Cal: Ivy and I both just read Cathynne M. Valente’s new book, Deathless, which was just released yesterday. It’s a Soviet Russian BDSM fairy tale love story, so gosh were we sure the target audience!
In some versions of the old fairy tale, Koschei the Deathless is chained in Marya Morevna’s basement, which raised the question that this book answers – how did he end up chained in her basement in the first place? Valente twines that tale with fragments of other versions, where Ivan the hero meets Marya Morevna on the battlefield and they escape together from mean old Koschei.
There are a couple of threads that came up in our discussion of the book that we’d like to explore here, the first of which explores the difficulty of rejection by one’s partners. There’s a later thread of service and secrets that we’ll discuss in another post. And, fair warning: these posts are spoilerrific.
“This is stupid, Marya. I am hungry. Let a man eat in peace.”
Cal: Ivan says this to Marya Morevna after she tells him to be silent and do as she says, starts to feed him in a particular order and speak to him in a particular way, feels power welling up within her huger than she expected – and no, he rejects that game. Earlier in the book, Koschei seduced Marya by feeding her in that same particular way, and entwined it with his dominance. Marya is explicitly trying to explore her own dominance by echoing how Koschei drew her in, but to take his place she must find her own Marya, and Ivan refuses to play her role. It’s a rejection not only of her power but of her submission – both are uninteresting to him.
This one small moment caught at my heart with the memory of every lover who ever laughed when I forced myself to open up about the secret dark frightening things I wanted, every time my desires were rejected as stupid or weird or just more effort than they were worth. And maybe most readers won’t see it, but I bet there’s a lot of us who’ve had that fear come true before. Maybe someone finds it easy to find good matches for unusual desires from the start, but not anyone I know.
But I also read it and feel lucky, now. The laughter gets rarer and rarer as you’re more open, as you choose people more wisely, as time goes on. And when it happens, it’s easier to bear once you’ve known people who moaned instead. And if you’re very lucky indeed, you have Koschei chained in your basement and sighing for your touch, and he never laughs at you at all.
Ivy: I have taken to calling this scenario “Ivans the Terrible” in my head since you and I had this discussion, Cal. (Plural Ivans, because I’ve dated someone like that more than once.) Because, truly, it is terrible to open yourself up to that kind of vulnerability, the admission of desire to someone that you love, and to have them not only reject you but not understand such an essential part of your sexuality at all. Of course not everyone that one loves is going to automatically want exactly what we want, but it is still a difficult and crushing realization to swallow that sort of rejection. At times, it’s made worse by the loved one not realizing at all what a blow they’ve dealt you. And there’s this mythology that the top can shrug off anything because we’re all-powerful and invulnerable and mighty, but that’s not actually how that works at all. There was a period of four years where I gave up topping entirely after I’d had a six person streak of rejection from my partners… I was convinced that this part of my sexuality was unacceptable to anyone that I cared about, and that I should stop trying lest I hurt people I loved (in a bad way). Naturally, that didn’t make my orientation or desires go away.
Cal: It can be incredibly difficult. I’ve been laughed at by lovers when opening up about things I wanted or fantasized about, and it shut me down and dealt death blows to those dynamics pretty quickly. And I was talking to another friend about this recently, and she said: “I remember a girl I was in the process of the talking-for-hours that precedes hookups with, and I remember some kind of “whips and chains” comment came up, and she laughed and reassured me that she wasn’t into that kind of thing.” I’ve been there, too, and always want to laugh and say – well, I am!
I feel like there’s so much in Deathless that relates to this, the wanting and the rejection – you see it a bit when she asks Koschei about his death, too. His first response isn’t to answer. It’s to say, “Hush, you Delilah!”
Ivy: Yeah. But that’s some people’s kink… they want to be charmed out of the knowledge of their deepest selves, persuaded, seduced. I’m happy to do that to/for my partners, but I find the idea of having that turned on me deeply frightening in an unsexy way. I may decide to share, but I don’t want anyone trying to make me; that’s probably orientation speaking there.
Cal: I rather enjoy it myself, sometimes. Actually, it reminds me of Midori‘s interrogation class. She said that she basically classifies bottoms for that kind of thing into two sorts – breakers and endurers. And you better know which your partner is, or you’ll miss the point entirely. Koschei was a breaker, Ivan was.. well, not even an endurer. He was that jerk who laughs, the child who doesn’t even understand how to ask a question, he won’t play along at all.
Ivy: Ivan was sort of that vanilla guy who ends up thinking that he’s outré for sort of being okay with swinging as long as he wins mostly, for bizarro-world definitions of win.
Cal: The one who thinks you’re so hot and interesting that he’s up for trying for your sake, but then criticizes you for wanting to take things too far.
Ivy: Yep. Because, you know, you couldn’t actually MEAN that. “I want a strong-minded independent woman who is my equal, now make me a pie.”
Cal: And it’s cool if you’re a little edgy, but if this is seriously what you’re into? That can’t be healthy!
Ivy: Hahaha, yeah, I think we’ve both rejected that guy before.
Cal: Oh man. And felt so judged by him! The jerk.
Ivy: One of the benefits of age and experience: I’m faster to recognize it and decide I don’t want to go anywhere near there with him now. I still sometimes slip. But, I’m nowhere near as terrible as I was when I was younger about pining for ages over him. Ugh.
Cal: I wonder whether the author dated that jerk, too, or someone along those lines. The book is so full of this theme! And yet she brings him back here as Ivan, who Marya loves.
Ivy: Do you stop loving people just because they’re awful for you? I don’t.
Once in a while (and much more often of late, which pleases me), I get the opportunity to top my favorite top. He is, in reality, a switch, and one of the most experienced full-time submissives I know, but that’s not his life anymore, and for over three years he’s been far more of a Daddy to me than a bottom of any kind.
The urge has been there for him lately, though, as our hearts keep opening to each other more and more. And the way he opens himself to me is so complete that it nearly paralyzes me. When he wishes to give himself to me, he transforms into the most dazzling engraved invitation I have ever seen, delivered by a dirty and bloodied knight on one knee with his head bowing over his outstretched hand. And there I am, without a single pretty dress to wear.
In the face of his impressively masculine body laid bare and trimmed, his ass cleaned out in advance, his blue eyes wide and seeking approval, and all the tools I could want laid out carefully to hand, I almost don’t know what to do to him.
It is a truly beautiful thing to watch a piece of smooth, glistening steel disappear into a big hard cock, then have him push it out. A joy beyond reason to fuck a willing ass with a toy the texture and color of his skin until I come screaming. And an intimate and transcendent pleasure to fist him while we both do.
But it was the little things along the way that reminded me of who I am when I top. The way I like to grab his ear and move him around by it. The way I like to stick my fingers in his mouth and feel his teeth, and move his head around by the jaw as if he were a horse I was looking to buy. How I like to grab and squeeze him, both in strong places like pecs and quads and shoulders, and in soft places like sides and insides of elbows. How I like to bite his face and his lip, and just run my hands over and over the lean expanse of him. Mine. Mine. Mine.
He might ask me if I want this or that, if I’d like the knife to run over his skin, or the suction cups for his nipples, or whatever. There are ways in which he wants to please me so much that it can feel like he wants to run the show. And that’s okay, too, because that’s part of how I know what it is I want, which is what this is about. “Do you want the knife?” “No, I want to bite you.” “Do you want to sit and I’ll straddle you facing away?” “No, I want you on your knees with your ass in the air.” Gentle topping from below is just another means of clarifying. Just another way of letting me know what it is I want.
Because I can forget. In work, it was easy to forget. In being with him, in the way he tops me, I can forget everything. For a long time, even when I topped him it was following his lead; in some ways, he’s still teaching me how to fuck with a strap-on.
But more and more, he’s reminding me. He’s bringing me back to what I like, and what I want, and what I need, from him.
And that is truly sweet.
One of the things that happily astonishes me about my partners is how receptively open they can be with me. It’s a state of mind that I’ve never hit myself, one that I find enticing and arousing and astonishingly flattering. I can recognize it when I see it, and it’s a separate state from the endorphin-flying phases of subspace or the initial tremblings of wanting to be pushed over that brink. Instead, it’s a state of anticipatory receptivity. They are comfortable, but waiting on whatever I might see fit to do to them. They are actively available to me, not being obtrusive, but sure that I know I can have them. They are not pressuring me into action, but are rather engaged in waiting until such a time as I might feel inclined to act upon them. In short, they want to give of themselves to me.
This is such beautiful generosity that I cannot help but be delighted and floored by it every time. Of course they get something out of it too, but the point is not to obtain some particular desire of theirs. In subduing their own insistent wantings, they can attain a state of peace — they give up knowing what I’ll do or even trying to predict it, and they become open and waiting and ready. It is as thoroughly seductive to me as nectar to bees. Sometimes it stops me in my tracks, other times it sends me about my day with a small smile and a percolating plan for later. But even when I’m thinking about work or the laundry or what terrible thing my travel agent has managed to do THIS time, one of my partners in this state will draw my attention and lift my mood regardless of if or when I act upon it.
Such an invitation leads to delicious play. Perhaps that’s somewhat self-fulfilling, as it takes established trust in order to attain this state; knowing your partners’ psyches and desires well does intensify and sweeten the sorts of play that I prefer. Still, knowing that I could do almost anything and have it appreciated inspires me to outdo myself for them. Having this sort of open invitation from someone important to me, I am inspired to give them my best work. Inspiration is important to me — I am often an intuitive top, and there are moments where my partner’s headspace almost lays itself out before me. Having a good chart of the terrain allows me to map (and, if they please, push) their boundaries better. Much of my sense of their desires and reactions comes from small things: turns of phrase, body language, little indicators such as noticing when they unconsciously stop and hold their breath for a moment. Feeling them preemptively embracing my wishes gives me a brilliant place to begin with them — I can take that extended desire and comfort and turn it into passion, transgression, or yearning.
Sometimes this is a deliberate, conscious process of planning on my part. Other times it’s more of a gestalt. Last week, I went to sleep and woke up with a fully detailed weekend plan for one of my partners. I executed it the next day to our mutual delight. (If only it were always that easy! But I probably wouldn’t savor it so much if it were.) Still, one of the drivers for that creation on my part was considering her attitude and approach towards me and knowing that I could have nearly anything I wanted from her. In bringing me that gift of herself, she made us both stronger. Knowing that she would do it, I could set her to work with abandon and joy.
There are times where I catch glimpses of the potential for this sort of giving in others, a particular hope to make this offering. It’s strongest when they want to open up so to me in particular, though I can sometimes spot the tendency even when I’m not the intended recipient. I’ve talked with friends of mine from time to time about kink radar — this is one of the major ways that I find new potential kink partners. It’s not in matching items on a checklist or ascertaining compatible orientations or comparing calendars and schedules or negotiating relationship parameters, although all those things happen as well. It’s in hearing that echo of desire to please, the beginning resonances of that offering of self that match the force I can exert upon them. They respond to me in a way that makes me want to find out what else they can do and where I can take them… and I’m well known for my healthy curiosity.
I’ve been following recent discussions about the double-edged meaning of ‘mistress’. Some of my dominant friends express a dislike for the term due to the other-woman or kept-woman connotations it can carry. I’d like to address that, as the theme pops up in my own life a fair bit and has recently raised its vexatious head again.
Shockingly enough, not everyone who wants me to lay into them with a singletail thinks that I’m the kind of woman you bring home to Mother. There is a constant and undesired tension between my romantic, sexual, and kink partners’ time with me and their everyday lives. For many people, the expression of submissive or bottomish desires is an intensely private experience that they wish to segregate from family, friends, and employers who may not understand that wiring or may be judgmental about it. If one is obviously and unabashedly an assertive happy alt.sex woman of forceful personality, many people quail at the idea of introducing you and your transgressive sexuality to the rest of their world. They don’t want to have to address the questions it would raise in vanilla society.
There are some people who make this into a kink in its own right. I have partners who can get very worked up by hearing that something is forbidden, transgressive, and popularly thought to be wrong. In a way, I find this almost easier to deal with… I’m often tempted to dig my claws into someone’s psyche if they give me such an easy hook. But the people who don’t get off on transgression yet nevertheless wish to shunt our relationship into the booty silo… that’s much more challenging for me. To be sure, it’s not always the dominance particularly that makes me a socially problematic Scarlet Woman — with my female partners, it’s often “I can’t bring a woman home, my parents would never understand”. Sometimes it’s polyamory — their co-workers have already met their live-in partner, you see, so it’s not anything against *you*, Ivy, just… they don’t want to have to explain. I would never be déclassé enough to start dishing details of my loved one’s sex life to their nearest and dearest without a thought for the damage I’d do them, but often my mere existence complicates the face that they perceive to be acceptable and wish to show to the world. I end up being their mistress in both senses despite my wishes. This is hardly pleasing.
For all of you who are about to ask why I haven’t ditched those people who clearly don’t treat me like the queen I am… consider how often this happens. I’ve been dating women for more than a decade, and in that time I’ve had one girlfriend who was willing to call me her partner to her family and co-workers. I have a lovely live-in boy whose family I’ll never meet — they are religious fundamentalists and would find almost every aspect of my existence detestable. Several of my partners have been former Mormons, and you can imagine how well bringing home a bisexual polyamorous dominatrix goes over there. I don’t want to force my partners to get themselves disowned, fired from their jobs, or otherwise socially shunned for having me as an important part of their lives, but the alternative of being their dirty little secret is nearly as unpalatable. Sadly, having the sexual power in a relationship does not automatically prevent exclusion from important areas of your partners’ lives.
I am sure other dominant, self-directed, and assertive women have encountered the same sad dichotomies; it’s not a new problem. If I’d been born in ancient Greece, I probably would have tried to become a hetaira — the educated, intelligent women with the freedom to follow their own intellectual pursuits were also unacceptable in the high society of the time. You could have your mistress, but on the side. Have your heirs with a respectably uneducated woman with no independence, if you please. Had I been born into Belle Époque France, I would likely have ended up a courtesan. I value having my own freedom, my own money, and my own power, and I’ll do exactly as I please with it… but there are times that it means I won’t be received in polite society. (But if I would just shut up and pretend I felt ashamed of my activities like a proper lady, it’d all be fine! Everyone who’s anyone, apparently, does that.)
Axe recently (okay, about a month ago) wrote about a reader of his who’d asked for advice. She was inexperienced, and worried about making a fool of herself with the new guy in her life by doing something wrong. The guy had said that he likes strong, confident, aggressive women, and the reader worried that that meant she could never have a shy moment around him, or show it when she is overcome with emotion.
Along with some kind, thoughtful advice, Axe confessed: “As far as showing emotion goes, I’m ashamed to admit when I first started I was looking for someone who was cold, knew exactly what she wanted and would demand it from me and not show any weakness. I don’t know if this is the case with the guy you met but I think it’s a common problem that submissive guys have when they first start out. They have unrealistic ideas of what dominant women are.”
I’m awfully shy myself, so this post really stuck with me. Enjoying topping does not imbue one with magical social skills, after all.
My thoughts, vaguely organized and peppered with vignettes:
The first time I braved going out to a TES event, Boymeat dragged me out to his extreme caning class and had to promise in advance that he’d introduce me to someone friendly to sit next to. (He promptly introduced me to a cute guy around my age, saying: “This is Cal; she’s looking for someone to hurt!” I don’t think I’ve ever stammered or blushed so hard in my life. It’s been a good long while since then, though. The cute guy is still a good friend of mine, and I no longer lack for people to keep me company when I go out to classes. Boymeat occasionally tells me how proud he feels, the smug bastard. (Mwah!))
And, well. Another man I know, back when we first started expressing interest in each other, once told me that he likes shy tops.
If you’re inexperienced, nervous, and worried that submissive men can’t handle your human quirks, just reread that bit. He likes. Shy. Tops.
Be still my heart.
I also vividly recall an evening of flirting with an amazing woman over IM, where after each message I would hide my face in my boy’s back before peeking over to see if she’d replied yet. (She was doing something similar over on her end. We are ridiculous.) How could shyness and dominance possibly be incompatible? My boy was providing excellent service, to use the formal vernacular, by giving me comfort and assistance with my silly shyness in the way that suits me best.
Confidence/aggression and shyness are not mutually exclusive. I have no problem expressing my desires, or seducing or forcing people to satisfy them once we’ve established that that’s what they’re into. I think the shyness actually goes along with a hyper awareness of the importance of establishing consent before taking control.
I’m shy with new people because I can’t know whether or not they’d enjoy my aggression. I’m confident enough that I don’t have to believe that everyone on the planet wants to be submissive to me. So we dance around it a bit, get to know each other, and then determine whether things should go any further. Being shy is perhaps just another way for me to signal that, not being an actual rapist, I won’t take control unless you offer it to me.
2. Showing Emotion
I tend to be very emotional and open about it, with my boy. And why not? I’m thoroughly in love with him, and we share a wonderful life together. (I think I’ll call him… Bulgakov. Or maybe Cassidy.) What a terrible thing it would be, if I had to cut myself off from that in order to have relationships that turns me on. He taught me what service is and how to accept it by holding me when I cry, knowing what sort of tea I want even before I do, and taking care of me in various ways. There’s no question that he’s mine, but I’m not sure why he’d want to be without the emotional intimacy that holds us together.
Trinity put it marvelously well in her comment to this otherwise hopefully irrelevant post: “My relationship is based on love and friendship and sex… There are D/s elements to our relationship, some of which have to do directly with sex and play and some of which don’t, but this idea that vanilla people have relationships and I have a misshapen thingy really bothers me.”
I fall in love. I make mistakes. I seek connection, openness, understanding. I want intimacy, and sometimes I think that all the vicious roughness is just a way to break into even deeper intimacy, for me – let me into your heart, and also your skin, your mind, your everything.
None of this is worthwhile if it creates a wall between us instead of bringing us closer together – even all those strange distances of denial, clothing, bondage, unfairness, and power are just another way to circle around and tease our way closer to each other.
I’m more of a barbarian than an ice queen, though, if we must choose our archetypes. No wonder I love the intimacy of thuggery without intervening toys. Hands on, hands in.
So, where does that leave us?
Yes, there are submissive men out there who have are only attracted to bizarre fantasy figures, but there are also a lot of submissive men out there who want relationships with real human women who happen to enjoy being sexually dominant (some of whom may very much enjoy being cold at times). I’m pretty damn happy to know a few myself.
(If you’re looking for wonderful advice instead of my musings, I think that Ferns‘s reply to Axe’s post was really the best. And for a more balanced and extensive discussion on the many contradictory expectations of dominance out there, just check out Sex Geek’s post on the subject.)
As one of the purposes of this blog is to add depth and variety to the discussions of female dominance out there, I’d like to address one of the discursive lacks that I find most personally baffling. I’m a 60/40 bisexual, preference for female partners. This is my own internal summarization of what turns my head, but it’s pretty accurately represented in my body count as well, in both kinky and vanilla interactions. It’s easier for a woman to capture my attention, to provoke a speculative eyebrow, or to successfully approach me with her interest in kink. I’m disappointed that most popular conceptions of female dominance assume that only women topping men is important. I am more likely to top women than I am men, and those encounters are equally intense and meaningful. Many of the other female dominants that I know have female partners, exclusively or in addition to their male partners, so I am hardly a community rarity.
There are definite trends in how I interact with women in a BDSM context versus how I interact with men, and this alternately fascinates and worries me. My female partners have been predominantly bottoms or submissives, with the occasional switch. I’ve only had one top-top relationship with another woman. My male partners are usually tops or toppish switches willing to flex for me. I’ve had several top-top relationships with men. I am unsure of how much of this is a result of the pressures on men to identify as toppy or dominant and how much of it is just my taste. My female partners are usually delighted to let me drive, and our play tends to center around explorations of their limits and boundaries. My male partners usually want to fight me for control, and our play tends to center around that struggle and its inevitable fruit. The relationships where kink follows me out of the bedroom are usually but not always my relationships with women, though there’s an element of service in most of my relationships regardless of the gender of my partner. I dish out stronger deliberately painful sensations to my female partners, as they appreciate it more, ask for it, and can take it. I hit my male partners as if we were sparring, and I almost never am so combative with women. Yet, when the chips are down, almost all of my kink relationships coalesce the same way — my partners want to be my right-hand woman (or man) as we work together towards our common goal. That element of service shows up and flavors our pursuit as a team of whatever it is we’re after. (In fairness, I’ll also do this if my partner is more knowledgeable/competent/suited to lead our effort than I am in a given sphere. I’ll Girl Friday if that’s going to be more successful, and I make a pretty good service top. However, most of the time I’m directing as well as executing.)
I find it interesting that it’s so much easier for women to successfully approach me for play, or to indicate their interest such that I care to follow up on it. I can’t recall a single occasion where a fellow who made the first move was terribly successful with me — most guys do better if they wait for me to approach them. Women don’t tend to approach me very often, but they will say something that lets me know whether I can approach them without offense or not. With women, I’ll find out if they’re even potentially interested in my gender before broaching the subject of interactive kink with them. Men tend to make their orientation clear more quickly, at least with regards to interest or lack thereof in me. And while I usually prefer to take plenty of time to get to know my prospective bottom’s psyche, likes, dislikes, limits, and interests, it’s still useful for me to know whether that information is coming up in a friendly but academic discussion or whether it’s something that I might find personally useful and important to remember.
I am a firm believer in women being willing to do some of the courtship risk-taking — that is to say, I am usually the first one to stick my neck out and declare interest or attraction, to ask someone out rather than waiting to be asked, the first to make commitment noises or acknowledge deepening feelings or to say “I love you”. This has been important with all my partners due to the common assumption that the dominant partner will be the one driving these things, but it’s been particularly important with my female partners. (Amusing, since my female partners get a better reception on average than my male partners if they do want to drive these behaviours first.) Lesbian sheep syndrome certainly happens, and while I’m happy to cut through it as needed, if I weren’t willing to do so I’d have far fewer dates. I have, humorously, commanded someone to be my girlfriend in the past… but only after making damn sure that we were well suited and that it was what she wanted.
I have had lesbians who were unwilling to date me due to my male partners. I don’t think I’ve ever had a woman decline my invitation to kink because I have male partners as well; if that has happened, she never told me so. I have not had a man ever turn me down for relationship or kink due to my having female partners. (Being poly at all, yes, but not because they couldn’t handle me being involved with women.) I don’t tend to play casually — I’m happy to educate or demonstrate technique more casually, but if I’m seriously sitting down with someone for pre-scene negotiations, odds are very good that they have emotional heft in my life. This often makes me wonder how most women think of kink versus relationships with women, and what would incline them towards one but not the other. They’re different but related kinds of intimacy to me, though obviously I’m delighted to engage in both with my female partners.
I know there are plenty of other bi and lesbian toppy women out there — I look forward to hearing your stories too.
Yesterday’s Girls With Slingshots illustrated one of the big misconceptions about dating as a toppish woman nicely.
It’s no easier than dating without the added complexity of non-mainstream sexuality. This should come as a shock to no one. And frankly, the men who would bristle at taking orders from a woman who they don’t know or have that relationship with are precisely the sort of men whose submission honors and awes me, when they choose to give it to me.
You can’t command anyone to love you. You can’t command worthwhile human beings to submit to you without first earning their respect.
(My boy is the most stubborn, confident, argumentative pain in the ass I could find – and he lays all of that at my feet. That’s what leaves me speechless with joy, every time.) (I should probably come up with a cute blog nickname for him, I suppose. I’m open to suggestions from people who know us.)