edited by Tristan Taormino
Seems like every time I write about a book that centers around sex, I get a comment from someone who thinks I am judging their personal choices. I'm not. For one thing, I don't know [you], and for another thing, it's not my business, unless you're offering it freely. I am not the Sex Police. I am sent books by publishers, and if I find it interesting in some way, I read and review it. I'm writing about the book, my experience reading it and my personal perspective. Not you. Yes, unclench thy undercarriage and realize that I'm far too self-preoccupied (and self-deprecating) to step too far outside myself and the book in hand. You'd think this would be obvious, but apparently it bears repeating.
So, that preamble out of the way, let's talk about kink, shall we?
The easy thing to do would be to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey and to say that if you really want to know what a BDSM relationship entails, you should read this guide instead. And that's true, but I can only say that as a person who has read about Fifty Shades of Grey, and not someone who has read the book itself. Judging by what I have read — as reviews lead us us to do — the book does not interest me. I am not interested in Twilight, so why would I be interested in spruced up fan fiction that has lazy assumptions in place of research? No, it's not for me.
To be honest, a lot of BDSM is not for me. Having a chronic illness that sometimes involves a great deal of pain, experiencing "extracurricular" pain is not high on my priority list. Normally, I wouldn't share much about my bedroom habits at all — you're not asking, for one thing — but I tell you so that you know that I came at this book wanting to understand points of view different than mine. On a more literary level, if I were to write a character that had different sexual interests than my own (and, really, it would be boring to write the same person all the time), I would want that person to feel true and not some fuzzy conjecture based on unsatisfactory information.
Sex is interesting, of course, and there are so many different ways of going about it. That some people who fear anything different from themselves get so bothered over sex (and therefore try to "regulate" it) does not surprise me. Instead, it would be nice to see more emphasis on education rather than judgment. Education is good. Sex between consenting adults is good. Everything else is subjective.
BDSM — "Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism," for those just learning the acronym — is only part of The Ultimate Guide to Kink, though scenarios involving some sort of power play comprise the majority of the book. Each chapter is written by an expert in a given subject, and each subject is given full attention. Everything from preparation, the warm-up, the big finish and aftercare get substantial page space. Because different acts of kink involve so many specifics — "Is this okay?" and "What happens if we do this?" etc. — the subculture has produced a variety of nerdery not unlike what one might encounter at an electronics expo or a writing conference. Chatting about tools of the trade and ways to further develop oneself happens in any interest group, and kinky individuals are no different.
What the anti-kink fanatics don't understand about us is that we're geeks. Sex nerds. SM intellectuals. We pay money to spend a weekend going to classes.
--Tristan Taormino, from her introduction
Securing consent is what separates kink from abuse. Let's get that out of the way early. While being tied up or slapped is not my thing, I fully understand that, for some people, it really is.
When people experience pain, adrenaline, endorphins, and natural painkillers flood their nervous system. People get off on this chemical rush, which many describe as feeling energized, high or transcendent.
I get that. On the milder end, it's like getting a really good deep tissue massage on tight muscles. It hurts so good. Or think of the friend you know who enjoys the rush of extreme sport, or the one who described getting a tattoo as "intense, but kind of fun." (Me, I like the end result of the tattoo art, and just grit my teeth through the process. See? Everyone is different.)
I completely get how the rush, the high, can outweigh any fear. And with kink, everyone should be on the same page before you even start, so there's trust built into that consent, not real fear (unless, that's what you're aiming for, on purpose). If someone is asking you to do something that makes you uncomfortable or stirs up any strong aversions, then you shouldn't do it. End of. That seems obvious, but this book makes it clear that it's something about which people need reminding — whether a person considers themselves kinky or not.
After covering some basic terms, the guide goes into specific acts and ideas. The first section deals primarily with skills and techniques, covering everything from spanking to bondage to piercing to "Kinky Twisted Tantra." Everything is described in a straightforward, complete way, including how to keep all parties safe and happy.
The second section covers fantasies and philosophies, such as role playing, and the specific thoughts from the writers, including submissives, sadists, Doms, etc. They talk about why they like doing what they do, and what their lives are like within that.
It is obvious that even as players flout some taboos, other taboos remain that are too kinky for most of us and that, therefore, we will not violate. The Dark Lord's exploration raises the question, "Where do we draw the line?"
Yet are there really any lines to cross in the mind? What darkness lurks in the depths of one's unconscious self? How do we integrate that darkness in our lives to become whole persons? Or do we do so at all?
--Jack Rinella, "The Dark Side"
I appreciate that the book lays everything out, but strongly encourages the reader to really think about their desires. It's not just about what one doesn't want to do, or what is "too far," but also about knowing that whatever your kink is, there are other people who feel like you do and that you are hardly alone. (For instance, it could not even be about sex. Bondage on its own might be pleasurable enough.) "Find your local community" is a frequent refrain. Also, by covering such a wide swath of activity, I think that most any reader will find at least one thing that makes them think, "I could get into that," or "Well, so far so good there!"
Regarding the aftercare sections: maybe it's my predisposed need for a certain amount of care in other areas of my life influencing me, but I like the importance that is placed upon it. Coming down from any high can be a staggering transition. It's not just about making sure bruises aren't too serious or stopping the flow of adrenaline. It's also about re-acclimating to the "real" world. How many times have you had an absolutely thrilling experience, only to have the next day, regular life, completely pale by comparison? It's easy for depression to creep in, if one is not careful. A person has to feel cared for, independent of their sexual life.
So while portions of the book are decidedly not for me, it's still well-written and will be of good use to anyone who wants to know more about kink. The 'Ultimate' in the titles lives up to its name from my point of view, though I'm sure there are cranky people (as there are in every subculture) who might say, "I can't believe they forgot [this]." I really don't know what that might be, but as it stands, I'd say over 400 pages must be fairly thorough. It's not a history lesson, apart from some basics, but a guide — To get you started, to teach you new tricks, or perhaps to satisfy some anthropological urge. I can't tell you what will draw you to The Ultimate Guide to Kink, but if it piques your interest at all, you will likely finish satisfied.
Full Disclosure: Cleis Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.