Eroticism is an art, and like any art form it has its fads. The last few years, in example are marked by several trends of which 50 shades of Grey-inspired BDSM is but the most popular. One that took me by surprise is primal play, a type of rough sex born out of many influences including domination and submission play, tribal cultures, yiff and even hippie philosophy.
People interpret primal play in various ways. Some enthusiasts see it as the manifestation of their “animal spirit guide”, others as a controlled devolution, and others still as a power trip. Its lowest common denominator is however a very physical, rough-n-tumble kind of play where the partners actually fight for the dominant role until one submits to the raw energy of the other.
The rise of primal play is probably connected to its growing inclusion in the ‘Orientation’ pull-down menus of online kinky communities, first and foremost the heavy-populated FetLife, as this encourages newcomers to check out what the terms mean (and to choose it when other orientations seem overly intense or mysterious). Another reason is how easy it looks to a newcomer compared to other technique- and negotiation-heavy kinks: you don’t have to read manuals and forums to be “primal”, nor take any workshop.
On a personal level, this is also what worries me about this phenomenon. I am a strong believer in the defusing effect that learning the BDSM ethics has over uncontrolled and pathological sadomasochistic instincts. Misunderstanding primal play looks like a risky legitimization of those very same dangerous instincts – especially when it is embraced by inexperienced, troubled and frequently very young people. In my home country, for example, there is a growing primal community largely composed of self-described antagonizing youngsters who appear to subscribe to the “primal philosophy” – whatever it may be – as an easy alternative from making an effort to develop an adult personality and build actual, non self-referential relationships with their sexual partners. Some of them even stress their “primal identity” as their true self, stating that their social persona is a façade.
As a personal coach specializing in kink-related issues such separation between sexual and social identities further concerns me, as this is precisely where most problems originate from. However, to make sure I wasn’t worrying about nothing I asked various self-identified primal players to enlighten me on the subject.
Most of the time the result sounded remarkably like a dialogue between deaf people. The most prominent expert I could get hold of was Bob Ritchey aka Bydarra, an alternative sexuality educator who teaches about relationship models at events across North America and Europe. Here is our conversation:
Ayzad – Hi, and thank you for this interview. Would you tell us about you, and you connection to primal sex in particular?
Bydarra – Thank you for the opportunity. I guess the important parts about myself are that I’ve been engaging in alternative sexuality since 2003 as a way to explore parts of myself that I’d always ignored. I’ve always been “the nice guy” who focused on his obligations and ignored what he wanted. After my marriage ended, I decide to examine what was inside of me and be a little bit selfish for a change. One of the things I discovered was that there was a primitive side to myself. I suppose that we all have it to some degree we’ve just been trained to keep it locked up. On the occasions that I began to let it out on a leash, I found something unique in the experience. It was empowering in a way that my life as a network administrator, father, spouse, and son had never allowed. This was just one step among many in the process of finding self-acceptance but it has been amazing. I live in my head. I’m always thinking, planning, considering consequences, or examining my past to see how it shaped me. Others live in the bodies. They dance, run, do sports, engage in various levels of physicality for the adrenalin and endorphins. Most live somewhere in between those two places. When I’m engaging in BDSM play, I’m still in my head watching the other person, reading their responses, focusing on what I’m doing. Primal is the closest I ever come to getting out of my head and into my body.
A – To make sure we’re all on the same foot here, what is your definition of primal?
B – Primal refers to a more primitive, animalistic way of engaging with an experience. In it we take off the layers of civilization that have been put on us by our families, friends, and society since we were young. It’s a way of accepting our hungers that don’t fit into ‘normal’ society and indulging them with a consenting partners or groups. Some people see themselves as animals such as wolves or bears while others keep a human mindset even though it’s much more oriented on the self.
A – Primal as a sexual orientation is a rather new concept, enabled mostly by the ease of selecting it in the pull-down menus of erotic communities online profiles. What can you tell us about its history? And how do you think it relates to the current historical situation?
B – I’m not sure I’d describe it as a sexual orientation. I think it’s more of an approach to expressing our rawest hungers. . Many people do this through drum circles, religious practices that are adopted from pre-technological cultures, and personal relationships. Some include it in their sexuality. I know people who feel that there is an animal, such as a wolf or bear, inside of them while others revert to a less civilized human mindset. From everything I’ve read and heard, the gay bars of the past were much more sexually primal than comparable heterosexual spaces such as swinger’s clubs. My own experience in men’s events confirms that letting out primal drives is much more accepted, even expected than in heterosexual events.
A – How widespread is primal play as a phenomenon?
B – I cannot provide figures, but I think that most people have something primal inside of them. The challenge we face is that we are taught from an early age to suppress this part of ourselves because it is often selfish. Being unable to control these impulses leads to abusive, even criminal, behavior. We would take what we want regardless of the cost to other people. Primal play is a way to explore those aspects of ourselves with consenting partners. It can be expressed through rough sex, scratching, biting, and other practices all the way to physically fighting for dominance or predator/prey games in the woods.
A – In a previous exchange we agreed that primal play is a good way as any for overcivilized people to break from their repressive education and enjoy a more spontaneous and satisfying sexuality. However I also expressed my concerns about the growing number of people – especially younger ones – who build their whole sexual persona around the primal label, wearing it in a very antagonistic fashion against what they portray as “regular” sex and other kinks. I’d like to explore this situation with a twofold question. First of all: is primal play actually so different from uninhibited vanilla sex? Biting, scratching and rough tumbling around sounds pretty much like a nice yet basic fuck to me… Also, we aren’t exactly living in a prudish world. With the ease of access everyone enjoys to all sorts of porn, there is no shortage of examples of rather extreme practices and behaviors. Why do you think millennials ended up seeing rough sex so unusual to require a special name for it?
B – First, I don’t think this is unique to the younger generation. In my classes, there are as many people in their 40s and 50s. I believe that this can be a way to rebel against both the soft romance that is regularly portrayed as normal and proper in literature and media that doesn’t address the full nature of sexuality which may not always be gentle. As to why some adopt this as the full expression of their sexuality, I think that the relief and exhilaration people feel when they first embrace this part of themselves that they’ve always hidden makes it somewhat intoxicating. The rush that can accompany this approach to sexuality can be addictive for a while.
A – …Back to the second part of my question, I’d like to know your opinion on my concerns about the apparent disconnect that primal players – here in Italy at least – seem to fuel between “real life” and “sex life”. Many of them say they revel in the attitude of “being wolves disguised as people” in everyday social situations. As a sex educator I am worried whenever someone displays such a lack of integration of their sexual self into their regular identity, for in the long run their hidden part tends to manifest itself explosively under stress, causing very serious troubles for the subject and their partners.
B – Let me preface my answer by stating that I’m not a psychologist. My own exploration of this found a context in Jungian psychology which still dominates my thinking. Everyone wears masks based on the people who are around them. At work, we are the professional version of us. With our families, we are the dutiful parent or child (or perhaps the rebel). With our friends, we may be less constrained than at work or home so they see another side of us. I have met people who wear their primal mask only in sexual situations and others who claim to wear it all the time. I think those are far more likely to get caught up in antisocial behavior and are facing much greater risk of getting lost in that metaphor. In my case, my exploration of my primal self has led to integrating a greater sense of self-determination and confidence into my daily life. The important thing is to balance this mask with all the others. Ideally, we can find a way to integrate all of them to the point that they accurately reflect what lies beneath the façade we’ve had to create to fit into society.
A – Which resources would you suggest to those looking for more information about primal play?
B – My biggest influence has been from talking with others who embrace this part of themselves. There is no single, right way to practice or incorporate this primal aspect. For reading material, I’ve found books on Jungian psychology to be excellent food for thought. I also read on neuro-chemistry because it’s important to remember that the feelings that arise in response to sexuality, primal or not, are still just feelings and those are nothing more than a chemical response to the stimulus we are creating. They are only as “true” as we choose to believe.
A – Finally, how do you envision the future for primals?
B – I think that the more repressed that people feel the more they will need a way to escape, to rebel. When we have an external authority such as religion, governments, families, or peers telling us how we must live, what we should feel or think, then we can either buy into their morality and become part of “them”, we can pretend to conform while hiding who we are, or we can outwardly rebel and become outcast or criminal. The more that “they” try to invade our lives, such as the current fundamentalist political push in America, the more pressure many will feel to act out to express their individuality. I suspect that was a big part of the success of 50 Shades of Grey and will inspire many to tap into their own inner primal.