Archive for March, 2008

still knotted… or, don’t do us any favours, buddy
March 31, 2008

Not long ago, I picked up a copy of the book Endless Knot: A Spiritual Odyssey Through Sado-Masochism, by Mathew Styranka. The blurb on the back reads:

“Growing up in Saskatchewan, Mathew Styranka spent much of his youth trying to integrate his submissive sexual passions and his spiritual yearnings. After moving to Toronto to pursue Zen meditation, he found release instead in the world of fetish and sado-masochism. His struggle to find spiritual and physical satisfaction rested in finding the Mistress of his dreams, a woman he thought would complete him through her domination. But when fantasy became reality, Styranka discovered that his true self lay somewhere between the desires of the flesh and the reflections of the mind.”

I figured it might make for an interesting read, particularly since I and some of my close companions find a great deal of spiritual significance in BDSM, both in the physical experience of playing and in the mental and emotional states that are encouraged by ongoing D/s dynamics. This is by no means an area where I feel I’m at my most articulate, but it is one of interest. I also figured it might be cool to get a sense of what the fetish scene in Toronto looked like many years ago – the history of such things is always intriguing to me.

Unfortunately, Styranka disappoints. Which is really too bad – he had the opportunity to do some good work, and he completely dropped the ball on at least two really significant counts.

Let me back up for a sec, though. I’ll give a brief overview of the book for those who haven’t read it: Mathew arrives in Toronto, works a day job, spends a lot of time at a Zen centre, and spends as many nights as he can out in the local fetish scene. His preferred activity is attending to women’s feet as both a lifelong fetishist and as a submissive. He meets a young dominant lesbian named Lara, becomes her slave, moves in with her and serves her every whim, and eventually realizes she’s an abusive nutcase and leaves, and comes back, and leaves, and comes back, and leaves again. This process takes him a few years, and by the end of it, he has a few Valuable Lessons to share about truth and balance and inner peace.

The problems here are multiple, and the biggest one is that Styranka has made the infuriatingly typical mistake of implicitly pathologizing sexual minorities because he got burned by his own poor decision-making. I held out hope for his enlightenment throughout the entire book, but there’s a paragraph in the final pages that very nearly made me throw the book across the room in utter disgust:

“My exeriences have not eliminated my sexual interests from my life. Instead, I try to cultivate an unclinging mind so each moment will unfold without my manipulations, unfolding as it should. I no longer have a fetish, nor a need to submit to a woman in any way. However, I still have many friends in the scene, and still go to the odd fet party. The difference is that now, when any fetish-related fantasies come up, I am able to let go of them. Sometimes I try to remember what it was I felt then, when I was involved in the fet scene, because I can look at a pair of feet now and wonder what it was that I saw in them.”

I can’t tell you how grouchy it makes me when people say things like, “Well, I tried non-monogamy once and my boyfriend left me, so I think it’s an immature way of conducting relationships.” (And then they go cheat on their spouse.) Or “I made out with a person of the same sex once, and it was weird and awkward, so I’m heterosexual now and I think queers are fucked up.” (And then they steal glances at people of the same sex in the locker room and jerk off to private fantasies about them.)

It doesn’t even have to be a sexual minority – people pathologize groups all the time based on their own personal fucked-up-edness. There are plenty of hetero women out there who say things like “My last five relationships were abusive, so I’ve sworn off men,” as though somehow the fact of possessing a penis were an indication of abusiveness and the only solution is to abstain from relations with anyone sporting said appendage (and trash them while you’re at it). And there are plenty of men whose moms were mean to them and who’ve used that as an excuse to wholly buy into cultural misogyny and feel all righteous about it, or treat their girlfriends like shit because women are all gold-diggers or lying bitches or sluts, or whatever other bullshit they can come up with to justify their mistreatment.

This is not to say that some non-monogamists don’t do a crappy job of basic communication, that some same-sex making out isn’t awkward, that some men don’t abuse women, or that some women aren’t manipulative or dishonest. Simply that if you’ve got a pattern of gravitating towards people in ways that don’t turn out well, it’s probably not exclusively because people of a given group are inherently bad; it’s probably because there’s some imbalance within you that draws you to other compatibly imbalanced people in the first place, and that’s where the solutions lie too – inside yourself.

So the idea that someone who makes the kind of relationship mistakes that Styranka catalogues in his book would chalk it all up to fetishism, wash his hands of it and call that enlightenment is just a crock.

For starters, he hasn’t actually conveniently disposed of his fetish, and he makes that clear in his very own words. In the paragraph above, he is effectively saying that his fetish interests were a form of sickness, and now he’s all better, and he can stand outside and look in at those poor un-enlightened suckers who are still licking their mistresses’ toes. And yet in the very next paragraphs, he concludes his book by describing a sex scene with his new, presumably non-kinky girlfriend, including the following:

“I smell, lick and nibble at her feet, her soft soles, her round toes, taking each one in my mouth and sucking hard, massaging their bottoms with my tongue, not because I’d planned to, but because I feel it in the moment.”

Um, hello? No more foot fetish? Ya. I believe you. Last time I checked, fetishism was not defined by planning, nor does the lack of planning imply that one does not have a fetish. Fetishism is about what arouses you, and buddy, you’re still turned on by feet.

Second to that, the problems Styranka encountered in the fetish scene and in his relationships are not about his fetish or his submissive desires. They’re about his own emotional unhealth and resulting poor judgment. The deep-seated emotional problems of his mistress, Lara, are glaringly evident throughout the entire narrative. She’s a young woman who was severely abused by her father, and who has sworn off men and declared herself a lesbian as a result. She’s still attracted to men, she just refuses to have anything to do with them unless they’re crawling at her feet. In the fetish scene, she calls herself a dominant but uses classic techniques of emotional manipulation and psychological abuse to attract Mathew and keep him around. She flies into unpredictable rages, beats him in front of friends while she’s drunk (even injuring him), demands that he turn over all his savings to her, insists that her pleasure come first in everything even when it’s clearly to Mathew’s detriment, and so forth. When he gets upset at this treatment, she either threatens to leave, or guilts him about not being a sufficiently devoted slave, or turns all sickly sweet and gives him things she usually denies him, such as the title “slave” or the privilege of worshiping her feet.

On top of all that, Lara is insatiable when it comes to sex and she entertains numerous lovers, but never tells them about one another, going so far as to escort one out the back door while the next one rings the front doorbell. Not that I have a problem with vast sexual appetite or non-monogamy, but genuine insatiability – like, the state of never feeling good and satisfied – is generally not a good thing, and neither is the blatant dishonesty and manipulation of juggling lovers who don’t know about each other. I can’t even imagine her approach to safer sex… I shudder to think.

So let’s see, does that sound like the perfect profile of a healthy, balanced dominant? Not so much. I was appalled that someone like that wouldn’t be called out by her friends in the Scene, especially the ones who witness her abusive behaviour first-hand, and that someone would submit to that sort of treatment and think it made them a good slave. The thought that anyone would confuse blatant abuse for soul-feeding dominance just makes me want to cry. I’m sure lots of people out there make the mistake, but wow… I’ve never read such a cringe-inducing blow-by-blow report of it before. It’s pretty horrendous.

The problem is that Styranka doesn’t seem to have registered that that’s what was going on. At no point does he say anything about this being a classic abuse pattern. At no point does he refer to himself as a survivor, and at no point does he indicate that he’s gained any self-awareness that would help him to avoid such situations in the future. And worst of all, at no point does he clearly disassociate what he went through from the healthy, non-abusive ways in which people engage in dominant/submissive relations. Yes, he mentions people in the Scene who obviously don’t share Lara’s traits, and describes a few of his positive experiences outside the relationship, but he leaves the reader to assume that all full-time mistresses are nutcases like Lara.

I can’t help but wonder if the poor guy has learned anything at all from his experience – which makes me feel pretty rotten for him. But my sympathy is vastly overshadowed by my irritation that he’d put a book out there that sends such an inaccurate and irresponsible message about BDSM. In one fell swoop, he conflates submission with an unenlightened state of being, fetishism with pathology, and dominance with abuse, and he makes no effort to correct those assumptions, probably because he shares them.

It appears that now, Styranka spends his time communing with the waves as a surfer out in BC and hanging out in old-growth forests. His Zen practice has taught him a lot about letting go – “immersing myself in the moment, simply observing my mind and body and present feelings, sensations, thoughts, desires, and not attaching myself to them.” All wonderful stuff. In fact a lot of what he says about Zen strongly resonates with my own sense of spirituality, though I don’t ascribe to a formal Buddhist practice of any kind.

The difference is that I don’t see these things as running counter to my kink or being incompatible with it; rather, they’re very distinctly incorporated into it. My kink is not an aching, painful lack or an all-consuming, soul-sucking obsession; it’s a joyful, rich, powerful wholeness. It’s not a pathology,  it’s a pathway to self-knowledge and self-discipline and self-love. So it galls me that someone could walk that path and still confuse kink with unhealth, rather than seeing unhealth for what it is and kink as the particular arena in which that unhealth played out.

Any kind of enlightenment that relies on the denial of one’s basic desires doesn’t feel true to me; it feels like just one more method of self-censorship and self-rejection, and that path, in my humble opinion, is the very one that leads to the very pathology it tries to ascribe to others. Ultimately, my own definition of enlightenment would be one that includes the acceptance of one’s own personal desires no matter how “deviant,” right alongside the embrace of balance, flow, non-attachment, self-respect and self-love.

working out the kinks of working out the kinks
March 28, 2008

It’s been a right crazy couple of weeks, and as usual when that happens, I’ve got about twelve new ideas of other things I’d like to be writing about. But in an endeavour to be consistent with my intentions, as promised, here’s the second instalment in my roundup of the U of T kink conference. I don’t have extensive notes on every presentation, but I can at least give a quick review for most of them… So here they are, in chronological order.

Sexual Fetishism as Anti-Racist Activism: The Performance Art of Guillermo Gomez-Pena – Mehre Khan, York University

Mehre Khan gave a really intriguing presentation about the Gomez-Pena’s art and the ways in which it engages with themes of both fetishism and the challenging of racist/colonialist perspectives. She critiqued the ways in which his work is persistently theorized minus the sex, and more largely, how sex and race are not theorized together in the first place. (I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I’m speaking more from a queer perspective where the intersections of race and sexuality is an increasingly hot topic these days; that conversation is not happening nearly as much in BDSM world.) She spoke of both racial and sexual identities as being fetishized, and about the similarities she sees in the “suspicious” way in which the media portrays both brownness – in the lovely post-9/11 conflation of South Asian, Latin/Mexican and Arab appearances and identities – and sexual identities and practices (fetishism, BDSM, sex work, trans, queer). Khan gave some excellent visuals to go along with her talk; Gomez-Pena’s work is pretty striking, and well worth looking at. His performance art can be found on YouTube, so if the premise intrigues you, check it out.

Unfortunately I feel like I don’t know his work nearly well enough to do much but listen to the critiques Khan brought up, and if I had any critique to make of her talk it would be that I’d have liked to get a stronger grounding in Gomez-Pena’s work before we launched into an in-depth analysis – I’d be interested in a better understanding of his history as an artist, the context in which he produces and shows his work, the critics’ reactions to it, his own involvement in communities of colour and the BDSM world (if any), and so forth. But I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for his work in the future; it’s challenging and exciting stuff and I’m thankful to Khan for exposing it to a new audience.

From the Arts to Society and Back Again – Morpheous

Morpheous’s presentation dealt with mainstream kink imagery as it relates to art history as a whole, focusing heavily on images of the female submissive or bottom. He’s an engaging speaker, and I found his talk interesting in the way it drew parallels between ancient art and today’s media imagery, particularly with respect to the ways the female nude is conceived of sometimes as object of the gaze and sometimes as engaged subject.

That said, I have a number of critiques of the talk. For starters, the academic in me wanted to hear a lot more about the old stuff and the nature of the connections rather than seeing a lot of slick advertising materials; mainstream fetish imagery is exactly that, and is often created as a marketing tool rather than as art for art’s sake, which means it’s often fairly devoid of much sophistication. If the talk had been only a look at the contemporary portrayals, that’d be different, but here I would have expected more balance.

In addition, I would really have liked him to contextualize things better. Morpheous focused almost exclusively on imagery of white, thin, big-breasted, conventionally attractive female bottoms, presumably heterosexual ones or at least situated in imagery aimed at arousing heterosexual men. He included no representation of any other group (men, people of colour, varying body types and gender presentations, etc.), but at no point did he explain to the audience that his talk would have such a narrow focus or what the purpose of that narrow focus might be. I don’t deny there might be a good purpose – there’s lots of room for the analysis of the mainstream, and with that in mind, I’m not the least bit offended at the premise. But context is everything, and we didn’t have any. Had he framed his talk as an engagement with the hetero mainstream, then perhaps the lack of diversity would have been understandable, as opposed to being a noticeable lack.

It’s all the more unfortunate because without that contextualization, the audience was left to assume the worst – that Morpheous, as a white, heterosexual male dominant, simply didn’t notice that his talk was heavily biased towards imagery aimed squarely at his own demographic. In other words, he didn’t notice or acknowledge his privilege. Which is a pretty serious faux pas when your audience is made up largely of academically-oriented lefty kinky queers (yes, overwhelmingly white, but nonetheless sensitive to and interested in questions of racism and diversity). As it is, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when an audience member – a queer man of colour – challenged him pretty soundly on this point.

Consent: Public Policy vs. Social Practice in Sadomasochism – Ingrid

Argh. I really, really wish I’d taken better notes about this but I was distracted and didn’t geek out as much as I usually do. What I do recall is that Ingrid’s talk was really well done, with analyses of a number of different legal cases involving BDSM, centring particularly on the question of obscenity. Among other things she mentioned a case I’d never heard of before, involving Sweet Productions Inc., a Vancouver-based SM porn company that was accused of obscenity in the mid-90s. Interestingly the charges were dismissed following a multi-angle legal defense that challenged the concept of obscenity by subjecting the work to a number of tests regarding artistic merit, community standards and other such criteria. Again – I really wish I’d taken better notes. I must go pick her brain instead.

(Un)Common Ground: Intersections of Kinky, Poly and Queer – Andrea Zanin

I’m totally not going to review my own talk here. That would be weird. My own take on it: it went well, people enjoyed it, I learned a lot from several smart audience comments, and I’m totally looking forward to giving the talk a second and third time soon, in San Francisco with Pepper. When we’re finished the final write-up of the paper, we’ll be submitting it to journals and possibly co-publishing it on our respective blogs. That’s it for now! A fellow blogger cited some concepts from the talk here if you’re curious.

Luscious In Leather: Unpacking Leatherdyke Concepts of Beauty – Jacqueline St-Urbain

Bias alert: Jacqueline is a friend and colleague of mine, and she used photos of me in her talk, so it would be really hard for me to give an unbiased review of it. Read on if that’s cool with you.

So. It’s no secret that dykes have our own aesthetic preferences that are distinct from both mainstream and gay male aesthetics while borrowing from both (and many other places too). It’s also no secret that leatherdykes take the dyke aesthetic and add a few interesting twists. From that perspective, Jacqueline came up with a really strong analysis of leatherdyke beauty concepts. Among other things, she pointed out the emphasis we place on butch and femme looks, taking it to an “überbutch and überfemme” extreme, and noted that we adopt gay male imagery in service of that.

Gay male influence aside, she mentioned the influence of relative poverty on our wardrobe choices – in that we wear less actual leather than the men, with a typical outfit involving jeans, a wife-beater and perhaps one piece of leather such as a bar vest. In the arena of butch, she mentioned our appreciation of bootblacks, tattoos and the erotic appreciation of the motorcycle (in her words, “the ultimate accessory!” even if it’s not always a financially accessible one); in the area of femme, she pointed out that we love the curves and the corsetry. In fact, her analysis of dyke appreciation for fat was spot-on – she said that we associate large, hourglassy figures and ample cleavage with the überfemme aesthetic, and that we associate the fat masculine female body with ideas of strength and solidity, read überbutch, such that fat is appreciated instead of looked down upon.

And because as leatherdykes we can’t not be political, Jacqueline brought that aspect into her analysis of aesthetic, pointing out that we eroticize attitude. As at-least-doubly marginalized people – being women, being queer, and being kinky, not to mention potential marginalization for body size or other features – we cultivate attitudes that help us cope with those realities, and in turn we eroticize those attitudes of defiance. As Jacqueline said, “We give a big ol’ fuck you to the mainstream.” She mentioned strategies of rebellion, appropriation and humour, and talked about our “cheerful lechery” as a way of solidifying community and validating our erotic sensibilities. Yeehaw!

A Woman’s Right to Be Spanked – Ummni Khan, University of Toronto

Khan’s talk was probably my favourite of the conference, no slight intended to the other presenters. She gave a fantastic blend of cultural criticism and legal analysis focusing on the ways submissive women are percieved in North American society. She started out by making a point-by-point comparison of the films 9 1/2 Weeks and Secretary, which were created 20 years apart and portray submissive women in completely different ways. Khan argued that the difference showed a positive progression over time, with Secretary showing submission as a valid and healthy choice as compared to 9 1/2 Weeks‘ portrayal of submission as a destructive and humiliating situation necessarily forced upon the woman in a weird blend of arousal and disgust.

Following that, Khan made a similar comparison of the way a number of SM legal cases involving female submissives or bottoms were handled in the British and American courts over the 1990s. She made another point-by-point comparison, and concluded – quite brilliantly really – that “SM acceptability, both in cultural production and in legal cases, is contingent upon other elements of hegemony.” In other words, acceptability depends on how soundly the subject in question (i.e. the participant in SM) fits into the categories of being straight, white, monogamous/faithful, married, in a male top/female bottom scenario, middle class and conventionally beautiful. The only point she made that deviates from the norm is the question of children – the norm dictates that having children is good, but if you take part in BDSM, children are supposed to be as far out of the picture as humanly possible, so the having of children would make the practice of BDSM less acceptable.

I suppose the idea that one’s relative position in the hierarchies of privilege will affect the acceptability of one’s otherwise sexually deviant tendencies is not exactly new. But I’ve never seen it laid out in quite such an immediate and accessible fashion, and I’ve never seen anyone carry off the kind of critique that spans culture and law in such a thoroughly enjoyable way. Really it was a wonderful presentation to conclude the conference.

Concluding Panel – all presenters plus Carol Queen

Can I just say how cool it was to speak on a panel with Carol? Well, it was. Whee!

Because I was speaking on the panel, I didn’t take notes about other people’s contributions, but I did put down a few notes to clarify my own thoughts about one of the questions that was posed to us, so I will reiterate what I said. So this is not quite a review, but whatever.

The question was about the tensions between activists or community participants and academics when it comes to questions of kink. I’ve got lots of thoughts about this from the get-go, but it really hit me because of my experience at this specific conference.

Basically, I think academia is subject to the Western Judeo-Christian ethic of body versus mind, or more particularly, body = profane versus mind = sacred. This is reflected in the way that academics are supposed to remain at an objective remove from the subjects they study; in recent years there’s been somewhat of a shift in this regard towards the acceptability of queers in academia studying queer topics, and in a sense that was preceded by the acceptability of women in academia studying questions of feminism, but it’s not like either of those disciplines (queer studies or women’s studies) is longstanding and universally well-respected like, say, engineering or English. But that’s a whole other story.

Anyway, so one’s academic credibility is affected by the perception of the academic as biased, and one sure way towards a perception of bias is if the academic in question openly talks about or demonstrates their involvement in the alternative sexual practices they study. So where do you fit if you do both – study kink and take part in it? This is a question I’ve felt rise in me numerous times, and so far the answer, for me, has been that I participate in kink without reservation and if that affects my academics, so be it. However, I’ve thus far been in a position where I’m not actively working in academia – alongside it yes, but not within it. So I don’t have much to lose.

On the other hand, even when I do have more to lose – which will be the case soon enough – I’m not really interested in bowing to an academic convention that would dismiss the relevance of my community and personal involvement; I feel that this very involvement is the most valuable asset I bring to my study of the topic. In a post last summer, I mentioned that I’d decided what my studies would focus on: the development of leatherdyke community in Canada. As such, my involvement in today’s leatherdyke community will likely bring me immeasurable advantages in doing the kind of historical research I will need to do in order to fully understand that history. The connections I’ve made through community, and the trust I’ve built with those connections, will give me access to information, materials and people I’d never find if I were simply a curious outsider. So even when I do start “officially” studying kink, not only is there no way I could hide what I am, but it would in fact present a disadvantage for me to do so.

All that being said, I noted with chagrin that I was falling prey to the same thing I criticize so soundly in academia. In short, I did, and do, want to be seen as a brain first and a body second. When I dressed to present at the conference, I wore jeans and a blazer – not a PVC dress and bitch boots. And I was relieved to note that the photos of me in corsetry and fishnets would only be going up on a screen after I did my own presentation, so that the audience would not be seeing my cleavage before hearing my analysis.

Is that a bad thing? I’m not sure, but I’m definitely thinking about it. When I’m up at the podium, I’m not interested in being a sex goddess, unless you eroticize brains (and that’s a whole other post). But it’s not my fault that the world tends to have a hard time holding both brains and body in mind at once; I didn’t choose for people to take you more seriously when you’re wearing a jacket and less seriously if you’re baring skin. That’s just the way it is. I don’t play into it excessively, in that I’m certainly not a prude and I do have a closetful of sexy gear, but I quite deliberately choose when and where to wear it so that I am perceived the way I wish to be percieved. So in that sense, all I did was dress the appropriate part.

That said, I wasn’t entirely comfortable to note just how strongly I felt that I needed to choose business casual over kink casual in order to still be perceived as credible, especially in front of an audience of fellow kinky brainy people. Sure, I dressed the appropriate part, but what if the whole point of my work is to challenge the way the parts are set up in the first place? Playing right in is hardly a helpful strategy in that case.

In a sense, the tension between academia and community was played out in my own physical self that day. I’m not sure I have this particular tension resolved yet, but I’m certainly chewing on it with renewed vigour.

The End

So there it is. My review of Working Out the Kinks, the inaugural conference for the U of T Sexual Diversity Studies Student Union. It was one helluva cool experience, not to mention being a groundbreaking hybrid approach to sexuality studies, and I think both the people involved and the people who attended got a lot out of it. I certainly did; it was a joy to attend and an honour to present. I’m already looking forward to the next one!

the queen of the con: carol queen on bdsm and sex work
March 22, 2008

So much to write about… so little time.

This will be my attempt at a short review of the U of T kink conference of last weekend, “Fetish: Working Out the Kinks.” I’m going to see if I can do it in… umm… three sentences per presentation. Okay, goal set. Wish me luck!

We start with the Friday night keynote with Carol Queen, an untitled talk whose topic was the intersection of BDSM/fetish and the sex industry. Carol gave a fantastic overview of her own experiences as a sex worker who, while not specialized in BDSM sessions, was exposed to a massive variety of kinks during her sex work career, which leads her to believe that kink is way more common that we might think. “Most people don’t think of sex workers as knowledge-gatherers, but they certainly are!” Indeed.

She talked about these clients as often “residing at the intersteces of the commodified sex world and the BDSM community,” and described their various motivations for paying a sex worker – among them, a greater comfort communicating with a professional than with a partner or spouse (yowch), and the desire for practice or experimentation with kink in a situation where they are not currently in a relationship or they are in a relationship that’s hostile to those desires (again, yowch) or where they themselves are caught in the Madonna/whore dichotomy where they simply would never ask their pristine wife to do such dirty things. She explained that some such clients become integrated into the BDSM community, whether on their own or through professionals who themselves already are; some, of course, remain clients or simply stay home and masturbate. To each their own.

Carol also expressed her own annoyance at how some clients of professional dominants are most certainly not giving their wives much power at home, and are instead going out and paying for it elsewhere. Again, that Madonna/whore thing… grumble. She mentioned, too, that while the stereotype of sex workers presumes them all to be young nubile girls, in reality, “Sex work is not the province of the young, particularly in BDSM and fetish when you’re talking about the level of competence, experience and knowledge required to do that work and do it well.” Good point.

Overall, I found her talk to be thoroughly entertaining and insightful. On the down side, I also felt that it wasn’t as… focused? as I would have liked. Carol made a ton of excellent points, and drew heavily on anecdotes from her own very valuable and relevant life experience. But I didn’t feel like there was a strong thesis stringing it all together. Not that a thesis is necessarily the yardstick against which I measure the quality of someone’s work, but I guess my brain was just in a super-focused theory-hungry space and I was hankering for someone to scratch the itch with academic rigour.

As for the insights themselves – well, I’m always intrigued to hear more about how the sex industry operates, and to hear that from the mouths of those who work within it rather than those who moralize from the outside. It was also intriguing to note that while her talk was not structured in a comparable way to the talk I gave the next day on the intersections of poly, kinky and queer, a lot of what she had to say nonetheless did speak to the ways in which the worlds of BDSM and sex work intersect. Of course this was of great interest to me becausein writing our paper, Pepper and I both noticed that sex work connects with BDSM (as well as with poly and queer) and realized that neither of us was sufficiently qualified – i.e. neither of us has done sex work – to comment from the inside out on those connections. Given that our paper is rather explicitly based on our community experience and then backed up with academic references and our own theory-head thinking, we don’t feel that it’s fair for us to speak on behalf of a community we’re not part of. So for now that piece is absent from the work. But to we may at some point wish to bring in a third co-author who has that sort of experience to help us confirm and articulate those connections, and considering what Carol had to say, clearly there’s at least some basis for our feeling that this would be a valid enterprise. So who knows… if we can get Carol on board, there may be some fun collaboration in the future.

Well, that’s definitely way over my three-sentence limit. Oh well. I’ll publish this now and return in the near future to give my thoughts about the rest of the conference and share my notes about specific presentations. For now, happy long weekend!

a weekend’s worth of brain food
March 11, 2008

This coming weekend is gonna be so cool.

I’ll be doing a bit of shameless self-promotion here, but mostly I’m just excited about the super-cool stuff that’s going on in both Toronto and Montreal – only a small part of which is mine – and I wanna share!

So the big U of T kink conference is taking place on Friday evening and Saturday. It’s entitled “Fetish: Working Out the Kinks” and you can read up on it here, where you’ll also find a link to the U of T box office in case you want to buy a ticket. The final schedule has just been sent out, and I’m stoked at the diversity of presentations.

I don’t even know what Carol Queen will be talking about, but it goes without saying that I’m really looking forward to her keynote address on the Friday night. What a way to kick off a weekend! On the Saturday, I am very much curious about Mehre Khan’s presentation, “Sexual Fetishism as Anti-Racist Activism,” precisely because I’m consistently disturbed by the kinds of racial fetishization that go on out there in kink-land and I can’t wait to hear a fresh take on the idea from someone who has a clue. There’s also my friend Ingrid, a fabulous, brainy self-identified butch MTF trans woman and kinkster extraordinaire (who, among other things,presented at An Unholy Harvest in October) ; she’ll be giving a talk entitled “Consent: Public Policy vs Social Practice in Sadomasochism.” Mmmm. Brain food. And there’s my most excellent colleague Jacqueline St-Urbain, who will be giving a presentation entitled “Luscious in Leather: Leatherdyke Concepts of Beauty,” and yes there will be photos, and apparently I’m in some of them – which I fully consented to but which I admit is a little freaky considering the only criterion I gave her was “don’t show anyone my pink bits.” Good thing she’s presenting after me, or people might not look at me quite the same way during my own talk! Ahem. Anyway, there are several other presenters whose topics look thoroughly intriguing too. I’m honoured to be among such excellent company.
As for me, I’ll begiving a meaty presentation smack in the middle of the afternoon (naptime anyone?) about the political and community intersections between various alternative sexuality and relationship movements, entitled “(Un)Common Ground: Intersections of Poly, Kinky and Queer.” It all started with a really juicy conversation between me and Pepper Mint during his visit last summer.I think most people who have a finger or two in the poly, kinky or queer pies tend to recognize there’s a certain overlap, but we wanted to explore the specifics of how that plays out and the reasons for it happening in the first place, so we started mapping it all out… and getting more and more excited about it. At one point I said “We totally have to start taking notes!” and the rest has happened via phone calls and e-mails in the months following. We’ll be co-presenting the same paper at the Leather Leadership Conference in San Francisco in early April, but this time I’m doing it solo since darling Pepster couldn’t fit in the travel time for this event. I’m a little nervy about presenting it because it feels like a whole lot of conceptual stuff and I don’t have diagrams prepared or anything, but we’ll see, I may pull something together to help on the visual end of things. Otherwise it’ll just be me “being a smarty-pants” (as Boi M said this afternoon) with the aid of a pad of paper and a marker. Yay for lo-tech!

In addition to the talk I’m giving, I’ll be on the closing panel along with all the other presenters. The questions we’ve been told we’re talking about are really intriguing ones about the academic / community divide when it comes to kink – why it’s there, how it can be resolved, what we can learn from those who straddle it. Very cool. It’ll definitely be neat to discuss these questions with a bunch of other people who actually do straddle the divide to one extent or another, because it’s definitely one that comes up a lot. Perhaps it’ll inspire me to get in gear and write reviews of the next essay or two from the Powerful Pleasures book by Kleinplatz and Moser. It’s on the list…
Last but not least, that same day, if you don’t make it to the conference itself, you might want to tune into CIUT 89.5 FM for the “Sex City” show from 5 to 6 p.m. Local queer-about-town Bryen Dunn will be interviewing me about the conference on Friday or Saturday and broadcasting our conversation during the show, along with interviews with a couple of the other presenters. So while we’re all sitting on the panel, our voices will simultaneously be heard on the airwaves… what a weird idea. Anyway, check it out!

Now, on Saturday night, if you are in Toronto (or you can get there) and you’re the least bit inclined towards the practice of erotic writing, you may want to sign up for Carol Queen’s workshop at Come As You Are. I’ve posted the details below. For anyone who’s read her work, you know that her stories are hot, articulate and realistic. You’ll never find one of those “I must utterly suspend my disbelief and that means I can’t quite engage in a satisfying jerk-off” stories in her anthologies. I very much believe in the potential value that fiction work holds in terms of education – not because it always educates, but because it certainly can, so if you approach your fiction writing with an activist bent, you’ve got lots of opportunities. So hearing the reigning expert on the matter divulge her tricks for doing so with skill… well, it’s a rare opportunity indeed.

On the other hand, if you’re in Montreal (or can get there), I strongly encourage you to go check out Lazlo Pearlman’s performance at the Edgy Women Festival. This is one of the many occasions on which I dearly wish I could clone myself and be in two places at once; Lazlo gave a short version of this performance piece at a Meow Mix last summer at Pride, and it absolutely rocked. The long and more in-depth version will surely be a fantastic treat. Lazlo is hot, hilarious, and highly intelligent… not to mention he’s a language geek! Hello, drool! Plus he gets naked. Really, folks – what more could you want? I had the pleasure of interviewing the man himself not too long ago for an article in the Mirror, so if you want a taste of him before the show, read it here.

So that’s my menu for the weekend. Please feel free to pass it on. And come say hi if you see me around!

***

How To Write (Erotic, Thoughtful & Realistic) Sex
With Carol Queen, PhD.

Erotica was one of writer Carol Queen’s early forms of sex education — and was it ever misleading! Now Queen is known for hot sex scenes that depict what might happen in real life and in which she strives to incorporate all the diversity she finds in her real-life communities. This class is for writers (established and aspiring) who’d like some advice and inspiration from one of the sex literati — bring your questions and, if you like, a scene you’ve written (or been working on) to share with the class. Non-judgmental feedback guaranteed! Queen is also known for personal essays about sexuality, incorporating her own experience as a way to delve into larger issues, so if you’re a non-fiction sex writer, you’re also welcome!
Saturday, March 15 2008, 7:30 – 10:00pm (All genders welcome.)
Where: Come As You Are, 701 Queen St. W.
Cost:$30/person (Sliding Scale Available)
To pre-register please call 416-504-7934 or http://www.comeasyouare.com.

coming out kinky
March 9, 2008

“You know, when my friends ask me what my kids do, it’s really easy to say what my three sons do… one is a filmmaker, and one is a systems analyst, and one works for the government. But it’s not so easy to tell them my daughter is a sex geek!”

“I know, Mom. I haven’t exactly been easy on you in that respect. And it’s not like you can just tell everyone that your daughter’s a lesbian and she’s married her girlfriend and they bought a house in the suburbs. My story is not a simple one, and you didn’t choose it, but it’s yours anyway.” 

- excerpt from a conversation between Andrea and her mom, late 2007. There was much laughter and some tears.

***

I mentioned this little situation a while back and fully intended to get around to writing about it again. But I’m shy. No, really. Not so much about giving my opinion, but about talking about other people in this blog… well, yeah. It’s one thing when I can refer to them by a nearly anonymous initial, like S or B or whatever. It’s quite another when it’s a member of my family who’s really hard to keep anonymous, given that there’s only one person occupying the position of “mom” in my world and she shares my last name.

At the same time, I’m loath to avoid a topic of interest, especially one that involves books.

Okay, I’ll stop being so cryptic. When I visited at Christmastime, my mother, following eight years of rather chilly silence on the topic of my sexuality and relationships, started a conversation. Not just any conversation… a capital-C Conversation that lasted three hours, involved lots of tears and hugging, and covered kink, trans issues, non-monogamy, marriage (or rather, lack thereof), childlessness, safer sex and queer. It was a little overwhelming to both of us, I think, but it tentatively ushered in a new era in our relationship. Not long after that both my parents met both Boi M and Boi L when they visited Toronto and dropped in to see the new apartment. It was a 20-minute visit but it was also just as overwhelming, to me at least, given that in the last 12 years or so my parents have set foot in my apartment(s) all of, um, twice. And they’ve categorically refused to meet any of my female partners in that whole time, too. So to have them shaking hands with both my life partner/submissive and with my lover/submissive, one of them a trans guy and one of them a butch gal… well, it left me with my head spinning.

So what did I do?

I went out and bought books.

I know! I know, it’s the geekiest possible reaction one could have. It’s almost silly. I had to laugh at myself.

Especially since it didn’t work so well last time. When I came out to my mom, I gave her a copy of Free Your Mind. Over the following eight years, it moved from the centre of the bookcase… to the side of the bookcase… to a spare bookcase in the basement, the same one that contains my dad’s grade-9 Greek mythology textbooks, some torts books from when he went to law school when I was six, the VHS player that constantly flashes a bright-blue 12:00, and the circa-1982 Nintendo – y’know, the one with controls that only have four buttons (A, B, Select and Start) and an arrow pad. To this day I don’t think there’s a crack in the spine. Of course I could be wrong – my mother is, after all, the person who drilled it into me that books require these handy little things called bookmarks, and that bindings are not to be bent – but given the utter lack of noticeable difference the presence of said book made in the whole coming-out debacle, I can’t help but think it wasn’t the most useful tool in my particular situation.

But hope springs eternal, and now that my mom has pronounced the word “sadomasochism” in my range of hearing, I couldn’t help but gravitate towards yet more tomes of helpful advice and knowledge, only this time for the freshly outed kinkster. Will I choose to make gifts of them this time, like a combination peace offering / plea for understanding? I dunno. I think I may need to wait a bit and gauge whether they’ll be useful or simply gather dust in turn – one conversation does not a new relationship equal.

Nevertheless, I felt I needed to bone up on my kink coming-out literature. Not that there’s a ton of it out there. In truth, most 101-level SM books don’t say much about coming out at all, and the discussion is woefully absent from the majority of kink groups, both online and real-life. To an extent, I understand; to at least some degree, in many circumstances at least, you can be kinky and completely invisible about it, and not really suffer too badly as a result. As long as you keep it in the bedroom or at private parties, and order your paraphernalia online, nobody ever needs to see it.

Unless your kids find your floggers, or your mother-in-law pops by for an unexpected visit and you haven’t taken the cuffs from where they hang on the eyebolts in your doorframe, or your friend notices your copy of The New Bottoming Book on your dresser, or you realize that you feel really good in your leathers and want to wear that sexy jacket every day instead of just every second Saturday, carefully, on the other side of town. Unless you find yourself drawn to dominant/submissive dynamics and you realize that you’re putting enormous efforts into not behaving in the way that feels most natural to you with your significant other, and evaluating every time you have a social engagement whether or not it’ll creep people out to notice your honey is wearing a collar even though nobody else expects their wedding rings to creep you out, and finding that it’s exhausting to maintain a double identity and put emotional energy into relationships with people who can’t handle this element of who you are and what you do. Unless you find yourself taking on a fake name, à la Bruce Wayne, to socialize with the people with whom you connect most profoundly because you’re afraid your work colleagues might accidentally find you online under your birth-certificate moniker having conversations about proper bondage techniques. And so on. And so forth.

Oddly, the discussions you’re more likely to find in kink communities are about how to keep kink a secret – scene names, alternate e-mail addresses, faceless photos, very heavy hanging plants, locked doors and locked boxes and “discreet” jewellery in the shape of locks and keys, hidden tattoos, separate outfits, don’t ever tell anyone else because it might make them uncomfortable and we certainly can’t have that.

And yet at the same time, I get it. There is a certain reasonableness to the idea of discretion. Not because I think it’s okay to be ashamed of one’s kink, or because I think leading a double life is okay, or because I think it’s good to have to hide who we are and how we love, but rather because I want to maintain good boundaries. There’s a difference between being out and oversharing.

As a queer, when I’m walking down the street holding hands with a trans person or a woman, it clearly says something about my erotic desires in a way that’s pretty unavoidable. But I don’t spend a lot of time waxing poetic to corner store clerks about the joys of cunnilingus or how lovely it is that my girlfriend and I just picked up a new bottle of lube so we can get back to fisting one another, or whether or not my boi has had genital surgery.

As a poly person, my multiple relationships are quite visible; I’m not shy about being affectionate with more than one partner in the same social situation or referring to them all as partners rather than passing all but one off as my “friends.” But unless you’re a really close friend of mine, you probably won’t know what I do in bed with them, or how many I do it with at once, or whether they do it with each other (unless they are just as publicly affectionate with one another as I am with them individually), or who gets to do what to whom first or how often.

As a kinkster, I’m also pretty easy to see. I wear my leathers, and I have visible piercings and tattoos that mark me, for anyone who has the faintest clue what to look for, as a member of an alternative subculture. I am absolutely not shy about telling people where I’m going dressed like that, what’s in that big bag of mine, and what the topic was of that workshop I taught last week – provided I think they actually want to know and are capable of processing what I tell them. And I use my full and real name everywhere I go. But I’m not going to go on at length about how wonderful it feels to get flogged, or how good my boi’s thighs look with cane stripes on them, or how I managed to get four fingers and the bridge up someone’s butt the other day.

How do I draw these lines? Well, I’ll talk about pretty much anything in the right circumstances, but I don’t believe there are many circumstances that actually justify the in-depth revelation of the gory details of my sex life. That just feels crass and disrespectful, as though I were turning the beautiful experiences I share with my lovers into shock-value gossip fodder for the greedily curious outsider. No thanks. You want education? I can talk technique ’til the cows come home. But no, I won’t kiss and tell. It just ain’t classy. And I won’t give a bunch of juicy details when really, what most people want – when they’re asking at all – is to understand who I am, not how I orgasm.

So with that in mind, what do I actually want to share with my mom about my existence as a kinkster?

Honestly, not much. I want her to know I’m safe, and that the things I do with my partners, however far outside the norm of conventional sexual practice, are done consciously, consensually, and with caring and love. I want her to know that I am loved and supported, and that my kink, far from isolating me and marginalizing me, has in fact brought me into wonderful and fulfilling relationships with kind and thoughtful people. I want her to know that I’m happy and centred, not lost and casting about for self-definition. I want her to know that who I am and what I do has not reduced my options in life or caused me woes in my career or my professional world, but rather, that the people I’ve met through this aspect of my orientation have in many cases turned into valuable contacts and are respected and accomplished in their own right. I want her to know that my choices are not a form of childish rebellion but rather a way of being true to who I am and what works for me, my own sense of rightness and ethics and morality, my own values. I want her to know that the symbols of my subculture are not markers of hatred for what everyone else does, but rather are markers of pride and pleasure and personal significance.

Do I want her to know the specifics of what makes me come? Well, if you can find me a good reason why that information would help her understand and respect me, I might consider it. Until then, that’s quite simply none of her business.

With that in mind, I’ve looked at all the SM books on my shelf and a few new ones, and I’ve come up with all of two that might – just might – actually be relevant and helpful in this particular aspect of coming out.

One is a classic: When Someone You Love Is Kinky, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. I read it cover to cover in a single sitting – yes, it’s that accessible. But in all honesty, it’s actually not that impressive. I return to my usual criticism of the Easton and Liszt oeuvre… they definitely know what they’re talking about, but they tend to err on the side of accessibility with the result that their tone often feels overly basic to the point of bordering on condescending. Now, take this with a grain of salt; I read the world-famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey, when I was 14 and I just about tore my hair out because I felt its tone talked down to the reader so strongly. And yet countless thousands of well-educated businesspeople swear by it. So really, this might be a personal bias against that excessively patient, step-by-tiny-step approach that pervades the self-help industry rather than anything specific to this particular pair of authors.

An additional criticism, however, is that the book spends very little time actually addressing the questions that I would find most important. If I go back to that list of what I’d want my mom to know, I find remarkably little ink devoted to those items, and a little too much devoted to making kink seem really normal. “None of the activities we’re discussing in this book are as scary as your imagination might make them seem,” they write on page 4. And on page 97, “Our play involves the pretend thrills of kids’ cops-and-robbers games, and the occasional mild bruise or scrape of kids’ playground sports – nothing more.”

Except that’s not true. Even for experienced kinksters, and even for people who are very familiar with the concept of consent taken to its most exquisitely complex and nuanced extent, the idea of being pierced with a needle or entering a full-time slave contract are scary, and rightfully so. They should be. They come with risks and dangers and must be done carefully to be done well. While imagination and fantasy and theatre certainly play a part in some of what we do, that’s not where it ends. Some kinks involve risky shit, and we – the responsible we, that is – take part in them after getting a lot of education and taking a lot of precautions. If it were all just make-believe, then we wouldn’t need all the safety precautions we do take! (Of course, for those for whom it is all just theatre, hey, more power to ya. Maybe this book would work better for your parents than for mine.)

Safety is mentioned, of course, but not in great detail; they talk a lot about negotiation and consent, which is great, but they say very little about the physical end of things and how it is that someone can actually swing a whip at someone or cut them with a knife and have that not be a deeply damaging or harmful act. They don’t mention much about safer sex approaches or universal precautions or the sort of educational resources available to kinksters to help us play safely. They don’t talk about HIV transmission and why so much of kinky practice does not put people at risk for it, and how we protect ourselves when the risk is present. They mention the issue of domestic violence and how some outsiders get that confused with kink, but they don’t actually lay out solid information as to why that’s not the case, how to make those distinctions if you’re a concerned person looking in from the outside, or how the trappings of BDSM can be used by an abuser – that the presence of floggers and leather restraints does not, on its own, mean that there’s no abuse going on, any more than it means there is abuse going on.

They talk about mental health, but only so far as to criticize the early Victorian sexologists. They don’t talk about the current status of sadism and masochism in the DSM and why that’s problematic, and what’s being done to change that. They do propose excellent definitions for mental health, focusing on a person’s functionality, but they don’t mention anything about how kink is not necessarily a symptom or result of ill health even if there is ill health present (I know plenty of kinksters on Prozac just like any other population), or back up their functional definition with any sort of reference to how that’s in keeping with a generally approved clinical take on things.

In their chapter entitled “What If It’s Your Partner?”, they aim to help people deal with their partners’ newly confessed kinks. They lay out a list of options, all of which are pretty solid. But nowhere on that list does the option “break up with them” appear. Not that I think this should be the first option by any stretch. It just seems odd to me that they wouldn’t even mention how the presence of a major potential incompatibility such as vanilla vs. kink could leadi to a couple breaking up, and how that might in fact be the best option for both people. The partner of a kinky person should certainly approach that option with consideration and care, and preferably aim for any number of other options with breakup as a last resort, but it does remain a very valid possibility, and one worth devoting a few paragraphs to.

Last but not least, they’ve included a whole bunch of letters from kinky people to the people in their lives they have not dared to come out to. I understand that in principle this might be a really interesting approach to help show what it is that people would like to be telling their friends and family and feel they cannot. But honestly, just about every single one of them felt like it gave way, way too much information. I’m not sure how they managed to find twenty or more people who all wanted to confess the intimate details of their sex lives to their parents and friends rather than simply explaining how their lives are happy, healthy and safe this way. Am I the only loud, proud and unashamed kinky person out there who thinks you just might not want to tell your family all about the intricacies of what gets your dick hard or your cunt wet? I’m not avoiding telling my parents this stuff because I wouldn’t dare, but because I respect good boundaries about personal sexual information. Yeesh. I feel downright conservative.

Okay, so those are my beefs. But the book is not all bad. For example, they do talk about pain, and actually do a very good job of explaining how and why pain can feel good. They talk about dominance and submission in helpful terms, too, particularly this paragraph:

“Often, people find the experience of giving up power for a pre-negotiated period of time, then taking it back afterward (or being given power and learning to handle it responsibly and give it back intact) leaves them feeling more powerful, not less; it’s as though handling the ‘currency’ of power actually makes us better power-handlers, wiser in the ways of power and how it can be used or abused.”

They do an excellent job of describing kinky culture to people unfamiliar with it. And they describe the idea of a spectrum of sexual diversity very well – check it out:

“Some people want to eat familiar food – what Mom used to cook feels most satisfying. Others seek out exotic foods from distant parts of the world. Still others choose fast food, and like to get their needs met without a lot of fuss. Others want health food, as natural as possible, to celebrate in their diet a oneness with nature. Gorumets invest a lot of attention into what they eat, collect specialized kitchen equipment, go to fancy restaurants, seek out obscure and rare ingredients, spend a lot of time perfecting a particular taste. Truth is, all these forms of nourishment are just fine, and there is no reason to think that a Tarte aux Demoiselles Tatin is any more or less satisfying than Mom’s apple pie.

Yet we often make judgments about other people’s preferences: gourmets may find traditionalists too conservative, traditionalists might think that gourmets are decadent and waste too much time and money on eating. Natural food fanciers are often disdained as ‘health nuts.’ But in food, as in sex, there is really no reason not to honor each other’s choices, and celebrate the joy we all take in our sex lives (and our nourishment) without labeling anybody less than okay. All our pleasures are brilliant.”

Conclusion? I don’t think I’ll be buying a copy of this book for my mom, but if she ever expresses an interest, I might reconsider. It’s good enough to help start the conversation, and I can surely make up for what it lacks if she’s willing to ask me questions about the missing bits. It might not help as well as I’d like it to, but for the most part I don’t think it would harm, either, assuming I framed it with my criticisms.

The other book I read was actually not one I picked up with a view to giving it to my mom, but I was pleasantly surprised and realized upon reading it that it might in fact make for an excellent choice in that respect. That’s Jack Rinella’s latest, entitled Partners In Power: Living In Kinky Relationships.

Not long ago, I wrote a post about Rinella’s The Masters’ Manual, which I found to be somewhat interesting but largely disappointing – he had some great ideas and based his work on solid values, but the writing ranged from decent to sloppy, the copy editing was downright awful, and the book jacket copy gave an inaccurate idea of what the book was actually about. So it was doubly pleasing to note that this book is way, way better than TMM. The writing still occasionally dips into the garbled, but clearly he’s either gotten better at it with time or benefited from the assistance of much more skilled editors this time around. The copy editing, much like most Greenery Press titles, is not the greatest, but it’s also not nearly as awful as some of the Daedelus titles I’ve recently read (i.e. Rinella’s other books).

Now the cool thing about this particular book is that while it’s ostensibly aimed at kinksters who are looking to find, define, maintain and enjoy their kink-based or kink-flavoured relationships, it does an absolutely stellar job in giving a down-to-earth, commonsense approach to relationship as a whole, and Rinella relies on a lot of plain old everyday wisdom to make his points. In other words, even if you’re not the least bit kinky, you’ll recognize that his sage relationship advice applies across the board. Yes, certain sorts of kinky relationships may require an advanced skill set to function well, but really most relationship problems come from the same places whether you do ‘em in collars and chains or in pearls and sweater-vests… communication difficulties, unrealistic expectations, poor self-knowledge, unresolved childhood baggage, and so forth.

Rinella lays all this stuff out with frequent references to classic works of literature, philosophy and psychology and, as the book jacket says, “aphorisms as real as Mom’s apple pie” (what is it with kinsters and apple pie today?). Together, this all serves to demonstrate (rather than say) how kinky relationships, and by extension kinky people, are still basically human in our desires and foibles… we just take our pleasures in different ways. And he manages to do all that without ever falling into the “don’t worry, we’re all really normal and not scary and what we do isn’t weird” trap. Very, very impressive. My feeling is that this book is one of the few that could be just as appealing and helpful to a non-kinky person trying to understand why their friend / partner / child is “this way” and what it all means, as it could be to a longtime kinkster looking for a dose of common sense to help them recalibrate their approach to relationship-seeking or maintenance.

For starters, he insists on the humanity of kink in no uncertain terms, which I feel really points out the ways in which we’re “just like everyone else” without watering it all down to something that’s just about fuzzy handcuffs and lingerie. He phrases it best on page 16:

“(…) leather is first and foremost a human subculture. It may differ in many ways from the dominant culture in which it is found, but it always and everywhere retains the reality that the relationships found within it are human ones.

How can it be otherwise? Leather is the sum of its parts and those ‘parts’ are human. It is based on human experience, human action and interaction, human structures, mores, norms, and thought patterns. So don’t be surprised that much of what I write sounds mundane, ordinary, and as familiar as the rest of human society. It is. Under the black cowhide, the role-playing, the eroticism, the fetishistic activity, and even the counterculture, you still have humans acting humanly, which can be emotional, rational, physical, erotic, defensive, willing, greedy, rude, polite, and any other number of ways that homo sapiens naturally acts.”

He then extends that very solid logic to help explain the draw of kink for the people who partake in it. Take the following paragraphs (p. 59) as an example of how he describes the kink community, with a total lack of apology and yet a strongly wholesome flavour:

“In fact, leather is a fine vehicle for experiencing our uniqueness. It is a welcoming, tolerant and diverse community where exploration of one’s fantasy life is encouraged and shared. We support each other in becoming who we want to be: slave, pig, master, mommy, daddy, bondage bottom, queen, thrall, boy, you name it.

In return we only ask for safety, sanity and consent. Those tenets work well. Safety means we won’t injure each other or spread disease. Sanity means that we will use sound judgment and good reason in our dealings with one another. Consent means that there is no deception or unwanted force used to convince or coerce another to do our will, and that what we do, we have agred up on doing. Within that broad framework we are free to be whomever we aspire to be. (…)

This leather exploration, then, is ultimately one of self-exploration, of knowing yourself, the inner self that is reflective of your soul’s intentions and goals. The self that answers the question ‘When you are your freest self, who are you?’”

Now, that sounds like a fine advertisement for kink, and an accurate one. But he’s not all about making us sound good. One of the things Rinella does best in this particular work is critique the community, and refuse to settle for the easy answers that many kinksters can recite by heart. Even in these areas, I think this book would be a valuable read for a non-kinkster – it provides a window into the thought processes many of us engage in at one point or another along our kinky paths, and shows that we’re human and face challenges in our path much as anyone else does, without those challenges necessarily indicating that the path itself is wrong. To wit, on page 158:

“Not all evil comes from without. From another point of view we might consider our own sadistic activity, as it can move from a technique that induces pleasure into one that causes harm and injury. Where do we draw the line between what is right and wrong? How far do our experiments and explorations take us beore we have crossed into dangerous territory? How hard can we beat our slaves? How much blood dare we draw with our whips and needles? How much raunch does it take to put us outside of acceptable bounds of safety and sanity? (…)

Simply put, how do we deal with our dark sides? (…)

One of the goals of leathersex is to find ways to explore our dark sides and come to terms with evil while not engaging in it. Jung said: ‘How can I be substantial if I fail to cast a shadow: I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole; and inasmuch as I become conscious of my shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other.’”

Well done. Wow. This is a book that engages with the real questions, and while never becoming overly heady or theoretical, it never sounds condescending either. I would give this to my mom, even if I think she may find some parts of it harder to handle than others. It takes her, and my, intelligence seriously; it doesn’t try to explain things away with over-used platitudes, but rather it provides a coherent, thoughtful framework within which to better understand the desire for kinky relationships (or kink in relationships) and the relatively banal manners in which a person might engage in finding and enjoying them responsibly, consciously and for the benefit of all concerned.

Now, will I ever actually give this book to my mother? I’m not sure. I think it might be premature. Not because I think she’ll never be ready, but because I want to make sure that I don’t push my agenda on her. I don’t want to push her to learn more than she really is able to take in; rather, I want her to approach me when she’s actually ready to hear the answers to whatever questions may be percolating in her mind. It took eight years for the first ones to surface, but when she finally did ask, she was genuinely open to hearing my responses in a way that previously she may not have been. I’m a patient kind of gal. If it takes another decade for her to be brave enough to ask about the next level of detail, I’ll provide it. I don’t think she’ll ever want to know what I actually do in bed, and I’m not convinced I’d truly want to tell her if she did. But at the very least, in a perfectly sex-geeky fashion – i.e. with books in hand – I can now feel a little better equipped to explain who I am.

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