Topologies

Convoluted Terminology Post the First

Posted in origin stories, political theory by Ivy O'Malley on November 19, 2009

Cal’s last post leads fairly well into the discussion about terminology that we threatened to kick off the blog with. When we were selecting a name for this blog, we considered basing it on some riff on our preferred terminology — in my head, I had irreverently nicknamed it “We Three Queens”, though I didn’t float that as a serious suggestion. However, when we got into discussing the words we used to describe our sexual orientations and practices, we discovered that we had significantly different preferences. In order to understand mine, a little divergence into my history will be helpful.

I have known people who were aware from earliest childhood that they were kinky and dominant. I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until I was in grad school that the idea of kink in the bedroom even occurred to me. My boyfriend at the time was, in retrospect, a switch who wanted to be taken down into submission. (This has since become a recurring theme among my male partners.) I was blissfully vanilla, or so I thought. I never looked at porn, having found it profoundly unerotic, the Internet was just beginning to stagger its way out of gopherdom, and I’d grown up fairly sheltered. So, effectively, I had no idea how female dominance was represented. Accordingly, I didn’t have any really bad models to base my kink upon. I am profoundly grateful for that lack, though it would have been useful to have some good ones. My boyfriend of the time, knowing my interest in martial arts, suggested that we take some of that into the bedroom and wrestle to see who was going to get to be on top. I cheerfully agreed to give it a whirl.

Reader, I put him through the door of the laundry room.

In my defense, it was a very flimsy door. I was enthusiastic but inexperienced. Since no one was more than bruised, it’s funny now, but at the time he was rather terrified of me as well as intensely aroused. I had to pay a considerable sum to replace that door. And we were both rather shocked to discover that I was considerably more thrilled by the forcible co-option of power than he was. Unfortunately, our experimentation rarely got much deeper than that… there was a lot of wrestling, and I always won, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him afterwards and I didn’t want a repeat of the Door Incident. I had no shortage of ideas, but given how much I scared him and how quiet he got in the moment, I didn’t know what he’d be okay with me doing. He didn’t either, and being as we were both young and stupid, couldn’t really tell me in scene or out of it. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t abuse my position of strength. He, of course, desperately wanted me to abuse my position of strength, but neither of us had the experience or the emotional deftness to recognize that and bring it into sane expression. So I’d take him down, and then we’d sort of blink at each other, and I’d try something tentative, and that ruined the mood entirely for him. He wanted assurance and direction, and I was communicating uncertainty and worry.

With time, I got better at reading my partners’ desires, at choosing partners who would be able to speak about them honestly with me, and at creating scenes that brought those wishes to life for them. I had a very rough patch early on learning to modulate my expression such that I didn’t scare the bejesus out of all my partners — the shift from everyday Ivy (much more cheerfully unthreatening in those days!) to kinkstress Ivy was stark and surreal for them. I got a whole lot of, “Aww, I just can’t imagine you as a sadist, you’re so nice… HOLY SHIT! HOLY SHIT!” It took me several years to work through that. The real cure was a year of putting on the dominatrix cap daily — nothing makes for skill like regular practice — and introducing a little more toothiness into my everyday life so that the transition to kink-space was not so disjunctive for my partners.

Since my formative experiences were significantly with people who viewed me as a dominatrix, I have a fondness for the word. (Also, I like the -trix suffix. It’s got that X. It sounds transgressive, complicated, skilled, point-of-choice. There’s a little St. Andrew’s cross in every utterance, and a crossroads.) I don’t mind “top” or “dominant”, as they’re clear descriptors of what I do, or domme, whose femininity suits me. I don’t think that it’s necessary to set aside a special word for women who do something versus men who do that same thing, but I like the feminine version nonetheless because it reminds people that we’re here. I do not assume a male default person. There are times when I prefer the genderfuck version; in specific circumstances and to specific people, I prefer “Sir” to “Ma’am”. (For starters, “Sir” doesn’t remind me of my great-aunts. I don’t want to think about that in bed!) But regardless of the equipment that I’m using, my sexual expression is specifically feminine. One of the things I enjoy about kink is that opportunity to be a terrifying incarnation of female desire. By using the female versions of most terms, I’m reminding people that we certainly are out there, and we’re defining and owning and enjoying our own expressions of what it is to be sexually dominant.

I have a particular dislike for people assuming that they can assign me the title that gets *them* off. If they’re my partner and they ask nicely, I’ll consider it, but random people “Mistress”ing me are likely to be annoying. (I don’t mind the Mistress title in the abstract, but it’s something that attains weight through relation, not something that anyone can use.) People choosing titles or words that I find actively unsexy (“Mommy” is the prime offender there) are likely to get a chillier reception still. It is moderately astonishing that people in search of female dominance often don’t realize that referring to us as we wish is part of the point. If you can’t even get *that* right, you’re unlikely to be a fulfilling partner in any other way.

I recently read Daniel Bergner’s “The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing”. One quarter of the book is devoted to his discussion of a “rare female dominant”. While there were many things in his description of her actions and psyche that I found myself nodding along to, just hearing that “rare female dominant” phrase caused howls of laughter among my toppy female friends, followed by the sober reflection that we had a PR problem and a lot of work to do. I’m a dominatrix, among other things. I know female tops and toppy switches, dommes and dominants, sadists and mistresses and ladies, capitalized and not. There are a lot more of us out there than most people think, and we’re working on that PR problem.

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12 Responses

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  1. Cal said, on November 21, 2009 at 12:47 am

    I think I’ll save my response to this one for my own post, since I have such a different way of thinking about terminology (‘-trix’ gives me hives, and all). “We Three Queens” would sound more like a drag queen blog to me – though actually, I’d love to read a thoughtful group drag queen blog, too! (Then again, I only recently read John Preston’s Franny, the Queen of Provincetown, so that’s just where my mind is at the moment.)

    I still love the Door Incident story!

    The ‘too cute to be a sadist’ issue is another interesting one. I always think that I’m going to get that more than I do, since people who don’t know me tend to react to me as young and cute at first glance. But no one I talk to for any length of time ever seems that shocked, even so, and even though I don’t project it with my garb the way you do. I’m not entirely sure why that is.

    • XtinaS said, on December 3, 2009 at 1:31 am

      We three queens of BDSM
      Might be guyish, might be femme
      Canes and whips and knives are wielded
      Won’t give up until they’ve yielded

      I know I mangled the last line, rhyme-wise (compared to the original), but WHATEVER.

      • Cal Stockton said, on December 3, 2009 at 8:08 am

        I love you.

  2. Ivy said, on November 25, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Vive la différence! I’d make a terrible drag queen, but I too would read that blog.

    On the much more rare occasions that I still get it, it’s “too nice to be…”, not “too cute”. But social capital has a lot to do with it — so many of my friends know that I’m pervy as hell that I’m now often introduced with that descriptor, and so it doesn’t often come as a surprise should that become relevant to my interaction with someone. I think part of the parsing is hesitancy, too — you usually come across as very sure of yourself. That relates more directly to most peoples’ parsing of toppiness, and sadism is often seen as related. So a confident presentation seems to make sadism less surprising.

  3. Words for Toppish Women « Topologies said, on November 30, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    […] woman inside. (Yes, I know that Ivy likes the term dominatrix, for all the reasons discussed in her convoluted terminology post. We have very different associations, and that’s okay.) I don’t wear spike heels […]

  4. […] more terminology Posted in identity, political theory by Delilah Wood on December 1, 2009 Ivy and Cal have already chimed in on the terminology parade, so after some reading and thought I […]

  5. Carol Anne Caiafa said, on December 2, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Sooo… masculine as opposed to feminine titles are sexier?

    • Ivy O'Malley said, on December 2, 2009 at 7:16 am

      No, selections from each are sexy to me. I like the specifically feminine “dominatrix” and “domme”, and the masculine-and-umbrella “Sir”. But just like “Mistress”, not everyone has the right to call me “Sir” — those are earned intimacies, whereas just about anyone can call me a dominatrix or a domme without annoying me. “Domme” is a descriptive title and not a personally relational one.

      • Carol Anne Caiafa said, on December 3, 2009 at 11:45 pm

        Ivy – I can relate to the “earned intimacy” thing. I think that’s important for any relationship.

  6. Lanta Crista said, on December 2, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Oh, amen as to people defaulting to “Mistress.” Arugh. (Although I did have fun being mean about smacking my boy for doing that, when he did it the first time).

    Matisse says the same thing about the “mistress” thing — that it’s an earned intimacy — but to me, the word itself sounds funny. I mean, a “mistress” is not the feminine form of “master.” It’s a fancy word for “woman that a married person has an affair with.” It also has the root, “miss,” which bothers me. I never liked “miss” when I was teaching and students would yell, “MISS!” instead of my name. And the word “miss” always sounded vaguely… talk-down-ish, like: “Young miss, you should do your laundry.”

    Words, words.

  7. Carol Anne Caiafa said, on December 3, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    I see what you mean about the titles thing. There are times when I like Mistress (I’m OK reading it in an erotic story) and “ma’am” or “my lady” can also be hot. I tend to prefer either of those two, personally speaking .Don’t know about “Goddess” though – I think that would be a hard one to pull off, for most people!

    I don’t think I would like “sir” or “daddy” myself as I feel that’s just not me. I’ve tried masculine personae before and had a lot of fun with them, but I don’t feel I’m at all convincing in those kind of roles.

  8. Topologies « Frangipani said, on July 4, 2011 at 2:25 am

    […] have to say. I love that they don’t necessarily have One Truth to impart (see their ‘Convoluted Terminology‘ posts, for an example.). Instead, they present their sometimes differing […]


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