and established the parameters around their open relationship. I bet that takes effort, honesty and soul searching, especially when approached lovingly and deliberately.
It is worth remembering that fidelity has its roots in the control of women’s bodies, specifically their reproduction systems so the paternity of any offspring is assured, thus ensuring that family bloodlines remain pure, inheritances are doled out as intended, etc. And even with all the history and repression that surrounds this, bastards have sat on thrones and monarchs have still sought sensual, sexual and emotional solace outside of their sanctioned unions. In contrast, also in history, there have been traditions where sexual acts happening within a religious context were deemed acceptable in societies that otherwise had rules and limitations on intimate interactions. Historians and archaeologists discovering such practices have sometimes been quick to interpret their meaning through a more contemporary, albeit culturally repressive lens (for example, Victorian England) and have regarded these as aberrations, or examples of depravity, and the participants as ritualized prostitutes and worse. Perhaps these cultures or societies recognized on some level the need for sanctioned outlets outside the family structure. Perhaps they worshipped deities that exalted aspects of sexuality instead of regarding them merely as tools for procreation. If so, little of this wisdom seems to have carried forward.
The BDSM community advocates that all intimate interactions or “play” be “safe, sane and consensual” between adults of legal age, and their parameters (or boundaries and limitations of participants) be thoroughly discussed so they are understood by those involved. It is recognized that different people will have different needs and limitations and/or roles in the play session and as long as these are understood and agreed upon, and the participants show respect for these and for each other, that is all that is required. There is no requirement for a life-long commitment and no assumption made that play partners will become life-long partners. There is no assumption that an agreement to play is in any way a statement that a person’s primary relationship is in jeopardy or unsatisfactory. Nor is any negative judgement or label necessarily attached to those who “play” with more than one person.I’m not naïve enough to believe that more experienced members of the BDSM community are any less prone to relationship difficulties since the participants have suffered through the same cultural, social and religious indoctrination as the rest of us; however, the openness the community promotes in defining the nature of the interactions between consenting adults is certainly something from which the mainstream could learn.