Pleasure, carnality, lust: Saskia Vogel investigates ‘logical families’ built around a common interest in the erotic
What does it mean to want to connect to the world through pleasure? Specifically erotic pleasure: of mind and imagination and perhaps touch. Maybe conversation, maybe lips, teeth and tongue. Awareness of erogenous zones, interaction with the genitals, if that’s important to you.
To focus on pleasure is to act in opposition to patriarchal and capitalist orders, where sex as Silvia Federici argues, ‘can only exist as a productive force at the service of procreation and the regeneration of the waged/male worker and as a means of social appeasement and compensation for the misery of everyday existence.’ Much of the world around us wants to pretend that it is not pulsing with carnality. Outside of sanctioned times and spaces, we are asked to pretend this energy doesn’t exist, and in this way, we are being asked to stem the natural flow of dialogue with ourselves, isolating a central aspect of our being. To be attuned to erotic energy, to pursue pleasure, to want to connect in this way can also be isolating. Not least because one can be so easily misunderstood.
My interest in pleasure, commodified and non-commodified, has led to much frustration and disappointment. I wanted an emotional connection to accompany certain inquiries into pleasure, and so in my twenties, I hoped to find a romantic partner, long or short-term, with whom to explore. However, once my intellectual and recreational interests in the erotic were revealed, it would often change things. My preference for fetish-themed nightclubs, my job at an adult industry trade publication, and even the art modeling that had been my income in my early years of trying to build a writing-related career put a spanner in the works. Somehow, it meant I could not be taken seriously, wasn’t a viable romantic partner, or was only good for one thing. Our mutual appreciation of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue was no longer of interest to the person sitting across from me, instead they only wanted to talk about sex. I would get the feeling that my interest was oversized, that they wanted to contain it or found it frightening. (I thought it strange that my interest was novel to them, even though sex was on the table.) The conversation never seemed to work its way back to BBC Radio 4.
It felt like a form of quarantine. We had been two people seeking connection. Now I felt on display, being asked to account for myself.
Worse than wary lines of questioning and a severed connection were the men who then thought this meant that there were no boundaries anymore. I should be up for anything.
These experiences left me with questions—about the role pleasure plays in our emotional lives, the puritanical nature of American dating culture even in a city of dreams like Los Angeles, the value of sex work, and indeed, how the patriarchy fails us all—and those questions grew into my debut novel Permission. Permission, in part, is about Echo, a failed young actress who finds something sacred and healing in the erotic, following the sudden death of her father. Feeling unseen within her biological family and everyday life, she seeks out a ‘logical family’— to borrow the title of Armistead Maupin’s memoir about abandoning his conservative roots and having a sexual and political awakening in San Francisco’s gay bathhouses. In Echo’s case, she finds freedom through a connection with her new neighbors: a dominatrix called Orly and Piggy, the foot fetishist who is Orly’s housemate. Unlike Piggy, Echo isn’t exploring a specific fetish, but like Piggy, she is working through old wounds and frustrated desires. The BDSM community gives Echo the space she needs to understand the role the erotic plays in her emotional life and provides a testing ground for new forms of connection and intimacy, opening up the idea of what “family” means.
I found a logical family like this in my twenties in LA. James Stone’s legendary BDSM-themed club nights were rising to prominence in the city’s nightlife, making it easier for kindred spirits to find each other. Events of this kind proliferated: in private homes, rented warehouses, and professional dungeons across the city. We dressed to the nines and danced all night to hard electro and industrial sounds. Kings and queens of the scene took the stage for erotic performances, testing each other’s thresholds, creating moments of beauty with rope, latex, and leather, sometimes just costumes and song. I remember a cheeky burlesque routine set to the Andrews Sisters “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” I like to think what united us was a shared interest in the possibilities of pleasure. We wanted to connect to the world in this way, and together we could do so in a safe, sane, and consensual space founded on mutual respect.
Dancing in other clubs was not the same. Ours was a space where men seemed to effortlessly grasp the meaning of the word “no” and have the tools to graciously deal with rejection. Here we were free to explore, whether that meant performing on stage or simply being there, watching.
We shared knowledge and resources: the safest and most pleasurable ways to strike or manipulate the body, how to care for someone in the afterglow of erotic play, making music and costumes for the many other kinds of events we produced or attended, and sharing referrals for healthcare professionals who are equipped to tell the difference between abuse and the consensual exploration of pain, power dynamics, and pleasure. There was something sacred in the spaces we shared, and so many of us were given to worship. Each interaction came with its own language: an understanding of what the balance of power would be, what the limits were, and what kind of relationship this was (friendly, fleeting, forever). I never felt quarantined.
For those who arrived in this community hoping to explore specific fetishes, I can only imagine the relief. Like my character Piggy, a first satisfying erotic experience might only have been possible once this community was found, perhaps with a friend, perhaps with a professional. They might have spent years or decades searching and failing to make a meaningful, satisfying connection. Some had broken with past lives, others were seeking balance between workaday 9-to-5s and larger-than-life nights and weekends, others built their lives inside the community. Our preferences might have been different, we might have been on different journeys, but we cared about each other, built friendships that we hoped would outlast changes in a relationship status. With the support of our logical family, we were finding ways of being that made sense for us, our needs and desires. Like many of my friends in the community, pleasure and the erotic became a directional force in my life. I learned to see the value in my inquiries. These experiences shaped my understanding of my role as a writer and the stories I choose to tell. I do what I do in hopes of spreading the compassion and kindness that I found there with readers and the wider world.
Saskia Vogel is a writer and translator. Her debut novel Permission is out on 7 March with Dialogue Books in the UK and Coach House Books in North America. It is available to preorder here. #permissiontoconnect is the hashtag she will be using to chronicle her spring book tour through Europe and North America.