Interview: So your girlfriend has read 50 Shades; now how do you start with BDSM?

A short time ago, I received an email from a writer for Men’s Health magazine who’d found me online and wanted to interview me about BDSM. Specifically, the interview was about how someone who’s read the book 50 Shades of Grey and found the ideas in it interesting might take the next steo and start exploring BDSM in a relationship.

The interview was focused mainly on maledom/femalesub dynamics, presumably because that’s the type of D/s described in 50 Shades. As of writing this, the issue of Men’s Health containing the interview isn’t on the newsstands yet, but I’ve received permission from the interviewer (@ peachesanscream on Twitter) to post a raw transcript of the interview here.

I’m writing an article for Men’s Health magazine as a beginner’s guide to BDSM. The idea behind it is that their girlfriend has read 50 Shades of Grey and they’ve experimented with sex toys, but now they want to go a bit deeper into BDSM.

I was wondering if I could please ask you a few quick questions and in return credit you in the article?

I realize that 50 Shades of Grey is credited with helping to popularize the idea of BDSM, but I don’t think it’s actually a very good introduction to the subject. It’s a fantasy story, and as fantasy it doesn’t paint a good picture of BDSM. It’s a bit like taking marriage and relationship advice from the Disney movie “Sleeping Beauty,” only with the added problem that many of the activities described in 50 Shades aren’t very safe.

Still, it is helping to open a dialog about BDSM. If it helps open the door for people who ‘ve always wanted to explore spicing up their relationship but haven’t been able to figure out how, that’s awesome.

Role play: how do you get started? How can a man act dominant without being mean or scaring his partner? Things like eye contact, instructions, body language etc?

As with any new thing in a relationship, you get started by talking. Sounds simple, right?

The hard part is that we live in a society that does not teach us how to talk openly about sex. It can be scary to talk about exploring something new; what if your partner says no? What if your partner thinks you’re weird? What if you try it but it doesn’t work? Does that mean your partner will reject you? How do you bring it up? Is it normal to want to do these things? It’s easier to just not talk about it.

Getting started with role-playing (or with any other kind of BDSM) requires being able to talk about it, and that takes courage. The best way I know of to start that conversation is directly, with “Hey, you know, I love having sex with you, and there are some things that I would like to try. I think it might be fun to explore ___. What do you think?” As tempting as it is to try to bring things up indirectly, by dropping hints, that almost never works. After all, if it’s something that’s too scary for you to talk about directly, why would it be reasonable to expect your partner to be willing to talk about it directly?

Communication is important because being dominant is different for every person. What one person thinks is sexy, another person would find intimidating and a third person would find mean. Some people like the idea of having their partners tie them down; other people don’t like that, but might want to be held down; still other people don’t want to be restrained at all, but might be turned on by the idea of being spanked; and other folks might not like any of that but be thrilled by their partner telling them what to do. All of those things count as “acting dominant.” It’s important for the dominant partner to learn what gets the other person going (and what doesn’t), because this sort of thing really only works if it works for everyone.

Talking about what turns you on and what you don’t like is the key to creating a safe, happy, healthy space to explore things like role-playing or dominance.

What sort of things should he say?

That’s something that depends on the people involved. The most wonderful thing about BDSM is there isn’t just one way to do it. It’s something that every couple creates themselves out of the things that turn them on.

Sometimes, a good way to have a conversation about what you’d like your partner to say or do can be started by reading erotica. If there’s some passage in 50 Shades or a letter in a letters magazine that revs your engine, sharing it with your partner and saying “I like this, what do you think?” can help get the conversation going.

Whatever he (or she; it’s not only men who are dominant!) might say, one important trick is to say it with confidence. A simple “Go into the bedroom and wait for me” spoken with confidence is a lot sexier than the most elaborate scenario spoken with hesitation.

One of the things I personally enjoy is taking my lover close and whispering in her ear exactly, in precise language, what I would like to do to her body. It’s fun to do this in public, say if we’re out running errands, to help prime the pump and get us both thinking sexy thoughts. When we get home, she will know what to expect.

Another thing I’m quite fond of is lying in bed close to my lover, snuggled up against her while I tell her how to touch herself.

As with anything else, different people have different tastes. Exploring, experimenting, and finding what works is the key.

What about verbal abuse? Is it ok to call women names eg. filthy slut, during sex? How does he know not to go too far?

One thing I believe quite strongly is that abuse is never appropriate.

Having said that, anything that is consensual and done for the pleasure of everyone involved isn’t abuse. If a woman is aroused by her lover whispering filthy things in her ear and calling her dirty names, that’s very different from a stranger on the street calling her the same names. The first one is not abuse; the second is.

I have had partners who like being called names during sex and partners who don’t. For me, it can be fun and sexy, if it’s something she likes. I can often tell how a lover will respond to this kind of verbal play by asking her “Do you like being a dirty girl?” while we’re making out. If she finds that arousing, it’s usually pretty obvious.

This is something that a lot of men have difficulty with. I’ve talked to many men who have partners who’d like to try dirty talking, but the men don’t know how to start. There are a couple of things that can make it hard: fear of feeling silly, and a deeply-ingrained belief that it’s wrong to talk to women that way.

Fortunately, both of those things tend to go away pretty quickly with practice. There’s nothing wrong with feeling a little awkward when you try something new. After all, nearly everything we do is awkward the first time; remember how awkward it was the first time you tried to ride a bicycle? And it’s never wrong to talk to a woman the way she wants you to talk to her. In fact, treating someone the way they want to be treated is, to me, the highest kind of respect. I can say all kinds of dirty things to a lover, call her all kinds of sexy names, and still keep in mind that it’s a form of role playing; it doesn’t actually mean that I don’t respect her, or that I think less of her.

What signs should he look out for that she’s offended? How can he tell if he’s gone too far?

That comes down to communication again, and to paying attention to what she likes and how she responds. The simplest way I know of to find out how far is too far, or what a woman does and doesn’t find sexy, is to ask her!

Different people have different tastes in dirty talk. Some women love being called a dirty, filthy slut, but don’t like words that go to their self-worth, like “stupid” or “worthless.” Some women love the C-word, some women hate it, and some women don’t have strong feelings one way or the other. And, of course, some women don’t care for dirty talk at all.

It gets a bit complicated because most of us, no matter how well we know ourselves, have a hard time predicting how we will react to something new. I’ve known women who believed they wouldn’t like dirty talk, but who found it arousing when they were turned on. I’ve known women who liked reading stories involving dirty talk but didn’t like it in real life. That’s all a normal, natural part of human variability.

So the only way I know of to stay within the lines and keep it fun and exciting is to go slowly and to pay attention. Start simply–“Are you a dirty girl?” Invite a response. And, as always, talk about it.

Do you have any other tips for how a man can play the dominant role as a beginner in BDSM?

Whenever you try anything new, it won’t always go 100% the way you expect it to 100% of the time. Be willing to be surprised. There may be times when your partner has an unexpected reaction to something, and you have to stop what you’re doing. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re doing things wrong; it just means that when you explore something new, things won’t always be perfect.

A lot of people who talk about BDSM talk about it from the perspective of taking care of the submissive partner and being aware of the submissive partner’s limits. But it’s also important to understand that being in the dominant role can make you feel vulnerable, too. Dominants also have limits, and it is possible for something to happen that triggers a reaction in the dominant partner. The people involved should keep the limits and responses of the dominant in mind, too.

BDSM is about exploring pleasure and trust together. When you look at it from the outside, it can seem like one person doing things to another person, but it’s really more about two people doing things together, but in different roles. The goal is to have fun. If you’re doing that, it’s all good.

Unlike what you tend to see in books and movies, BDSM doesn’t have to be serious all the time. Sometimes, it can be very silly. There’s a game I like to play called the “two frogs” game. A frog has two eyes and four legs, so two frogs have four eyes and eight legs. I’ll say “Three frogs! One frog! Four frogs!” and if she doesn’t respond instantly with the right number of eyes and legs, she gets spanked. It’s very silly, but also a lot of fun.

How do you broach the idea of using stronger sex toys such as nipple clamps on your (female) partner? (( we’re assuming that they’ve already experimented with sex toys at this point. So it’s not totally virgin **ahem** ground)) Should you start by squeezing her nipples during sex, then asking her after? Is there a smooth way to do this?

I’m a big fan of communication in a relationship, as you’ve probably guessed. A good general rule abut sex that I’ve found works pretty well is don’t just do things and hope for the best; talk about them first. You can’t always be expected to know where someone’s boundaries are, and you don’t want to find them by accident.

When it comes to anything, from using a vibrator to using nipple clamps to chaining my partner to the wall and spanking her until she’s squirming, I find out whether or not she’s interested by talking to her about it. A great way to do this is by discussing fantasies (and this is a two-way street; talk about the things that interest you, and also encourage her to talk about the things she fantasizes about). And remember that being receptive is also a two-way street…if you’d like her to be open to the idea of having nipple clamps on her, you can’t freak out if you discover she’d like to use them on you!

A lot of people ask me “How can I get my girlfriend to do so-and-so?” I think that’s the wrong approach. You don’t GET your partner to do things for you; this person is your lover, not a circus animal. Instead. you talk about things you’d like to explore, you listen when she talks about things she’d like to explore, and you find the overlap.

How do you broach the idea of trying anal sex? Is there a non-offensive way to do this? Should you try touching her there first to see how she’d react?

People tend to be touchy about their asses. Legions of bad advice columns in Cosmo magazine aside, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go poking at a lover’s ass and hope for the best.

Is there a non-offensive way to ask? Sure! “I’m interested in exploring anal sex. How do you feel about it?” Talking directly and openly about what interests you is never offensive, provided you’re okay with hearing “no” as an answer. To me, it only becomes offensive if you have an expectation that the answer has to be “yes.”

And remember the part I said about being receptive to what she has to say if you want her to be receptive to what you have to say? If she says something like “You know, I’ve always wondered if it would be fun if I stick my finger up your bum while I give you a blowjob” and you freak out about that idea, then you can’t really expect her to be calm about the things you suggest. It’s okay if that idea doesn’t appeal to you, just like it’s okay if anal doesn’t appeal to her; if she suggests something that doesn’t work for you, a simple “Well, that doesn’t really do it for me” is enough.

How can you gain her trust enough to get her to cede control to try light bondage? Would it be something like agreeing safe words before? Or using ties that don’t tie up too tightly? Or maybe letting her try it on you first or using your hands?

I don’t think that you “get” someone to trust you. Instead, I think people trust you when you are a trustworthy person. There is no secret to getting people to trust you other than being a person who deserves trust.

Part of the way that you earn trust is by respecting your partner’s boundaries. Part of it is by treating your partner with respect and compassion, even if she says things that surprise you or that turn you off. And I shouldn’t really have to say this, but part of it is by being a person who’s honest, someone who can be relied on to behave with integrity.

I had an acquaintance many years ago who was a serial cheater; he would brag about all the women he’d cheated with, and he tended to go through partners pretty quickly. He always wanted to try bondage, but he never found a woman who would say “yes.” I think on some level all the people he slept with knew that he couldn’t be trusted. One of his partners, for a brief time, was a model. I was a photographer at the time, and I did a bondage photo shoot with her. He was very surprised when he saw the pictures, because he’d asked her about trying bondage and been told “absolutely not.”

I think that people often are apprehensive about trying new things in the bedroom, and bondage is no exception. Starting with light bondage is perfectly appropriate, as is agreeing on a code word that means “untie me right now.” I also advise that people keep a pair of bandage scissors handy when they explore for the first time. You can get these for a couple of dollars at any drug store. They have one pointed blade and one rounded blade, and they’re designed to be slid underneath a bandage to cut it off without risking cutting the skin. If you get into trouble with bondage, they’ll cut your partner free in seconds.

Being willing to respect a partner’s limits, being willing to show that you are trustworthy, being willing to suggest ideas without trying to pressure your partner into saying “yes,”and being willing to talk about what you can do if things go wrong goes a long way toward creating a safe environment for exploring bondage.

Are there any important points that I should include?


Safety is a bit tricky, because sometimes what feels safe and what is safe are miles apart.

For example, when we think about bondage, a lot of folks think “pink fuzzy handcuffs.” But I know several serious, die-hard, long-term kinksters who won’t play with handcuffs because they’re just too dangerous. A lot of people who first dabble with tying their lovers up might use silk sashes or nylon stockings, because they feel less intimidating than using ropes or leather cuffs. But these, too, are dangerous.

Handcuffs are dangerous because they are completely inflexible and they put a lot of force on a very small area. If you struggle when you’re wearing handcuffs, it can be surprisingly easy to do permanent damage to the bones or nerves in your wrist, and it can happen very quickly.

Silk and nylon can have a tendency to pull tight, making them almost impossible to untie. They can also cut off circulation without warning. When you get into trouble, it can be hard to get them off quickly. Ropes are a lot safer for bondage, which is why kinksters use them.

It’s usually a good idea for people exploring BDSM to create a “safe word,” which is a special word that means “stop, really, I mean it.” Especially if you’re trying role play scenarios where words like “no” and “stop” are part of the role play and don’t really mean “no” or “stop.”

There are a lot of resources out there for people who want to learn how to explore these things safely and respectfully. My own Web site at has a beginner’s guide to BDSM and a list of resources, and there are many more as well.

Some thoughts on being out

One of the many questions that inevitably comes up in almost any poly discussion group,usually multiple times, is the question about being open about being polyamorous.

The same thing comes up in kink-related social groups, and I imagine in just about any other alternative sexuality group you can name.

Now, I’m a big fan of openness and transparency. There are a lot of reasons for that. On a philosophical level, I do not believe there is anything to be gained by pretending to be something you’re not, and I don’t see how deceiving people who would shun you if they knew the truth actually benefits anyone. (To my mind, if someone–your family, say–loves you only so long as they don’t know the truth about you, then they don’t actually love you. They only love an imaginary projection of you, and that love is conditional on you agreeing not to do anything that might spoil the projection.)

On a practical level, it’s hard to find other people like you when everyone is closeted. If I am polyamorous, and I’m in a room with ten other poly people but none of us are open, all eleven of us might be thinking “Wow, I wonder where I can go to meet other poly people? It’s so hard to do!”

But there’s one objection to openness that I hear all the time, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. A lot of folks say “I’m not open because it’s nobody else’s business how I live my life.” And to some extent it seems true, but there are problems with that idea.

Before I talk about those, though, I’d like to back up a little and talk about the way I grew up.

I spent my elementary and middle school years growing up in the rural Midwest. This is where I lived:

See that clump of trees on the right? It’s where my old house is. We lived outside a tiny town called Venango, Nebraska, population (at the time) 242.

I’ve written about a trip I took as an adult through Venango, with lots of pictures, in my blog here. Time has not been kind to the town. It’s half deserted; many of the houses are boarded up, and the school closed a long time ago. The most eerie thing about it is the total and complete absence of children. We stopped at the playground behind the school when we visited it. All of the playground equipment is covered by a fine dusting of rust, and when we turned the merry-go-round, rust drifted off it in flakes. I have to think that if there was even one child left in the entire town, the playground wouldn’t be this disused.

It was no picnic for me growing up there. I was the stereotypical geek as a kid; I was into model rocketry, and I owned a TRS-80 computer, the only computer of any sort in a 40-mile radius. (I know this because the only other computer within any distance was an Apple II belonging to the owner of the business my mother worked at in the next town over, about 45 minutes away; he used it to do bookkeeping.)

There were eight people in my middle school class, the largest class the school had seen in years. While I was teaching myself the basics of aeronautics, electronics, and Z-80 assembly language programming, the main topic of conversation among my peers were the relative merits of the Denver Broncos vs. the Dallas Cowboys–a discussion that often involved a great deal of heat but never seemed to get resolved, no matter how many times it was hashed out.

So it’s safe to say I grew up alienated from all the people around me.

Which is pretty unpleasant. I was able to partially mitigate the fact that I had no friends when my parents got me a 300 baud telephone modem, and for quite literally the first time in my life I was able to encounter, if only in a crude way, people who were kind of like me.

As alienated as I was, I still had some things going for me. One of the things I noticed growing up was the casual, offhand racism that permeated the Midwest; the people around me were quite confident that whites were better than blacks, even though most of them had, quite literally, never once met a person who was black. Even as an outcast, I still had some measure of privilege; it’s hard to say how much better or worse things might have been had I been a football-loving African American, or (worse yet) geeky and also black.

My parents moved to Florida when I started high school, so all at once I went from having eight people in my class to having two thousand. For the first time in my life, I met other people who were like me. I was still something of an outcast from most of the folks around me, of course; the fact that there were other geeky, nerdy people in the school didn’t mean we weren’t a distinct minority. I was still introverted and painfully shy back then, but at least I had a social circle, something that was totally new to me.

What does this have to do with being out about polyamory? Quite a lot.

After my first year in college, I made a conscious decision: I did not want to be introverted or shy any more. I deliberately and systematically set about learning the skills that would get me there. I started choosing different kinds of people in my social circle. If I found a social situation that made me uncomfortable, I deliberately kept putting myself in it.

It was about this same time that I started realizing that I was kinky and poly, as well. Prior to starting college, I wasn’t a sexual being in any meaningful sense of the word; I barely even recognized that boys and girls are different.

But even before I was interested in sex or relationships, I still knew I was polyamorous, though there was no language for it. The stories about the beautiful princess forced to choose between her suitors never quite made sense with me; if princesses live in castles, which seemed axiomatic to me when I was a kid, why wasn’t there room for all of them?

As a person newly interested in sexual relationships, that idea stayed. Why on earth should I expect someone to pledge her fidelity to me, simply because I fancied her? On the face of it, the idea just made no sense.

Growing up alienated seems to have had a positive side effect; I found out that being isolated from a social circle is inconvenient, but it isn’t fatal. I learned that I could find ways to interact with people like me, first online and then in person. And I learned that things like “being shy” and “having poor social skills” weren’t death sentences; they were things I could learn to cope with and skills I could acquire.

So in that sense, having an isolated childhood didn’t really leave that much of a mark on me. i was resilient enough to make choices about who I wanted to be and then find ways to be that person.

In the 1990s, which is positively antediluvian as far as the Internet goes, I started working on a Web site. (The Wayback Machine only started capturing the poly section of the site in 2000, for reasons I don’t completely understand.)

The goal in making the site was to create the resource that the younger version of me would have found valuable. When I actually started doing this polyamory thing, I didn’t have the advantage of being able to learn from other people’s mistakes, which meant that I had to make my own…and while experience might be the best teacher, sometimes the tuition is very high.

The site became a whole lot more popular than I expected it to be, which pretty much finished off any chance I might have to be quiet about being polyamorous. Not that there was ever much chance of that to begin with, but still.

So I’ve never been closeted. Not even a little bit.

Which takes us back ’round to the issue of what business it is of anyone else’s.

On the face of it, “it’s nobody’s business who I’m involved with” seems to make sense…except that, in a very real sense, it is.

We live in a society that sanctions only one kind of relationship, and tends to stigmatize others.

When a person wears a wedding ring and says in casual conversation “My wife and I went to dinner last night,” that person is validating those social conventions. He could say that it’s nobody’s business how he conducts his romantic affairs, of course; but the simple act of wearing a wedding ring is a public declaration of a very specific kind of relationship. And it’s hard to talk about the things we do, even casually, without talking about the people we do them with, and what those people’s relationships are to us.

When folks at poly get-togethers talk about being closeted, by far and away the most common thing they talk about is being afraid of other people’s reactions to learning the truth. Essentially, it boils down to a very simple idea: “I want to control information so as to control the way people interact with me.” The fear of being shunned, and the extent to which people are willing to jump through hoops to control information and to create the impression of normalcy in order to avoid that fear, is sometimes quite remarkable.

I’ve never had the fear of how people will react to me for being polyamorous (or kinky or anything else). I’d like to think it’s because I’m, like, all evolved and stuff, but it’s really a lot simpler. I know what it’s like to be totally alienated from my peers. I know that I can survive it. I know that I can create my own social circles and my own family. I’ve met that monster under the bed. It has no power over me. If there’s a monster under my bed, fucker better pay me rent, just like anyone else living here.

I realize that I am in a privileged position about this. I work for myself; I don’t have to worry about a conservative employer firing me if they find out how I live my life. I’m not in the military. (Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is a crime, punishable by dishonorable discharge, prison, or both.) I am not financially dependent on a family that would disown me if they found out. I don’t have children who might be vulnerable to being taken away, or an ex-spouse who can use polyamory against me in a custody hearing.

So I can be open about who I am, and I don’t have to worry about suffering for it.

And that’s kind of the point.

In a world where it really was nobody’s business how we conduct our private lives, nobody would have to worry about these things. Nobody would have to worry about getting fired or getting a dishonorable discharge or losing children because of being polyamorous. The fact that there are people who do have to worry about these things means that much of the world tries to make it their business how we conduct our romantic lives.

Polyamory, and homosexuality, and BDSM, and all kinds of other non-socially-sanctioned relationship structures are perceived negatively in part because people don’t often see them, and it’s easier to vilify something that you don’t see every day. Like the racists in Venango who’d never laid eyes on a black person, when you don’t have the experience of seeing something yourself, it’s easier to project all your own fears onto it.

When those of us who have a privileged enough position to be able to live openly choose to do so, we help create a visible face for polyamory that makes it that little bit harder for others to vilify or marginalize us. So in that sense, it very much is other people’s business what I get up to; by creating institutions which can be used against folks who are polyamorous, they’ve made it that way, whether we like it or not. By creating the social expectation that people in officially sanctioned relationships can advertise their relationship status but people who aren’t, can’t, they’ve made it that way.

Columnist Dan Savage started a campaign aimed at teen gays and lesbians called “It Gets Better.” Part of the campaign is to do exactly what edwardmartiniii talks about in this essay: namely, to speak up when we see something wrong.

If the alienated, disenfranchised me from 1977 could see the me from 2012, he’d be amazed. The person I am today is the person the elementary-school version of me fantasized about being, and more.

But it took a lot of work to get here. And that’s why it matters. By being open about who I am, not only do I live my life without compromise, exactly the way I want to; I help make it that much easier for other people who, right now, don’t have a social group where they belong. I think that everyone who, like me, is in a position to be able to be out without risk, does a service to others by choosing to be so. It does get better, because we make choices that help make it better.

How the Skeptics Community Fails at Decency

Edit: 12:04 PM Pacific time Apparently, the problem has been resolved. Non-LiveJournal users can now see the blog post and its comments.

Last night, I posted a rather lengthy essay about misogyny and bias in the skeptics and freethought community. This morning, I woke to discover that at some point during the night, LiveJournal had for some reason evaporated that post for anyone who isn’t logged in (or isn’t a LiveJournal user). It can still be accessed by its URL directly, but it doesn’t appear to anyone who isn’t logged in and goes to the top level of my blog.

The post is here, for people who are having trouble seeing it. Unfortunately, it also appears that non LJ users (or users who aren’t logged in) can’t see or leave comments. I have an LJ support ticket open on the issue.

If liveJournal is not able to resolve the issue, I plan to delete and re-post the essay. This may lose those comments which have already been posted, sadly. Or I may re-post the essay as a new blog post with a pointer to the old comments, if I can figure out a graceful way to do so.

Skeptics and Misogyny and Privilege, Oh My

Since my blog post about the discussion about polyamory on the JREF forums, I’ve been poking around on the forums some more. Somehow, I managed to stumble across a thread relating to accusations of misogyny in the skeptical community, stemming from an episode at TAM last year.

TAM is an annual convention of skeptics and rationalists hosted every year by the James Randi Educational Foundation. It’s one of the largest such conventions in the country.

Apparently, a prominent blogger named Rebecca Watson was harassed at TAM last year. And the fallout from her complaint about it, which I somehow managed to miss almost entirely, are still going on.

I don’t read many skeptic or freethought blogs, which is probably how I missed the first go-round. A bit of scouting on Google, and a perusal of the JREF forum, shows an astonishing amount of anger, most of it of the “how dare this emotional woman tell us we’re misogynists!” variety. Which is more than a bit disappointing, when it isn’t downright rage-inducing.

In the interests of fairness, I have to say that I totally get why folks who identify as skeptics and rationalists might be especially resistant to suggestions that they are behaving inappropriately, especially with regards to sexism. A significant number of folks in the skeptics community identify as atheist. It takes quite a lot of effort for many people, especially people raised in a religious family, to break away from religious faith and embrace the ideas of rationalism and skepticism.

Once you do, there is a temptation to think of yourself as being more enlightened because of it. Things like racism and misogyny? They are those relics of patriarchal religious orthodoxy. I’m not a misogynist! I’m not a racist! I left that behind when I let go of religion. I don’t think that women are placed below men by some sort of divine pronouncement. I’m not the one trying to make women into second-class citizens. How can I be sexist?

I can remember going through a thought process something like this myself, back when I was a teenager in the process of giving up on the idea of religion.

Years later, when I was first introduced to the notion of invisible privilege and the ways that society creates a bubble of special advantages around men, it felt quite weird to grapple with the notion that I might be the beneficiary of misogyny, or even be guilty of misogynic behavior myself, without even being aware of it.

So the reaction of folks in the skeptics community when confronted with inappropriate behavior at a conference might be understandable, though it’s still disappointing. And maybe I’m naive, but the level of vitriol coming from some parts of the skeptics community against Ms. Watson and her supporters is completely over the top…and appalling.

All that is kind of beside the point, though. Yes, it can be tough to recognize the invisible sea advantages that we swim in, just as it might be hard for a fish to recognize that it’s wet.

But here’s the thing. It seems to me that anyone, regardless of whether or not he recognizes the many ways that society provides him with an invisible set of advantages that other people don’t have, who hears someone say “I feel threatened” or “I don’t feel safe here,” should start by listening.

I do believe that most of the folks in the skeptical community–indeed, most people in general–sincerely don’t want to be misogynistic (or racist or otherwise guilty of bias or oppression). And if someone claims to be a rationalist, it seems to me that if he is approached by someone else who says “I feel marginalized in this environment,” the desire to find out whether or not a problem actually exists, and to fix it if it does, should logically outweigh that little emotional voice that says “But that can’t possibly be true; I’m not like that!”

So at this point, I’d like to talk to all the guys reading my blog. Especially white guys, and most especially white guys who think that they aren’t sexist or racist. The rest of you can…I don’t know, cover your ears or something. Ready? Okay.

Listen. Guys. If you are at a conference or a sci-fi convention or something, and someone comes up to you and says “I don’t feel safe here,” you listen. And then you say “I’m sorry to hear that. This isn’t the sort of environment I want to create. What can I do to help fix the situation? What would it look like if this space were more welcoming to you? Have I participated in any way in making this space feel hostile to you, and if I have, what can I do to make it right?”

This is really, really simple It’s called “being a decent human fucking being.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s probably some little thing that’s gotten way blown out of proportion, right? There’s not really a problem; this person is just being oversensitive. Right?

And that is one possibility, sure.

But seriously? Given the history of treatment of women and minorities in this society, and given how goddamn hard it is to be aware of the advantages you have over folks who aren’t as white or aren’t as male as you are, that probability is pretty goddamn remote. A lot more remote than you think it is.

Doesn’t matter, though. You aren’t going to find out if there’s merit or not if you don’t (a) listen and (b) consider the possibility that there’s some validity to the complaint.

And while we’re at it, let me tell you what you don’t do.

You don’t say “Well, I don’t see a problem here.” That just makes you look like an ass. If there’s a problem with sexism or racism and you’re a white dude, of course you’re not going to see the problem. Duh.

And you don’t say “That doesn’t sound like that big a deal to me.” That just makes you sound like an even bigger ass. If you haven’t had the experience of what it’s like facing constant systematic exclusion–and believe me, as a white dude, you probably haven’t, any more than I have–you’re not really in a position to tell whether or not it’s a big deal.

And seriously, if you say anything, and I do mean anything, along the lines of “All these feminists are just out to get men” or “You’re just being hypersensitive” or, God help you, “you must be on the rag,” you don’t sound like an ass, you ARE an ass. You’re part of the problem. Whether you think of yourself as biased or not, the simple fact that you can think along those lines kinda proves the point. That setting isn’t welcoming because you’re one of the people who is making it that way.

Look, I know it can be hard to acknowledge that you have been given advantages simply by virtue of who you are; I felt the same way. It’s a bit like trying to look at your own back.

But you’re a rationalist, right? C’mon, you can figure this out. Treat it like an intellectual puzzle; that is exactly what it is.

And in the meantime, put aside the emotional response–because that’s what it is, an emotional response, and listen.

Yes, it can be a little tricky to navigate this stuff. So in the interests of helping to promote better understanding for everyone, I’ve created a handy clip-and-fold guidebook that you can print out and carry in your wallet. Clicky on the picture for a PDF version!

JREF forum: “Is polyamory morally corrupt?”

A conversation thread recently popped up on the James Randi Educational Foundation forum titled “Is Polyamory Morally Corrupt?”

Now, one might think that self-described skeptics and rationalists might be more open to the notion of unconventional relationship arrangements than the population as a whole; at the very least, they’re unlikely to fall back on “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” as an argument.

Surprisingly, though, things like polyamory and BDSM sometimes get a great deal of very angry pushback from self-described rationalists and skeptics, who will argue as passionately as any socially conservative or religious person that heterosexual monogamy is the only “right” way to be.

Of course, to be fair, it sometimes works the other way as well; I’ve encountered at least one person who believes himself to be a rationalist who nevertheless carries on at great and tedious length about how polyamory is the only right way to have a relationship, that all monogamous relationships are coercive and manipulative, and even that monogamy is an invention of Christianity unknown to societies not influenced by Christian teaching…it is often true that self-described “rationalists” seem more skilled at the art of rationalizing than at analytical, critical reasoning. But I digress.

Anyway, I was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by the JREF thread, which was overall supportive of polyamory. I did make a comment, which in typical Franklin fashion got rather lengthy, addressing some of the specific objections to polyamory that popped up. Most of them pop up in any discussion of polyamory, and seem rooted in social tropes more than they are in religious or social objections to polyamory. My reply:

As a person who’s been polyamorous for well over twenty years and also a rationalist, I’m still consistently surprised by the reactions polyamory tends to get from self-identified rationalists.

It seems self-evident to me that the only way one could make a moral case against polyamory is by either looking at systems which offer inequality of opportunity to the folks involved based on sex (eg, systems where men are allowed to have multiple female partners but women are forbidden to have multiple partners) or to invoke some kind of god or gods. Barring that, as long as we’re talking about voluntary relationships between consenting adults, no, of course it isn’t morally corrupt.

The bits that tend to surprise me, though, are in the assumptions that otherwise rational folks seem to make about polyamory.

Some of these assumptions are deeply woven into our culture, and we’re inculcated with them almost from the moment we’re born, so I suppose it really shouldn’t be surprising that folks do tend to subscribe to them. Tropes like “The only problem is that inevitably people have a desire to be “more” than the other person, have a desire to be the “favorite” and “special”.” We’re told, from a very young age, that specialness is a unique consequence of exclusion, but it still doesn’t make sense to me, and it certainly doesn’t match my experience.

I have several partners, many of whom I’ve been with for a long time (over a decade). All of my partners also have other partners. The fact that they have other partners doesn’t make me feel less special; I feel valued by every one of my partners, and I don’t need to be in some kind of top-dog position in order to feel valued.

I think that specialness is a slippery concept. It’s been my observation that people have two very different approaches to feeling special. One is intrinsic (“I am special because in a world of seven billion people, nobody has or has ever had my exact mix of characteristics, skills, and outlook; when I find partners with whom I am compatible, I value the things about them that make them unique and irreplaceable, and they value the things about me that make me unique and irreplaceable”) and one of which is extrinsic (“I am special because someone else tells me I am; exclusivity is what validates my specialness; if that external validation is taken away, I am no longer special”). Folks who need external validation in order to feel special probably aren’t as well suited to poly relationships, perhaps.

The idea that plural relationships “tend to be hard to keep together” does not jive with my experience at all. Rather, relationships in general are hard to keep together, if the folks involved lack good relationship skills or aren’t compatible with each other; and relationships are easy to keep together if the folks involved have good relationships and are compatible. I would expect it to be far, far more difficult to keep a relationship going with one person who didn’t have good communication skills or had a worldview radically different from mine, than to keep five relationships going with folks who were compatible with me!

We do, I think, live in a society that seems to teach us that relationships are something that just kinda happen by random chance rather than something we choose. A lot of relationship problems really do seem to come down to partner selection, but we don’t tend to learn good partner selection skills, so we end up with relationships that are hard to keep together because the folks involved aren’t really terribly compatible.

What happens when a gay man divorces his bisexual husband who is also married to a bisexual woman with a lesbian wife? Um…that relationship ends? As questions go, this one doesn’t seem that difficult to me.

The notion that recognizing a marriage between three people would lead inevitably to recognizing a marriage between 35,000 seems…specious to me. Realistically, I just don’t see it happening. For one thing, that number of people is outside our monkeysphere. For another, when we look at buisness networks or open polyamorous networks or other sorts of networked interpersonal relationships, we just don’t see them extending that far. I don’t see 35,000 people signing a marriage contract “for the lulz.”

That aside, I’m not sure what the objection to it would be. So what if there are 15 or 27 people involved? As long as mechanisms exist–which they do, just look at corporate law–to manage ownership and responsibilities and assets and so on, what’s the problem? Certainly there are examples through history of children reared in group arrangements, and they seem to work pretty well.

Finally, though the part that baffles me the most are the objections like “people are naturally jealous” or “people are naturally possessive.” Yes, people are born with the ability to feel a wide range of emotions–happiness, anger, grief, jealousy, elation, possessiveness, and so on, and so on. Often, these emotions say more about the person than about the environment; for example, it has been my experience that a person who feels jealous doesn’t necessarily feel jealous because his partner is with someone else (plenty of monogamous people whose partners are not cheating feel jealous), but because that person is feeling a fear of loss, or an insecurity, or a fear of being replaced, something like that. A partner being with someone else might trigger these things, but that doesn’t mean it is the “cause” of jealousy, nor that jealousy is inevitable.

More to the point, people seem to give an almost superstitious level of magical powers to emotions. It is possible to feel angry and to choose not to hit someone or to lash out at someone. It is possible to feel jealous and choose not to act out against that person. Emotions do not dictate actions; we still make choices. And we can make choices that tend to reinforce the things we value (trust, love, altruism) rather than the things we don’t (hate, anger, fear).

Emotions aren’t in the drivers seat unless we put them there; there’s nothing magical or supernatural about them, and we can still make choices even if we are feeling things we don’t like.

Some thoughts on ethics, safety, and conduct in BDSM: Part I

Part 2 of this essay is here.

The largest producer of BDSM porn, by far, that I am aware of is’re headquartered in the old Armory building in San Francisco, where they produce controversy, BDSM porn, and demonstrations, though as near as I can tell it’s only the second one that actually makes them money.

Bear with me for a minute; this is just backstory. I’m going to get all Ranty McRanterson in a minute here. has something of a mixed reception in the BDSM community, as far as I’ve seen anyway, though my experiences with them have always been positive, and I quite like all the folks I’ve met personally. (Their reception in the Christian anti-porn community is less mixed; when I was at Baycon talking to some of the folks who work for Kink, I heard stories about a Christian group who’d been picketing the Armory building with signs reading “End Torture Porn.” The irony in that is left as an exercise to the reader, though there was a part of me that wondered how many of the protesters were wearing crucifixes around their necks. But I digress.) was founded by a guy with a genuine interest in BDSM, and one of the things the company has done is try in various ways to support and give back to the BDSM community. There are some folks who take exception to that, and an argument can always be made that it’s hard for a for-profit company of any kind to really have the best interests of the community that supports it at heart; having said that, I do believe their heart is in the right place.

Recently, one of the folks from called me to talk about a new project they’re launching, the BDSM Pledge Web site. The idea, as I understand it, is to create a kind of BDSM ‘Code of Conduct’ that folks could sign on to, post on their Web sites, and so forth.

It hasn’t formally launched yet, and they’re still soliciting comments about it. My opinion is that it’s an interesting idea, but I’d like to see more from it. A lot more.

Before I get to the rant, I need to digress for a moment about two of the notions anyone who’s at all familiar with the BDSM world has almost certainly encountered: “SSC” (Safe, Sane, and Consensual) and “RACK” (Risk Aware Consensual Kink).

These are two different-but-not-really notions about what it is that sets BDSM apart from abuse. The SSC folks emphasize that BDSM activities should, naturally, be safe, sane, and consensual. The RACK folks rightly protest that the notions of ‘safe’ and ‘sane’ are highly subjective. No kind of sexual activity (and indeed no activity in general) can ever truly be ‘safe,’ and ‘sane’ is a pretty damn slippery concept that’s often used as a blunt instrument against folks who do things in bed that other folks don’t much like. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that homosexuality was considered inherently ‘insane’ by the psychiatric community. They prefer instead to acknowledge the risk and say that BDSM is OK if the participants are aware of the risk and still consent to the activity.

Quite a lot of column inches have been wasted on the feud between these two camps. The BDSM Pledge comes down on the side of Safe, Sane, and Consensual, and the person I spoke to at ruefully conceded that it’s got some of the RACK contingent’s backs up.

I personally am in neither camp. I think that both ideas are a load of bollocks.

Not because of what they say, mind you. I’ve written quite a lot about BDSM, and the issue of abuse is a central one, a defining element of kink as opposed to abuse. It’s what they don’t say that I find most annoying. Or, to be more precise, it’s the way that members of both camps often fail to apply their own principles that I most object to.

So here’s the part where I start to rant.

It has been my experience that the BDSM community as a whole gives a lot of lip service to the idea of ‘consent,’ but the practice doesn’t track with the preaching very well. I’ve already written about a friend of mine who was sexually assaulted by a prominent ‘leader’ in the BDSM community, but the problems that I see go beyond out-and-out assault.

The problems as I see them exist in three areas: constant, low-level non-consensual behavior, an inability to distinguish between consensual non-consent and real non-consent, and predatory behavior. And I think the three are all related.

Now, I’m absolutely not suggesting that everyone in the BDSM community is a bad person, of course. I’ve met many wonderful, interesting, compassionate, intelligent, friendly people in the community who are absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, however, the bad actors can mess things up for the people who are fantastic.

And I’m not even saying the BDSM community is any worse than society as a whole. But we can, and must, do better.

First, there’s the low-level non-consensual stuff I sometimes see at a conferences or play parties. It most often manifests as harassment of submissives, particularly female submissives; people swat their asses as they walk by, give them orders without negotiating whether or not it’s appropriate to do so, and otherwise behave as if their boundaries are irrelevant. (This isn’t entirely limited to men harassing women; it’s happened to me at play parties when I’ve been with a partner who was holding the reins.) In its more subtle manifestation, it’s a disregard for, sometimes even extending to a refusal to acknowledge, anyone who’s clearly in a submissive role.

Look, I get it if that’s your kink. Really, I do. But here’s the thing. You see those two ideas up there? You see the word they have in common? It’s “consensual.” That means, the submissive consents to the activity. Nobody should ever make assumptions that it is okay to disregard someone’s boundaries, or to touch someone, merely because that person is a submissive. This should be common sense. If you haven’t asked, don’t touch.

The folks in Master/slave or “TPE” (Total Power Exchange) relationships get wrapped around the axle on the same point. I know I’m likely to catch a lot of flak for this, but listen, guys: It’s a fantasy. You may feel like you have a relationship that is a “true” or “real” Master/slave relationship, and you might even feel like those folks who aren’t in relationships are poseurs or players, but it’s still a fantasy. The millisecond, and I mean the millisecond, the “slave” stops granting consent, it’s over. And if you try to make it keep going on after that point, you’re not a dom. You’re a rapist. You may think you’re entitled to be a rapist, because total power exchange whatever whatever, but then every rapist always feels entitled to rape, so it’s not like you’re special on that point.

I had an acquaintance, many years ago, who carried on to great length about how he was a “true” master and his slave was “truly” his property and how other people could “play” at BDSM but for them it was real because he owned her just as surely as he owned his toaster and yadda yadda yadda. He kept on about it right up until the moment she served him with divorce papers. Poor guy was gobsmacked; he never saw it coming. One’s toaster does not normally walk away with custody of one’s child and alimony when it wants a change of scenery. Again, this should be obvious. No matter how firmly someone has convinced himself (and it’s almost always a “him,” though I’ve seen a couple of women fall into this trap) that he he really owns his slave really for reals, the instant that person stops consenting to the arrangement (even if part of the fantasy is that that person has given up consent), it’s done. Anyone who can’t acknowledge that fact is best left as a matter for the police, not the BDSM community, to deal with.

Which brings me to the third variety of problem person, the out-and-out predator.

These people are difficult to deal with. They’re charming. They often rise to positions within a community that gives them respect and power. They host parties. They teach lessons. And folks don’t want to deal with the fact that they are bad people.

We are, as a species, breathtakingly gifted at ignoring evil. Part of it is selfishness; we don’t want to lose access to the things they give the community–the play spaces, the parties, the instruction. We find them likable, and don’t want to believe bad things (and guys, seriously, if somebody says “so-and-so assaulted me” and your response is “Well, I’ve never had a problem with him,” that’s fucked up on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start). We find it easy to blame the victim if we do become aware of something hinkey going on. (Astonishingly, I’ve seen women do this to other women–“Well, she should have known what would happen if she agreed to play privately with him; why was she leading him on?” or “Well, if she was a REAL submissive, she would be GRATEFUL for what happened!”) We talk the talk about consent, but when an uncomfortable problem manifests in our faces, we find it hard to walk the walk.

This stuff–all of it–needs to stop.

Which brings me back to the BDSM code of conduct and the tussle between SSC and RACK.

Folks, I don’t care. SSC and RACK come at the same general idea from different directions. Fighting about which one is better is squabbling over who should put the dishes away while the house is burning down. It doesn’t matter how you define “safe” and “sane” or what level of risk is acceptable between consenting adults. What matters–what really matters–is acting like consent is important. Not just talking about it.

All the time. In little ways and big ways.

That means, no casually swatting some self-identified submissive on the ass just because you’re a big domly dom and you think she’s cute, and that’s what you do with submissives. That means recognizing that consent is always important. It always matters, even when part of the fantasy is that it doesn’t.

And that especially means not making excuses when other people fail to respect the boundaries of those around them.

Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when you think it might cost you something.

My friend edwardmartiniii has this to say on the subject of inappropriate or abusive behavior in a community: “Don’t allow this behavior in your social group. It’s your group and that means that it’s your job (as well the jobs of everyone else in the group) to not allow the behavior you find undesirable. It’s your job to stop it. The people who are doing it might be clueless, or they might be malevolent, and I guess you are going to have to make that call, but the bottom line is that you are responsible for policing yourself and those around you. If you see something, then speak up. Right then. Act.”

And I agree.

So I would like to see a code of ethics that goes beyond “be safe, sane, and consensual, negotiate, and respect limits.” I’d like to see something that covers a lot more ground: Understand that roles are roles, but people are people, and it is your responsibility as a decent human being to treat everyone with respect. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t step on boundaries because you think the roles permit it. Don’t excuse others who do.

There’s more, and in Part 2 of this article I plan to talk quite a lot more about the things I’d like to see the community do.

Before that, though, I’d like to hear your reactions. What do you think? What problems, if any, have you seen in your communities? What would a code of ethical conduct for the subcultures you belong to look like?

Some Thoughts on Design and Humane Computing

A couple of weeks ago, someone on a programming mailing list that I read asked for advice on porting a Windows program he’d written over to the Mac. Most of the folks on the list, which is dedicated to Windows, Linux, and Mac software development, advised him that simple ports of Windows software generally tend to fare poorly on the Mac. Mac users tend not to like obvious ports from the Windows world, and several folks suggested that he might need to do some rejiggering of his program;s interface layout–moving buttons, repositioning alert icons, and so on–so that they fit the Mac guidelines better.

Which is true, but incomplete, and misses what I think is a really important point about software design. Or any kind of design, for that matter.

Right now, as I type this, Apple and Samsung are involved in a nasty patent spat concerning infringement of certain Apple user interface patents for cell phones. A lot of folks commenting from the sidelines on the spat tend to paint Apple as a villain, usually on the grounds that the patents in question (which generally relate to things like how searches work and so on) are “obvious,” and therefore shouldn’t be patentable at all.

Leaving aside entirely the question of whether or not Apple is the bad guy, the fact that so many folks deride the user-interface patents in question as “obvious” demonstrates a couple of important principles.

The first is that many computer geeks don’t understand design, and because they don’t understand design, they have contempt for it. (It is, unfortunately, a very common trait I’ve noticed among geeks, and particularly computer geeks, to assume that if they lack some particular skill, it’s only because that skill is trivial and not really worth bothering about.)

The second is that people tend not to pay attention to design unless it’s bad. Good design always looks obvious in hindsight, when it is noticed at all.

Today, touch-screen smartphones have generally settled on the same overall user interface idea: a series of virtual pages, accessed by swiping, which contain icons that can be touched to launch applications. But it wasn’t so long ago that such a simple and obvious user interface was unknown. Case in point: The first Windows CE devices.

The Windows CE-based smartphones used the same metaphor as Windows desktop systems: a “desktop” onto which you could place icons, and a tiny “start” menu in the corner of the screen which you would touch with a stylus or move a virtual mouse pointer over with a set of arrow keys or a rocker button to bring up a menu of applications.

This user interface succeeds on desktops but is an abject, epic failure on small screen devices because it simply isn’t designed for a different usage environment. Yet this, and things like it, were the norm for handheld devices for years, because nobody had come up with anything better. Nowadays we look at Android or iOS and marvel that anyone could be so dumb as to attempt the Windows desktop interface on a phone. Good design always looks obvious in hindsight.

So back to the mailing list.

Several of the responses the guy who wanted to port his software received concerned learning things like the ‘correct’ button placement and icon size on Mac systems. But that does not, I think, really address the central problem, which is that Mac users (and I know I’m going to get some flak for saying this) are accustomed to a higher level of design than Windows users are.

And there’s more to design than how big the icons are or where the buttons are placed. Way too many people have this notion that design is something you bolt onto an application after it’s finished; you make the program do what it should do, and then you call Joe the graphics guy from the other side of the building, who isn’t a real programmer but knows how to do some graphics stuff to make it all look pretty.

Back in the early days of the Mac, Apple released a rather hefty book called “Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines.” I had a copy of it for a long time. It’s quite thick, and covers almost every aspect of user interface design. Yes, there are a lot of bits about how many pixels wide an icon should be and where a button should be placed on a window, but it goes way beyond that, into program flow, error handling, and a lot more.

It’s a book I think all programmers should read, regardless of what environment they program for.

I don’t think Windows has ever had an equivalent to this book. Window prior to Windows 95 didn’t seem to have any such book, at least not that I can find. The earliest published document I can find for Windows was produced in 1995, and was quite short, covering nowhere near the depth of program design as the Mac version. A PDF is available here. I’m pretty sure Linux hasn’t either, though individual user interface shells may. (Gnome has one, and so does KDE; Unity seems not to.) And I think that helps contribute to the contempt that many programmers have for design, and to the notion that design is “pretty pictures that you put into the dialogs after the program is done.”

I wrote a reply on the list outlining some of the difficulties Windows programmers face when trying to port to the Mac. The considerations do include where to position user interface elements on the screen, of course; Mac programmers expect a certain consistency. But there’s a lot more to it. Here’s what I wrote:

The issue with Mac software isn’t one of following a list of guidelines, in my experience, so much as one of practicing good design.

The principles in the Apple Human Interface Guidelines tend to promote good design, but there are many applications that don’t follow them (even applications from Apple) yet still give the ‘user experience’ that Mac users want. It’s about good, thoughtful, humane design, not about how big the buttons are or what fonts are used or how many pixels away from the edge of the window the buttons are located.

“Design” is a difficult concept, and one that a great many programmers–even good programmers–don’t have a good grasp of. There are a lot of terrible applications out there (on all platforms), though in the years I’ve been using Macs, Windows, and Linux I’ve found that Mac apps generally tend to be better designed than apps for the other two platforms. Indeed, Linux in particular tends to reward inhumane application design, enshrining programs with great power but also with an obtuse, cumbersome, and heavy user interface that is opaque to anyone without a thorough understanding of the software. EMACS is arguably one of the greatest examples of software utterly divorced from humane design. (Before anyone accuses me of engaging in partisan holy wars, I started using MS-DOS at version 2.11, Windows at 3.0, and Macs at System 1, and I’ve been using Linux since about 1998. I first came to EMACS on a DECsystem-20 running TOPS-20; before that, I used TECO on a PDP-11.)

Humane application design extends way beyond pretty pictures in the splash screen and memorizing lists of rules about where to put buttons on a screen. The principles of humane design are probably outside the scope of one email on an email listing, but they include things like:

Clarity. A well-designed user interface strives, as far as is reasonably possible, for simplicity, obviousness, and clarity. Functions presented to the user should be done in a logical and comprehensible manner, with similar functions presented in similar ways and available options described in the clearest possible language.

Consistency. Different areas of the software’s human interface should be designed, as far as is possible, to be both visually and functionally similar. If the user changes from one mode to another, she should not be presented with a jarringly different interface that is arranged entirely differently. Functions that are common to all areas or modes of the software should continue to work in the same way. The Microsoft Office suite is an example of a set of programs with poor consistency; in each of the parts of the suite, the same functions are often located in different places, under different menu items.

Predictability. Humane software does not modify or delete the user’s information without the user’s express permission. Consequences of user action, especially action that might involve loss of data, should be clearly communicated. User choice should be presented in a way that clearly communicates the results of the choice; for example, an inhumane, poorly-designed dialog box might read “A network error occurred” with buttons reading “OK” and “Cancel,” as the user is presented with no clear way to predict what pressing each of those buttons will do.

Ideally, buttons should be labeled verbs, which help to communicate the consequences of making a selection as rapidly as possible. It’s not great design to have a dialog box reading “A network error occurred; try again?” with buttons labeled “Yes” and “No.” Better is a dialog box with buttons labeled “Try Again” and “Disconnect.”

Clear communication. There’s a great example of this in the Apple Human Interface guidelines. A poorly-designed error message for a text entry field might read “Improper data format entered.” A better error message might read “”Numeric entry only.” A well-designed error message might read “The ZIP code must be five numbers or five numbers with a dash and four numbers.” The software communicates what is expected in a way that is easy for the user to understand, even when (in fact, especially when) an error condition is encountered.

Resilience. The design of the software should strive, as far as is possible, to preserve user input and user data even in the event of some sort of error condition. This means, for example, that the software will not discard everything the user has entered up to that point if the user types an incorrect ZIP code; the software will not lose the user’s input without warning if the user leaves one mode and enters another mode (for example, if the user types part of a shipping address, then backs up a screen to change the discount code she has entered), and the software will always make it clear if data will be or have been lost.

Forgiveness. The user interface should, as far as is possible, be designed to forgive mistakes. This includes such obvious things as Undo functionality, which in this day and age even the most inhumane software implements because it’s become part of the cultural set of expectations from any software. Better implementations include the ability to Undo after the user has done a Save or a Revert to Saved (Adobe applications consistently implement this). Humane software will not irrevocably destroy a user’s data at the click of a wrong button, will attempt insofar as is possible to recover data in the event of a crash (applications like Microsoft Word are quite good at this, though it’s not always technically possible in, say, large graphics editing apps).

Familiarity. Good design does not have to be beholden to the past, but if you’re presenting the user with a completely unfamiliar experience, expect resistance. When a person gets into a car, she expects certain things from the user interface; replacing the steering wheel and pedals with a joystick and the windshield with a holographic projector might be appropriate for a concept car or a science-fiction movie, but probably isn’t for the next-generation Chevy Lumina. If you change things about the expected user experience, make sure you have a clear and compelling reason to do so; don’t violate the user’s expectations merely because you can. This, unfortunately, is the only place where many programmers feel design is important, and is where rules such as the fonts used in buttons and the distance the buttons are placed from the edge of the window come into play.

Responsiveness. The application should be designed in such a way as to remain responsive to the user as often as possible in as many conditions as possible, and throw as few roadblocks in the user’s way as possible. This goes beyond simply shifting CPU-intensive operations into their own thread, and encompasses a number of architectural, coding, and human interface choices. For example, humane software is modeless wherever possible; use modal dialogs that block user activity only where absolutely necessary and where no other design decisions can be made. Make it clear what window or data is affected by a modal dialog (this is a place where I believe the design and implementation of Windows falls short, and the Mac’s “sheet” window is a significant human interface win.) If you must use a modal window, seek wherever possible to allow the user to clear the fault within the modal window, rather than forcing the user to dismiss the modal dialog and then go back a step to fix whatever the problem is.

There’s a lot more, of course, but the basic point here is that good design isn’t something that you glue onto a program with pretty icons and controls that follow all the rules. It’s something that has to be baked in to an application from the ground up, and for better or for worse it is my observation that the users’ expectations of good design techniques tend to be higher on Macs than on other systems.

Some thoughts on needs, objectification, and the Magic Genitals Effect

If you venture into the polyamory community for long enough, eventually you will encounter someone who says “Polyamory is good because no one person can meet all of your needs. With poly, I can find different people who meet different needs, and so be happier.”

That line of reasoning has always bugged the hell out of me. It seems to me that there is something deeply, profoundly wrong with this argument, but I’ve never really been able to articulate what.

Today, while pondering an entirely different question, it occurred to me. We are, through biology or socialization or both, prone to viewing romantic partners as need fulfillment machines. When we have a need, be it for companionship or for sex or for someone to process with or for someone to (God help us) go bowling with, we look to our partners to meet those needs.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. Indeed, one of the greatest things about being in a romantic relationship is having someone to turn to, someone to co-create with and to be inspired by, someone who will help us as we build our lives.

But it gets a little messed up, I think, when we start with the assumption that our partners are obligated to meet our needs–that that’s what they are there for, and if our needs aren’t being met, our partners have done something wrong.

A lot of folks say that you can never truly be friends with members of the opposite sex. In addition to being extremely heteronormative (does that mean a gay man can’t ever truly be friends with another gay man? That a bisexual woman can’t truly be friends with anyone?), it speaks, I think, to the notion that we tend to view folks through the lens of need fulfillment objects. For instance, there is a common (and misogynistic) narrative that says driving need of men is sex; any man who befriends a woman is, somewhere in his mind, doing so with the expectation that at some point he can get her to fill that need. I could write a book on how profoundly twisted that idea is, but that will have to wait for another time.

I think there are also signs of this objectification in the expectations for the way people behave after a romantic breakup. When a relationship–especially a sexual relationship–ends, there’s a social expectation that the people involved will revile each other; ex-partners who are on good terms with one another tend to be treated as something of an aberrant curiosity, like something we should be looking at from behind a roped-off area in a circus sideshow somewhere. Part of that is certainly that the ending of a relationship can be painful, and we are not really taught how to process emotional pain well; but part of it does point to the notion that if we break up with someone, it’s because that person failed in his or her duties to meet our needs, and why would we want to keep them around? After all, isn’t that a bit like hanging on to a broken toaster or something?

It seems obvious to me how a partner who is treated as a human being rather than a need fulfillment machine is still valuable even if one’s needs aren’t currently being serviced, but it also feels to me like this is something of a minority opinion.

The tacit view of a partner as a need fulfillment machine explains the way people often deal with problems in a relationship. Many relationships are predicated on the notion that if Alice is involved with Bob, and Bob needs something (particularly if Bob has an emotional need), it is perfectly acceptable for Bob to not only ask for it from Alice but to demand it–and pitch a fit if he doesn’t get it.

The need-based argument for poly (“one person can’t really meet all my needs, so I have more than one!”) is a direct statement of the notion that partners are need fulfillment machines. It assumes as a subtext that getting someone to meet your needs for you is the entire purpose of a romantic relationship, and if one romantic relationship isn’t enough, you turn to more than one.

My sweetie zaiah says that kids who go to sex-segregated schools are more likely to treat people of the opposite sex as a kind of faceless, undifferentiated Other than kids who don’t. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it does seem that adults who see members of the opposite sex as The Other also seem more likely to treat their partners as need fulfillment machines than adults who don’t. Bookstore shelves are groaning under the weight of books that try to paint members of the opposite sex as The Other, some strange alien that you interface with in order to get your needs met, but who aren’t really fully individuated human beings. The Game, The Rules, Why Men Love Bitches…people are drawn to these books to help them puzzle out the mysteries of the user interfaces on these strange, otherworldly things that the can’t understand but nevertheless feel like they need. And from my perspective, it all feels more than a little fucked up.

Now, we don’t talk about it directly, oh no. We pretend that objectification is bad–the notion that objectification is wrong is writ into most of the arguments against pornography, for example–yet at the same time we are strongly conditioned to do the most objectification right where it’s closest to home, in our own romantic relationships. “I am in this relationship because I have needs. It is my partner’s job to meet those needs. A partner who doesn’t fulfill my needs is as useless as a broken toaster.”

This happens to some extent in a wide variety of interpersonal relationships, but it seems especially acute in romantic relationships. If we need to go bowling and for whatever reason our friend isn’t available, that isn’t likely to get the same kind of response that we might have if we need something from a partner and the partner isn’t available. For whatever reason, it seems that we are socially more predisposed to see our friends as fully and individually human than we are our partners.

In polyamorous relationships, the extent to which many folks seem to want to give their partners any measure of freedom only in direct proportion to how quickly we can yank the leash back if they aren’t doing their job fulfilling our needs. I’ve seen people place all sorts of limits on their partners’ behavior that seem calculated to make sure that all these external, secondary relationships do not ever impinge on our partner’s utility as a need fulfillment machine; the instant some external relationship comes between one’s need and the ability of one’s partner to fill that need immediately, look out.

I call this the Magic Genital Effect–the notion that sex changes the game in such a way that the person we’re having sex with is somehow less human, less deserving of autonomy, less able to negotiate around complexities, or otherwise less worthy of being treated as an individual human being an someone whose genitals we aren’t rubbing.

I recently saw a brilliant example of the Magic Genital Effect in a poly forum I sometimes read. A person in that forum argued that a big problem with polyamory is that the secondary will eventually want to be recognized as an equal partner, and that’s bad because it might cause disruption in the “primary couple” and in the primary couple’s social circle if they have friends who aren’t poly. He argued that an existing couple has a history together, and anything that might cause disruption to that is bad and must be avoided.

My take on that is that disruption is a part of life. Nobody ever has a relationship in which everything works with 100% smoothness 100% of the time. There are many, many stressors that can cause disruption in a relationship: losing a job, moving, being promoted, an illness or accident, anything. We develop skills for dealing with disruption, we talk about things when we feel out of kilter, we work together with our partner to get through difficulties or changes in the relationship–this is what makes a partnership.

And I asked the question, would you feel that it was bad for a couple who had a child to have another? After all, the existing child already has a history; the arrival of a new child can and quite likely will cause disruption. Things will change. Dynamics will shift. The old way will be disrupted. Why is that bad? What would we think of someone who says you should never have two children because it might disrupt things for the first child?

The answer, perhaps predictably, was “Primary and Secondary lovers cannot be compared to first born, second born because the love shared is not the same.”

This is fascinating to me. It’s the Magic Genitals Effect writ large; changes in one’s family life are not the same if we aren’t rubbing genitals. The notion that we might change the family dynamic and trust that we can deal with, work through, and communicate about disruption that occurs is totally taken off the table as soon as the genitals come out.

This goes back to the idea of partners as need fulfillment machines, I think. What makes the genitals special? We tend, rightly or wrongly, to think of rubbing genitals in the context of romantic relationships. Why do we assume that disruption is automatically bad in cases that involve genital-rubbing than in cases that don’t? Because the genital-rubbing part is one of the key pieces of seeing a partner as a machine for fulfilling our needs. In addition to their other utility in serving other needs, our partners are primarily objects for meeting our sexual needs, and if they aren’t doing that (for whatever reason) they are broken. Something is wrong. You don’t negotiate with your toaster if it isn’t toasting bread correctly; it would be absurd even to think that you and your toaster have a relationship in which a disruption in toast-making is something that you each work through through mutual conversation. Why does the “but that’s different” argument work when the magic genitals come out? Because we tend, I think, to be predisposed to seeing sex partners as need fulfillment machines, and to believe that if they aren’t filling our needs, they’re doing something wrong.

That’s the problem, at least as I see it. I’m not sure what the solution is.

Movie review: Prometheus

I had been waiting for Prometheus for months. As the day grew closer and closer, I was more and more excited. Ridley Scot? Directing a prequel to Alien, the movie that traumatized me for decades? Starring Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron? Oh, yes please.

When the day came, zaiah and I stayed up just so we could hit the midnight show; the thought of waiting even another minute, let alone another day, was so absolutely painful that I’d almost rather sign up for a North Korean labor camp than wait.

So you can imagine my disappointment when the movie turned out to be a rambling, shambling mess, filled with implausible characters doing inexplicable things for incomprehensible reasons. As my friend zensidhe recently pointed out, there’s only one character in this entire disaster of a movie whose motivations for doing anything he did are even the least bit comprehensible or consistent, and that’s only because he’s a fucking robot.

So I’m not going to do a review of this movie. Instead, I’m going to turn this space over to a guest writer–namely, the version of me from an alternate universe, one where Prometheus was a very different movie indeed. Take it away, alternate me!

Hi! This is the alternate-universe version of Franklin. I’ve been asked to do a movie review of Prometheus, because apparently the one in your universe kinda sucks. From the sound of it, it came out really, really late, too. In my universe, Prometheus went into production in 2001, when Ridley Scott and James Cameron decided to co-write a prequel to the Alien franchise. It first ran in the summer of 2003, where it topped the box office charts for fifteen straight weeks, until it was edged out by the second Dr. Who movie, The Oncoming Storm.

Prometheus is a kick-ass movie, one of the best science fiction movies outside of the Culture movies. I have it on Blu-Ray and on holographic disc. The movie goes something like this:


Sinister Weyland-Yutani Dude: We’ve discovered evidence of sapient life on other planets. We have assembled a spacecraft and crew to investigate. We promise our motivations are pure and our intentions are strictly honorable. Charlize Theron, will you lead the crew?
Charlize Theron: Certainly! What could possibly go wrong?

Charlize Theron and the crew of the Prometheus HEAD OUT to investigate the ALIEN CIVILIZATION

Charlize Theron: Wow, this alien species is very advanced!


Charlize Theron:

Something REALLY BAD HAPPENS. People DIE. It SCARES THE HELL out of the AUDIENCE. We learn NEAT THINGS about the origins of the XENOMORPHS.

Charlize Theron: Holy crap this is a bad situation.

The situation gets WORSE.

Charlize Theron: Wow, I had no idea the xenomorphs could do THAT!

We learn about the origin of the SPACE JOCKEY during Charlize Theron’s daring ESCAPE

Audience: Man, that movie rocked!

That’s all I have time for. I’d write a longer review with more details, but we’re talking about a 9-year-old film here. Besides, the season eleven finale for Firefly is about to start, and I don’t want to miss it.