Control Tower

Sensation vs. Spectacle

Sex work breaks down into two major categories: sensation or spectacle. It's either something where everyone has the option to physically participate, or it's a look-but-don't-touch situation. I recently spent an unusual—for me—evening at the New Horizons swing club in Lynnwood, and it struck me that public BDSM parties and swing parties diverge in an oddly similar way.

Sure, the activities are different. Swingers fuck. People at BDSM parties don't. (Okay, occasionally they do, but not very often.) Still, the gatherings do have some comparable features. Each is a group of sexually alternative people getting together to participate in what turns them on. They may come with their partner of choice—just for the excitement of being in novel surroundings and watching and being watched. Or they may be there to seek new partners. Or both.

Contrary to my expectations, I didn't find the overall feel of the swing party markedly different from a BDSM party—at least, not in the social area. But when I walked through the designated sex area, I noticed one big difference: The swingers would often look up and make prolonged eye contact with me as I watched them fuck.

That was startling. It's rare for people doing BDSM at large parties to make eye contact with anyone outside their scene, and it's considered rude for onlookers to try to catch and hold a player's gaze. You watch, of course—but you don't stare. And no one in a scene would stare back at you.

I wondered if, in the swing world, prolonged eye contact constituted an invitation to join in the fucking. My swing-etiquette expert, official New Horizons host Sam, said not necessarily. "The rules are: You ask. Eye contact is simply the first stage. If there seems to be an invitation, a common second step is to move closer. That gives the couple the opportunity to reach out to you, either verbally or physically. (Don't stand over them, though—I find that creepy.) But I would never recommend that the third person actually walk over and touch the couple without asking."

Those sound like reasonable rules to me. But still, it felt odd to have someone looking back at me. That evening, I watched a man do a series of slow push-ups into a woman, who seemed to be enjoying the deliberate strokes. With each thrust, he glanced down at her, but as he pulled back, he locked eyes with me. Maybe he meant it as a friendly invitation, but it confused me, and I walked on rather than risk being misunderstood. It's extremely rare for a stranger to get invited into a BDSM scene already in progress—watching people play is like watching performance art. It's just understood that I am the audience, not a potential participant. If I went back to a swing club, I'd have to get used to the idea that swingers have a much more permeable division between spectacle and sensation. recommended


Comments (10) RSS

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The division between spectacle and sensation (good clear terms!) seems to bring up a division between what you do and whom you do it with (less clearly defined, but I'm new at this). BDSM centers on a particular set of (generally) sex-related activities: what you do. Swinging seems more oriented around varying whom you do it with. The former is focused on the action, and the latter on the extension of action.
Posted by Alicia on April 22, 2009 at 3:03 PM · Report this
Is just me or does Matisse write the unsexiest column ever? Seriously, I'd rather watch my grandparents have sex than read another one of these boring ass entries.ZzZZzzZZzzzZZZzzz
Posted by cmnkisrule on April 23, 2009 at 1:56 PM · Report this
I am just stunned by the comments here sometimes, slamming a skilled (and sexy) writer for no apparent reason. cmnkisrule, above, is an example of that. Matisse consistently provides great insight into her very interesting world, and I for one appreciate it massively. It's the first thing I turn to in The Stranger, frankly.
Posted by Van on April 23, 2009 at 2:58 PM · Report this
It's just you. Don't like it? Don't read it.
Posted by flora on April 23, 2009 at 3:09 PM · Report this
Or, more specifically, if you're looking for porn -- and it sounds like you are -- don't read it.

Not all writing about sex without writing to titillate. Some of it is about thinking with your other head.
Posted by brooks on April 23, 2009 at 4:11 PM · Report this
This is like the people who call up sex workers trying to get them to talk sexy for free instead of setting up an appointment for a session.

If you're coming here for titillation and you find this column (or discussions about sex and alternative lifestyles in general) regularly boring, why not hit up literotica instead? Get yourself some actual porn and stop whining about how 'unsexy' this column is. Somehow I doubt that this column is meant to be this paper's bodice-ripping erotic thrillfest, especially when it alternates space with Dear Science.

Only boring people get bored.
Posted by Scribbles on April 24, 2009 at 9:48 AM · Report this
One of the things that makes BDSM different from vanilla sex is the amount of focus involved, of you're flogging(or being flogged) you don't have much interest in making contact with onlookers, you're totally involved in what you're doing. The same with most other BDSM practices.

I've had many public BDSM scenes where, after it was over, I looked around to find a dozen or more people standing there - and I had no idea where they came from or when they got there. It was all about my partner and me.
Posted by Outlanderssc on April 26, 2009 at 4:02 PM · Report this
Let me clarify ladies. I'm not slamming the person I'm slamming her writing. I find her column to be grim, humorless, tiresome and therefore terribly unsexy. While I'm quite sure Matisse the person is a total delight, Matisse the writer needs some work.
Flora, you give the best advice which I will be taking you up on.

Posted by cmnkisrule on April 27, 2009 at 11:47 PM · Report this
i couldn't agree more with cmnkisrule. i really want this column to be good. i want great insight into her interesting world.. but instead it's just boring braggadocio slightly dressed up as insight.

(and please don't come to her defense because she's sexy.. defend her writing if you must, because that's what we're discussing.)
Posted by d rocketship on April 30, 2009 at 8:12 AM · Report this
The criticisms above seem to be equivalent to complaining about a documentary's dismal lack of special effects.
Posted by Borogove on May 7, 2009 at 2:54 PM · Report this

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