Rolequeerness is not about sex. It’s about power. It’s just that power, in rape culture, is about sex.



I really appreciate seeing vdsdisc’s internal monologue and thought processing here, so, reblogging. Also, thanks, vdsdisc. Also, I have some thoughts. :)


[[snip and link to prior convo]]

Just a smattering of thoughts for later:

[Cut for length.]

/questions for now

I think one of the things that trips up a lot of people in all this is the idea of exchange. “Erotic power exchange” is just a very polite way of describing permission-predicated rape threats. This shouldn’t come as a surprise if you understand that all systems of exchange when employed in a coercive context (like, say, capitalism, or rape culture) are basically a cascading series of threats.

Relationships that are founded on a principle of exchange are always and forever going to be coercive. That doesn’t make them categorically bad, it just means that they’re going to have at least some important coercive elements. Coercion itself is not “bad.” But “bad things” are usually coercive.

In a non-sexual context, you can take some inspiration from mutual aid and collective action organizing. When you “work for” someone (like, in a job), that’s a coercive situation, because your alternative is impoverishment and, possibly, starvation. In reality, I think it’s pretty obvious to pretty much everyone that "doing work" has nothing to do with "having a job."

The important point about workplace coercion is that the product or result of the “work” isn’t actually advancing a situation in which the worker (the people who “do labor”) are able to extricate themselves from. When you have a job, what you are doing is perpetuating a system that necessitates the having of jobs in the first place. This is true regardless of the kind of job you have; it’s not actually structurally different if you’re a banker on Wall Street or if you’re a teacher in an overcrowded school. This is even true if the job you have is your “dream job,” because a dream job is just a different kind of nightmare.

When you “have a job,” you’re participating in a system whose entire purpose is to cascade a series of finely tuned threats onto you, so that you are forced to pass those threats along to someone else. That is what money in a capitalist global economy is: money is just a cascading series of threats.

But we can’t just not conceive of relationships. So if we’re not going to conceive of relationships as a mechanism for facilitating exchanges, how can we reframe them? Rather than exchange, how about exploration?

Relationships that are based on exploration are a lot less coercive, by design. That is not to say that they are therefore never coercive. Moreover, I don’t think a reasonable or helpful goal is to ”never utilize coercion.” Rather, I think that where explorations in relationships are coercive, the one and only circumstance in which coercion is ethically utilized—that is, where the person doing the coercing can integriously consider themselves “not an abuser”—is a situation where the person doing the coercing acknowledges that situation to be coercive, and is choosing to do that at the behest of a person desiring to be coerced. That is, coercion is ethical only when someone is (meta-)consenting to having their consent violated and the coercing party is mindful of both these conflicting layers.

Instead of approaching a relationship or an interaction with some pre-scripted “goal,” an attitude of conquest, we could approach a relationship or interaction with nebulous interest, an attitude of curiosity. The relevance to rolequeerness of critiquing an eroticization of dominant and submissive behaviors is that it provides a backdrop against which we can begin an exploration by moving away from that: rolequeerness is related to D/s only insofar as rolequeerness is not D/s. That’s why “rolequeer” is also not interchangeable with “switch.” Unlike switching, which is about moving power between people as if they were on a see-saw, rolequeering is about everyone involved helping everyone else divest of their abilities to use the power they have coercively. This is what is meant by “a methodological framework for downward mobility in the power gradient of oppression culture.”

In a workplace, a rolequeer boss might do everything they can to support an employee’s professional development and then, rather than offer a promotion, that boss would encourage employees who mastered the job to quit. In a school, a rolequeer teacher might jettison the school’s curriculum and start sharing information about how to drop out of school and not be treated “like a drop-out,” covertly if necessary. A rolequeer parent or legal guardian would teach their legal charge about “parental controls” software, not activate any of them, and then explain how to get around any of those controls when they are active.

In a workplace, a rolequeer employee might share their salary and benefits details with other employees, especially against company policy. In a school, a rolequeer student might let other students cheat on bullshit tests by copying their answers. A rolequeer child might lie to an angry parent about their sibling’s supposed infraction to cover for them.

In all of these examples, the important point is that the activity intentionally undermines the rolequeer person’s ability to control, manipulate, or coerce other people. In each case, taking the action described puts the person who took the action in a more vulnerable position in relation to some entity that has more power over them, like a school board chairperson, the CEO of their company, or even fellow employees. That’s why we say “rolequeers are submissive as fuck and cocky as hell about it,” and also why we say “you cannot be a Dominant-identified rolequeer.” These are activities, behaviors, and beliefs that are at this point in time extremely dangerous, but create the possibility of disenfranchising the system of coercion itself, rather than other individual people. Dominance never does that. After all, there’s a reason employers support social norms that discourage employees from sharing information about their salaries: that norm hurts employees, not employers. There’s reason monogamous cultural norms discourage talking about one’s exes; that norm helps abusers, not survivors.

One of your questions is “Dominance is always about coercion? ALWAYS? How?” If you stop thinking about sex and start thinking about dominance itself (the ability to dominate), the answer becomes obvious. For instance, the “dominant” employee takes a promotion, an act that grants them institutional power over fellow employees. (“Dominants play to win.”) The rolequeer employee quits the company. (“Rolequeers play to quit the game.”)

Again, the central point here is that “rolequeer” is not just some subclass of BDSM activity. It’s about the way we orient ourselves to power—in every context—and doing something with that power that’s “the opposite of what’s expected,” or at least something unexpected.

In a blog post exploring gendered behaviors in partnered dance communities, and specifically in breaking out of gendered dance roles like “lead” and “follow,” Kat Whimsy independently coined the term “rolequeer” even before I first popularized it on Twitter. Kat wrote:

Where do we draw the line between “new dancer, who should be coddled” and “experienced dancer, who can deal with wackiness”? I am willing to make the sacrifice of dancing “normal” in order to help out people who have never danced before. I’m willing to make the sacrifice for people who have only danced once or twice. But where does it end? Most dance forms don’t have magical level tests you must pass to determine whether or not you are “experienced”, and even if they did, experience from skill level is very different from experience from time spent doing the form.

Additionally, is it misleading to dance normal for a new person, especially in a group that doesn’t regularly do that, or has a regular population of ambidancetrous or rolequeer persons? After all, the status quo for that specific population is to have certain people dance against the norm. If they all dance normal for newbies, then will the newbies be more confused when suddenly people start switching roles again?

I like Kat’s use of “rolequeer” here because it’s spot-fucking-on and emphasizes the kind of exploration I’m talking about, above. Dance is a great example of a prescribed social interaction with a clearly defined “script.” The interaction is often very rigid: left foot here, right foot there, hands like this. But the ideal outcome of “a good dance” is extremely vague. In that way, it’s not unlike sex.

Of course, while heteronormative sex is very scripted (insert tab A in slot B, remove, repeat), sex is actually more like the generic concept of dance than it is like any particular kind of dance. Sex isn’t the foxtrot, or a tango—it’s not necessarily a given activity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do a given activity (like the foxtrot, or a tango) as sex.

This makes both dance and specific sexual communities of interest (like the BDSM Scene) useful microcosms in which to practice rolequeerness. Since my personal genesis spawns from the BDSM community, and my most intimate traumas are rooted in sexual violation, it just so happened that I rolequeered the fuck out of my sexually submissive behaviors and identity, and I say “I’m rolequeer” because I’ve always been doing that. But if I were a dancer, well, I might’ve been writing a blog more like Kat’s.

So, here’s the point: both Kat and I are talking about the same thing.

Rolequeerness isn’t about BDSM. And it’s not a word for BDSM’ers. This isn’t about sex. It’s about power. It’s just that power, in rape culture, is very much about sex.

And, well, given that, interrogating one’s own “knee-jerk” desire to “be ‘dominant’” seems really fucking important. Which, of course, is also why most sex-positive, liberal feminist, BDSM’ers will fight tooth and nail to avoid doing that. 'Cause, rapists.

Links! Yay, context! Thank you maymay for replying to my scattered questions with food for thought. I’ve been reading all of the rolequeer stuff and it’s really neat to see a whole bunch of different ideas coming together from all over.

Reblogging to save for later. Also: thoughts.


I have been considering the above response to my thoughtdump stuff for a day or so, letting it stew in the back of my head. This was mostly because I kept thinking I was missing something. Now I’m thinking I was missing something, misinterpreting some things and definitely conflating others. (Conflation, my nemesis! *shakefist at sky* You are an assumption with a fancy name!) Woo.

Er… and as kind of a disclaimer to anyone trying to slog through my thoughts, my method of learning is repeating and elaborating until I can figure out what’s going on.

Of maymay’s above response, this is the bit that kind of stood out to me:

Relationships that are based on exploration are a lot less coercive, by design. That is not to say that they are therefore never coercive. Moreover, I don’t think a reasonable or helpful goal is to ”never utilize coercion.” Rather, I think that where explorations in relationships are coercive, the one and only circumstance in which coercion is ethically utilized—that is, where the person doing the coercing can integriously consider themselves “not an abuser”—is a situation where the person doing the coercing acknowledges that situation to be coercive, and is choosing to do that at the behest of a person desiring to be coerced. That is, coercion is ethical only when someone is (meta-)consenting to having their consent violated and the coercing party is mindful of both these conflicting layers.

The way I view relationships is that the goal is to be exploratory, because otherwise you end up with a transactional relationship. The whole notion of transactional relationships leaves me with the heebie-jeebies, especially when the people going into it don’t have a concept of what the transaction entails. The first example I can think of is the sex-for-security transaction (‘traditional’ gender roles try to enforce this with husband/wife dynamics) and the ‘security’ aspect - like is mentioned in the above response with the ‘have a job’ and other coercive constructs. All the power is held by the person who makes sure the other can’t walk away, or benefits from the fact that they can’t. If that’s not the definition of abuse, systemic or otherwise, I don’t know what is. My mother’s most often taught lesson was to always have my own bank account and to never pool funds, because my gramma couldn’t walk away and mom had a front row seat of the results.

So being with someone (in any sort of relationship) is because I want to be with them, and it needs to be an active, ongoing choice. On the flipside - the role of whoever the coercer is (and at it’s most generic the coercer is often me. :/) is to make it very clear that the coerced can walk the fuck away at any time. This is where the cultural default for relationships needs to be ‘I’m out of here’, so that participating in a relationship of any kind is an activity performed with agency. It’s bullshit that of every single one of the above examples of teacher, employer, and parent is a situation where the status quo is staying put. There’s a hell of a lot of entitlement involved in the assumption that inertia is all that’s needed for a successful relationship.

Right, anyway, basically, what I get from the latter half of the above quote is the ‘YOU know that THEY know that YOU know…’ sort of thing. Which… is… the basic foundation of any sort of consent-coercion sort of situation? Spelling that the need for coherent meta-consent feels both necessary and also kind of redundant, because until I started to interrogate the concept of dominance with respect to systemic abuses, establishing some sort of meta-awareness was an operative part of my attempts to remain ethical. I feel like I missed a train somewhere that I’m only just catching up with now. The idea that the coercing-sort absolutely must know that the coerced-sort is participating with full understanding of being able to walk away is fundamental and essential. To tie back with the previous couple of paragraphs: the default relationship state needs to be ‘no d/s or transactional relationship here’ because participating in whatever the desired relationship has to be an active-ongoing choice.

My personal response to systems of power is stupid complicated and to go into it here would be a little bit irrelevant, but the end result is: I really like the idea of rolequeer in some situations acting as a facilitator, because those are the situations in which my natural responses to power all short-circuit and I have to fumble for a clue as to what the best course of action is. Only time has given me any sort of working subset of not-terrible choices. Boiling the situation down to ‘make sure people over which I have power (systemic or otherwise) know they can walk the fuck away' is a simple enough statement to be useful for me. Complicated in practice, but stated like that it's the kind of algorithm where the inputs are identifiable enough to give me someplace to start.

I’ve said this before in a different way:

If you have a position of power over someone, such as a teacher, a parent, or a Dominant, the only ethical thing to do is to facilitate others’s growth so as to make yourself obsolete.

I think that phrasing is better than “know that they can walk the fuck away” because it’s almost never true that “they can (just) walk the fuck away.” If it were just a matter of people being able to walk away, we wouldn’t be in an abusive oppression culture mess. It’s precisely because most people, in most relationships, are forced to be dependent on some other entity that Everything Is Broken.

So if you do have a position of power over someone—and you do—then it’s not enough to make it safe for them to walk away from you. You have to do things that help them walk away from you and everyone like you, and since you’re also (forced to be) dependent on some other entity who, presumably, isn’t cool with your helping your charges escape the system that put this other entity in charge of you and indirectly in charge of them, that entity is going to come down full-force onto you (and them) in an extremely violent way.

This means you’re ethically obligated to take the brunt of whatever violence is going to happen, if you can—and you probably can. (If you’re really smart about things, you’re going to find out how to survive that violence and plan for doing that.) That’s probably going to really suck for you, by the way, especially if people don’t understand what you’re doing or why.

Part of this rolequeer stuff, for me, is trying to articulate a lot of why I make the choices that I’ve made in a way other people can understand. For as long as they can’t, I keep being bombarded with victim-blaming bullshit or treated like some kind of moral failure or like I’m just completely insane for, for instance, willfully using unemployment money to survive for a while with no intention whatsoever of getting a job after that. That’s a totally legitimate thing to do and the only reason it’s seen as “freeloading” is Because Capitalism, anyway.

But in a world where nobody—even other “anti-capitalists”—are more concerned about accruing some kind of power (dominating) than with dismantling coercive binaries (rolequeering), nobody knows how to Do Solidarity. Which sucks for everyone, not least of all people popularizing resistance to hegemonic systems of oppression. One person actively resisting an oppressive institution is a fish in a barrel, but a billion people is a revolution. I mean, come on, if every time you see someone try to “live without a job” they die of starvation because they’re doing it by themselves, you need to have a death wish to try it yourself.

The most important person in any movement is not its leader(s), it’s the first follower.

And the more people grok this, the better it is for me, personally. Until then, I’m still taking a lot of hits from “The System” as well as from malicious and well-meaning individuals alike. And so are you, even if sometimes more subtly than I might be.

Anyway, your thoughts continue:

Heh, half the trouble with trying on new ideas is trying to figure out what everyone means by using old words in new ways. My connotative definitions always have update lag.

The only thing I still puzzle over out of the above is the ‘submissive as hell and cocky as hell about it’ thing. It’s curious and intriguing and requires poking, because in the context of how deliberate subversion opens the subversive individual up to the predation of power from further up the hierarchy - I don’t see how vulnerability and submission are linked? I mean I see how they CAN be linked, but submission seems like a very odd way to describe what looks like a great big ‘fuck you’ to the whole structure. (Making it a definitionally rolequeer rather than a submissive action??) Also - and it’s personal experience time here on vdsdisc - when my contrariness kicks in and I perform structure- and expectation-subverting acts, it is because I refuse to submit to the structures built for me to inhabit.

By “submissive as fuck and cocky as hell about it,” I’m talking about “knowingly taking the hits” as I described above. Consider unquietpirate’s comments about rolequeer petplay:

Rolequeer petplay seldom involves “puppies” and “owners.” It’s more likely to include a pile of foxcubs or a couple of tigers.


Rolequeer play is about breaking power dynamics — both ones that are internal and ones that are external to a given “scene” — and as such, it is oriented towards developing increasingly egalitarian sexual and social relationships. This is different from “vanilla” play, which begins from the assumption of a (fictional) power equity between partners; rolequeer play begins from the assumption of a power differential and makes power equity its goal. (The hotness is in the process. ;D)

If the only thing you’re doing is “refusing to submit,” then that might be a good start for you, personally, but you’re still only doing the “anti-” thing. Anti-capitalism is great, but it’s not enough. That’s just not-capitalism, which offers nothing of substance. See also: QUICK! Don’t think of a polar bear. (I bet you thought of a polar bear.) It’s the difference between using your unemployment benefits on your “living expenses” so you can prepare for finding a(nother in a never ending series of needing to have a) job, and using your unemployment benefits on your living expenses (like “rent,” which are really your Capitalism Tributes) so you can put in more hours at your local co-op or hackerspace to create meaningful relationships with the people in your community, again, with no intention of ever finding another job.

And maybe you’d meet someone there who understood what you were up to, and maybe they own a business, and they like what you’re doing in the community, so they’d offer you a job with the express purpose of firing you so your unemployment benefits would get extended. That’s probably some kind of illegal (I imagine). Their willingness—and preparedness—to do it anyway is what I might call “submissive (to the State) as fuck and cocky as hell about it,” since that’s a fight they have no reasonable chance of winning if prosecuted. (“Submissives play to lose.”)

From the perspective of that business owner, this story is in one context (employer-employee) rolequeer, and in another (employer-government) it’s submissive. Y’know what it sure isn’t, though? Dominant. And I’ve said this before in a different way, too:

[I]f our environment weren’t designed to train rapists, if the BDSM culture didn’t fashion itself into a rape school, no one would see anything special or ethical or fun about domination, even people who think submission is sexy. Because, bluntly, Submission’s where the magic happens.

The key point here is the breaking of the D/s binary from all angles. It is never true that someone is only ever submissive and someone else only ever dominant. It is never true that someone is only ever victimized and never an abuser. It is never true that someone is always consenting and never coercing. Those binaries are only true in the (narrow) context of a given story about what’s going on in a complex world.

And, if your goal in our complex world is to activate the willingness of people in a position of power to do ethical things (say, resist worker exploitation), eroticizing those ethics proves pretty useful. In that light, eroticizing dominance—and especially brainwashing whole demographics of people to think they have to be dominated in some way to have some need met, such as being fed (i.e., workers, via Capitalism), or experiencing sexual intimacy (submissives, via BDSM)—is just downright WRONG. (See: Secretary.)

If that’s not your goal, then my sincere intention is to kill you, end your way of life, and forever eradicate your belief systems from the face of the universe. (This is directed at the general “you.”) I.e., “eat the rich.”

Also, the more time I spend on these ideas, the more I think I ‘picked the other one’ because the first one fit so poorly regarding D/s. The third path has always been one of the concepts I try to keep in mind, but woosh. I think I missed something kind of important somewhere back there.

Getting all this down in writing is super useful. Action items for later: *Go back over old D/s theories and pull them apart. *Find out whywhywhy I held/hold older theories and whether or not any of that thinking still applies when ripped free and left to stand alone. *Stop being lazy with the power dynamic categorization. When has ANYTHING been that simple? (Bah.)

Yeah. Binaries are all a specific kind of lie called a false choice. If you haven’t yet seen it, or if you haven’t watched it in a while, have another look through my “On Dichotomies” speech.

On Dichotomies that (No Longer) Jail Me - KinkForAll Providence from maymay on Vimeo.