July/August 2003
SCENEprofiles Interviews
by Sensuous Sadie



SCENEprofiles Interview With TammyJo Eckhart, Writer & Activist

TammyJo Eckhart, a dominant sadist, has been active in the BDSM community since 1993 when she moved to NYC to pursue a master's degree in ancient history at Columbia University. There she became involved in TES on a semi-regular basis as well as helping found the Columbia University group, Conversio Virium. In 1995, she continued organizing the Applemunch, a monthly dinner for those interested in BDSM. Her writing has been published in the SandMUtopian Guardian, by Masquerade Books (Punishment for the Crime; Amazons), Circlet Press (SM Futures), and Greenery Press (Justice). In her writing and in real life, she has been told that she shatters the common stereotypes of dominant women. An educator at heart, she continues her direct involvement in BDSM organizations via Headspace at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University. She helps arrange for education panels in courses and dormitories as well as working one-on-one with instructors who make BDSM a topic in human sexuality classes. She has also selectively trained would-be submissives or slaves and mentored some new tops and dominants.

As of the late spring of 2002, her "kinky family" is comprised of Tom, her husband since 1992, and Fox, her live-in slave/pet since 1999. She is constantly seeking new information and opinions about BDSM even on subjects she is not personally interested in, because as an academic she feels that one can never know enough and should always view things with an analyzing eye. She has been the "Featured Book Reviewer" for KinkyBooks.com since summer 2001, and her reviews are used by several BDSM organizations in the USA. Her republished reviews also appear on Mischief's Fantasy Shop, as will several original reviews.

SENSUOUS SADIE: You describe yourself as psychologically inclined, in and out of scene. What do you mean by this?

TAMMY JO: For me, Ds is really the important part of BDSM. I interact with the world, I process the world through a Ds lens. That, however, doesn't mean that I treat everyone like they are submissive to me, because I can see the inequalities and I want people to be aware of them. I believe in informed consent, and sometimes that means thinking a lot. Consent isn't just a BDSM issue -- we should expect to be able to give or withhold our consent in many areas of our lives.

"Ds is also individual and partner-based. What I expect from my submissives or slaves is not what someone else may expect and vice-versa. What my slave wears specifically doesn't matter, but why he chooses to wear something does. It's what is going on inside our heads and how we communicate that is very important to me -- the externals can be symbols, rituals, or actions that indicate what is going on inside, but they are meaningless without the inner Ds dynamic."

Sadie: You believe "that human religious organizations often misinterpret and misrepresent the true message of Christianity." How do your BDSM beliefs fit into the larger Christian faith?

TammyJo: "I'm afraid that Christianity has been so utterly humanized and has left its historical path so far behind that I may soon decide that the term does not describe my relationship with the Divine.

"For me, Christianity was about self-awareness (but then many religions could claim the same thing, yes?). Look at yourself, take care of yourself, know you are loved and that you can survive whatever you have to live through now, even if surviving means moving onto the next world. Then help others. Help means to be an example, to share the necessities of life, and to be a support if that support is accepted. Help never means to force your beliefs on another, monitor and report on your neighbors when they don't conform to your way, or ignore suffering when you see it.

"I think that consent is really at the center of a lot of these ideas I have -- how to be able to give or withhold consent, how to express that consent, and how to respect that consent. For me consent is the foundation of BDSM; it is what separates it from all the historical and legal definitions of the words we use to identify aspects of BDSM. If there were better words to use, our lives would be easier, but hey -- some of those words turn me on too, so I need to be sure that underneath them is consent; for me that means informed consent."

Sadie: You did a concentration in women's studies for your undergraduate degree in ancient Greco-Roman civilizations. Does your interest in this extend to women in contemporary society? How has your study of women's history affected your BDSM philosophy?

TammyJo: "My minor for my PhD is women's history as well. And yes, issues of gender extend throughout human history for me, but as a historian I also know we are seriously limited by the surviving evidence. It is all too easy to let our own personal biases color our understanding of the past or of other cultures.

"In terms of affecting my philosophy: it hasn't. Consent has always been my foundation in all of my human interactions. Or as I tell my students: my syllabus is my contract with you for this course; if you think it is unfair or is asking too much then you need to drop the class, because if you stay I assume you have agreed to our contract."

Sadie: As a card carrying member of NOW as well as other women's organizations, how do you respond to some BDSM players who feel that submissive women in the BDSM community are not able to make this choice truly freely because of our cultural conditioning?

TammyJo: "Let me be very clear: there are people who believe that they are submissive but do not seem to be able to give informed consent to be submissive, either because of their past, because they are confused about what the roles involve, or because they blindly follow the culture around them. This group includes both males and females of all ages, sexual orientations, etc.

"I'm not submissive, so I honestly can't say that I've ever had to answer the question you pose. I've been asked/told that I'm not really dominant because I'm female or because I'm primarily heterosexual -- I've been told this by people in the BDSM community, by people on the political/religious right, and by people on the political/religious left.

"Quite frankly, I don't think that anyone has a right to assume anything about my relationships, but if they wish to ask polite questions then they are welcomed to do so.

"Let me confess that for years I had a 'prove it' sort of mentality about male dominants and female submissives -- not that the couple had to answer to me, but that I had to see some signs of love and caring there before I, in my own mind, could be comfortable around that couple. It would have never occurred to me to say anything out loud to those people, because that would be very rude.

"Why did I have this gut-level reaction? Because of my own past of abuse, which I thought was merely male-on-female -- I've sadly learned that my own family of origin is messed up in very complicated ways, and it can't be broken down into gender or sex dynamics. But I also reacted this way because I'm so focused on the inner Ds dynamic. Why did dominant men and submissive women need to do BDSM? Couldn't they just be in a traditional marriage? Once more I was trying to see the world in simple terms.

"If there is one thing years of BDSM, years of writing, and years of studying history have taught me, it is that nothing involving human beings is ever simple or easy."

Sadie: You had an early interest in power dynamics. How did that manifest itself in your childhood?

TammyJo: "Mostly in how I remember television shows and books, because I was drawn to the 'Amazon' episodes and images that conformed to my internal view of how the world should be.

"In my own life, however, the power dynamic was a constant struggle, which I lost a lot until I was older. Most of the time I was really only comfortable alone, or in relationships that were equal or where I was the leader.

"Being leader never meant just being the boss -- it meant gathering information from everyone involved, thinking through the choices, and then getting people to follow by validating them and checking in with them through any activity or interaction."

Sadie: You are open about the fact that you are an abuse survivor, and how that can sometimes affect those who become deeply involved with you. Have you found that your surviving this abuse has added a dimension to your BDSM relationships?

TammyJo: "Perhaps it is part of what pushes me to be so focused on consent -- my consent was ignored, and I never want anyone else to ever have to go through that.

"It also unfortunately means that I tend to attract folks that are also from abusive backgrounds, sometimes people who haven't moved from victim to survivor yet but are just existing. It can be very hot to be a savior, but it is also very scary and potentially quite harmful to everyone involved.

"When you help someone grow from victim to survivor it is amazing, but odds are they won't stick around with you for the long term, because it means that they change and your relationship changes too dramatically. Also, some people do not seem able or willing to grow from victim to survivor.

"Getting kind of intense here.

"In terms of activities in BDSM that relate to my survivor status, I don't do things like verbal abuse or pretend to be a rapist or abuser very well, because it is just too 'real' to me. I also can't do very young types of roleplaying because my own sexual abuse happened when I was quite young, so once more it's too 'real' to me."

Sadie: You have been described as flirting in a dominant manner. What do you think this means?

TammyJo: "I have no idea! This is a question I always ask the people who tell me this. The response is usually, 'You just do.'"

Sadie: You commented that for a short time you went to a polyamorous group, but found that you didn't relate to that style. Since many couples in d/s are polyamorous, what are the key differences you find between being poly for its own sake, and poly as it manifests in our community?

TammyJo: "I'm not sure that the difference you mention is real on any community level. There are folks I know who can have vanilla sex with anyone, but not BDSM or certain types of BDSM. There are folks I know who can have BDSM interactions with anyone, but not vanilla sex or certain types of vanilla sex. There are people who can 'play' but can't get serious with others. It really depends on the people involved.

"The poly group in our community was really vanilla, and it seemed focused on circles of lovers and fuckbuddies. That isn't for me. I'm not poly because I want sex with a lot of people; I'm poly because I can love a lot of people, and for me love is not the same as sex.

"For me, poly is about creating adult families where loyalty and affection aren't limited by number but by the heart and the consent of everyone involved.

"Someone once told me that I was the most monogamous poly person she knew. I think what she meant was that I was very loyal, very focused, on the people already in my life. I can be and am happy with husband and slave, but I could also be happy with another slave or with my spouse getting a 'mommy' as long as everyone was honest and cared about each other."

Sadie: You said in your interview with Jack Rinella that "for women still, sexy often means being submissive. I've learned to be sexy through sm, I don't have to play those little games." Can you explain what you mean by this? How do you now express your own sexuality? Is it tied inextricably to BDSM, or do you also have a vanilla side?

TammyJo: "Vanilla is not a flavor I like in ice cream, drinks, or sex -- but remember that for me, Ds is the important thing, so what you may see me doing can look very vanilla.

"I think American society still tells females to pose and bait and trick and wait -- look passive, look submissive -- while telling males to act and take and grab and claim -- look active, look dominant. If we look at many other animals we see that often the males are both the physically attractive ones and the active pursuers, yet we've divided these roles up in our sexes.

"In no way am I trying to say that we are dictated to by biological factors; I think that is another simplistic view of human beings that is doomed to prove incorrect. What I am saying is that any attempt to force someone into a box, a role, be it based on anything other than their own being, is limiting and will fail at some level.

"There are few acceptable outlets for the non-traditional sexuality of women -- heck, even some 'feminists' promote the traditional sexuality when they say that women can't consent to or can't have heterosexual sex. But BDSM ideally has a variety of roles that you can fit to yourself -- but even here there are stereotypes. I'm not a stereotype; I suspect many folks might never think I was into BDSM at all, because I don't fit a stereotype."

Sadie: Fetish dressing is rather a large part of the scene. (In fact I wrote a few columns on this topic). What are your feelings about not getting into the dressing up part? What kinds of strategies do you use to "set the scene" considering that you may not look any different than if you were doing the laundry?

TammyJo: "It's really attitude for me. I can dominant in teddy bear slippers if I want, or a nice black outfit. It is truly attitude that I care about. I am careful to wear primarily black at BDSM events if it is at all possible for me to do so out of respect for the community's standards. But I won't attend something that requires fetish clothing or dictates how people in particular roles must interact, because I think that really denies the individual the right to be herself and just creates another box to shove someone into.

"I haven't been in a non-24/7 relationship for over two years now, so explaining what I do to 'set the scene' is difficult to even grasp in my mind. So I'm going to approach the question as a 'special play time' or a 'role playing session' situation.

"It depends on what we are doing. If I'm a spoiled princess who receives a very talented slave for a present, then I'll dress up, put on aristocratic sounding music (very very low volume), and use plural pronouns to refer to myself. If we are doing a flogging, then I need to get my equipment ready and be in clothing I can move in. If we are doing knife play, I need to make sure I have appropriate safety supplies and that I make our space as private and quiet as possible."

Sadie: You've been married since 1992. How did you negotiate boundaries with your spouse regarding other partners?

TammyJo: "Each of us (this applies to my slave and I as well) needs to keep the other informed of new interests. We need to meet the new interest. We have a right to express any concerns or limits, but we do not have a right to say 'that one or me,' unless we feel there is a safety issue. We let each other know when we will be spending time with another partner and offer to share as many details as we are asked. We make sure we make time for each other and let each other know that we care. Nothing works perfectly, however, so communication is the foundation."

Sadie: You have fairly strict rules about who you will engage with, saying that you "will no longer scene with someone whom I do not feel a connection with, who does not share a great deal of compatible interests with me, and who is not willing to commit to a negotiated contract." How do you screen out the large number of people who are not a good match for you?

TammyJo: "I'm demanding.

"You'd be surprised how many 'wannas' will disappear if you ask for a list of past partners, or set up a meeting in a restaurant, or require an essay to be written. Add into that the fact that I do not have genital sex with the vast majority of my BDSM partners and that I'm looking for long-term relationships, and it weeds out a lot of people.

"After a while you get a reputation for being very selective, and the non-compatibles stop appearing so often.

"Sometimes I wish I could do the casual or SM buddy stuff -- they look like they have a lot of fun, and they go to all the parties. I'm just not wired that way, especially not for anything with Ds in it. I did have a knifeplay buddy for several months, and that was fun and cool, but we were friends first, so there really was a relationship there. With that type of focused SM stuff I could see having an SM buddy. But at this time, there just really isn't anyone around here who I think would be happy in that type of relationship."

Sadie: You have some harem fantasies. Are you hoping or planning to have these submissives/bottoms live with you and your husband? If so, how will you manage the house for optimal peace?

TammyJo: "Fox, my slave, has moved in for a trial 15-month period. He lived with us during the past two summers but now won't be moving back to campus when the fall semester starts. Fox and Tom (my spouse) like each other; if they didn't, Fox and I couldn't be doing what we are because it just would not be the sort of poly relationship I want and need.

"Fox lives a few floors below us, so he has his own room (it used to be my dungeon actually). He pays a minimal rent to help support the family as well as picking up his costs of special events like getting a cable modem to network all our computers or when we go out to a restaurant. He has his own friends and his own time -- as do Tom and I. We've worked out a family schedule of when we each are working or doing something on a regular basis so we can see what will work when we want to schedule family time or couple time.

"But then as you may have guessed by now, I have my own definition of what a slave is, so I'm sure my description reads very odd to some folks. He is my property, but he may not look like property to your eyes and ears.

"I would deal with each addition on an individual basis -- everybody has to work together; everybody has to get along. And everybody contributes to the income of the household."

Sadie: You write, "since I am only interested in relationships, I frown upon one-time scenes." Considering that much of the BDSM culture is predicated on play parties and other kinds of more "casual" play, where do you fit in the continuum? How do you screen for partners?

TammyJo: "I'm not a party person. Nothing against parties, those who go or those who put a lot of hard work into having them, but I'm just not that type of people. Because what I do is so internal or so edgy, it doesn't work well in crowded, loud and often rather dark environments.

"Yet I actually encourage folks to get a variety of partners, especially when they are starting out in the scene. I think it helps you learn and it helps you figure out if any particular relationship is good for you because you have more experiences to base your choices on.

"I have gone to parties, though I'm more likely to attend 'educational' events in dungeons than the average play party. I've been a DM and I've even hosted. I find it very stressful to be with so many people -- maybe I'm too concerned about not being a stereotype or looking silly.

"I do like to watch, however, and I'm far more likely to be at a party or dungeon (slave in tow to buffer me against the single men who seem to be a plague at some of these places) and just watch."

Sadie: You state that you are looking for a submissive who "who is strong enough to help me when I cry and who can also feel free to cry and be held by me." How do you respond to people who feel that dominants should not be showing what may be perceived as weakness to their submissives?

TammyJo: "I think that relationships and activities are only healthy for us if they allow and encourage us to be ourselves. The real TammyJo cries, laughs, gets angry, worries, changes her mind, takes care of others, and sometimes just wants to be a child. If someone thinks that me being me is weak, then that is not a healthy relationship for me to be in. If someone is telling folks that X role must behave in X way, then they aren't interested in people; they are only interested in stereotypes. I feel sorry for folks like that -- it must be difficult to so compartmentalize your life like this."

Sadie: It appears from your website that your husband Tom does not participate in your BDSM life. Is this correct? What is it like for him being married to someone who is so well known in our community?

TammyJo: "Tom is kinky, but he has his own particular fetishes and role preferences that do not mix well with my own. Part of us realizing that poly was far healthier for us was being honest about the fact that in order to scene together both of us were compromising too much and not content with anything we were getting.

"He's actually been a big part of the two university groups we've been in -- he has been on both boards or steering committees and has done workshops. Just because his kink isn't as common or as well documented doesn't mean that he isn't kinky and can't be part of the community.

"As for how he feels, you'd have to ask him that (flint@kiva.net).

"Am I well known? I guess so; it doesn't really feel that way a good deal of the time. But then what would that feel like?"

Sadie: You are a prolific writer of erotica. Does it turn you on when you write it? Or is more about the writing itself when you're actually doing the writing?

TammyJo: "I'm not prolific enough -- only three collections out so far. I don't put my stuff on the web until it's been copyrighted to me via publication, except on my 'fan club,' where I've asked folks to never ever give out what I share with them. Plus too many people are willing to get the junk for free on the Internet and buy the junk from cheap publishing houses, so if you are a good erotica writer you are kind of screwed, and not in a good way. Some of what I write always turns me on. But not everything write is a turn-on -- I write what would be appropriate in that world or for that character or for that situation. I'm often surprised at what readers find to be the turn-ons or the message of a piece, which just shows me that no matter how careful and how detailed, a lot of written work is in the mind of the reader.

"Sometimes I challenge myself to write about a particular topic or in a particular style, and that can be both a turn-on and a trial. I think I'm like many writers I've met -- I write because I have to, because it's part of me."

Sadie: You enjoy watching the difference between how heterosexual men and woman react when hearing your stories read out loud. What is the difference that you observe? To what do you attribute it?

TammyJo: "If women attend a reading, they seem to be more open to what they are hearing; they seem less concerned with the sex of the characters and more concerned with the images. Some men must attend a reading for some reason I really can't understand, because they can clearly become embarrassed or even feel they need to leave while I'm reading. I usually have more women talk to me after a reading than men -- maybe the mainstream paradigm in our culture of men as dominant makes them feel uncomfortable to talk to me after a reading. I mean, all of my stories have male submissives in them, so that just slaps at the traditional culture immediately."

Sadie: What are some of the BDSM books you've most enjoyed reviewing and why?

TammyJo: "I love the writings of Laura Antoniou and Kyle Stone, because they focus on people first and take the time to create fairly elaborate fiction.

"I like the non-fiction by John Warren, Jay Wiseman and Janet Hardy, Jack Rinella, and Charles Moser, because I think they take care to promote this individual aspect of BDSM that I think is truly healthy. They also tend to stick to realities that we have to deal with.

"Then there are people I'd call the 'academics' of the BDSM community, like Gail Rubin, Mark Thompson, and Ivo Dominguez, who track the history, analyze our present and challenge us to be more.

"My list in no way should be seen as the 'only' people whose work I really like -- I'm reading and reviewing so much that the most honest answer to your question would be 'read all my reviews.' Not every work by a person will be their best; that's true of me as well."

Sadie: What are the things that really irritate you in BDSM books?

TammyJo: "Focus on size and objects over people. Beginning a story but finishing it suddenly with no real conclusion. Unrealistic equipment or physical interactions -- hey, make it science fiction if you want more freedoms with the body or technology. Not doing what the author claims they are going to do -- this is my biggest pet peeve. Promoting a 'one true way' or a 'biologically determined way' for everyone in the world. Internal contradictions. Poor organization."

Sadie: How does it feel to be having someone so close to you, your husband, reading and commenting on your writing before it goes to press? Do you find that he has a similar response to your readership in general?

TammyJo: "I wish I'd hear from my readers (especially those who read my fiction) more. A good message can make my week and help motivate me to write more.

"I think that Tom (and now Fox too) is the only person who could get away with saying things like 'what the hell are you trying to say in this sentence' or making very honest suggestions. I trust him to do what is best for me, and my own defensive walls don't go up as high or as fast around him."

Sadie: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

TammyJo: "I just want to encourage everyone to buy books, journals, and magazines that are created by and for BDSM practitioners. There is too much incorrect, poorly done, and frankly sometimes dangerous information on the web today. We need to invest more time and money in those who are willing to teach and share themselves through their writing, publishing, and organizational work. Our lives are busy, and it can be very hard to give and give with little in return, so please respect copyrights, invest in the organizations and publications that are there for you, and give positive feedback, not just negative feedback, when you can."

Sadie: Thank you very much!


Sensuous Sadie is a BDSM columnist and edits SCENEsubmissions, a free e-newsletter for the New England area and beyond. She is the founder and leader (1999 - 2001) of Rose & Thorn, Vermont's first BDSM group. Comments, compliments and complaints, as well as requests for reprinting can be addressed to her at SensuousSadie@aol.com or visit her website at www.sensuoussadie.com. Sadie believes that the universe is abundant, and that sharing information freely is part of this abundance, so she allows reprints of her writing in most venues.

Copyright 2003