Posts Tagged ‘stigma’

2010 28 Apr

Anti-BDSMers pretending to look out for us are dangerous

Maymay, the brilliant BDSM activist who was recently attacked and labeled a pedophile on the Salvation Army’s human trafficking email list, has drawn my attention to another lovely little initiative from Citizens Against Trafficking: “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking”, by Donna M. Hughes and Melanie Shapiro.

Firstly, the title. “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking”. What the paper actually outlines is one single abusive BDSM relationship — the famous Glenn Marcus case — that is, a sadist who seriously mistreated, raped, and threatened the family of Jodi, a female submissive. No one was moved across any borders; I’m having trouble figuring out when and where the “trafficking” happened.

So why does the paper’s title imply that BDSM is one huge crazy orgy of “human trafficking”?

And if the authors aren’t trying to convince us that S&M is dangerous and scary in itself, then why is the paper full of blanket statements like “A sadist’s goal is the progressive destruction of a victim”?

And what the hell is going on with bits like this:

One of Marcus’ other sex slaves testified in his defense saying that Jodi was a 
willing participant in sex games. She said that Marcus was harmless. 
When prosecutors showed a photograph of this woman’s breasts punctured
with dozens of pins, she still insisted it was consensual: “I love being around
Glenn. He’s a lot of fun.”

Well, the “sex slave” probably “insisted it was consensual” because it was, you know, actually consensual. I have consensually had pins stuck in me as well, so I can see how someone might “insist”. In fact, the first time I ever did piercing, I purchased the needles myself and explicitly propositioned my partner … then handed him the box.

Now, I’m not saying that Marcus’s relationship with Jodi was entirely consensual. But it sounds like this other woman did herself have a consensual relationship with Marcus. And showing pictures of oh-so-scary pins stuck in her breasts doesn’t make this other woman’s relationship with Marcus less consensual.

But let’s get past the doubtful phrasing of those sentences, and start questioning why the authors included such explicit details. What, exactly, is the point of describing that piercing so carefully? Or the consensual floggings that the authors linger over? Or the cages and leashes they lovingly describe? These writers know that mainstream America is not remotely accustomed to this kind of imagery; sounds to me like they’re trying their absolute hardest to freak people out. They do thoughtfully include a “Warning the following includes extremely graphic descriptions of violence and abuse” … on page 6, after most of the descriptions of violence and abuse.

Chillingly, after flinging lots of stereotypes about, the paper ends with this:

If you have been involved in BDSM that went beyond consensual 
activity and someone was making money from your work, sex acts or images 
of sex acts, you may be a victim of human trafficking, either sex trafficking, 
forced labor or both. You can get help by calling the national 24 hour, 
toll‐free trafficking hotline at 1‐888‐3737‐888, or call the local 
FBI office or U.S. Attorney’s  Office.

Donna Hughes has spoken to the director of the national trafficking
hotline. They are prepared to talk to victims of BDSM who may be victims 
of human trafficking.

“Victims of BDSM”? Well, actually, a person who is involved in non-consensual BDSM would be a “victim of abuse”. Once such activities stop being consensual, they stop being BDSM and become physical/emotional abuse.

This reminds me of those awful pro-life “clinics” that “counsel” pregnant women about abortion — you know, the clinics that pretend to have actual medical qualifications so they can pull in desperate women who want abortions and then lie to those women about their abortion options — preferably completely scaring the women away from abortion by means of slanted statistics, religious moralism, and outright lies. (Did you know that fake clinics often set up shop right next to actual abortion clinics such as Planned Parenthood, so as to dupe women who come to the area seeking the legitimate clinic?)

“Chilling” is a strong word, huh? But here’s what scares me most about the Glenn Marcus case: Jodi went into the relationship willingly, after deliberately seeking out information about BDSM online. She went with Marcus after having two other BDSM relationships. And at first, she stayed with Marcus not out of fear, but because she enjoyed what he was doing.

I’ve often wondered what could have happened to me if I’d come into BDSM from a slightly different angle — if I hadn’t had the resources or the mentors or the education or even the just plain luck that have kept me from experiences like Jodi’s. I’d like to think that I would never get involved with a sadist who showed such obvious warning signs (Marcus did not, for example, allow safewords from the start) — and I think that most of the wider BDSM community would never enable such behavior — but we all tend to think we’re so brilliant and invulnerable and know exactly what we’re doing, now don’t we?

I recall this moment from my coming-out story:

Richard explained that he hadn’t particularly been satisfied with how he’d dealt with me before he left, but hadn’t had time for anything better. Now, he thought the situation was “healthier”. “What do you want from this?” he asked seriously.

I want the strength to walk away from you, I thought unclearly. I want you to actually care about me. I never want to see you again. I hugged my arms to myself, resting my hands gingerly on swelling skin. “Um,” I said slowly, “nothing in particular?” I took a breath and gathered the one overriding fact: I want you to keep hurting me. “I don’t expect anything from you,” I told him, “and I don’t want you to expect anything from me.”

I knew from his smile that my answer was the right one. I could only hope it was accurate.

Given that I recognized BDSM as something I wanted, desperately — what would I have tolerated in order to get it? Richard isn’t a bad guy, but what happened with him certainly wasn’t my ideal relationship. Could I have ended up in some appallingly abusive situation? I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But I do know one thing. The single biggest factor making women like Jodi (and, arguably, myself) vulnerable is lack of social acceptance for BDSM — fear of being outed, fear of associating too publicly with our desires. Note that the biggest method of control Glenn Marcus used was threatening to out Jodi. In other words, he was able to abuse her because she was afraid he would tell people (especially her parents) that she was a kinkster and porn star.

And the second biggest factor? Lack of freely-available information about BDSM, what makes a good BDSM relationship, and how to practice it safely. Jodi did not run screaming from a dominant who flat-out disallowed safewords … perhaps she didn’t have good community support?

Remember how I mentioned that I initiated the piercing scene with my first piercing partner? I basically read a few webpages, bought the needles, and dove in. And based on that limited information, my partner and I did a couple of things that I now recognize as dangerous — things we wouldn’t have done if we’d had access to better resources on piercing. “Better resources” might include the KinkForAll sexuality conferences that maymay pioneered, the same thing that then — oh yeah! now I remember! — got him labeled a pedophile and trafficker by Donna Hughes et al.

If people like Donna M. Hughes and Melanie Shapiro are so concerned about BDSMers’ safety, then they ought to be speaking out on behalf of S&M; they ought to be trying to create a safer social climate for us to explore and access our desires; they ought to support the free spread of kink-related information. Panicky reports like this “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking” are therefore doing the opposite of helping, as are insane crusades like this anti-maymay thing.

But methinks their actual goal has very little to do with protecting actual women, and everything to do with scaring the public into supporting their fundamentally conservative agenda — and also scaring people away from accepting or practicing BDSM. Hence, they offer “support” with one hand — support that would doubtless tell callers that kink is Bad Wrong Awful Must Avoid At All Costs Intrinsically Abusive! — while promoting awful stereotypes about kink with the other. Just like those horrible clinics. It’s chilling.

I wish I were in the States right now so I could call this human trafficking hotline myself — which has apparently been oh-so-well primed to talk to kinksters — and see what they really think about BDSM. If any of my readers have voice acting skill and time to kill, plus maybe a voice recorder standing by, I invite you to try it. I mean, they must be well-prepared to help all those “victims of BDSM”! After all, Donna Hughes talked to them! Even if no actual S&Mers did.

NOTE: If you are a BDSMer and think you might be in an abusive relationship, then I encourage you to seek support, but not from Donna Hughes and her ilk. There may be therapists listed in your area on the Kink Aware Professionals list, and sometimes feminist sex toy stores such as Chicago’s Early to Bed host kink-friendly workshops for abuse survivors (but you may want to call ahead to ensure that the workshop facilitator will be kink-aware). Indeed, your local kink scene may specifically have workshops for kinky abuse survivors (if you’re in Chicago, here’s a calendar of local BDSM events). For more on the subject of BDSM community anti-abuse efforts, see my blog posts The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team or Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.

2010 19 Apr

5 sources of assumptions and stereotypes about S&M

Why do BDSMers often feel bad about being into S&M? Why do so many of us freak out once we discover our BDSM identity, or live in secret and repress our desires, or write only under false names, or fear openly joining the S&M community, or ….

Well, here’s a particularly sad example of how bad some of us feel. A BDSMer friend works as a therapist who does couples counseling. He once told me about a couple who had some random argument in his office — the argument, apparently, wasn’t even about sex — during which the wife lost her temper and turned away from her husband. “You know what this freak likes?” she snapped, and proceeded to describe her husband’s biggest fetish. Her husband looked humiliated and was quiet.

Now, from the perspective of my kinky counselor friend and my kinky self, the husband’s fetish wasn’t particularly weird — in fact it seems much tamer than, say, my own desire to have needles slid through my skin — but I can see how the fetish would seem weird to the mainstream. More importantly, it was obvious that this poor kinkster’s wife had been using his fetish as her ace in the hole — her secret back-pocket weapon — for quite a long time. Whenever she wanted to shut him up or shame him, she just mentioned his Deep Dark Fetish and he was silenced and shamed.

So. Obviously, there are a lot of poisonous assumptions and stereotypes surrounding S&M. There are so many of them that lots of kinksters have taken them into ourselves: not only do we fear society’s judgment, but we also feel tons of anxiety from internalized social norms.

And yet I’ve come upon people who tell me that the stereotypes around S&M “aren’t that bad”. I’ve had people (even other BDSMers!) tell me that all our anxiety is internal, that society is totally okay with S&M and if we’d just quit indulging our “victim complex” then everything would be fine. In fact, one person read my coming-out story — in which I wrote about the internal struggle and panic I experienced when I came into my BDSM identity — and snidely said that I was “just being dramatic”.

Then there are people who tell me that S&M is “mainstream”, which is just plain ridiculous. I can see the argument that very mild kink has gone mainstream, at least among young liberals: hickeys, silk scarves, mild choking, mild spanking, and furry handcuffs. Yeah, lots of people try those things, and you’d have a hard time finding a (young, white, well-educated) person who condemns them. But you know what’s not mainstream in any group? Needles in one’s back; blood. Screams for mercy; tears. What appalled me, during my coming-out process, was discovering my need for agony. And I assure you, my anxiety and my self-disgust were real. I wasn’t “making it up to be dramatic”.

Apparently, though, giving examples of BDSMers who feel (or felt) awful about ourselves isn’t enough, so I started thinking about how I internalized that disgust. How did I develop my stereotypes of S&M? I can remember people in my teens joking about how I’m so aggressive, I ought to be a dominatrix; I even remember a girl who brought a whip to summer camp and lent it to me for a costume party. And for years before my own awakening, I was aware that some of my friends were into “that stuff”. Given these positive messages, where did I pick up the negative messages? To put it in academic terms: where can I find instances of BDSM stigma?

Here they are:


2010 3 Apr

Salvation Army attacks sex-positive activist through its human trafficking email list

Sometimes people try to tell me that no one has a problem with S&M; that all stigma against S&M is in our heads and that if we BDSMers would just get over our victim complex, we’d discover that society has no real problem with us. I’ve got tons of counterexamples, but today I’m only going to talk about one: my friend maymay, a sex-positive activist and kinkster who has now been painted as a child molester, starting with an attack from the Salvation Army (specifically, two women named Margaret Brooks and Donna M. Hughes).

I admire maymay; he’s done some incredible sex-positive activism. He created the sex-positive unconference model KinkForAll, which swiftly went viral, and co-created Kink On Tap, a smart sexuality netcast with tons of audience participation. Maymay is also out of the closet under his real name, which is an incredibly ballsy and badass move on his part, but one that puts him in all the more danger when absurd and libelous personal attacks like these are launched.

What I find most notable about the Salvation Army attack is that — although maymay’s events and activism focus on general sex-positivity more than BDSM in particular — it’s BDSM that got up their noses. When the Salvation Army’s Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking jumped on maymay, they implied that the “The specific goal of the event [KinkForAll] was to foster an acceptance of bondage, discipline and sadomasochism.” Well, I attended and presented at the first KinkForAll in New York City, and while a lot of BDSM information was shared, the specific goal of the event was definitely to be generally sex-positive.

So why is BDSM the centerpiece of Salvation Army’s little freakout? One might say that it’s because maymay identifies as a submissive, and frequently blogs about BDSM; or perhaps it’s because KinkForAll attracted a large BDSM community contingent, probably because we’re very accustomed to talking and trading information about sex in a KinkForAll-compatible style. BDSM thus becomes the lightning rod. But it couldn’t function as such if BDSM weren’t seen as deviant, sick, unacceptable, and disgusting. If society really had no problem with BDSM, then why would the Salvation Army be sending messages to a sex trafficking listhost attacking a BDSM-associated event?

(Tangentially, it’s worth noting that talking about sex trafficking — which is a genuine and serious problem in many places — has been used throughout history as a tactic to attack, shut down, criminalize or control various forms of consensual sexuality. If you’d like to learn more about this, I strongly recommend the brilliant blog Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex by Laura Agustín. Start with “What’s Wrong With the Trafficking Crusade“. If you don’t mind academic writing, Agustín’s paper on the history of sex worker “rescue” initiatives is also particularly good.)

The other thing that really gets me about maymay’s attackers — in his post, he engages one one blogger in particular — is the assertion that sex-positive activism leads to “doing whatever” with no regard to the emotional consequences. In her argument with maymay, the blogger states that:

all the things I’d been told about sex – again, on whatever end of the spectrum – had quite clearly missed the point. “Don’t do it” with not explanation leads to rebellion or shaming. “Do whatever” leads to heartbreak. That has been my experience.

I think that we are sexual beings, yes. This means that our sexuality is part of everything – body, mind, heart, soul. I don’t think we can separate, hard as we might try, the one from the other.

Wow, hey, that sounds just like what I’ve been saying for years! In fact, it almost exactly mirrors some things I said in my landmark post Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing. I wrote:

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. … We need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

So what’s with this assumption that sex-positive activists have no clue about social issues of sexuality, or matters of the heart? Working to destigmatize sexuality is in no way incompatible with working towards better, more consensual, more meaningful relationships; in fact, I’ll be bound that sex-positive activists do a much better job of this than these “anti-trafficking” folks do. As maymay wrote in a recent email:

Protecting people of every gender and age from falling victim to sexual abuse requires that each person — including every man, woman, and child on Earth — has the right and freedom to learn about sexuality in a non-judgmental environment.

Predictably, Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks are refusing to engage maymay directly. (That’s a typical sex-negative tactic; as I recall, the makers of the appallingly biased anti-porn documentary “The Price of Pleasure” have refused to publicly engage with actual porn actresses as well. Funny how most sex-negative arguments collapse when faced with those of us who freely and consensually choose to do Whatever It Is That We Do.) That leaves the sex-positive community to back up maymay on our blogs, podcasts, and Twitter accounts; and from what I’ve been seeing, we’re doing a good job. We can’t erase Hughes’ and Brooks’ harmful accusations, but we can damn well expose them for the absurdities they are.

2009 3 Jun

BDSM as a sexual orientation, and complications of the orientation model

UPDATE, 2012: I cleaned this up, edited it a bit and reposted it in 2012. You can read the new version by clicking here.

* * *

A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts is: Is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? I’ve spent rather a lot of time thinking about this, and at this point, I believe the answer depends largely on the individual — yet at the same time, the answer stands a strong chance of being politicized into something that could limit individuals. And that scares me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

I remember the first moment it occurred to me to consider BDSM an orientation — the first time I used that word. I believe I was writing up my coming-out story at the time; I was discussing the way I freaked out when I came into BDSM, and I wrote: “In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation.”

I remember that I felt vaguely electrified at what I was saying, a little scared … but also comforted. I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists at the time and I thought I was saying something radical, maybe too radical to be taken seriously. Since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBT was implied in my statement.

Would the world believe that my BDSM desires could be as “real”, as “deep-rooted”, as “unavoidable” as the sexual orientation of a gay/lesbian/bi/transgender person? Would I offend GLBT people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real”, “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs … by implying that my sexual needs are anything like theirs?

Still, as crazy as the concept seemed at the time, it also felt right. When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies. Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity. It cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself — like my bone structure or eye color. BDSM became something to accept … come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM was an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that — well, now the idea of a “BDSM orientation” seems kinda old hat. I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time. I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it. A recent article about a potentially groundbreaking new BDSM-related legal case quoted sexologist Charles Moser at the end, as he very eloquently describes how BDSM can be considered a sexual orientation:

When I talk to someone who is identifying as BDSM and ask them have you always felt this way, and they almost always report that ‘This has been the way I was all along. I didn’t realize it. I thought I was interested in more traditional male/female relationships but now I realize that I really like the power and control aspects of relationship.

… They are very clear often that, ‘my relationships which were vanilla were not fulfilling. I always felt like there was something missing. Now that I’m doing BDSM, I am fulfilled. This feels really right to me. This really gets me to my core. It’s who I am.’

… And so in the same way as someone who is homosexual, they couldn’t really change — they somehow felt fulfilled in the same-sex relationship — similarly in a BDSM relationship or scenario, they similarly feel the same factors, and in my mind, that allows me to classify people who fit that as a sexual orientation. I cannot change someone who’s into BDSM to not be BDSM.

That’s how I feel. Absolutely.

And yet … I disagree with Moser on one key point: not all BDSM people are like this. I know that there do exist people who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do — who don’t feel that it’s been with them all along. It’s not deep-rooted for them. It’s not unavoidable, it’s not necessary, it doesn’t go to their core. They can change from being into BDSM to not doing BDSM, because it’s not built-in; it’s just something they do sometimes, for fun. And that’s totally okay with me — I will always say that I’ve got no problem with whatever people want to do, as long as it’s kept among consenting adults.

But what does the existence of people like that mean for BDSM as an orientation? Are they somehow less “entitled” to practice BDSM, because it’s not as deep-rooted or important to them as it is for, say, me? No, that can’t be true. I’m not going to claim that my feelings are “more real” than theirs, or somehow more important, just because BDSM goes straight to my core but not to theirs. They’ve got as much right as I do to practice these activities, as long as they do it consensually.

So, where does that leave us? It means that BDSM is an orientation for some people, but not for others. I’m fine with that. Does that mean we’re done here? Well, no ….

… because if BDSM is an orientation for some people but not others, then we’re in a bit of a weird place when it comes to legal recognition. In the case I cited above, Charles Moser is claiming that we BDSMers can’t change ourselves and that therefore, we don’t deserve to be stigmatized for our sexuality.

On the surface, this might seem reasonable … but when you start analyzing it, it’s deeply problematic. Because, actually, whether or not people can alter their sexual needs, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to do what they want with other consenting adults. If any of us phrase the argument as: “I can’t change myself, so please don’t hate me!” then we are implicitly saying, “If I could change myself, I would — but I can’t, so please have pity on me!” In other words, we are implicitly saying: “BDSMers can’t ‘fix’ our sexual needs — it’s not ‘our fault’ — so please don’t hate us.”

And when we say that, we are accepting and validating the way our culture tries to shame our sexuality. We are fundamentally agreeing with the opposition and begging for an exception … rather than trying to change the rule. We are calling BDSM a “fault” … rather than stating that freely exercising sexuality is our “right”. We are casting BDSM sexuality as something that we would “fix” if we could.

Also, using the orientation argument leaves the entire segment of the population that doesn’t feel BDSM as an orientation standing out in the cold. If we go with the orientation model, and say that it’s okay for BDSM-identified people to practice BDSM only because we feel it as a deep-rooted orientation … then we are implying that it’s not okay for people to practice BDSM if they don’t feel it as a deep-rooted orientation.

(Something like this has happened in some gay/lesbian communities: people who have sex with folks of the same gender, but don’t identify as strictly gay or lesbian, have sometimes been stigmatized within gay/lesbian communities or even disallowed from gay/lesbian gatherings. I understand that there are historical reasons that kind of thing happened, and analyzing the phenomenon would take up a whole post. I’m pretty sure books have been written about it. But the point is that when it did happen, it left bisexual people — as well as others who don’t fit neatly within the “gay/lesbian orientation” — out in the cold. And I don’t want to support that with BDSM.)

This is why I find myself moving away from that kind of language. I think it is important to move away from “I can’t help having these needs,” and towards “It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

… But …

… there’s always a but …

I’ll admit that I feel anxiety about abandoning the “orientation model”. I still haven’t taken the word “orientation” out of my BDSM overview lecture, because it is useful for convincing people that BDSM is okay. Because so many people, at this point, have accepted the LGBTQ orientation as something that should not be stigmatized — the word “orientation” can really help them understand what BDSM means to us and why it’s not okay to stigmatize that, either.

Furthermore, there are obviously people out there (like Charles Moser) who are seeking to protect BDSM legally, as a sexual orientation — seeking to make BDSM a protected class, so that we can’t get fired or have our kids taken away or suffer other consequences for being into BDSM anymore. If talking about BDSM as a sexual orientation means I no longer have to worry about those consequences, then is it worth it? Maybe.

And, of course, I don’t want to forget how much the idea of an “orientation” comforted me when I was first coming into BDSM. It made me feel so much better to recognize BDSM as an inbuilt part of myself. I don’t want to take that comfort away from anyone else.

So, when I try to campaign for general sexual freedom and acceptance — “orientation” or no “orientation” — I imagine that I’ll still end up using the word sometimes. But I’ll always try to be conscious of it, and I’ll always try to speak in ways that support this statement:

“It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

* * *

edit After I wrote this post, I discovered that Trinity over at SM-Feminist had also just written a post about BDSM as an orientation! The post and comments are definitely worth reading. /edit

double edit The excellent Kink Research Overviews blog now has a great post on innateness. /double edit

2009 20 May

One split in the BDSM subculture: the desire for transgression vs. the dislike of stigma

I’ve said before, and I say as often as I can, that BDSM communities are filled with many different voices — plus, there are many BDSM communities out there, not just one. I hope no one ever takes me as “speaking for BDSM” or accurately describing every possible BDSM community out there. But there are some elements common in the BDSM subculture, and some very general splits that I often find myself noticing within it. (I do welcome other voices, ideas, additions, or disagreements with what I’m about to say! Feel free to leave comments! Especially disagreements — I relish getting different perspectives on the BDSM scene and questioning my own assumptions. Absolutely relish it. Delicious.)

Right now I’m thinking about the split between people who are attracted (or partly attracted) to BDSM because it feels wicked and transgressive — and people who are attracted to BDSM entirely for other reasons. That is, some kinksters are really excited by the very fact that BDSM is illicit and hush-hush … while some aren’t.

On the face of it, I have no problem with this difference — I really don’t care what draws people to their sexuality, as long as they’re doing it consensually! But a consequence of the split is that it creates tension around the question of whether or not we should seek wider social acceptance for BDSM. Arrayed on one side of that tension are kinksters (such as myself) who think it would be totally awesome if BDSM were more widely socially acceptable, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about coming out (or involuntarily being outed) to our parents or friends or employers. We don’t want BDSM to be seen as illicit! But the divide’s other side includes kinksters who feel as though bringing BDSM into the light means disenfranchising their sexual needs, because they want BDSM to seem transgressive and scary …

… and I’m just not sure what to say to that. I had a conversation with a friend today in which he pointed out that for people who are attracted to certain forms of sexuality because they’re illicit, there will always be further horizons to explore. His argument is essentially, “Well, if someone wants illicit sexuality, they’ll always be able to find something that feels illicit. Society will simply never get over most of its boundaries around sexuality, at least not in our lifetimes; we can just move those boundaries around a little. But it’s not fair to expect BDSM-identified people who don’t want BDSM to be illicit to silence ourselves in order to preserve a transgressive quality that attracts others to BDSM.”

I think I agree with him. And more fundamentally, I really don’t like being unable to talk about BDSM with people I respect for fear of their reactions and judgments. I don’t like cloaking a large part of my life. I do not enjoy living with that stigma. And I’m not willing to compromise my efforts to work against that stigma for the sake of other kinksters who want BDSM to be stigmatized because that’s hot for them.

(As a side note: I do recognize that some kinksters feel nervous about BDSM advocacy, or oppose trying to make BDSM more socially acceptable, not because they’re actively attracted to the illicit image of BDSM but for other reasons — for instance, concerns about backlash against the community. I don’t mean to imply that everyone who resists the idea of raising the BDSM public profile is doing it because they really enjoy feeling transgressive and illicit. But I think a lot of kinksters do, and are.)

2009 9 May

Sex-positive documentary report #7: “It’s Still Elementary”

Cross-posted at

I half-suspected this would happen: after our sixth screening (the bisexuality documentary) was overwhelmed with people, the seventh Sex+++ movie was far quieter. It was nice to have breathing room! The really cool thing about this is that I can now promote the film series to new groups … I’ve been afraid to do any new promotion because we’ve had so many people at some screenings, I’m nervous that we’ll be overwhelmed. So now that I can do some more reaching out, I’d love new ideas about new people I can tell about the film series!

In the meantime ….

I’ve taken a while to post about it because I went to San Francisco on the interim, but the last film at my sex-positive documentary film series was “It’s Still Elementary” — courtesy of GroundSpark: Igniting Change Through Film.

“It’s Still Elementary” is a bit of a meta-documentary: a documentary about a documentary! In 1996, a film called “It’s Elementary” confronted the question of how to educate grade-school kids about gay and lesbian issues. It showed a number of grade-school educators taking on the issue — in the 1996 political climate, they risked their jobs to do so! — and it also showed the kids in their classes creating their own respectful, honest conversations on the subject. Of course there was a firestorm of controversy around “It’s Elementary”, especially when it was broadcast on TV in 1999. Conservative religious groups did things like call it a “powerful pro-homosexual propaganda film” and mount fundraising campaigns against airing it, writing to their followers that “If we fail to take a stand to put a stop to this outrage, the sin of sexual perversion could be promoted to a potential audience of tens of millions of children” (source).

That controversy is covered in “It’s Still Elementary”, as well as the process of making the “It’s Elementary”; the progress of the :cough: “homosexual agenda” inherent therein; the way the kids who actually experienced that education feel about it today; and issues faced by leaders who tried to get the film shown to educators in their communities. One thing that particularly struck me was the apparently frequent allegation, made by people who didn’t want “It’s Elementary” shown to teachers, that gay and lesbian issues simply weren’t “important enough” to be worth covering in school. School administrators — who didn’t see themselves as at all bigoted, but simply pragmatic — frequently argued that what’s “necessary” is readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. So of course, since it didn’t fit into that box, they figured training teachers to address gay and lesbian issues wasn’t worth doing.

The reason this caught my attention was that I’ve encountered that argument before. People, even open-minded people who don’t consider themselves to be anti-sex, will frequently argue that quality sex education is simply not something we “need” to be worrying about. Folks will just figure it out, right? Or even if they don’t, raising a generation of sexually confused and ashamed kids is no big deal … right? In fact, this attitude continues — for many people — into adulthood; it’s just phrased differently. As adults, the questions (sometimes stated, but almost always implied) become things like, “Does sexual pleasure really matter?” or “Is it really so important that you explore your sexual needs?”

Now, it’s not that I think everyone should be spending all their time thinking about their sexual needs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — there is no “should”. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone their priorities, and I have no problem with freely choosing to prioritize other things over sex … I mean, I do it all the time. Sex is not the only thing in the world. But I do think that this whole idea, that sexual pleasure is unimportant, goes beyond being a crying shame — it’s positively dangerous. Sex, our sexuality, is important. It’s so deep-rooted, it shapes so many things about us, so much of our approach to our lives … whether we’re aware of it or not. How can we know ourselves if we don’t know our sexuality? How can we live as whole human beings? And why, why should we be expected to repress or subvert or twist up a powerful drive that could be such a source of pleasure and power? The idea that sex is unimportant, “not worth it”, is another manifestation of our cultural stigma against sexuality, and a dangerously subtle one to boot.

One person at the discussion group, after we showed “It’s Still Elementary”, noted that the film (and the educators it highlights) was limited — it didn’t take on bisexuality, or trans. That’s a problem. But I’d argue that there’s a bigger problem — that educators limited themselves, are limiting themselves, to orientations when it would serve us better to create a wider curriculum around general sexuality. But, gasp! We can’t have a curriculum about general sexuality for children! What would happen to kids exposed to ideas of sex?

As it turns out, they’d be fine. Unitarian kids get the best sex education in the country through the Unitarian church, starting in kindergarten, and they amazingly don’t grow up to be axe murderers. The key is that sex education really doesn’t have to be entirely about explicit sex. From the website for Our Whole Lives, the Unitarian sex ed curriculum:

Our Whole Lives helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. Grounded in a holistic view of sexuality, Our Whole Lives provides not only facts about anatomy and human development, but helps participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality.

This is a concept introduced by “It’s Elementary” — the idea that we can have conversations about gay and lesbian issues (which are, after all, about sexuality) with kids without edging into scary sex territory. It’s time to take that idea to the next level and create good, national, general sex education that doesn’t tiptoe around important ideas like pleasure, or self-discovery, or defeating shame. Or so I’d like to believe. In a country where — what is it, 60%? — of schools are still mired in abstinence-only sex education, I recognize that my grandiose plans to teach kids not to be ashamed of their bodies are far from implementation. At least I can do adult sex education … reverse the damage a bit, perhaps. (Interestingly, one of the people I met on this past San Francisco trip, name of Dr. Charlie Glickman, did a dissertation on proposed adult sex education among — guess who? — the Unitarians. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it seems so good.)

It’s been a while since I linked to it, so I’ll wrap this up by mentioning my old post: Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing. Which just goes to show that even when you’ve got decent sex education, there’ll be room for improvement.

And now I am off to bed (not in a sexy way, regrettably … I’ve worn myself out, with all this typing about sex!). Check out the GroundSpark website to buy “It’s Still Elementary”, and do come out to the upcoming Sex+++ films “Private Dicks” and “Forever Bottom” — both about ideas of masculine sexuality. May 12th, 7PM. See you there!

2009 14 Mar

Sex-positive documentary report #4: “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think” and related shorts

I’m turning over a new leaf by failing to preface the post with a lot of text. This week’s Sex+++ documentary was pretty close to my heart ….

We showed Erin Palmquist’s “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” (check out the official website!) as well as two related shorts, “Leather” and “Cut & Paste”. I was heartbroken that technical difficulties prevented us from showing “Forever Bottom”, which I was really psyched about. Oh well. The “Forever Bottom” DVD worked when we tested it on a laptop; we’ll try to get it to interface properly with the system and show it with a later film.

“BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” is an unfinished film, but it’s definitely on the right track. It tries to describe what BDSM is — i.e., demonstrate that it’s more than a dominatrix in a catsuit with a whip — and work against anti-BDSM stigma by interviewing a bunch of kinksters about what they do, how they do it, how they feel about what they do. I loved a lot of the points it made — they’re obviously very similar to points I constantly make with my outreach presentation and such.

“Leather” is an absolutely gorgeous short film that’s very similar to “BDSM”; it was made in 1995 and specifically features members of the gay leather subculture. It’s less cautious than “BDSM” in avoiding transgressive imagery, and it is more personal and less political than “BDSM”. It features scenes between one specific couple that seem as though they must be choreographed, they’re so lovely. But I don’t mean to imply that it’s hardcore or anything — there’s some bootlicking and hot wax and clothespins and flogging, that’s about it. The whole thing feels more ritualistic and meditative than darkly emotional; these aren’t degradation scenes or fear scenes. This is another film like “Sex Positive” where I wish I’d written down some of the quotations about what the participants were feeling, because they were so beautifully said.

“Cut & Paste” is a BDSM coming-out story, and it’s a well-made one with adorable graphics. I love coming-out stories so much! Better yet, it’s a coming-out story from the point of view of a Black queer woman who uses the opportunity — not just to show what it’s like to come into a highly stigmatized sexuality — but what she absorbed about what Black women’s sexuality is “supposed” to be.

The discussion group after the films talked a little bit about a number of BDSM-related issues, but didn’t go too in-depth about any of them. One interesting question, raised by a gentleman whose name I regrettably do not know, was this: As BDSM imagery becomes more prevalent in the media, does that make BDSM more mainstream? If BDSM is becoming more mainstream, then will that weaken ties within the BDSM community?

To the first question, I’d say that light BDSM is probably becoming more mainstream. More people are considering tying up their lovers with silk scarves today, than were 30 years ago. But I think that heavy BDSM play is still very, very stigmatized, and I also think that most people have no idea what forms heavy BDSM play can take. More importantly, I don’t think the mainstream has any real grasp on communication and consent tactics that are promoted in the BDSM community — beyond safewords, that is. Checklists? Check-ins? Simultaneous journals? These things are not being mainstreamed at all. (Although I’m doing my best to work on that with the sexual communication workshop I’ve been giving recently.)

As for weakening ties within the community … I don’t think that’s happening either, at least not yet. People are more open about BDSM now and that means that more people can come into the community — but a lot of people still don’t feel like they can talk about BDSM with vanilla people. So we have the benefits of people being able to find the community more easily, and we also have the strong bonds created when most of us feel like we can only talk to each other — no one in our outside lives — about the way we approach love/sex.

I doubt the community will collapse even if BDSM goes totally mainstream — if every BDSM act is totally acceptable, and information is freely available to everyone — because not everyone will ever be into BDSM. There will always be value to the community because it will always be the place to go to meet people who speak our erotic language. There may be some fragmentation as the scene gets bigger, of course — and to some extent this already happens, with different groups attending different clubs, for instance.

It’s worth noting that our August 11 documentary will be “Liberty in Restraint”, which is about a fetish photographer. So if you’re really interested in issues of fetish media, then you should attend that one!

But as for now: our next film night is March 24, and it’s a two-theme night. We’re showing “Doin’ It: Sex, Disability and Videotape” — about disability and sexuality — and “Orgasmic Women: 13 Selfloving Divas” — about female masturbation and orgasm. See you there!

2009 14 Feb

Maybe I know why so many people don’t get tested ….

I get tested last week, and I re-noticed one thing about my psychology that always comes up when I get tested: I got really anxious about it.

It’s weird. I try to get tested about once a year or so, and for most of the year, I don’t worry at all about my status. But then — during the time that elapses between getting the test and receiving the results — I start freaking out. I get more and more worried. I start thinking about the conversations I’ll need to have with recent partners if I’ve got a sexually transmitted infection. I start thinking about all the life changes I’ll need to make if I’m HIV-positive. Only when I receive the results do I calm down!

I do this even when I’m in a situation that makes me almost totally positive that I’m clean. For instance, even if I’ve continuously been in the same monogamous relationship with a partner I’m sure is faithful since my last test … I still worry.

I don’t think I’m incredibly neurotic, or anything like that (or at least, no more neurotic than the next person). I do suspect that this highlights something about how people think that can help explain why people don’t get tested.

That is: Just considering scary possibilities is, well, scary. Just putting ourselves in a position to learn something bad makes us fear that we’ll learn something bad. It’s much more psychologically difficult to allow ourselves to imagine a terrifying negative possibility, than it is to simply ignore that possibility entirely.

I’m not sure how to work against this problem. Providing free and easy testing is good, but I think it’s probably best if we find ways to put testing out in the open so that people can’t conveniently forget it. I know that when people set up free testing stations at high-traffic events, those stations get lots of visitors. So it’s not that people are anti-testing, exactly. And most people I know admit that getting tested is important, when it comes up in conversation! So it’s not that people don’t think it’s important. People are busy, of course — that’s the enemy of all preventive healthcare, from working out to testing: it’s simply hard to make time.

But I really think it’s more that people don’t like putting ourselves in a position to feel anxious. If we’re directly reminded of an issue (e.g. by an in-your-face testing station), then we get tested … otherwise, we prefer not to even think about it. Because then we have to acknowledge the potential consequences.

People should be scared of sexually transmitted infections, of course. So I don’t want to encourage people to feel less anxious. What other action can be taken? I guess … simply keep supporting programs that do out-in-the-open testing is good … not to mention sex education that emphasizes our responsibility for our health and that of our partners, etc.