Work: and cabinets/cabinettes

Sorry, I’m working, and that’s going to have to be the priority. The tawse story gets interesting, since it has sex, sound effects and reflections on how reality isn’t much like pornotopia, but it’s more fun to live in.

Cabin boy, or possibly cabinette. Let's call her ... Roger.

Anyway, watch this space. We’ll get under way, or weigh, later. I think under weigh was the original form, and had to do with weighing anchor before you can set sail; but the only thing I know about sailing ships is that if I were a ship’s captain in pornotopia, I’d be birching the cabin boy for, oh, stealing rum, when, after some especially frantic wriggling on the culpit’s part it turned out that the boy was a girl stowaway, who … (continued page 197 of the web)

Back to work, though, for me. I’ll get back to my story when I can come up for air. 

Not the tawse’s tale: Talking about the weather

It’s late at night. There have been storms. A pine tree outside my back window was struck by lightning. It’s a big tree, a high as a four or five story building. I want to build a tree house towards the top, and use it to observe comet showers. The lightning hit about two thirds of the way up the tree, and big, thick, hard scars of bark exploded in all directions: in the pool, all over the lawn, onto the balcony where I have breakfast when it’s warm enough.

The tree caught alight, with great yellow-red gouts of flame, but fortunately it was raining so hard that it soon put the fire out. But you could smell it smouldering for a day or two. 

I’d dealt with that, and then on Wednesday night there was a wind storm. The gale howled as if someone was trying to push the Arctic through power pylons: that humming of wire and shrilling of air, the coldest sound on earth. I fell deeply asleep, since it’s good to be warm when that is happening. But in the morning, a huge oak had split in half, and the half that fell had landed, spectacularly, in the swimming pool, breaking the pool cover I’d made. It must have been extraordinarily loud, but I didn’t hear a thing. 

Today I finished the job of turning the fallen tree into pieces that will fit in the living room fireplace. Which is good, because just after I finished, and moved on to cutting up some other logs, the chain on my chainsaw twisted, and it’s now kinked out of shape. I’ll have to try to fix it, taking out a couple of links while I’m about it.

Anyway, I was going to continue the story of the tawse. But it’ll have to start tomorrow. It’s bedtime.

Jeremy Bentham’s weirdness #2

Probably the oddest thing about Jeremy Bentham is that he’s still around, and he attends meetings of the Board of University College, London.

Bentham. That's a wax head on his shoulders, and his real head in a jar at his feet. Don't ask.

When he died on 6 June 1832, he left his entire estate to the University College London. There was just one condition, that they had to enbalm his body, and his body would be brought to the table, to attend every college board meeting.

So his body sits in a wheelchair, most of the time, in a cabinet at the college. But he does attend the meetings. He’s listed on the minutes as “present but not voting.”

Bentham lived alone for a long time, so he managed to get fairly eccentric. I don’t think he believed in life after death, so I don’t think he thought that he’d personally be interested in the meetings. He may have thought that his physical presence would inspire the board members to remember his bequest and be sure to apply his philosophical principles in governing the college.

Or … maybe he just had one of those nineteenth century senses of humour, that seem a little robust by our standards. A friend of mine was at University College, though not on the board, and he says that Bentham’s seemed to be a benign and vaguely comforting presence. 

The next post won’t be about Bentham, hey?

Jeremy Bentham’s weirdness #1

One of Jeremy Bentham’s interests was prison reform. He opposed arbitrary and unfair punishment. He believed that a system that was fair, matched to the crime, and impersonal would be respected by criminals and both be more humane and more effective in rehabilitating them.

So he didn’t have much understanding of actual human beings. The application of some his principles unintentionally made prisons even more nightmarish than they were before.

The treadmill avoided giving prisoners the satisfaction they might get if their hard labour actually achieved something useful. Similarly, the rule that prisoners had to be silent at all times was supposed to allow them to contemplate their faults and focus on improvement, and stop them encouraging each other in criminality. But people can’t function without social contact. It drove many prisoners mad.

Illustration by John Willie.

But the authorities overlooked one of Bentham’s ideas, that’s since been taken up by bdsm dungeons and porn makers, enthusiastically enough to make up for all those years of neglect. That’s Jeremy Bentham’s Amazing Steam Powered Whipping Machine.

The offender is secured to the machine and the punishment can be set by setting the steam gauge on the whipping arm, to a certain number of strokes, at exactly the same strength each time. 

Possibly this image seems sexier for people who read Popular Mechanics and hang around hardware stores. But it does lack the personal touch.

The idea was that punishment could only be just if the same crime always got the same penalty. So whippings by prison officers were unfair, because some had stronger arms, or they might go easy on one offender and really whack away at the next one.

Bentham’s invention was fair, and dungeon mistresses (starting with Theresa Berkeley) and makers of fladge porn soon brought the great man’s dream into reality.  


Detail from 1970s “Oh Wicked Wanda” strip. I think the girl under the table is called Candyfloss.

Bdsm and human rights, calling on Jeremy “Weird” Bentham

Bentham argued that rights do exist, but that they have to be enforceable before they have real meaning. At the time he said this he was ridiculing the language about rights used by the French parliamentarians after the French Revolution, as if you could just make something a right just by declaring it was. For that reason, Bentham sometimes gets claimed by conservatives, but that’s only because they’ve only read the one sentence from the one essay, this one:  

“Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.”

Nonsense on stilts.

That’s a cool phrase, “nonsense on stilts”, isn’t it? At the same time, Bentham actually did recognise that there are rights, in a political sense, that are not yet backed by any sort of law. So, he was one of the first people to write that men and women should have equal rights, and that animals have rights. You can argue about whether Bentham was contradicting himself,  when he asserted rights that were not protected by the laws at the time he wrote.

But his approach is useful anyway. When we want to improve the rights of people who do bdsm, doing the gestural and rhetorical stuff may help, a bit, but it’s not the point.

They're probably safe from censors, so long as this doesn't get sexual.

A street march where people chant, “We’re here, the submissives’ arses are bare, get used to it”, might be fun, but it isn’t much use to a couple getting arrested because one of them gave the other a burn with a hot spoon, or at risk of losing custody of their children because they own a dvd showing a spanking and fucking scene between adults. (Both of those examples based on recent cases.) 

So we come back to Bentham and his advocacy of women’s rights and animal rights. He did that because he knew that the law isn’t changeless. Push to introduce new rights into the legal system, and eventually, the law will change, and a new right will have been created, which was once just an idea. Like Bentham we have to be hard realists and idealists at the same time.

Rights are socially created, so if you persuade enough people then you change the social climate, then the political climate and finally the law. Discussion about tactics is likely to come up in this blog, from time to time.  

But tomorrow I want to talk about Bentham’s weirdness, and then I can tell more stories about buying my first tawse and its first excursion. 

Bdsm and human rights: or Jeremy Bentham was a man of leisure

“Jeremy Bentham was a man of leisure, took his pleasure in the evening sun, thought a lot about natural rights, finally decided that there were none.”  

If the uncoolest band ever* says so, then it must be true. Anyway, yesterday I mentioned the Spanner case, in which a bunch of guys went to jail because they had bdsm sex with other consenting guys. Today a friend was telling me about the plan to censor the internet in Australia, to block things like this blog. 

But before we can talk about censorship and our rights, we may need to try to define what we mean when we say we have a right to take part in bdsm. And what we mean if we say that authorities are violating our rights when they harass people for taking part in consenting bdsm, try to close clubs, block websites and so on.

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

Talking about rights, for me, means talking about the extremely unsexy philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who once said that the idea of natural rights was “nonsense on stilts”, which is brilliant. I mean the phrase “nonsense on stilts” is brilliant. But I’d also agree that rights aren’t a “natural” category, since nature hasn’t got a brain, or a conscience, or purposes; it’s just there. We interpret it and impose meanings on it.

Nor is there such a thing as a “god-given” right, even if you think gods exist.


Burn, baby burn: Christian inferno

Burn, baby burn: Christian inferno

A god can’t make something good by declaring it’s good, nor make something into a right just by declaration. When YHWH, the Christian god says you have a right to burn witches (Exodus 22:18) and force women into sexual slavery (Numbers 31:18), not many people think those  really are rights. 

But Bentham’s attack on the idea of natural rights (and implicitly on god-given rights) was part of his attack on “The Declaration of Rights” made by the French revolutionary parliament in 1791, and Bentham, as a patriotic Englishman, was slightly overstating his views to ridicule les Frogs. He was scoring debating points.

In general, Bentham thought that rights derived from society, and had to be enforced by law and sanction for them to be meaningful. That doesn’t mean he thought that rights don’t exist or are meaningless. “Rights”, in Bentham, are the autonomies (that is, the things the state won’t stop you from doing) and the expectations (like safety, and some opportunity to make a living, etc) that any society has to grant the individuals in that society, in order to allow individuals to live in the most happiness they can manage, while preserving common safety.

“Rights” are something that people create and defend. Sometimes they defend rights by argument and persuasion. The right of gay and lesbian people to marry if they want to is being won by debate and persuasion, with no riots or guns being necessary or useful. Sometimes people do have to defend rights by fighting, but mostly life isn’t that melodramatic.


Two facts: (1) This machine was invented by Jeremy Bentham. (2) That isn't even the weirdest fact about Jeremy Bentham.

Two facts: (1) This machine was invented by Jeremy Bentham. (2) That isn’t even the weirdest fact about Jeremy Bentham.

I mentioned that Bentham was weird. That’s why this picture of a “spanking machine” is actually relevant when you’re talking Bentham. But we’ll come to that shortly.


To be continued. I’ll be back to telling stories soon. Oh, there was an asterix [*].

I shouldn’t have to explain that “the uncoolest band ever” means Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Uncool, unsexy, and brilliant.

Power at the mercy of pleasure

I’m about to go to a friend’s place, climb up a tree, and start cutting it down while I’m on it, with a chainsaw. The tree’s threatening to fall over and destroy the neighbour’s roof, so it needs to be taken down in small sections. It’s a very high tree, and this actually involves a certain amount of fear on my part. So I’m going to be extremely careful. Still, if there’s never another post on this blog, you’ll know roughly what happened. 

Anyway, I occasionally read attacks on bdsm as something that’s inherently sexist, patriarchal, anti-women and so on. Most people who take part in bdsm know that this attack involves a total misinterpretation of what happens in bdsm.

Points we often make in reply are:

1. what about gay and lesbian bdsm, where either there are only women involved, or there are no women involved? So how can men be oppressing women if there are no men there? Or there are men but no women there?  

2. what about men submitting and women dommes? (And if you say that that’s oppressing women because the dom serves the submissive, then why won’t you say that about male doms?) 

3. what about choice? If a woman chooses to submit, then that’s an expression and an assertion of her desires and her sexual self? When did women making choices, and acting on them, become a bad thing, from a feminist point of view?

But there’s another issue, I think. Shortly after the Law Lords, in Britain, rejected the appeal of the Spanner group (a group of gay men who were arrested, tried, convicted, and slung into jail for engaging in consenting bdsm sex), they reaffirmed the right of parents and teachers to use corporal punishment on children.

By the way, the Law Lords, also called the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, which is a cool name, are a group in the British House of Lords who happen to have legal qualifications and judicial experience. Since they’re selected from among a relatively small pool, they’re probably less learned and competent than a panel of judges hearing an embezzlement case in Manchester, for example. But that’s what you get for taking hereditary privilege seriously.

Anyway, the height of the British establishment ruled that it’s not okay to cane someone, for example, if that person is an adult, is consenting and is going to enjoy it sexually. But it’s very much okay to cane a terrified child, since the child is not consenting and will be seriously hurt.   

I think the Law Lords knew something that anti-bdsm feminists have missed. That is, bdsm mocks power. We take the clothes, the instruments and some of the language, of people in power, and we turn them into something arbitrary. That is, the person with the power isn’t necessarily heterosexual. If it’s a heterosexual couple, the power isn’t necessarily with the man. In bdsm , power isn’t necessarily with the person with the most money, or the most prestigious job.

Power goes to where the partners choose it to go, according to what will be sexiest.

Power has to serve the interests of pleasure. 

Authoritarians don’t like that. Bdsm makes play out of something that they take very very seriously, and that feels like mockery. 

Okay. It’s chainsaw time. 




All electrical and telephone wires still up. Neighbour’s house still standing. I’m still standing. The tree is down.

Male doms and submissive women

I don’t think I’ve ever had a submissive partner, either in play or in a long term relationship, who wasn’t a feminist.

People mostly thought Andrea Dworkin was a joke, but she was a tragedy. She mostly harmed her own side.

Not all of the submissive or surrendered women I’ve known would use the word, but that’s mainly because of the images it can conjure up.

That image combined obesity, sexless puritanism, righteousness, angry insanity, Berthold Brecht’s haircut (Tiny Tim’s, in Andrea Dworkin’s case), and general authoritarianism. It’s a dated image, but it does linger on. A lot of women would rather be in a club that has Rihanna in it than one that had Andrea Dworkin in it. Well, I support feminism, but me too, on that. 

But one of my earliest submissive girlfriends was the Director of Women’s Issues for a trade union, so she wasn’t just feminist; she got paid for it. I remember her on her feet at a public rally, during a campaign to lift pay rates in industries that employ a lot of women. She made an absolutely brilliant speech, passionate, firebrand stuff. A lot of unionists, career feminists and politicians were looking at and noting the newcomer, wondering how they could get her into this alliance or that. I was sitting quietly in the background, incredibly proud that she was mine.

What no-one noticed was the little intake of breath when she sat down again. There were women on the panel who didn’t really approve of her having sex with men. So it’s lucky they didn’t know that she’d made that speech with her arse still burning, and one dozen fresh cane stripes across it. I’d cut the bamboo only that morning.

Rihanna bites the whip. Pink everywhere. Vaguely comic, but definitely not tragic.

Of course, as well as my proper and very real pride in her I felt also proud for pathetic and unworthy reasons: I’d just canedandfucked this much admired feminist activist, so I must be no end of a mensch. I’ll admit that stupid thought here: no-one’s reading this blog anyway.

But that didn’t make me less supportive, or her politics one atom less feminist, or her speech less effective. It added a little energy, if anything. But if they’d known about it, those other women on that panel, they’d have turned on her and tried to get her thrown off. 

[More to say, but tomorrow.]

Safe words and safe people

There’s discussion going on about safe words. It started in Salon and has spilled across various people’s blogs. 

Most of the safe word issue seems fairly simple, because safe words don’t go away just because a dom says so. All the stuff about not having safe words is just rhetoric.

I’ve used that rhetoric myself, sometimes. “I’m going to punish you/I’m going to use you, and you don’t have a safe word. I just took it off you. You have no rights at all. I decide where we go and when we stop. Not you.”

And then we proceed, and I hope it feels hotter for letting her feel we’re trapezing without a net.

But there’s always a safe word, no matter what you say. “Red” is still a safeword, no matter what. “Ok that’s it. Stop right now and undo me, or I’m calling the cops”, and all variations on that, are safewords.  Any dom who carries on past that point is a rapist, an attacker, or both.

I think I’ve been safeworded maybe twice in my entire bdsm career. A dom should be watching the submissive’s reactions closely, which is part of the pleasure anyway, and bring the submissive out to territory where she feels out of control, and she’s excited or comfortably lost in subspace. When I got safeworded, both times it was because I judged the submissive’s reactions wrong. It wasn’t a huge issue, and we resumed after words and cuddles and it was clear that she wanted to go on, so long as we avoided certain areas. But I’d certainly fucked up. 

Submissive women have told me about experiences with doms who think they have to prove their true domminess by pushing the submissive past the point they can stand. They feel they’ve lost a struggle of wills if they don’t get her to safeword. That seems to me to be more like sports than sex. Sports are boring.  

Of course you’re safe: I’m wearing a white coat, aren’t I?

A woman once told me she was having root canal work done, and at a really bad moment she screamed out, “Rumpelstiltskin”.

The dentist just said, “oh, you’re one of those girls, are you?” Then he carried on.

Apparently dentists get safe-worded quite a lot. Words to stop pain don’t always work outside bdsm.