by Lady Green

From Issue 2.3 - December 1995/January 1996

Hello, Mr. Webster? It's Me Again

A couple of months ago I wrote a column entitled "Mr. Webster, Where Are You When We Need You?" in which I ranted a bit about the use of the phrase "power exchange" to describe consensual SM. (For those who missed it, I didn't and don't believe that the word "power" does a good job of describing what we like to give up or take away.). Well, being the word junkie that I am, I've been doing a lot more thinking since then about that column, about the vocabulary we use to describe what we do, and about the ways that vocabulary affects how we think about ourselves.

Mr. Webster, rest his soul, didn't live in a world in which a lot of people admitted to "eroticizing sensations or emotions that would be unpleasant in a non-erotic context," my working definition of SM. Just as an Eskimo, with his famed (if apocryphal) twenty words for snow, would be a bit tongue-tied if he got stuck with our two or three, we perverts struggle constantly with the knowledge that words like "pain" and "power" and "humiliation" and "helplessness" and "sadist" and "masochist" don't mean the same things to us that they do to the rest of the world. The inadequacy of our vocabulary frustrates and marginalizes us. Try explaining to Mom how come now getting your fanny spanked feels good, but you're still mad at her for what happened when you were eight.

In thinking about this, I pulled out a rather wise, very strange book: Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. (Well, you knew I was a child of the '70s, didn't you?) The plot of this book hinges on a substance called "ice-nine," a brand-new crystal form of water. Ice-nine has exactly the same ingredients as the cubes you put in your Diet Coke, except its molecules are arranged differently so that it melts at 114 F instead of 32 F. (I think Vonnegut is probably a better writer than he is a scientist, but bear with me on this one.)

Let's just suppose that there were a substance that had the same ingredients as real-world pain ("pain-one") -- neural stimulation, muscular response, chemical alterations -- but was somehow fundamentally different in its structure. What might it be like? Well, it might be the kind of pain that has you thrashing and screaming and struggling, 90% certain that you're desperate for it to end, but 10% aware that you could end it at a word and that you need it to go on because it's rearranging your spirit and connecting you with your partner in a way that nothing else can. Let's call that kind "pain-two." It might be the kind that's so firmly wired into your personal neurology that the pain, while painful, is genuinely pleasurable, the kind that gets you wet, or hard, or even off. Call it "pain-three." Or it might be the kind of pain that you're sort of distantly aware of, but that you've floated so far beyond that it feels like heavy raindrops falling on a parched field. Let's call that "pain-four."

Are you with me so far? It's amazing how many people, even hardened perverts, aren't. I once had a top say to me indignantly, "I'm not a masochist like you -- to me, pain hurts!" Pain hurts masochists too, folks. We've just learned to recognize and appreciate pain-two, pain-three and pain-four when they happen to us.

It's pretty easy, in fact, to see how the often incendiary words "sadist" and "masochist" might fall into this same structure. Someone who seeks to give nonconsensual or real-world pain is a "sadist-one." Someone who likes consensual discipline scenes with lots of crying and begging is a "sadist-two." The "sweetheart sadist" who enjoys giving a bottom exactly the kind of pain s/he likes is a "sadist-three." Someone who enjoys taking his or her bottoms on a shamanic journey is a "sadist-four." You get the idea.

Can we set some of our other often-misunderstood words to this music? Sure. A hostage has given up "power-one" -- real-world power-over that cannot be taken back. A bottom who is accepting a stimulus or performing a task that s/he doesn't overtly want to do has given up "power-two." One who is performing a task which is difficult and yet highly erotic has given up "power-three," and one who has gone under so deeply that s/he can't perceive any difference between the top's desires and his or her own has relinquished "power-four."

Although I wish we had more elegant words than these, I think it is essential that we develop our own vocabulary -- not just so that the outside world can understand us better, but so that we can understand ourselves better. (If you can think of better words, please speak up now!) And you know, there's one more characteristic of Vonnegut's ice-nine that I didn't mention earlier. It's a "seed" -- if you drop it into a body of water, it "teaches" the water how to crystallize as ice-nine instead of regular ice. Perhaps dropping such concepts as pain-two, pain-three and pain-four into the world can be seeds, too, seeds that teach people not to deny their own needs or judge others', to distinguish between "have to" and "want to," and, above all, to tell the world and ourselves that sex doesn't, and shouldn't, look the same to everybody.

Lady Green is the author of The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners and the co-author of The Bottoming Book: Or, How To Get Terrible Things Done To You By Wonderful People (under the name Catherine A. Liszt). She also publishes a newsletter and teaches classes for novice dominant women and their partners. For a catalog please send a self-addressed stamped envelope to 3739 Balboa Ave. #195, San Francisco, CA 94121, or send her e-mail at verdant@crl.com.

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Last updated: 16 December 1995