some thoughts on dialogue that often isn’t*

*When I originally posted the piece “taking a trip down memory lane with anti-sm feminism,” which I re-posted here last week, a reader left the following comment:

“Hmm, I’ve gotta take issue with your take on Farley’s censorship argument. Her point (so far as I can tell) isn’t that anti-SM sentiments are being literally censored, but that whenever someone makes an anti-SM argument, she is immediately jumped on for supporting Dworkin/MacKinnon-style legal solutions even if she has never suggested such a thing. This forces the discussion onto a tangent about censorship and freedom of expression, instead of the substantive debate about SM and feminism.

“I’ve seen it happen. It doesn’t make critical dialogue impossible, but it does make it less likely. Prefacing anti-SM arguments with ‘I’m not advocating that the government get involved, but I’d really like to peacefully persuade you…’ doesn’t seem to help, either.”

The following post is my response to that comment.


On the point of censorship (dealt with in Lie #3), Farley’s article reads:

“Some liberal gay newspapers ‘censor’ ads for the KKK, but still publish personal ads for readers looking for Black, or Latino or Asian sexual slaves. Racism seems to be more acceptable to them if it is eroticized. Somehow, if eroticized, the humiliation, sadism and torture of racism and anti Semitism become acceptable. Torture always has a sexual component to it. If a radical feminist were to challenge the same newspaper on the issue of sadomasochism, we’d be called ‘censors.’ The whole issue of censorship is used to intimidate us and silence critical dialogue about sadomasochism.”

I think if this particular point is going to be addressed in depth, which I didn’t really do in my original post, there are a few things that bear mentioning.

First of all, Farley is conflating things in ways that just don’t hold up. Sadomasochists don’t simply go around eroticizing racism and anti-Semitism. That conjures up images of SMers standing around and watching, say, a person of colour getting beat up on the street, and jacking off to it. That would be pretty heinous, and while I’m sure there may be a few twisted fucks in the world who actually do such things, they’re hardly the same thing as a leatherman who likes a bit of role-play while he’s getting a blow job.

Some aspects of BDSM – because kink if anything is more mind-bogglingly diverse than even I can imagine, and I have one helluva good imagination – involve the eroticizing of consensual power exchange, the emotional and physical charge that can occur when someone willingly gives up control or takes it in a sexual situation. Within that portion of BDSM practitioners, there is a tapestry of “flavours.” Some people like to do power exchange in bed, with no trappings beyond sheets and skin. Some people like it with bondage or pain. Some people symbolize it with collars or rings or titles or behavioural protocol. Some people get in the mood by donning traditional “fetish gear,” things like leather and latex. And some people like to dress up and do role-play.

Of the portion who like to do role play, once again there’s a further tapestry. Every imaginable power pairing can occur – from the cliché (teacher and student, daddy and boy, drill sergeant and recruit) to the silly (pirate wench and captain, cop and speeding driver), even to the inanimate (people who like to be treated as furniture). One rare sort of pairing involves role-play along racial lines. Such play doesn’t even have to happen along the actual racial lines of the players involved; it’s the erotic charge of the role play that makes the difference. And in one of the very rare pieces of writing I’ve found on the topic, the author states that in her experience, the number of people of colour who want to do racial role-play is vastly higher than that of white folks (she is a person of colour herself).

It’s not that I don’t understand how race play could be upsetting to some. Certainly it is. To be honest I’m not sure I’d be comfortable watching it take place – though in my years in the SM world I haven’t ever seen it happen so you never know. But to equate a tiny portion of consensual BDSM role-players with actual Nazis or slave-owning plantation operators is not only inaccurate, it’s dismissive of the very real, very non-consensual and very un-erotic suffering that the victims of racial oppression have actually endured.

On top of all this, there’s an underlying assumption that all BDSMers must be white and non-Jewish (and thus, of course, ignorant of racial politics), or if they’re Jewish or a person of colour, they must be somehow brainwashed or otherwise traitors to their own cause. This position, of course, devalues their choices in much the way this same brand of feminism devalues women’s choices to practice BDSM – it’s profoundly disempowering and condescending. Luckily, groups like Kinky Jews and Dark Connections – BDSM for People of Color have come together to create community for themselves in addition to taking part in the wider BDSM world. (The latter’s history section is totally fascinating, by the way – well-written and thorough. Their links page too.)

Second, Farley has a very odd perception of racially specific personal ads. Of all the personal ads you see in your average paper, the number of racially specific ones in general (on both the “seeking” and “advertising” ends) far outnumbers the racially specific ones looking for sexual slaves – in fact in my many years of paper-reading I don’t think I’ve seen even one of the latter. (Note in December 2008: I did, in fact, see one in a Seattle weekly a couple of years ago, and if I recall it was from a black topman seeking white men to be pussies for him. Or something of the sort.) Of course I have no data to support this, but I read the back pages every time I pick up a paper, especially in cities other than home – that must count for something? I get the sense she may be talking about one or two ads she saw once, rather than anything resembling a phenomenon – especially given how unusual race play is in general within the Scene.

Second, she’s doing a remarkably crude job of comparing an ad for a sex slave – which, presumably, would only be answered by someone who was interested in such a scenario – with an ad for the KKK, whose ads are likely to either outright encourage mass racial oppression or recruit people who want to encourage it, most certainly without the consent (let alone active interest) of any racial minorities. I doubt I need to explain the KKK is not a benevolent sex-positive organization, and that it inflicts a helluva lot of very non-consensual damage on people.

Third, she intimates that these papers would accuse radical feminists of censorship if they challenged them on sadomasochism. Conveniently, her statement is hypothetical for starters, and even then she doesn’t explain what she means by “to challenge.” If a group of radical feminists wrote a respectful letter of disagreement to the editor, it would likely get published – I’ve seen lots of such letters on many sides of many thorny debates, SM included. Disagreement is kinda the point of the letters section in most papers, most of the time. If, on the other hand, they took the tactic of committing acts of property damage or defaming the paper – tactics that some radical feminists have used to make their points, sometimes most viciously against other feminists with different views – then it would likely be compared to censorship, and quite justifiably. (This happened not long ago in Montreal, when a fringe group of feminists defaced a bunch of posters advertising the international sex workers’ rights conference held here in May of 2005.)

So really, it all depends on how the question is approached. If she could actually point to a paper that refused to publish a dissenting view on SM on principle, this would be another conversation. (Unless of course it were a paper targeted at a BDSM community readership, in which case I think that choice is entirely up to them, unlike in a general-purpose community paper.)

Poor comparisons and hypotheticals aside, I’m all for critical dialogue as a general rule. The problem is that the vast majority of what I’ve read that calls itself “critical dialogue,” when it comes to SM, comes from people who either misunderstand or misrepresent the basic idea of what SM actually is. It’s like trying to talk about ethical choices of clothing brands and manufacturers with someone who believes the very existence of clothing is oppressive, or talking about your relationship troubles with someone who has a hate-on for your partner. It doesn’t end up feeling like dialogue at all – more like the same old misunderstanding and prejudice we’ve heard a hundred times before.

Even the idea of “peaceful persuasion” is creepy – I mean, someone can phrase it as politely as they want, but if they think I’m a rapist, oppressor or potential murderer because of my consensual and mutually desired sexual practices, I’m not going to be very interested in hearing their peaceful persuasion. Much like I’m not interested in entertaining a friendly conversation with an evangelical Christian who’s going to try convincing me I shouldn’t be queer. Too bad, buddy – you’ve lost me before you’ve even begun your speech. The question is not up for debate.

If someone were able to start such a conversation with the message that they understand SM is one form of sexual practice among many, that they’ve genuinely taken the time to see what it’s about and see how many people do it in non-damaging ways, that they know that it’s not considered a mental illness anymore, that they understand the basic differences between SM and abuse, that they might not engage in the practice but that they respect others’ choices to do so, etc., that would be a good start. Even if they had some leftover misconceptions or questions, or places that made them uncomfortable – we’d still be off to a good start. Then we could enter into dialogue about the specifics of certain acts, the way some particular practices may be questionable, the way some people might be vulnerable to the less scrupulous people that hang out in the BDSM community (like in any community), or the politics of representation. And I’d be much more interested in hearing their criticisms.

Debating my right to exist and feel the desires I feel, and act on them in consensual and non-damaging ways with other people who feel the same way, is not going to get anyone very far with me because it devalues my side of the debate as part of the very premise of it, and possibly even devalues my right-minded ability to enter such a debate. I would never presume to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do in bed, no matter what their political convictions and turn-ons might be, as long as it’s consensual – and I don’t appreciate anyone trying to do such a thing to me. On the other hand, debating the ways a community is constructed, the codes of conduct we follow, the places we need to improve or change – now that’s a conversation I can get into. Unfortunately Farley doesn’t hold up her end of it.

One thought on “some thoughts on dialogue that often isn’t*

  1. “As long as it’s consensual” — this is the crux of it for me, because I’m uncertain how consent actually operates when it comes to cultural reproduction. I think that certain power pairings (ones that obviously come out of violent histories that have oppressed people), certainly raise questions about where the erotic charge is coming from, and what exactly is being served or perpetuated at the level of received ideas. I guess these are instances where the mutual entanglement of sex and politics becomes quite apparent (& potentially revolting).

    Both consent and irony rely on the mutual recognition of what has been left unsaid. So it’s conceivable that a power dynamic sourced from oppressive history could be mobilized into some kind of searingly astute inventive spell, but that would then alleviate the offenses of ignorance or negligence, neither of which would then apply.

    Like you say, it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it.

    But I am really fascinated in the ways that consent gets spelled out wordlessly in this area, and the way cultural values come to be sexually endorsed.

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