a theory of power

November 14, 2012 - 12 Responses

As regular readers might have noticed, in the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly written about the nature of full-time power dynamics. It’s a theme that takes up a lot of space in my mind, as I move through the joys and challenges of my own power relationships over time. This post is an addition to that thread of musings.

In recent months I’ve found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the discussions and resources about power that I encounter through the BDSM/leather community/ies. There’s nothing wrong with them, per se, they’ve just been speaking to me personally less and less. It’s not hard to figure out why. Let me digress into the directly personal for a moment in order to explain.

I’ve spent the past few years in steadily worsening chronic pain. I found out in May of this year that I had a rare, slow-growing tumour directly on my spinal cord that had basically been keeping my pelvic nerve company for easily a decade, possibly up to twenty years. By the time the doctors finally figured out what the fuck was wrong with me, my body was in a terribly fragile state—any kind of impact, including movements as simple as stepping down a stair or being brushed against in a crowd, would cause me to seize up in pain. Most kinds of SM play became impossible for me, or became pleasures I could indulge in only rarely or within strict limits. A seven-minute demo scene in a workshop this spring had me out of commission for days. When the pain it reached its worst, in the weeks prior to the surgery I had in July to remove the tumour, I stopped being able to enjoy even the most careful sex. Anything approaching orgasm was agony. Now, following surgery, the pain is mostly gone, but there are parts of my bits that I can’t feel at all, and I’m feeling tender and tentative when it comes to either initiating or receiving any kind of sexual touch. (I’m working on it.)

And yet, despite sex and play becoming increasingly rare and challenging, and eventually grinding to a complete halt, and despite my very low levels of erotic and sadomasochistic desire in recent months, at no point did I stop desiring and enjoying the power dynamics I have cultivated with my partners. If anything, they deepened.

This really drove home the point that power-based relationships, for me, do not live in sex or eroticism. There is a gigantic overlap, yes; I am rarely drawn to, and find it challenging to feel truly satisfied within, power dynamics that don’t veer pretty heavily into the erotic. But there’s nothing quite like having no erotic desire and no ability to enjoy sex to make it abundantly clear that erotic charge is in no way at the root of what I’m doing. Power, for me, doesn’t live in sex. It just likes to hang out there a whole lot. But its roots are elsewhere.

Over the course of my journey into and out of debilitating pain, I realized that it was extremely difficult to find discussions of power, in BDSM settings, that do not take as a given that power is a sexual kink. I know I’m not the only one for whom power doesn’t live in sex, but it’s unbelievably hard to find a place to learn about that or talk about it when your primary point of reference is the BDSM/leather world. Over and over, I found myself in situations where I was very much hoping for insight or new perspectives, and then realizing that for the people I was talking with, it all came down to, or revolved around, or was sourced within, sex. And each time that happened, I felt more isolated. A freak among freaks. A dominant sex pervert who wasn’t sexing or perving, but for whom the dominance hadn’t slowed down one iota. Honestly, I started to feel like maybe I should turn in my pervert card. I sure wasn’t feeling very pervy.

I discovered, though, that one place where I could find some glimmer of hope was within discussions of M/s relationships and what’s sometimes known as “the path of mastery”—a term I think lends itself to Darth Vader-like intoning quite well, which kind of makes me cringe, but I haven’t found something better. So that’s what I’m reading about these days (I’ll be updating my annotated reading list soon!), and that’s the kind of gatherings and conferences I’m budgeting to attend, and that’s what my brain is grinding away at. It’s not an entirely new line of thinking for me, but I think having sex and play forcibly removed from the equation really compelled me to find some way of understanding what the fuck it is I’m doing, since clearly it’s happening even completely outside those contexts.

So, of late, I’ve been doing a lot of chewing on this idea of “mastery.” Thus far, in my blogging about power, I’ve mostly discussed 24/7 relationships, but I haven’t written a heck of a lot about the more individual aspects of this path. I’ve also never been especially comfortable with the term “master,” as applied to myself. But for a number of reasons, I’m realizing that I have to swallow some of that discomfort and just bloody own that this is the path I’m on, mastery is probably the best word to describe it, and my task is to become comfortable with that, not try to wiggle out of it. As an exercise in comfort-building, I tried to develop a definition of mastery that makes sense and feels right to me, and I figured it might be worth sharing, again because there is precious little out there on the topic, even among people who’ve been doing this forever and a day. So…

Mastery, for me, is a radical commitment to acknowledging, recognizing, and profoundly knowing my privilege and power both in classically political ways (gender, race, etc.) and also in terms of less tangible, describable and theorizable/theorized areas such as leadership skill, charisma, intuition, emotional intelligence, attractiveness, persuasiveness, command presence, and so forth. A key piece of this is to extend that acknowledgement, recognition and knowledge to the pleasure that can be and is taken in that power (even though holding power and privilege is not always pleasurable). This is the stuff that often gets dismissed or ignored in academic and political discussions of power, but that utterly changes the game at every small interpersonal moment in a way that can only be ethically dealt with through acceptance, clear sight and responsible management. Alongside that, mastery is a radical commitment to using that privilege and power for good (mine, my partners’, others’, the community’s, the world’s) in as explicit, conscious and consensual a way as possible in every moment.

This concept of mastery relies on a pursuit of deep self-awareness, and a commitment to right and ethical use of power, which presupposes the establishment of an ethical system. But this ethical system is not an institutionally-based one. Most people who work within pre-established or institutionalized ethical systems (religion, law, professional codes, academia, military, martial arts, whatever) don’t pursue mastery in the sense that I’m talking about here, though the two types of code are not mutually exclusive. But institutional frameworks on their own don’t generally encourage the kind of individualized understanding, personal moral code and introspective approach I’m talking about here. Also, unless you are fanatically devoted, most outside-originating systems (even when chosen) give you much more room to deviate or get away with shit, whereas a strong inner-sourced moral code does not.

I guess a short way of saying this would be that for me, mastery begins and ends with self-mastery, so in that sense it doesn’t in any way depend on the existence of a relationship—and thus in no way is defined by or limited to the erotic. But when someone shows up who wants to enter into a power relationship with me, then I govern that dyad by my self-mastery code.

I’ve written in the past about describing “This Thing” (my preferred term, for the moment, for what others might call M/s or Master/slave relationships). The further writing I’m doing here isn’t intended to replace those ideas, but rather to add to them. In that earlier post, I was trying to describe the key features I’d been able to pinpoint—the elements that seemed, to me, to be common to all or at least most relationships that were This Thing, both my own and those I’d seen around me. (If you want even broader context, I also wrote about conceptual frameworks for D/s relationships, because This Thing is at one extreme of a scale that includes a range of other power-inflected relationship types.)

I have wrestled before with how to explain what’s different between This Thing and any other kind of relationship, and my earlier attempt, while trying to be definitive, was mostly descriptive. But recently I came up with a two-step system that I’d like to put forth as a definition.

First step: to count as This Thing in my personal conception of things, the power dynamic must fit both of the following criteria. (Note that PIC = Person In Charge and POA = Person Obeying Authority. These positions can only exist in relation to one another. Someone who is on a path of mastery, or on that of what’s often known as “slavery,” can be on that path whether they’re in a relationship or not; that part is about self-understanding and identity, not relationship.)

1) It must be 100%, by which I mean not time-bound (i.e. limited to the bounds of a scene or a specific time frame of any other kind) and not bound by the limits of a specific “territory” or area. As such, an ongoing relationship in which the PIC’s authority is limited—say, their territory includes the POA’s sexual practice, dress habits and school pursuits, but they have no say over the POA’s health or parenting or finances—doesn’t count in my framing of things, even if such relationships may have a lot in common with This Thing, and may be far more common than This Thing, and may even happen between two people who are each on their respective paths. Just because one person in a relationship is on the path of mastery and the other on the path of “slavery” doesn’t mean they are master and slave to each other, any more than two dancers who fall in love must necessarily dance together.

2) It must be deliberate and self-conscious, in that both participants explicitly acknowledge that they’re doing an ongoing power dynamic and they agree to engage in it on purpose. So no implicit relationships here. Of course power suffuses plenty of relationships in implicit ways, including many relationships that fit some of the second-step criteria, but I don’t think it can truly be This Thing if you don’t actually ever talk about it.

These two criteria, though, are not enough to make a relationship into This Thing. The first criterion, for instance, is present in parent/child relationships and in other relationships of dependence, consensual or otherwise (state/prisoner, say, or institution/mental patient), but those aren’t This Thing. And lots of cases exist where both criteria are present, such as when people join certain religions (especially as nuns, priests and the equivalent) or the military, but those too aren’t This Thing because they don’t hit any of the second-step criteria.

So, those second-step criteria, then. In addition to the two first-step criteria, the relationship must meet one or more of the following three criteria, any one of which is sufficient. In other words, they are often all three present, and more rarely two out of three (any two), and more rarely still just a single one, but as long as at least one of them is present, it fits into my definition of This Thing.

1) It is erotic. The power dynamic produces and sustains arousal.


2) It is power for power’s sake. The power dynamic is desired for its own sake and is cultivated as an end unto itself, rather than as being a means to an end, a practice in service to a goal. Not to say that goals of another kind can’t be present—they often are, and This Thing is an excellent framework to support goal achievement (for both partners). But the primary purpose isn’t to achieve an outside goal. The goal is to experience and enjoy the power dynamic. If all you wanted were X other goal (spiritual enlightenment, earning a PhD, losing twenty pounds, etc.) then you could easily take another path to get there (monasticism, grad school, personal trainer, etc.) and that way may involve a power dynamic, but the dynamic is then bound by the elements related to the achievement of that goal.


3) It is done in the context of a leather, M/s or BDSM tradition or community context.

As a “proof” of my criteria set, I went at this backwards and tried to eliminate two out of three second-step criteria at every turn to see if what was left still held up. I’m not eliminating the first-step ones; they remain the foundation piece for the second-step ones.

So, if we eliminate the arousal factor, you can still have a non-erotic power dynamic that is deliberately enjoyed for its own ends, whether it is or is not done within self-consciously leather traditions. Non-erotic dynamics in This Thing are rare, but by no means unheard of. One well-known pair on the M/s teaching circuit, for instance, is made up of a gay male master and a female slave who aren’t sexually involved.

If you eliminate the power-for-its-own-sake factor, say by making it a goal-oriented dynamic, then it might be time-limited in the sense that when the goal is achieved the relationship dissolves, but it may well still be a full-time and ongoing This Thing relationship while it lasts, if it is also either erotic and/or happening within the context of leather traditions. I admit I’ve rarely seen this—for most people, a relationship that’s based on a specific goal doesn’t tend to become as all-encompassing as This Thing, but it’s theoretically possible, particularly, I suppose, if the goal were a pretty gigantic or long-term one. A couple of the M/s couple profiles in the book Ask the Man Who Owns Him discuss a specific goal as a key element of the relationship, the accomplishment of which could signal the end of the M/s dynamic in at least one case, so I know this does exist. On the other side of the coin, for some pairs who are heavily spiritually oriented, they may see their dynamic as serving a spiritual purpose such that they wouldn’t say they’re doing power for its own sake; it’s all in service to a higher calling or at the command of their deity. This stretches my idea of “for its own sake” somewhat, but for the purposes of this definition, I’d still count spiritually-framed M/s relationships of that type as This Thing as long, of course, as they still hit the initial two criteria of being 100% full-time and full-spectrum and explicitly acknowledged as such.

If you eliminate the leather tradition element, you can still have a fully functional and happy power dynamic, but you may lack a language with which to discuss it or a set of concepts to start from, and you may lack support structures and a community, which—when you’re going into an intense and unusual kind of relationship like this—can be crucial in helping you find support as well as balancing, deepening and understanding what you are getting up to. Still, there are other kinds of communities and traditions to work from—people find inspiration for This Thing in an array of places. (Note that I do NOT count as This Thing frameworks that are based on institutionalized conservative or fundamentalist strains of organized religion and are coercive as such—so if God tells your religion that men are in charge and women must submit, and two people believe this and enter a relationship based on those parameters, to my mind one or possibly both of them are actually in a non-consensual power dynamic with an institutional third party and as such the entire idea here is moot.) And some people are really into making it all up for themselves, without using any models whatsoever. Bonus points for creativity! Also, if you’re not into kinky sex per se, or you find the BDSM/leather/fetish community/ies off-putting for some reason, or the resources you’ve found within leather/BDSM don’t speak to you even if you do like kink, or you’re geographically isolated, or you’re not especially sociable or community-oriented—well, for all these reasons and many more, then leather symbolism and traditions might be of no interest to you.

A side note about this last criterion. In BDSM and leather communities, there often are traditions and symbols—the use of a collar, the wearing of leather, the employment of etiquette and protocols, and so forth—that can serve really well to help frame This Thing, and the visibility of that symbolism in the outside world draws people seeking This Thing to the BDSM/leather community. But it can be a bit of a minefield once you get there.

Two arcs often intersect here. First, the BDSM or leather community is often where people end up when they are drawn to the eroticism of power and/or the exploration of power for its own sake, because there isn’t really another place where this stuff gets engaged in and discussed as such. Especially the erotic part. You can certainly find self-conscious explorations of power in various places, particularly religions, but it is very rare to see those places address the erotic in any meaningful way. They are usually invested in denying or controlling the erotic, often setting it up as a threat to the belief system itself. Second, people who are drawn to BDSM sometimes discover that their interest in power goes beyond play, after exploring the scene for a while and getting the nagging feeling they want something deeper.

The fact that the BDSM world acts as a vector for full-time power-oriented people in this way—both people who start out wanting a full-time dynamic and look for opportunities through BDSM, and people who start out being interested in BDSM play and end up realizing they want a full-time dynamic—is in fact the source of a lot of confusion and pain. Many folks oriented toward This Thing feel frustrated and alienated in BDSM communities where the focus is squarely on play or time-bound power, because when everything is framed that way, and these are the terms of all conversations, it can be really difficult to talk about how This Thing isn’t play (but is often still kinky and/or erotic, and play does still often happen within This Thing), and it can be super challenging to find resources and perspectives, even though you’d think this would be precisely the place to find them. Often in these same settings, BDSM players are suspicious of ongoing power dynamics because they frame their BDSM practice as being okay precisely because of its temporary or role-based character. So a lot of players pooh-pooh This Thing, or any other kind of ongoing arrangement for that matter, as taking itself too seriously, or see it as inherently abusive or just “going too far,” much like any vanilla community would.

The situation is an odd one. The place where people are most likely to gravitate in order to find This Thing, or through which people are likeliest to figure out they want This Thing, is a place where wanting it may be actively discouraged and finding it might in fact prove very difficult. So close, yet so far away! I have written about this from a slightly different angle in the past, and I may return to the topic in future writing.

For now, back to the task at hand. If you eliminate all three of my second-step criteria—if it’s not erotic, power is not engaged in for its own sake, and you’re not doing it through leather traditions—then whatever you’re doing is not This Thing.

Of course, all of this still leaves room for the existence of plenty of power-based relationships that aren’t This Thing by this definition, but that are nevertheless profound, ongoing, and very real. This definition effort isn’t a value or validity judgement. But of late I’m realizing that honing in on the particularities of This Thing is really helping me think through some stuff in helpful ways, in terms of understanding who I am, how I operate, how I’m oriented and what feels good to me. From there, I can and do engage in power relationships that aren’t This Thing because they don’t hit all the criteria, even if no matter what kind of relationship I’m in, or not in, I am still on this path of mastery that begins and ends with self-mastery.

I don’t pretend to have a conclusive understanding here, and I don’t expect my definitions or perspectives to resonate with everyone who’s doing This Thing or any other type of ongoing power dynamic. But I am committed to an ongoing exploration of ideas and to sharing concepts as they jell in my head. If nothing else, perhaps I can help provoke a proliferation of ideas and conceptual models so that we can all benefit from having a broader range to choose from. Onward and upward!

blog hop! also, i’m writing a book.

November 8, 2012 - 4 Responses

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 - 22 Responses

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.

pedagogy for perverts

June 20, 2012 - One Response

I just finished reading a very thought-provoking post by kink author and leatherman Race Bannon, entitled “Are Our Educational Efforts Backfiring?” It inspired me to write a rather lengthy comment in response, which I then realized might also be of interest to readers here, especially on the heels of my last post on paying BDSM presenters. Please do go read Race’s post first, or the rest of this might not entirely make sense – I haven’t edited it to stand alone (must! go! to! bed!). Basically, his post sets out three areas of kink-related education – within existing community, as a form of outreach to possible new community members, and as a form of outreach to the general public – and critiques the issues he sees arising in each of those areas. Most of my response is focused on the in-community aspect of kink education, as is most of his post, but I work within all three areas as an educator so I have thoughts about all of them. Read on if you’re curious. I promise that at some point I’ll get back to writing about sex rather than about BDSM/leather event organizing…!


Race, I agree with much of what you’re saying, but in your first section I think you’re addressing a few separate issues. Or at least, that’s how I would reframe some of your points in order to then offer some ideas and challenges. As you might expect from me, this is a somewhat lengthy response, and I’m cross-posting it to my blog as well with a link back here. ;)

The first, and most important, is event model. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but to make a long story short, the vast majority of events I’ve encountered in 12 years in the scene have been motivated to some degree by a desire to grow and make money. This neoliberal capitalist-minded approach to creating pervy communities is so common that organizers not only adopt it without thinking, they also assume everyone else is adopting it too—to the point where, when I explain that the event I co-organize is not interested in getting bigger or making money, people are downright baffled and sometimes almost offended. Other models exist and/or can be created, and would serve our needs far better in many cases, but frankly if a different basic model or range of models is to gain in popularity, that would require such a drastic rethinking of the fundamental capitalist values people are taught in mainstream (especially American) society—at the very least in order to be able to consciously put them on the shelf when it comes to kink organizing, if not in one’s life as a whole—that I have little faith it will happen in the next 20 years, or even in my lifetime. I’d love to be proven wrong. :)

The second is celebrity culture, which of course ties in awfully well with neoliberal capitalism. If the purpose of a class or an event is genuinely educational—as in, aiming to create opportunities for people to learn—then the decisions about how it is run, what topics are covered and who is to cover them would look very different than much of what we see today. The skill sets demanded of presenters would also look very different, when presenters are needed at all, and as you pointed out, not all learning requires presenters. Celebrity passes for topic expertise and stands in for skill in North American culture at large (did Bono ever major in African studies or economics or have a career in HIV policy, for instance?), so of course that happens in the leather world as well.

But celebrity and flash do sell event tickets—and if you are invested in selling tickets and getting bigger, then that is valuable. Again, in order to change this, the whole model needs to be taken down, which would involve a direct challenge to a lot of core cultural values imported directly into the leather scene from the mainstream. For starters I think the leather community should completely drop the entire title circuit model, or keep it around for kicks in bars here and there and nothing more. It’s a celebrity-creation machine that only perpetuates the problems you’re pointing out here. (If we want to breed leaders, let’s invest in leadership training and mentorship on a broad scale; and if we want to recognize leaders, let’s find creative ways to thank and support the people who are already leading. But that’s a whole other topic.) While we’re at it, let’s kill celebrity auctions at events, VIP tables and rooms, and so forth. If that sounds like a scary idea, why? Maybe because then you’d have less money coming in? Refer back to my first point.

As for education proper, one major issue is target audience. It is still relevant to teach very basic stuff at events because there are always new folks showing up who don’t know that stuff yet, and when you fail to offer it, you create a much more elitist/exclusive community that can begin to ossify—not so good. But when you’ve been around for decades, the usual class topics can begin to look repetitive. In an effort to keep more experienced players coming back, new topics need to be offered.

The problem lies in that in some cases organizers and presenters take that logic and run it through a mindset of “bigger/louder/scarier is better” (again, typical neoliberal capitalist mainstream thinking), so of course what pops out the other end is “How to Discipline Your Slave with an Axe” or whatever. As you mentioned, one of the most common cravings among more experienced players is opportunities to deepen understanding of relationships and power dynamics—to look at the nuances, not to find the next flashier thing. So it’s not really over-education that’s happening as much as it is a flawed focus in the direction of that education.

Personally I’d recommend a basic three-track model for the average large event: richer focus on essential relationship and communication skills and on basic play skills for 101-level players with lots of hands-on practice time; opportunities to deepen power management/communication/relationship skills for more experienced players, with lots of group discussion time, skill-sharing, and structured time for practice of specific techniques (for instance, applying active listening, non-violent communication and other well-known communication models to D/s relationships); and carefully taught, small classes on riskier forms of play, informed by existing medical research and with way more hands-on practice opportunities for those too. For instance I find it shocking that I’ve taken at least five knife play and cutting classes in the last two or three years and at no point have any of them included anybody putting a razor blade and an eggplant in my hands; and with one or two notable exceptions, no play classes I’ve ever been to have referenced medical literature. We do have enough doctors, nurses, EMTs and academics in our communities whose knowledge and expertise we should be drawing on way more than we actually do!

When it comes to topics that are so specific to leather/BDSM that there’s simply no formal qualification available, presenters should get used to a) saying up front that there is no such thing as expertise here, and no existing research to work from, just personal experience, and b) stating their own biases up front so that everyone knows where their perspectives and insights are coming from. (Example: “I’m a 60-year-old gay white leatherman who came into the scene 15 years ago, so pretty late in life. I’ve had three significant D/s relationships with men in the last 12 years, one as a submissive and two as dominant, all of them 24/7. I learned much of what I know from my late friend Master Bob and I am a practicing Buddhist. I’m basically monogamous and have zero experience with women, and I’ve been a computer programmer for 35 years. That’s where my perspectives come from, and they may or may not resonate with you. I’m just offering what I know from my own experience.”) Rarely do I hear presenters state their biases—which we all have and which limit us in ways that both add and remove value. I suspect many aren’t even able to say what their biases are, and we don’t generally ask them to. I think they should be stated as a preface for pretty much any class on anything, it’s just all the more relevant when there’s no independently verifiable element to what’s being taught.

As well, right now, even in our educator-centric top-down education model, there is no demand for verifiable “official” expertise, so there’s no special reason for anyone to acquire it in order to teach in the BDSM/leather world. There’s also no demand for strong teaching technique or curriculum development skill, because the celebrity culture I’m trashing here leads people to accept a class model that generally aims to showcase the presenter rather than to give participants specific take-aways. So there’s very little encouragement and few community-specific resources for BDSM presenters to acquire ground-level teaching and class design skills (introducing yourself with relevant information, explaining your approach, creating group rapport, structuring a class, explaining your purpose and focus, defining key terms, using visual and tactile aids, accommodating different learning styles and abilities, timing breaks, working in group work and individual reflection time, allotting time for practice and discussion, dealing with hecklers or other troublemakers, etc.). This same celebrity culture also leads participants, in turn, to uncritically accept presenters’ edicts rather than to see them as starting points for developing their own ideas.

If the demand were created for the things I’m listing here, perhaps people who want to present would start to acquire and provide them, and even the educator-focused model could bring us a lot more quality. I bet that the more regular employment of detailed feedback opportunities from participants on each class they attend would also be very useful. Who’ll be the first event organizer to set that bar?

The vetting question is a complicated one. Elevating anyone to a “vetter” status creates the chicken-and-egg problem of how they got to be so qualified, and may perpetuate the problem created by celebrity culture where those whose word is more respected don’t necessarily match up with those who are qualified to know anything. I think there might instead be reason to ask more often for independently verifiable qualifications in some cases—medical or communications training, say—and to create more peer-to-peer learning situations where expertise is not the focus anyway. Even those can benefit from skilled facilitators, so no matter what, there’s clearly a need here for those who wish to serve the community to both supply and demand more opportunities to learn how to teach. Yes, that implies some time investment on the part of presenters, but those who are really interested will make the investment, and those who don’t can at least be chosen with the knowledge that they haven’t.

As for your second section, about education, in the form of demonstrations, as outreach to bring people into kinkster networks—what kind of public venues are you talking about? Places like the big commercial sex product trade shows? Places like anyone-can-register conferences in major hotels? Workshops given at feminist sex stores? I agree that in some cases public demos end up being more about voyeurism than education, but context and intention make a huge difference here, so I can’t quite get behind a hard-line dismissal of them. And it’s all the more complex in that context sometimes trumps even the best intentions on the part of a presenter; and the “wrong” intentions can trump the most fully appropriate of contexts.

I know, for instance, that when I did a fisting workshop with a live demo at a university sex week, some people were profoundly moved by it and learned stuff they simply would never have learned any other way—the demo bottom and I both got some incredible feedback about how life-changing that was for some folks who’d never learned about the intricacies of female anatomy and who witnessed the gentleness and care of the demo when they expected it to be scary and violent. But some frat boys walked away from the same demo and spent the rest of the night loudly making fun of the demo bottom’s body shape over too much beer at the university pub. I’m still not sure whether on balance it was a good idea to do that demo or not, but it’s not nearly as simple as yes or no. Perhaps it could have been advertised differently, perhaps the participants should have been vetted some, perhaps… I dunno. Questions well worth pondering.

When it comes to your third section, about educational outreach to the general public, I agree that most don’t need specifics. I don’t even think our non-kinky families of origin need lots of specifics—I cringed about sixty times when reading When Someone You Love Is Kinky for instance, thinking “I would NEVER tell my mother that level of detail about what I do! And it’s not what she would want to know anyway, she just wants to know I’m safe!”

But are you seeing outreach that does seem to provide huge amounts of detail? In what context is it taking place? What sort of detail is being provided, and in what way is it harmful to us? What is this “asking for more” you’re referencing, which we shouldn’t be doing? I’m not aiming to challenge your point here per se, as it seems sound to me at base, but I’m curious because I’m not sure I actually know what you’re saying should not happen.

I think some elements of the non-kinky public need way more detail and sound education—such as doctors, therapists, cops, lawmakers, judges and so forth—so they can properly serve kinky people without bias or misunderstanding while nevertheless retaining their critical faculties. Not all kink is done in safe and healthy ways, after all, and for professionals to help those who need it, they need to be fed more than just the party line about how we’re all so RACK and SSC, preferably by people who know enough about the field in question (psychology, law enforcement, whatever) to have some credibility in the eyes of those they’re teaching, along with the ability to speak using terms the learners will understand. And I think general shame- and stigma-busting is useful to the general public, for instance in challenging common perceptions of pervs as being dangerous, deranged and criminal. So it’s mostly about providing a topic focus and level of detail that’s appropriate to specific purposes.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. Glad to see this discussion is happening. :) I’ve read the other commenters with great interest, and I hope I’ve added some more food for thought.


of fame and money: on paying bdsm presenters

May 9, 2012 - 18 Responses

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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