Friday, January 4, 2013


We are permeable creatures, despite our tendency to think of ourselves as discrete beings.  Mary Douglas posits that most taboos result from people's discomfort with the inbetweeness of things entering and exiting the body.  Think of all the rituals involve going to the bathroom, even the polite (and impolite) ways of referring to excretion.  It made my mother blush and react defiantly when anyone discussed toilet behavior.  Things are dangerous and must be handled with care when they breach the boundary between self and not-self.  This is a pretty popular idea in anthropology (see also Levi-Strauss, although he is concerned with the structural nature of the differences between "the raw and the cooked" which only indirectly result in taboo).  I thought I had a pretty tight grasp on the notions of raw and cooked that even took account of things like steak tartar and ceviche.  I had a short stint in the watershed protection department in Texas where I learned a novel term - "raw water."  If you can't cook water, how could it possibly be raw?  This means untreated water, possibly full of harmful microbes and definitely laced with animal feces as surface water runs across fields and valleys.  But raw?  It was a new concept that reminded me forcefully that our notions of purity are not only limited to what we eat and excrete but anything that breaches bodily integrity.

All of this leads to my thoughts about bodily fluids.  The joys of working in the BDSM community and holding down a day job with the health department simultaneously caused me to think deeply about bodily fluid.  Using a medical perspective, fluid becomes a disease vector.  Recently, there has been a move to keep people from sneezing or coughing into their hands in order to prevent the flu and colds.  Don't get me wrong, I don't want to shake your hand after you've snotted all over it.  I enjoy avoiding the swine flu as much as the next person.  But working in public health can make one paranoid that one is constantly being assaulted with masses of germs just waiting for any opening (literally and figuratively).  I am not sure what the difference is for people practicing medicine with patients, as they would be exposed to more effluvia (love that word) than your average American yet highly conscious of the risk of disease from bodily excretions.

On the other hand, the BDSM community almost revels in the public display of (some types of) excretion.  One of the more powerful scenes I witnessed early on included a woman sobbing until snot was dripping off her face.  No one seemed particularly concerned about this, although I was practically quaking with discomfort at the thought of being anywhere near this display.  I was more nonplussed about the amount of mucus being produced and blatantly disregarded than this woman being reduced to gut-wrenching sobs.  Over the course of my research, I was exposed to vaginal secretions, semen, blood, sweat, and tears.  Some effluvia were treated as more dangerous due to its potential disease-bearing capabilities than others.  Blood play (cutting and piercing, for the most part) involved participants using sterile, disposable tools and latex gloves.  Male ejaculate was usually contained by condoms.  Surprisingly, women's juices were viewed as generally nonthreatening, although it was expected one put down a towel (or a puppy training pad - very handy and practical) and cleanup afterwards was expected as basic courtesy.

In the kinky community, sharing fluids took on particular significance as a demonstration of closeness, known as fluid-bonding.  This trading of substances, usually framed in a medical context, has echoes of sympathetic magic.  My self and your self, co-mingled, permeating the boundary between you and me.  I did not find an equivalent understanding in the public health model of bodily fluids.  In most cases, becoming fluid-bonded is the expected trajectory for long-term relationships.  In part, this is because monogamy is not necessarily an ideal quality in a relationship and fluid-bonding is a declaration of intimacy.

However, this presumes that the people involved are able to share fluids.  A friend of mine recently entered into a relationship with an HIV-positive person.  His status necessitated extra precautions on both of their parts.  In a community that places a high value on the exchange of fluid, how does one handle this?  For them, part of the answer is to exchange fluids that do not carry the same disease risks, such as saliva and piss.  During my time in the community, I did not witness any water sports, although I heard about them.  Although my friend had no previous interest in play involving urine, it became a way to experience closeness with her partner.  Framed in that way, being peed upon makes more sense to me.  I don't mind if other people do it, but I did not really understand what the motivation might be.

We live in a world where we are constantly breathing in other people, handling objects with traces of others. Given the choice of responding to this reality with fear or acceptance, I still approach the experience with caution.  I wash my hands upon leaving the bathroom.  I only use sterile needles when engaging in body modification.  I avoid touching others when I have a cold.  However, I find that I mind less sharing in the day-to-day exchange of small selves.  Like many in the kinky community, I have a hierarchy of what fluids I will share with what people, depending on context and intimacy.  But in the long run, a little snot from someone crying is not going to kill me.  I am happier for a frame of reference that recognizes the both the dangers and the possibilities that come with permeability.