Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Calling it play

I hang out on Fetlife a lot. (I may have mentioned this before.) You can talk about practically anything there, kink or non-kink. You can even talk about Fetlife, and many people do! I myself run a group called “The Social Psychology of Fetlife.” Online group behaviour can be quite fascinating.

But of course, mostly folks are there to discuss bdsm in one form or another, at least some of the time. Or to link up. There are huge numbers of local groups announcing events. With over 800,000 members and 27,000 groups, there’s a lot going on. And if one word comes up more than most, it’s “play.”

There’s a culture – here’s where social psychology comes in – of “the scene,” which is about events and play parties. A pervasive assumption that this is how it’s done: semi-public scenes with strangers or mere acquaintances either involved or observing. And this puzzled the hell out of me when I first came across it, and made me wonder. Were these people all exhibitionists / voyeurs? Something I thought of as incredibly private was obviously seen very differently by the majority of kinksters. Even in my horniest youth, when my body wanted nothing better than to be tied and spanked, I could never have imagined some stranger’s hand doing the deed. Even then, for me it was all about relationship.

A relationship that included actual power, of someone else over me. For real. Not some negotiated bit of play in a club that I could end with the merest safeword, and talk about afterwards on an equal footing. That would imply that it was all about sensation, and that sensation could be enough. Which for me just wasn’t the case.

The other day I ran across a thread on Fetlife in which a woman wrote that using the word “play” for bdsm activity didn’t feel right to her. It sounded too light and frivolous for something that for her would be rather serious and important. She was something of a newbie. Most of the responses suggested that the woman lighten up, since there was nothing wrong with having fun. I don’t think they got the question. One poster put his finger on it when he said the issue wasn’t “play” vs. “work;” it was “play” vs. “real.” Is this just playacting, or does it mean something? Momentary enjoyment or an expression of something deeper? Or something in between?

A Fetlife friend of mine, oatmealgirl, who writes a lovely blog called Submission and Metaphor, commented on the “play” vs. “real” issue by saying, “I don’t play, I submit.” She takes what she does very seriously – not without humour or lightness, but with a great deal of meaning.

There’s nothing in the least wrong with play, or playacting, or role playing, or sensation, or exhibitionism, or bdsm as performance art. There’s nothing wrong with fantasizing about bdsm without taking it to the point of reality in any form. One of the commonest complaints in the bdsm world is about 24/7 types looking down on those who “only play,” while the ones who engage less intensively make fun of those who adhere to “the lifestyle” as if it was a religious faith, complete with doctrine (e.g. The Gospel of Gor). There is also the gospel of Safe, Sane and Consensual, which holds that everything must be public so that experts can supervise the doms and test the knots.

Another type of thread that puzzles me is the person asking for guidance on what they should do with their partner. Not just fun and kinky ideas, but on what they should do. Aren’t they into this because they have some ideas of their own? Because something in the bdsm spectrum intrigues them and turns them on?

As has been said a million times, there’s no one way to do this. We all find the path that works for us. The trick is to thread our way between the assumptions and directives, the groupthink and the safety czars, to explore and see what resonates. It’s a process, and a captivating one.

What’s your process been like? Do the broad paths work for you, or would they take you in the wrong direction? Are the twisty paths suspect, or are they the most intriguing? How does the word “play” work for you?


  1. I am a naturally serious person, so the term play is somewhat of a relief for me. We have always called sex 'play', even before I knew about BDSM - as in, "Let's go play." And so it was natural to extend this to extracurricular activities as well. It also accurately reflects the fact that for me it is not 24/7. I can understand more why people who ARE 24/7 wouldn't use the term. After all, I am a wife and a mother ALL the time and I don't consider myself 'in play' for that.

  2. Personally, I think some people on Fetlife get too hung up on terms and definitions. I understand the need to define what you do, and who you are, where BDSM is concerned. I was much the same when I was new to the culture and exploring the community.

    The term "play" means different things to different people. I don't see it as "lightening" something that should otherwise be seen as very serious. For me it's just a term. It's how I feel about D/s that gives it meaning, not which word I use.

    In reading that thread, the poster mentioned that she didn't like the idea of play in the context of being a game, toy, prop etc because those were ideas she wasn't into. Those ideas can be a huge turn-on for someone else, like me for instance. Do I think they are any less serious than kinks someone else is into? No, I don't.

    I think intellectual discussions are wonderful because they make people think. There is no "one true way", or at least that's what I believe. S-type, masochist, player, fetishist, however you want to define me, I know who I am in the context of the relationship I have and that's all that really matters to me.

  3. This is a hot button issue with me, people claiming to have more serious/genuine/true kinks than others. I'm a part-time kinkster, but when I'm playing it feels pretty damn real.

    I'm not on FetLife, so I didn't read that discussion post. I agree with Fallon that the games, toys, and props are a big turn on for me. If someone else feels differently, so be it.

    ~ Diana

  4. I missed the discussion you're talking about, but from what you said about her being a "newbie," it sounds like she's looking for something more concrete, like a Domestic Discipline dynamic in a serious relationship. She doesn't want the submission to cease once a "play scene" is over, she wants set boundaries and obligations of what the roles should be. Which is fine, but not everyone might get that, or really, truly want that.
    There are lots of Doms on Fetlife who like to take control only in the bedroom. And by the look of how many dissatisfied subs there are on there, there's also a lot of men who think they have what it takes to be a full-time Dom, but don't.
    I've been married for over fifteen years, and it's definitely NOT play acting for me. The fresh stripes going across my bottom this morning can attest to that. Ouch.

  5. Thanks for all the thoughtful replies. The semantic issue does sometimes seem to reflect a genuine difference in how people experience their kink, although sometimes it's just words. I do think that wanting to "live it" was probably the issue for the woman in the thread. As for the whole "one true way" nonsense, if we can't accept there are any number of individual paths, all of which are okay, who will?

  6. I call it 'play' simply because I'm too shy to ask him to take me back to his room, tie me to his bed, and treat me like his whore. Plus it is a little more succinct.

  7. I agree that it is really semantics. I agree with you that both sides like to scoff at each other. I am probably guilty of it. Because to me, anyone who thinks a spanking in a story immediately qualifies as a BDSM story, I can't help but scoff and giggle. Yes it's probably kinky, but I just have a hard time classifying the book as BDSM. In the end, does it really matter? It's not like I'm going to be inviting these people into my sex life or my "play".

  8. I think - I hope - that the only ones I scoff at are the ones who claim that their way, their understanding, their definition (or, just as likely, their dom's) is the one true religion.

    No such thing. There is no Bureau of Dominance, Submission and other Mishigas to set rules, standards, and definitions. What we do - what we all do - is have relationships. And if they work for us... well, that's pretty incredible, isn't it.

    When the sadist first accepted my plea to accept me into his service, he conveyed the seriousness of it by saying "This is not a game," continuing that he believed I felt that way, too. Did we ever define what that meant? Nope. Didn't have to. We knew. Instinctively we knew what it meant, and knew that we agreed.

    We still agree.

    And that's all that matters.


    PS - thanks for the link, Anneke! Some people have actually followed the breadcrumbs.