Archive for March, 2009

the relative privileges of the penisless*
March 30, 2009

*The following was originally posted on July 6, 2006. I feel like the lovely Kate Bornstein has been popping up all over the place recently, and I think she rocks. I do, however, have a bit of critique for some of her work…


For my book club, Tip of the Page, I recently read My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein. Well, OK, I read part of it – not having had the time or energy lately to get my shit together and read the whole thing, interesting though the book certainly is. I do plan to finish the whole thing eventually, mind you, because the first 79 pages were pretty great – though you have to be down with Kate’s very chatty writing style, which I’ll admit drove me nuts when I first picked it up a few years ago because it struck me as so bloody condescending. But then I met her when she came to speak at McGill a couple of years ago, and realized that in fact the tone in her book mirrored her tone in person, and that she’s not at all condescending, just really perky and chatty. That made it much easier to get through the book (so far at least).

Anyway, one of the things I like best about My Gender Workbook is the quizzes. Y’know, like Cosmo “What Kind of Man Is Right for You?” quizzes, only queered up something fierce. In the chapter entitled “Who’s On Top?” (and yes, that’s a not-so-thinly-veiled SM joke, Kate being a kinkster), she includes a fifteen-page quiz (!) to help you figure out how close you are to being The Perfect Gender.

It’s really quite ingenious. She starts out with a section entitled “Penises.” If you have one, you get 250 points. If you don’t, you get zero. There are questions about body size, physical health, mental health, race, ability, and all sorts of other things; gender presentation and “passability”; religion and culture; relationships and sexual orientation; political views; and then this huge section entitled “Sense of Self,” which seems to be a euphemism for “entitlement,” in that most of the questions are some variation on “how much entitlement do you walk around with on a daily basis?” Very sharp indeed.

Of course, taking this quiz was intriguing. It felt, to me, like she was trying to give people a sense of their own privilege – and it’s really fucking hard to make people aware of their privilege in ways that don’t alienate them. (Kudos to all the many people who’ve helped me figure out at least some of my own in ways that were gentle and kind.) So I was impressed at the effort.

Then it came time to score. The maximum number of points is 1500, at which she considers you to be of The Perfect Gender. So I tallied up my score and it was… 499.

To explain: zero to 549 is the bottom category of the five categories she’s set up. The blurb next to my score reads, “Heh, heh. You’re weird. You know you are, so why’d you take the test? Oh, I know: you take pride in what the culture persists in calling your flaws and imperfections, no? My kind of outlaw!”


Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Kate is great, and I applaud the work she’s done in many many spheres. It feels all nice and warm and fuzzy to know that, in theory at least, she’d consider me to be her kind of anything. I also acknowledge that she provides a disclaimer along with the quiz, which reads: “Okay, so the scores are totally arbitrary. Right. So’s the rest of the culture. So are the ideas of real men and women. So’s gender in general. So there.” I get it, I get it – this is one way among many to do the work of unpacking privilege and no one way will get it all right.

But still. 499? I’m on the very bottom? Whadafuck? I hate to break it to you, Kate, but I have waaaay more privilege than 499 points’ worth. Sure, I’m kinky and non-monogamous and I play with genderfuck (and am in many ways genderfucked myself) and I’ve got some arguably radical political views (depending on whose point of view you’re coming from) and I’m queer and I’m female and I’m not Christian and I’m not a parent and I’m not in the country’s top income bracket. Okay, I get it, on the privilege scale I have some stuff counting against me.

But crikey, I’m also white – which must, must, must count for more than the ten points it’s allotted, especially if having a penis counts for 250. Come on, honey – that’s hardly a fair assessment of how much my whiteness gives me in this world.

Same thing with my lack of any mental and physical disorders (unless you count needing glasses, which is kinda banal nowadays). Puh-leeze – do you really think the difference in privilege between someone who’s, say, a paraplegic and someone who’s in near perfect physical health amounts to ten points in a 1500-point quiz?

And same thing with my class privilege – I highly doubt the difference between being middle-to-upper class, working class and “other” is a ten-pointer on the grand scale of privilege. Sure, I’m penisless, but I’ve had the privilege of moving through my entire life with the ability to take it relatively for granted that I’d make a decent living and be in a profession where people respected me. This isn’t to say I’ve never been poor; there was a period of five or six years when I could hardly afford to eat. Trust me – after donating a few pennies a week to the elves at school one year, it very much threw me for a loop to get a cheque in the mail from the John Abbott Christmas Fund, and it was even more humbling that I actually needed it to buy my groceries. But, as I articulated in a recent workshop I took, that was middle-class Andrea having a temporary poverty problem, not working-class Andrea having a particularly rough holiday season one year within a lifetime of rough holiday seasons. There’s a major fucking difference between class and income bracket, and I never stopped being middle-class even when I was scraping by on minimum wage, coupons and hand-me downs.

And on top of all this, I’m educated, English-speaking, professional; I live in North America, I own my own business, I’m generally considered to be of an acceptable body type and size, etc., etc. I mean, I’m wallowing in privilege in so many ways that if I hadn’t realized years ago that guilt was not an advantageous political strategy, I’d be gnawing myself out from the inside from the sheer self-hatred of having so much of my identity resting on its laurels in categories that make my life shockingly easy compared to so many people in this world.

And Kate wants to reduce all of that combined to a fraction of the value of a penis on the privilege-metre? Oy. It’s pleasantly unchallenging, but I’m just not sure I want to feel pleasant about this.

Okay. So this was a quiz about whether or not you’re the perfect gender, not whether or not you’re the perfect human being. Fair enough. But I don’t know if it’s really possible to pick apart gender privilege from all the other sorts of privilege out there. Or rather, if you do, it’s simply giving a skewed picture of what privilege is like.

For example, I don’t experience my lack of privilege as a woman as being separable from my lack of privilege as a queer. Sure, there are some circumstances in which one of them is the more prevalent cause of a bad experience, but they’re still happening to me. If I get harassed one day on the street because I’m a woman and some dude thinks it’s his right to comment on my body (whether it pleases or displeases him is reasonably irrelevant), and the next day I get harassed on the street because I’m holding hands with another woman and some dude thinks it’s his right to comment on my choice of partners, how are those things dissociable? I’m not a woman one day and a dyke the next – I am always both of those things, and many more, and they all factor into how people approach me, even if one is on top at a given moment.

And on the flipside, if I apply for a job and I get that job, and a whole bunch of other people don’t get that job because they have the wrong accent or the wrong skin colour or the wrong “look” or the wrong gender presentation, I’m not experiencing my own privilege in a separable list of four or five things – I simply got the job. Or the apartment, or the test score, or the right to walk into a store without being followed by a security agent. Once again – how are these things dissociable?

I’m not saying privilege doesn’t break down into identifiable pieces; sometimes it does, and certainly it’s politically wise to be able to articulate the ways that various sorts of privilege are different and play out differently. But you can’t just take them apart and ignore the rest, or ignore the systems in which they all operate incestuously.

I understand that Kate needed to focus on gender for her book, but I still feel icky thinking that by her test standards I’m comfortably resting at the bottom of a privilege scale where everyone should feel a combination of pity and admiration for me (“you poor outcast, you’re so strong!”) when in fact I wield an enormous amount of power and privilege in my everyday life. I don’t feel I belong on the bottom here; somehow that would minimize all the people who have far more claim to that space than I ever will, and to equate their struggles with mine not only makes me personally uncomfortable, but falsely places us in a position of equality where there isn’t any.

Which, of course, is the problem in the first place – that lack of equality, and the many faces of oppression. Gender is only one of them, and I don’t think you can scale that up higher than the rest.

high on chocolate and advocating the alphabet*
March 24, 2009

Well, I’m back on Canadian soil, and the time of this post should demonstrate the extent to which my body clock is still happily ticking along in California time. International Ms. Leather was a fabulous time, and I’m sure I’ll have some reflections on the experience to post soon enough; in the meantime I’m simply marking my calendar for next year’s event, April 15-18, 2010. The bois and I enjoyed the town – we walked over the Golden Gate Bridge and watched the dolphins leap in the surf below, wandered into vintage clothing stores in the Haight-Ashbury district, dined and book-shopped (mmmm) in the Castro, and just generally had a wonderful week.

The highlight, in many ways, was our visit to the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon on Saturday. What a wonderful, intoxicating, sensual way to spend a Saturday morning! Of course we were all there in full leathers, as we were heading straight to IMsL right afterwards, so I had the distinct pleasure of savouring fine, smooth dark chocolates in a fine, smooth dark outfit. It amazes me how quasi-sexual the chocolate experience can be. One place in particular, Poco Dolce, stood a cut above the rest. I placed one of their signature bittersweet chocolate tiles in my mouth – the one made with roasted pumpkin seeds, chili and sea salt – and as the dark, smoky flavour rose up my nostrils, the backs of my thighs began to quiver, and my mouth watered, and I got dizzy. I kid you not. I very nearly had to sit down so as not to pass out from the sheer high of it. The only other time I’ve had a comparable experience has been with Black Science chocolate from Toronto’s finest artisanal chocolatier, Soma. I never expected it to be reproduced.

Now that I’m home, though, I’m jumping right back into the swing of things with two lectures this week and a meeting of the Leather Bindings Society, the book club I run for sadomasochists (oh, the things that make my motor run). Here’s the info for this week’s lectures if you’re interested; following that, I’m including a re-post of a brief rant I *originally posted on June 12, 2006, for your entertainment.

Tomorrow (today for those with a normal body clock), Tuesday, March 24, I’m giving a guest lecture in Prof. P. Durish’s “Feminisms and Sexualities” class at University of Toronto from 2 to 4 p.m. The topic is transgender awareness and trans ally work – it’s a new lecture and I’m very much looking forward to giving it. It’s taking place at 20 Willcocks St. room 524 – not technically a public lecture, but generally speaking universities are pretty open about letting folks just slip in.

On Wednesday, March 25 from 2-4 p.m. I’m giving another new class. This one’s a workshop called “BDSM 201: Percussive Play and Ask-the-Pervert Q&A” and I’ll be giving it at the York University Student Centre, room 321. The description is as follows:

“If you’ve attended ‘Stepping Into the Scene: BDSM 101’ and you’re hungry for more, come have a bite. This is a two-part workshop aimed at people who already have some familiarity with the basics of BDSM but want a place to explore a little deeper. First, we’ll explore the finer points of percussive play, with a wide range of implements for show-and-tell and a series of short demos to illustrate the safe and appropriate way of using them. In the second part, we’ll hold an “Ask the Pervert” Q&A session for any and all kink-related questions – both spoken out loud and using an anonymous written format. Come with your curiosity in hand!”


Someone posted to a list I’m on about the current poll being conducted by Advocate magazine. The question is, “Do you think an abbreviation like LGBT or GLBTQ, etc., should replace the use of the phrase gay and lesbian?”

What a stupid question. Should the term “clothes” replace the use of the word “shirt and tie”? No. Of course not. They aren’t the same thing – related but hardly equivalent. If you’re talking about your wardrobe, though, would it not make sense to have more words than only “shirt and tie” at your disposal to describe it? Yes, of course.

I hate it when people reduce this kind of thing to a “yes-no-undecided” range of answers. It’s frustratingly reductionist and painfully inadequate to actually begin any attempt to explore the issues at hand anyway.

So I answered the poll, and I checked “undecided,” and in the comments section I wrote the following:

One does not replace the other. They refer to different things. Gay and lesbian means gay and lesbian. Gay and lesbian doesn’t include bisexuals (like myself), trans people, intersex people, genderqueers and many other groups that simply aren’t gay or lesbian, but who share community space with gays and lesbians and whose concerns overlap with those of gays and lesbians. If we’re only talking about people who are actually gay and lesbian, of course let’s not add in a bunch of extra letters. If, on the other hand, we are talking about a wider spectrum of people, then let’s use the appropriate words for all of them, and abbreviate them to BLGTQ or whatever else is accurate in a given context. And let’s do it without tokenism or other empty attempts at political correctness. The letters don’t mean much if they aren’t backed up with inclusiveness in practice. But as for usage – it’s really just a question of accuracy.

And I remembered why it is that I generally don’t bother buying the Advocate in the first place.

diagnosing deviance
March 17, 2009

I’m writing from not-so-sunny San Francisco, where International Ms. Leather is fast approaching. (Thank goodness, ‘cuz I got myself a brand-new rich-smelling leather outfit to wear… mmmm.) This town is so gorgeous. No wonder I keep coming back here, year after year. If ever there were an American city I might consider living in one day, San Fran is definitely it. Yesterday, the bois and I spent the day wandering around the Haight-Ashbury district, popping in and out of vintage clothing stores, and then strolling through (or should I say up?) a hilly park full of old, mossy trees before descending the other side of the mount and heading down into the Castro, brilliant with neon signs as dusk fell, to enjoy a dinner à trois. And today is only day three of our week here. Further adventures are sure to come!

Oh, and in random news, I should mention that I was recently interviewed on about what this blog is about, why I write it and so forth. You can check it out here and vote for Sex Geek as your all-time-favourite blog while you’re at it. Honestly, you can skip the voting part, it’s really not that important – I’d rather exist in exactly the right niche market than win a popularity contest, but hey, they asked me to mention it, so there you go.

Anyway, right now, I’m going to wax poetic about something other than my travels both real and virtual. Yes, you guessed it… it’s another instalment in my Powerful Pleasures review series! More specifically, I’m nearing the end of my series of essay reviews for all the works contained in Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser’s collection of academic essays entitled Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, a brilliant gathering of scholarly works on a variety of topics related to SM and kink.

I decided to skip reviewing Marty Klein and Charles Moser’s article entitled “SM (Sadomasochistic) Interests as an Issue in a Child Custody Proceeding.” It’s a very well-written and well-documented analysis of a specific child custody case in the USA, in which the child is removed from his mother’s custody because of her SM activities, despite suffering no documented ill effects. I’m only skipping it because there’s not much to say except wow, that’s fucking awful, and I’m glad they wrote it up. It definitely serves to point out the terrible misdeeds that can be done to families in the name of justice when anti-kink prejudice comes into play. What an appalling tale. Read it and weep.

Today, I’m reviewing an article by Odd Reiersol and Svein Skeid entitled “The ICD Diagnoses of Fetishism and Sadomasochism.” Their abstract explains the premise best:

“In this article we discuss psychiatric diagnoses of sexual deviation as they appear in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), the internationally accepted classification and diagnostic system of the World Health Organization (WHO). Namely, we discuss the background of three diagnostic categories: Fetishism (F65.0), Fetishistic Transvestism (F65.1), and Sadomasochism (F65.5). Pertinent background issues regarding the above categories are followed by a critique of the usefulness of diagnosing these phenomena today.”

The authors propose that the ICD be revised and the three diagnoses abolished, and their reasoning is wonderfully solid and well-laid-out. I’m going to skip talking about the second portion of the article, in which the authors discuss Norwegian activist efforts to make that change, and instead I’m going to focus on a deeper discussion of their reasoning and provide a bit of critique—not so much in the sense of trashing their work, but rather, perhaps adding a deeper queer perspective to it.

Their first point is that the basis of diagnosis, as expressed in the first of the three general criteria for such diagnosis—“The individual experiences recurrent sexual urges and fantasies involving unusual objects or activities”—is linked to the difference between statistical and normative issues. “From a statistical standpoint,” they argue, “unusual refers to rare and uncommon. However, ‘unusual’ can also be understood as ‘weird’ or ‘bizarre.’ That is, statistical criteria are being confounded at times with moral judgments. Viewing unusual objects or activities as immoral is archaic; there is no scientific basis for diagnosing individuals’ sexuality when diagnostic criteria merely mask moral indignation.”

I find this one particularly interesting because, whenever someone talks about questions of “normal” versus “abnormal” or “unusual,” I can’t help but wonder what their basis for comparison might be. For example, I move in a local, national and international social world that’s characterized by a high degree of sexual openness, curiosity and adventurousness, where fetishism of one sort or another is pretty much par for the course. So for me, a foot fetishist is extremely “normal”—as in, I’ve met literally hundreds of them in dozens of sub-permutations (dirty feet, bare feet, pedicured feet, women’s feet, men’s feet, feet in sports socks, feet in nylons, feet in open-toed sandals, feet in high-heeled boots, feet in sneakers, feet to suck, feet to massage, feet to rub on a face, feet used as penetration toys… lordy, but I could go on.) I’ve met a few hand fetishists and glove fetishists, too. But I’ve only ever met one nose fetishist. So by my comparison group, nose fetishists are very unusual, but foot fetishists are a dime a dozen. Statistically speaking, of course.

So not only are we dealing with a potential moral judgment when it comes to the question of “unusual” sexual urges, we’re also dealing with a statistical likelihood that may vary based on many factors. For example, an openly gay male psychiatrist who lives and works in a major North American urban centre, such as Toronto for example, might find himself dealing with patients who are comfortable disclosing their sexual issues fairly easily, and given the strong kink community in the city, there might be a stronger statistical likelihood of him encountering fetishists among his clientele. So his idea of “usual” versus “unusual” might be very different than that of someone practicing in a small town or in a conservative part of the world, or than that of someone who does not openly disclose their sexual orientation within their professional practice. On the other hand, in a major urban centre with a strong and visible kink community, perhaps the likelihood of a person with a sexual fetish understanding that fetish as disturbing enough to warrant a visit to a psychiatrist might be lower in the first place. Who knows? All I can say is that the idea of “usual” is necessarily biased based on any number of highly variable factors that should have nothing to do with someone’s diagnosed mental health status.

Reiersol and Skeid write, “Furthermore, a variety of sexual practices that were previously considered non-normative are not currently regarded as pathological (for example, homosexuality, fellatio and anal sex).”

It’s interesting they should bring this one up, because the second general diagnostic criteria of the ICD reads as follows: “The individual either acts on the urges or is markedly distressed by them.” As the writers go on to argue, “This kind of distress is often associated with feelings of shame rather than with maladaptive behaviour per se. In fact, individuals are more likely to experience shame if the kind of sex they prefer is frowned upon, stigmatized or subject to diagnosis.”

Of course, since homosexuality is no longer grounds for diagnosis, we can see that social norms and values do have an impact on what’s considered a mental disorder and what is not. What the authors don’t bring up is that the rates of mental illness in general—addiction, depression and others—are still much higher among queer populations than in the average population. And this is not because queers are somehow congenitally predisposed to depression or addiction, as some right-wing forces would argue. Rather, it’s because of the social oppression factor involved in living outside the acceptable norm. Sure, we can get married, but people still yell “faggot” at my partner when he walks down the street in Toronto, gay-bash dykes in Montreal, and kick their queer kids out to survive on the street because of their orientation or gender presentation. And those are all relatively mild examples of what can happen in situations so common, so everyday, as to be banal. You might say “usual.” This, in our supposedly progressive country. So really, we can’t simply strike a diagnosis from the books and emerge as a shiny, happy population of sexual minorities. That diagnosis leaves a scar that marks an entire society for many years past the period in which it’s actively used as a weapon. It leaves a scar on people who are not and who will never will be sexual minorities themselves, and in turn, such people leave scars, directly or indirectly, on all those who are.

The authors mention that non-sexual diagnoses are available for people who do experience genuine mental illness or maladaptive behaviours; they also cite poor methodology in establishing the diagnoses of fetishism and sadomasochism in the first place.

“Before Kinsey, data on sexual deviation were derived almost exclusively from fictional literature or from psychiatric case histories. Despite the obvious methodological limitations of such sources, these data are still used in the psychiatric community. For example, many cases were referred to psychiatrists, because individuals were in conflict with the law. The generalization of findings from those cases to the general population is questionable, due to representability and generalizability limitations associated with external validity and sampling issues; it is impossible to generalize findings from the criminal population to the non-criminal population. Furthermore, Kinsey (1953) indicated that there is no reason to believe that fetishism leads to crime. Indeed, what do we know about law-abiding fetishists?”

Later, they explain that “people with SM and fetish interests do not usually seek therapy to change their sexuality, and, therefore, they do not come into contact with the diagnostic system.” In other words, the biased sampling continues even now.

They also make a beautiful point about the question of safety:

“There is sometimes a concern that SM practices such as spanking and whipping can cause bodily harm. Indeed, people can be damaged from being hit in uncontrolled ways. However, there are ways to give and receive strong stimulation, including pain, that are safe. Both partners need to take responsibility in such acts. People have to learn what is safe and what is not safe, whether they practice SM or any other kind of sex. There are certainly safety issues concerning individuals who practice conventional heterosexual acts, which, once violated, are not diagnosed as sexual disorders. By the same token, individuals who practice SM acts should not be diagnosed based on occasional and naïve safety violations. Nonetheless, it is important to note that safety rules should be taken seriously. We encourage individuals with psychological problems around risk-taking to seek professional help, whether their interests revolve around sexual acts, sports, workplace hazards, etc.”

Once again, the authors make their point with simplicity and elegance, but I would add that here again there’s an apt comparison to anti-queer discrimination, particularly discrimination against gay male sexual practices as being high-risk. People love to make a big stink about how risky penis-to-anus penetration is, and it’s always challenging to try and explain that yes, sure, unprotected anal sex is dangerous… but anal penetration is, first of all, by no means the exclusive province of the gay male; and second of all, it’s chiefly dangerous if done unsafely, as in, while on drugs or drunk; without a condom; while also suffering from other conditions that compromise the integrity of the anal lining; without lube; and so forth. The whole idea that butt-fucking boys = instant AIDS is way too simple and way too homophobic. Yes, risk-taking in that department among gay men, especially if repeated and reckless, is a very bad idea. Pathological? Likely not, in and of itself—though it may be related to the aforementioned mental health issues that are more common among queer people. But such risk-taking is equally dangerous when it’s done by teenage girls and young women (in an effort to avoid pregnancy, say), who are currently the fastest-growing segment of HIV-positive people; or by any other segment of the population. Viagra has caused STI rates among elders to climb, for example. And many other forms of sexual practice are also risky—in no way do I wish to minimize the gravity and tragedy of AIDS, but unwanted pregnancy from either traditional heterosexual intercourse or rape has ruined far more lives than AIDS has over the course of human history, just for starters.

All of this does not even take into account the extremely high-risk (but non-sexual) behaviours that scads of people engage in all the time who are not then pathologized for those behaviours. Boxing, say. (I’d rather let an incompetent top at my back with a flogger than let a 250-pound bruiser aim a fist at my face, any day!) Or circus high-wire artists—ya don’t see them sent to the shrink for the “unusual” and “high-risk” practice of balancing on a tightrope thirty metres above the ground! And never mind firefighters, cops, soldiers… anyone who willingly walks into a fiery inferno or a war zone. These people are admired, not pathologized. Risk, and the concept of what’s reasonable and justifiable, are so very dependent on personal and social values that I find it pretty appalling that a mental health diagnosis, especially in the area of highly misunderstood sexual practices, would depend in any way on an individual psychiatrist’s idea of what constitutes reasonable risk.

Next, the authors take on the concept of procreation. “The ICD-10 presumes the importance of intercourse: ‘Fetishistic fantasies are common, but they do not amount to a disorder unless they lead to rituals that are so compelling and unacceptable as to interfere with intercourse and cause the individual distress’ (WHO, 1993, p. 218). This interference is one of the central arguments for labelling fetishism as pathological.” They go on to make the point that Western society has radically different ideas about sexual pleasure now than it may have in the past. “Furthermore, mental health professionals no longer assume that sex results in intercourse, or that sex and intercourse are synonymous. As such, it is unclear why fetishism, due to its alleged interference with intercourse, is singled out as a disorder.”

I would add that again, there’s another problematic layer in this diagnostic criteria: the heterosexism of it. I rarely hear the term “intercourse” applied to queer sex. What, exactly, would count as intercourse when the available appendages do not match up with the available orifices in the traditional sense? What “intercourse” would a lesbian’s fetish potentially interfere with, for example? Can you honestly see a psychiatrist cluck-clucking because a dyke’s leather fetish prevents her from being fisted by her partner if no leather is present? Or noting with disapproval that a gay man’s rubber fetish means he can’t get anally penetrated if his partner’s not wearing latex? Yeah, I didn’t think so. (Besides, the latter might, oddly, be extremely healthy from an HIV prevention standpoint…) The ICD might no longer classify homosexuality as a disorder, but its heterosexist bias is still embedded in the way it deals with other sexual “pathologies,” and seems to lack any notion that healthy queer sex could even exist, let alone be interfered with by other problems.

Really, I keep seeing parallels with homophobic discrimination. I just finished reading a fascinating book entitled Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, which is in essence the doctoral dissertation of Nan Alamillo Boyd. In it, she provides great detail about the ways in which the San Francisco police force dealt with queers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the ways they persecuted gays was by charging them with “lewd behaviour.” Of course, what counted as “lewd” was extremely skewed—apparently, if you held hands with someone of the same sex, or kissed them, or danced with them, you were demonstrating lewd behaviour and therefore could be subject to arrest. Not only that, but if you were arrested for lewd behaviour two or three times, you were considered a sex offender, right on par with rapists and child molesters. In other words, the identical behaviour that was encouraged or at least tolerated among young heterosexuals in classic courtship rituals (by all but the most repressive of systems, that is) was pathologized and criminalized by the legal system when performed by queers—because queers were, of course, by nature deviant and sick.

It see a similar catch-22 here. If you’re homosexual, you’re sick, and therefore whatever you do is also deviant and sick; if you’re heterosexual, than everything you do is normal, and therefore not deviant and sick. Even if the behaviours are themselves the same, the person doing them makes all the difference. The parallels I see with kink are about the same thing. If you’re kinky and it distresses you (or someone else who has the power to send you into the psychiatric medical system), then you are sick, so everything you do that’s kinky is therefore also sick. On the flip side, if you’re kinky and it does not distress you, you will likely go an entire lifetime without being diagnosed—assuming that your social world does not pressure you into thinking you’re sick, because if they do, you’ll end up in the first category. So in theory, the ICD makes room for healthy, happy kinky people, but that health and happiness is dependent on the existence of a social world in which kink and mental health are not considered to be mutually exclusive, which is only possible if that social world does not buy into the pathologization of kink; except that the pathologization itself is laid out in black and white in the very diagnostic manual that theoretically makes room for its non-existence. Yowch. It’s hurting my brain.

In any case, for all that I think Reiersol and Skeid could have gone further in making parallels with examples from queer history, I very much appreciate the breadth and sheer logic of their article. Sadly, the activist efforts to change the ICD have thus far been fruitless, much like the petitions to change the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the North American equivalent to the ICD). It’s hard to concretely measure the effects of diagnosis on kinky people’s lived experience, and yet, I’m quite certain they exist, if in nothing else but that they add one more layer of stigma to the practices that are so central to some people’s already non-normative sexuality. I’m not sure how we’ll make the changes happen in these manuals, but perhaps this is another place where we should take a page from the annals of queer history—if we got homosexuality off the list, perhaps there is yet hope for kinksters.

the happily half-assed fetishist* and other stories
March 11, 2009

Today I give you a loosely related collection of thoughts about kink – brief paragraphs that don’t seem to be developing into full posts of their own, but that make for a fun little grab bag of sadomasochistic musings.

But first, a bit of news…

I wrote an article about bisexuality and queer identity for the March issue of Outlooks magazine, my first-ever national publication. Check it out on page 9 here. Next month, look to the same mag for a thoughtful interview with RuPaul – who, I must say, is one smart cookie with some very intriguing analysis of drag, American politics and the role of gender transgression in society.

A little piece of personal good news: I’ve been accepted to grad school at York University. Yay! Back in August 2007, I had a revelation that I needed to write the history of Canadian leatherdykes. Well, I’m gonna make good on that intention – that’s the project I pitched as an MA thesis, with every intention of extending it into PhD work. And apparently the academic world is interested. So if all goes well, sometime shortly before I’m 40, I’ll be Dr. Zanin, and you’ll have some history to sink your teeth into. Wish me luck, folks.

What else… well, tonight I got an e-mail asking me to step up on stage as a bidding item in the International Ms Leather Celebrity Charity Auction. When I got over the weirdness of being called a “celebrity” I said yes, because the proceeds are going to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Leather Archives & Museum and the IMsL and IMsBB Title Holder Travel Fund. With two out of four beneficiaries directly related to leather and queer history, I kinda felt like it would be appropriate to help out. So if you’re in San Francisco for IMsL, do come place a bid. Among other things I’m offering to talk nerdy to the winning bidder, potentially while committing terrible acts of sadomasochism upon them. Y’know, you work with what you got.

I’ve got a number of fun projects in the works – among others, a number of intriguing articles for Xtra, a couple of new workshops and talks to add to the calendar (in Toronto, Florida and Vancouver, for starters) and more. I’ll post details as I get ’em. Oh, and I’ll soon be reviewing a couple more essays from Kleinplatz and Moser’s Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. Stay tuned for more nerdiness.

In the meantime, here’s that grab bag. Enjoy!

The happily half-assed fetishist

*This short piece was originally posted on June 1, 2006.

In a workshop last weekend, Midori said something about arousal that I’ve never heard before, and that really clarified a few things for me.

Specifically, she talked about the concepts of “sexual arousal” and “system arousal.” I’ve never heard that distinction made, or the latter explained, but the concept makes so much sense! For me personally, it applies most distinctly to my experience of my fetishes.

In my mind, a fetishist has always been someone who feels sexual arousal with regard to an object (shoe, corset, whatever) or body part that’s not generally considered to be sexual (elbow, hair, etc.). I’ve never in my life become sexually aroused by a shoe. And yet… I love shoes. I like to find the perfect shoes, purchase them, collect them, display them, ogle them on myself, ogle them on other people, choose the perfect ones to wear, wear them, walk in them. The feeling on my foot, the sound when I walk, the look with a given outfit – there’s some strangely intense satisfaction in that entire spectrum for me.

But have I ever wanked with a shoe? No. The thought would never even occur to me.

As a result I’ve considered myself a “sort-of fetishist,” like not really the real thing but a little more than your average shoes-look-nice kind of girl. But with this idea of “system arousal,” now all of a sudden I get it. System arousal, according to Midori, is more of a holistic sort of arousal – a general excitement, as opposed to a genitally or erotically specific one. And that, I definitely do experience.

I don’t know if most fetishists make this distinction or not, but all of a sudden I feel an odd sort of legitimacy. At the very least, if I’m a half-assed fetishist, there’s a word out there that can describe me, and if that exists, then I must not be the only one. I certainly never had a fetish inferiority complex or anything, but it’s kind of nice to know that it’s possible to shed a bit of light on the strange little nooks of my sexuality (and others’, of course).

Negativity and pain

We normally associate pain with negative emotional experiences and therefore our Pavlovian response is to assume it means a negative emotional experience (accident, abuse, assault, illness, etc.). But, totally apart from sadomasochism, we also have positive emotional experiences with pain—deep-tissue massage, waxing, athletic efforts and the resulting soreness, fasting and other physical challenges as part of meditative or religious practice, and of course the kind of hard stimulation (biting, scratching) that many people enjoy as part of sex without necessarily seeing or experiencing it as kinky. Funny how people pathologize the seeking of good-pain experiences in sex even when we celebrate the seeking of them in other contexts. Amazing how much shame around sex skews our ways of seeing the world.

Sadism: learned art or innate to one’s being?

A reader sent me this question some time ago, and my answer was, both. The enjoyment of sadism may come naturally, or it may be arrived at only once societal messages are unlearned, which can take a lifetime; it all depends on the person. The art of it is definitely learned—I don’t think most people are born with a sense of how to inflict pain safely, although for the most part safety is a question of common sense, observational skill and basic information. I think most, even perhaps all, human beings have the capacity to be sadistic, but we bury it very deeply because really, outside BDSM, there just aren’t very many contexts in which it makes any ethical or emotional good sense to take it out and play with it. And even in those contexts it is risky territory both for the person on the receiving end and the person faced with the reality that the capacity for taking joy in sadism exists inside them. So in most ways I think it’s probably for the best if the practice of sadism is arrived at through a very thoughtful process of self-evaluation and rigorous examination of one’s motives.

Active and passive receptivity

A friend brought this up with me a few weeks ago. She was playing with several different dominants and tops, and she noticed that some of them wanted her to be still while they did things to her, and others wanted her to be active. She wondered if there was a “right” way to receive sensation. The question about active versus passive physical receptivity is very similar to the question of how much a submissive is being asked to think for themselves (anticipatory service, observing the way things are done and fitting into that, etc.) versus how much they are going to be directed (i.e. do what I say, and only what I say, and exactly as I say it, and when you’re done, do nothing but wait for further instruction). They’re simply different takes on submission/bottoming/providing service and on dominance/topping/receiving service.

Of course, there are no right answers, but here we engage with questions of match. In play, if a dominant fully expects a submissive to react and the submissive’s past experience has been with dominants who want them to hold still, or if the submissive’s natural inclination is to hold still, then the two of them may need to clarify what’s going on. The dominant may feel like the submissive isn’t properly appreciating their efforts, while the submissive may feel that response would be rude or overstep the bounds of their role. In service, if a dominant expects that the submissive will catch on to what’s going on and make themselves useful with minimal direction, but the submissive spends a lot of time kneeling and waiting for orders with eyes downcast, the dominant may end up feeling frustrated and burdened while the submissive may end up feeling inadequate because they’re pissing off the dominant despite following protocol perfectly. The flip side of each situation is equally painful: a responsive bottom who gets told to be quiet and hold still might feel shut down and under-appreciated; a service submissive who takes pride in their intuitive ability to serve may feel rejected and useless if told to stay out of the way and wait for orders. Still, this doesn’t indicate that anyone’s doing things wrong. It just means they’re each sending out signals with the best of intentions but that aren’t quite lining up. As always, clear communication is essential—when we attribute meanings to each of these modes and their many related flavours that may not match up with the person’s intent, we risk hurt feelings and misunderstanding.

I personally enjoy having people in both states depending on the circumstances and the chemistry, and I consider it my job as a dominant to make it clear which one I’m after in a given moment, either verbally or by providing legible indications in other ways. It certainly helps to know where your partner’s natural tendencies lie so that you know how to properly approach things with a minimum of hurt feelings and maximum enjoyment all round. And it can be wise to have a “status quo” or default mode that both partners expect unless told otherwise—for example, responsiveness in play is expected unless the dominant indicates that the submissive’s job is to keep still. (Or perhaps something like “Shut up, hold still and take this, bitch!” … y’know, flavour and style being important and all.) Of course, having the ability to move from one mode to the other, for both tops and bottoms, is certainly a good thing, because it expands the range of experiences you can enjoy and the range of people you might enjoy them with.

And a few links, just for fun

Last fall, Graydancer – RopeWeekly podcaster extraordinaire – came to Toronto and led a GRUE, or Graydancer’s Rope Unconference Extravaganza. One of his activities was called a fishbowl. The concept is great – he asked everyone in attendance to pick whether they were dominant, submissive or switch, just for the purposes of the activity, and then he unleashed his concept. The ensuing discussion was quite intriguing, and Graydancer recorded it, smart fellow that he is, so you can listen to the whole thing right here if you are interested. Do enjoy! … Yes, I’m in there somewhere, but none of us said their names, so you’ll just have to recognize my dulcet tones.

Apparently I’m terribly out of date. I found out not too long ago that the photo shoot for my first article for the Toronto Xtra, a cover story about Toronto’s sex club scene back in the fall, raised some ire among the big cheeses (or maybe little cheeses?) at our favourite Big Brother outpost / social networking site. Apparently the cover was too sexy for Facebook! How fascinating. Read about it here. (It was a pretty hot cover, I’ll give you that. But seriously, a pair of naked breasts is hardly the stuff of gross indecency. ‘Sides, they’re nice breasts.)

intersectionality and the paradox of the perfect ally*
March 5, 2009

*I originally published on October 19, 2006. It feels particularly relevant to re-post now because Eli Clare, who inspired this post, is coming to Toronto on March 11 to give the same talk I was fortunate enough to attend in 2006. I strongly encourage you to go if you’re in town – he’s an excellent speaker. I’ve included the details of his talk at the bottom of this post.

I went to a talk this evening given by Eli Clare at McGill, entitled “Gawking, Gaping and Staring: Living in Marked Bodies.” Luckily, this time the acoustics were good, so I actually got to hear what he had to say. He’s a most interesting speaker, and all the more so because of the simplicity of what he says. While he was up there talking I was listening and taking notes, as I always do when I go to lectures. But only rarely do I find the ideas still percolating inside me many hours later as I have tonight.

So, the basic idea is that Eli Clare is a disabled trans/genderqueer person who wrote the book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (which I missed buying tonight because someone beat me to the last copy – darnit). Like Leslie Feinberg, he speaks about intersectionality; unlike Leslie Feinberg, he doesn’t soapbox about it, and he does acknowledge the complexities and difficulties inherent therein. I was thoroughly impressed. Most specifically, Eli speaks on issues of intersectionality between disabled people and people in other sorts of “marked bodies” – particularly trans people and people of colour, but not those two groups exclusively.

One of the things Eli said really struck home – that as a disabled person and a trans person he’s spent his life endlessly explaining his body – “what have you got, what’s wrong with you?” – much like, as he said, people of colour are endlessly asked “where are you from?”. He sees this “endless explaining” as the hallmark of people with bodily differences. I guess for me it was just a very real-life articulation of the whole Beauvoirian theoretical concept of being “the Other” – the exception to the rule that is “the norm,” and thus always needing to explain and justify one’s existence. He made a really important point in response to an audience member’s comment: “I don’t mean to imply that our experiences of difference are all the same. But these mechanisms cross identity lines.”

During the question period at the end, one of the last people in the audience to make a comment said something I found quite intriguing. Ze referred to a quote from Martin Buber – which I tried to find via Google, but no such luck (though the Wikipedia crash course in Buber’s I/Thou theory was really quite interesting!). The basic idea of the quote was that we (whoever “we” means) don’t actually need to understand people who are different from us in order to live alongside them. Ze put it out there as something ze’d been thinking about lately, not so much as a piece of advice per se. Eli kinda shot it down, which I found a bit surprising.

Eli made a good point – that if we can leave that space of not-understanding as an actual space, an emptiness, instead of filling it with preconceived ideas and assumptions, that might be nice, but that humankind’s track record in that department has been abysmal.
Fair enough. But I actually think the idea holds quite a bit of merit. I think it’s a question of which way you take it. Seems to me the concept is right in line with the idea of living in a marked body and needing to constantly explain it to the “normals.”

Okay, let me back up a sec and try to better articulate this. You could take the Buber concept in its negative form: “I’m normal, and I don’t need to try figuring out what anyone else’s reality might be, it’s quite enough for me to just be nice to them and remain ignorant.” Yah. Not so good. Perhaps better than “that person’s different so I’m going to abuse them” but not exactly what I’d call progressive. And incidentally, if you go by Wiki’s explanation of Buber’s I-Thou concept, the negative interpretation of the quote is probably off the mark – Buber seems to have been much more interested in dialogue, or true connection between people (Ich-Du, or I-Thou), than in monologue (Ich-Es, I-Ego or I-Me), the term he used to describe a process by which people objectify each other and see each other as means to their own ends.

On the other hand, you could take it in the positive: “I’m privileged in XYZ way, and (if applicable) marginalized in XYZ way; I have XYZ knowledge and I lack XYZ knowledge. It’s important to me to be sensitive to other people’s needs, particularly those from marginalized groups, but I don’t necessarily pretend to know everything about their realities and experiences. So while I will make every effort to educate myself about other groups’ concerns, I won’t wait to ‘know’ everything about them before also making efforts to be an ally. I will acknowledge what I know, and acknowledge what I don’t yet know, and remain open to and active in learning at all times, with a view to better understanding in the long run. But in the meantime I will not require every ‘different’ person to justify their existence to me or explain themselves before I deem them worthy of my consideration; I will simply try to be respectful, considerate and sensitive.”

This interpretation, rather than creating a space to fill with prejudice, in fact creates a preexisting condition of respect and openness, which one could argue leads to true connection, dialogue, Ich-Du (I-Thou), i.e. ally work. With this understanding, there is no requirement for knowledge, justification, explanation; there is simply openness. This doesn’t in the least preclude or discourage active efforts to learn, it just removes the idea that learning (understanding) is a necessary prerequisite to connection and consideration.

I think that leaving that space of non-knowledge is the very crux of intersectionality, and in many ways I completely disagree that humankind’s track record has been abysmal in that department. I think, on the contrary, that pretty much every successful example of intersectional work has come about thanks to people leaving that space open, and allowing it to be filled over time with accumulated knowledge, rather than filling it from the get-go with snap judgments or misappropriated or decontextualized information. And there are plenty of instances throughout human history where such ally-based work has taken place.

Of course there are tons of examples throughout human history of oppressed groups’ struggles being (mis)appropriated by the dominant culture, and of course plenty more of outright prejudice and hatred. But I don’t think a North American man in the late 1800s needed to “understand” women to support suffrage, any more than I need to be so presumptuous as to say I as a white person “understand” people of colour in 2006 in order to be an anti-racist ally.

I think it’s in fact pretty dangerous to ever assume we truly understand another human being’s experience, or the experience of a group we aren’t part of. The whole point of intersectionality is that it’s wise to try and bridge the chasms between various groups who are suffering under the same oppressive system of mythical normalcy and cultural hierarchy – not that we all need to be able to speak for one another with the same knowledge.

In other words, I want to continue to further my understanding of the many marginalized groups to which I do not belong (as well as the ones to which I do), but by no means do I ever presume to think I will reach a point where I can firmly say I “understand” them. I think that acknowledging my eternal lack of understanding is the only way I’ll be able to continue shrinking that lack, filling that space with understanding legitimately gained through self-education – rather than through requiring people who are different from me to explain themselves – with the express premise that, much like the mathematical concept of the asymptote, I’ll never get to 100%, and the job will never be finished.

Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, genderphobia… The day I think I know everything about all of it is the day I deserve a slap in the head, and I don’t want to wait until I get there before I start trying to be a good ally. The very idea is a paradox. And anyway, I’d rather be an eternally half-formed ally – the only kind I think one can legitimately be – than a wrongheaded know-it-all ally who in the end isn’t really one at all. No matter how oppressions intersect within and around each of us, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to be impossibly perfect before we begin to act.


Eli Clare is in Toronto March 9th to the 15th. For those who are not familiar with the intersectional work of Eli Clare you can visit his web site at Eli’s ability to integrate theory, activism, and storytelling in his work about social justice, disability, queerness, and trans identity makes him a sought after educator, speaker and poet. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to hear Eli speak or read his books I’m sure you are already picking out your outfit and telling all your friends. Eli Clare is a thoughtful, insightful, brilliant speaker who manages to address multi-layered and complex issues in an accessible, warm, thoughtful and poetic manner.

Wednesday, March 11th 7-9pm @ OISE 252 Bloor St. W (St. George & Bloor) Rm 5-280

“Gawking, Gaping, Staring: Living in Marked Bodies.”
Disabled people, trans people, fat people, and people of color all know what it’s like to be stared at. Through words and images, Eli explores the internal experiences of living in marked bodies and the external meanings of oppression and bodily difference.

Free, Wheelchair accessible, ASL interpreters

If you have other access needs please email or call 416-889-3037

Organizations supporting this event:
Come as you are; Connaught University of T; Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; DAMN 2025; Supporting Our Youth; Sherbourne Health Center, LGBT program; Acsexxxable; Toronto Women’s Bookstore; CUPE 3903, TransFeminist Action Caucus; Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education; CUPE Ontario; York University Sexuality Studies program; MSW Program, Ryerson School of Social Work; Trans Bisexual Lesbian Gay Allies @ York & Students for Barrier free Access.


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