Note: this post has been edited from its original content. I made two errors, in saying that Mistress Matisse had said that the choking techniques required “years” of training, and second in incorrectly using the word “alarmist.” Both have been edited, and I apologize for the sloppy fact-checking.
Of all the various tropes and myriad ways of the English language, there’s one that I mistrust and dislike more than any other.
It’s probably a deep seated resentment going back to parental contradictions in my youth, the cross-currents of “You could do anything!” combined with “You’ll never amount to anything!” that played havoc with my developing character. There is no burden greater for a youth, I’m convinced, than to be told one has “great potential.” What do you do with that?
I later came to dislike it in that giant miasma of ideas and words and feelings that we label as “communication” in relationships. It took years, but I began to notice a pattern, or at least an indicator: any time the conversation included the words “never” or “always” then the exchange of information was effectively over. It was sort of a weird version of Godwin’s Law; there was no answer to that, because at that point it wasn’t true. “You never do this,” and “I always do that” are demonstrably unprovable because they include the future in them, and the future is unknowable.
Part of my dislike of hyperbole is that it is so clumsy. It’s lazy language, really, saying “I don’t have the time to actually examine this idea, to go into fine detail, so I’m going to just lump it all together into one big Club of Assumption and use it to bludgeon you into my way of thinking.”
It’s so easy to avoid, too. All you have to do is put some conditionals to it: “It seems to me that…” or maybe “A lot of the time...” or “There is a tendency to…” But those dilute the Power of the Hyperbolic Word; they require some reflection, some more discussion, and let’s face it, it’s more dramatic to speak in broad, sweeping strokes.
It’s also less effective. A former lover once used hyperbole in a deliberately hurtful way to zero in on one of my biggest insecurities. Even as I write this, years later, I can easily call up the sense memory of her laying naked underneath me, saying this one particular sentence that began with “You’ll never…” and proceeded to pierce my psyche in a way that would have made a Marine sniper proud.
Even when she admitted, years later, that she’d done it simply to drive me away – that the substance of what she said had not been as important as the effect – the substance still sticks, and still needs to be worked through. To use a metaphor, she trimmed my nails with a sledgehammer.
I also mock hyperbole. I’ve used what I call the “Fox News Strategy” to turn Madison, WI into the Bondage Capital of the World. That is, I’ve said that phrase over and over again online, in podcasts, and in person until even Google admits that it is true. And therefore it must be, right? Like many titles in the kink community, it is only given what power we choose to give it; a Master given that status by the submission of her slave, a Presenter given that title by his name in a program booklet.
“A powerful enough metaphor creates its own truth,” wrote Matthew Stover in the novel I was reading this morning, and I have experienced that. It’s why I fear hyperbole as well. My ex-lover’s words echoing in my skull; how much has that internalized their message, even when they weren’t intended? How many children have been warped by their parents offhand “Why do you ALWAYS…” or “Why can’t you EVER…“? How many relationships have been damaged by the realization that submission and dominance do not also convey the gifts of infinite endurance and infallibility?
Which is why I shook my head as I read my friend Mistress Matisse’s recent column in the Stranger, where she talked about her impressions of Lee Harrington’s recent breath play class. I followed her argument clearly, because she’s a fantastically smart person and a great writer. But at one point she dismisses one of the most powerful arguments of breath play proponents using hyperbole. And at that point, I felt her argument became weakened, and it felt a shame, because it didn’t need to be.
“Eppur si muove…”
It’s one of my favorite phrases, mainly because it’s the embodiment of my life. I’ve been told I would never make it through the Marines, that my kids would be failures because they’re mixed-race, that I’d never go to college, that I’d never be a dancer, and many other things that I’ve then gone ahead and done. If Goethe’s not your style, insert Han Solo’s “Never tell me the odds!” quote. Or Twain’s “Lies, damn lies, and statistics,” if you’d rather. Whatever it is, one of the risks you run when you hinge your argument on hyperbole is that it is a very big and very fragile balloon which poppeth easily under the needle of fact.
In the breath play controversy, for example, there is the simple fact that choke holds have been used in martial arts for decades, perhaps centuries, with no documented or provable ill effects. There have been studies, there have been tests, and yet this continues to be taught.
People against breath play often point out that there is a vast difference between the average kinkster and “Master martial artists” who are competing at a high level and under close supervision with medical personnel immediately at hand. Which is, in fact, a true statement: there is a big difference between those things.
The problem is, it’s not relevant to the argument. It’s like saying “You shouldn’t ride your bicycle, because motorcycle accidents are very common.” If you compare the average kinkster with the average jujitsu class, you would see a much closer fit; more to the point, choke holds are far from a “Master” level of skill.
I have to guard myself now from going into territory that I am not qualified to speak on, so let me simply relate my own experience. In Marine boot camp, during your second phase of training, there is a short “close combat” course. During that course you are taught things like how to sneak up and knife someone so that they die instantly; how to bayonet and butt-stroke with your weapon; how to break someone’s neck with the infamous “one-second kill.”
They also took perhaps 45 minutes to teach us how to choke each other out using a blood choke. That is, two instructors running approximately 40 recruits through an assembly-line educational process. “Do this. Now do this. When you feel them slump, let go.” Then they had us do it to each other, some twice.
Now, I can’t speak for the USMC. It seems to me that if there was a high fatality rate – say, any tenth of a percent – of recruits who had problems with that, they would have stopped the practice. And maybe they have, though we jarheads are proud of our “over two centuries of tradition unimpeded by progress.”
But what I can say, unequivocally, is that there was no “master-level” training going on here. There was less than an hour of instruction and hands-on practice. It was simple body mechanics.
The other arguments for breath play are much more clearly stated by people much more qualified than me in various forums on FetLife and other places. I’ve read them, as thoroughly as I’ve read Jay Wiseman’s arguments against it. He’s very persuasive, until the other experts – and yes, they are experts, in law and in medicine – ask him direct questions.
At that point, in my opinion, rather than enter into discussion, things fall into hyperbole. Often ad hominem attacks, too, but that’s another thing. But there are claims of “never” and “always” and “high-level” this and “closely supervised” that. Every real-world example has factors other than breath play – chronic heart condition, the use of mind- and body-altering substances – that mitigate the reasoning that breath play was to blame.
More to the point, there has also been at least one documented case where a woman apparently bled to death through fisting; yet I do not see people clamoring to put a stop to this practice at events.
I wish people could have a calm, rational discussion, free of hyperbole, about this subject. But it doesn’t seem to be possible, or at least hasn’t happened yet. Maybe someday.
Meanwhile, this is not a post about breath play. This is a post about hyperbole. I’m against it. It is the most destructive force in the English language.
I’m 100% sure of it.