Posts Tagged ‘coming out’

2009 16 Feb

Coming out BDSM: upsides and downsides

A lot of us kinksters use vocabulary similar to the kind of thing people are accustomed to hearing from LGBTQ folks. “Coming out” is a great example of this: a lot of BDSM people struggle with the question of whether to come out to our employers, our friends, our parents … all the people we love. And BDSM is stigmatized and frowned upon enough that most kinksters never come out.

Some professional fields are more BDSM-friendly: for instance, kinksters who work in computer science frequently don’t have any problem with coworkers knowing about their sexual identities. Some fields are less BDSM-friendly: schoolteachers who are into BDSM have to be incredibly careful. Likewise, some subcultures are more BDSM-friendly: kinksters in the goth subculture, for instance, don’t tend to have any problems within that subculture. But again, some subcultures are less BDSM-friendly: not just the obvious ones like religious evangelicals … there are also some feminist groups that are very intolerant of BDSM, and many liberal groups still exhibit prejudices.

When I came into my BDSM identity, it was a very sudden realization for me, and my circumstances effectively outed me to most of my friends. (It’s a long story.) I think that this was ultimately a positive thing, in my case — for the most part, my friends were totally cool about it, and I was able to talk to some of them about the panic and horror and shame I was feeling. (“I’m so screwed up! I’m such a bad feminist!” … that about sums up how I felt.) It was still really hard for me to deal with it, but thank God I didn’t have to do so in strict secrecy. (I really like hearing people’s personal stories of how they got into BDSM, by the way, so if you’ve got any — leave a comment, or send them my way by email!)

Later, I came out to my parents, and I was terrified when I did it … but I’m lucky: they were both really awesome and supportive about it. As for my boss … well, my boss likes me a lot, but I’m not sure his affection would survive if he learned that I’m such a sexual deviant. He might be okay with it, but he also might be horrified and fire me. I’ve never told him and I don’t plan to.

As I’ve gotten into BDSM outreach, I’ve become a weird kind of BDSM “public figure” among my vanilla friends. A lot of them already knew I was into it, but now pretty much all of them do, because it’s such a huge part of my life that I can’t have a conversation about what I’m working on without BDSM coming up.

There are some obvious pros and cons here. For instance: I feel happy that I can talk honestly about my relationships and my work with my friends, and yet I live in fear that my boss is going to find out and hate me! But there’s one big Pro and one big Con that I want to talk about today.

1) Pro: I’m available for comment! People with their own BDSM desires, who know me or have heard about me, have a resource they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Multiple people I know from my everyday life have taken me aside — usually in very quiet, furtive, ashamed ways — and asked for BDSM advice. Some of them have an idea what they’re asking about: they say straightforward things like, “I might want to try some BDSM. Where can I learn more?” Others are more confused. They ask roundabout, contradictory questions or lapse into pauses.

A female friend of mine asked me out to dinner a few months ago, soon after the first time I gave my BDSM Overview presentation to a bunch of vanilla folks I know. She started by saying that she didn’t really know what was going on, but that she’d always had these crazy violent dreams. She said she wasn’t sure what she wanted but that she was scared to ask, sometimes even scared to think about it. She said that was afraid of what this meant about being a feminist, and that was when I spotted the tears in her eyes.

It was heartbreaking to see how much she was hurting, but it was empowering, too. I saw so much of myself in her, and I realized how much I was helping her just by listening … and how much more I could help her by sharing knowledge and experience. I immediately told her that she wasn’t betraying the feminist movement, and I explained how I’d had feelings along those lines. We talked for hours and afterwards I sent her my own coming-out story, as well as a few basic BDSM book references. I explained how the BDSM community functions and how she can attend BDSM meetups and discussion groups. *

(I’ve thought about publishing my coming out story. It’s all written up, and I’ve received some great feedback on it from both kinkster friends and “normal” friends. In particular, I’ve heard from BDSM people — some of them people who are just learning about BDSM from me — about how helpful it was to read about my own process. I’ll be honest, though: I’m scared about publishing, because my story is so personal that even publishing it under my scene name — Clarisse — feels like I’m greatly exposing myself and my inner world.

The idea of publishing it is also complicated by the fact that I’d really want to publish the story in a vanilla venue: that is, a magazine or webzine or other place that’s not devoted to BDSM material. It would be relatively easy for me to find a BDSM-related venue for my coming-out story, but I think it’s important for mainstream society to be hearing these stories … partly because it will forward the cause of BDSM tolerance … and partly because scared or repressed or latent kinksters are more likely to read my story if it’s in a vanilla venue, and they’re the ones who can benefit most from that kind of encouragement and insight. But what kind of mainstream venue is going to publish a BDSM coming-out story?

Later edit: Time Out Chicago would publish it, that’s who! end of edit)

It has really inspired me to know that there are people out there who are having a terribly hard time dealing with their sexuality because of all the stigma against BDSM — and I’m helping just by being public and available to talk.

2) Con: I am exoticized and othered. People — sometimes even my friends — make stereotypical assumptions about me, or harass me in minor but frustrating ways.

I remember once that I told someone in the BDSM community that I’d come out to most of my friends already, and he said, “Did people start hitting on you more?” I couldn’t help laughing because it’s so true — it’s such a known effect! For some reason, there are lots of vanilla guys out there who think that a BDSM girl is just the hottest thing … I mean person … ever. I don’t know why that is, but I am here to tell you that the fact that I’m into BDSM does not mean I’m some guy’s hot sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.

I’m just another person, you know? I like sex, but sometimes I don’t want to have sex; sometimes I don’t even want to do BDSM, amazingly enough. I like going out to dinner and getting chocolate from my lovers, and watching good movies together. An evening reading in my room, or hanging out casually with my friends, sounds just as good as an evening of hot BDSM sex. (Well, okay, maybe not quite as good. But really good.)

Plus, news flash: if you’re a vanilla guy, I’m not interested. You’re probably not into what I’m into. And no, I don’t feel like explaining exactly what I like to you. If you want to know about BDSM, I can recommend some books. If you want to know about me, you can become friends with me … just keep in mind that “being friends” means “having fun hanging out, maybe talking about science fiction or other interests we might share”, rather than “asking me questions about my sex life all the time”.

Some people seem to think it’s okay to openly speculate about my sex life or even ask me really invasive, personal questions, just because I’m into BDSM. I know people who comment about my sexuality at every opportunity … and I mean every opportunity. I’ll stub my toe and they’ll say, “Is that good pain or bad pain?” and leer. Or I’ll ask them not to do something and they’ll say, “Ohh, sorry,” throw up their hands in mock surrender, “I guess you’ll just have to beat me up.” This wouldn’t be annoying if it happened every once in a while … and hey, I make my own jokes about BDSM. But when a person literally mentions my sexuality multiple times every time they see me, and it’s always totally out of the blue … it starts feeling like I’m some exotic creature behind glass in a zoo. They wouldn’t do it to someone else; I know, because a lot of them didn’t do it to me before they knew I’m into BDSM.

I recognize that people who act this way are a blessing, compared to the people who think I’m a psycho in need of therapy … or the people who think BDSM people really ought to just go ahead and kill ourselves. I know it could be a lot worse, and I’m lucky it’s not. I just wish more people would be more sensitive, and would think about the stereotypes they’re applying to BDSM people.

It’s worse when people start judging the “reasons” they think I’m into BDSM. I’ve heard people suggest that I only talk about BDSM because it gets attention, or because I want to seem like everyone’s fantasy sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.

I’m not into BDSM because I want to appear edgy or dangerous or adventurous or sexy or scary. I’m into BDSM because that’s how I express my sexuality. That’s it. That’s all. I didn’t choose it and I don’t know why I am this way … but I am. I’m certainly not complaining … but I can’t help it.

I think that there are people who get into BDSM just because they’re curious and want to try new things, not necessarily because BDSM is a huge part of their identity … and there’s nothing wrong with that! I see these people as similar to — say — people who identify as straight but are totally willing to make out with the same sex. Personally, I’m cool with the fact that such people exist; as long as they’re having fun, more power to them. But I’m not like that. BDSM is an undeniable, overwhelming, central facet of my sexual identity. For me, telling me that I’m into BDSM just because I “want attention”, or because I’m “just in a phase” or “like experimenting”, or because I’m “dramatic” or “attracted to danger” … that’s like telling a gay person that she has sex with girls just because she “wants attention”, etc.

So that’s what I don’t like about being partly out: the way people judge me for my sexuality. But hey, that’s why I’m doing BDSM outreach in the first place, right? — because that’s the only way we’ll ever get away from these assumptions and stereotypes.

Note: I get that this post has an awful lot of whiny upper-middle-class white girl privilege in it. For a post that’s more political, maybe you’ll like this one.

* Hey Chicago people: if you think you might want to explore BDSM and you’re between the ages of 18 and 35, your best resource is The Next Generation Chicago. Join the mailing list — it’s right there on the webpage. And if you are older, don’t fret! There are groups for you too, including The Lost Generation. You can learn more about meetups, groups, and so on by looking at the Chicago Pansexual BDSM Calendar.

2008 22 Dec


I’m in New York right now, so I spent part of yesterday (Saturday) at the Lesbian Sex Mafia party, then headed off to a TES event. (Ah, New York.) I met a lot of cool people, but the one whose words I’ll cite in this entry is named Liz. Liz is an older lesbian and top. I love talking to culturally aware people who lived through the feminist / sexual revolution — particularly if they’ve got a specific focus on alt sex communities, which Liz does.

She made a lot of great comments at dinner. My favorite, though, was when I started talking about BDSM-dar. You’ve probably heard the term gaydar, “the intuitive ability to assess another individual’s sexuality”. BDSM-dar is a similar concept, but obviously for BDSM rather than homosexuality.

I have some attachment to the concept of BDSM-dar. The reason is that I came into BDSM by means of a man who unexpectedly went after me at a party and hurt me — and though I was shocked and horrified, I also loved it. I went back to him and asked him to do it again. Multiple times. And I spent the next year flipping out as I faced up to the fact that I’m a sexual deviant. And once I was done flipping out, I felt far more whole and sexy and powerful than I ever had before.

Let’s call him Richard. And let me make it clear right now that I was never attacked, abused, or assaulted in any way. I could have asked Richard to stop, that first night, and I didn’t. It was difficult for me to come to terms with my BDSM desires, but I have no doubt that they are real and that they have been in me all along. In childhood, I did things like tie up my Barbie dolls and draw sadomasochistic comics; I only started repressing those feelings in adolescence. When Richard went after me, he did not create anything in me — he drew out what was already there, something I’d been pressing back for years.

Later, when I asked him how he knew, he smiled and said he could tell. That with me, it had been obvious. He called it SM-dar.

Now, there are some obvious reasons for why Richard might have been able to appear to sniff me out, and yet not actually sport any real special sense. The biggest: if he just asserts that lots of women are into BDSM, he’s bound to succeed some of the time, right? Maybe he doesn’t actually have SM-dar. Maybe he just discounts the cases where his “detection” doesn’t work, and plays up the ones where it does.

I don’t think so. I know Richard pretty well; I’ve seen him do a lot of interacting. Furthermore, I’ve actually seen him “detect” one or two other people with surprising accuracy. I say surprising, because initially I found the way he talked about SM-dar extremely irritating and presumptuous; so I was surprised when it worked with people besides myself.

But on the other hand, I don’t have BDSM-dar myself. And I have no proof, no studies or anything approaching real evidence that BDSM-dar exists.

I had one quotation that I thought was powerful evidence for the BDSM-dar concept. It’s from a 1953 book of psychological case studies called Sadism and Masochism: the Psychology of Hatred and Cruelty (buy it here — I’m talking about volume 2). The quotation comes from the story of a sadistic woman who came to Stekel for a cure. She tells how she’ll go out to spas and engage the attending men in pleasant, noncommital conversation. She’ll pick one man, and tell him to come to her room. When he gets there, she’ll whip him. Then she goes home and feels incredibly ashamed. Oh Doctor, please help!

Understandably, Stekel asks her how she can possibly identify these men; obviously she’s doing a pretty good job identifying them, since no one’s pressed charges for assault — but how? She answers: “Sadists and masochists have a secret language. I might say a secret alliance with secret customs and secret agreement.” I always figured that since this woman clearly wasn’t hooked in to an established community of any kind, she couldn’t be referring to a real “code”. I figured this was just her way of articulating her BDSM-dar.

Liz, however, told me a bit about how lesbians used to function in the absence of a lesbian community. She said that even without a “central authority”, they would develop little tricks for finding each other. For instance, lesbian-tinged books or movies, referenced slyly. She said that’s how she interprets Stekel’s sadist: not as “sensing” her bottoms through any aspect of their personalities or appearance, but as taking advantage of tiny cultural hints.

Liz also expressed irritation with the preponderance of male tops (particularly older ones) in the scene who will come up to women and say, “You’re a submissive. I can just” — :leer: — “tell.” I get the impression that she’s dealt with a lot of this, which must be particularly annoying as a top.

(Ironically enough — later that night, an older male top I’d briefly played with commented haughtily that a female top we’d spoken to earlier was “a submissive; I can tell.” I gently argued with him for a while on the subject. His stance was, “I’m not being sexist or patriarchal. I’ve got 20 years of experience in the scene, and I just think I’ve probably learned how to tell a top from a bottom.” My stance was, “Okay, maybe, but I really think you need to (a) not say these things in quite so presumptuous a fashion and (b) carefully examine your assumptions.” I wonder if I made an impression. I hope so; it pisses me off to think that I might’ve had a BDSM experience — no matter how casual — with an unrepentant sexist jerk. :grin: That’s the risk with people you don’t know too well, I guess. And maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. Anyway, I digress.)

I considered trying to discuss my coming-into-BDSM experience with Liz, but I didn’t really get the chance. I wish I could have heard her thoughts.

So now I find myself back to square one. Did Richard sniff me out with BDSM-dar, or did he just get lucky? Is BDSM-dar mostly just a figment of our assumptions and biases?

If Stekel’s sadist wasn’t using BDSM-dar — if she was instead doing something more like what Liz described — I wish I had some idea what cultural references she might’ve used. Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps.