At Burning Man 2017, my partner and I attended a demonstration called “Dinner and an Interrogation”, hosted at the theme camp Brûlée.

Two BM contributors (names withheld until/unless I get their blessing) allowed an audience to watch one of their “rough body play” BDSM scenes. The general scenario was that S had a four-digit number that M had thirty minutes to “interrogate” out of them.

Before the scene began, there was some lengthy description of what was going to ensue, so that anyone in the audience had ample opportunity to decide this was not their cup of tea (and potentially triggering) and excuse themselves.

There was an explicit discussion of consent and the absolutely essential role it plays in ethical BDSM.

M displayed a table of tools that might be used during the interrogation, and S had the opportunity to review the table and remove three items that they didn’t consent to that evening. No argument, no wheedling, no debate; bam they were off the table.

The actual scene was incredibly intense to watch, even hard to watch at times, but I was mesmerized for the entire event. There was punching, wrestling, dragging across the dusty playa ground, pressure points, paddling, tying to a chair, and even waterboarding! Somewhere around the 20-minute mark, M got the final digit from S and the scene ended and the pair immediately departed for aftercare.

There was a lot in the scene that didn’t work for me. Not that I’m being at all judgmental about someone else doing it, but a lot of it wasn’t my particular kink. For example, I have a tough time figuring how I could conduct waterboarding in a way that felt arousing. However, I was absolutely fascinated by the rapport between the two participants, their commitment to explicit and enthusiastic consent. It was a thing of beauty.

So when I saw the pair was returning for Burning Man 2018, their events were circled in red in my “What, Where, When” book. First we attended a “Rough Body Play” workshop where the same pair talked through a lot of the thinking and planning that goes into that sort of scene. As they talked through and demonstrated punching, kicking, grappling, judo throws, they spoke at length about some of the risks involved, steps to minimize those risks, alternatives for people with physical challenges. I was absolutely delighted to see the same (or even higher) level of emphasis on consent. There was also a fascinating blend of professional and serious presentation with the playful affection and obvious respect between the two of them.

Two days later we saw the “Dinner and Interrogation” scene again, this time with M and another partner, P. I was astounded to see P last the entire thirty minutes, yielding only two of the four digits to M. The difference between how S participated in the scene in 2017 and P in 2018 was night and day, and it was educational seeing the range of experiences. Once again, the entire scene was breathtaking to watch.

The very next day there was a “Fetish Friday” party at the same camp where M and S were chatting with people one-on-one and tutoring them through some specific moves. Melody and I approached them, gushed in a hugely fanboy fashion for a while, then started asking for some pointers on grappling and punching. Both M and S were enormously gracious and generous with their time, and the next thing you know we were piecing together foam grappling mats on the playa dust and stripping down for business. Melody learned a couple of ways to throw me, as well as a position where she could almost completely immobilize me. We got some pointers on how to punch more safely and then… we started talking about breath play and choking. I got some essential pointers on what to avoid, the proper places to apply pressure, different positions to try, and safeguards to follow. In the process, I admitted that I had never been choked out and and was curious about it. My rationale is that I don’t want to do something to anyone else that I hadn’t experienced myself. Asking if I really meant it and wanted to experience being choked out, M offered to oblige me.

I dropped to my knees in the dust (*ahem*) and M stood behind me with one arm wrapped around my neck, my throat in the crook of his elbow. He applied gentle pressure on the back of my head and … we stayed there for several seconds. I waved to someone in the crowd watching (I was later told we had an enormous audience), and then began to think it wasn’t going to work and even felt a small bit of sadness for M. “Aww, it’s gonna be embarrassing when the big ole dommie top can’t choke me out.” Then… something happened… and the next thing I knew my brain was rebooting. I was on all fours. It was dusty as all fuck. Flashing lights. Noisy thudding bass. I looked up and made eye contact with a human it took me several seconds to identify. Melody said it was quite disturbing to look in my eyes and not see any glint of recognition for several seconds. My first rational thought was “What happened? Did… did I just pass out?” Then I glanced to the side and saw M and recalled that I had asked him to choke me and… it all kinda popped into place. It was incredibly bizarre feeling all my systems slowly come back on line and to reconstruct what happened based on such disjointed data. It was an amazing rush!

Melody and I left for a while after that so that I could collect myself and integrate the experience. Every thirty minutes or so I would exclaim aloud with shock and wonder, “Holy crap, M choked me the fuck out!” Mind. Blown.

Oh, and I want to point out; the entire hour we spent with M and S getting tips and techniques and demonstrations, every single time either M or S was going to lay a hand on either me or Melody (to demonstrate something), they asked for consent. Every. Single. Time. Melody tells me that when M choked me and I finally blacked out, M cradled my head with great tenderness and very carefully lowered me to the ground.

Those interactions were the highlight of a really amazing burn! When you admire someone from a distance (as we did after watching last year’s scene), there’s a little apprehension about getting closer to them and finding out the reality doesn’t match the expectations. Instead, our expectations were exceeded. M and S were kind, gracious, generous, incredibly thoughtful, and I cannot thank them enough. If you at at the Burn next year (and this is your kind of kink), I strongly encourage you to look for future events with the names I listed below.

My first serious experiences with BDSM were with a former partner, M. A couple of years into the relationship, I bound her arms over her head (standing) and engaged in some sensation play, tickling, and mild spanking. Although it seemed to go well for awhile, she soon had a major meltdown, scene over, lots of aftercare. The experience pushed enough major buttons with her that we avoided that territory assiduously for a great many years after.

Over a decade later (I tend towards pretty long-term relationships), M and I made plans to go to Burning Man as part of a sex-positive theme camp we recalled from our previous Burn. Apparently we only vaguely, sorta, kinda remembered the camp, because “sex-positive” was too vague by half. Once we arrived on playa and started assisting with erecting the camp (phrasing!), we discovered that the camp founders described the camp as “the biggest, baddest BDSM play space on playa”. Both of us worked shifts as “Dungeon Monitors”, helping supervise the public play space. I also attended a “make your own flogger” class on playa and came away with my very first flogger.

Those experiences brought the topic back to the table for M and me, and we explored it with cautious enthusiasm. I was a tentative top, M was my bottom. There was some role playing, bondage, sensation play, spanking (bare handed and with a strap), flogging, anal play, and dominance/submission.

The play was enjoyable and rewarding, but it was also complicated. I didn’t know it at the time, but the relationship with M was on its last legs; she left our home and the relationship three months after that Burn, and hasn’t spoken to me in over two years. So our renewed explorations of BDSM happened in the context of some relationship strife, communication challenges, and more emotional turmoil than usual. Additionally, M and I were both strong believers in a guideline regarding open relationships, “Don’t embark on this journey when your relationship isn’t already pretty solid. Trying this isn’t going to fix your relationship, and in fact might hasten an already-looming demise.”

As such, experimenting with BDSM was something M and I did only when the conditions were just right. She had to be in the right mood, I had to be in the right mood, there couldn’t be any overt drama or communication issues hanging in the air, we had to have a serious chunk of free time available for the scene and ample aftercare. It felt like the stars had to be aligned just so before we were willing to “go there”, and the conditions were unfavorable far more often than they were favorable.

Of course, the picture was further clouded by how new we both were in this space. I was a tentative top, still getting my bearings in this landscape. M was an anxious bottom who really struggled with trusting and letting go. It was a challenging learning process. Then the relationship crumbled to pieces from under me. I have speculated more than once about whether our foray into BDSM contributed straw to our camel’s over-burdened back. Given the lack of subsequent communication between us, I can’t really say.

Regardless, the experience reinforced my belief that BDSM was only viable in the context of a rock-solid relationship, between people who were (separately and together) in a very secure emotional landscape. That belief was soon challenged. Look for Part 2 of this story.

For the past year or so, I’ve been exploring BDSM activities with a little more enthusiasm. On playa in 2014, I camped with the Theme Camp “Retrofrolic”, which is the largest BDSM playspace on the playa. I’ve taught classes on making your own flogger (from upcycled bicycle innertubes). And I am newly involved in a significantly more serious BDSM relationship than I’ve experienced before. In these experiences, I’ve been the “top”, the “dom”, the “sadist”.

Despite that, I’ve been really uneasy with the title “sadist”. It didn’t feel like it fit me, but I had a hard time articulating why. 

From a historical perspective, the writings of the Marquis de Sade describe some really extreme behavior, sexual abuse, rape, pedophilia, necrophilia… some reprehensible actions, to say the least. But okay, let’s agree that we’re only talking about the context of consenting sexual behavior involving pain and/or dominance. There are still aspects of that that sit uneasily with me. It was jarring to walk into camp in the wee hours of the morning and greet a fellow Burner who had a fresh array of bright purple welts from the small of her back to her lower thighs, purple drifting into blood red in places. And she was enormously proud of them! I very firmly believe and embrace “Your kink is okay!”, but at the same time that was a level of BDSM that I had a hard time personally relating to.

So I’ve been pondering this term, “sadist”, talking it over with partners, even talking about it with a local meeting of sex geeks (wow, I love Portland!). And I think I’ve finally figured out my own personal relationship with the term.

I have relationships where I really enjoy exerting control and dominance, where I provide verbal abuse and inflict considerable amounts of physical pain. And I’m not a sadist.

Let me explain by giving you an example from my massage practice. Nearly every massage I do includes some work with my fingertips on the client’s temples. Most clients really love this, but there are a few that hate it and I make a note to avoid it with them in future massages. And some clients like it but only with the very lightest of pressure, while others wants me to wear a groove in their skulls. And you know what? It’s all good. I don’t think less of the people who hate it, and I’m not upset at someone who doesn’t want me to bear down as hard as I might. The point isn’t to flex my finger muscles; the point is to make that person feel good! And if that particular move doesn’t work for someone, I move on and find something that does make their toes curl!

And that’s very much how I feel about my BDSM practices. I have had a few girlfriends who enjoy aspects of those behaviors. And I’m currently involved with someone who is taking me to the limits of where I thought I could go. But I also have a partner who has no appreciable interest in those activities at all. And it’s all good! I’m not grumpy and sad because I have a girlfriend who doesn’t want to be flogged ruthlessly. For me, the point isn’t the pain, the point is to use that pain as a vehicle for bringing someone pleasure. And I’m really talking about “for me” here. I hugely enjoy giving my partners pleasure. I like bringing them to a fevered spot in their head where conscious thought stops and their senses are electrified. If getting there involves some extra dirty talk and a little spanking, I can handle it. If it involves causing screaming pain and some bruising, I can hang. But I have no desire to go there if it doesn’t make my partner’s toes curl.

If I were really a sadist and had a partner who wouldn’t let me beat them savagely, I have to think I’d be really disappointed in that. “Aww, here’s this girl I’m really into, and I can’t indulge this thing that I really love to do. That sucks!” In fact, I have a kink I feel exactly that way about. I love giving a woman head. Even if it isn’t that pleasurable for a particular partner, I still enjoy licking her pussy. The smell, the texture, the taste. Mmm, the taste. That richer, muskier taste that comes when she is thoroughly aroused. It makes me growl with hunger. If I had a partner who refused to let me eat her pussy, I would be hugely sad. It would feel like a huge loss in the relationship, to me. ‘cause that’s my kink. (And your kink is okay!)

But I don’t feel that way about BDSM. If that doesn’t work for a partner, I’ll find something else that will. I’ll find something that will make them gasp, stop them in mid-sentence, make them see a mandala of light pulse in their vision. As long as she also lets me eat her pussy every so often. 🙂

My soundtrack for this discussion is courtesy of Momus: I Want You But I Don’t Need You

Here’s a story about consent from this year’s Burning Man:

One afternoon I was hanging around camp, watching the passerbys strolling and biking down the street (between Basra and Cinnamon, on 7:00). There was a woman from a BDSM camp who was standing in the middle of the street, offering to administer spankings with a rather fierce-looking paddle. One passing woman stopped, bent over and offered her bottom in an especially fetching fashion.

The woman with the paddle leaned towards her and said, “That’s not enough. I need to hear a ‘yes’.”