Sunday, May 30, 2010

Safewords for Trigger Management and More

Below, Courtny introduced us to safewords and how they are traditionally used in BDSM and sexual situations. Here, I am going to expand the repertoire for safewords beyond their usual scene. Safeword use can be extended to non-sexual situations. Below, I give you the lay of the non-sexual safeword land.

Safewords for Trigger Management

Triggers are things that set off chains of reactions, feelings from, or memories of, often, traumatic or difficult events or experiences.

Trauma Triggers

Safewords can easily be used for managing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related triggers. When a situation, particularly a social situation, starts feeling too much like your traumatic event or if someone makes a triggering remark (I've beared witness to a conversation at another table at a restaurant about how "sexy" rapists are), you can use a safeword to discretely signal to your friends or partner (whoever you choose) that you need to leave (or cope in whatever way you need, but for the purposes of this post and to keep it simple, I'm going to continue to use leaving as the post-trigger action.)

Use the comments section to suggest other applications for safeword use. And remember: they only work if both partners respect their use.

Using a safeword here is more effective than just saying, "Let's go" all of a sudden because the safeword you choose and share with your partner automatically tells your friend why you need to leave and cues the appropriate response on their part so they can be supportive. This way you don't say, "Let's go," and get the response of, "Why? I'm having a good time, aren't you? Why, what happened?" and have to go into an explanation (possibly in public) that you may not want to get into or share with other people in earshot. Doing this makes it so that you can cope on your own time without having to announce your issues to the whole room. This is true of all the non-sexual uses of safewords I'm discussing here.

Drug Triggers

The same use of safewords can be applied to triggers related to drug use. Many people trying to stay away from drugs are triggered not just by the sight of drug use and/or paraphernalia, but sometimes, as is the case with recovering crack addicts, just hearing the word 'crack' can trigger thoughts about drug use and provoke thoughts and behaviors they worked so hard to change. Using a safeword in situations (like going to a party and needing to leave when someone shows up with drugs) makes it so that you can discretely streamline your support system and perhaps arrange to not be alone until you feel calm and stable enough to avoid a potential relapse. (Again, without having to announce your issues to everyone around.)

Would-be Drunk Drivers

I've seen safewords effectively used to prevent drunk party-goers from trying to drive home. The host of the party (who also was the holder of the keys) had a drunk friend start to freak out when he refused to hand him the keys to drive home. Previously, the host had agreed with a sober friend that if this happened (and this drunk friend had a habit of getting wasted and trying to drive home), he would simply say, "Call Matt," so Matt would instantly know what the deal was and that he should intervene and distract the drunk friend until other arrangements could be made to get him home or until he sobered up. (Another great idea that this host came up with was having a Breathalyzer around (thanks to another drunk friend who had been arrested so many times for DUIs that he had to get one) and requiring people to pass the legal blood-alcohol reading in order to safely drive home. This was the most accurate way to gauge whether a person's able to drive and it's impersonal enough and backed by the law for most people not to take it personally.) The only thing worse than sending a drunk friend to drive him- or herself home is a drunk friend who gets all riled up because everyone is in their face about not driving home.

Medical Disorders

Safewords have been used effectively at work for people with seizure disorders. (However, safewords are really only effective for people with seizure disorders who get auras before their seizures.) When you notice your aura you can use a safeword to discretely let a trusted colleague or supervisor know that you need to lay down for a while. This could be a good way to manage a seizure disorder at work (or wherever) without sharing your disorder with the whole office.

Safewords can also be used by people who use wheelchairs who need assistance getting to the bathroom. Perhaps you're disinclined to announce to the person who helps you out with these things that you need to take a piss while in a social situation. In such a case, a safeword could tip off your helper and avoid potential awkwardness or embarrassment.

Anger Management

Psychiatrists have effectively used safewords to tip people with anger management problems off that they are losing control. For one psychiatrist, the word 'cut' was used to signal to their client that s/he has gone over the line and needs to step out of the room and take a few minutes to calm down before re-entering.

Of course the safeword in the above situation was used by a trained professional in a therapeutic situation. It would be an abuse of both the person and the safeword itself to use it to just cut someone off when they're trying to share something unpleasant but not out of line.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Guest Blogger: Safewords: When “No” Means “Yes” and “Banana” Means “Get the Fuck Off Me”

In the glow of the TV, she slides silky black stockings up her legs. He strips off a work shirt and khakis, revealing red tighty-whitey boxers. As they talk about their kids, he pulls on a pair of ass-less chaps, and she takes off her purple bathrobe to reveal a tightly laced black corset. He buckles on spiky wristbands as she pulls on thigh-high black boots. As he zips a black leather hood on, she leans in and says, “The safeword is banana.” “I love you,” he replies tenderly, and she punches him in the face.

Considering that the sequence I described above happened on a prime time cartoon, it’s not going out on a limb to say that safewords have become fairly mainstream.

To clarify for those who've never seen Family Guy or CSI, a safeword is a pre-arranged code word, phrase, or gesture that will allow you and your partners to communicate what you are really feeling without stating it explicitly. They can be useful in many different contexts— when you’re not sure whether a sexy stranger’s ‘no’ really means ‘yes’, if your partner wants to try spanking for the first time, or even manage triggers.

How to Choose a Safeword:

It depends on what you’re doing and what you want to achieve. If something sexy is happening with power dynamics, it’s better to negotiate sooner rather than later. First off, a safeword doesn’t always have to be something silly that will break the mood of whatever you’re doing. Say you and your girlfriend want to wrestle to see who will be on top during a make-out session. Rather than screaming “purple alligator” when she gets you in a headlock, you could use the traffic light system: red for ‘stop everything’ and yellow for ‘ease up’ or ‘stop the action’. The most important thing about choosing your safeword is to make sure that it’s something you’ll remember if you or your partner is freaking out.

When to Use a Safeword:

Tomorrow, Guide Editor Marie Chesaniuk will put up a post about using safewords in non-sexual situations. However, safewords were originally developed by the BDSM community to be used in a variety of sexual situations. Agreeing to use a safeword together, and both respecting that safeword, is an excellent way to build trust--no matter what you're doing. But what’s a good time to use one?

Say you and a hook-up are fooling around. You think your partner wants to say no to you holding them down and having your way with them, but really mean yes. How do you go about making sure that you don’t force your partner into anything they don’t really want to do?

  1. If either of you is drunk, use your moral compass and don’t play those games.

  2. If you’re both sober(ish) but you still get the feeling that a lot of explicit negotiation will kill the mood, still be sure to establish a safeword. It should be something easy for you both to remember, even if you're scared or nervous. The first and easiest safeword to remember is “safeword” itself.

  3. It’s up to each of you to know your own limits and be able to discuss them if necessary. Safewords are also great to use when you’re not sure of your limits ahead of time: use them in the moment when you’re exploring new things if you need to ease up for a bit. Take responsibility for yourself: if you’re getting freaked out, use the safeword.

Once a Safeword Has Been Used (Respecting Safewords):

If either of you uses a safeword, how do you deal with that? Most importantly, do not criticize your partner for using the safeword. Be polite, back off, and ask them what they need from you. Find out why they used the safeword, if you don't know. If it was an ‘ease up’ safeword and you’re not sure what was too intense, ask them. If it was a ‘stop everything’ safeword, stop everything, do a check-in, and ask them what direction they want things to go. This means genuinely asking them what they want, not trying to coerce them into to doing what you want.

Using safewords is a great way to help cut out explicit negotiation if you and your partner find that to be a turn-off. They're also useful for partners who enjoy being playful, pushing each others' limits, and creating power dynamics. Lastly, many of the games that we play in the dating world may involve people, often women, playing coy or hard to get. By establishing a safeword, both you and your partner know exactly where the line is.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Madonna, Glee and Critical Thinking

A big reason a lot of what I talk about here on the Guide involves elements of pop culture is that, as I may have said before, pop culture is far and away the dominant formative paradigm for most Americans under the age of, say, thirty-five. For both the Gen-Yers (me and my friends) and the children of the Gen-Xers, who are now reaching adolescence, popular movies, TV, pop fiction and, most fervently, the internet, which aggregates and ties it all together, effect a level of seminal influence that—again, this is my opinion—outshines ‘traditional’ institutions like school, church and even the family dynamic.

Yes, yes, this is a generalization. Not every person I or you know is a walking-talking cultural compendium. I’m not talking about day-to-day pop culture references. You know, the ‘we’re brainwashed by corporations into feeling a specific kind of emptiness that can only be filled by certain consumer products’ angle. That’s tired, and it’s just not that true. I’m not talking about that, ever.

Early in the life of this blog, I wrote about Sarah Connor and feminist iconicity in action films with strong female leads. What I like most about that piece—and the method of argument in it—is its insistence on critical thinking. Now, before you start the eye rolling, please indulge me by stripping ‘critical thinking’ of its pretentious subtext and take it as a simple descriptive term. I’m not putting anything on a pedestal here. I want to compare the critical thinking done in the Sarah Connor piece against the feminist didacticism oozing throughout in the now famous “The Power of Madonna” episode of Glee that aired last month.*

Glee’s writers have, during the show’s first season, made a habit of tackling a variety of issues facing American teens, pregnancy, divorce, ostracism, homosexuality, etc. So it’s really not all that surprising that the show decided to discuss feminism. Like most forward-thinking viewers, I will admit that it was—at first—nice to hear these choice sound bites on one of today’s most popular hour-long network dramas:
Tina: “We just have to accept that guys don’t like our feelings.”

Quinn: “The fact is a woman earns 70 cents to every dollar a man earns for doing the same job. That attitude starts in high school.”

Will: “What this is really about is teenage girls feeling like they have no power.”

Tina: “And my growing feminism will cut you in half like a righteous blade of equality.”
Nearly thirteen million viewers watched this episode. That’s a hell of a lot of people exposed to progressive feminist language and sentiment. Misogynist, insensitive, objectification, equality—all of these dropped at one point or another, all in the name of empowering young adult women. And the episode was soundtrack’d and inspired by the music of the most popular American feminist icon of the last quarter century, Madonna (sorry, Oprah). There’s really no downside to this, right?

This is where things get tough—this where the whole act of critical thinking becomes vital.

A large portion of Glee’s audience consists of young children and teens. Even in the media, buzzword saturated world we live in, I think it’s safe to assume that “The Power of Madonna” episode was the first time many young females and males heard the word feminism. I’m not implying that this was the first time these young viewers had experienced instances of gender inequality—I know young girls feel the pangs of gender inequality as early as the pre-school playground—but rather that this was the first time these kids heard and understood feminism in a kind of institutionalized sense. Feminism means X (“because that’s what they said on Glee”).

Pop culture is instructive in this way; it always has been. Here, one of the most popular forms of American teenage entertainment introduces and teaches its viewers—and I’ll put all viewers in this pot now, not just the young ones—about the vital and important topic of feminism. If I stop right there, nothing appears wrong. In fact, Glee seems almost noble, like it assumed a great responsibility to make a positive influence on its young audience.

But it’s wrong to stop there. Why? Because there is absolutely no critical thinking involved. Feminism, like all issues that really matter, cannot simply be absorbed. This is not a soapbox statement, this is a fact that too often gets forgotten because of the effectiveness of popular forms of entertainment and reference: TV shows, cable news, Wikipedia, etc. There is a value to all of these forms of media, one of which is ease. The answer is always there for a person to absorb in an almost instantaneous fashion. Consumption and absorption, though, are not the same thing as thinking. The first two are easy, passive; the latter is hard. Feminism is hard.

So what comes next when thinking of “The Power of Madonna”’s depiction of feminism? One simple question, really: In the episode, what is the version of feminism defined by the writers of Glee used in the service of? For the sake of length, I’ll refrain from a full analysis of the episode. Suffice it to say, the one thing feminism does not serve in the episode is credible character development. Feminism is introduced conceptually to the show’s characters and is reduced to sound bites like those mentioned above. And while sound bites can be seductive, they’re empty without a meaningful context. The concept of feminism does not change the show’s characters in any meaningful way. Feminist sentiment directs them to say certain things and act certain ways at various points during the episode, but, again, it in no way changes them. Bluntly put, feminism is a mere plot device used to forward the action, nothing more.

The cynical part of me would go farther and say that feminism in Glee works purely in the service of selling iTunes singles and copies of Madonna’s Celebration record. But even if that is true, I’m not going to damn Glee for doing so. After all, it is not Glee’s—or pop culture’s—responsibility to teach its audience about vital social issues. It is the audience that endows pop culture with this responsibility. In other words, it’s the audience that allows passive consumption to overtake active thinking.

In my Sarah Connor piece, I took a film character that I always admired and asked myself, simply, why is Sarah so goddamn awesome? Why do I think of her when I envision a power feminist icon? And I thought, rigorously and critically, and formed an answer.

This isn’t about patting myself on the back. This is about a method. Am I’m happy that more young people know about the word feminism now than did before “The Power of Madonna” aired? Yes and no—mostly no. I’ll be happy when these same young people begin asking questions about the gender inequities around them and think themselves to an answer.

*Let me go on record by saying that Glee has kind of lost me. I still watch each new episode, but my enthusiasm for the show is gone and, honestly, Glee is just really bad now. This of course is a discussion for another day, but given that I wrote pretty glowingly about the show on this blog last fall, I feel it best to make my current feelings clear.