asking the hard questions

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to get around to this, but enfin c’est fini. This is the momentum keynote address I recently gave at the 14th annual Leather Leadership Conference in Detroit. It was an honour to be asked to keynote, and a wonderful experience to do so.


Thanks to the LLC organizing committee for inviting me to give this momentum address. When I look around the room I see people whose books I’ve read, whose websites I visit, and whose events I attend. I’m very honoured to have been asked to speak to you, and I hope that what I have to say will be of interest.

To start with, I’m going to tell you what assumptions I’m making about you.

First, I’m going to assume that you’re all leaders. In a room like this, that’s a pretty safe assumption! But beyond being leaders, I am going to assume you’re all people who devote considerable time, effort and personal energy to the community—and that this is a reflection of your identity. I’m going to assume you make friends, build family, have sex and play in this community. And I’m going to assume that as leaders here, you are not paper-pushers, but you are visionaries. That your personal investment and your sense of leadership combine to make you people who have a vision, who have ideas about how to move the community forward and where you want to see it go.

I’ve got to warn you, I’m going to give some pretty tough criticism today, and ask some hard questions. But I want you to hear that criticism as coming from a place of love. Like you, I make friends, build family, have sex and play in this community, and as a leader I have plenty of opinions about where it should go. I love this community. And I’m going to assume that you’re a group of people who also love this community; and that you are strong and don’t like to hear things sugar-coated, that you are self-reflective and critical thinkers, and that you, like me, have a bit of a fetish for constant improvement.

I’d like to get into a bit of history now. I’m a feminist (no, not the kind that hates penises), and I’m doing my graduate work at York University in women’s studies, looking at the history of Canadian leatherdykes. I want to give a shout out to Alex Warner, who’s attended LLC in the past, and is currently finishing up her PhD looking at leatherdyke history in the States—I’m going to cite her!

Anyway, I was writing a paper just recently, and that led me to pick up a book published in 1982 entitled Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis. This came out during the period we know as the Sex Wars, in the 1980s and early 1990s, in which vicious feminist debates about sex, penetration, pornography and SM took place across academic conferences, Pride parades, the gay and lesbian press, community groups and countless individual relationships. Tons of criticism was levied at SM practitioners during that time, and we’re still hearing the echoes of it today.

Now, the interesting thing is that when I read that criticism, I found that I actually agreed with a lot of it. Not all of it—lots of it is misinformed, panicky or just plain ridiculous. But some of the writers raise really valid questions about what it is that we do, and I think those questions are worth taking up even now, nearly thirty years later.

I think we spend a lot of time defending ourselves from our critics; we’re often attacked by the mainstream, so that’s really understandable. But we need to beware of engaging in our very own little sex wars. The problem with any war is that it produces binary thinking, black and white, us against them. And when we focus on our defensiveness, that prevents us from looking at ourselves and self-critiquing; and a lack of self-critique impedes improvement. I think asking the hard questions is a really valuable practice, and it’s the only way we’re going to grow.

I’m going to bring up four main criticisms that I’ve come across in my readings recently, or that have come up in my own mind within those readings. The criticisms are directed at people who do SM, or at personal SM practice. I’m going to engage with them from that perspective first, but then I’m going to revisit each one of them, and talk about them from the point of view of SM community, from a leadership perspective.

First I’m going to ask you to think about what I’m saying as sexual beings, as people who play and fuck in the leather community.

The first criticism is about erotic compartmentalization versus erotic integrity. Here’s a quote from renowned black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde, in an interview in the book Against Sadomasochism. She writes:

“Lesbian s/m is not simply about what you do in bed, just as lesbianism is not simply a sexual preference. … It is not who I sleep with that defines the quality of these acts, not what we do together, but what life statements am I led to make as the nature and effect of my erotic relationships percolate throughout my life and my being? As a deep lode of our erotic lives and knowledge, how does our sexuality enrich us and empower our actions?”1

This inspires me to ask, are we having pervy sex as some fantasy person divorced from the rest of our lives? Or do we integrate who we are in the dungeon with our whole selves? Are we trying to create separation, or are we acknowledging that what we do in play is exactly what we do in the rest of our existence? Are we living double lives or are we looking for integration? Is kink an escape from reality for us, or are we creating a full and whole reality that lets us be who we are everywhere and all the time? What is it costing us if we remain split? Is that cost worth paying?

The next one is also from Against Sadomasochism, and it’s from Judith Butler. Any gender-theory nerds in the room? You’re surely familiar with her work—she’s a towering intellectual figure, and her theory is incredibly dense. She wrote this particular piece so long ago that she was going by the name Judy at the time. Butler’s criticism targets what she sees as SM’s willful ignorance of the political and social context in which it operates. She writes that in SM,

“The private is made distinct from the public; in fact, it is so distinct that the power relations in sexuality do not have anything to do with the power relations out there. … One does not make this choice from a given biographical, social, or historical perspective. … Wants do not have a history or a social context. They appear and are acted upon.” 2

With this in mind, I ask: are we understanding the politics of what we do? Do we bring our awareness of our social location into our play and our sex? By this I mean, are we thinking in sufficient depth about what it means to fuck and play as women, as trans people, as men, as white people or people of colour, as people with or without money or education, as disabled or able-bodied people? Do we think about how our bodies, our ages, our histories affect how we play and who we play with? Worse still, do we eroticize our own oppression at times as a coping mechanism—say, by allowing ourselves to be fetishized for our differences because we believe it’s the only way we’ll get some play—instead of changing the world?

I’m going to jump us forward about a decade to the early 1990s. The next criticism is a about buying into old meanings about sex. It comes from a very pro-SM writer we all surely know—Patrick Califia. In his piece in the fabulous anthology Leatherfolk, which I strongly encourage all of you to read if you want to get a sense of leather history, he writes:

“We’ve made a major improvement on heterosexist mores by insisting that the bottom can be a man or a woman, has control, has the right to consent or refuse, and should always get off. But I think we should be challenging the very meanings that we assign all sexual acts. This is the truly radical potential of S/M. Are we frightened by the idea of having that much freedom?”3

This inspires me to ask, are we actually fulfilling the radical potential of SM? Or are we buying into really old, tired meanings that we attach to SM and sex? So for example, do we still believe that penetrating means you’re dominant, and that being penetrated means you’re submissive? Further, do we think that being dominant is strong, while being submissive is weak? Do we think that having an orgasm means losing control and somehow being less on top? And what judgements do we make about ourselves and others based on these old assumptions?

The last criticism I want to raise is about depth of connection. It’s actually not made by the author I’m going to quote, but it came up for me when I read her work. I’m talking about Peggy Kleinplatz, who’s a queer- and kink-positive sex therapist based in Ottawa. With Charles Moser of San Francisco, she edited a book entitled Powerful Pleasures, about five or six years ago. It’s the only volume of academic work on SM that starts from an SM-positive perspective. That doesn’t mean that everything in it is perfect, but it is a really unique collection and well worth reading. She writes:

“Whereas many couples are willing to settle for merely functional sex, SM practitioners may be more interested in contact that necessitates intense, erotic connection; sophisticated communication of subtle differences in intent; and eventuates in profound self-knowledge and transcendent levels of intimacy.”4

With this in mind, my question is: when we play, are we actually connecting that deeply? Or are we just getting really good at a very specialized set of skills, and forgetting about the intimate potential of what we do?

I’ll never forget the time I attended a major leather event, and when I walked in the door, I saw two lines of St.-Andrew’s crosses facing each other. There was a person on each cross, and behind each person was a top swinging a flogger in a figure 8. It reminded me of nothing more than the line of treadmills at a gym. I even saw two of the bottoms, facing each other on their respective crosses, who were chewing gum, bopping to the music and having a conversation with another as they were getting flogged. This is intimacy? This is intense erotic connection?

Now I’m going to ask you to take off your “player” hats and put on your “community leader” hats. I’m going to take each of these criticisms and use them to ask some hard questions about how we lead within our communities.

Let’s start with Audre Lorde’s question of compartmentalization versus integrity. As leaders, I’d like to ask, are we compartmentalizing who we are? Do we hold onto our closets for protection when it might actually be safe to come out? Do we fear being perverts proudly, on the one hand, and on the other, do we fear bringing our “real” selves into our communities? Fantasy has its place, but it’s hard to lead real people with only a persona to work from. Splitting ourselves off can result in alienation, and prevents us from being seen as our full and complex selves both within and outside the community.

Next, Judith Butler’s question of political and social context. Are we paying close enough attention to our politics? I’m a pretty political creature, so I’m going to list a number of things I see in the community that really bother me on this particular count

One of those is the question of race and racism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen SM and leather events with titles like “Mysteries of the Orient” and the like. As soon as I see that, my immediate thought is, “How much you wanna bet that a white person came up with that event theme!” Now, the practice of deliberately and consciously eroticizing race-based differences in a consensual manner for your personal play is one thing; but it’s a totally different story from simply slapping a racial stereotype on an event poster and calling that kinky.

Another question is financial hierarchy. I find it unbelievably ironic that on the one hand we’re in a community where earning your leathers is supposed to mean something, on the one hand, but we constantly have events where you’re not allowed in without them, and you’re taken more seriously if you’re dressed head to toe in the latest gear. This is not to say I entirely reject dress codes, but there’s some inherent hypocrisy in our expectations. Credibility is extended to people who can afford expensive clothing, flight tickets, hotel stays and event entrance fees. Are we making our community accessible to people who have less money? There are lots of ways to do that. We can make our dress codes flexible. We can host clothing swap meets so people can get free clothing—we all lose weight and gain weight and get tired of items we own, it’s not that hard to do. We can offer scholarships for people to attend our events, create rideshare boards for travellers, offer community billeting for under-employed out-of-towners, and much more. People with less disposable income can be a valuable addition to our community… And besides, sometimes I might like to fuck them!

And let’s talk about demographics. When it comes to our events, one of the first things we I always look for is not just who’s there, but who’s missing. I’d encourage you to do the same. And from there, we should ask ourselves why. And from there, we should be asking, what can we do about it?

Sometimes the answers are horribly simple and unfortunately very predictable. Like, for example, plain old sexism and homophobia. It’s a joke, for example, among queers, that pansexual is actually “pansexual.” Why do we say it with the little air quotes? Because in lots of places, “pansexual” is really just a code word for straight, and I don’t just mean heterosexual—I mean close-minded. The gay men don’t go, because it’s okay for bisexual women to make out with each other, but if two men started going at it people would be really uncomfortable. And I’m sorry, but when I go to an event and some creepy guy comes up to me and says “Ooooh, are you a lezzzbian?” that is not an event where I feel welcomed—it’s an event where I feel fetishized.

Let’s talk about Patrick Califia’s question of buying into old meanings about sex. I’d like to ask, are we buying into old meanings about roles? Let me explain. This is where a lot of misplaced uses of power come up.

Do we still think that bottoming means you’re submissive? I can’t tell you how many people I know who are dominants that who enjoy bottoming, but who won’t ever bottom in public because they’re worried—and justifiably so—that once they do, the community won’t see them as really dominant anymore. What does it mean about our community if it’s not a safe place for people to explore all facets of their desires? And what the heck does it say about how we treat our submissives if being treated like one is something to fear?

Do we still think that the only people who can do service are submissive? I’ve seen so many calls for volunteers go out that read “We need a few submissives to help out.” So that means I won’t be volunteering. What, because apparently dominants can’t be helpful? I’m sorry, but I don’t have much time for people who think that being dominant means you’re too good to take out the garbage or lift a few chairs. When we see things this way, we cut ourselves off from a lot of potential volunteer energy, and we create a hierarchy of tasks that’s more about our perceived ideas about dignity and worth than about actually banding together as a community to get a job done.

Do we still think that in order to be a leader, you have to be a dominant? I’ve had the honour and privilege of being a dominant or owner to three people in my lifetime, and each of them has been a powerful leader in their own right. And I believe they fully deserve to be recognized as such—and not because I somehow made them that way. The same applies to many submissives in our midst. When we dismiss the leadership potential of submissives, we do all of us a great disservice, and deprive ourselves of learning opportunities and of the next generation of leaders.

Lastly, let’s talk about Peggy Kleinplatz’s question of depth of connection.

She’s talking about depth of connection in relationship, but I want to ask about depth of connection in community. Do we get lost in our leadership and forget why we’re here? Do we jockey for position, rather than giving each other support? Do we make demands on our volunteers, our leaders and ourselves that lead to burnout, rather than leading from a place of joy? Do we hold each other’s health as essential, and call bullshit—lovingly—when that’s needed? How many of us have taken the time to say to someone, “Hey, I think you’re too tired. Maybe you need to step down.”

I’m going to move into my conclusion here, and forgive me if it’s a bit rambling.

I want to talk about power for a sec. We’re here because, for most of us, we’re drawn to power. Power terrifies people. We lust for it, but once we get our hands on it, we realize that it’s heavy, that it comes with responsibility. So we often deny it when it shows up, or recognize it only in the parts that are easiest for us. Much of the world deals with power in unhealthy ways—denial and repression on the one hand, greed and ruthlessness on the other. Kinky people eroticize power, but that doesn’t mean anyone has taught us how to use it well, any more than the rest of the world. But I think that, by virtue of handling the currency of power in our play (as Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy would say), we may be better equipped to try to use it well. I think it’s crucial to recognize that power in sex, power in kink and power in leadership are no different. And asking the kinds of hard questions I’m asking today can help keep us on track in all these areas.

I’m inviting you to ask those hard questions. And here are a few more, to boot.

How can you be softer, gentler, and kinder to yourself and your people? And at the same time, how can you dream bigger and sweeter, and dedicate yourself more authentically and fully to what you do? Can you find a fierce enough love for yourself and for your community to take on the task of really looking at yourself and the people around you, and being honest about what you see, and doing the real work of improving it? And how can we, as a community of leaders, best support each other in doing that work?

Knowing that who you are when you’ve got your fist up someone’s ass, or a knife at your throat, is no different than who you are when you’re driving the kids to school or chairing your kink society meeting on Wednesday nights—as people and as leaders, can we face ourselves in our wholeness, and see where we’re broken? Can we love that place? Because I think that’s where real power lives.

Thank you.


1 Lorde, Audre and Susan Leigh Star. “Interview with Audre Lorde.” Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, eds. Robin Ruth Linden et al. San Francisco: Frog In The Well, 1982.

2 Butler, Judy. “Lesbian S & M: The Politics of Dis-illusion.” Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, eds. Robin Ruth Linden et al. San Francisco: Frog In The Well, 1982.

3 Califia, Pat. “The Limits of the S/M Relationship, or Mr. Benson Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics and Practice, 10th anniversary edition, ed. Mark Thompson. Los Angeles: Daedalus Publishing Company, 2004.

4 Kleinplatz, Peggy. “Learning from Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons from the Edge.” Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, eds. Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2006.

11 thoughts on “asking the hard questions

  1. Amazing, as most your entries are.

    Reading the part on buying into old meanings about sex suddenly made me think (of all things!) of women… in the Catholic Church (I am not a believer, but being raised a Catholic seems to leave traces.), where women are welcome as servants, but not as leaders. I see an analogy here.

    But would you say that applies at least to some degree to any bdsm communities, or would you say there is a difference? I the milieus that I usually haunt, I have not experienced, so far, so much of a rigid role(?)-based structure, if I have witnessed it at the fringe of it.

  2. Youkali – Thank you. 🙂 Kink and church do sometimes bear some uncomfortable resemblances, I agree. But yeah, of course, exceptions abound. I think I’ve just noticed that certain problematic trends seem to pop up with a fair degree of regularity. I tend not to make my home in those places, and I make efforts to create places that feel healthy to me. So places without those issues, or without many or most of them, certainly do exist. But sometimes the problems jump out from around the corner and surprise you where you least expected them. I’m glad to know there are people who haven’t encountered them very much at all! That is heartening! 🙂

    Dan – So nice to hear that. 🙂

  3. your questions are really affecting me. i do read them from different perspectives you required and sometimes i dont’t like my answer.
    so thank you for touching me. i am working on it. and as long as we try, there is no chance for failing. (do you call it that way?)

  4. “as people and as leaders, can we face ourselves in our wholeness, and see where we’re broken? Can we love that place? Because I think that’s where real power lives.”

    This made me cry. Thanks, Andrea, for your writing.


  5. elisa – Thank you for that. I like your approach. 🙂
    Kasey, Diane – Wow, thanks. I’m touched.

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