Needs and Wants

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February 1993

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin

<Q> In both my vanilla and my SM lives I have trouble expressing my needs and wants. Yet, especially in SM play, I am expected to be very clear in communicating them. How can I improve my skills in asking for what I want and need?

<A> When we were socialized most of us learned to think of negotiation as the art of getting as much as we could while giving up as little as possible. As part of that process we learned to hold back important information until we could benefit from it, to pressure others to do as we demanded, and sometimes even to lie, cheat, and steal to get our own way.

If we were adept at this game we became non-consensual tops, and got the mates, jobs, honors, and goods that were, in effect, the spoils of our little wars. If we were less adept than others at these sorts of direct encounters we probably learned to top from the bottom instead: to manipulate people and situations to our advantage, or even to change our desires so that we preferred the mates, jobs, honors, and goods we got to those we now perceived we didn't really want anyway. In either case we learned to apply the Win-Lose strategy of competition to our personal encounters, and nearly always to come out winners, if only in our own minds.

In the world of consensual SM, DS, or erotic power exchange, negotiation has a very different purpose: instead of competition we seek partnership. At least ideally, we play a Win-Win game based on the art of telling all, holding back nothing, and giving everything away, so that we have the best chance to find appropriate partners and to fulfill our complementary desires with them in mutually satisfactory ways.

Some people have difficulty expressing their needs and wants directly, in SM or anywhere else, because doing so contradicts their training: from listening to other people, or from their own experiences, they learned to be circumspect, diplomatic, or plain old devious, and to get what they needed without risking conflict, or the feelings of rejection or inadequacy that might arise from openly asking for something and being refused. In addition, many people do not know the difference between a want and a need.

The best way I know to improve your skills in asking for what you want and need is, first, to

know this important difference, and second, to practice what you know. The first is not always easy, and the second does not always appear to be kind.

As I've written before in this column, the difference between a need and a want is that a want is negotiable, and a need is not. We may want champagne and caviar, but we need water and bread.

What you need in a scene are those people, objects, and/or activities without which you cannot be satisfied: without which there is little or no point for you to do the scene; without which you will go away from a scene still hungry; for which you came to these games in the first place; in flat sexual terms – not always apt for SM, but good for poetry – what you need is what makes your dick hard or your cunt wet.

What you want in a scene is everything else you enjoy. A sadist may need to inflict pain to make a scene worthwhile, whether or not she also enjoys her bottom's service and submission; a slave may need to serve, whether or not she enjoys the spanking that comes with it for her particular top.

If you don't know the difference between your needs and wants, see what thrills you in your fantasies, and what is merely entertainment. What took you over in your past experiences? and what was simply icing on the cake? For example,

Be honest with yourself about your needs, even if the admissions are embarrassing, politically incorrect, impossible, or too nasty for words. Whether they're fetishes or costumes, setting, phrasing, or attitude, sex needs can be quirky and very specific.

When you have a sense of how your wants and needs break down, make a list of your needs starting with only one: if you could have nothing else in a scene, what one person, activity, object, locale, etc. would make that scene worth your while? Add a second item to your list, if you absolutely must have two.

Add a third if you must have three, but by this point you may be saying that a very, very strong want is a need: make your distinctions carefully. If you have to live on bread and water you do not need Il Fornaio's golden raisin bread and Evian. If you choose to live on bread and water you may choose any bread and water you like. Everything you enjoy in a scene that is not essential to your purpose in being there is a want, and you might prioritize your wants as well, from those that are very, very strong to those that are passing fancies.

When you know your needs and you know your wants, state them clearly in your negotiations. If you have difficulty stating them face-to-face, write your partner a letter about them. Even if you can talk face-to-face, writing things down can be worthwhile because we all forget things from time to time.

Are you embarrassed by your fantasies? Do you feel you're too kinky, needy, wimpy, weird, sick, or even too vanilla? Or do you just find yourself too embarrassed to talk about sex? Try the San Francisco Sex Information training, offered twice each year (spring and fall) at a very reasonable price. You can learn more about sex than you imagined you didn't know, meet dozens of intelligent, articulate, warm, and witty people who like to talk about sex and know first-hand what they're talking about, and you can volunteer for the SFSI switchboard and practice talking about what you learned in the training.

Sometimes standing by your feelings may mean you won't get to play with someone you've been ogling, or it may mean you have to decline to play with someone who's hot for you. But it's far better to turn down what is likely to be a bad scene than to have one. If your prospective play partners know your needs and you know theirs, you'll all be better able to determine with whom you want to play and under what circumstances. Then you'll have more scenes that are satisfying, and fewer that are not.

In addition, the experience you acquire by practicing negotiating skills in an SM context can be extremely useful elsewhere. Not only in vanilla sex, but also in business, on dates, on family trips and visits, in restaurants, and just about anywhere people's divergent wishes have to be reconciled, these skills can help to make sure everyone's needs are met, and a maximum number of wishes as well.

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