working out the kinks of working out the kinks

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!

6 Responses

  1. OK, so what were we ALL talking about on Friday night before the conference? “What are you going to be wearing for your presentation?” That was the question of the evening, especially among those who came from the kink (as opposed to academic) side. Actually, I think it was exclusively the kinksters.

    That’s because we were ALL worried about whether we were selling out not to dress kinky, or wouldn’t be taken seriously if we did. I worried about what to wear for days, and in the end I feel I copped out: Yeah, I dressed pretty kinky, but I did it to make a point about aesthetics rather than to make a statement about who I am. Does that make sense?

    XOXOX
    Jacqueline

    PS Thanks for the review, even if you ARE biased!

  2. Hmm. I totally missed that conversation. I don’t know who had the kindness to seat me next to Carol, but that’s where I ended up, and we spent the entire evening rather intensely geeking out, so I didn’t hear much of the more general discussion happening at the cool kids’ end of the table. ;) Bummer! Had I known, I might have felt less angsty about my outfit by the time the panel rolled around! Ah well. Good to know I’m not the only one who dealt with the question. Wish I could have split my focus…

  3. I had a great time at the conference. What a neat coincidence that it should take place the very weekend I was in town for . . .umm . . .religious purposes. Yeah, yeah . .. Iron Maiden!

    Anyway, I found all the talks interesting as well. Regarding your comment: “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.”

    This is very close to home for me as an anthropologist. Over several decades, there has been much debate within the discipline about anthropologists who study their own culture, for example. The accusation on behalf of those who actually believe that objectivity is possible is that one cannot study one’s own culture without bias. Feminist and postmodern critiques from the 70s and upward have reminded us that the “old-fashioned” Western white male anthropologist was far from unbiased and, in fact, led to many theoretical streams that were not only ethnocentric but androcentric.

    Today, anthropologists studying their own are much more accepted within the discipline. An important tennet is transparency: the acknowledgement of one’s positionality within the community of study and how one’s identity, prior relations, prior knowledge, etc. could potentially influence the research process starting from the research goal, through entry into the field, through data collection and even what is considered to be valid data to the interpretation of the data and use of the results.

    I guess that was the geeky way of saying that as long as you are forthright about your own position within the community and your history within it, your results are at least as credible as those of the supposedly “objective” outsider who does not acknowledge the baggage with which s/he comes to the field.

  4. I like that Jacky. It’s good to know that the lack of objectivity of outsiders, and the legitimacy of insiders, is increasingly being acknowledged. Just one little pet peeve:

    positionality

    This word has three syllables too many.

    I find verbose academic pseudo-jargon maddening. It creates an uncalled-for divide between the academic writer and the lay reader, and serves no purpose content-wise.

    This has been your daily installment of Things that Drive Jake Crazy. Tomorrow we will be discussing the phrase “issues surrounding”.

    *ahem* sorry.

  5. Jake;

    Correction: You *think* that the word positionality has three syllables too many. My view is that there is no one truth. You are allowed to dislike the word but your truth that it has no legitimacy is your truth and not *the* truth.

    I happen to like the word. It goes beyond the mechanics of “position”. And I could write a longer comment about the purpose of it but that would hijack this thread more than it needs to be.

    As for academic versus lay reader: I’m down with making things accessible. My thesis reads like a story and anyone with a high school degree can read most of it, provided they are willing to look up a word every now and then.

    Otherwise, thanks for commenting on my comment. Too bad the word that drove you crazy overshadowed the good stuff.

  6. It is pretty cool that in various disciplines, there’s a new-ish trend towards the valuing of personal experience and stated bias on the part of the researcher. Anthropology is a good example, thank you for that. Certainly I can attest that that’s the case in places like women’s studies too, and has been for a long time. I think the problem we encounter is that anything related to sexuality, regardless of discipline, is virtually guaranteed to get people’s hackles up, either because it offends them directly or because they’re worried that it’ll offend others (funders, employers, feminists, religious groups, government agencies, academic review boards, whatever) and produce negative consequences – the whole “chill” factor thing. Various disciplines such as women’s studies can sometimes skirt (ha) that issue, but anytime you’re engaging directly with concepts of sexuality you’re already engaging with the potential reactions to it. Add the academic/experiential divide (or overlap) and it’s bound (ha!) to get people all worked up (ha!! gawd, I must stop). It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out in the coming decades with the emergence of sexual diversity studies as an academic discipline that extends beyond queer…

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