Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

if trans women aren’t welcome, neither am I
September 20, 2013

The question of whether or not to include trans women in women’s sexuality-based events is old and tiresome, but it still comes up with some regularity. I recently responded to a discussion on this topic and I realized that it might be useful to post my thoughts here, as I don’t know that I’ve ever done so in full.

I see a few main underlying assumptions come up in these discussions, and I’d like to counter them. Some of these arguments are stated outright, while others seem implicit in the language people tend to use. Most counter-arguments I’ve seen focus on the stated arguments, but I’d like to incorporate the underlying ones too, which makes the discussion a bit broader.

Comments are welcome, as always. That said, I realize that comments on posts like this often veer into the territory of flame-war pretty quickly. As a result I’m going to keep a tight rein on the comments here, and I may shut down comments fairly early in the game if only because so much of what might come up has already been said and I don’t think it’s worth rehashing lots of it here. This post is a position statement, not an invitation to a grand debate.

***

Assumption 1. There exists such thing as a “safe space.”

I feel strongly that the idea of safe space is a really dangerous one, no matter who’s claiming it for what space. It seems like there’s an underlying assumption in some comments that safe space does indeed exist or that it’s something worth striving for. For me, as soon as the concept comes up, whether this precise term is used or it just seems to be implied, I immediately become super uncomfortable and feel very concerned about how people will behave in whatever space is being discussed. I’ve seen this idea used as a battering ram, essentially, in way too many contexts, usually as a way to police behaviour in a mean-spirited manner or to exclude people or create an “in-crowd” of people who “get it.” Doesn’t really matter whether it’s an activist space, a party, a conference, whatever. Almost universally, it’s about people buying into a fantasy of safety that simply does not match reality—and making a lot of people quite unsafe by using policing-style behaviour.

In reality, you are only “safe” from things that might make you uncomfortable or triggered if you stay at home where you have absolute control over everything that happens (and even then, not always). Each person’s idea of “safe” is different, and therefore a group space cannot possibly be “safe.” “Safe” isn’t real, and as such I believe it’s not worth investing energy in. It’s much better, in my opinion, to create spaces where there are a few clear rules for acceptable behaviour (which does *not* depend on identity or status of any kind, gender or otherwise), a stated expectation of kindness and goodwill, and one or several people who are in charge of smoothing things out if they go wrong.

Assumption 2. We all have the right to expect to be comfortable in sexual space.

Speaking as someone who’s spent well over a decade attending group sexual events large and small in dozens of cities all over the world, I can say that no matter what the gender rules are for a given space, it is best for me to go into them not expecting to feel comfortable, *ever*. I’ve felt horribly uncomfortable at “women-only” events, and super comfortable in totally gender-mixed spaces. And vice versa too. The factors in that comfort level include people’s attitudes in general, the vibe and layout of the space, the level of alcohol consumption, temperature, the level of privacy, the loudness or nature/content of a scene or sex happening nearby, the organizers’ style, whether or not there’s pressure to play or fuck, the music, how high or stoned people are, what kind of porn is screening, the racial or age or body size or gender mix of the crowd, the presence or absence of one or two specific people… all of these things come into play in terms of my own comfort level, and they are not things I can know or expect going in.

I think we need to stop expecting sexual spaces to be comfortable in the first place, and understand that a thing that makes one of us feel right at home might make someone else feel sick to their stomach. (An intense blood play scene in the middle of the room… the presence of lots of butches… the opportunity to get high… Can you guess which one of those make me feel comfortable and which I find hard to handle? There is at least one of each. Do you think I would accurately guess your response to the same criteria?)

Most crucially, we need to remember that the exclusion of trans women is not the primary standard of comfort for everyone, or even for most people, or even for most cisgender dykes. When we expect a given space to make us feel comfortable in the first place, and then we reduce this question of comfort to a question of whether or not trans women are there, we are functioning from a very skewed picture of what actually makes a space comfortable for anyone outside our own selves, and making a lot of really unfounded assumptions about what works for everyone else around us too.

Assumption 3. One person having a trigger is a legitimate reason to exclude someone else from an event.

Here’s a list of some of the triggers and squicks I’ve encountered among the people I’ve met in the last few years as a travelling sex educator and event organizer: seeing someone taking off their belt; being touched on the belly; seeing porn; hearing the terms “fat,” “ugly,” and “stupid”; seeing blood; hearing a deep voice; seeing a masculine-presenting person fucking a feminine-presenting person doggy-style; seeing testicles (though a penis would be fine); military uniforms; finding out someone is bisexual or not a “gold-star” lesbian or gay man; watching age play or being in the presence of “littles”…  I could go on. The thing about a trigger is that it’s deeply personal, by its very nature. Sometimes it’s about past trauma, sometimes not. I know that for me, if I saw someone do a food play scene, I’d have to either leave the room or vomit, and I couldn’t tell you why—that’s just how it is.

Regardless of what it is, it’s super important that we take responsibility for managing our own triggers and squicks rather than expecting spaces to be set up to accommodate us, and all the more so when our trigger is about someone else’s looks, presence or behaviour. Outside basic rules of good behaviour, or specific event attendance rules for specific purposes—for instance, this event is only for people in full-time M/s relationships, or this is an event where everyone is expected to dress head-to-toe in red—it’s really not fair to ask others to curtail their behaviour or hide pieces of themselves in order to be welcome. I would never think of asking someone not to do food play in front of me. My squick, my responsibility to manage.

Assumption 4. Trans women have penises, and I will see those penises if they’re at a sex party.

***Added 2013/09/23: I want to preface this bit by stating in no uncertain terms that the configuration of a person’s genitals is none of my/your/anyone’s business unless you are about to engage in some kind of sexual touching that would require that knowledge. It’s also not a legitimate factor in whether or not someone should be considered to “really be” the gender they say they are. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health takes a strong stand against requiring any kind of surgical modification for someone to “qualify” as their stated gender, and everyone from governments to party organizers should take a cue from them. As well, I want to make it clear that many (most?) trans women don’t refer to their pre- or non-op genitals as “penises.” Some say clit, some say girl-dick, some say strapless – there’s a long list. Women’s individual choices about what they call their bits take precedence over any externally imposed words. Mostly, though, as with the question of what someone’s genitals look like, what they’re called is also none of anyone’s business unless you’re getting sexual together. The following paragraphs cover some basic information about genitals that you can find in a range of trans-101 resources, as well as in the zine I link to in point 9. I’m putting it here purely to counter the misinformation that this particular assumption is based on – not to imply that it’s anyone’s actual business to know what’s going on with any individual trans women’s genitals. ***

I think that a lot of people who are triggered by the idea of penises are *very* unlikely to be upset by most of what they’d see at an event that includes trans women. For starters, a lot of trans women get bottom surgery—I’d say at least three-quarters of the ones I’ve met in dyke contexts, though that’s anecdotal of course. It is much more common for trans women to opt for, and prioritize, bottom surgery than for trans men to do so (which is surely at least in good part due to cost, but also due to expected results).

The women who don’t have bottom surgery yet, but who are planning to, rarely want to show off or use their genitals in public space the way some cisgender men might. For them, the whole point of surgery is that they don’t want to have a penis at all, let alone wave it around in public, even less so among people who may be uncomfortable with that.

Among the trans gals who haven’t had bottom surgery and don’t plan to, the vast majority don’t have genitals that look like what most people would understand or immediately recognize as being a penis—the use of hormones makes the genitals much smaller and softer, and it’s usually not easy to get an erection or ejaculate. If you’re basing your idea of trans women as “chicks with dicks” you may have been watching too much shemale porn—and understand, please, that even in that kind of porn the trans women in question often have to use Viagra to get it up at all, and still often can’t come or ejaculate, and are in many cases keeping their penises for the moment only because porn is a way to earn enough money for bottom surgery. So it’s a bad place to judge from, even though it’s the easiest and quickest place to go if you want to see images of trans women’s non-surgically-altered bits.

Last but not least, there is the rare trans woman who has a dick and who understands it as such and is both capable of and interested in using it in typically “male” ways. All I have to say about that is that if I had one—a dick, that is—so would I! I think a lot of women feel the same if the popularity of strap-ons is any indication, to say nothing of the well-known dyke fascination with gay male porn. I’ve never actually seen this happen at a sex party, in all my travels, and as such I might be a bit surprised if I did. But if I can handle watching countless cis-dykes pound away at each other with dicks they’ve purchased at a store, surely I can handle watching a dyke use one she happens to have grown. We “allow” trans men the freedom to use the parts they were born with to achieve pleasure—surely we can extend that same acceptance to the very rare trans woman who wants to do the same. It seems a very strange thing to start judging, especially when we’re a community of people who gets off on a rather stunning variety of sexual practices to begin with.

And for people who equate “penis” with “ability to rape or assault” and are therefore triggered by the possibility or the reality of seeing one… first, see point 3. Beyond that, maybe your parents were a lot more specific about this, but my mom always told me to watch out for men, not for penises, if I wanted to avoid rape. But this same logic meant that nobody really told me to watch out for women who assault and rape. I know it’s a shitty thing to have to face, and I know a lot of dykes don’t like to talk about it because it damages their sense of safety in community… but I have met plenty of women who have had experiences of sexual assault or domestic violence with other women (cisgender and otherwise). At play parties and sex parties and bars, at home alone with a partner, with someone they’ve dated for a little while, with someone they’ve married… it happens, and way more than we’d like to think. Pretending that assault and rape are only perpetrated by men, or only done by people with penises, allows women and people with vaginas to get away with it that much more easily.

Rape and assault are not about penises. They are about someone’s sense of entitlement to touch another person’s body without consent. We need to stop projecting our fears onto a body part (regardless of who’s sporting it) and start looking at how people actually behave. It will make us *feel* less safe to acknowledge this, but I think it will make us actually *be* safer if we can talk about it openly.

Assumption 5. Trans women are aggressive in a way that makes people uncomfortable.

To me this sounds a whole lot like “black people are all so angry!” or “women are so over-emotional and hysterical!” or even “gay men are so effeminate!” It’s a stereotype, pure and simple. It’s especially similar to those other examples because it’s a stereotype that focuses on the way someone expresses themselves. We expect these behaviours or expression styles because we fear them – oppressive white people are scared of angry black people, men who are taught not to feel or deal with emotions are scared of women expressing emotions, people who are taught that masculinity is precious and fragile and absolutely necessary to their survival are terrified to see how easily someone can “lose” their masculinity, and so forth. From there, if we see these things happen in real life once or twice, we believe them to be true of everyone in a given group all the time. Then it becomes really easy to *only* see those things, and to miss or simply ignore—or, in this case, *deprive ourselves of the opportunity to see*—people in that same category behaving in other ways too. Which they/we do, because we are human. We need to get past this, plain and simple.

Assumption 6. Trans women are all the same.

We need to make sure, when we’re talking about trans women just as with any other group, that we aren’t speaking as though they were all the same. Trans women are as different from one another as any other people are. Some are aggressive, some soft and sweet. Some big, some small; some butch, others femme, others genderqueer, and so forth. Some lesbians, some straight, some bi, some queer. Every imaginable racial and ethnic background. Every imaginable profession and economic status (though statistically more likely to be poor and underemployed, regardless of their education level, due to rampant systemic transphobia). Some pre-op, some post-op, some non-op (bottom surgery). Some on hormones, some not. Some who “pass” easily, some who don’t and won’t ever. Some who have breast implants, some who don’t. So anytime you start a sentence with “trans women are…”, think carefully about what you’re going to say next and whether it’s true all the time or not.

Assumption 7. The term “woman” or “women” is by definition about cisgendered women.

In my world, when we talk about women, that includes trans women, because trans women are women. If we’re trying to say something specific about women who were assigned female at birth and are still happy to be referred to that way today, we call them cis or cisgendered women. If we’re trying to say something specific about women who were assigned male at birth but later transitioned, we call them trans women, or possibly women with a history of transition. But “women” on its own doesn’t imply anything about how someone was born. There’s nothing offensive about any of these terms unless they’re applied to someone inaccurately or with intent to shame or hurt.

For me personally, I don’t love being called a cis woman, not because there’s anything wrong with the term or because I think it’s pejorative, but because I am actually not always comfortable living in a female body and I feel like I float in a middle space between several genders. “Woman” I’ll accept, though only barely, and I wish I had another option than either that or “man.” But when someone calls me “cis,” to me that makes me feel they are making some very mistaken assumptions about me, and *that*—not the term itself—can be offensive. (Same as being assumed straight, or femme, or able-bodied… nothing wrong with those terms, they’re just inaccurate when applied to me.) But even then, I can still recognize that most of the world, most of the time, sees me as a woman, and that I get certain privileges because of that. So being *perceived* as a cis woman still gives me advantages, even if I don’t apply the term to myself. As such it’s still a useful term.

Assumption 8. Trans women aren’t really women, because they weren’t socialized as women.

This one falls apart on several levels.

First, it assumes that all women were socialized the same way. This makes no room for the vastly diverse types of socializing we each go through. A past butch partner of mine, for instance, refers to her childhood as being a “boyhood”—she played sports, spent time with her dad learning about woodworking and was never forced to look or dress girly. I, on the other hand, was very much socialized to be a girl, with all the expectations and prohibitions that come along with that. This is a pretty stark difference in childhood gender-socialization experiences despite how we were both raised in white, Ontario-based, heterosexually-parented, middle-class families with religious mothers and multiple siblings. As soon as we start adding on other differences—race, economic status, geographic location, age, number and configuration of parents, sexual orientations within the family, religion, schooling and so forth—we multiply the ways in which our gender socialization might change.

Second, it assumes that the way we are socialized “sticks” the same way on everyone. I would argue, for instance, that probably none of us who are queer were socialized as children to be queer. Most of us who are gender-independent weren’t taught to be that way by our parents. And I’ve only rarely met people who are what I’d call second-generation poly—as in, they had openly non-monogamous parents and are themselves non-monogamous. Possibly even more rarely than that have I encountered people whose parents were openly kinky such that they were socialized from childhood to be perverts. (And certainly, I was never taught, as a girl, to be a dominant or a top!) I could say similar things about feminism—I don’t think, for instance, that I’m any less “real” or “legit” a feminist because my mother and father most certainly aren’t feminists. And I can assure you that I was never socialized to work primarily at night, or have a freelance career, or to do a PhD—I’m the only one in my entire family doing any of those things, and they are huge pieces of how I understand myself as an agent in the world and of how I live my everyday life. And so on, and so forth. So it’s very odd to see people who’ve made life decisions that for the most part radically depart from what they were taught to do as children try to argue that on this singular point—the question of gender—socialization trumps choice, trumps our innate sense of who we are and trumps all the efforts we make to do about that. It just doesn’t work that way. Of all people, we should know.

Third, the socialization argument dismisses and disrespects the enormous challenges that trans women have to go through to understand themselves as women, and to assert themselves as such in the face of huge social forces that tell them they are not and cannot be what they are. There are plenty of trans women who never felt like men in the first place, for whom existing in an assigned-male body was a horrific experience of dysphoria and disconnection, for whom being raised and socialized as male was deeply damaging to the point of leading them to depression and suicidality, or for whom the presence of a penis and the lack of a vagina (for those who haven’t had bottom surgery) is an ongoing source of trauma, not a free pass into male privilege. If we can understand our own struggles to self-define, to make sense of our desires and identities and bodies, surely we have it in us to understand others’ when they are arguably even more complex and more strongly discouraged by the world around them.

Last but not least, this argument also assumes that trans women are not treated as women by the world at large. It is true that some trans women are not read as women by the world around them. In those cases, they are often shunned, assaulted and disrespected—as “failed” women, as “failed” men, or as freaks in general. In this sense, trans women who don’t “pass” are punished in much the same way as cis women are punished when they fail to do “woman” right. For being too fat, or too hairy, or not passive enough, or too smart, or too capable, or not straight enough, or too slutty, or too frigid, or not curvy enough, or whatever else.

Trans women know exactly what it’s like to be told they’re not doing it right, and cis women know exactly how much that hurts because it’s done to many of us too. Trans women who do “pass,” on the other hand, are subjected to the same kinds of bullshit that many cis women are just for being women, even when we are doing “woman” right—essentially, lots of misplaced entitlement. People, especially but not exclusively men, feel entitled to comment on or touch or fuck our bodies, to expect our sexual interest, to measure their masculinity by how different it is from our femininity, to get paid more than we do, to be aggressive and active to our receptivity and passivity, to be physically strong to our weakness, and so forth. And beyond all this… trans women who sometimes “pass” and sometimes don’t get the unenviable privilege of being on the receiving end of *both* these kinds of bullshit, both of which are clearly linked to being a woman, if from different angles.

So I call bullshit on this socialization question. It just doesn’t hold water.

 

Assumption 9. The “cotton ceiling” is a way for trans women to bully cis women into having sex with them.

The idea of the “cotton ceiling” is intended to draw attention to how even in spaces that are politically and socially welcoming of trans women, transphobia often retains its influence on how we understand who is sexually desirable and who isn’t. It’s no different from other politicized criteria for desirability—people who are, for instance, fat or disabled are also often welcomed into queer women’s space but not seen as desirable compared to those hot slim, muscular, able-bodied sorts. This isn’t our fault—our entire culture tells us what’s sexy and what’s not, 24 hours a day, and that definition is terribly narrow. But it is really easy to forget how much influence advertising propaganda and social pressure can exert on what gets us wet and hard, and to let the mainstream’s terms dictate our desires.

It is possible to read the idea of the cotton ceiling as being about pressuring people to change who and what they desire. And that pressure can feel unwelcome. With that in mind, I would challenge those who feel it that way to look very carefully at the message that’s being delivered. Is it actually about you being told you need to go out and fuck people you’re not attracted to? Or is it about someone asking you to think about how much of your attractions are based on an underlying assumption of cissexism? Or perhaps, might it be about challenging women-centred sexual spaces to talk openly about trans women’s bodies and how to safely and enjoyably have sex with trans women—a topic about which it is ridiculously difficult to find solid information? (Try Mira Bellwether’s awesome zine, Fucking Trans Women, if you are in search!) Or perhaps it could be about challenging the producers of dyke sexual representation to include trans women as objects of desire—in porn, in art, in erotica—which is only barely beginning to happen?

This is a difficult line to walk in terms of messaging—there is a subtlety to the argument that can easily be misunderstood. And to be fair, some people delivering the message about the cotton ceiling may not be doing it in a skilful way. But I think mostly the misunderstanding here comes from people who are very attached to a body- or genitals-based understanding of gender and very threatened by anything that comes along and challenges that.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t do anyone any favours for a person to fuck someone for political reasons without genuine attraction. I really hope nobody goes out and fucks anyone just to prove a political point or make a statement about how wonderful and open-minded they are. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of such false desire, and I would feel pretty disappointed in myself if I noticed I’d started to collect a list of sexual partners who conveniently belonged to stigmatized minority groups so that I could brag about it.

Fundamentally, it also doesn’t do anyone any favours for a person to pressure anyone else to have sex, for political reasons or otherwise. So if a trans woman cruises you with a line like, “Hey, you should have sex with me to prove you’re not transphobic,” you have every right to say, “Uh, no thanks.” Failing that highly unlikely situation, though, I think a lot of cis and otherwise non-trans gals need to ratchet down the defensive reaction and take the opportunity to really examine how much of our desire rests on cissexism, and how much of the sexual culture we create and consume excludes trans women, even if we’re not doing it on purpose. That thought process may never change our physical attractions, and it doesn’t have to. But on the other hand, it might, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. For a bunch of politicized people who are committed to resisting the patriarchy, fighting racism and advocating for accepting our bodies at any size, and then going ahead and representing those various bodies in all their delicious glory, this one really shouldn’t be a big stretch. And at the bare minimum, whether it changes our sexual practice or not, it could possibly help us to change a culture of exclusion such that the people next to us at that sex party—cis, trans and otherwise—can more easily access the kind of sex they’d like to be having.

 

Assumption 10. Trans men are a lot like women.

This one comes up as a counterpart to the “socialization” argument, specifically when people argue for the inclusion of trans men in women’s spaces as a counterpart to arguing against the inclusion of trans women in those same spaces. This is especially unhelpful to trans men.

A significant percentage of trans men are, well, men. They look like men, smell like men, identify and move through the world as men. If they’re told they’re allowed to attend a women’s event because they’re not really men, that’s pretty insulting.

Of course, *some* trans men are gender-fluid, or strongly attached to their history as dykes or as women, or see their transition as an extension of their former or current butch-ness and still prefer to date queer women, or what have you. So as such, some of them feel at home in queer women’s spaces, and it would be very sad and hurtful to exclude them. I totally get this. But let’s be clear that we are not talking about all trans men here. It’s a very specific range of trans men, and there’s a whole other range of trans men out there for whom such inclusion would be unwelcome at best and outright damaging at worst.

There are lots of trans men who never felt like women in the first place, for whom existing in a female-assigned body was a horrific experience of dysphoria and disconnection, for whom being raised and socialized as female was deeply damaging to the point of leading them to depression and suicidality, or for whom the lack of a penis (for those who don’t get bottom surgery) is an ongoing source of trauma, not a free pass into women’s space. Please let’s not disrespect these guys by assuming they’re “one of us” because they have vaginas. That’s what the rest of the world has been doing to them forever and sometimes it quite literally kills them.

***

This post is mostly about analyzing a set of arguments, sometimes in ways I’ve seen done by others, some less so. But in addition to the argumentation piece, I’m writing this to publicly say, in no uncertain terms, that as a woman who’s not trans, I fully support events that include trans women and tend to feel personally way more comfortable when trans women are welcome than when they’re not. For me, events that include trans women create a baseline of respect for people’s chosen gender identities—my own included—where I can breathe at least somewhat easier, instead of worrying about people making misguided assumptions and applying them to me and others. It’s a statement that clearly says “who you are is important, not who the world tells you to be.” This isn’t just symbolic. It makes a real difference in the vibe of a space, in my experience, and makes a lot more room for me too.

***

P.S. Adding this a day after first posting: I want to acknowledge an additional assumption that underpins everything I’ve tried to challenge here. This is the assumption that there is an “us” made up entirely of cis and otherwise non-trans women who are in charge of all women’s sexuality-based events and who get to make the decisions about including “them,” the trans women who’d like to attend. In fact my experience has been quite different from that. Trans women have been around for decades – “they” aren’t a sort of perpetually new part of “our” community, but rather a part of the fabric of it, of its history and its present and absolutely of its future. Several generations of trans women, and their contributions, long predate my own organizing efforts, for instance – so it’s a testament to the persistence of transphobia that somehow I, when I started organizing events in my early twenties, still understood that it was my job to “let” the trans women in (or bar them access). To me this feels like the height of disrespect – that some parts of the dyke world are still stuck on whether or not to include people who’ve been around since, y’know, the middle of last century. Many of the trans women in my community are older, wiser and more experienced than I am. I am fortunate to have many smart, powerful trans women as my elders – as scholars, as SM players, as dykes, as organizers, as role models, as writers and artists and activists. I’m grateful for their presence, their persistence in the face of discrimination, and for *their* willingness to let *me* in, to whatever extent they have.

do your homework (or, what goes wrong when writers don’t… and then write about kink)
March 9, 2013

Today, I have a few things to say about two articles on BDSM that have come across my feed these past couple of days: “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status” by Meghan Murphy for Rabble.ca, and “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted” by William Saletan for Slate.com.

They’ve got it wrong. They’ve got it so far wrong that frankly, their authors are making public fools of themselves, if nothing else than for sheer factual error, but also because of a remarkable failure to demonstrate even the most basic ability to construct a logical argument. Beyond that, they’ve been published on otherwise relatively well-regarded websites, which indicates a failure of clear thought along two entire publishing chains of command, and this makes me seriously raise an eyebrow at their editors. If this is the level of discourse that writers are engaging in, in 2013, when the topic of sadomasochism comes up, I fear we are about to descend back into a blow-by-blow replay of the 1980s Sex Wars, except played out on the interwebs among much bigger “armies” than the diminutive, if vociferous, ranks of radical feminists.

How do they get it wrong, you ask? Mostly, it’s about conflating ideas that are in fact quite separate, and failing to provide any justification or logical explanation for those conflations. Again: super basic stuff. Stuff that, if they weren’t operating with some sort of willful ignorance (or failing that, actual lack of intelligence, so I kinda weirdly hope it’s the first option), they’d be able to figure out quite easily. This isn’t rocket science. Perhaps these writers are so dazzled by the spectacle of kink that they simply lose their critical thinking faculties. If this is the case, I’d invite them to come spend a few weekends at a kink conference or twelve. Once the “oh my god people actually do that?!” wears off, perhaps they’ll be able to approach this topic in a somewhat more level-headed fashion.

I have created a three-part breakdown for your reading pleasure, followed by some suggestions of how to do the job properly. (Yep. Long post. Necessarily.)

Problem 1. The conflation of kink with domestic violence, assault and murder.

Let’s take Meghan Murphy’s Rabble article, “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status,” as the perfect example of this. She discusses the “cannibal cop” case that’s recently made the news, and then goes on to package that with an attack on kinksters’ self-understanding as sexual minorities. It’s a twisted, deeply flawed argument. I will try to take it apart here.

Okay, so we’ve got this cop who likes to look at pictures of dead bodies and videos of women being roasted on spits. So far, a bit gross, potentially, but y’know, if you don’t want to see depictions of dead bodies (real or staged), don’t watch the news or action movies or TV or, well, yeah. Images of people roasting on spits are a little less common but the first time I saw one was in a Robin Hood film when I was about six, and don’t even start me on the weird shit in Indiana Jones or Star Wars. These ain’t specialized fetish websites, folks. Torture scenes are par for the course in mainstream cultural productions to which we all have access. And, lest we get upset about misogyny when it is not warranted, please note that in all cases I’m mentioning here, we’re talking about male victims. So let’s bracket this out unless we want to tar pretty much everyone in North America with the same brush.

Do we want to get into the realm of specialized fetish websites? Okay, let’s go there. Without actually using the term “snuff,” Murphy relies heavily on the spectre of snuff films for her argument. “Snuff” is basically the idea of porn in which someone is killed at the end. Like, for real killed. But she misstates the facts as reported. Her article contains the following paragraph:

“The officer, Gilberto Valle, had been visiting a ‘fetish sites’ (because murdering women is a ‘fetish’ donchaknow) which “show[ed] women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive.” There was a cannibalism element to his ‘fetish’ and “the FBI analysis of Valle’s laptop yielded a video of a naked woman hanging over an open flame and screaming in agony.”

Pretty disturbing, right? Except that the article she links to twice in that paragraph in fact reads as follows:

“Jurors appeared uncomfortable Monday as prosecutors showed a video of a screaming woman made to appear as if she were being cooked alive over an open flame and other disturbing images from websites devoted to torturing and eating women – evidence prosecutors say proves Valle was involved in a cannibalism plot.

“Valle frequently visited websites showing women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive, FBI computer forensics examiner Stephen Flatly testified at Valle’s kidnapping conspiracy trial.”

Do you see the difference? If we go by Murphy’s conflation, we’d think the woman was being actually roasted alive. If we go by the original article, we see that she’s made to appear that way (refer back to Robin Hood). If we go by Murphy, the cop was visiting fetish websites presenting snuff porn—footage of real women being killed. If we go by the original article, the cop could have been looking at any pictures of dead women (refer back to watching the news), or possibly pictures of women made to appear dead. The original article isn’t terribly clear—what does “forced duress” mean? How is it split into “stages”? Are we supposed to understand that these women “did not survive” that “duress” or just that they are dead? And is all that imagery of things that actually happened or are they pictures of women being “made to appear” to go through these things? Those are pretty key distinctions to make, and if the recent Montreal special-effects artist case is any indication (the artist was acquitted, by the way), disturbing imagery is by no means an indication that anyone was harmed, even when it’s extreme. Despite lack of clarity, though, the person who wrote this article—y’know, an actual reporter who has to be careful not to state things that aren’t true—didn’t explicitly conflate all this stuff. But Murphy sure did.

Listen, I don’t know what this cop was looking at or what websites he was visiting. What I can tell you, though, is that according to the numerous books and articles I’ve read on the topic, snuff films are largely a thing of pure imagination. Actual snuff films are incredibly rare and excruciatingly hard to find even for people who are actively seeking them out, ranging from both independent investigators on a personal quest to major law enforcement teams. And when posted on the internet, such videos usually lead pretty quickly to the arrest of a perpetrator who was stupid enough to film himself murdering someone. Because hello! Filming yourself committing a murder is a pretty clear giveaway! (Luka Magnotta, anyone?!) So the chances of this guy watching footage of actual murder are very, very slim. The closest he likely came was viewing documentary footage of accidental death, or other such potentially gruesome and disturbing but not exactly pornographic stuff. More likely he was entertaining himself with “turkey”-roasting fetish porn (which, from what I’ve seen, is so wholesome-looking as to be almost silly), gore-film special-effects footage and “Faces of Death,” which half the kids in my high school watched on weekends to upset their parents. You can argue that his taste in entertainment is disturbing, and you might be right, but that is a whole different discussion than one about a guy who watches films of actual women being murdered, roasted on spits and eaten. If such films exist, we are dealing with a way bigger problem than a cop watching them, but since I am seeing no news articles about snuff porn rings with a penchant for cannibalism, I am forced to assume this isn’t the case.

Murphy: get your facts straight. This is deliberate misinterpretation. When presented in context of an article whose (confusing!) aim is to simultaneously dismiss kinky sexuality as boring and tar it with the brush of murder, you are making some very dangerous conflations indeed.

Moving on from the question of what he was watching… Next, this cop decides he thinks it’s a good idea to discuss killing and eating his wife with some potential accomplices. Okay! Now this is a BIG problem! He’s probably not the nicest guy! He’s seriously plotting to do something very violent, very real, VERY non-consensual, and that is explicitly and intentionally aiming to result in someone’s death. HELLO! These are BAD THINGS! This, not his taste in websites, tells us that we are talking about a potential murderer here. Psychopath? Maybe. Some other sort of mental illness? Possibly. If he’s not mentally ill, then what? Do sane people ever take steps toward killing, dismembering and cannibalizing other people? Frankly, I don’t know. I have no idea how I’d deal with this guy in a court of law, but one thing I can tell you is that there is no place for him in the diverse realm of consensual joy- and pleasure-seeking self-actualizers of the world who play with other people who also wish to play with them. He belongs in the ranks of, well, pretty much every other person out there who plans and executes the un-desired, non-consensual torture and murder of people.

Murphy asks the question, “When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?” The answer is in the question. When it becomes actual. Next question, please.

I would propose that a more interesting question would be, “How do we tell the difference between plans to enact a fantasy and plans to commit a crime?” That, too, has an easy answer, but that answer doesn’t appeal to the likes of Murphy, who seems bent on creating a parallel where none exists.

Let’s look at the case. The guy didn’t commit the actual crime of murder. What he did do, however, was make extensive plans to commit the actual crime. Please note the difference between plans to commit the crime of murder and cannibalism and plans to play out a murder and cannibalism fantasy (and yes, this fetish does exist, and fantasy websites do exist about it). The distinctions might be lost on folks like Murphy, but I’ll walk us through it as an exercise in the obvious, just in case.

In the planning to enact a fantasy that involves two people, both people are involved in that planning to whatever extent they agree they will each be involved (everything from “I trust you to surprise me, honey!” to “You pick the apple to put in my mouth, and I’ll polish it so it’ll look good in the pictures”). In planning to commit a crime, one person is involved, or possibly one person and a partner or partners in crime, and the victim of the crime is unawares, because if they were they would run like hell.

In the planning of a fantasy enactment, roles are discussed, safety is considered, limits are negotiated. (“If I squawk twice, that means this ‘turkey’ needs to come out of the ‘oven’!”) In the planning of a crime, nobody is role-playing, the very idea of safety is by definition not part of the game plan (unless maybe you count the perpetrator’s plans to get away with the crime himself unharmed?), and limits are by definition disregarded because HELLO SOMEONE DIES AT THE END.

Do I really need to go on here? Is Murphy actually arguing that she can’t tell the difference between these two things?  If not, I must ask: what exactly is making Meghan Murphy link this guy to anything in the realm of kink?

I’m going to throw her a bone here, and acknowledge that Murphy’s main source of upset here seems to be misogyny and violence against women. And y’know, I get it. Misogyny and violence against women upset me too. I’m not sure how she makes the leap from a murder-plotting cannibal cop to your local spanking fetishist or what have you, though. She fails to actually lay out the connection she sees, and given the rather vast divergences (orgasm versus murder, say), that is a significant element to omit.

I absolutely acknowledge that we live in a culture in which male violence against women is seen as normal, is permitted both subtly and overtly, and is even encouraged (take the example of rape jokes, which I wrote about here). I absolutely think we need to work to end misogyny. But come on. Let’s actually target misogyny and violence, then, not the people whose sex lives Murphy herself seems to see as dull.

Murphy writes:

“There are a couple of issues surrounding ‘kink’ that do concern me. The first is the unwillingness of feminists to call out misogyny when they see it simply because we have to protect the sensitivities of the fetish folks. The second is the delusion that ‘kink’ is an identity that designates ‘kinky people’ as some kind of oppressed minority group. Kink and BDSM can certainly enter misogynist territory and it isn’t your right to force the world to pretend that it doesn’t in order to defend your sex life. … The real life rape and torture of real life people isn’t just a sexy game; but when presented as ‘kink’ it becomes innate part of our sexualities, completely divorced from larger culture.”

I think Murphy is trying to construct a link between the “cannibal cop” and misogyny, and a further link between misogyny and kink, and then a link between kink and the employment of “sexual minority deserving of protection” logic as a tool used by evil kinksters to undermine feminism. But she doesn’t employ any logical means to make that chain of links strong enough to lean on. So let’s consider it broken, all right?

This doesn’t mean we can’t address the separate, non-cannibal-cop-related question of misogyny in kink. The problem with Murphy’s take on it is fourfold.

First of all, Murphy seems to assume that “fetish folks” are not, themselves, feminists. Her phrasing belies her bigoted understanding of kink as necessarily un-feminist or anti-feminist. She’s free to misperceive as much as she likes, but in doing so she’s ignoring a rather colossal amount of literature produced in the last thirty years of feminist discourse (both scholarly, such as Gayle Rubin among many others, and popular, such as Clarisse Thorne), as well as the existence of countless self-identified feminists within kink communities and privately engaging in kinky activities. This doesn’t speak highly of her research skills but does speak volumes about her bias.

Second, Murphy thinks “kink” as an identity designates a group that falsely considers itself an oppressed minority. And Murphy takes pains to point out, repeatedly and condescendingly, that she finds us boring:

“Now, before the ‘don’t kink-shame me’ folks start railing on me, I will reiterate that, I really don’t much care about whether or not you want to dress up in latex costumes and play silly games in the bedroom. It isn’t particularly interesting. The only people who really care about ‘kink’ are people who care about ‘kink’. So get over the idea that you’re so bad and the rest of the world is just too ‘vanilla’ to get you. You like role-playing, other people don’t. So what. Move on.”

Okay. I’d be happy to move on, except that Murphy herself is simultaneously telling me my sex life is uninteresting and conflating it with the practices of a would-be murderous cannibal. I don’t feel the least bit oppressed by liking to dress up in leather and hit people for mutual enjoyment, but yeah, I admit, I do feel pretty keenly misrepresented by articles like this one which try to tell me that places me on a continuum with a dude who wants to slit his wife’s throat, bleed her out, and eat her dead body for lunch. Murphy, you are doing some pretty nasty oppressing here. An eye-rolling comment about latex outfits doesn’t obscure that little trick. It’s precisely this sort of egregious conflation that has psychiatrists chemically neutering foot fetishists and courts revoking custody because Mom has a riding crop tucked behind the dresser. And those consequences are bona fide oppression, the threat of which very much does hang over practicing perverts. If people like you would leave “boring” folks like us alone, we would have no reason to call oppression.

Third, Murphy’s perception that feminists are unwilling to call out misogyny completely ignores the extent to which self-identified kinky feminists are doing precisely that: calling out misogyny in kink. And no, it’s not about pictures of women in bondage or whatever. It’s about actual, not fantasized, assault, and the people who try to close ranks around the perpetrators. The community-wide discussion of non-consensual behaviour within the pansexual scene, mostly perpetrated by men and mostly targeted at women, is reaching epic proportions, as well it should. Fetlife, for instance, is practically melting down with controversy after controversy in which perpetrators of assault, non-consensual outing, stalking and more are being protected and victims being blamed within the confines of the site, which of course reflects what happens beyond it too. The reason the meltdown is happening is because feminists are calling bullshit in discussion after discussion. Loudly. Repeatedly. That discussion isn’t happening only on fetish social networking sites—it’s happening in workshops, on panels, online, via support groups, in books. (GoodReads.com even has a shelf entitled Abuse and Assault Sold as BDSM! Brilliant. And yes, Fifty Shades is on it.) I, for one, am intrigued to see where it will all go. One thing that’s most certainly not happening is silence. If someone like Murphy were at all educated about what happens among actual kinksters in actual kink community spaces, she wouldn’t make such ridiculous assertions—assertions which only serve to perpetuate the very silence, or “forcing the world to pretend,” of which she accuses kinksters. In short: misogyny absolutely does happen in kink. And when it does, much as it does pretty much anywhere else in society, feminists call it out, the way we do everywhere else we are.

Fourth, this real-life rape and torture of people that Murphy thinks is being presented as a sexy game? The only person I see doing that here is her. And maybe Gilberto Valle and Luka Magnotta, who are, y’know, in jail. On the odd occasion that I’ve seen someone present real rape and torture as anything even close to “sexy games” in kink community settings, they tend to get shouted down by—you guessed it!—feminists. Pervy feminists. Feminists who, fer fuck’s sake, can tell the damn difference between a fantasy and a rape, between a joyful experience of intense intimate connection and the terrifying and damaging experience of non-consensual violence, sometimes precisely because we’ve experienced both, sometimes because we haven’t and don’t ever wish to. Take, for instance, Mollena Williams’ article in this week’s New York Times, which is doing a much better job than Rabble of publishing clearly written and logically argued pieces about kink. (Even their rather predictable essay about the mainstreaming of BDSM, which kicked off all this discussion, is at least well-researched.) Join the club, Murphy. Have at least a modicum of respect for sexual assault survivors and their basic ability to know when they do and do not want something to happen. I’d like to think you have the intellectual chops to do this. If you don’t, well, then I’m really glad you’re not the great hope of today’s feminism.

Problem 2. The conflation of porn production with personal kink practice.

For this section, let’s take a look at William Saletan’s recent Slate article, “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted.”

Saletan falls into the same trap that Murphy does of conflating criminal violence with sexy fun times, in that his article features several links to articles about middle-aged men who kidnapped and tortured teenage girls against their will and called it kinky. Seriously, guy. Seriously. You can do a better job than this. Please tell me that your critical thinking faculties have not completely atrophied. Would you high-five a hockey player who beats the crap out of an opposing team member if he says “Hey, man, this is how hockey works, it’s all part of the game, I had to send a message”? Would you nod sagely upon hearing the Catholic Church defend and protect priests who sexually assaulted young kids, essentially saying “This is between them and God, and the best thing to do is to transfer them to another parish and pray some”? I certainly hope not. I think we can all acknowledge that violence and abuse happen in a variety of settings, and that the settings themselves do not provide either reason or excuse for that abuse. I think we can further acknowledge that abusers do their best to grab onto whatever justification or obfuscation they can come up with. So for crying out loud, put that brain to work a bit, and recognize the difference here.

Beyond that, Saletan conflates porn production work with the personal pursuit of kink: “Women who do S&M porn scenes have described electrical burns, permanent scars from beatings, and penetrations that required vaginal reconstructive surgery.”

Okay. Guy, did you actually read the whole article you link to in that sentence, entitled “Gag Order: Sex Workers Allege Mistreatment at Kink.com”? The title explains the gist of it, and the article explains the rest in fairly clear detail. We are not talking, here, about women pursuing BDSM for their sexy fun times pleasure and getting carried away and abused as they float in happy subspace. We are talking about porn performers who allege they were were mistreated on the job in a variety of ways. This is a workplace safety issue. This is a labour issue.

The Kink.com situation is similar to the kind of workplace safety issues that sex workers all over the world face when they are doing their jobs, from the freakiest kinkiest sort to the softest, sweetest vanilla. It is on par with sex workers who are pressured to push past their limits on camera or off, because someone’s got them between a rock and a hard place financially or because someone’s physically intimidating them or both. It’s about being pushed to do double anal in your first porn shoot when you didn’t really know the risks. It’s about being told one day that you’re the company’s top performer and the next day that you’re being dropped or paid less because your sales are down, and the emotional and financial roller coaster of maintaining a career in a profit-hungry industry where that kind of headfuckery can be par for the course. It’s about being pressured to do full-contact when you were supposed to do no-hands, to pay dancer’s fees to the club when you’re the one bringing in the business, to give your client a blow job when you negotiated for a massage with a happy ending. Yes, it is about unethical practices at Kink.com.

And all of this in the very specific context of people trying to make a living. Don’t equate this bad shit with the things people do in interpersonal situations that are purely for pleasure. Money changes everything. Even people who enjoy their jobs sometimes put up with shit they don’t like in order to get their paycheques, or are subjected to treatment that’s absolutely uncool and speak out about it afterward. Unethical employers of all kinds regularly expose their employees to practices that can have grave physical consequences, from food-industry-specific lung diseases to electrical shock and backbreaking labour at online shipping warehouses. A bad employer in kinky porn may do bad things to their employees just like a bad employer anywhere else. Of course that should be called out, but let’s be clear that the situation doesn’t involve the same range of decision-making factors that come into play when you’re planning your Saturday-night date.

This is, in short, about manipulative labour practices, coercive and sloppy employer behaviour, and the stigmatization that makes it extra hard for sex workers to be respected on the job and on any other job if they decide not to do sex work anymore. I’m not saying we can’t have this conversation, or that we can’t look at the particulars of kink-related porn performance and sex work that might create a different set of risks than other kinds. But if you’re trying to make a real point about risk in recreational BDSM practice, you can’t just slop a story about shoddy porn-industry labour practices into the middle of the article as though they were one and the same.

Problem 3. The conflation of risk and shock factor with harm, and the use of a fallacious slippery slope argument.

When he gets through conflating BDSM play with the kidnapping, rape and torture of minors on the one hand and bad porn-industry labour practice on the other, Saletan gets very caught up in the sensationalism of certain BDSM practices. In so doing, he clearly shows his limited understanding of the subject as a whole.

First of all, he fails to demonstrate any familiarity with the basic realities of kink. Power, sensation and fetish are three key areas of human sexuality that get mixed together in kink. The specific mix is totally individual to each person, and it is very difficult to tell from the outside what particular mix is motivating a given practice, even if it seems obvious to you. Further, practitioners understand terms and concepts slightly differently depending on their location, experience level, social circles and so forth. A picture of an activity gives you only a very limited range of information about what’s going on in it, and a given person’s story about their particular practices is only ever that one person’s story. And on top of all that, unless you have sufficient technical knowledge to understand what’s risky and what’s not, and what steps can be used to mitigate those risks, you can’t possibly judge the safety of what you’re seeing. Until you can acknowledge all of these truths, and understand the complexity they lend to any discussion on the topic, you have no business making any judgements about this whole vast range of practices some people call “kink” (or “SM” or “BDSM” or “leather” – see what I mean?), or about specific practices within it.

Yes, absolutely, some people in SM communities explore practices that, to an outsider, might seem extreme. But until we are discussing this with as neutral a level of judgement as we apply to the physical risks of any and all team sports, of heterosexual vanilla penis-in-vagina sex, of working in construction, of childbirth, of scuba diving, of shoveling your driveway past age 40, of religious fasting, of martial arts, of eating cheeseburgers at McDonald’s three times a week, of living in tornado country, of tanning beds and Botox and waxing and pedicures, of cycling to work in a city run by Rob Ford, and so forth, I’m afraid I just can’t take the “oh but that’s scary risky!” thing very seriously. Yes, some SM has risks. Just like many other things we do, no more and no less. I mean actually, for real, no more and no less. Get over it. Or talk about it level-headedly and with correct factual information.

Saletan refers to SM as “consensual domestic violence,” which is about as accurate as calling polyamory “consensual cheating.” Hmmm, would he do that too? Quite possibly. Okay, let’s instead compare it to calling a public mural project “consensual vandalism,” or calling a juice cleanse “consensual starvation.” I don’t really care what dictionary definitions he throws at the idea. He’s conflating ideas that simply don’t go together. Connotation, not denotation. It’s a thing. You’re a writer. You know this. Do it right.

He also writes that “S&M, by its nature, hurts people. Mild bondage is no big deal. But for sadomasochists, pain is the whole idea. Some stick to spatulas and wooden spoons, but others move on to electric shocks, skewers, knives, and butterfly boards.” (Beware, that last link is going to show you a pic of a pierced penis.)

There are multiple problems with this bit, not the least of which is Saletan’s persistent throwing together of links to articles about violent crime with links to images of safely performed SM practices. Leaving that aside, though, as I’ve outlined, the “nature” of SM (at least when used as a stand-in for the whole package of kink, which Saletan seems to be doing), is not that it hurts people. Plenty of SM doesn’t hurt a bit. Some of it hurts some. Some hurts a lot. Some of it feels like not-hurt even if it looks like hurt. Some of it is hurt that is actual hurt but that is rewarding for other reasons. What, precisely, is the SM he’s referring to? I don’t think he actually knows.

Beyond that, Saletan sets up a dichotomy between kink that’s “no big deal” and kink that, to him, is apparently a big deal. But who gets to decide that? Let’s take his example of “mild bondage.” Who says what that is? I’m not being needlessly relative here. My boy comfortably wears a non-removable chain collar full-time, without even really noticing it. I regularly can’t even stand the feeling of a turtleneck touching my throat. Which one is “mild”? Is “mild” bondage the kind you do with cheap sex-shop handcuffs that are made of crappy metal and might slice open your wrist, but that let you think you’re not all that kinky cuz you’re just playing around? Or is it the much safer kind using scarier-looking thick leather restraints which represent a financial investment and maybe a bit of thinking about your identity? Is “mild” bondage the kind that involves a skinny piece of rope and minimal knowledge of technique, such that you might accidentally cut off your partner’s circulation? Or is it the kind that involves more rope, and probably a workshop or two, but that envelops them in a cozy cocoon of warm safety? Is it bondage you only do once a year, when your spouse isn’t there to see you with the dominatrix you pay to help you live out your fantasies, or is it the weekly practice of wearing a shoestring wrapped around your testicles on the way home from work?

Where is Saletan’s line between “mild” and “not mild”? Is it about frequency, intensity, psychological significance, pain, marks left on the body? Is it between coerced bondage and desired bondage? Note that he doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the latter two, so I’m guessing this isn’t how his line is drawn, which is a serious problem. In any case, I strongly suspect his line is different from mine, but it’s probably also different from yours, and hers, and theirs. Who gets to judge? This isn’t a small question. If you’re going to construct some sex as okay and other sex as not, who gets to decide where that line lies and what falls on each side of it? Are we to assume this line is the same for everyone? Are we to accept Saletan’s line, when he can’t even tell us what it actually is?

Saletan further constructs exactly the kind of slippery-slope type of argument that so many hand-wringing critics of SM like to get caught in. It goes like this: SMers start with paddles and floggers but for some of them, paddles aren’t enough! They move on from there! They go deeper and deeper, like a heroin addict who needs a bigger and bigger hit! They end up slavering lunatics, chasing after the next big thrill, without regard for life and limb! They engage in bloodshed and arson!

Well, no. That’s not how it works. I’m afraid it’s far more pedestrian than that. If you come into BDSM with a lot of damage, little draw to self-preservation and a tendency toward addiction, I suppose maybe this might be your story, but then that would also be your story if you did pretty much anything else, like, say, drive a car or drink a beer or have some regular old sex. Most people who show up in BDSM community take a little while to nose around and figure out what they like and how to do it, and they stick with that, or expand their range as they come across new and interesting ideas. Kinda like a film buff who one day discovers Fellini after years of being mostly into Hitchcock. Gasp! Maybe people like to try something new every once in a while! How shocking.

The down-to-earth truth is that, for many of us, BDSM community events and practices are thrilling at first, but after we’ve been around for a while, they become simply a part of how we live. This doesn’t mean we enjoy them less, though that can happen too (and some people do get bored and stop showing up). Regardless, this is not about needing a bigger hit. It’s just about integration. The thrill of new possible partners every weekend settles into a choosier approach. We go to the party if it falls on a night when we’re not having dinner with the in-laws. We have creative pervy sex, yes, but we aren’t out to prove ourselves to the world by dint of our extreme practices. Sometimes, a simple gag-inducing blow job and a little smacking around does the trick. The needles come out on special occasions. The submissive makes the dominant some tea. The dominant picks out the submissive’s shirt. Ho hum. Life as usual. It’s not the way everyone does things, but it’s how we do them (in whatever combination we each do), because it feels right and good to us, and it’s really not that freaky unless you have an unhealthy fascination with other people’s sex lives and a penchant for sensationalism.

Leaving aside the links to articles about the criminal sexual coercion of minors (!!), for reasons I hope are utter no-brainers, let’s just look at his linked picture of the butterfly board as an example of Saletan’s leanings in said direction. To someone who doesn’t do any needle play, the sight of a penis connected to a corkboard by means of needles might cause a case of genital-clasping panic. To someone who does needle play, this picture is hardly shocking. Look carefully. Do you know how to judge what’s going on? As someone who’s been playing with needles for a decade now, I’ll walk you through it.

When I look, I see, oh, a handful of high-gauge (meaning slim) needles, say in the 23-gauge range, which means they are quite mild in terms of the pain levels they’re likely to cause. (A standard IV drip is considerably more hardcore, in the 18-gauge range.) I see them inserted carefully into the top couple of millimetres of the skin surface, so they don’t penetrate the spongy and blood-filled erectile tissue or the super-sensitive nerves at the head of the penis—not that those can’t be done safely, but they’re more intense. With these factors in mind, this is not a piercing scene that’s likely to draw much blood, and in fact, we see none. I see a gloved finger—I can’t tell for sure, but judging by the texture, it looks like black nitrile to me, which means this top is careful to avoid latex in case of allergy. I see the end of a Prince Albert piercing, which is pretty heavy. Those are usually installed by a professional, and this tells me we’re dealing with a person who’s pretty comfy having big metal put through his most sensitive bits, such that this particular scene wasn’t likely wicked intense for him from a pain perspective. I see the creative use of a needle to tack down the PA without touching the skin, even though that dick is clearly not going anywhere; this speaks to me, possibly, of a certain tongue-in-cheek humour on the part of the top, like sticking a victory flag into your bottom’s bondage harness when they’re too trussed up to move. Or possibly it was just a practical way to avoid the penis rolling in the wrong direction. I also see a clear liquid stain beneath the head of the penis, which means he’s probably leaked some pre-come, which means he’s likely having a good time.

Honestly, the riskiest thing about the activity as pictured is that it’s not really possible to sterilize the corkboard, and when the needles are pulled back through the skin upon removal, there is some chance they’ll leave tiny bits of cork behind such that the skin becomes irritated or mildly infected. Which is, y’know, generally not life-threatening, and the risk can be greatly reduced by swabbing with alcohol after everything’s done. This, to me, is a picture of a pretty darned safe scene done by people who know what they’re doing. It’s not especially physically edgy—though it could have been, and that might also have been perfectly okay. The only “harm” it’s likely to cause are a few tiny dots on the skin. You’d do worse actual damage if you nicked yourself shaving. But it sure does look shocking to someone who doesn’t have the knowledge to see the elements I just described. And call me crazy, but I’m guessing Saletan’s never affixed his cock to a corkboard.

So what’s the point of this picture? I’m not upset at seeing it because it’s shocking. I’m upset at seeing it because it’s Saletan’s way of trying to be shocking, himself, while pinning (ha!) that accusation on perverts. In using it to try and make a point (ha! jeez, sorry, folks), all he really does is give himself away as lacking basic knowledge of his subject matter. It’s like saying “Holy shit guys, in boxing, they actually hit each other! Like, in the face!” or “Jeezis, I went to the circus and these acrobats, like, jumped through hoops! Hoops that were on fire!” or “Ohmigod there are surgeons who cut people open! With scalpels! And then, get this, they take their organs out!” Yup. Those things happen. They are risky. The people who do them learn how, practice, and mitigate those risks. So?

Saletan brings up, but never attempts to resolve—either in his original piece or in his response piece to the criticism the first one provoked—the question of when the “severity of the harm overrides the sanctity of consent.” He seems to think that examples which are visually or conceptually shocking to a non-kink audience speak for themselves, but at no point does he actually discuss how we should go about judging the severity of harm, or whether there even was any harm. He simply acknowledges that “fortunately, most BDSM falls well short of that”—severe harm, I’m guessing he means—and discusses how “kinksters who comment in Slate have worked so hard to distance themselves from ‘edge play’ such as blood, fire, and asphyxiation—which they call ‘nuts,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘extreme.’”

So, okay, I’ll take the bait. I’m one of those people who engages in edge play such as blood and fire. Asphyxiation isn’t my particular kink but I do think it’s fun to play with telling someone how and when they can breathe. While we’re at it, I engage in full-time M/s dynamics with my partners, meaning we consider ourselves owner and property. I am not the least bit interested in distancing myself from these practices in order to make anyone feel better about kink. Fuck that.

Am I the bad guy now, Saletan? You wouldn’t know, because you don’t actually discuss what harm is or indicate any understanding of how risk is assessed and kink practices are done with safety considerations in mind. As a rock climber, I double-back all my harness straps and tie my double figure-8 and finish off with a safety knot before I get on the climbing wall or hit a sheer rock face, and I check my partner’s gear too, every time. If I’m about to stick needles in someone or set them on fire, you bet your fucking ass I’ve taken great pains to learn how to do that safely. Do you know what a person needs to have in their kit in order to pierce with minimal risk? Do you know anything about the direction of needle tips, about sharps containers and disinfectants and surface protection and gloves? Do you know anything about competency, about a steady hand, about how a top might back out of a scene because they’re too tired or took too many Advils that afternoon or they just feel funny about this scene, in this place, tonight, and about how all that builds trust? Do you know anything about trust? About the intimacy that this level of careful, intricate work creates? Do you care? Or are you more interested in the shock value of a dick pinned to a board, which to you, inherently conveys the idea of over-the-top harm? If you’re going to open up the question, be a responsible writer and follow the fuck through. If not, you’re taking wildly inaccurate cheap shots and frankly I have no respect for that, or for you.

So what should we do instead, then?

Well, a response from BDSM practitioners, along with some education work, is a good start. This kind of education is tedious fucking work, I must say, and it’s especially tedious because we’ve done it all before and writers like these are just too lazy to look it up. But what else do we do? We could ignore it, I suppose, but that has its own dangers. We’re not talking about someone’s dumb LJ post here. We’re talking about major publications like Rabble and Slate which present themselves as progressive. With friends like these… sigh.

To effectively respond, rather than just go in circles, though, we have to get some of our politics sorted out. So this last part of my post is directed at perverts who want to speak up when this kind of claptrap gets published, as well as at writers who want to do it right from the get-go.

Unfortunately, some of the practitioner responses to Saletan’s sloppy pieces of writing are also problematic, such as this one at The Frisky. Not because Jessica Wakeman’s post is awful—it’s not, in fact it’s by and large pretty great. I especially love that she expresses the same frustration I feel at the tedium of countering these lazy characterizations. But she relies in part on a distancing strategy that leaves some pervs out in the cold (I’ve written about this here and here).

The argument here cannot be about the “extreme” vs the “average” kinkster and what these fictional people do and don’t do. If we go down that road we’ve already lost, because we’re essentially saying it’s okay to throw the next person down the pervy line under the bus, and I absolutely promise you that one day the person getting thrown will be you as soon as your level or style of pervy is the one currently out of fashion or under scrutiny. If we want to have the conversation about what is and isn’t over the line, let’s have it. Let’s discuss and debate that line in great detail. But any statement that assumes a common line for everyone, or even a commonly understood spectrum of okay-ness, is automatically a mistake. And if we’re going to discuss the line, it makes no sense to simply draw it between X practice and Y practice. We must, must, must talk about the why and the how, not just the what.

It’s also crucial that we refuse to engage in the “born this way” argument. Listen, the first thing I ever knew about my sexuality was that it was about power and pain. Like, when I was a toddler. And I still wouldn’t seriously argue that I was “born kinky.” This idea relies on a logic of genetics or other pre-social formative influences that simply cannot hold up under investigation, because the meaning of “kinky” is only ever social, and there cannot be a gene for high-heel fetishism or the enjoyment of invasive dental work. Human evolution simply does not work that fast or that specifically. And genetics have zero bearing on the legitimacy of a sexual practice anyway. If we understand an orientation to be a fundamental and relatively unchanging set of internal parameters through which we experience our desires and sexualities, then my kink is an orientation as surely as my queer and my poly are, but none of them require a biological basis for being valid and deserving of respect. “Born this way” is used willy-nilly as though it were the argumentative equivalent of no-fault insurance, but it’s not. It’s just inaccurate. It fails to pay out when the accident happens. Let’s please drop it. We don’t need it anyway. Just like the boxers and acrobats and surgeons, we are perfectly legit without it.

If we really do want to engage in questions about the acceptability of or risks related to kink—real, genuine questions that do away with shock value, inaccurate conflations, hysterical hype and flawed defense strategies—I can suggest a few pathways into the discussion. If you still don’t know the difference between a murder plot and a hot date, go back and do some 101 before you approach these questions. For those who are with me in the grown-up world, here we go.

I suggest a triptych of criteria to help us evaluate what is going on in a given situation, whatever that may be. (Yes, they apply well beyond kink, not surprisingly.) If we need to draw lines at all, I’d like to suggest we draw them with these concepts in mind.

1. Motivation. Why is a person doing what they’re doing? Completely independently of the next two criteria, this one is key because it focuses on mindset, intent, emotional state, and so forth, all key elements of strong decision-making. I could sleep for ten hours because I’m super tired after an intense workout, or I could sleep for ten hours because I’m depressed and avoiding the world. I could have sex with a complete stranger because I hate myself and feel my body is worthless, or because the attraction was off the charts and I expect to be walking on air for two weeks afterwards. In some ways this question is the most crucial of all, because it is entirely possible to make very un-shocking, responsible-looking decisions from a place of terrible motivation, and because that’s where you started you may still come out the end facing miserable consequences (say, getting married to someone you don’t love and having kids you don’t want because your parents pressured you so hard). It is equally possible to make shocking, risky-looking decisions that are very well-thought-out and solid (say, quitting your high-paid lawyer job to become a nomadic volunteer on organic farms because you well know you’ll burn out and jump off a bridge if you don’t do something to relieve the pressure, and also, you really like world travel and spinach). So, why is someone doing their kink? Is that man submitting because he  can’t bear taking responsibility for anything, or because it connects them deeply with his partner, who desires and honours the gift of that vulnerability? Is that guy spanking his wife because they both find it wicked sexy, or because they believe women are naturally meant to take punishment from men and also God says so?

2. Process. Let’s think about recklessness versus responsibility. How is a person doing what they’re doing? Have they acquired the skill and knowledge to do it safely? Do they have an accurate perception of their own competency? Do they have the appropriate tools? Do they have a plan for what to do if things go terribly wrong, and a sense of what the possible fumbles could be? Are they attentive to the well-being and safety of the person or people they’re playing with, whether that’s expressed via a written contract or a clear verbal negotiation or simply many years of trust built such that Person A knows the second Person B breathes funny that something is going wrong? (Yes, this applies to both bottoms and tops.) Do they have enough information to make fully informed consent? If they don’t, and this is an information-gathering type of scene (à la “let’s try this, I don’t know if I like it yet”) do they have a support system set up in case it goes badly, and a plan to evaluate and discuss what they’ve figured out?

3. Result. What’s the upshot? Did it all work out hunky dory? Did they have fun? If something went wrong, how was it handled? Did the players or partners deepen their trust and communication by repairing things? Do they want to try again? Did they simply decide this wasn’t an experience to repeat? Was it meh, mediocre, all right but not great? If so, did everyone concerned learn something at least? If there was a severe consequence of some kind—with the understanding that proper attention to the first two criteria makes this highly unlikely—how was that dealt with?

There. Simple enough. Let’s drop questions such as “why are they like this” or “how unusual are the things they do” and focus on these ones instead as we each try to establish what our lines are, and work toward having real discussions about those lines if and when that’s even needed. If you’re stuck in look-at-the-freaks mode, you are holding back the whole class. Go do your homework. Drop your assumptions. Talk to some real people, and not just one or two. Read a book or two or ten. Think a little, and then think a little harder. Use your logic and your analysis skills. Do real research. Make tenable connections. Above all, don’t be lazy. Then come back and write a thoughtful article that’s worth reading, and let’s actually move this discussion forward.

 

blog hop! also, i’m writing a book.
November 8, 2012

This post is a slight departure from my usual, because I was asked to participate in a blog hop—essentially, a sort of blog-to-blog self-interview chain letter (in a good way) linking writers to each other so you can bop along and discover new work. The person who asked me to take part is Clarisse Thorn, author of The S&M Feminist, among others. Thanks Clarisse! Do go check out her work if you haven’t already. And at the bottom of this post, I’m linking to a few bloggers I think you should watch.

It so happens that the timing of this is pretty good as… drum roll please… I am, in fact, working on My First Ever Book. So… on with the interview, then!

What is the work­ing title of your next book?

Radical Power: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Conscious, Co-Created Dominant/Submissive Relationships (with a side of sex-positive anti-oppressive feminist politics). Or something like that.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve spent a good ten years in one form or another of full-time power dynamic and actively seeking resources to help me think through some of the major challenges that come with such relationships, and those resources are shockingly few and far between. I feel like there’s a big hole in the literature just aching to be filled (heh) and it occurred to me a couple of years ago that with the amount of blogging I’ve done on this topic, surely I have the bones of a full-length book on hand, and some of the meat as well. So the idea has been brewing for years, but the time to write it is now. Partly because the idea of waiting til I finish my PhD before publishing a non-scholarly book just feels like way too long, and this winter is good timing for taking a short not-really-official break from my studies to write. Partly because all my sources—friends who run sex shops, publishers, fellow writers—tell me the market for kink-related books of all sorts has taken a major jump thanks to Fifty Shades (I am dubious in my gratitude here, but I’ll take it). And concretely, because a friend of mine who’s a longstanding fixture in the Canadian queer writers’ world decided to midwife the project by pitching pretty much exactly this idea to their publisher, unbeknownst to me at the time, and then pitching it to me once the publisher gave an enthusiastic response. So clearly I’m not the only one thinking this needs to happen already.

What genre does your book fall under?

How-to, I suppose. Maybe self-help? Possibly philosophy. Definitely relationships and sexuality and BDSM. I’m not sure what list I’m supposed to be picking from here… anyway it’s obviously non-fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your char­ac­ters in a movie ren­di­tion?

See above. If I had characters, which I don’t, I’d like them to be played by Crispin Glover and Ryan Gosling. In a sadomasochistic anal sex scene with lots of really hot kissing. Sorry, what was the question?

What is the one-sentence syn­op­sis of your book?

Read this book if you want to take your thinking about dominance and submission well past the 101 level and into your everyday life.

Will your book be self-published or rep­re­sented by an agency?

So far, it looks like a publisher is on board, but if this one doesn’t pan out for some reason, I’ll find another. It’s just a question of time. I’m not interested in self-publishing right now—I have way too much else on my plate to turn amateur publisher and distributor on top of it all. Much respect to those who pull it off!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your man­u­script?

Well, I can’t really answer that because I don’t have a first draft written. What I do have is a basic structure to write up, which I’ll then fill with six years worth of blog posts; then, I’ll sift through the material, merge things, edit things, update things, and then write all the new material that’s needed to fill in whatever gaps emerge during that process. I’d estimate I have about half the work already done, but since I’ve never written a book before I might be miscalculating. Guess I’ll find out soon! Gulp.

What other books would you com­pare this to within your genre?

Man, I only wish there were more other books I could compare it to. Really. I don’t relish trying to fill a hole quite this big, and frankly I don’t think I should aspire to—there’s room in this area for way more than what I’m going to create. Check out my annotated reading list on the topic of dominance and submission if you like, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s in need of an update, but even if it doubled it would be an awfully short list, and it’s pretty eclectic as it is. There is a LOT of room for it to grow.

I think one major flaw is that most how-to books on BDSM, including the relative few that focus on power dynamics, dominance, submission, mastery and so forth, don’t define their terms very carefully. (This is also true of a surprisingly high percentage of scholarly works on BDSM, sadism, masochism and so forth—a situation I continue to find baffling, given that scholars are in theory supposed to be trained to be thorough little fuckers and the whole “what exactly are you talking about” part seems like pretty basic element of that. But I digress.) The result of this is that every book takes its own set of definitions and conceptual foundations for granted, and you can’t really figure out what they are until you read the whole thing and deduce from the content. So basic elements—like, say, the distinction between “you are doing this as a fun way of spicing up your sex life” and “you are doing this as a full-time lifelong commitment because it is your spiritual calling,” to name just two—aren’t explicitly addressed. And I think those elements make crucial differences in the meaning and usefulness of a given work’s content to any given reader.

Maybe this happens because the writers are aiming to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and in a sense I don’t blame them. It may be that publishers have demanded broad relevance, for that matter. But I think it also happens because a good portion of the people writing about power relationships write as though everyone does them for the same reason. The control fetishists think everyone’s in it for the pleasure of power and control. The kinky sex perverts think everyone does it because it turns them on. The spiritual-calling folks write as though everyone’s following their divine path. Beyond that, the gay authors write as though all their readers were gay men, the straight authors write as though all their readers were straight, and the dykes… well, even though some of the best thinkers and teachers on SM right now are of the dyke persuasion and similar, they don’t seem to be writing books on the topic of everyday, ongoing power dynamics.

And take it yet another step further: the existing literature, for the most part, doesn’t even state those biases up front—and that would make all the difference. I don’t think taking a narrow approach to a topic is a bad thing, but you have to own that this is what you’re doing. Otherwise even the most well-intentioned and thoughtful material can come across as “here is the one true way to do this right, and if my work doesn’t speak to you, well then clearly this whole thing isn’t really for you.” It is really, really hard to step far enough outside yourself and your relationship philosophy to be able to look at them as a stranger would and explain them in a way that acknowledges your own biases. I’m sure I’ll fail, myself, on several counts when I try. But I will very carefully try.

The writer who’s currently doing by far the most interesting, thoughtful, targeted writing on power dynamics is Raven Kaldera, often in collaboration with his boy Joshua Tenpenny. Their works cover topics that just about nobody else’s even touch, such as M/s relationships and disability, polyamory in power relationships, the intersections of transsexuality/transgenderism and BDSM, and ownership-based power dynamics. I aspire to write work that’s as sharp, aware, ethically rooted and relevant as theirs. At the same time, I can already tell you that my approach differs from theirs. They’re heavily Pagan in their framework, while I’m spiritual in what I’d almost call a secular way, and I won’t be making spirituality per se a major focus. I don’t take the same tactical approach to internal enslavement as they do, and my writing will likely be a lot more self-consciously concerned with sexual and social politics thanks to my feminist background and the many heavily politicized topics I’ve been reading about for the past few years in grad school. I’m also a gender-fluid female, not a trans or intersex person; Canadian, not American; and resolutely urban, whereas they live on a farm. All of this will doubtless make a huge difference to what I produce, and probably in ways I can’t even know from the inside.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I think I’ve kinda covered this one already. Beyond my existing responses, I’ll just add that I feel a major debt of gratitude to the people who’ve been reading my blog and other writing for the past six or seven years, and giving me feedback. I’ve always been a writer, but there’s something about the experience of having an actual readership—one that has grown and morphed over time—that creates a sense of responsibility, a framework within which to develop, a sense of parameters and places to grow. At various points I’ve asked my readers for guidance: what do you want to read from me? What do you NOT want to see me write about? What questions would you like me to weigh in on? And the response has always helped shape what I produce. My readers hold me to a very high standard and I am grateful for how exacting they can be. I mean, haters are gonna hate, right? So I’m not talking about the people who get mean and stupid, those aren’t the ones I’m trying to speak to anyway. It’s the ones who take the time to critique, to ask hard questions constructively, to give the benefit of the doubt, to truly engage, and to hold me to a pretty high set of expectations—they’re the ones who motivate me to write in as thorough and thoughtful a way as I can. Every writer should be so fortunate.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s inter­est?

Ummm… I dunno. Clearly I have to work on my elevator pitch a little more. Or maybe I just already answered that question. I can tell you for sure it won’t be all the glossy photography or the sound advice on physical technique.

Here are the writ­ers whose work you can check out next:

For this I’m choosing to spotlight some rad women from four different Canadian cities who are doing new, exciting, fresh blogging on topics that are dear to my heart. Also it so happens they are excellent writers, which gets big points in my world!

Kaleigh Trace at The Fucking Facts – an awesome young voice, her writing takes a no-bullshit approach to a range of questions on sex and sexuality, including but not limited to dis/ability as it intersects with sex. To wit, from her About section: “I want to write about feeling good, about feeling bad, and everything in between. I want to write about what you should and shouldn’t put in your bum.”

The smartyskirts that is Cuntext – young, queer, femme, and super articulate, Cuntext writes about identity, sexual politics, racism, cissexism, anxiety and mental health, and all sorts of other brain-stimulating things, and she keeps it personal enough to be super-engaging.

Juliet November at Born Whore – This “angry revolutionary hooker” writes, “I’m not aiming for instant insurrection but to leave the ground we walk better for those who will follow us.” She doesn’t have a ton of posts up yet, but if her future work is anything like what she’s got so far, you can expect breathtaking, evocative writing that’s politicized in the best kind of radical way—a radicalism that’s focused on kindness as a necessary component of reaching justice.

Shelley at Pass the Herpes – Shelley’s the founder but not the only contributor to this young blog, which is “an attempt to create a space for people to share their thoughts about living with herpes, ideas for pain relief and virus suppression as well as the experiences of coming out, responses from partners, family and health care people.”

 

crazy and criminal: on those damn books, and why they matter
September 20, 2012

Plenty of ink has been spilled about E. L. James’s erotic BDSM romance trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey. I swore I wouldn’t do the same, but then the nice folks at Carleton University asked me to keynote their very cool Consent Is Sexy week on the topic of consent and Fifty Shades, and my book club, the Leather Bindings Society, had just finished reading the trilogy for one of our meetings, so it was fresh in my mind. As well, in the last few months I’ve gotten a ton of requests for my thoughts on the series. So I decided that as a pervy scholar and a critic of sexual culture, I should do my homework and say my piece so that we can then return to your regularly scheduled programming. As such, I’m posting the keynote I delivered tonight (with a few edits for clarity).

***

Three reasons people hate Fifty Shades

Anytime heterosexual representations of sadomasochism show up in the mainstream, perverts get up in arms, and with good reason. But even people who aren’t perverts hate Fifty Shades of Grey. Not everyone does, clearly, but the people who do hate it for three reasons: because it is bad writing; because it is writing about kink, which is bad; and because it is bad writing about kink. These viewpoints are taken by three sometimes-overlapping groups.

First, people who care about writing criticize Fifty Shades for its shitty writing. And yes, the writing is indeed terrible. But it’s kind of like going outside when it’s raining. You can spend the whole time complaining about the rain and getting soaked, or you can pick up your damned umbrella and soldier on while doing your best to let it roll off you. That’s what I chose to do when reading through the books, and yes, I did read all three of them, cover to cover. (The things I do for my community!) They’re no better and no worse, in terms of writing quality, than most other formulaic romance or genre fiction. Fifty Shades is not literary fiction. Don’t expect it to be, and you’ll be fine. Expect Shakespeare and you’ll be disappointed. We live in a world where consumer products are meant to be repetitive variations on a theme and are ultimately disposable, and the romance genre is no different. So I’m not going to spend any further time bitching about bad sentence structure and repetitive phrasing. I would like us to acknowledge, and move on.

Second, people who disapprove of SM are upset about Fifty Shades because it represents kink, period, and they think kink is bad. These people can be further split into two camps. One of those camps is arch-conservative; they think everything about sex is bad. These are the same right-wing nutbags who espouse abstinence-only sex education, anti-abortion measures, rank homophobia, the criminalization of HIV, and so forth. I don’t feel like spending much time analyzing them, frankly; suffice it to say they’re out there, and Fifty Shades is one of their latest targets.

The second camp is a bit more complicated, and I’m afraid I won’t do them justice here, but I’ll try. They fall along lines that are familiar to anyone who’s accustomed to seeing classic debates about porn, especially if you lived through or read about the Sex Wars—the period of time roughly stretching over the 1980s in which some feminists raged against porn and penetrative sex and SM, and other feminists raged back. They can be exemplified by a story I came across a couple of weeks ago. A domestic violence charity in the UK held a public book burning, inviting people to throw their copies of Fifty Shades into the flames. To them, Christian Grey—the male protagonist in Fifty Shades—is an abusive partner, a perpetrator of domestic violence, and he does all manner of horrible things to the female protagonist, Anastasia. By their logic, such representations must be stopped because they are harmful to women, and these people have positioned themselves as crusaders out to stem the tide of violence against women, thereby justifying a tactic that hearkens back to some of the most shameful periods in modern human history.

It’s possible that they read the books from a kink-aware viewpoint and that they have a nuanced critique of what Christian Grey does and how some of it does indeed fall into the category of abuse while still making room for the idea that BDSM is okay and not inherently abusive, and acknowledging that he’s actually a very safe BDSM player. But I kinda doubt it. I think their point of view is a lot more along the lines of throwing everything the character does into the “abuse” pot, and seeing the elements of his sexuality that are pervy as pieces of evidence proving that he’s abusive. In other words, some people—the UK book-burners among them—conflate SM with abuse, and some of those people think that justifies retaliation.

Speaking as a book lover, I find the chosen method of protest in this specific instance to be particularly horrifying. The merits of the literature aren’t the issue here; the destruction and suppression of literature are classic tactics for social control. Employed by a small charitable organization, I can’t say I find them especially threatening. But it wasn’t that long ago that Canada Customs was regularly seizing shipments of gay and lesbian books at the border—prominently including, but by no means limited to, books about SM—and destroying them. That was a state-sanctioned attack on alternative sexual cultures, and that is indeed very threatening, and the UK book-burning is a small-scale imitation of that approach. It is an approach that self-justifies abuse in the name of stopping abuse, and that self-justifies censorship in the dubious name of protection. In the 80s and 90s, that same attitude of anti-SM hatred made some feminists feel that it was fully justifiable to physically attack and verbally abuse women who practiced SM (see my 2009 post “The Mirror of Sadomasochism” for more on that). Perhaps the anti-SM rumblings I am seeing surrounding Fifty Shades are a pale shadow of past violence; or perhaps they are an early warning that worse is on the way. Either way, that Fifty Shades is inspiring anti-SM sentiments this strong in 2012 is worrisome. I admit I’m not feeling very afraid, given that we live in a different cultural context today than we did in the 1980s, but I am keeping a watchful eye on this sort of thing, because you never know what backlash will look like or how quickly it will manifest.

It does bear mentioning, though, that the people I know who were most upset about the book-burning idea were librarians, historians and archivists, independently of kink; and that a number of the perverts I’ve spoken with about this book-burning had a reaction along the lines of “Oh god, please burn them, they suck!” so not everyone’s as upset about this as I am!

Third, people who identify as perverts hate Fifty Shades because it features what they consider to be bad representations of kink. To an extent, I agree, and I’ll try to pick this apart a little bit shortly. What’s interesting to me, here, is that different perverts consider the kink representations to be bad for different reasons, and most of them aren’t the ones that I personally find most disturbing. I also find it noteworthy that, while a lot of real-life sadomasochists are righteously upset about the book, it is directly creating two phenomena that are changing the landscape of our communities. So let me digress into that for just a moment.

On coolness and community

The first phenomenon is a spike of newbies joining SM communities. I am not aware of anyone documenting this in a proper fashion, so I don’t know what kind of numbers we’re talking about, but I’ve heard murmurs about it from various corners—New York, San Francisco—and we’ve all started to see people pop up on, say, Fetlife with user handles like “InnocentAnastasia” or “MasterChristian.” How much of a spike this really is, and how we would be able to tell whether any surge in membership is due to Fifty Shades, I do not know. But it’s a thing.

I’m honestly not sure how people go from reading the books—which make very little mention of an SM-based community and do not show any of the characters partaking in SM community events or using SM community resources—to seeking out SM communities and resources in their towns. If they were simply imitating what the book shows them to do, they’d spend a lot of time arguing with their partners, using basic sex toys, and occasionally engaging in some spanking between long bouts of classic penis-in-vagina sex that magically always makes both of them come in a shower of hearts and flowers even though they never talk about what feels good to each of them. So I suspect there’s something else going on. It seems that, flawed though they may be, even the very mild representations of kink in the books are enough to spark people’s interest in BDSM, and a subset of those people—what do you know, they have minds of their own!—are realizing that they’d like to seek out community and knowledge based on that interest.

As always, I maintain that there is a huge difference between community and practice. The number of people in the world who engage in some kind of SM practice or another, whether they name it as such or not, is and always has been far bigger than the number of people who actually seek out a community as a result of their SM interests. So to me, it’s clear that if we’re starting to see new folks in SM communities as a direct result of Fifty Shades, that means there’s a corresponding swell of people playing around with SM whom we won’t ever see at a community event. Even a mild bump in community interest, by this logic, indicates a fairly significant one in the world at large. I can’t say what consequences this might have on, well, anything, but I’ll keep an eye out.

A lot of longtime perverts are seeing this spike in interest, both in the broader culture and within our communities, as a negative thing. And I can understand why, because sometimes, the mainstream representation of kink causes people to show up in our spaces with a really skewed idea of what to expect, and if we are to continue opening our spaces to new folks at all, that means those of us who’ve been around for a while have to engage in the repetitive and sometimes exhausting work of dismantling stereotypes and setting people straight about what this whole kink thing is really all about, and what it isn’t. Not everyone enjoys doing that work, but even for those of us who do, it is sometimes imposed upon us in circumstances we wouldn’t have chosen by people who aren’t doing their part to figure things out on their own. One manifestation of the legitimate irritation some SM practitioners feel about this fresh wave of cluelessness is to essentially roll our eyes (if not bite our lips) at the newbies who show up having clearly been influenced by Fifty Shades. More or less, SMers who’ve been around the block aren’t all being terribly nice to or about the Fiftiers who are showing up in our communities.

But before Fifty Shades of Grey, people figured out their kinks and joined SM communities thanks to any number of other sources of questionable quality. How many people figured out they were kinky from reading terrible Anne Rice novels like the Beauty Series or Exit to Eden, where the SM play is not only unrealistic but downright dangerous? (Kept in super-tight joint-bending bondage for days at a time! Forced to run while chained to five other people with your arms tied behind your back and blinders on! Gah!) How many people got turned on by superhero comics or Disney movies or pro wrestling or the film “9 ½ Weeks”? How many people found their kink as an offshoot of a Dungeons & Dragons role play scenario, or spent their first years as a kinkster trying on a range of shiny new identities in chat rooms before ever venturing out into the meat world?

Perverts sometimes have an odd attachment to some elusive idea of authenticity, as though we’re all supposed to be able either to track our kinks back to early childhood—the deeply flawed “I was born this way” idea—as though there were a genetic sequence to explain leather fetishism or a love of bondage—or to have come across a credible, acceptable, cool-enough trigger, such as reading the gritty queer pervert porn of Patrick Califia or being discovered in a San Franciscso back alley by a True Master who saw our potential and took us under his leathery wing. But I know plenty of proud, aware, competent, trustworthy BDSM players who started in each of the “uncool” ways I mentioned first, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. And I’ll give you a shot of history to make my point: according to Rob Bienvenu’s 1998 PhD thesis, “The Development of Sadomasochism as a Cultural Style in Twentieth-Century United States,” the whole gay leather aesthetic took off in the early 1950s because of the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One.” Yes, that’s right, folks—all those classic leather daddies in the boots and biker jackets and aviator shades started wearing that stuff because they wanted to look like a movie star. Because, well, it was hot. So let’s get over ourselves a bit, eh? This idea that there’s a “right” way to discover your perversion is irritating, and shaming, and doesn’t do anyone any favours. Rather than making fun of Fifty Shades-inspired newbies, I think that we perverts need to stick to critiquing the book itself.

On kink and consumerism

The second phenomenon, on the flip side, is that of perverts jumping onto the Fifty Shades bandwagon. I’m not talking about loving the book, necessarily; in fact, much of the time it’s quite the opposite. But I’m seeing dozens of examples of BDSM educators and organizers picking up the “fifty shades” meme and running with it for fun and profit. “Fifty Shades of Kink” workshops are popping up all over the place, an anthology titled Fifty Authors on Fifty Shades is about to be published—it’s not just the mainstream media that’s keen to use Fifty Shades to sell papers. Hopeful new kink educators are using these keywords to increase their visibility to mainstreamers whose main reference point is the trilogy, and even seasoned educators and writers are grabbing hold of it for a signal boost. I’m personally in the very odd position of having said I wouldn’t do this myself—using the “fifty shades” meme to get more people interested in my work—but then being asked to prepare a talk for you here tonight that critiques the book, which is indeed a timely and worthwhile topic, but which is awfully hard to do without mentioning it. So at least on that count, I’m as guilty as anyone else.

But what’s interesting to me here is that this situation points up the complex and troubled relationship between alternative sexual practices and consumerism. For many people, a key element of the appeal in BDSM, kink and leather cultures is that of the forbidden, the underground, the dark and secret, the edgy and unusual. But producing that culture requires resources. The porn, the clothes, the events, the fetish items, the toys with which to practice your kinks—to varying degrees, and they do vary greatly, being kinky requires an engagement with the material world, which means economics must come into the equation. Given that there is a demand, some people must provide the supply. Now, everyone needs to make a living, so inevitably, some people make that living, in part or in whole, by catering to the needs of BDSM practitioners or other kinky folks.

So what happens when the underground becomes mainstream, or the mainstream spills over into the underground, or however else you’d like to construe what happens when mass appeal is applied to edgy, underground, forbidden, secret sexual practice? Well, some people are of course going to try to get a piece of the pie. And it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. For an educator or writer, hooking onto the “fifty shades” meme can help pay the rent and put food on the table. Very few of us working as BDSM or leather culture producers make a basic living at it, never mind anything more extravagant, especially if we don’t take our clothes off. And even for those who do take their clothes off, with the rise of amateur porn sites and the ease with which content can be accessed for free, it’s harder and harder to make a good living in porn. Cultural production is rarely a major money-maker. E. L. James has in fact inspired a lot of resentment and jealousy among SM writers—justifiably, to a great extent—because she’s raking in the dollars for a schlocky, poorly written book series when some SM fiction writers have been labouring for a lifetime to create high-quality masterpieces of erotic literature that speak to and about perverts, without ever seeing remotely the kind of financial success we’re seeing with Fifty Shades.

It isn’t surprising to me that when the mainstream creates an opportunity, some of the perverts who are eking out a living serving a marginal population might jump at the chance to boost their income and enjoy new opportunities to do what they do best. And who knows? Maybe they’ll change the world for the better by doing so. It is a challenging set of lines to walk – between cashing in and selling out, between legitimately thinking of number one and continuing to think about the impact of one’s work on one’s community, between adopting a representation that doesn’t fit us and subverting it so that it does.

It remains to be seen what kind of longer-term impact all of this will have on BDSM and kink cultures. They are changing before our very eyes.

So… why is it sexy?

But let’s get back to the idea that a lot of perverts hate Fifty Shades. This stands in contrast with the fact that a lot of people love it—if the sales numbers are any indication, E. L. James has definitely tapped into something pretty huge. I don’t quite get why lots of people love it, but as a responsible pervert and as a scholar and critic of sexual culture, I owe it to myself to ask the question. So far I have come across a couple of answers that might combine to help it make sense. Let me share those with you now.

A friend of mine, the Control Enthusiast, calls Fifty Shades “fix-it porn.” The way he explains it, Christian Grey is broken. It doesn’t really matter that his particular brand of brokenness is portrayed as centring on sadomasochism. It could be anything. Other romances feature broken, troubled male protagonists with dark pasts—this is nothing new, it’s the classic bad-boy appeal. Correspondingly, the books set up Anastasia as pure, good and kind—while also being feisty and strong, a twist we get in such books in 2012 as a nod to feminism. And Anastasia’s aim is to bring Christian “into the light,” to repair his dysfunction and make him into a whole, happy human being by sheer force of her love. And you know what? She succeeds! She gets him to swear off being kinky (though they still play with kink) and to marry her. That’s the come shot. She suffers his bullshit and in doing so, she gets the payoff, and that payoff includes searing hot sex, marriage, colossal amounts of money, and kids. It’s a very passive, martyr-like way of approaching relationships, and it is precisely this approach that women are taught to take in the world at large. It’s an approach that caricatures both players—the man who is pathetic and broken, but also heroic and rich and hot, and the woman who is true and good and healing and inspires his change of heart, and has no selfish motives at all, but of course comes away with all the material rewards that don’t really matter (except that they do). In real life, this is generally a recipe for mutual resentment—nobody likes to be seen as the pathetic broken one in need of a hero to come along and fix them, and the martyr role rarely works as a tool for real change in anyone but it sure does engender a lot of bitterness. So: classic narrative. Terribly flawed, but very seductive to people of a certain mindset—a mindset very much encouraged in mainstream North American culture. I can see why it might appeal to a large crowd.

Maura Kelly, a writer for the Atlantic, gives another analysis: in her view, women want pleasure, and the mainstream does not know where to look to find out how to get it. Fifty Shades comes along, and all of a sudden people can read about how. There’s this guy who always seems to know exactly how to make his girlfriend come, and she always seems to enjoy herself, and they describe all kinds of ways to do it. None of this “and he plunged his throbbing manhood into her love canal… cut to the fireplace!” No, here we have details. Oral sex, Ben Wa balls, butt plugs, nipple play, necktie bondage—it is all laid out in clear order. Some of the sex scenes practically read like a sex education manual.

Given the amount of sexual information available out there today, I personally find the idea that Fifty Shades is doing anything new or revolutionary to be quite a stretch. But I’m speaking as a queer poly pervert who’s been immersed in sex-positive feminist and queer cultures since my late teens, and it’s hard sometimes for me to remember that I live in a bubble. It’s an awfully big bubble, and it features everything from fellatio how-to guides to leather events that attract twenty thousand people to same-sex marriage to cooperatively run feminist sex shops to the sex worker rights movement to porn made by and for politicized trans people and queers. But there are still lots of people outside this bubble, and who don’t know where the bubble even begins, or how to even start to look for it. These same people often don’t know how to critically evaluate the sex information that comes their way. I mean, we live in a culture where Cosmo magazine, The Rules and pick-up artist guides sell millions of copies. Clearly not everyone already “gets it.” If Fifty Shades has reached into that writhing morass of mainstream sexual culture, rather than standing outside it and waiting for people to come join us in our bubble, and said “hey, doofus, here’s how to please your woman”—well, it is perhaps doing work that I and people like me cannot, and that many of us quite legitimately don’t really want to do. And this work perhaps, by its very nature as mainstream, appeals to a huge number of people.

Combine these two types of appeal, and perhaps we can understand the potency of the books.

But all right, for real this time, back to the perverts. Now, regardless of everything I’ve said so far about Fifty Shades, I think the series provides a very accurate picture of how the mainstream understands consent, and how that understanding tries, with mixed success, to incorporate the ethics of consent that’s often espoused by BDSM communities. I’ve asked around a fair bit to find out what it is that the perv contingent is most upset about. Once you get past the rants about writing quality, most of the complaints seem to hinge on the idea that Christian Grey is doing bad BDSM, and that it makes the rest of us look bad. People are especially about two areas: the contract he tries to get Ana to sign and the play they get up to. These complaints are going to form the foundation of the rest of this talk, because they’re both right on the money and also off base. And the ways in which they are both of those things are in keeping with the books’ understanding of sex and relationships in general. So let me lay out that understanding and talk about how it is emblematic of a broader social framework that’s very problematic.

Crazy and criminal: the kinky characters of Fifty Shades

The first, and most important, layer of all this is the idea of health versus pathology, normal versus abnormal. In the book, everybody who’s interested in BDSM—with the exception of Ana, and I’ll look at that in a moment—is described as being some version of mentally ill or criminal, and by the logic of the book, those two things are almost one and the same. They do, however, split down gender lines—the women are more sick and the men are more criminal.

Christian Grey was born to a mother he refers to as “the crack whore” (and let’s not even get into the blithely normalized hatred of sex workers inherent in that), who died when he was four and whom he both hates and wants to please. As a result of her, he is damaged and can’t experience normal intimacy, so he substitutes for that by engaging in BDSM. He eventually discloses that he is exclusively interested in brunettes who look like his mother, and whom he then dominates as a form of revenge against his mother. Except that he’s also a consummate lover, and all of his skill is focused on pleasing his submissives, to the point where he includes nothing about his own pleasure in his BDSM contracts. In any case, he suffers from an extreme degree of self-hatred, and he’s also a pathologically jealous and controlling guy who throws around his wealth and goes to stalker-like extremes to possess Ana. He buys her a car she doesn’t want. He decides whether or not she gets to go to work, and buys the company she works for in order to have that say. He assigns security guards to her to report on her every move. He decides, on her behalf, what kind of birth control she’s going to use—Depo-Provera—because he doesn’t like wearing condoms. But he backs down on the contract question when Ana insists she’s not submissive, and he gets rid of half his SM toys because she’s not interested in them. To say he’s a mixed bag is an understatement. The book’s verdict: he’s sick, but not criminal, and so redeemable.

Christian is introduced to BDSM by a character known for most of the book as Mrs. Robinson, or sometimes “the child molester”—a woman who turns him kinky by having a relationship with him, with him as the submissive, starting when he’s a fifteen-year-old boy. She, too, is portrayed as a mixed bag. Christian considers her his best friend, even many years after they split up, but eventually Ana convinces him that she’s evil, and lo and behold she starts acting like it, mainly by propositioning Christian. But it takes her until the middle of the last book to actually do anything beyond trigger Ana’s jealousy by existing, and having had a consensual sexual relationship with someone who was fully physically mature but under 18 at the time. Now, don’t get me wrong—it is definitely not always okay for an adult to have a relationship with a teenager, and when you bring BDSM and power play into the mix you up the risk considerably. But according to all the current research, most people have sex well before they turn 18, so a fifteen-year-old having sex is hardly big news. And some of those people are kinky and want to play—I certainly was one of those. And some of those people will engage in play with people who are over 18—again, I was one such teenager. But here we see age deployed, right in line with the very problematic age-of-consent laws on the books today in both Canada and the States that are disproportionately enforced in racist, classist and homophobic ways, as an indicator of abuse regardless of all other factors. The book’s verdict on Mrs. Robinson: she’s sick and criminal, but she’s also a woman, so we’ll let her get away with it, mostly; we’ll just shame her in front of her friends.

When Christian turns dominant, he gets involved with a series of submissive women. One of his ex-submissives, Leila, appears in the book; she has gone off the deep end, bought a gun, and started stalking him and trying to kill Ana, because she’s jealous that Ana has what she always wanted: Christian’s heart. After a showdown at Ana’s apartment, she is shipped off to a mental hospital—on whose authority we are not told, though Christian seems to have a relationship with his therapist that features a distinct lack of professional boundaries, and the therapist is involved in this situation. And then when she gets out, Christian pays her tuition at an art school. The book’s verdict on Leila: she’s batshit crazy, and criminal, but money can make that go away; and she’s more sick and pathetic than criminal anyway, again presumably because she’s a woman, or maybe because she’s submissive.

Lastly, Jack Hyde, Ana’s employer, has a history of sexually assaulting his assistants, and filming or photographing the assaults. The book describes him as keeping this evidence as a way to silence his victims because—and this is not made especially clear—the assaults look like kinky sex and the victims wouldn’t want that to be made public. I think? At no point does the book explain how sexual assault looks like SM in a photograph, or how these photographs would be used as anything other than evidence of exactly what they are—rape—or why it is that a picture of actual kinky sex would have been so shameful in the first place. Anyway, Jack assaults Ana, tries to kill Christian several times, and eventually gets caught. The book’s verdict: Jack Hyde is criminal slime, and probably also some kind of crazy, but he deserves to go to jail (as well as get shot in the leg by Ana).

As for Ana—well, she’s completely innocent. She’s a 21-year-old virgin when she meets Christian, and she has sex only with him, and they get married. Ana is also pathologically jealous. She’s jealous of Mrs. Robinson, of Leila, of all Christian’s ex-submissives, of Christian’s female assistant (until Ana realizes the assistant is a lesbian, and so is nothing to worry about), of the architect they hire to build their new home, and of various random waitresses and so forth. And she attacks various women in the books using everything from glares to righteous diatribes about “keeping your hands off my man.” For Ana, any desire for kink is in the realm of exploration and play. She’s not submissive, she doesn’t want to sign a BDSM contract with Christian, and she likes a fairly limited range of kinky activities, nothing “too extreme.” By the book’s logic, she’s not really kinky at all, and therefore isn’t sick or criminal—but she sure does have a lot of fun playing at kink occasionally. In fact I’d say at least a third of the trilogy is devoted to describing just how much fun she has.

The thing that really gets me upset, and that I’m not hearing anyone else complain about at all, is the portrayal of a specific character who is not kinky. His name is José Rodriguez, and he’s a close friend of Ana’s. Early in the book series, he gets Ana very drunk and sexually assaults her—he brings her out into the parking lot of a bar and makes out with her despite her repeated protests. Christian shows up and saves Ana from him, brings her home and puts her to bed safely. After the assault, however, Ana remains friends with José and defends his behaviour to Christian, saying it was all just a misunderstanding and Christian’s just being unreasonable and jealous. Their friendship is still going strong at the end of the series. Without even beginning to address the fact that José is a sexual assault perpetrator and also happens to be the only person of colour who shows up in the books for more than a bit part, to me this whole sub-plot is one of the most disturbing parts of the series.

In short, the book portrays sexual assault, stalking, extreme possessiveness and control by people in non-kinky contexts as being no big deal; and it portrays kink as being an indicator of both mental illness and criminality in all circumstances other than heterosexual relationship heading toward marriage and reproduction. This, to me, is one of the places where Fifty Shades accurately, and very problematically, reflects mainstream understandings of consent and acceptable sexual conduct. The message is twofold: if you’re kinky and you’re not partnered in a heterosexual, monogamous fashion, you are mentally ill and criminally dangerous; and if you’re heterosexual and monogamous, then jealousy, stalking and control are indications of love, and playing with kink a little bit is hot as long as you don’t do it too much and you keep it in the bedroom.

I could spend a long time analyzing each of the characters, and each of the book’s many very messed-up scenarios, but I think this pretty much sums it up. The book tells us that being kinky means you are sick and dangerous, but that playing kinky, within a very limited realm, means you’re having awesome sex. Now, you could argue that this is one better than a lot of material out there—that making it acceptable and hot to enjoy kinky play because of the great orgasms is a step forward for perverts everywhere. To a limited extent, I buy that, and I think that very thing is what’s producing the surge of interest in SM and sex toys that the market is currently enjoying. But in truth, that little equation is not terribly new at all, and it comes at a very high cost.

The charmed circle

In her famous 1984 essay “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin discusses the value system that social groups apply to sexuality, which defines some sexual behaviours as good and natural and others as bad and unnatural. In this essay she introduces the idea of the “charmed circle” of sexuality, saying that sexuality that is privileged by society falls inside of it, while all other sexuality lies outside of it. The binaries of this “charmed circle” include paired sex versus sex done solo or in groups; monogamous sex versus promiscuous sex (and yes, the value judgement of the term “promiscuous” applies here); same-generation sex versus cross-generational sex; and sex that uses bodies only versus sex that includes the use of manufactured objects.

One of her key points is that sometimes the charmed circle changes. Things that were once outside it can be incorporated into it. Masturbation, or solo sex, is one of those things—a hundred years ago it was seen as sinful and medically dangerous; today in all but the most super-conservative contexts it’s seen as fairly banal. Same-sex relationships are also one of those things. Certain types of same-sex relationships—white, monogamous, non-kinky, middle-class, reproductive, married—are now incorporated within the charmed circle in many parts of the world, while other types are not.

The plot, characters and message of Fifty Shades line up directly with this charmed circle and contribute to extending the reach of that circle just far enough to include soft-core kinky play. But in order to do so, the books have to carefully describe the types of kink that should remain shut out of the charmed circle—kink that is full-time rather than occasional, that takes place in the context of a cross-generational relationship, that is outside the context of marriage or monogamy or love, or that is “too extreme” in terms of pain levels or technical complexity.

For this reason, if I had to say whether I’m for or against Fifty Shades, I’d say I’m against.

Not because the kinky play it portrays is done poorly, because it’s actually not—E. L. James did her research, and it shows. Just about every kinky act she describes in glorious detail could have been taken straight out of a workshop I might teach. Christian’s technique is beyond reproach. He really knows the rules, and when he breaks them, he even does that carefully. In one scene, he apologizes for having only handcuffs available as bondage toys, because they are known to cut into the wrists and leave marks; so he asks Ana if it’s okay to use them despite this, and she says yes. He’s definitely taken his BDSM 101.

Nor do I hate the books because the contract Christian Grey writes up is evil. In fact it’s really straightforward and includes plenty of very clear, easy outs for Ana should she dislike anything that’s going on. I happen to think, like many perverts who’ve read these books, that trying to get someone to sign a BDSM contract when they’ve never even had sex before, let alone experienced any BDSM, is a bad idea, but the contents of the contract itself aren’t scary or inherently oppressive and the conditions under which she’s being asked to sign it aren’t, either. The timing, in regard to her experience level and the short time they’ve known each other, is poorly chosen, and Christian admits this himself; and then Ana negotiates with him to change some elements of the contract to suit her better, to which he agrees; and then she decides she doesn’t want to sign the contract at all, and he says that’s okay; and so they continue their relationship sans contract, and there is no penalty exacted against her for refusing. So while the contract isn’t a great idea, it’s hardly an example of Christian exerting any kind of abusive power over Ana. And we don’t need to focus our critiques there anyway—there are plenty of other examples in which he does exert abusive power over her. (Remember the Depo-Provera? And the whole “buying the company she works for” thing? And the stalking? Yeah.)

On contracts and punishments

I will digress, for a brief moment, into the question of contracts. The books spend a lot of time on the will-she-or-won’t-she question about Ana signing Christian’s BDSM play contract, and a significant portion of the books’ pervy detractors focus on the contract as being the big problem. In another move that, perhaps surprisingly given where the critique is coming from, is thoroughly in keeping with mainstream sexual politics, all this focus on a play contract obscures what seems to be the unquestioned end goal of the books: a whole other type of contract, and one that is far more serious. Ana and Christian get married. The mainstream glorifies, idealizes and I might say even fetishizes marriage, so isn’t very interested in questioning or problematizing the nature and scope of the marriage contract; and the broad BDSM community doesn’t tend to spend a lot of time critiquing marriage, preferring to leave that to radical queers and (some) feminists. But I find it deeply disturbing that Ana enters into a marriage contract with Christian, the contents of which, unlike their BDSM contract, we don’t ever get to read—and how many of us even know the nitty-gritty of what a marriage contract entails, even those who are married?—but which assuredly cover far more ground, bind them to each other in far deeper material and social ways, and are far more legally enforceable than any BDSM play contract could ever hope to be. The hullaballoo around Ana and Christian’s unsigned BDSM contract stands in stark contrast to the silence around the colossal power of the state-sanctioned contractual agreement that is their marriage—and anyone else’s real-life marriage. But, y’know, critiquing the institution of marriage just isn’t that sexy or provocative. And marriage is normal. But BDSM isn’t. So clearly we need to focus our attention on the BDSM, right?

I will further detour, for another moment, into the question of punishment. This is the one area where I think the book gets the BDSM itself badly wrong, but again, that is in keeping with the way a lot of people get the BDSM wrong. Punishment is one of the first concepts people tend to associate with BDSM, but the erotics of punishment are complex at best, and punishment is one of the most frequently misunderstood and poorly executed types of play—which is exactly what happens in the book. So a few words of advice for those who are interested in punishment: if you want to do this, here is some stuff to think about.

For starters, there is a major distinction between punishment and what’s known as “funishment.” Punishment, in the context of an agreed-upon and desired dominant/submissive relationship, isn’t inherently sexy, even if the dynamic itself is. Two people come to an agreement about one of them having a particular range of authority over the other, and agree upon certain behaviours that are out of bounds; if the submissive behaves in a way that’s out of bounds, the dominant enacts the agreed-upon consequences which, ideally, motivate the submissive to change the problematic behaviour. It’s a behaviour modification method, and it’s not for everyone—even as a full-time D/s person myself, I find little appeal in a punishment-based approach, and I’ll say more about that in a second. Funishment, on the other hand, is more like, “You bad boy. (wink) You’ve gone and misbehaved again. (finger wag) Now come here and let me do sexy things to you, and you can pretend you’re being forced to endure them, and this little charade will turn us both on.”

Actual punishment is not an excuse to have sexy times. And funishment is not an activity to engage in when you’re truly upset about something or feel like a boundary has been crossed. They’re two quite different things, and in my many years of observing and playing within the BDSM community, I’d say that a not-insignificant portion of scenes that go wrong do so because the two people involved miscommunicate about what exactly they are trying to do in playing with punishment. Some key questions to ask if you do want to play with punishment are things such as, what is each of you hoping to get out of this? What is the realm of authority in which the dominant has license to act? Do your expectations match up? How will you know if it’s having the desired effect? What will you do if it isn’t?

For punishment to work well, there needs to be a high degree of consistency and predictability in the dynamic, so that the submissive knows and agrees to what’s expected of them. In most cases, real punishment is not a desired outcome at all—the submissive wants to follow the rules (otherwise, why get into a relationship where you negotiate rules and ask someone to hold you to them in the first place?), and the dominant wants to help the submissive follow the rules, and if punishment occurs at all it’s an indication that one or both of them are off track in holding up their end of the dynamic, which is far from the goal. Or, if you want to do things without any predictability and with inconsistency, that specific dynamic needs to be desired and agreed upon—for instance, if two people find it sexy that the rules keep changing so they’re never sure what’s okay and what’s not okay, that’s great, but they have to both like things that way, perhaps for the element of surprise or the pleasure of having one’s head messed with for no purpose but fun. Not surprisingly the latter model fits much better with funishment than with punishment, and comes with its own complexities (such as, how will you both handle things if the headfuckery actually goes to a place that makes one of the participants genuinely uncomfortable?).

There is also the question of extrinsic versus intrinsic reward as an approach to behaviour modification. Some people really enjoy extrinsic motivators. For instance, if you finish writing half your essay tonight, you’ll treat yourself to a chocolate bar; if you don’t finish half your essay tonight, you don’t get the chocolate bar. For some people, extrinsic motivators don’t work at all. I’m one such person. I hate rewards and resent punishments. If I’m going to put effort into something, it has to have inherent reward for me—in this example, I have to want to write the essay because I am interested in the topic or see the value in doing the work or at the very outside because I want to pass the class because it is of some value to me. And if I want the chocolate bar, I just want the damn chocolate bar, I don’t want to have to jump through hoops to get it, and I certainly don’t want to be deprived of it because I did or didn’t do some unrelated thing. You can learn this sort of thing about yourself by seeing what works for you entirely on your own—you don’t even need to try it out with a partner to figure out how you’re wired in this respect. So if you pair up someone who’s wired for intrinsic motivation with someone who’s wired for extrinsic motivation, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding, even if you’ve successfully dealt with the questions of punishment/funishment, realms of authority, and consistency/inconsistency.

This is just a brief aside about the complexities of playing with punishment—honestly, the topic is worth an entire book, and because it’s not really my thing, I won’t be the person writing it. The psychology of punishment goes well beyond the kind of thing you’re likely to learn in an SM 101 workshop, and it’s not easy to negotiate as many of us don’t have the language to figure this stuff out about ourselves, let alone set it up with someone else. But it’s high on the list of ideas we immediately associate with SM. In short, if you are going to play with punishment, you need to do it carefully and consciously.

Fifty Shades portrays exactly the opposite of that, even if all the physical techniques are perfect and all of the T’s are crossed and I’s dotted on the (unsigned) contracts. The scope of Christian’s authority is constantly in flux, and he often tries to exert it in ways that Ana does not consent to or desire; Ana sometimes asks for punishment, and sometimes manipulates Christian into punishing her; Christian sometimes threatens to punish her, sometimes seduces her into it; it’s never clear if the punishment is real or staged for pleasure; sometimes it upsets her, sometimes it turns her on; he sometimes does it to please her, sometimes to vent his rage. Their punishment play, in short, is a complete mess, and predictably it’s the site where a range of their relationship tensions and arguments play out. If you wanted to, you could use the physical techniques described in Fifty Shades to get up to some pretty safe sexy fun. But please, please do not ever use Fifty Shades as a relationship model. On that front it is outright dangerous.

Oppression: not so sexy

In part, I dislike the books because the charmed circle they aim to extend is deadly. I don’t want to be inside that charmed circle because I don’t think it should exist, and I don’t want to see its borders extend such that people inside it think they know what’s okay and not okay about kink. That will leave far too many SM practitioners both more exposed than ever and facing judgement that pathologizes and criminalizes them, all while other people get to have their sexy fun and feel all transgressive-like. It’s an equation I don’t buy and a form of acceptability I can do without.

I’m not against the idea that people might relax about the possibility that their neighbours engage in some spanking or bondage—really, the entire world could stand to relax some about this stuff. But if that acceptance comes at the cost of that same mainstream world understanding full-time, high-intensity or outside-the-bedroom kink as by definition being the product of abusive childhoods and mental illness, or as being likely to lead to criminal behaviour up to and including assault and attempted murder, or as being inherently abusive, then all it will do is reinforce a set of existing social prejudices that already harm BDSM practitioners plenty. I’m not talking about simply being misunderstood or having our feelings hurt. I’m talking about the outright criminalization of BDSM as exemplified, for instance, in the Spanner case in the UK, where men were jailed for their consensual play; about kinksters being labeled as mentally ill and dangerous according to the DSM-IV; about leatherfolk being excluded, verbally attacked and physically assaulted within the broader community; and about perverts losing their jobs, their safety, and custody of their kids. I’m not making any of these things up. They are not theories, they are real-life consequences to the skewed public perceptions of any kind of BDSM that’s not just a bit of spicing up a heterosexual marriage. The last thing we need is to strengthen the prejudices that are already a thorn in our collective side—and no, we don’t get off on that kind of pain.

But mostly I dislike Fifty Shades because it normalizes assault, stalking, the use of money as a form of coercion, jealousy, rage, “winning” arguments, men’s control of women’s reproductive choices, game-playing, manipulation, marriage as the end goal and as the great legitimizer of relationships, lack of honest communication, and the healing power of innocent virgins’ inherent goodness. None of this is the least bit kinky—it’s just plain old hetero-patriarchal power relationships, and sexing those up in a best-selling “edgy” romance trilogy does nothing more than perpetuate an entire culture where “consent” takes a backseat to “normal.” This isn’t kinky or sexy or cool. So no matter how well-researched the BDSM technique, the relationships and politics that forms the core of this story are deeply unhealthy, and I fervently hope that they’re not going to become erotic templates for a generation of people who think they’re being sexy and oh-so-wickedly perverted.

of fame and money: on paying bdsm presenters
May 9, 2012

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.

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