Not long ago, I picked up a copy of the book Endless Knot: A Spiritual Odyssey Through Sado-Masochism, by Mathew Styranka. The blurb on the back reads:
“Growing up in Saskatchewan, Mathew Styranka spent much of his youth trying to integrate his submissive sexual passions and his spiritual yearnings. After moving to Toronto to pursue Zen meditation, he found release instead in the world of fetish and sado-masochism. His struggle to find spiritual and physical satisfaction rested in finding the Mistress of his dreams, a woman he thought would complete him through her domination. But when fantasy became reality, Styranka discovered that his true self lay somewhere between the desires of the flesh and the reflections of the mind.”
I figured it might make for an interesting read, particularly since I and some of my close companions find a great deal of spiritual significance in BDSM, both in the physical experience of playing and in the mental and emotional states that are encouraged by ongoing D/s dynamics. This is by no means an area where I feel I’m at my most articulate, but it is one of interest. I also figured it might be cool to get a sense of what the fetish scene in Toronto looked like many years ago – the history of such things is always intriguing to me.
Unfortunately, Styranka disappoints. Which is really too bad – he had the opportunity to do some good work, and he completely dropped the ball on at least two really significant counts.
Let me back up for a sec, though. I’ll give a brief overview of the book for those who haven’t read it: Mathew arrives in Toronto, works a day job, spends a lot of time at a Zen centre, and spends as many nights as he can out in the local fetish scene. His preferred activity is attending to women’s feet as both a lifelong fetishist and as a submissive. He meets a young dominant lesbian named Lara, becomes her slave, moves in with her and serves her every whim, and eventually realizes she’s an abusive nutcase and leaves, and comes back, and leaves, and comes back, and leaves again. This process takes him a few years, and by the end of it, he has a few Valuable Lessons to share about truth and balance and inner peace.
The problems here are multiple, and the biggest one is that Styranka has made the infuriatingly typical mistake of implicitly pathologizing sexual minorities because he got burned by his own poor decision-making. I held out hope for his enlightenment throughout the entire book, but there’s a paragraph in the final pages that very nearly made me throw the book across the room in utter disgust:
“My exeriences have not eliminated my sexual interests from my life. Instead, I try to cultivate an unclinging mind so each moment will unfold without my manipulations, unfolding as it should. I no longer have a fetish, nor a need to submit to a woman in any way. However, I still have many friends in the scene, and still go to the odd fet party. The difference is that now, when any fetish-related fantasies come up, I am able to let go of them. Sometimes I try to remember what it was I felt then, when I was involved in the fet scene, because I can look at a pair of feet now and wonder what it was that I saw in them.”
I can’t tell you how grouchy it makes me when people say things like, “Well, I tried non-monogamy once and my boyfriend left me, so I think it’s an immature way of conducting relationships.” (And then they go cheat on their spouse.) Or “I made out with a person of the same sex once, and it was weird and awkward, so I’m heterosexual now and I think queers are fucked up.” (And then they steal glances at people of the same sex in the locker room and jerk off to private fantasies about them.)
It doesn’t even have to be a sexual minority – people pathologize groups all the time based on their own personal fucked-up-edness. There are plenty of hetero women out there who say things like “My last five relationships were abusive, so I’ve sworn off men,” as though somehow the fact of possessing a penis were an indication of abusiveness and the only solution is to abstain from relations with anyone sporting said appendage (and trash them while you’re at it). And there are plenty of men whose moms were mean to them and who’ve used that as an excuse to wholly buy into cultural misogyny and feel all righteous about it, or treat their girlfriends like shit because women are all gold-diggers or lying bitches or sluts, or whatever other bullshit they can come up with to justify their mistreatment.
This is not to say that some non-monogamists don’t do a crappy job of basic communication, that some same-sex making out isn’t awkward, that some men don’t abuse women, or that some women aren’t manipulative or dishonest. Simply that if you’ve got a pattern of gravitating towards people in ways that don’t turn out well, it’s probably not exclusively because people of a given group are inherently bad; it’s probably because there’s some imbalance within you that draws you to other compatibly imbalanced people in the first place, and that’s where the solutions lie too – inside yourself.
So the idea that someone who makes the kind of relationship mistakes that Styranka catalogues in his book would chalk it all up to fetishism, wash his hands of it and call that enlightenment is just a crock.
For starters, he hasn’t actually conveniently disposed of his fetish, and he makes that clear in his very own words. In the paragraph above, he is effectively saying that his fetish interests were a form of sickness, and now he’s all better, and he can stand outside and look in at those poor un-enlightened suckers who are still licking their mistresses’ toes. And yet in the very next paragraphs, he concludes his book by describing a sex scene with his new, presumably non-kinky girlfriend, including the following:
“I smell, lick and nibble at her feet, her soft soles, her round toes, taking each one in my mouth and sucking hard, massaging their bottoms with my tongue, not because I’d planned to, but because I feel it in the moment.”
Um, hello? No more foot fetish? Ya. I believe you. Last time I checked, fetishism was not defined by planning, nor does the lack of planning imply that one does not have a fetish. Fetishism is about what arouses you, and buddy, you’re still turned on by feet.
Second to that, the problems Styranka encountered in the fetish scene and in his relationships are not about his fetish or his submissive desires. They’re about his own emotional unhealth and resulting poor judgment. The deep-seated emotional problems of his mistress, Lara, are glaringly evident throughout the entire narrative. She’s a young woman who was severely abused by her father, and who has sworn off men and declared herself a lesbian as a result. She’s still attracted to men, she just refuses to have anything to do with them unless they’re crawling at her feet. In the fetish scene, she calls herself a dominant but uses classic techniques of emotional manipulation and psychological abuse to attract Mathew and keep him around. She flies into unpredictable rages, beats him in front of friends while she’s drunk (even injuring him), demands that he turn over all his savings to her, insists that her pleasure come first in everything even when it’s clearly to Mathew’s detriment, and so forth. When he gets upset at this treatment, she either threatens to leave, or guilts him about not being a sufficiently devoted slave, or turns all sickly sweet and gives him things she usually denies him, such as the title “slave” or the privilege of worshiping her feet.
On top of all that, Lara is insatiable when it comes to sex and she entertains numerous lovers, but never tells them about one another, going so far as to escort one out the back door while the next one rings the front doorbell. Not that I have a problem with vast sexual appetite or non-monogamy, but genuine insatiability – like, the state of never feeling good and satisfied – is generally not a good thing, and neither is the blatant dishonesty and manipulation of juggling lovers who don’t know about each other. I can’t even imagine her approach to safer sex… I shudder to think.
So let’s see, does that sound like the perfect profile of a healthy, balanced dominant? Not so much. I was appalled that someone like that wouldn’t be called out by her friends in the Scene, especially the ones who witness her abusive behaviour first-hand, and that someone would submit to that sort of treatment and think it made them a good slave. The thought that anyone would confuse blatant abuse for soul-feeding dominance just makes me want to cry. I’m sure lots of people out there make the mistake, but wow… I’ve never read such a cringe-inducing blow-by-blow report of it before. It’s pretty horrendous.
The problem is that Styranka doesn’t seem to have registered that that’s what was going on. At no point does he say anything about this being a classic abuse pattern. At no point does he refer to himself as a survivor, and at no point does he indicate that he’s gained any self-awareness that would help him to avoid such situations in the future. And worst of all, at no point does he clearly disassociate what he went through from the healthy, non-abusive ways in which people engage in dominant/submissive relations. Yes, he mentions people in the Scene who obviously don’t share Lara’s traits, and describes a few of his positive experiences outside the relationship, but he leaves the reader to assume that all full-time mistresses are nutcases like Lara.
I can’t help but wonder if the poor guy has learned anything at all from his experience – which makes me feel pretty rotten for him. But my sympathy is vastly overshadowed by my irritation that he’d put a book out there that sends such an inaccurate and irresponsible message about BDSM. In one fell swoop, he conflates submission with an unenlightened state of being, fetishism with pathology, and dominance with abuse, and he makes no effort to correct those assumptions, probably because he shares them.
It appears that now, Styranka spends his time communing with the waves as a surfer out in BC and hanging out in old-growth forests. His Zen practice has taught him a lot about letting go – “immersing myself in the moment, simply observing my mind and body and present feelings, sensations, thoughts, desires, and not attaching myself to them.” All wonderful stuff. In fact a lot of what he says about Zen strongly resonates with my own sense of spirituality, though I don’t ascribe to a formal Buddhist practice of any kind.
The difference is that I don’t see these things as running counter to my kink or being incompatible with it; rather, they’re very distinctly incorporated into it. My kink is not an aching, painful lack or an all-consuming, soul-sucking obsession; it’s a joyful, rich, powerful wholeness. It’s not a pathology, it’s a pathway to self-knowledge and self-discipline and self-love. So it galls me that someone could walk that path and still confuse kink with unhealth, rather than seeing unhealth for what it is and kink as the particular arena in which that unhealth played out.
Any kind of enlightenment that relies on the denial of one’s basic desires doesn’t feel true to me; it feels like just one more method of self-censorship and self-rejection, and that path, in my humble opinion, is the very one that leads to the very pathology it tries to ascribe to others. Ultimately, my own definition of enlightenment would be one that includes the acceptance of one’s own personal desires no matter how “deviant,” right alongside the embrace of balance, flow, non-attachment, self-respect and self-love.