kink and campus controversy

I’ve been teaching a lot lately, particularly in the realm of kink and BDSM, and this week featured a neat experience that I thought might be fun to share.

On Tuesday, I taught a BDSM 101 workshop for a group of university students at University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. I was warned ahead of time that the campus culture was very conservative; they’d never held an SM workshop before. In the weeks prior to the event, the organizer was challenged as to why it was appropriate to host such a thing during their International Women’s Week activities; posters were torn down, some of them apparently removed by professors from their own colleagues’ bulletin boards because they were “inappropriate”; and people apparently voiced the idea that BDSM might be incompatible with feminism, such that the organizer specifically requested that I address the question in the workshop.

(The answer to that last one went something like this: As a woman and as a feminist, I am committed to my own empowerment and to that of the people around me. Sexual freedom is on par with reproductive freedom and other issues of agency with regard to our bodies, our health, and our pleasure. BDSM is an intensified form of communication, trust and intimacy; what may seem demeaning or hard-core on the outside in fact makes power, and its pleasures, explicit and negotiated and accessible in a way that “regular” sex may never achieve. It is a pathway to self-love, self-knowledge and self-esteem, as well as intimacy with others. If these things are not the end result of your sexual or BDSM experiences, then by all means question whether they are healthy. But anyone who calls themself a feminist and then tries to tell me that what I want to do with my body and in my bedroom is not okay can piss the fuck off. … But I digress.)

So that was the context into which I entered when I walked onto the Scarborough campus. (And now I have a solid appreciation for why they call the area “Scarberia.” What a wasteland.)

But once I arrived, I was faced with a very enthusiastic group of 25 or so university students, fairly uniformly in their early 20s, but beyond that incredibly diverse. At least half the group was of ethnic origins other than white; I think this marked the first time I’ve ever given a BDSM workshop with even a single person wearing a hijab in the audience, not to mention a white girl who had some good questions about BDSM and race. The women outnumbered the men by maybe a third, but that meant there were actually quite a good number of guys in the audience, which was cool considering the event was part of a week called “Grrrlfest”; I didn’t see any visibly trans people in the group, but then I also didn’t see any visibly trans people anywhere else on campus or in the queer lounge after the workshop, so maybe the trans population is just tiny out there. Anyway, the group was awesome. Really engaged and interested, happy to participate and talk about their experiences and ideas when I asked for it, smiling and happy and lots of good energy. It was an excellent experience.

I find it fascinating that while professors were busy getting their panties in a knot about the inappropriateness of a BDSM workshop, the students – in really good numbers, and in great diversity – were all for it. The crafty organizers even found a way for the workshop to count as credit towards a student leadership certificate; apparently the person who made that decision did so with a grin and the expressed hope that someone would challenge them on the decision so they could argue its worth.

The participants asked intelligent questions. They had good ideas. They were open-minded and thoughtful. They applied their theoretical knowledge and critical thought, presumably acquired at least in part in the university setting, to the ideas that came up in the discussion of BDSM. In other words, the campus culture is not, from what I can tell, particularly conservative… rather, it’s vastly divergent. There are forces of authority that would like it to be conservative, and forces of resistance that clearly feel otherwise. In reality it felt to me like there was great sensitivity and refinement in the way these students approached the topic, which was all the more impressive given the noticeable racial diversity of the group taken in the context of the overwhelming whiteness of the BDSM community, at least in terms of popular media visibility, which can a) be an accurate indicator that the community has work to do around questions of racism and b) discourage kinky people of colour from thinking it has anything to offer them. I don’t often see that range of diversity even in established BDSM groups, let alone in an intro workshop. In short, I was impressed.

The additional irony here is that U of T’s downtown campus is home to a Sexual Diversity Studies program, and the program’s student union is hosting a major conference in two weeks entitled “Fetish: Working Out the Kinks,” where I am also going to be speaking, though this time from a much more academic perspective. They’re flying Carol Queen in to keynote the thing. So in the same institution, on two campuses that are barely a half-hour’s drive from one another, we have one campus where even a kink 101 workshop is controversial, and the other where a full-on kink conference is proudly publicized on the university website and budgets are devoted to bringing in internationally recognized experts.

Now, I’m definitely excited to speak at a big new conference in an academic setting on the same roster as Carol Queen; there’s an air of credibility in that setting that I very much enjoy, and opportunities to engage with interesting minds and hear some high-level thought about kinky sexuality which I will no doubt find greatly stimulating. But in some ways, I wonder if perhaps I’ll have gotten more out of giving this week’s 101 workshop than I will out of the big conference. It’s great that in some circles, kink has gained recognition as a legitimate topic for study, but at the same time, there’s a certain satisfaction to be gained in providing the beginnings of a kink education in a setting where that very legitimacy is still being actively discouraged. The credibility of kink in the former case will surely feed me and bolster me in my activist work, but the controversy in the latter challenged me – and the organizers – to actually get in there and do it.

4 thoughts on “kink and campus controversy

  1. I find it fascinating that while professors were busy getting their panties in a knot about the inappropriateness of a BDSM workshop, the students – in really good numbers, and in great diversity – were all for it.

    It’s really interesting to me that this is the impression you came away with, because for the most part at Scarborough it’s the reverse. U of T has a university-wide positive space policy run by the administration and from what I’ve heard, at Scarborough the biggest struggles they’ve had have not been with the faculty and staff, but rather with the students, most of whom come from religious and conservative families. This mirrors my own experience, which has been that whenever any kind of same-sex or queer issue has come up with my profs they’ve been, well, not always perfect, but there’s at least there’s an overwhelming sense that queer people are people and are allowed to be queer, whereas with students, it’s been like I was back in highschool (only, you know, not the queer-friendly, feminist highschool I actually went to).

    After my time at McGill I have to say that it’s a bizarre being in a place where I am more comfortable being out to my professors than to my peers. In fact, it’s weird to have to come out at all. I never came out at McGill, I just *was* out, you know? And sure, some people made mistaken assumptions, but then they got over them. At Scarborough I basically have to bean my fellow students with a 2 x 4 to get them to admit the possibility that someone might be something other than straight.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the vast majority of students didn’t raise a stink about the workshop because they didn’t know what sadomasochism was. I know this is true of at least one guy.

  2. Having grown up in “Scarberia”, I remember being rather surprised by the lack of ethnic diversity when I first began began attending kink events in Toronto. There were and are certainly some that cater specifically to diverse groups, but the general pan-sexual and male only events I attended weren’t reflecting Toronto’s population. I suspect this was due to Toronto acting as a hub for the less diverse communities in Southern Ontario. At any party, munch, or workshop, at least half of the group would have travelled from outside of Toronto, and many of those from outside the 905 (the horseshoe of cities and communities surrounding Toronto).

    Scarborough’s population has a large number of new immigrants, and many of those arrived in the 80s. Their children comprise a large number of the students at Scarborough campus, and are entering the workforce while still living at home. We may be seeing their cultural values and interests changing from those of their parents. t’s exciting to hear that diverse ethnic groups are responding to open invitations for learning and discussion about alternative sexuality within Toronto, and I hope that leads to more active engagement with the alternative sexuality communities in Toronto.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Welcome to Toronto!


  3. Wow, neat. These two very thoughtful and insightful comments raise a number of questions as to what’s actually going on with the student population’s values at U of T Scarborough. Given that I’ve only been there once (both the campus and the town), I’m really not the most well-placed person to be answering those questions, particularly considering my experience on campus was clearly not a typical one. I may also not be well placed to see the nuances that come up based on the area’s demographics and historical considerations, or the bigger-picture experience of student life on campus. But I must say I do find it intriguing that the possibility of total ignorance about alternative sexuality and the possibility of increased open-mindedness would potentially both lead to the situation that I did experience – that of a super-diverse and very open-minded group of students. Fascinating!

    Thanks for the insights, both of you, and Gregg, thanks for the warm welcome to TO!

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