of fame and money: on paying bdsm presenters

In the past couple of days, I’ve noticed a couple of posts making the rounds of the interwebs on the topic of payment for presenters at kink/leather/BDSM events. As a long-time sex and kink educator I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, and figured here would be a good place to share them. Bear with me. This is not a short post.

For starters, I have a great deal of respect for the way Mollena Williams, who seems to have kicked off this little trend, has articulated her point of view. Her post, entitled “Why You Should Pay Me,” most especially points out the ways in which classism and racism work to ensure that if you aren’t paying your instructors at a kink event, you are very likely to end up with a preponderance of presenters who are white and relatively well-off, which perpetuates the idea that these folks are better suited to be teaching us all things, and which further marginalizes the non-white and non-well-to-do voices that we could best stand to learn from. Go read her post. It’s excellent and spot-on.

That said, I’d like to bring a bit of a different perspective to this question. It starts with event models.

In my experience, there are two main general types of BDSM/leather events. I’m not so much talking about weekend-long events vs one-nighters, or gay vs pansexual vs dyke events, or fetish parties vs play-focused events, or what have you, although all of these distinctions exist. Rather, I’m talking about event philosophy.

Shopping malls and potlucks

The first type of event is what I describe as a “shopping mall” event. At this type of event, you pay your hard-earned money to show up and be catered to or entertained. The fee tends to be higher, and the reason for this is that the organizers do everything for you. They rent a spacious hotel or conference centre. They bring in big-name presenters from all over the place. They have glossy programs and a laundry list of sponsors and advertisers. They have a vendor area where vendors pay to set up a table so that you can pay to get your hands on their goods. They have entertainment. They truck in dungeon equipment. They have (paid?) staff. They are very likely to have a keynote speaker, which often requires a separate ticket. They sell merch with the conference logo on it. They are a commercial endeavour. Their purpose is to get you together to spend money and have a great time, which usually includes a daytime roster of workshops and a nighttime series of play events, though there are variations on this format. I realize that my description here might come across as critical, for those who know me well, but I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong in principle with this type of event. I have attended, and enjoyed, dozens if not hundreds of “shopping mall” events. They can be awesome, or crappy, or a totally mixed bag. “Shopping mall” events are like going to a Madonna or U2 concert. You pay a lot of cash for them, and you expect star power, a top-quality performance, a giant crowd, lots of slick schwag, and memories you’ll talk about for years.

The second type of event is what I call a “potluck” event. At this type of event, you may pay an entrance fee, or you may not. There is probably a sliding scale. They are run largely, or solely, by volunteers, and they may require that everyone who attends put in some volunteer hours. They ask local presenters to come out and share their skills. They might be run in a less conventional format, such as the “unconference” model, where attendees show up the morning of the conference and put their topics of interest on a board rather than having any official speakers at all. They usually include some sort of play party, but they rely on the equipment that’s available at local play spaces rather than setting up their very own dungeon. They happen in bars, community centres, community members’ office boardrooms during off-hours, run-down warehouses where punk bands rehearse. They are advertised almost exclusively via social media. They probably don’t have a printed program, or if they do, someone printed it out as a Word document and photocopied it the morning of the event. I realize that my description here might come across as laudatory, in a sort of “rooting for the underdog” kind of way, but I honestly don’t think there’s an intrinsic higher quality to this sort of event—once again, they can be awesome, or crappy, or a totally mixed bag. “Potluck” events are like going to an open mike at the local pub. You pay relatively little cash for them, and you expect a homey vibe, variable performance, a small crowd, amateur schwag or no schwag at all, and… well, you hope to have memories you’ll talk about for years, but really you’re mostly going to meet people and hang out with friends.

Now, of course, these two models are by no means entirely discrete. Many organizers come up with creative blends of the two. Here is where the politics come in. I actually would like to see the two models become a lot more differentiated, because as it currently stands, the places where I see the most problems with the “pay or don’t pay your presenters” question are the ones that try to blend the two, and end up exploiting presenters, however inadvertently.

The question of money

The “shopping mall” model, generally speaking, makes money. Or at the very least, it tries to. Whether or not an event is a not-for-profit isn’t really all that relevant—as Mollena points out, all “not-for-profit” means is that the profits from an event go directly back into that event rather than into the pockets of the people who run it, outside regular salary if applicable. It doesn’t mean there’s no money, it means there’s nobody splitting dividends at the end of the weekend. The “potluck” model, generally speaking, makes no money, possibly loses money, or operates as a not-for-profit insofar as if they do make money it goes right back into the event; the difference is that generally these events aren’t paying anybody, organizers included, so there is no question of salaries.

In my not-so-humble opinion, if anybody is personally making money from your event, then everyone who works at it should be getting paid. It doesn’t have to be a lot of pay. But pay should happen. This doesn’t mean you, as a “shopping mall” organizer, absolutely shouldn’t ask for volunteers. Lots of places in the world that pay people also have volunteers, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as—and here, again, my own opinion—you are restricting a volunteer’s responsibility to something they can do in one to four hours, that task is (generally speaking) something that one can do without any special professional skills, and you are compensating them for their time with roughly the equivalent in benefits, such as free event registration or similar. The volunteers “pay” for their event attendance by doing their time, or from another perspective, you “pay” them for their time by letting them in for free. If you are bringing in professional educators to work for you at this sort of event, then those professionals should be compensated for their time in the same way that you pay for your web designer, your bookkeeper, your security staff, your program printing costs, and so forth. If you think that professional kink and sexuality educators are less valuable than your bookkeeper, you really need to ask yourself why that is—and I’ll get back to that point in a bit. But basically, if you follow this model, then you stand a greater chance of getting a diverse range of professional presenters at your event who value their calling enough to have devoted a whole fuckload of work to acquiring the presenting skills and knowledge that made them “big names” in the first place, and that is a Very Good Thing.

In my equally not-so-humble opinion, if you want to organize an event where you don’t pay your presenters, you should hold yourself to the standard that nobody else gets paid either—yourself, as an organizer, included. You are all collectively performing a community service. Note that this by no means guarantees that your event will be more inclusive, along the lines of what Mollena’s talking about—generally, well-to-do white people have more ability to volunteer their time than more marginalized folks, so an all-volunteer event may reproduce all the same representation problems she so eloquently brings up. In other words, I am not necessarily advocating for the “potluck” model as being more progressive—in fact, on this count, it may be less so, because it relies on people who have time available to donate, which means you are more likely to get people who are white and well-to-do on your presenter roster. There are, of course, ways to work around this, which I will not discuss in this post but for which you can see at least one model if you look at the website for An Unholy Harvest, the event I co-organize with Jacqueline St-Urbain (more on that below).

This way of seeing things is my best attempt at sorting out the fairness question, and it’s one I’ve developed over many years of thinking about this stuff pretty intensively. I apply this perspective both to my own career as a presenter and to the events that I organize.

The question of fame

I was chatting with a non-kinky friend not too long ago (bless my aging brain, I forget who), and somehow the conversation got around to the question of academic fame. She said something about how one day I was going to be famous and people were going to pay me to come speak at their universities and conferences. I told her that I’m already there, just not in a purely academic sense, and she expressed some surprise. So I found myself explaining the concept of “kink-famous.”

In short: if you are kink-famous, the rest of the world might not have a bloody clue who you are, but in leather/BDSM/kink circles, you are Well Known. People want you on their event line-up because it means more people will show up to see you perform or listen to you speak. People link to your blog, get excited to meet you, ask for private consultation work with you. People might ask you to write a book, or perform in their porn film, or speak on their panel. People line up to demo bottom (or maybe demo-top) with you when you teach. You are a draw.

On rare occasions, kink-famous people become known outside the leather/BDSM/kink world—I’m thinking of full-time pervs with mainstream crossover appeal, such as Midori and Tristan Taormino, who have built solid careers as writers, speakers and entertainers. But these are exceedingly rare. And while I have the greatest respect for the quality of their work and the success of their careers, it is no coincidence that these ladies are classically gorgeous, slim, feminine, without visible “perv markings” (big tattoos, piercings, etc.) and often, whether they wish to or not, pass for straight. This stuff isn’t their fault, and it doesn’t mean their work is any less excellent—and their work is indeed excellent, and deserving of all the praise it gets. This is just how privilege works.

And I’ll be totally honest with you here: to the extent that I, too, fit these same criteria, I, too, may continue my own trajectory into the mainstream spotlight, whether or not that is what I’m aiming for. I am not disparaging the quality of my own work, here, either. I am just pointing out that if I were fat, black, a wheelchair user, super-butch-looking, male (yes, being male is actually a disadvantage in this particular career stream, and that’s a whole other topic), not classically pretty, sporting facial tattoos, and so forth I simply wouldn’t have the same opportunities ahead of me in my chosen career (well, one of my chosen careers). Unlike Mollena, I do not have a race card to play, because I am white. Unlike me, Mollena will justifiably play the race card over and over again, as she has done countless times already, because people will still treat her differently because she is black. Nobody will tell me they’re paying me to be pretty, slim and white when they ask me to speak, but they will be, even if they aren’t doing it on purpose. This is awful. It’s awful for those who don’t have as much crossover potential as I do purely because the world is fucked up. It’s a different, and certainly lesser, kind of awful for me, because I’ll never truly know how much of whatever success I achieve comes from my privilege versus my real skill. Really we all lose out on this one in the end.

And this is how fame works. It ruthlessly builds on existing advantage and ruthlessly makes things more difficult for people with less existing advantage. Sure, people transcend the unevenly-stacked odds all the time. Halle Berry did win an Oscar, after all. But that doesn’t make those odds any less real. And this is a big reason why I don’t trust fame one bit on its own terms, for all that a fair bit of it has come my way over the years, and I suspect more is on the way.

Now, in today’s world, we live in a culture that values fame as much as, or possibly more than, money. “Lifestyles of the rich and famous.” “Fame and fortune.” These concepts are linked in our collective imagination even if, practically speaking, they are not necessarily linked at all. Many of the world’s richest people, you have probably never heard of, because they make their money quietly, in business, or by inheriting it from family members. And plenty of the world’s famous people don’t have a lot of cash. Joe Shuster, the creator of Superman, ended his life practically destitute. Leonard Cohen had to come out of semi-retirement and touring again because a crooked financial advisor took him to the cleaners. I could go on. (And yes, these guys are both Canadian.)

In the leather/kink/BDSM world, we often treat the opportunity for fame as being “payment” that should stand in lieu of cash. This isn’t surprising. People do it all over the place, and kink is no different. Andy Warhol said that everyone would get their fifteen minutes of fame, and he was right. Fame is intoxicating. Applause can get you high for days. Admiration is a drug. This is no small thing. And frankly, for some people, fame is in fact better than cash—especially if they are already making plenty of cash elsewhere. Cash is in some ways much easier to come by than fame for most of us. So given our hunger for fame, it is dead easy to get a lot of people, particularly people who have established paid careers in other fields, to present at events and develop entire “kink-famous” careers without making a dime for that work, and possibly while shelling out plenty of their own money to attend the very events they are presenting at. (Even if they are given comp tickets to an event, travelling to kink conferences costs a shitload of money, as does staying in hotels and the like.) The intoxication of fame can be well worth it for some.

The results of this aren’t intrinsically bad—in the sense that it is entirely possible for people to become excellent presenters in this manner. So I’m not disparaging the quality of work provided by presenters who don’t ask to be paid. I am, however, saying that this practice creates a very uneven playing field.

A not-so-brief aside: my own story

Skip this part if you’re just interested in the politics. Read it if you want to hear how I’ve navigated all this weirdness myself. It’s a long section because, well, life is like that. I’m putting it in here partly for transparency, partly to satisfy my own integrity, and partly because I’ve had a lot of people ask me about this in private over many years, and I think it’s valuable to put this stuff out in public where it can be discussed openly.

In 1996, I left home because it wasn’t a safe or happy place to be for a young queer gender-fluid sex-positive feminist. I put myself through full-time school working up to 90 hours a week as a desk clerk and retail salesperson, usually with two part-time jobs at once, sometimes three, because I didn’t qualify for student loans (and don’t get me started on how fucked-up that was, and how bad it sucks to be really fucking poor and not have enough to eat for many years in a row). In 1999, I got my first professional job as a translator, shortly before graduating debt-free and bone-tired with a BA in translation and a minor in women’s studies. It was an excellent job, with Cirque du Soleil, and I remain eternally grateful to all the people who bent rules and made exceptions to get me into it.

I came out into the queer, poly and kink/SM worlds—yes, all within the same year—in 2000 after many years of being privately queer, kinky and poly-minded. I immediately got heavily involved in queer community organizing, and haven’t ever given that up. I attended my first major sexuality conference in 2003, and it was a watershed moment for me: I figured out that I had to devote my life to this somehow. Sexuality, BDSM, gender, relationships—these topics dominated my mind in every waking hour, and they continue to do so to this day. They had before I ever studied translation, but I never thought I could make a living at being insatiably interested in sexuality, which is why I pursued a field I knew I could make money at.

So when I got home from that conference, which was in the last week of August that year, I immediately called up the director of the undergraduate sexuality minor at my alma mater, and asked him how to get into the program immediately. I must have sounded pretty determined because he worked the system for me and I registered a few days later (thank you, Tom Waugh). From 2003 to 2006 I paid out of pocket, using every entry-level cent I could spare, to complete all the credits for that minor part-time. I spent all my money on books about sexuality (to date I’ve got nearly 1,000), attending films and workshops and panels about sexuality, and travelling to sexuality conferences. I’ve attended something like 150 weekend conferences alone at this point. I went into debt to pursue this knowledge. Not a little bit of debt. A whole fuckload of it. Close to 40 grand over the years, if you really want to know. I still haven’t paid it all off, though I’m only about seven grand in the hole at this point. And they don’t give you student loans for this stuff. I’m talking credit cards and other higher-interest options. I didn’t have a plan—I just kept jumping at opportunities and trusting the universe that somehow this would all work out.

2003 is also the year that I began to get actively involved in organizing leatherdyke community events in Montreal. I started teaching at kink events in 2004 (thank you to the Unholy Army of the Night for being my very first such opportunity), and I started blogging in 2005. I’d realized, after pursuing this knowledge for a few years, that I had stuff worth saying, too, and that the perspectives I was developing weren’t exactly the same as everyone else’s. So I pursued those opportunities. And of course, because nobody was offering to pay me for any of this, I did it for free.

By 2005, when my job situation started going south, I decided I wanted to tackle a freelance career in order to free up my time to further enable my pursuit of this knowledge and career path, though I couldn’t have said at the time what I thought that career path would look like. All I knew is that every time I taught somewhere, it led to people asking me to teach somewhere else, and I just kept saying yes because it was… well, it was my calling. Plain and simple.

So I took the minimum amount of paid translation work as I could take in order to afford to live (as cheaply as possible) and keep learning, reading, writing and teaching about sex. I made a point of taking notes, whenever I attended a seminar or lecture or conference, not only about the topics being taught, but about how they were being taught. I learned about pacing, and purpose, and (how NOT to use) PowerPoint slides, and handouts, and how best to work live demonstrations into a workshop. I learned how to use my existing public speaking skills to put a crowd at ease, to make them laugh, to make them think, to challenge them just enough to make them productively uncomfortable. I learned voraciously, partly by watching people do a really fucking good job at these things (thank you, Midori, among many others), and partly by watching people do less than good jobs at them.

My blog started to gain a regular readership, which came as a shock to me. Realizing that I had actual readers, I worked to hone my arguments and make my writing more interesting. This led me to seek out other places to write, so I contributed to a couple of non-paying community papers and magazines. In 2005, when I took the freelance plunge, I also took a wild chance and pitched a queer column to the Montreal Mirror, despite having no journalism credentials, and the strength of my tiny portfolio led them to take a chance on me (thank you, Patrick Lejtenyi). While I never got the column I’d hoped for, they started taking regular pitches for articles about queer and sexuality-related stuff, and all of a sudden I was a Real Writer, getting paid for my work, which in turn led to other paid writing work.

Occasionally, people started offering to pay me for my teaching work, too. It started slowly, with $25 gift certificates to HMV or bottles of wine, and ramped up over time. I learned that community conferences of most types don’t pay their presenters, but I decided to see them as opportunities to build my reputation as a presenter which would then lead to paid work down the road. And it worked. I built a CV. I started teaching at sex shops, which see payment as par for the course because of course they are for-profit businesses (thank you, Venus Envy Ottawa, for being my very first). I started teaching for student groups, which are funded by student fees and have budgets to bring in speakers.

After a few years of this, I started to find myself teaching six, seven, sometimes ten times a month, mostly for free, never for more than a hundred bucks a pop, and often at my own cost. I started to develop a strong reputation as a presenter, and I worked hard to hone my craft. I kept pouring my money into it, because it is what I was meant to do and this seemed to be the way to do it. I got really good at finding discount flights, booking long bus trips, sleeping on strangers’ couches and paying my way by being by turns unobtrusive and relentlessly charming, depending on the situation. Hotels? Are you kidding? Who can afford hotels?

At some point in there I asked a couple of trusted friends, also sex and kink educators, for some advice on how to charge a fair fee. The economics of this thing are complex, but it distilled into this: if you ask people for money, they will give it to you. If you don’t ask them for it, they won’t. If you think you are worth $100 a workshop, that’s what they’ll pay. If you think you’re worth $500, that’s what they’ll pay, too. If you organize a well-known event, write a respected column, or publish a book, you can hike your fees.

For some reason, despite all this, I felt horrifically guilty asking for money outside the sex shops I knew were making cash for what they did. I had been immersed in the message that this is all about community, and so I should be working for free (even though I paid to attend conferences). I had been systematically discouraged from asking for pay because really, this is all informal and I wasn’t officially qualified (even though there is quite simply no such thing as an official qualification for being a kink educator). I had been given the extremely mixed message that the value of what I had to offer was both huge—as in, I am wonderful and amazing and my very name would draw people to a conference or event—and pretty much nil—as in, it makes perfect sense to pay a craftsperson for a leather flogger, but education? That’s not worth anyone’s money. In short, I had been very effectively drawn into a system that actually doesn’t make much sense.

In 2007 my close friend Jacqueline and I co-founded An Unholy Harvest, which to this date remains Canada’s only weekend-long leatherdyke event. In 2008 I founded the Leather Bindings Society, a kinky book club in Toronto, which has been running steadily since then.

In 2009 I stepped into the world of graduate school, because I had settled upon a research project that I really wanted to pursue: the heretofore unwritten history of leatherdyke community development in Canada. If ever there were such thing as an official qualification to be a kink educator, a master’s degree focusing on leatherdyke porn must surely be it, on some level, and now I have that. And I must be a serious masochist because I let my supervisors convince me that I should keep right on keeping on, and dive into the PhD program, so here I am, on my way to being a doctor of perversity.

Now, I’d always been a keen student, but school was always something I did alongside my paid work. But I quickly learned, upon starting grad school, that grad school expects you to be available as though it were a full-time job and then some, and also magically well-funded despite offering funding (partly via employment, partly via grants) that is shockingly inadequate to cover real-life expenses. And that’s talking about York, which actually sits on the high end of the funding spectrum among Canadian universities. But for someone like me who craves high-calibre intellectual stimulation and has a project I’m truly passionate about, grad school is simply the shit. There is nothing better. I’ve done self-directed, ground-level, real-life learning for a long time, so I do not dismiss its value, and I think without that existing learning as a background, I’d be a far poorer-quality grad student today. And frankly, I’m pretty sure that the giant CV full of that learning is what got me into grad school in the first place.

But for me, right now, the structure, support and challenge of grad school are without a doubt exactly what I need at this point in my life. And seriously, people? Grad school eats your life. All of it. Just… everything. It’ll eat your relationships, your health, your money, your sanity if you let it. I don’t think this is a good thing, and I think the system needs to change, but that’s how it is at this time and I can either operate within it or opt out (or devote all my time to being a student activist in the hopes of changing the entire neoliberal education system—which is an extremely worthy pursuit—but not where I actually want to focus my energy).

So all of a sudden in 2009 I found myself in the situation of being deeply in debt, essentially employed full-time at the occupation of being a student which was paying me shit but feeding my soul and blasting my brain full of exciting new ideas. I was trying desperately to hold a balance between my health, my scholarly success and my need to make a living and pay off my credit card. So I had to do some serious triage. I dropped all my freelance clients who were paying me at the low end of my scale, and pushed for more work from the ones who paid better. And… I stopped taking unpaid teaching work.

I didn’t think this would be a revolutionary thing to do. I knew some places could afford to pay me, because some places had been paying me for quite some time. I also knew that I had my volunteer cred totally in the bag, because I co-organized a 100% volunteer-based annual event that didn’t (and doesn’t) pay me or anyone else a dime. And if you’ve ever organized a weekend event with a small team of people, you know what I’m saying when I tell you that it requires endless hours of work, year-round, the end. An Unholy Harvest is my heart and soul. It is where I want to devote my volunteer energy. It is the only place I want to devote that energy (that and the Leather Bindings Society). So even though it is absolutely not fair to require that anyone volunteer for the community in order to prove their dedication or realness, if you are of such a mindset, I still pass muster.

Not everybody is in the position of actually needing—I mean profoundly needing, like in order to afford food—to be paid for their teaching work. But that is the position I am in. If I take unpaid teaching work, I am literally in the position of having to turn down paid work to make room. This makes no sense and so I will not do it. It shouldn’t need to be this dire; I shouldn’t have to justify my desire to be paid a fair wage for the work I have spent more than fifty grand, and ten to twenty years’ of work depending on how you count it, at this point, to be qualified to do.

Some folks reacted to this change in policy with support. To them, I say many thanks.

Others, not so much. I will never forget when the organizer of a giant commercial sex trade show weekend tracked me down, spouted flattery, and asked me to teach at his event. Once we’d checked topic and availability, I brought up the question of rates, and he just about had a fit. “I’m giving you incredible exposure!” he sputtered. “That should be payment enough!” “I don’t need more exposure,” I responded. “I have plenty of that already, which is why you knew who I was and why we are having this discussion in the first place. What I need is to pay my rent. You’re charging six thousand people $30 a head to come to your event, and you pay your staff to be there. So I’m sure you can afford my teaching fee, which is quite reasonable, especially since I can tell you that I know of at least a few dozen people who will show up to your event specifically to come to my workshop, who might not otherwise attend.” He would have none of it. The deal was off.

I have tons of similar stories. The undergrad student organizer who, despite me stating my workshop fees clearly from the get-go, insisted that I should accept a $25 gift certificate rather than my workshop fee because it would give me the chance to hone my skills (because clearly, with 12 years of teaching experience, my skills are in serious need of honing). The community group that paid me for my work but was only able to hire me after a year or more of major, intensive and divisive policy discussions within their board of directors, which eventually authorized them to make some sort of major exception to their rules in order to hire me—for a workshop that promptly doubled their usual attendance. The conference that offered to pay me, then retracted the offer and expected me to fly overseas anyway and then volunteer my services to teach an “informal” workshop during their supposed “unconference,” the topic of which they wanted to nevertheless choose from within my workshop list and publicize on their website ahead of time along with my name and bio. I could go on…

I’m not sure why the idea of paying someone for professional work—and at this point in my career, I am a bona fide professional—is so darned hard for some people to swallow. But it does seem to be. And this needs to change.

And now, back to the question of event models

So earlier in this post, I discussed the “shopping mall” versus the “potluck.” And I discussed the idea of “kink-famous.”

Let me be clear here: I make my living on the shopping malls, but I run an event that is unapologetically a potluck. I make my living, or at least far more of it than I ever expected when I was working on a degree in French translation, on the very kind of “kink-famous” that I so deeply distrust. There is some weird irony in this. I recognize this and I’m not always sure what to do with it. I don’t trust or believe in the system by which I pay my rent and which allows me to pursue my lifelong vocation. The best I can do here is say that I don’t trust the entire capitalistic system and that I think I can sleep at least somewhat better at night doing what I love than working in a cubicle. But that feels a bit weak as far as argumentation goes. Right now I can’t do better. I’m too busy trying to earn a graduate degree, wrestle down that last seven grand, get my taxes in on time (whoops! So much for that!) and follow my calling as best I know how.

I think that, to me, the question of integrity is the key element here. I volunteer to run a potluck event, and in that context, I do not get paid and I do not pay anyone. I work at shopping mall events, and in that context I think everyone should get paid for the work they do. There are problems in both models. With the potluck, Jacqueline and I have come up with some solutions. If you are curious about how we approach that challenge, please feel free to peruse the Unholy Harvest website, especially the About, Accessibility, FAQ, Present and Help Harvest sections. They set out our philosophies about presenters including our support for first-time presenters, volunteers, dress codes, donations, accessibility, fame, Canadian focus, support for newbies, community-building, and a whole bunch else.

With the shopping mall, the specifics of how that should function are a whole other ball of wax—because the fame question impacts the value question which rests on the privilege question which all impacts the payment question, and all of that is no different than, and possibly even more complicated than, the way this all works in mainstream society’s very problematic institutions. I don’t know that I can change this system, or precisely how I’d like to see it change, or what would happen to me and the work I do if I managed to change it.

What I can call for, though, is clarity and integrity within whichever model of event someone chooses to run.

At the same time, I also want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for a two-tiered system, in which shopping malls are where the Real Pros go and potlucks are for the dregs. That’s not a helpful model. I just think that the motivations and rewards for doing certain kinds of work need to be more clearly laid out. You might love your work as an accountant, but you don’t do it for free. And you might have a lot of fun singing karaoke, and have a great voice, but never want to charge anyone for a concert. Pleasure, volunteerism, community-building, fame, vocation, making a living—all these motivations come into play, and all are valid in their own right. Let’s just please stop mixing them all up and then guilt-tripping, excluding, taking advantage of or rewarding people for having them mixed together in a slightly different way than the next person.

What you can do

I want to call for greater transparency and for clarity of purpose here—on the part of both event organizers and presenters.

My suggestions for event organizers: If you want to organize a shopping-mall endeavour that caters to the kink/leather/BDSM community and helps you make a living, go ahead and do it (or run any other kind of kink-friendly business for that matter). If you want to organize a potluck endeavour that doesn’t pay you at all, go ahead and do that. Just state up front what you’re doing, and how and why you’re doing it, and where the money goes that you are charging your event attendees, if you are charging them at all. In my opinion this kind of information should be available up-front on every BDSM/leather/kink event website, period. There is no shame in making a living. Don’t hide it. There is also no shame in creating community space that’s not related to money-making. Don’t hide that either. Neither gives you any special virtue—they are just different. If you are currently working on an event that blends these two models, try to figure out a consistent set of politics and an ethical framework that you would be totally comfortable explaining to anyone who asks, publicly announce that framework, and change how you organize your event if you discover that things aren’t fitting into that ethical framework.

My suggestions for presenters and potential presenters: If you want to build community or have fun by presenting at conferences but you want to make your living elsewhere, that’s awesome—then you might want to focus on seeking out volunteer presenting opportunities at potlucks. If you want to build a paid career out of presenting at conferences, that’s awesome too—then you might want to build experience by volunteering in the potluck range, actively work to acquire teaching skills, and possibly study sexuality in some formal way as appropriate to your field of interest, and then start pitching your work to shopping mall events that pay for professional skills. Hold event organizers to a high standard of integrity. Ask them questions about who they pay, and how, and why, and who they don’t pay, and how, and why. Present at the ones whose ethical framework lines up with yours.

Let’s create a culture of transparency, where money is not a taboo topic and fairness is the order of the day.

18 Responses

  1. I responded to Mollena’s post on Facebook and Fetlife, and then privately I sent her a message positing that maybe, just maybe, we should make public what compensations (if any) we received for what services rendered, at the end of a year (kinda like how US Senators have to file financial disclosure documents once a year so we know what kinds of gifts and donations they receive). I think it would be enlightening to event attendees who are consistently surprised when I tell them I’ve been doing this teaching thing for 10 years now and I still find myself fighting for comp tickets, much less actual money in my pocket.

    But the issue (and you hit in on the head in your summation) is that somehow this sort of financial transparency would be seen as “drama making”. Although few, if any, events explicitly forbid presenters from openly discussing what compensations they receive, it’s an unspoken agreement because otherwise we just might find out how much they value the Midoris and Tristans vs how much they value us.

    I have started outright asking other presenters at events I teach at what their package was, and what they were asked to give. Some find it distasteful, some find it insulting, but the ones who engage in the conversation are almost always the ones who seek some sort of Fair Energy Exchange. It doesn’t have to be money – you can look around your event staff and find ways to make a presenter’s life easier or more interesting – but it needs to be something.

    I very much enjoyed your rant, and hope it gets enveloped into the wider discussion on the topic.

    ~Del

  2. After I commented on Mollena’s post in Facebook and on FetLife, I sent her a private message, wondering aloud what would happen if we, or presenters in general, published a “financial disclosure” document similar to US Senators – that listed every event we taught at, and what compensation (if any) we received. I know that when I talk to attendees, they are frequently shocked at how little presenters see of the door/registration fees, so I feel this sort of information, made public, could incite dedicated attendees into action.

    But you know what? Both Mollena and I worried about the potential reaction from event organizers/producers. Many of them rely on an unspoken agreement (very few actually document it) that we just don’t talk about such things. In the last year, I have taken to asking various presenters (at different levels of kink-famous, teaching different kinds of classes, etc) exactly what they were compensated for their time – and offering to be transparent in return. Organizers/producers don’t want us to be aware of the sometimes incredible disparities that occur between packages, and sometimes kink-fame/published status/professional vs. amateur isn’t even the deciding criteria.

    As someone who holds various professional skill sets that I share with the kink community (I consider four years in an working apprenticeship to be comparable with an undergraduate degree), and 10+ years of teaching classes to various alternative communities, I *still* have to turn down gigs that ask me to PAY to TEACH.

    I think your summation is spot-on. I think more transparency can’t be a bad thing. Even if they don’t detail actual numbers, even percentage-of-ticket that goes to what kind of overhead may allow attendees to better choose events that see the value in having well-trained educators who have dedicated years and tears to their craft.

    Bravo. I wish I still identified as a dyke, because I’d volunteer for Unholy Harvest just to go to Canada.

    ~Del

    • Hi Del. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I have so many thoughts about this question, and the transparency piece is just one of them. But on that count: I don’t know if I like the idea of educators being required to publish financials (and how would that requirement be enforced, anyway?) unless all paid event workers were required to do the same – and I’m not sure how that benefits us, really. It’s no secret that you can get paid different amounts of money for the same work depending on who you do it for and where you do it, especially as a freelancer (and I speak from eight years as a freelance language professional here, never mind kink). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making more or less money for your work, though more is of course what most people prefer. So I’m not sure I like the idea of being required to disclose my own choices in that regard – not because I wouldn’t disclose them, as I’d be more than happy to, and have done with anyone who has asked – but because that somehow places the onus on presenters to be the ones who are transparent about what they make, when most aren’t making much at all in the first place. So that ends up being a question of individual privacy about money issues, which I think should be any given person’s right to choose on no matter what sort of career they pursue. Sure, it helps when an individual is up front about their rates, and as someone who has put a lot of thought into how and how much I charge, I will put some serious consideration into adding that information outright to my “workshops” tab so that people at least have something to start from. It might save me unnecessary negotiation with people so that’s not necessarily a bad thing…! And maybe if more paid educators do this, more of us will have a sense of what range is out there, for better or for worse.

      All that being said, I think it is very relevant to ask that event producers be transparent and fair about how they deal with the money question. There really is nothing wrong in saying “we pay $500 for a major headliner, but otherwise we call on local talent to present in exchange for an event comp,” or “we pay everyone the same,” or “we don’t pay anyone,” or what have you.

      Last but not least – you don’t have to identify as a dyke to go to Harvest. :) Check out our attendance policy on the Home or About page, if you are so inclined. I make no assumptions about whether or not that includes you, but if it does, by all means come on up!

      • Two quick things:
        I didn’t mean to post twice. On my end, it had appeared as though WordPress had eaten my first response, so I re-wrote it.

        Secondly, I didn’t mean to imply that the financial disclosure should be mandatory; the idea was for a few of us to do it to show others (event organizers, other presenters, attendees) exactly how much we were given from what event to do what. To break through some of the illusions that are kept about parity, about how much an event costs vs. how much a presenter makes, etc. It wasn’t meant to say that everyone should be forced to do it, more that a few of us *should* to make the point.

        ~Del

  3. Fascinating. Keen to chat about the range of payment/covering expenses only/pay your own way options at academic events. In many ways it’s very similar.

  4. Wow! Very well said! I hope that the people who produce (or hope to produce) events read this!

    I agree that tied into this is the problem that many people feel that “money” is evil. Or rather, it is if you are involved in earning it with in our community.

    Danny

  5. They pull that “exposure” crap on professional writers, too. It never fails to piss me off. As you say, I don’t need exposure. I need to pay my rent. I do plenty of pro bono work because I like a cause or a project, but nobody I do that kind of work for ever tries to convince me that I’m being paid in fame.

  6. As always deliciously insightful.
    I think at the end of this year from all of the workshops I have taught in the last (yeek gods I am getting old LOL) 16-17 years I can afford a meal on Church Street …maybe.
    Keep talking! Keep challenging! Keep being a great pervert : )
    T’Hayla

  7. In one way or another (either myself, my husband/partner, or our girl in service to us) I have been actively involved in every level of producing a fairly well-known regional event since 2003. The entire staff working as volunteers.

    Over the last few years, because of progressive thinking on the part of a few invaluable people in our community, we have realized that in order to take that ‘next step’ in growth we would have to pay some national/international presenters.

    This could include their standard fees, transportation, lodging, event admission for them and their partners/entourage, or a mix of any or all if that.

    We are still relying heavily on the graciousness of those that will share their vast knowledge at no charge other than entrance to our event.

    I think the concept of paying presenters depends greatly on the organizers vision for the future if their event. If they want it to remain fairly local, with easier logistics, then stick with presenters who will teach for free and local talent.

    But to compete with other large events and bring in more paid attendees there is a need to ramp up quality (we also upgraded our hotel quality greatly for this years upcoming event) and ‘star power’ to bring in larger numbers.

    This can result in the event making money or losing it (hopefully at least breaking even) – who knows in this economy.

    I just took a rambling way to say that I agree with paying (some and/or all) presenters at a kink-related event if it is part of the event’s vision for its future.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It was a fascinating read.

  8. I”m a vendor and a presenter. If I’m vending at an event, I’m paying my own way. If I’m presenting AND vending, I enjoy getting a discount on my vending space or something, but I’m still expecting to cover most of my expenses myself. (I no longer present for free even at big events I’m vending at. But if I just get one entry package comped, or a discount on my vendor space, I’m up for that.

    However, if I’m JUST presenting, I need to have expenses covered. Flight, hotel, AND the conference. (Unless I’m only an hour or two away by auto.) I don’t think it’s unfair. And I’m willing to sack out in someone’s spare room. But I’ll only present for free under some very special circumstances. (Like I’m doing a needle demo in Leather Alley at SF Gay Pride–but I always go to Gay Pride with my girl, and I live 65 miles from SF. And they aren’t making money. So, yeah, I’m doing the demo for free.) I actually don’t have a job besides vending kinky toys. Yes, my partner and my spouse work, but I don’t make much, myself, and we can’t afford to have me running around to conferences and paying for the privilege just because I love being a presenter. And I shouldn’t have to. I know very small groups that manage to comp my expenses for presenting for them. And I know a couple of big conferences that take good care of their presenters, too. But I get a lot of emails asking me to present and expecting me to pay my own way to the other side of the country. And that’s not going to happen.

    Mollena is a star. She’s one of the best presenters I’ve ever seen and she should get paid on top of being comped for an event. Midori and The Two Knotty Boys, Lee Harrington, Jay Wiseman, they are all famous and should be compensated. This is how they make their living. But I think the rest of us should at least get expenses covered.

  9. Thank you for mentioning the impact being cis, female, and conventionally attractive have on the ability to become a sought after presenter and sex educator.

  10. Thanks for all the thoughtful and supportive comments, folks. I guess I shoulda known there would be a contingent of people out there who felt the same way I do, or similarly at least. Honestly though such voices have been awfully quiet for a long time, and the “don’t pay presenters” voices have been pretty loud and seem to have set the tone for the discussion – or rather, lack thereof – that I’ve seen in my decade in the scene. So I really thought I might be a lone voice standing alongside Mollena in support! I am glad, and grateful, to be proven wrong.

    Sable, thanks for your comment in particular. I should specify, though, that I’m not cisgendered. All the rest I’ll absolutely own, and I will also own that a fair bit of the time (though not all the time) I am read as cisgendered, and as such I hold privilege. But from there to accepting that label as my own – not so much. I fall in the vast spectrum between cis (comfortable in your assigned gender) and trans (leaving that assigned gender behind to adopt a different one). I am genderqueer and as such I move in and out of varying degrees of dysphoria, sometimes living within my body with relative ease and sometimes with a level of disconnection/discomfort/dysphoria that’s very much in the same range as the experiences some of my FTM trans friends describe. I have considered transitioning, and I would go through with it if I weren’t 100% sure that no matter how long a given bout of dysphoria lasts, I always cycle back out of it. I wish it were less complicated, but there you have it. I don’t often discuss my trials and tribulations with my gender/body stuff on this blog directly, but I’ve been “mis-cissed” so often of late that I’m starting to wonder if perhaps I should…

    • My apologies for making an assumption you were cis identified. To be honest, this is the first post of yours I’ve had a chance to read and so I mistook connection you made with Midori and Tristan Taormino and statement of fitting in that same criteria.

      Thank you for clarifying. I should have gone with my initial instinct of saying something more along the lines of “cis female or CAFAB and conventionally attractive.”

      I will say it is still far easier for CAFAB/AFAB individuals (cis women, trans men/trans masculine, and gender queer CAFAB individuals) to get recognition as edgy, cool, and desired presenters in our communities, followed closely by cis men. There are a lot of reasons for this, but this is not really the place to have that discussion.

      No matter. You should be paid. We should all be “paid” for the work we do (as in compensated in some manner a in comparable to the level of the work being done). But the real problem is the dynamics of the unhealthy system which is non-consensually forced upon us. As educators in a system now wholly dependent on these abstract, intangible numbers we can no longer survive off trades the of chickens and rabbits and goats we once were able to.

      So yes, continue to fight to be paid in the manner the current system demands. Because doing so makes the work for all of us a little easier.

  11. You seem to be saying that if an event is run by a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that the residual monies are used to expand the event or for the next event.

    That’s possible but you’ll never see the books to prove it.

    It would be up to the group’s governing board how those monies could be spent. They could certainly be spent to provide salaries to anyone the board so chose. And the salaries are not particularly limited because small (c)(3)s are not audited.

    So say that you have 400people paying $80 each: $30,000. Let’s say the hotel -related costs are half that. The balance can certainly be used to pay for presenters or to pay the organizers. Personally, I have no idea about the economics of these conferences, but the idea that the money is returned to further conference-related activities is not necessarily true. Up to the board.

    [I have started and run two (c)(3) organizations, one for five and the other for 17 years (not at all kinky). I also spent a year obtaining my "Certified Association Executive" credentials.]

    As an aside, for the one year I actually kept track of it, I made 13 presentations at national kink conferences and — including selling my own books — still lost $8,000. I can only afford to present when my expenses are paid.

  12. I’m a class/event organizer.
    The problem that my group came across lately that the scene has become diluted. It seems everyone is a party promoter or class promoter these days.
    There are less and less people coming out to us, because they have other places to go to as well.
    Unfortunately, presenters expect the same pay they did 5 years ago, before Fetlife made a promoter out of everyone.

    After the venue gets paid, in most cases, the promoter is lucky if he/she break even.
    So, the quality of our presenters went down because of that.

  13. if yr bein’ transparent and standin’ yr ground, yr doin’ it right.

  14. obviously you should get paid a honorarium. in other (social movement) communities it is not uncommon for speakers (etc) to publicise their honorarium on their website. often this is a scale according to how much money is a resource for the event and they have access to this resource (by raising money etc). i really do not see how the bdsm scene is, in that respect, different from other communities?

    money is a financial currency, it is also a resource that expresses power and gives access to power. not needing payment is an expression of structural privilege according to socio-economic, racial and gender power structures. not recognising this is, in itself, an expression of privilege (or blatant ignorance, which is an advantageous currency in itself) and perpetuates the system of unequal power relations

    in other words: demanding payment is, next to income, a political act!

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