There can be serious consequences for identifying publicly as BDSM, and there’s a lot of anxiety in the BDSM community about that. Yet one of the most effective ways to combat the anti-BDSM crowd is for us BDSM people to come out. Being out about our kink can be a very powerful statement: a statement that we aren’t ashamed; that we don’t think there’s anything wrong with what we’re doing; that we are people too … all that good stuff. If you’ve seen “Milk” or “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” — both movies about the famous gay politician — then you may recall that Milk urged all gay people to come out, as a fundamental part of the gay liberation movement. There are BDSM advocates who take the same position.

Recently, I was in a position to observe a great conversation on this subject among a bunch of smart kink advocates, and I’m going to reproduce a bunch of that conversation here. First, though: greetings from New York … I’m back again! I don’t usually spend quite so much time here, but there were a number of events to tempt me. I’ll be giving my BDSM Overview presentation at the Museum of Sex this Friday; if you know anyone in New York who could use a general introduction to BDSM — how the community welcomes and educates people, the way we differentiate between BDSM and abuse, BDSM-related legal issues, and so on — then you should send them down to 233 5th Avenue, Friday, 7PM. Plus, CineKink was this past weekend, and I was privileged to see a number of really excellent sex-positive films there. I highly recommend CineKink — and it tours, so if you’re in another city, you should check the CineKink website to see if it’s coming to your town.

There’s another great event happening this weekend: KinkForAll, on Sunday. I’m really looking forward to KinkForAll … it’s going to be a huge learning opportunity, not to mention a chance to meet some sex-positive advocates that I admire a lot. I encourage anyone — anyone at all, gay or straight, kinky or non, whatever — anyone with an interest in sexuality to attend KinkForAll.

Here’s something worth emphasizing about KinkForAll, though: taking photos and recording video will be allowed. Not just allowed — encouraged! To quote from some of the early KinkForAll emails, “information from the talks will be spread on the web afterwards. It’s to get everyone in on the discussion on sexuality, it’s to get everyone sharing and teaching with everyone else, and it’s to get sexual information available to all people, regardless of age, socioeconomic station, gender, sexuality, etc.” Of course this is a noble goal, but means that people who aren’t currently seeking to come out are taking a serious risk when we attend KinkForAll.

I recognize that (notwithstanding my recent whiny entry on coming out BDSM) I have not suffered any real consequences for my high visibility. And even if I were properly outed — if my birth name were widely associated with BDSM — I would still be in a better position than most. My parents, for instance, already know about my sexuality, and are totally cool with it. And although I would very likely suffer professional damage if I were outed, my economic status is such that I wouldn’t be out on the street. Still, though I don’t have any children yet, I do plan to — and children are hostages to social stigma … as would be anyone I want to get romantically involved with. If I date someone whose parents don’t know he’s into BDSM, and I’m widely known to be into it, what happens then? We keep our relationship a secret? He risks his relationship with his family to date me? What a mess.

When Maymay, event organizer, first announced to the KinkForAll mailing list that recordings would be encouraged at the event, I made the obvious point: that this would arguably discourage attendance. Maymay responded by saying that the event would institute colored nametags that would indicate the wearer’s status — either “willing to be recorded” or “not willing to be recorded”. I said:

I certainly don’t think recording should be disallowed, because I do believe recording is a noble goal. But I think it will encourage attendance if there is a more effective way to demonstrate one’s unwillingness to be recorded — you know, better than wearing an easily-missed nametag. For instance, maybe certain areas of the venue should be specifically designated as recording-free.

Maymay answered:

I tend to agree with you, actually, that encouraging cameras and recording devices will probably discourage *some* people from attending. While that’s unfortunate, it’s also simply the nature of things. Social change is great and wonderful but it simply can not happen if people don’t put their faces behind the message.

… So, to be precise: [it's not impossible to institute recording-free zones]. However, the fact remains that even if you confiscated every cell phone, digital camera, tape recorder, and every other recording device you could find at the door to the event, there is *still* a chance that people will be photographed or otherwise recorded even if they ask not to be. There’s no way to stop it and ultimately you’re always asking people to play by the rules honestly anyway.

Disallowing cameras is just not something KinkForAll as an event has much of a reason to enforce. Moreover, in the spirit of spreading information, creating any policy disallowing cameras is itself a counterproductive idea.

… In other words, the message I want to send to people who are considering not coming to KinkForAll because they might be photographed is: we will miss you, and we hope you will be comfortable enough next time around to come out and be part of the discussions with the rest of us face-to-face.

There was a bit more talking at the time, and at subsequent times, but I think the most comprehensive and eloquent argument against allowing recording at KinkForAll was put forth by Corey Alexander:

I guard images of myself, and do not publicize them, with good reason, and in ways that cause some difficulty, in all arenas of my life, including professionally. My personal reasons aside, I think it is important (as someone for whom these issues matter very much) to communicate to you what it may mean to hold such an event, and who you may be excluding because of it. I understand that you intend to go forward with the event as planned and I am very aware of why you are invested in a politics of outness, and I do not dispute this as a political strategy. I just want to talk about risk, and potential cost, because I think that folks that are invested in outness need to be aware of these issues.

I personally would be pretty much guaranteed to lose my job if I were out, and I am not alone there, as would pretty much anyone who works with kids, and who works in the social services or government. Additionally, those with kids or those who intend to have kids run the continued risk of losing custody of their children, should they be publically identified/identifiable as a kinky person. I personally have known several people that have lost their kids, and several who are currently involved in custody battles over this very issue. …. These are the risks that come with outness, and they are just some of those risks, but I find them the most compelling in my life, because they illuminate places where some people simply *cannot* choose to attend your event; they do not have the privilege. In this economic climate, where I have friends getting laid off right and left, I would support anyone who would choose their economic survival over attending an event like this (of course those folks that are assured of the economic support of others or the tolerance within their profession may have privilege that allows such risks). As someone who has lost custody of children I have parented, I would also support any parent who would choose not to take such a risk.

Another thing to note is that any event that is invested in publicizing images of attendees widely is unlikely to attract folks that are survivors of violence that have taken steps to hide their whereabouts.

… More than that, I want to draw your attention to the community resources you will lose, presenters, volunteers and attendees, because of this policy. I am not the only one, I am sure. … As you are interested in Kink For *All*, I would urge you to consider that as you welcome some (through your publicity on the internet), you exclude others (who cannot or choose not to take such risks) by this policy.

Maymay responded:

All of these risks you mention are real and valid but they are ones I believe are ultimately transient for society; that is, they will not always be risks. That said, I do not believe it’s possible to get to a place where kink for *all* is really possible without just such “politics of outness,” as you have described them.

… To date, other sexuality community events have excluded the very people *this* event wants to involve. If that means losing parts of the more traditional and valuable sexuality community, such as yourself, this is a price I am willing, if not happy, about paying.

… There are lots of examples I could give of people who are for one reason or another excluded by most other sexuality community events [such as Sex 2.0, Dark Odyssey, traditional BDSM conventions, and others] and who I believe are fantastically valuable additions, but I had two primary thoughts on this:

1. People who are not familiar with the public sexuality communities and who therefore do not go to the same events as many of us on this list do.

2. People, typically younger ones, who are familiar with the public sexuality communities and find them not to their liking for whatever reason.

Sara Eileen added:

We hope that the Kink For All space will feel safe for everyone who participates. But, in keeping with the core concepts of the idea, we hope to make this happen through encouragement, support, and expectations rather than rules.

These concerns are valid and difficult to answer, mostly because I think we really need to see how this community-focused space will shape up *on the day itself.* In the meantime, the risk of finding the space unsafe may be regrettably too high for some.

I’d like to mention again that if you’re presenting, you are by no means expected to present on an explicit, demonstrative or practical subject. The intersection of sex and life has many issues to be explored, and I truly hope we run the gamut of them when the time comes. I’d also like to point out that our venue explicitly forbids nudity, and the 20-minute presentation time frame makes practical demonstrations very difficult. That’s not to say they may not happen, but I expect to see much more talking than anything else.

We will have colored nametags or markers for people who don’t wish to be photographed. These markers, as with all components of safe spaces, function on the basis of trust. This event is bringing together a lot of different groups and new faces. It’s up to each of us individually to determine whether we have enough trust in the respect and consideration of other attendees.

The discussion went a little bit afield in places, but these are all the points that I found most compelling and interesting — both as a kinkster considering the politics of outness, and an organizer of sex-positive events. If you want to look at the KinkForAll mailing list archives and examine the full threads for yourself, you can find the KinkForAll Google group here.