I heard you speak about S/M recently and I would like to ask you for clarification about something you said. I have a little bit of experience, but I have many, many questions. You said two things that seemed somewhat incompatible. First you said that S/M is like a kind of erotic improvisational theater, where people might take on characters or roles and then go where those characters lead them. But that seems incompatible with the other thing, which is that people who play S/M will usually negotiate everything very carefully ahead of time, telling each other their preferences and limits. I know this is a good idea--but doesn't it make it impossible to be an improvisational kind of play? Wouldn't everything be so "sketched out" in advance that the spontaneity would be lost? --Junior Player
Good question! The answer, of course, is "yes and no." If play partners script the whole scene in advance, some spontaneity is certainly sacrificed to the partners' need to know what will happen when they begin to play. This level of scripting can be a good idea, especially when people are novices or are trying a new kind of S/M play--it can be reassuring for anyone who's concerned about things getting out of hand. Especially when the players don't have a great deal of experience, this kind of structure can contextualize play and make it easier to dive in.
On the other hand, what many people love about S/M is the sense of being taken on, or taking someone else on, a rather unpredictable erotic journey. Surprise, suspense, and even fear can all be part of the thrill, and for players who value this sort of experience, a script could be a definite damper.
However, the world of S/M play is vast. It can include sensation play like flagellation and spanking, clamping, piercing, etc.--the activities we usually term "S/M"--as well as bondage and sensory deprivation, plus a whole range of role-playing possibilities which usually revolve around some aspect of dominance and submission but can also involve other kinds of roles. Not everyone who's "into S/M" is into all of these kinds of play--in fact, many people have very particular preferences and aren't even willing to experience the things that don't already appeal to them. This is one reason negotiation is so important--whether or not it involves constructing a precise script (it doesn't have to go that far), pre-play negotiation lets the players decide whether they're going to be compatible. My favorite illustration for this: I want to be the top, but that involves my taking on a "Queen of the World" persona--my bottom has to serve and worship me perfectly. Pick up a flogger? I can't be bothered--might break a nail. But the cute bottom I met at a party--who eagerly tells me s/he's "into S/M"--really wants to play the part of a naughty puppy and get spanked with a rolled-up East Bay Express, preferably the section with my column in it. I'm a top, s/he's a bottom, but we're pretty fundamentally incompatible. We'd need to really delve into our respective preferences to find a way to play. Maybe the little dog is willing to stretch and become a Hound of Artemis--but that's about it.
Additionally, negotiation has a specific role around maintaining health and safety. If I tell you I have an asthma inhaler in my pocket, you'll know it might not be a good thing to gag and put a hood on me. If I tell you I have carpal tunnel, you'll decide to skip the fancy, tight bondage that looks so pretty but might put too much pressure on my wrists.
But when partners are focusing more on roleplay than on differing styles of play--for instance, they know they like some of the same things, and want to superimpose roles like "highway speed racer" and "arrogant highway patrol officer" onto a nice, basic blow job--overly tight scripting could certainly get in the way. Part of the fun and thrill of improv (whether it's onstage or in bed) is in finding yourself able to take on your chosen character and just run with it, and for many roleplayers, especially, the role provides all the script and structure they need.
So specific, preparatory negotiation might be a slightly more valuable tool for people who are going to do physical sensation play, while the notion of erotic improvisation might be more relevant when partners take on roles and concentrate on emotional and psychological issues. In either case, people might choose to negotiate down to the minute or let things play out as they will. And, of course, many S/M players like to engage in play that combines these two styles. Since you're a relative beginner, I'd recommend you use negotiation whenever you think it'll improve your play or your sense of well-being, and only move into more free-form play when you feel ready to do so. You don't say what your style of play is, so that advice might seem a little vague--but be assured that even very experienced players frequently do a lot of pre-scene negotiation, and that even a negotiated scene can (if the players allow it) assume a life of its own, with much room for improvisation and surprise. (When one or both players don't want this to happen, a safe word is in order: Basically, you're saying, "Whoa! It's out of control in a way I don't feel ready for.")
You might find the following books useful--each has definite relevance to your question: The Bottoming Book and The Topping Book both by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, and Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely by William Henkin and Sybil Holiday.
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