Archive for December, 2009

musings on mentorship
December 23, 2009

Someone sent me the following question not long ago, and I asked for and received permission to post the question and my answer here…

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Hi Andrea, can i pick your brain? In the context of the queer leather community, what do you see as the role of a mentor? Is it primarily seen as someone who just offers guidance and advice and shares experiences, as in a vanilla context? Or is it considered more than that, i.e. someone in training whom a mentor would play with, and perhaps even have a sexual relationship with? i’m sure there’s layers to this question that could be discussed over several beers, but generally speaking, would you mind giving me your perspective?

***

This question pops up on discussion lists periodically, and the usual point of conflict that arises is over the question of having a sexual relationship between mentor and mentee or protégé. The very fact that conflict comes up over the question is a clear indication that no universal agreement exists on that point, so I’m not going to pretend to have The Answer. But a perspective, yes.

My own mentorship experiences have been relatively one-way. I’ve been privileged enough to have the friendship and benefit from the occasional advice of a few very well-respected kinksters far more experienced than I, whose opinions I value and solicit, and for that I am very grateful. But I’ve never entered into a relationship characterized by regular exchanges of that nature, and my path in leather has been one I’ve forged for myself based on a wide array of sources of learning and experience – books, workshops, D/s relationships, my own fuck-ups, plain old observation and much more. On the other hand, I am actively engaged in one relationship that began as a somewhat advice / listening-oriented friendship and that was soon thereafter explicitly coded as a mentorship (and still operates that way in many aspects), and several other relationships in my world have aspects of mentorship in them.

Right there, that’s a first piece of how I understand mentorship. It’s sometimes explicit and negotiated and the only thing going on, and at other times it’s one element of a larger relationship. Which might in part explain why the sex question gets complicated. In my experience, and from what I’ve seen, mentorship is often one element of a larger relationship, and fairly rarely an explicitly negotiated dynamic that exists without operating in tandem with some other type of connection. I don’t think that either form is “better” than the other, but I do think they come with particular challenges. For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the first as “pure” mentorship and the second as “combined” mentorship.

But first: the role of a mentor. I do think that a mentor, classically speaking, is someone who offers guidance and advice and who shares experiences, much like in a vanilla context. This might involve really direct teaching, but I think what differentiates teaching from mentorship is that mentorship implies an ongoing relationship in which the mentor is understood to be available for advice and guidance beyond the simple teaching of skills; skill teaching might not even be part of the deal at all.

The SOY (Supporting Our Youth) mentoring program for LGBTTQ youth in Toronto defines mentors as “‘big brothers and sisters’ who can help you explore questions about identity, sexuality and community. Mentors provide support, encouragement and a non-judgemental listening ear to talk about anything and everything going on in your life… family, school, friends relationships, etc.” I think the idea of a “big brother or sister,” as in, someone older or more experienced, who provides support, encouragement and non-judgmental listening is a pretty simple and accurate way to conceptualize mentorship in leather too.

1) “Pure” mentorship

When a mentorship is operating on a one-note model, or something fairly similar (for example, mentorship combined with casual friendship) it can be discussed in terms of goals and commitments. What does the protégé want out of the deal? What does the mentor have to offer? What does the mentor want to get out of the deal? What does the protégé have to offer? What parameters feel good to both of them? How will they know whether it’s working, and what mechanisms will they employ to ensure that it stays on track and that things get fixed if they go awry? Why do they think they’re a good match, and how will they know if that changes?

(The question of match is crucial – which is why I’m not totally convinced that any outside matching process is going to work reliably, although I’ve heard of leather communities where such processes exist. Like a therapist or a partner or any other kind of intimate relationship, shared interests alone are not enough to create the kind of bond in which the truly intimate work can happen. That’s about chemistry, which is hard to predict with any certainty, and about shared values, which are hard to determine if the person doing the matching doesn’t know one or both parties very well. I think assigned or matched mentorship works best when it’s done for a specific purpose and for a limited time, such as a three-month period of probation-type mentorship for new members of a leather club.)

I think that, generally speaking, the power dynamics in this kind of relationship are most cleanly managed if the mentor and protégé do not have a sexual or play relationship. I’m not laying down a hard and fast rule here; we do, after all, operate in a sexual community, and it’s really not much of a stretch to think that sexual attraction or BDSM chemistry might arise between people who are getting to know each other on potentially emotionally intimate terms. That shouldn’t in itself be cause for panic. But if both parties still agree that the relationship is purely a mentorship – and that is an “if” well worth discussing if other feelings come up – then they probably shouldn’t muddy the waters by engaging in activities that would bespeak a very different sort of relationship.

Why? Because sex and play are often powerful experiences of connection, and, like it or not, they create a really different sort of bond than one of advice-giving and disinterested listening – by which I do not mean “uninterested,” as in bored, but rather “disinterested,” as in the mentor is not directly personally invested in the outcome of a given situation. If the mentor and protégé form an attachment that creates direct personal investment in outcome on the mentor’s part, then the advice given is no longer impartial or general. It would be like asking for impartial career advice from someone who stands to personally benefit if you make a lot of money. They’ll have a harder time advising you to follow your dreams if those dreams might take you into a career as a starving artist – so they’re more likely to subtly or overtly push you toward that law degree.

In other words, if you’re in a power dynamic that’s coded as unequal, as in that the protégé does not yet know how best to proceed and is relying on the mentor’s advice and opinion to help them make decisions, the risks that the mentor might misuse their power (even in fairly mild ways) are much higher. I’m sure that sex and play within mentorship can be done well, but that would require a rigorously ethical mentor who’s extremely good at separating their personal interest from their advice, and/or a very self-aware and perceptive protégé with great self-protection skills and good boundaries, and/or a mentorship situation that’s restricted to very specific areas within which the protégé isn’t particularly vulnerable and/or that do not incite the mentor’s vested personal interest. Otherwise, the whole “non-judgmental” part of the “non-judgmental listening ear” is out the window. Honestly, while I do feel obliged to say this can surely be done well in some cases, my personal feeling is that such cases are extremely rare. There’s just way too much potential for “mentorship” to end up looking like an older, wiser and more powerful person getting lots of tail from a younger, trusting and less experienced person and giving them some occasional advice on the side. Icky.

I feel I should also mention here that many people assume mentorship is always provided by a dominant and protégés are always submissives. That’s a load of horseshit. First of all, that little paradigm takes no account of switches. Beyond that, some of the best mentorship situations are set up between dominants or between submissives, because who better to help you along your path than someone who’s doing a similar thing but who happens to have a few years’ experience on you? A dominant might well be able to mentor a submissive, or vice versa, but at some point they’ll end up saying “well, submissives tell me that…” or “as a dominant, I’ve never experienced this, but….” This may or may not be a problem. I’m just saying is that classic power pairings are not always the surest bet when it comes to effective mentorship.

2) “Combined” mentorship

When mentorship happens as part of a larger relationship context, it’s of course a bit more complicated. Like any other relationship, it’s a question of how power imbalance is managed. I’d break this down into two possibilities.

2 a) A mentorship situation can arise out of a love relationship, play relationship or friendship.

This tends to happen when two people get together for the purpose of pursuing some sort of relationship, and one of them is more experienced than the other in a given area relevant to leather, and they realize that a certain amount of mentoring is going on. In this case, it’s a really good idea to talk about what’s happening. Will the power imbalance of mentorship mess up the pre-existing relationship, or can the two co-exist in harmony? If it’ll mess things up, can the need for mentorship be met elsewhere so as not to create a weird resistance to the flow of things in the relationship? If they feel it can be harmonious, how will they manage that in the context of the existing relationship?

In the case of D/s and M/s relationships, especially though by no means exclusively those that operate on a parent/child sort of model (daddy/boy etc.), it’s my belief that mentorship is often intrinsically bound up in the power dynamic, and that’s part of the reason it works. In some contexts and communities, that sort of model is expressly understood to be a form of eroticized mentorship in which the boy (let’s say) will eventually become a daddy or master in their own right when their own daddy or master decides they’re all grown up and ready for the job. And in lots of M/s relationships, there’s an express and fully agreed-upon intent that the submissive or slave will be shaped into someone who reflects the dominant or master’s values, not just in the sense of learning how to please the master through service or submission, but also in the sense of growth in leather – human dynamics, ethics, approaches to the scene, community-building, spirituality, etc.

Both of these things, to me, smell a whole lot like mentorship, just operating in a different space. I don’t see how we benefit by pretending that’s not happening and defining “mentorship” so tightly that we can’t include relationship-born mentorship as part of the picture. Lots of the same questions arise and lots of the same techniques and approaches can be adopted. Of course, as much as in a “pure” mentorship situation, it behooves the people in question to discuss such things as motivations, parameters and approaches very clearly so that they all agree on what exactly is going on. It also helps if the people can cleanly point out where their “other” relationship might in fact impede the protégé’s growth, and figure out ways to work around that, or agree that it’s worth the sacrifice. For example, if a submissive/protégé figures out she’s actually a switch and really wants to explore her dominant side, but her dominant/mentor holds the exclusive rights to her behaviour in power contexts and is not willing or able to switch, the dominant/mentor will not be able to effectively encourage her growth in this area unless something about their agreement shifts – even if this same dominant/mentor might be quite capable of mentoring someone else in the same area if they weren’t involved.

Of course that’s not always how things happen in either parent/(adult) child or other D/s or M/s relationships. For example, a submissive (boy, slave, etc.) might be older or more experienced than a dominant; in such cases, mentoring might not happen at all, or it might actually operate in the reverse balance of the power dynamic. Or an M/s or D/s pairing might come up between people who are not in need of, or interested in offering, mentorship, especially if both are already very experienced; for them, it might be just about shaping the submissive for the purpose of suiting the dominant’s preferences but without any larger goal of growth in leather.

For me, I have done a lot of mentorship within the context of other types of relationship – within a past platonic D/s relationship (where mentorship still plays a part in the non-D/s equation today), and within my relationships with both of my bois. That has included a range of approaches – long conversations, encouraging them to play with and even have relationships with others to broaden their experience, directed reading assignments, workshops, lots of listening, think projects, my support and encouragement of their engagement in leather-related personal projects that aren’t related to our relationship, social events and grilling them about their observations of social dynamics after such events, and much more. It’s a really enriching process for all of us. But then again, I have a bit of a fetish for personal growth; not all dominants take quite the same degree of enjoyment out of such a process.

2 b) A mentorship situation can turn into a love relationship, play relationship or friendship.

This, too, can be done well. In my case, I’ve held pretty firm boundaries about not engaging in play or sex with protégés, but I certainly have developed at least one rich and wonderful friendship that started from a place of mentorship. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; as long as communication is clear and motivations are clean, I can’t imagine why this would be a negative development. As for mentorship turning into a love or play relationship – again, as long as everyone’s interests are laid out for discussion, I see no reason why this is a problem.

In my opinion, problems are way more likely to arise when people try to deny the existence of a new development rather than by its simple existence. Power is most dangerous when it’s kept under wraps, denied, ignored, because then it does what it wants to do, acting in its own best interests without the benefit of supervision. If you simply lay it all out, then real decisions can be made. An ethical mentor will tell their protégé if their feelings change, because that necessarily changes the parameters of the original agreement; an ethical protégé will do the same, because a mentor can hardly steward their power well if they aren’t aware of its reach and repercussions. Honesty is the best policy all round.

Of course there’s potential for misuse of power within any of these contexts. People can be unethical in any arrangement, and in our society we have paltry resources for learning about, understanding and managing power dynamics of any kind, let alone in alternative sexual communities where we’re still understood by the larger society to be crazy, dangerous or sick. So mentorship is no guarantee that things will go well. But in its ideal form, mentorship can be a wonderful resource for people who are new to the leather community or new to a particular type of experience therein, and a rewarding experience for older or more experienced kinksters who want to see the next generation set on a healthy and joyful path.

shame and shameless
December 8, 2009

Two little items for you tonight…

First, Capital Xtra just published a feature I wrote about queer shame – specifically, about the social mechanism of shame and how it plays out in queer lives. In addition to my own pontifications on the topic, I talked to San Francisco-based sex educator Charlie Glickman, who works as the education program manager with Good Vibrations, as well as Ottawa-based LGBT-, poly- and kink-friendly therapist and professor Peggy Kleinplatz and Shelley Taylor, owner and operator of Venus Envy Ottawa. It’s the kick-off to a series of articles aiming to explore the concept of shame in depth. I can’t wait to read the rest of them – a rich topic indeed!

Speaking of shame, this next bit is a shameless attempt to get my name entered in a really awesome contest more than once. Specifically, the ubercool FetLife contest in which they’re giving away $25,000 worth of kinky gear. But self-serving or no, I wouldn’t post this if I didn’t think it might be of interest to some of you. Seriously. You log on to FetLife.com, click on the red bar at the top of the page, and pick the three kinky goodies of which you are most enamored. The list is long and the stuff is fantastic – corsetry, leather gear, toys, bondage equipment, electrical play stuff, even a couple of those amaaaazing heavy stainless-steel dildos by NJoy. If you win, well, you get one of the items you picked. All provided by FetLife advertisers. And then they ask you to pimp the contest by doing things like this, in order to increase your chances of winning. But you don’t have to.

So, my pervy friends – have fun! Shamelessly.

please, no thank-you
December 5, 2009

About ten years ago, I hooked up with a guy I met at the gym. We spent a few months together and he was a fantastic lover. But after the first time we had sex, he did something that made me cringe: he said “thank you.”

I know he had good intentions. Or at least, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he had good intentions. But the way it came out, and the context of the conversation, made it clear that he was operating in a mindset that was… well, kinda icky. I think he felt he needed to say thanks because in his world, girls didn’t like having sex; they did it as a favour to their men. Sex was a favour, an indulgence, a prize, something to be grateful for because really, it was a bit of a sacrifice on her part. It was a coveted object, a reward for good behaviour, a special treat when she happens to be feeling generous. It was a very gender-binary, heterosexual and transactional way of approaching sex, and it put me in a box that did not fit and attributed feelings to me that I did not feel.

It grossed me the fuck out.

I told him in no uncertain terms that I did not want to be thanked for sex. That I wanted sex as much as he did, maybe more, and that in no way was I doing him some sort of benevolent favour by getting in the sack with him. His thank-you blunted my agency, assumed I had no desire or interest or libido of my own; and since I am very much an agent of my own pleasure and a desiring, libidinous human being, I felt misunderstood and insulted that he could have misread my experience of our fuck as anything other than pure, genuine pleasure. What kind of actress was he accustomed to bedding? (And why would anyone even need to put on a show for him? The man had talent aplenty!)

We did figure it out. More or less, at least. He’d never dated a queer woman before and as time went on, it became clear that there was a lot about our sex life that was surprising or different for him, so the “thank-you” talk was one of many conversations we had that involved trying to mesh two worldviews that really didn’t fit very well.

That relationship eventually ended when the incompatibilities started to pile up just a bit too high. But that specific experience really stuck with me, and I carried it over into other situations that weren’t nearly the same. For a long time, “thank you” was a trigger point for me – it was an instant flashback to feeling incredibly misunderstood.

I have since had many experiences where “thank you” means something a whole lot different. “Thank you” can be a way to express respect and appreciation in a context of mutuality – not so much “thank you for allowing me to take my pleasure by using your body” as “thank you for enjoying the ride with me.” It can be a way to express the joy and honour of being allowed into someone’s vulnerability. “Thank you” can be a way to express submission and gratitude in a sexual D/s situation, when kindness has been proffered that actually is a favour – I had a conversation with a submissive not long ago who made it clear that he’d been trained by his first mistress to say “thank you” after anything sexual took place, as a way of indicating respect and appreciation for the efforts of the dominant. For that matter, “thank you” can come in handy for dominants too, in recognition of a submissive’s openness and trust. In short it can mean all kinds of things that aren’t the least bit icky at all.

But I’ll admit that sometimes, for me, “thank you” still echoes a bit funny when I hear it. It can create a distance I thought sex had bridged, a formality in situations where I thought intimacy was happening. It can still turn an experience of mutuality into an experience of transaction. That’s not the effect it has all the time; sometimes it’s really okay. But sometimes, with a certain tone and at a certain moment, with a certain look in the eye, “thank you” can still do more harm than good.

What have your experiences been with the words “thank you” after sex? I’d love to hear your stories.

comics / communication / condolences
December 4, 2009

Tonight, I’ve got good news and bad news.

Okay, I’ll give you the good news first. Two pieces of it, actually.

First, a very fun article I got to write for the latest issue of Outlooks is just out now. I had the great pleasure of interviewing queer Canadian stand-up comics Elvira Kurt, Darcy Michael and Trevor Boris. I only wish they could’ve printed longer versions of our conversations! I swear, interviewing comedians is the bomb. It’s kinda like having your own private one-person show. Anyway, the results, woefully shortened though they may be, are here (scroll to page 52, “Funny Like That”).

Second, I’ll be giving a workshop entitled “Partner-to-Partner Communication” for Sweet & Spicy Aphrodite in Ottawa Friday night (tonight) at 7. It’s part of Pink Triangle Services’ week of events and programming for women of sexual and gender minorities. Come say hi! The direction of it will be very much participant-led, so come make of it what you need.

On a much sadder note, longtime Vancouver leatherdyke Catherine White Holman died last week in a plane crash in BC. I never met her, but her death has rocked the community out West and I was asked to help spread the word in case anyone didn’t yet know. (I checked in with friends who knew her and was assured that she was an out and proud leatherdyke who would have had no problem with this information being publicly posted as such.) As one of the entries on her condolence page reads, “Catherine was a fierce femme with a bold and beautiful spirit. We will so miss her bright light.” Read the Xtra West article if you’d like to learn more about the details of her life and her passing. My sincerest condolences to all those who knew her.

it’s over
December 2, 2009

Well, now it’s December, which means November’s over, which means NaBloPoMo is finished. I wasn’t completely successful at posting every day, but then again, this month I suffered a nasty back injury (I’m much better now, thanks, but it wasn’t fun at all), and a death in Boi L’s family that had the triad flying off to a funeral unexpectedly, on top of school and travel for speaking gigs and judging MLT and working and attending Laura Antoniou and Midori’s fabulous weekend-long Passionate Bonds D/s protocol intensive. So I forgive myself.

Thanks to all of you who joined me for the endeavour – this month was a record-breaker in terms of the number of hits on this here blog. When I started blogging in early 2006, I never would I have imagined so many of you would end up stopping by. I am honoured to have you here and grateful for all your thought-provoking input. Do, please, keep it coming. And congrats to all the Queer Canada Blogs folks who managed to pull it off, as well as those who made commendable efforts. Yay for queer Canadian bloggers!

Somewhere amid all the craziness, I managed to squeeze in a couple of interviews with Dr. Dick of Dr. Dick’s Sex Advice in Seattle. He just posted the podcast of the first one – tune in here if you’re interested. It was a fun conversation about kink, terminology, the leather title circuit and more. Next week it’ll be about polyamory and other good stuff, and I’ll post that link when it’s up too.

What with the end of semester and three big term papers to write, I’m not sure how often I’ll be posting in the next month. On the other hand, my term papers are going to be about 1) the philosophical question of whether or not it can be ethical to use images of real-life violence for erotic stimulation, 2) a close analysis of an primary source in Canadian leatherdyke history, probably a complete set of old dyke porn mags from Vancouver that I managed to score while I was at Canadian Mayhem in May, and 3) what Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” might have to say about the topic of dyke sadomasochism. So it’s not like there’s any lack of brain fodder in there which could potentially serve as blog material. You’ll be the first to know!

In the meantime, good luck with the impending holiday madness.

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