I just finished reading a very thought-provoking post by kink author and leatherman Race Bannon, entitled “Are Our Educational Efforts Backfiring?” It inspired me to write a rather lengthy comment in response, which I then realized might also be of interest to readers here, especially on the heels of my last post on paying BDSM presenters. Please do go read Race’s post first, or the rest of this might not entirely make sense – I haven’t edited it to stand alone (must! go! to! bed!). Basically, his post sets out three areas of kink-related education – within existing community, as a form of outreach to possible new community members, and as a form of outreach to the general public – and critiques the issues he sees arising in each of those areas. Most of my response is focused on the in-community aspect of kink education, as is most of his post, but I work within all three areas as an educator so I have thoughts about all of them. Read on if you’re curious. I promise that at some point I’ll get back to writing about sex rather than about BDSM/leather event organizing…!
Race, I agree with much of what you’re saying, but in your first section I think you’re addressing a few separate issues. Or at least, that’s how I would reframe some of your points in order to then offer some ideas and challenges. As you might expect from me, this is a somewhat lengthy response, and I’m cross-posting it to my blog as well with a link back here.
The first, and most important, is event model. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but to make a long story short, the vast majority of events I’ve encountered in 12 years in the scene have been motivated to some degree by a desire to grow and make money. This neoliberal capitalist-minded approach to creating pervy communities is so common that organizers not only adopt it without thinking, they also assume everyone else is adopting it too—to the point where, when I explain that the event I co-organize is not interested in getting bigger or making money, people are downright baffled and sometimes almost offended. Other models exist and/or can be created, and would serve our needs far better in many cases, but frankly if a different basic model or range of models is to gain in popularity, that would require such a drastic rethinking of the fundamental capitalist values people are taught in mainstream (especially American) society—at the very least in order to be able to consciously put them on the shelf when it comes to kink organizing, if not in one’s life as a whole—that I have little faith it will happen in the next 20 years, or even in my lifetime. I’d love to be proven wrong.
The second is celebrity culture, which of course ties in awfully well with neoliberal capitalism. If the purpose of a class or an event is genuinely educational—as in, aiming to create opportunities for people to learn—then the decisions about how it is run, what topics are covered and who is to cover them would look very different than much of what we see today. The skill sets demanded of presenters would also look very different, when presenters are needed at all, and as you pointed out, not all learning requires presenters. Celebrity passes for topic expertise and stands in for skill in North American culture at large (did Bono ever major in African studies or economics or have a career in HIV policy, for instance?), so of course that happens in the leather world as well.
But celebrity and flash do sell event tickets—and if you are invested in selling tickets and getting bigger, then that is valuable. Again, in order to change this, the whole model needs to be taken down, which would involve a direct challenge to a lot of core cultural values imported directly into the leather scene from the mainstream. For starters I think the leather community should completely drop the entire title circuit model, or keep it around for kicks in bars here and there and nothing more. It’s a celebrity-creation machine that only perpetuates the problems you’re pointing out here. (If we want to breed leaders, let’s invest in leadership training and mentorship on a broad scale; and if we want to recognize leaders, let’s find creative ways to thank and support the people who are already leading. But that’s a whole other topic.) While we’re at it, let’s kill celebrity auctions at events, VIP tables and rooms, and so forth. If that sounds like a scary idea, why? Maybe because then you’d have less money coming in? Refer back to my first point.
As for education proper, one major issue is target audience. It is still relevant to teach very basic stuff at events because there are always new folks showing up who don’t know that stuff yet, and when you fail to offer it, you create a much more elitist/exclusive community that can begin to ossify—not so good. But when you’ve been around for decades, the usual class topics can begin to look repetitive. In an effort to keep more experienced players coming back, new topics need to be offered.
The problem lies in that in some cases organizers and presenters take that logic and run it through a mindset of “bigger/louder/scarier is better” (again, typical neoliberal capitalist mainstream thinking), so of course what pops out the other end is “How to Discipline Your Slave with an Axe” or whatever. As you mentioned, one of the most common cravings among more experienced players is opportunities to deepen understanding of relationships and power dynamics—to look at the nuances, not to find the next flashier thing. So it’s not really over-education that’s happening as much as it is a flawed focus in the direction of that education.
Personally I’d recommend a basic three-track model for the average large event: richer focus on essential relationship and communication skills and on basic play skills for 101-level players with lots of hands-on practice time; opportunities to deepen power management/communication/relationship skills for more experienced players, with lots of group discussion time, skill-sharing, and structured time for practice of specific techniques (for instance, applying active listening, non-violent communication and other well-known communication models to D/s relationships); and carefully taught, small classes on riskier forms of play, informed by existing medical research and with way more hands-on practice opportunities for those too. For instance I find it shocking that I’ve taken at least five knife play and cutting classes in the last two or three years and at no point have any of them included anybody putting a razor blade and an eggplant in my hands; and with one or two notable exceptions, no play classes I’ve ever been to have referenced medical literature. We do have enough doctors, nurses, EMTs and academics in our communities whose knowledge and expertise we should be drawing on way more than we actually do!
When it comes to topics that are so specific to leather/BDSM that there’s simply no formal qualification available, presenters should get used to a) saying up front that there is no such thing as expertise here, and no existing research to work from, just personal experience, and b) stating their own biases up front so that everyone knows where their perspectives and insights are coming from. (Example: “I’m a 60-year-old gay white leatherman who came into the scene 15 years ago, so pretty late in life. I’ve had three significant D/s relationships with men in the last 12 years, one as a submissive and two as dominant, all of them 24/7. I learned much of what I know from my late friend Master Bob and I am a practicing Buddhist. I’m basically monogamous and have zero experience with women, and I’ve been a computer programmer for 35 years. That’s where my perspectives come from, and they may or may not resonate with you. I’m just offering what I know from my own experience.”) Rarely do I hear presenters state their biases—which we all have and which limit us in ways that both add and remove value. I suspect many aren’t even able to say what their biases are, and we don’t generally ask them to. I think they should be stated as a preface for pretty much any class on anything, it’s just all the more relevant when there’s no independently verifiable element to what’s being taught.
As well, right now, even in our educator-centric top-down education model, there is no demand for verifiable “official” expertise, so there’s no special reason for anyone to acquire it in order to teach in the BDSM/leather world. There’s also no demand for strong teaching technique or curriculum development skill, because the celebrity culture I’m trashing here leads people to accept a class model that generally aims to showcase the presenter rather than to give participants specific take-aways. So there’s very little encouragement and few community-specific resources for BDSM presenters to acquire ground-level teaching and class design skills (introducing yourself with relevant information, explaining your approach, creating group rapport, structuring a class, explaining your purpose and focus, defining key terms, using visual and tactile aids, accommodating different learning styles and abilities, timing breaks, working in group work and individual reflection time, allotting time for practice and discussion, dealing with hecklers or other troublemakers, etc.). This same celebrity culture also leads participants, in turn, to uncritically accept presenters’ edicts rather than to see them as starting points for developing their own ideas.
If the demand were created for the things I’m listing here, perhaps people who want to present would start to acquire and provide them, and even the educator-focused model could bring us a lot more quality. I bet that the more regular employment of detailed feedback opportunities from participants on each class they attend would also be very useful. Who’ll be the first event organizer to set that bar?
The vetting question is a complicated one. Elevating anyone to a “vetter” status creates the chicken-and-egg problem of how they got to be so qualified, and may perpetuate the problem created by celebrity culture where those whose word is more respected don’t necessarily match up with those who are qualified to know anything. I think there might instead be reason to ask more often for independently verifiable qualifications in some cases—medical or communications training, say—and to create more peer-to-peer learning situations where expertise is not the focus anyway. Even those can benefit from skilled facilitators, so no matter what, there’s clearly a need here for those who wish to serve the community to both supply and demand more opportunities to learn how to teach. Yes, that implies some time investment on the part of presenters, but those who are really interested will make the investment, and those who don’t can at least be chosen with the knowledge that they haven’t.
As for your second section, about education, in the form of demonstrations, as outreach to bring people into kinkster networks—what kind of public venues are you talking about? Places like the big commercial sex product trade shows? Places like anyone-can-register conferences in major hotels? Workshops given at feminist sex stores? I agree that in some cases public demos end up being more about voyeurism than education, but context and intention make a huge difference here, so I can’t quite get behind a hard-line dismissal of them. And it’s all the more complex in that context sometimes trumps even the best intentions on the part of a presenter; and the “wrong” intentions can trump the most fully appropriate of contexts.
I know, for instance, that when I did a fisting workshop with a live demo at a university sex week, some people were profoundly moved by it and learned stuff they simply would never have learned any other way—the demo bottom and I both got some incredible feedback about how life-changing that was for some folks who’d never learned about the intricacies of female anatomy and who witnessed the gentleness and care of the demo when they expected it to be scary and violent. But some frat boys walked away from the same demo and spent the rest of the night loudly making fun of the demo bottom’s body shape over too much beer at the university pub. I’m still not sure whether on balance it was a good idea to do that demo or not, but it’s not nearly as simple as yes or no. Perhaps it could have been advertised differently, perhaps the participants should have been vetted some, perhaps… I dunno. Questions well worth pondering.
When it comes to your third section, about educational outreach to the general public, I agree that most don’t need specifics. I don’t even think our non-kinky families of origin need lots of specifics—I cringed about sixty times when reading When Someone You Love Is Kinky for instance, thinking “I would NEVER tell my mother that level of detail about what I do! And it’s not what she would want to know anyway, she just wants to know I’m safe!”
But are you seeing outreach that does seem to provide huge amounts of detail? In what context is it taking place? What sort of detail is being provided, and in what way is it harmful to us? What is this “asking for more” you’re referencing, which we shouldn’t be doing? I’m not aiming to challenge your point here per se, as it seems sound to me at base, but I’m curious because I’m not sure I actually know what you’re saying should not happen.
I think some elements of the non-kinky public need way more detail and sound education—such as doctors, therapists, cops, lawmakers, judges and so forth—so they can properly serve kinky people without bias or misunderstanding while nevertheless retaining their critical faculties. Not all kink is done in safe and healthy ways, after all, and for professionals to help those who need it, they need to be fed more than just the party line about how we’re all so RACK and SSC, preferably by people who know enough about the field in question (psychology, law enforcement, whatever) to have some credibility in the eyes of those they’re teaching, along with the ability to speak using terms the learners will understand. And I think general shame- and stigma-busting is useful to the general public, for instance in challenging common perceptions of pervs as being dangerous, deranged and criminal. So it’s mostly about providing a topic focus and level of detail that’s appropriate to specific purposes.
Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. Glad to see this discussion is happening. I’ve read the other commenters with great interest, and I hope I’ve added some more food for thought.