four things bdsm has taught me about being a good ally

First, for your entertainment, a fun interview I did with Midori a couple of weeks ago for Capital Xtra.

Second, a brief note to say that I’m jetting off to Australia in a coupla days to spend two and a half weeks with Boi L, and I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll get done while I’m there, but I’ll try to post a fun trip report when I get back. Whee!

And next, as a follow-up to last week’s post about ally work, here’s my list of four things that BDSM has taught me about being a good ally.

1. Respect boundaries.

In an SM scene, when someone says, “I’m okay with you flogging my butt and playing with my breasts, but please don’t touch my belly,” that’s just the way it is. Sure, I can ask questions about that, either to better understand the nature of the limit – “Do your sides count? Above the belly button, below, or both?” – or to get a better sense of what it means to the person so I know what I’m dealing with – “Is that a source of emotional trauma, or you just don’t like the sensation?”

It would, of course, be completely inappropriate for me to say, “What the heck is wrong with you, that you don’t want your belly touched? Are you fucked up? What if I want to touch your belly? You gonna stop me? I play with people all the time who like to have their bellies touched.” Why? Because that would be calling into question the legitimacy of a boundary that is not mine to set, that is being clearly established by another person in what’s supposed to be an exploration of mutual trust. The rights to those boundaries belong to them, not to me. They are not mine.

People who cross over other people’s boundaries in an SM scene – barring the occasional genuine human error – are dangerous players. They are not to be trusted. If we’re engaging in an intensification of trust, then it makes no sense at all to deliberately breach it. We all lose out in the end – the limit-setter, be they top or bottom, whose trust has been damaged; the limit-breaker, whose connection with the limit-setter has been severed and whose reputation has been damaged; and the community, whose atmosphere is less trusting and safe than it was before. If enough people break trust often enough, it poisons a community, and hostilities and misunderstandings begin to erupt all over the place.

I see distinct parallels with ally work here. One of the places I see it most clearly is when it comes to the question of exclusive spaces. Lately, I keep seeing writing that calls for “everyone welcome” space, particularly around gender – space where everyone, regardless of gender, and in many cases orientation, is welcome. Which is totally fair, of course – I love mixed spaces, I love spending time with people of many genders and orientations. In fact I live most of my life in mixed-gender space, and I would have it no other way – a lesbian utopian separatist I am not. But rather than lambasting groups that create exclusive space, if you want (more) mixed space, create it! I simply don’t understand the impetus to forcefully tear down the boundaries that someone, or a group, has clearly set based on what they wish to get out of a certain experience.

That’s not to say that all exclusive space has the same value. In my mind, value depends on purpose, and according to my value system, banding together or purposes of hurting or disrespecting others is of very low value indeed. Same with creating exclusive spaces that shut people out on the basis of stereotypes, bad faith or negative assumptions, especially if those spaces are the locus of goings-on that would otherwise be of direct interest to the shut-out group. If an exclusive space is being created for the purpose of disempowering others, that sucks.

So, for example, it’s really not cool to hold a men’s-only golf tournament during which male business leaders come together to make decisions that affect their work – decisions in which, by all rights, their female colleagues should have a say. And it’s not cool to create a women-only space whose purpose is to man-bash (or to trans-bash, for that matter), or whose premise is based on a false or arbitrary line dividing people who “count” from those who don’t – self-definition is a key concept here. (Though I gotta say, I’ve not once encountered a women-only space whose purpose was to trash talk about cis-men, no matter how many times I’ve heard the phrase “man-hating” tossed around when the topic of feminists or lesbians comes up. Man-bashing comes up way more among straight women, in my experience – dykes just don’t focus on men that much. Patriarchy is another story, of course…)

I do see a huge range of extremely legitimate purposes that may come into play around the question of exclusive space. A youth group for kids aged 12-16 is exclusive so that kids can connect with others in their peer group likely to be experiencing similar challenges. A group for pregnant people might be exclusive so that its members could engage in-depth with pregnancy-related issues. A 24/7 BDSM dominants’ discussion group might be restricted to full-time dominants so that focused talks about dominance can happen without those dominants simultaneously splitting their focus to their submissives, and in a space where they’re free to speak openly without fear of misunderstanding based on role. A group for peple of colour might be exclusive so that POCs could network among themselves and share their experiences based on a shared set of basic premises without having to put their energy toward educating white people about race and racism. (Don’t misunderstand me – racism certainly exists between various non-white groups as much as it does between whites and people of colour – but all POCs, in most places in North America at least, face the same reality of a white “majority.”) And so on, and so forth.

So, for instance, if people of colour within Toronto’s queer women and trans community decide that they would like to hold a bathhouse event only for people of colour, my job as an anti-racist ally is to respect that boundary, and stay away from the event. I don’t have to like it; I don’t have to understand it. But if I am going to be an ally, I do have to respect it.

If I want to understand it, there’s (in theory at least) no reason not to ask questions, much the same as in BDSM, to better understand the nature of the limit and to get a better sense of what it means (all with the intention, of course, of better respecting it).

For the former, it might look like, “Is this a mixed event with a focus on people of colour? Or is it an event only for people of colour? How do you define the concept of ‘people of colour’ in this context? Do you welcome the volunteer help of non-POCs in setting up the event, or is it intended to be a ‘by and for’ thing?” and so forth.

For the latter, it might be something like, “What has your experience been like as people of colour in mixed-race sexualized spaces? What causes you to desire a space that’s exclusive? Is this because of emotional trauma, or simply because you prefer to be among people who share your experience in some way that non-POCs don’t?”

This doesn’t necessarily assume that every person of colour is going to want to answer those questions, especially not if they’re asked in a confrontational manner – it does, after all, cost time and considerable energy to respond to queries from a person who may or may not be ignorant of how privilege works; education is not a job everyone relishes or should be expected to perform based solely on their status, and if I’m asking the questions at all, I need to remember that getting answers is a privilege, not a right.

It would, of course, be completely inappropriate for me to say, “What the heck is wrong with you, that you don’t want white people around? Are you racist, like, do you hate white people? What if I want to show up? You gonna stop me? I have lots of black/Asian/Middle Eastern friends who have no problem being in sexualized space with white people!”

See what I mean? Not exactly a trust-building approach.

If I choose not to respect the stated limits, I’m being a pretty poor ally. For starters, I would be causing the people in question to have to waste their time and energy on guarding their boundaries – taking that time and energy away from the work they’re aiming to do. Defending boundaries is exhausting and upsetting – it sucks to feel like you’re under attack. If I become that “attacker,” if I wish to take up space that is not meant for me, if I feel that indeed I am entitled to take up space that is not meant for me, I am effectively becoming the very oppressor that fucked it all up in the first place.

The key here is to remember that other people’s boundaries are about them, not about me. They may do me the kindness, if I ask in genuine interest, of explaining what those boundaries are about – in which case I should be thankful for their generosity and time. But they don’t need to justify those boundaries to me, or seek my approval, because fundamentally I’m pretty irrelevant to the equation. They have decided what works for them, and that is entirely their decision to make.

2. Acknowledge power differentials, and use them for good.

In BDSM, if I enter into a deliberately polarized power differential with someone, we do it because it feels good and we like it. What’s good about it? Among many things, erotic arousal and orgasm; physical (not necessarily sexual) pleasure; emotional engagement, openness; exploration and adventure; the learning experience of handling the “currency” of power responsibly; the quest for deeper self-knowledge; spiritual growth; the experience of commitment and trust in relationship (however brief); the intensification of intimacy; the positive and beneficial experience of discipline and self-discipline; the opportunity to care and be cared for; and many others.

If a bottom puts their trust in me and hands me power to use, it’s my job to use it well, for mutual benefit (and all the better if it’s also for community benefit). If I were to fail to acknowledge the power dynamic, if I were to pretend it’s not really there, the purpose of our whole interaction is confused, and so is the bottom. If I’m so uncomfortable with my power in that situation that I can’t use it. Worse, if I pretend it’s not there, I can’t possibly learn how to manage it responsibly.

Definite parallel. I don’t wish to compare oppressed people to “bottoms” in the sexual sense, that’s for certain; unlike in BDSM, oppressed people generally don’t choose to be oppressed, and don’t get off on it when it occurs. This is not an entrance into the nature/nurture debate; what I mean is that no matter how much choice the oppressed person has over their life and identity, the choice to oppress someone lies solely in the hands of the oppressor. Nonetheless, power differentials do exist, and we can at least take a page from the book of BDSM by acknowledging them.

I gave a lecture once at U of T about trans issues, and it segued into a larger discussion of oppression. One student said, “I’d really like to get rid of my privilege. I didn’t ask for it, and it’s bad. What can I do?”

I am glad she voiced the question, because it allowed me to point out how that sort of thinking is highly problematic. With some minor exceptions, privilege just is – you can’t opt out of it. That’s not to say that a situation of privilege or lack thereof never changes, but most privilege is not simply a bodily reality – looks, ability, weight or body type, gender or sex, skin colour, health, age. Rather, it’s a reality that’s imprinted on a person’s history and psyche as well. If there were a magic pill that could turn white people a lovely shade of brown, that wouldn’t erase the world’s history of race relations, it wouldn’t do away with cultural patterns, it wouldn’t remove our individual histories and lived experiences and all the conditioned assumptions that come from that. In short, being white, or being able-bodied, or being cisgendered (etc.) are not things one can simply choose to opt out of in order to avoid having to deal with the potentially guilt-inducing reality of moving through the world with privilege that not everyone else has. For the most part, when you’re privileged, that’s how you stay – sometimes even if reality no longer matches. For example, an upper-class person who does badly on the stock market and loses their home is still an upper-class homeless person; they don’t all of a sudden become working class.

The guilt of the privileged is beyond useless. Guilt is all about “me” – how terrible I am, how badly I deserve to be punished for it, and so forth. Guilt does absolutely nothing to improve the state of the world, and it certainly does nothing to help the oppressed. In fact, the majority of the time, it prevents privileged people from even listening to the issues at hand – they’re too focused on their own indulgent self-pity. Likewise, a privileged individual’s project to become less white, less able-bodied, less middle-class (etc.) serves only to feed a questionable end goal – that of making the privileged person feel better – and does nothing to help those who could potentially use a good ally.

Here’s where ally work is extremely relevant, and where the idea mentioned above about BDSM – that power differentials should be used for good – works into the discussion. Again, the rest of the situation does not lie parallel, but when a power differential exists and is acknowledged, then you can move into an action phase that may actually produce positive results. If, as a top, I pretended I wasn’t really a top, and behaved with my partners as though they were vanilla lovers, and neglected to use the power at my disposal to make enjoyable things happen, we’d have a pretty boring scene. If, as a white or otherwise privileged person, I pretended I wasn’t really privileged, and behaved as though I were actually subject to oppression I have not in fact experienced, and neglected to use my privilege in situations to which oppressed people may not have access, I’d be pretty unhelpful in changing anything for the better.

On the flip side, if I’ve got privilege, I should use it. I’m sure you can imagine what that might look like in BDSM. In the realm of oppression, that might take many forms. If  my whiteness gives implicit permission to someone to express their racism to me, I should call them on it. If I have access to political work where no trans people are present, I should lobby for their inclusion. If my appearance, language skills, or level of education make it more likely that people in power will listen to me and take me seriously, I should use that advantage to raise issues of concern to people who aren’t being listened to. I should bear some of the burden, and expend some of the energy, to change the world for the better, rather than leaving that all on the backs of the people who are already loaded down by that world’s demands upon them. This is the responsible use of privilege – not to work toward the lessening of my own privilege per se but rather toward increasing others’.

3. Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is okay.

Okay, so the BDSM community is definitely populated with the occasional dork who really feels their kink is the “best” and others’ are gross, wrong, bad, disgusting, whatever. But the community’s ethic is one of open-mindedness – some might say to a fault – when it comes to others’ sexual proclivities. The balloon fetishist might not have a lot in common, practically speaking, with the piss-drinker who in turn might have no clue where to even start with the pain-craving masochist, but they’re all deviants, and they know it.

The sheer simplicity of this one is its greatest advantage: not tolerance (I do not wish to be “tolerated” and I do not wish to “tolerate” anyone else – ick!) but warmth and acceptance and perhaps benign curiosity about those who are different than me. I don’t have to love a certain musical style to respect and appreciate that it’s part of someone’s culture. I don’t have to understand a person’s religion to realize that it’s an important part of how they may view the world. I don’t have to be a person of colour to understand that for someone who is, that reality informs their everyday life in a way I will never experience. Likewise, I’m not a blank slate or a neutral majority – my own cultural conditioning, skin colour, able-bodiedness and so forth inform my reality and my worldviews in multiple ways of which I may not even be aware. There’s lots of room for variation in the world, and as an ally, it’s good to remember that I’m actually surrounded by people who are different than me all the time, whether I can see those differences or not. Unless those differences are outright harming someone, there’s simply no call to judge, especially based on cursory knowledge.

4. Do your homework.

The kink community publishes blogs, books, magazines. We hold conferences – several hundred a year in North America alone – and weekend events. We give and attend workshops of every description. We do demos, hold show-and-tells, screen films, have discussion groups, maintain e-mail lists. Some of us provide mentorship. In other words, a staggering amount of information is readily available, to one degree or another, for the enjoyment and edification of the curious kinkster. Wanna learn how to safely use piercing needles, create Japanese rope bondage harnesses, bring your spirituality into your BDSM play? It’s all there.

The trick is, nobody’s going to hand it to you. You have to go after it. And there’s no use in whining that it’s all so complicated – nobody’s born knowing how to use a urethral sound or light someone’s skin on fire without hurting them. We all had to learn. And it’s not the responsibility of the first leather-clad person who walks by to take you under their wing. Nobody’s in charge of teaching you just because you happen to be kinky. Progress in kink is a largely self-directed process with largely individual results; with the exception of the occasional BDSM 101 orientation session for new members of a given group, the rest is entirely up to you. And that’s exactly as it should be. We’re responsible for our own education, because, after all, we’re all grown-ups here.

Likewise, as allies when we encounter a situation in which we realize that we’re uninformed, unprepared, in which our knowledge is insufficient to the task at hand, we have to do our homework. That doesn’t mean turning to the nearest person of colour and saying, “Can you educate me about racism?” as though somehow, educating you was their job, a service to which you are entitled. No – educating you is your job. Don’t foist that on someone else because of who they are. Plenty of resources exist. Go buy a book. Get online. Read up on anti-racist politics, trans issues, critical dis/ability perspectives, whatever it might be. Take a workshop with someone who’s putting themselves out there as an educator (and, I hope, getting paid for it). Do some self-analysis so that you know what internal barriers you need to break through. Unpack your conditioning, figure out what scares you and what you’re ashamed of, and forge ahead. Don’t assume that the nearest convenient oppressed person has a vested interest in educating you. In fact, they may have a vested interest in staying as far away from you as they can so as not to become a target for your ignorance. Educating others is a lot of work, especially when they’re resistant to the message at hand; people don’t, and shouldn’t, undertake it lightly.

The aim here is not to find out what the right answer is so that you can regurgitate it back when someone asks – that might work once or twice, but not in the long run, not for real change. The point of doing your homework is actually learning, and that learning is a painful, slow, challenging process that may show you things you don’t like about yourself. Deal with it, and keep going.

8 Responses

  1. Great post–as usal. There are so many blogs in your blog :-)

    Another thing that bdsm has taught me, and I think is helping me being an ally, is not to take other people’s identity for granted; not to put them in little (reassuring?) boxes and thus not preventing, even in a passive fashion on my part, their identity from moving, fluctuating, alternating, changing, or simply being what I might have expected.

    • usal=usual

  2. thanks a heap for doing this post. it said what i needed to hear, and said it in an accessible way. i’ve been struggling with this sort of thing lately and i found these words timely.

  3. great post. my wife and i have been looking into new ideas in the bedroom. bdsm has been on the list, but we know absolutlely nothing about it except for what we’ve seen on movies, internet, etc. it’s good to know that people’s boundaries are still kept. at least most of the time.

  4. SO. GOOD. thank you for writing this.

  5. I just got back from a workshop by the People’s Institute, Undoing Institutional Racism (UIR). Reading this post what struck me the most was the Power piece. You have it and there is nothing you can do about it except use it for change, good change. As a PoC it is frustrating to see this potential to create change just sit there due to ignorance or even worse unwillingness.

    Thanks for this post, great way to start using that power.

  6. Well holy Bleep! I have to tell you…. I drifted over to see what your new workshop listing looked like and then saw this…. I haven’t even read it…but I wanted to put a post IMMEDIATELY to tell you that your willingness to put kink and anti-racist work together is something I don’t see often…. thank you very much for giving your readership something to think about… OK. Now.. off to reading it…

    FF

  7. It is so great to see someone talk about this in a factual way, and show that “extreme” sex is not something to fear

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