In the last episode of The Pageist, I reviewed Lee Harrington and Mollena Williams’ Playing Well with Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Exploring and Navigating the Kink, Leather and BDSM Communities.
This is the text version of the review for the people prefer reading to listening.
Before I start the review—full disclosure—one of the authors of Playing Well with Others (Lee Harrington) also has a podcast on the Erotic Awakening Podcast Network. However, I purchased this book with my own money some months before I had any idea I’d have a podcast of my own, let alone one even tangentially related to Lee’s. While I’m mentioning him, though, his show is Passion and Soul and it’s pretty excellent. I could hear his voice while reading this.
With that out of the way…
The title pretty much tells you what it’s about, but I’m going to take you through some of the highlights. The authors cover an impressive amount of ground.
The first chapter is about the variety of reasons why people get into kink. It asks—as much of the book does—the reader to question their own motivations. The authors then go on to give examples of some of the reasons people are into kink.
There were a couple quotes in this section that spoke to me:
Being into kink gives us permission to embrace what gets us wet, hard or riled up. … we are granted permission to embrace, not just accept or cope with, our desires. … It’s one thing to secretly contemplate your innermost sexual fantasies, and another thing to celebrate them with others who will celebrate right alongside you.
That permission is so important. Even if you’re not talking about kink with someone—even if you’re just sat next to them and you know they know about and accept and celebrate that ‘dark’ part of you. That’s huge. You may not even realize it until your at a munch and people are discussing the menu and you look around and think, ‘I’m Normal when I’m with these people.’ It’s a really incredible moment.
Because we are wired this way. There are those who have longed for alternative sexual practices for most of their lives; for such people, kink comes naturally. Engaging in kink activities is their “normal” sexuality, not a form of fringe sex. … To deny their organic longings would harm their own emotional and psychological health, because they are hard-wired this way. They may have been deeply kinky without any instruction, direction or guidance, and they may not have formal names for their desires for SM and power plays.
And now some listeners have Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ in their heads. You’re welcome or I’m sorry depending upon your personal feeling about that song.
This chapter included a definition to a word I particularly enjoy—paraphilia.
A paraphilia refers to a sexual arousal towards a specific object, situation or individual that is not considered “normal” in culture. A paraphilia becomes debilitating if these arousals and interests become obsessions, or cause serious problems for the person or their friends, partners and random strangers. The word “fetish” is technically synonymous with a paraphilia, but in modern times mass media and the kink community alike have come to conflate “fetish wear” with “anything black, shiny and high-heeled” instead of “a clothing item that specifically arouses the wearer or viewer of that individual” as it used to. Note the “normal in mainstream culture” point. “Tit men” or “ass men” are considered normal because mainstream culture says attraction to tits and asses is “normal,” while attraction to feet, leather or balloons is considered “kinky.”
Chapter Two is on Etiquette and Culture which includes myths people may have about dungeons or playing.
There were several quotes that stood out in this section.
If you don’t like it, don’t do it.
This seems obvious, but peer pressure is a bitch. Not everyone is into floggers, pudding wrestling, group sex, or straitjackets. But when you walk into the party, or see miles of discussion on the Internet about how the ultimate high is inverted suspension while being set on fire and eating caviar, suddenly you may find yourself caught up in the passion of public opinion and cast around for someone to hang you up, light you up and feed you sturgeon roe. And if that is truly what you desire, go for it (after proper training of course). However, subjecting yourself to an activity simply because it seems like the cool thing to do can lead to a rather empty feeling.
I dunno, you’d at least be full of caviar, right?
As we discover our bliss, it is important to remember, as we are living in the default world, that we respect the choices and lifestyle of non-kinky folks.
Remember, you are an ambassador for our community. Represent yourself, and our community, with respect for the world around us.
Thank you, authors. There’s advice in later chapters on how to explain your latex outfit to the nice couple in the elevator at the hotel without scaring the normals.
All of that may sound like common sense advice, but I think we all know how abundant that is.
One of my favorite quotes in the book is this: It’s about the myth:
“’If I know their kink identity, I know their personality.’
Some toxic assumptions can impede and damage respect within the community. If you think dominant individuals must be bossy assholes, or that someone who identifies as submissive will be a spineless doormat, you will find—based on our experience—that you assumptions are some serious bullshit.”
Preach, my friends. Preach it from the very highest of mountaintops.
One thing I learned—well I learned a LOT, but one of those things was about the differences between the way kink and swinger communities handle consent. In the book it’s described as the swinger community having a ‘Yes until No’ culture, meaning if you’re at a swingers’ function proceed as you’d like until you reach the other person’s boundary, at which time they’ll stop you. Whereas the BDSM culture has a ‘No until Yes’ culture, where all parties agree what’s okay before anything begins.
That must make for some…confusing encounters when swingers visit dungeons or play parties. And because negotiation is my thang the idea of someone just walking over and touching me makes both tires screeching to a halt AND a record scratching sound in my head. I guess there’s a big ol’ gramophone in the back seat of my car that’s skidding on Presumption Hwy, there, my friend.
Chapter three was events, groups and gatherings.
Okay. So I’m new. It’s been about eleven months since I worked everything out about myself. I had NO IDEA there were so many ways to meet kinky people. I knew there were dungeons, conferences, educationals and, like, workshops. This was clearly going to be a short chapter.
There were twenty-seven things!
Each one is broken down into what exactly that function is—what to expect—what you may see. It demystifies each one so you can decide if it would be something that would be a good fit for you. There’s also advice on how to find events.
My favorite bit from this section was learning that there are kinky coffee houses. I mean, it makes sense, why not, there are gay coffee houses, there are probably scrapbooking coffee houses for all I know, but somehow it simply hadn’t occurred to me there were kink or leather ones. I wondered on Twitter if the Big Chain hadn’t driven smaller ones out of business and found out that, no, in fact there are a few that are thriving. Like Wicked Grounds in San Francisco. Which has an excellent logo. One of their lapel pins is on my list of Things to Acquire.
Other chapters focus on everything required for traveling to every type of event, navigating the etiquette guidelines of this new culture you’re a part of, pre-event emotional planning, physical planning, the sorts of people in the community and how to deal with all of them, etiquette for dungeons, playspaces and other sexy gatherings and the things you may find there, how to stay healthy and happy once you are there, and post-event decompression and returning to life back in Kansas.
They talk about how to manage not only your real life self in various scenarios but also how to handle yourself online and urge people to listen to their inner selves. This bit was particularly pertinent:
Shy freaks. It is important to respect your shyness, and to treat the awkward parts of your personality with compassion. Compassion for your shyness means understanding why you have those feelings. Have you always been shy? Was there a pivotal event or time in your life that drove you to be especially hesitant around other people? Is it new people, places and things that prove difficult? Or are you really conscious of your personal boundaries, and your shyness is a protective mechanism? Knowing the root of your shyness can help you to overcome it enough to get you where you want to be.
I recently heard about an introverts munch where everyone just sat around reading. That sounded great.
Chapter Seven: Unicorns, Trolls and Other Creatures: Behavior Awareness in Kink Communities could be altered slightly and made required reading for everyone everywhere.
It has introduced the phrase ’emotional vomiting’ into my vocabulary. It is defined thusly:
Emotional vomiting is the behavior of grossly over-sharing information at inappropriate times, or in ways that do not help any parties involved. Emotional vomiting can also take place when we reply to people online or in person. They may be sharing their story for their own reason, not as an excuse to have you hijack their narrative.
I also now have the perfect phrase for a certain sort of person. They employ attention-seeking behaviors. You know what that means.
Then there was this:
Belittling, berating or bashing others for their choices, judging scenes we don’t personally enjoy or agree with, being “snarky” about a book or event, behaving rudely to someone based on how they dress, saying that someone is not a “real slave/ master/whatever” . . . the kink community has a surprising amount of judgment for a group of individuals acting on desires that have been judged by the world at large.
Then they go on to say these two things:
Self-judgment can make it very easy for us to project our own perceived issues onto others.
Focusing on our experiences, both wonderful and challenging, should be part of our journey; it will help alleviate the impulse to judge ourselves and, in turn, others.
Occasionally there were short personal stories from one or the other of the authors to illustrate the point of a section. One that made me laugh was this one from Lee:
I was at a cuddle party at a mixed kink event, when a leatherman walked in. He looked around, wide-eyed, and when asked to cuddle, said “no way.” Even though he was comfortable hitting people with whips, or doing anal fisting with folks he barely knew, cuddling with a stranger was far too intimate for him.
In Chapter eight, which is about all the activities you may stumble across in various playspaces was this:
There is a mantra in the kink community — “Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is okay.” This is an important ideal, because the kink communities are built on the notion of radical inclusivity — that a wide variety of humans with a wide variety of desires can all work together to create safe space for everyone. When we make space for the desires of others, they in turn will make space for ours.
This is really important, I think, because if we don’t allow for others to fully explore and express themselves then why should we expect them to support us in our expression? ‘First they came for the human ponies and I did not speak out because I was not a human pony…’
Chapter 9, which is entitled: Wanna Do Some Stuff? Negotiating for Play introduced me to the concept of Joywords. I knew about safewords, obviously. But this is what the authors say about joywords:
Joywords are terms that say “I am in a good place right now, and ending the scene in this moment would feel great!”
I kinda dig that concept. I think mine would wahoo!
Chapter 10 concerns taking care of yourself both physically and mentally at events of all sizes.
My favourite quote:
However, when you are at a con and it sucks, it still just . . . sucks. You won’t like everyone, enjoy everything, or have fun with it all. There is some small comfort knowing that this is one of those Fucking Opportunities for Growth, and remembering that you’ve acquired new information to help you do it better next time.
Aaaand another phrase has been added to my personal lexicon.
In Chapter 11, which is about transitioning back to the boring old default world, there’s this bit:
In cities like San Francisco or New York, it is easy enough to say that you met someone at a party without raising many eyebrows. However, in smaller towns or in areas with a small town mentality, even mentioning that you know someone else can be met with a slew of questions. Where do you know them from? What sort of party? What friends do you have in common? Where did you meet that person? What is their name? Think in advance about what you want to share, what information you need in advance, and how to integrate these new friends into your default world.
Y-yeah… Recently my husband mentioned to his colleague that we were having a meal with a friend. His colleague said, ‘Say hi to Bean!’ Bean being the only friend we see, as we’re huge introverts.
Walter, my husband said, ‘It’s not Bean.’ He immediately knew he’d made a mistake. Whoops.
Colleague: Who is it? How did you meet? You don’t know anybody.
I work from home so it’s not as though I meet people through my job.
You have to figure out your story beforehand or just don’t mention the new kinky people. This is important info, friends.
In case I haven’t gone on long enough, this book is expansive. The authors have thought of it so you don’t have to. Well, you do. You have to formulate your own answers to the myriad questions posed, but they’ve come up with the questions at least, and that’s a start.
The only thing that gave me pause was one sentence. It was concerning victims of people who violate consent—predators, rapists, abusers. This was the sentence:
Some actively deal with perpetrators by reporting them to the police, others expect their community to help police their own, and some, troublingly, do not take action.
Each victim of abuse has to choose the best way to handle their own situation. For some people, the only way to stay sane and physically safe is to do nothing. If they take any sort of action they know they would be killed, or the stress of dealing with authorities is more than they can take. Or they’re disassociating so much they don’t know anything has happened for years. But that’s a discussion for another time. And it’s one sentence out of an entire book.
There are multiple Appendices (mmmmm appendices) including a glossary of kink terms, various types of pride flags, a key to the hanky code, negotiation checklists, lists of books, films and websites that may be of interest and then several ‘guest’ pieces by well-known members of the community on topics such as the difference between abuse and BDSM, what to do in case of dealing with law enforcement, how to broach kinky-related bruises and injuries with medical practitioners as well as other things.
I got the Kindle version from Amazon and there were some quibbles with that that had nothing to do with the book itself—it was a technical thing. I love my ebooks—being able to read kinkyness in public and carry hundreds of books in my pocket—I’m all on board, but this one should be purchased in physical format for several reasons. It’s sort of a reference book and you’ll want to be able to dip back into it easily, which digital books are not great for. The hanky code table is wonky on the Kindle app and if there’s one thing you do NOT want to be wrong about is what someone is flagging with their hanky color, if you know what I mean. The authors give permission to copy the negotiation checklists for personal use, but it’s not possible to photocopy a Kindle page and highlighting it in the app doesn’t save it to your notes.
If none of those things are important to you and you normally use night mode when reading on a Kindle—so it’s white text on black background, the personal story blocks will be unreadable. Switch to sepia and all will be fine without searing the retina right out of your head. There were some OCR—Optical Character Reader—problems, which is how they convert physical books to digital books. The most obvious was if the word ‘your’ was italicized in the text it had been converted to the kindle file as jour, like the French word for day, like soup du jour. It made me giggle every time it happened, but I could figure out what the sentence was supposed to be. Every time I saw it I thought, ‘Oohlala, Franch.’
Really, just buy the physical copy. I’m going to get one when funds permit.
Playing Well with Others is indispensable to both newcomers and those who’ve been around the block—around the dungeon? If you haven’t been to every type of event. It’s hilarious and informative and full of level-headed advice about every situation you can imagine.
It’s a call for inclusiveness and understanding even if you don’t necessarily understand the other person’s kink. It’s about compassion and helping other people along their journeys because we were all clueless noobs at one point or another.
It’s about communication—not just with others, but also with yourself. Knowing what you really want from something as small as one play scene to a weekend long conference to an entire relationship.
I give this 5 out of 5.