How to laugh off Christian Grey and actually enjoy a BDSM relationship

Stefanos and Shay

When my latest book – titled I love BDSM and unfortunately not available in English yet – was published last week, I was rather surprised by the prevalent reaction among both reviewers and readers alike. One of the most frequent comment to my beginners’ guide to sensible and healthy BDSM relationships is of amazement for its description of kinky games and mindsets so different from their “normal” portrayals – namely 50 shades of Grey and porn.
In  fact, I had to stop and think to realize that I am privileged to see erotic domination and submission games from the vintage point of somebody with over a quarter of century of direct experience of this lifestyle. This is more than enough time to get over the loads of bullshit about ‘true BDSM’ preached by most alternative media as well as the mainstream ones, but people inexperienced with the reality of the Scene are especially prone to believe its myths and legends. As a matter of fact, most of them actually try to follow them to the letter – often to their disappointment.

All of this reminded me of a very interesting encounter I had a few months ago at the BDSM Conference in Rome. You will read about it below, but the gist of it is that it exposed me to another uncommon, candid and very down-to-Earth view of Master/slave relations. I got in touch with Stefanos and Shay, the wonderful couple who presented it to talk about erotic prejudices, extreme lifestyles and more. This is the interview that resulted.

 

Ayzad – Hi, and thank you for your kind availability. Before we begin, would you like to briefly introduce yourself to my readers?

S & S – Thank you for talking with us! We’re Stefanos and Shay, from San Francisco, California. We travel around the world teaching about BDSM/kink and are an unconventional D/s couple. Stefanos is the head of Bondage-a-Go-Go’s dungeon, President of BGG Association which owns Bondage-a-Go-Go, as well as the Producer/Steward of The Upper Floor on Kink.com. Shay is an ER nurse, programming director for several local venues/events, and author of the bondage safety web site remedialropes.com. We’re also the 2014 International Power Exchange titleholders.

 

A – I’ll let you on a secret: early on at the Rome BDSM Conference where we met, several attendees expressed skepticism for your International Power Exchange title, as the leather contests culture is something unheard of in Italy. I recall my companion at the event, in example, interpreting it as «I guess that means they’ve got their play roles stuck up their asses farther than anyone else».
When your presentations demonstrated the exact opposite, a bunch of those very same people was shocked both by your down-to-earth approach and by the tangible intensity of your rapport, as you showed a beautiful relationship, far removed from the clichés associated with BDSM – even within the scene. Do you often get this kind of reaction? Or, in other words: how much do you think kinksters are hostages to BDSM stereotypes?

Shay: Thanks for sharing that – we love hearing those initial reactions and are glad we could prove to be different than expected! Thanks for giving us that chance! We decided to become titleholders precisely to subvert the “head-firmly-up-ass serious-work-we-do” stereotypes that often go along with Dominance & submission in generally, and even more with titleholding and Master/slave dynamics. We think kinksters are very frequently held hostage to the expectations and stereotypes we internalize about the “right” way to have a relationship in the BDSM community. A big part of our “platform” for our title year was spreading a message of not trying to jam into pre-existing boxes – we encourage people to make their own boxes.

Stefanos: We came with concern already packed in our hearts about wearing our IPE 2014 patches. We wondered just how American we appeared wearing a title no one had heard of with the description of “International” in the name. Much like American baseball teams play in the World Series, when in fact, they are only playing American and Canadian teams in an American sport.
It is good to hear there was skepticism and judgement. It proves again that BDSM’ers are a thinking group, and yet we are all human and can judge those we see around us. Conventions in our communities hold us all hostage in rope, D/s, whip use and more. Humans judge all things by our nature we want to group actions and objects, and we have a tendency to judge negatively unless we are aligned with what we see.
In America, where this title is new, we are often asked about its meaning and purpose. People are surprised to discover that the title is about breaking those stereotypes of strict power exchanges and perceptions of what a “real” relationship looks like. We have never fit into a box that others could identify easily. But we are no different than the rest of the communities of BDSM’ers. None of us fit into a box; none of us are the same. Shay and I quickly discovered this in our travels and teaching. We embraced it and began teaching and sharing around this idea of trying to show people that BDSM was not always about “serious interactions” and “strict protocols”. In fact, you could have all that and fun too. We are pleased that came across in our lifestyle and presentations.

A – A very interesting part of your presentation was your candid admission that trying to conform to the classic Master/slavegirl lifestyle as described by countless stories sucked the fun out of your relationship, and how you felt “you failed” at BDSM until you invented your own brand of protocols. Would you elaborate on this?

International Power Exchange 2014 titleholdersShay: That’s a really important message of our power exchange class and we’re so glad it stuck with you! Most of us have read (and jerked off to!) the classic Master/slave stories, and they’re great wanking material. Sadly, they’re more “fairy tale” than “how-to guide”, and trying to shove yourself (and your partners) into popular fantasy roles leads to a lot of frustration and disappointment. When we started our journey in the kink community, we very much had that experience – we felt Stefanos should be the omniscient and invulnerable Domly Dom, and Shay the meek and obedient slave. We quickly found that trying to play out those roles, to do things the “right way”, left us both feeling miserable and lonely. Also, Shay loathes (and is terrible at) stereotypically “slave” tasks like cooking meals and ironing – Stefanos is much better at such tasks, and actually enjoys them! After struggling to be Master/slave, we finally gave up, and for several years we didn’t have an articulated power exchange dynamic at all (although we continued to be part of in the kink community, volunteering and teaching). It was Shay who realized that we were still in a power exchange relationship, albeit one that grew organically rather than being based around ideals and fantasies. We think power exchange is all about framing – the meaning you give the things you do, rather than the things themselves. It works best to grow protocols organically from your relationship, because the farther your rules and protocols take you from your natural self, the less authentic and sustainable they will be. Many of our protocols grew from observing what we were already doing, and adding a layer of meaning and protocol to those behaviors.

 

A – At the end of the day you distilled a (simple?) set of behavior rules that allows you to play very seriously and be yourself in your daily lives. Can you describe this process, maybe offering a couple of examples?

Shay: We have worked a lot on establishing levels of protocols, which we see as a way to have elements of that stereotypical (and hot!) D/s fantasy in your relationship, without the negative effects of trying to maintain that full time. In a practical sense, this means that we have our everyday level of protocol, which is basically a re-framing and formalizing of tasks and behaviors that we came naturally to our relationship. These are protocols that grew out of our preferences and skills. For example, I’m excellent at managing money – I’m is very frugal and highly organized in that way. Therefore, we made budgeting and money management one of my tasks as a submissive. This is also an example of what we mean by framing – a task like money management could be viewed as a Dominant task – you’re in control of the finances! And in someone else’s D/s relationship, that could certainly be the case. For us, we view budgeting as a service that I provide.
So that’s the daily, default level of protocol. Either one of us can make a request for a higher level of protocol – often we do this through the use of a formal title. We generally refer to each other simply by our first names, so if Shay says “Maestro” or Stefanos calls Shay his “girasole” that signals a request for a formalized dynamic. That request can be refused or accepted by either party – generally this is indicated by a title as well. When we’re on a higher level of protocol, behaviors shift – Stefanos takes on more of an active director role, and Shay will pay much more attention to where she is spatially in relation to Stefanos, because a formal protocol is that Shay should be near enough to Stefanos so that he can touch her, unless she is performing a specific task that prevents this. There are many rules like this, specific to different levels of protocol within our relationship.

Stefanos: It is important to recall what makes you hot and connected then insert that framing into your protocols as well as what is practical to your life and give that a set of protocols too.  This will enhance your roles and give you a better sense of who is doing what and for what reason. Traditional and historical western family stereotypes can give an unreasonable bias towards placing household chores or domestic service in the s-types hands. Therefore, it can look backwards when a dominant is serving the coffee and cooking the meals. But when framed correctly, it can be in reality the dominant fueling the s-type for their day of service and also fueling the d-types desire to prepare the day and be loving. In addition, traditional D/s fantasies tend to leave love out of the relationship. Shay and I share a long relationship with deep emotional connections and love for each other. So framing your love for each other into the protocols and rituals of your D/s relationship is a necessity, in our opinions.  For example, collaring can often be seen as a process to establish power dynamics. This invokes a sense of control in the d-type and surrender in the s-type. In this moment, power and surrender can be viewed as emotionless due to our social and political upbringing of what power represents socially.  So in contrast to that construct, when collaring Shay, I do not forget my love for Shay and express it with loving touch, sincere but not stern eye contact, and a welcome home statement that expresses our love – “Welcome home My Girasole” (welcome home my sunflower). Also, because Shay is my partner as well as an s-type, I do not refer to our relationship, its protocols or rituals as mine. The aforementioned behavior would be exclusive and deny the partnership we share in this D/s dynamic.

 

A – This sort of simplification came up again in another hilarious presentation where you horrified bondage purists by showing very simple, practical ties using everyday objects – which looked quicker and way more fun than classic ropework anyway. With all due respect for fancy bondage orthodoxy, it sure felt more spontaneous at the least.
Generally speaking, it seems that once people interiorize the technical and safety aspects of kink, the more they distance themselves from “proper”/expected play style, the more enjoyable it gets for them. In my experience this sort of creativity isn’t terribly valued or popular in the BDSM scene, however. What do you think of this?

Bondage confusionStefanos: Creativity in all areas of BDSM is a cornerstone to Shay and I.
By our very nature the BDSM/Kink/Leather/etc scene is full of rebels. Sometimes on principle we rebel against societal norms. Yet, in a community that values diversity and difference, in principle, it is shocking to see judgements placed on those that defy a perceived convention, such as bondage or D/s.
Bondage was once nothing more than a way to restrain and explore loss of control to BDSM’ers. As the Japanese style entered the western consciousness, our desire to adhere to traditions gave a one-true-way to do bondage. It is human nature even among rebels to group together as a tribe and adopt “a way” to do tasks – it creates community. We need systems and constructs to be part of a group. However, in order to achieve self-mastery people need to add their intentions and energy to make it theirs.
Many of the techniques used in bondage were once used as torture or as a death sentence, not intended as an erotic technique. So to deviate from them is a necessity. Where we diverge from the tribe is only an intersection of forming a new tribe. One that values creative use of technique and safety. For example, TK’s is not a safe technique by our standards, so we do not use them. Given that TK’s are an essential technique in Japanese style bondage, it was necessary to find other ways and possibly materials to work with for bondage. It required we research additional techniques for restraining beyond hemp and jute, which we both still use.  
Not using rope presents challenges because you can’t tie the same ties as convention dictates. So creativity is required to achieve restraint. In addition, no items found in your home are the same as our home, therefore, spontaneity is achieved along with a sense of possible failure. This is freeing to experience, because restraint is problem solving and to expect failure invites solutions and laughter. In brief, “bondage purists” as you put it, choose to confine themselves to a tradition that is perceived as a pinnacle of restraint because it is attached to a tradition spanning hundreds of years and that was used effectively to confine people.
Change can be fearful for people, especially to people in a place of authority. So to watch a knowledge base (restraint, D/s, impact etc.) be used in a divergent way, threatens the status quo. Among humans, even rebels, this is threatening and therefore devalued by the dominant tribe, because it challenges the tribe’s proscribed traditions. It creates an intersection of choice – a place to have other expectations met. This intersection is nothing more than an opening for others to enter without the restrictions placed by the gatekeepers of “that other” tribe.

 

A – The absolute highlight of the conference for me was your description of yet another subversion of the perceived fundamentals of BDSM, which is to say your take on “punishments”. You turned a repressive act at heart into a very intense and deeply moving expression of love. Can you tell us about it, and how it came to be?

Shay: Wow, we could fill up a whole article answering this question, it’s a huge topic! I think one common failing in D/s relationships (and really relationships in general) is that there isn’t a way to effectively communicate apologies, and then also to communicate forgiveness! This can lead to resentment building up and ultimately the demise of a dynamic. We have a few different ways we address that in our power exchange, but the most formal version is the “apology position.” This position has me laying face down on the floor, legs together, arms out at a 90 degree angle from my body, forehead against the floor. We frequently say that we don’t want to HEAR an apology, we want to FEEL it, from both sides – and over the years this has become a very emotionally loaded position for us. From my perspective, I find it impossible to be emotionally disengaged when I’m face down on the floor in front of Stefanos. It takes me straight into that contemplative and emotional space of, how can we keep this from happening again? It’s also not about blame at that point, because it’s an emotionally vulnerable act for both of us.

Stefanos: Additionally because Shay was succinct: The position takes away my connection as well from Shay. I am can only see the apology and I only feel the emptiness and focus in this moment.  I want it to end, so we can move on. I encourages forgiveness in me for the act or acts.

bdsm fireplay
A – On the other hand, you also got the biggest laugh of the event when you demonstrated how an overimaginative and naïve sub could misconstrue even the most incompetent play session as «a perfect experience, just like in 50 Shades of Grey». The common theme seems to be the powerful role of expectations in shaping our perception – and ultimately our enjoyment – of kink. Talking about people in general, do you feel these expectations are evolving, and how? Also, how would you like them to change in the future?

Shay: The BDSM community continues to become larger and more accessible. The internet is of course the biggest thing driving this trend, but pop culture references (like 50 Shades) contribute as well (although it’s important to remember that seeing fetish in pop culture isn’t actually a new thing, one needs only to look at 80’s Madonna and movies like “9 1/2 Weeks” to know that). It’s amazing to see increased awareness and acceptance of kink, and to see more people discovering it – or feeling safe to express that part of themselves! It is simultaneously invigorating and terrifying that the “bar to entry” to come into a BDSM event and call yourself “Master So-and-so” is effectively nonexistent. This adds to the importance of education, especially for bottoms – there can be an expectation that someone calling themselves “Master” (or “Mistress”) must know what they’re talking about, and a submissive shouldn’t question them or advocate for themself, because that would somehow undermine their Domly-ness. I hope going forward we can continue to move towards having empowered bottoms who advocate for themselves. When we come into the kink community, it doesn’t matter if I call myself “Grand Mistress Firedragon 12th Archon Goddess” and you call yourself “lowly slave wormdick” – we come into this community as equals, and should treat each other that way, until negotiated otherwise!

Stefanos:  I would only add that any relationship long or short term is “an equality of expectations”, without clear expectations and a method of communication about expectations, all relationships (personal or community based) are doomed to fail.

 

A – Thank you again for your time. And, by the way: do you have any more Italian workshops planned already?

Nothing specific planned yet, but we had a blast at Rome BDSM Conference and hope we can come back!!

 

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