musings on mentorship

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?

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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.

2 Responses

  1. This is the second time I’m reading this article and I’m so glad you wrote about this topic and how you talked about the different forms mentorship can take (along with the potential problems).

  2. I think mentorship can go from submissive to dominant. I am dominant, and was mentored by an experienced sub/slave; she was also a very good friend. I’ve met few dominants who would be able, for whatever reason, to mentor me.

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